Is Left Populism the Solution?

Left populism is the new idiom of radical politics worldwide. It emerged as the answer to the problem of a weak and disorganized working class — but despite its electoral successes, that class remains weak and disorganized.

Leader of Unidos Podemos Pablo Iglesias acknowledges his supporters after learning the final general elections results on June 26, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty

In 1984, the English rock musician Robert Wyatt released a song in defense of the British miners’ strike. The track had a lengthy genesis. Having achieved renown with the cult band The Soft Machine, Wyatt underwent a public radicalization in the late 1970s, highlighted by his membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain and an appearance on several trade union picket lines. A similar radicalism was detectable in his 1984 four-track EP The Age of Self, released on a four-track EP co-produced with the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band and the embattled trade unionists of Britain’s GCHQ intelligence unit. Wyatt’s track was a fierce indictment of Thatcherism and its egoist gospel, coupled with a sensitive critique of recent trends in left-wing thought. The song opened with the following lines:

They say the working class is dead, we’re all consumers now
They say that we have moved ahead, we’re all just people now
They say we need new images to help our movement grow
They say that life is broader based, as if we didn’t know

The targets of Wyatt’s complaint were clear enough. Code words such as “consumers,” “people,” and “images” stood out as aggressive retorts to recent calls from within the Labour Party to remodel it as a broad, “popular” coalition, capable of taking on the Thatcherite camp. After the latter achieved its first general election victory in 1979, figures such as Neil Kinnock and Peter Mandelson voiced hopes that Labourites would reorient themselves around a larger middle-class base and reach out to “common” rather than “working” people. A populist sensibility was in the air.

The cultural theorist Stuart Hall was perhaps the subtlest adherent of Kinnock’s turn. Hall’s work in Marxism Today on the “Great Moving Right Show” in the late 1970s had put forward the case for a “democratic populism” opposed to Thatcher’s “authoritarian” variant. Although a convinced socialist, Hall had an uneasy relationship to the mainstream labor movement. In Hall’s eyes, the miners’ strike was “doomed to be fought and lost as an old rather than as a new form of politics.” Although its goal “instinctually lay with the politics of the new” — visible in the miners’ alliance with feminist and gay rights groups — the strike was “fought and lost” precisely because of Labour’s “imprisonment in the categories and strategies of the past.”

The early 1990s seemed to bring much-needed relief. In the early years of the decade, Hall saw an opening in the ascension of Tony Blair, who was determined to bury the party’s “hard left.” Hall’s enthusiasm cooled markedly in the course of the 1990s. He now came to see Blairism as “The Great Moving Nowhere Show.” Blair’s populism, Hall realized, had merely served as a device for the neoliberal rewiring of Britain — the privatization of rail services, releasing central bankers from political pressure, and remodeling of social services towards a customer-based model. As Hall saw it, the neoliberal makeover was only sugarcoated with some multicultural topping.

From Post-Marxism to Populism

What is left for populism today, then, twenty years after Hall’s disillusionment?

A lot, it seems. With fifty individuals in possession of half the world’s wealth and austerity programs that decimate whole national economies, the attraction of populism is not hard to see. As noted by Gavin Jacobson in the New Statesman, the “growing ‘oligarchisation’ of western European societies,” coupled with “the absence of any meaningful political struggle between competing ideas of the good life,” does much to “explain the current populist surge.”

Few interventions have done more to raise the salience of the populism debate than Chantal Mouffe’s For a Left Populism (Verso, 2018). Mouffe is no newcomer to the debate on a “left” populism. In the early 1980s, she first had impact as a proponent of a “post-Marxist” left, together with her late partner Ernesto Laclau. Laclau had migrated to the United Kingdom in the late 1960s, under the supervision of the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, after growing up in Argentina. He teamed up with Mouffe in the late 1970s, after acquiring a post at the University of Essex.

Laclau and Mouffe were at the forefront of what is now called “post-Marxism.” Both thought that European socialists ought to dispense with their one-sided focus on “class” and instead organize around other markers — gender, race, nationality. In that way the Left could reclaim a project of “radical democracy” against Stalinist orthodoxy, and keep pace with rising new social movements, such as feminists or gay rights activists. Hall and Mouffe’s version of the rainbow coalition needed to disrupt the post-1989 consensus, in which decision-making had become a technocratic affair. Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Gerhard Schröder, they claimed, had degraded Western politics to a choice between “Pepsi and Coca Cola.

There were warning signs, of course. The French National Front achieved its first electoral breakthrough in 1984, and tycoon Silvio Berlusconi swept to victoryin the 1994 Italian election. In the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn’s party made headway in 2002.

Popular Discourse

Mouffe and Laclau’s populism would look different from those Europeans, however. In their eyes, it would be closer to the “Twenty-First century Socialism” of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who had contested the Washington Consensus and reoriented his economy towards popular consumption. Chavez’s populism was about constructing enemies, of course, and it sometimes chafed against liberal sensibilities. Mostly, it was concerned with identity, mainly in a national setting. But it concerned itself with “identity” in a different way than later far-right or left-wing activists. Laclau and Mouffe’s “people” had to be universal and inclusive, not exclusionary or sectarian. “Far from being a perversion of democracy,” Mouffe noted recently, populism, conceived as the “construction of popular identities,” “constitutes the most adequate political force to recover and reconstitute democracy itself.”

Mouffe’s left-populism has not been without its critics. Some have claimed that her identity- and media-centered strategy in fact reproduces trends already prevalent in the contemporary world, representing a surrender, rather than a challenge, to current neoliberal dogma. In a review of Mouffe’s book for the Guardian, William Davies argued that Mouffe “offers no guidance as to how left populism can fight and succeed, nor any reassurance that it will” since “nothing in politics is real, until it has been constructed through struggle.”

Chiefly, Davies charges the populists with a lack of historical consciousness. In his eyes, Mouffe fails to recognize the real underpinnings of today’s “populist moment” and how it interacts with other trends in Western democracies. Populism thrives in an era of democratic decline precisely because it takes a long list of parameters as a given: decreasing membership lists and declining participation rates, general disaffection and alienation from party politics.

Above all, left-populism embraces the prevailing obsession with “discourse,” a tendency it shares with today’s media-centric politics. In the absence of any organs that connect civil society to the state, politicians had to look for different communication devices to gauge the wishes of their citizenry. The Hungarian writer Peter Csigo once compared this situation to staring at smoke signals from a faraway continent, without ever undertaking the journey to that continent itself. If politicians do undertake the voyage — think of former Labour leader Ed Miliband’s effort to consume a bacon sandwich before the 2015 UK general election — the results are universally incriminating. They only further expose the person’s separation from a social base.

To many on the Left, Miliband’s gaffe laid bare an inconvenient truth. As Chris Bickerton wrote in the New Statesman last year, “today’s parties of the left tend to be” so “socially deracinated” that they hardly have any idea “what it is that people want.” Lacking bases within parties, politicians are therefore condemned to a form of ceaseless speculation concerning the popular will. The results this induces become visible in what academic Joe Kennedy has termed the politics of “authentocracy.”

Kennedy’s authentocrats profess a “conservatism imputed to a notional ‘forgotten working class” and obsess over a working-class opposition to immigration. His prototype is Labour MP Owen Smith. When Smith decided to run for Labour leader in 2016, he pretended not to know the name for a latte, calling it a “frothy coffee” instead. He also constantly strutted his blokeish credentials, using words such as “birds” and “lads” on Twitter. Kennedy’s authentocrats offer a semblance of authenticity in a time when authenticity itself has become a media product — an agglomeration of competitive caricatures.

Bridging the Void

It is difficult to understand Smith’s brand of populism without looking at the broader decline of party democracy in Europe. In the last thirty years, Europe’s once-potent parties have experienced an uninterrupted decay: the German SPD went from one million members in 1986 to 660,000 in 2003; Labour from 675,905 to 200,000; the Dutch Socialists from 90,000 to 57,000.

The result of this hollowing out of European party politics was aptly described by the Irish political scientist Peter Mair as “ruling the void.” European politicians now have so little idea of what is at play in their populations that they have to speculate on what might constitute a successful program. Since parties themselves can no longer garner such information, other channels must be tapped, most of them situated in the growing PR industry. Instead of listening to a base or obeying their party machines, politicians become ever more ensnared by an army of spin doctors. These provide periodic reports on the state of public opinion — a tactic pioneered by media gurus such as Peter Mandelson and Lynton Crosby, who helped David Cameron get his British premiership in 2010.

There is a deeper, institutional side to this story as well. Since the 1990s, Western societies have experienced a profound rupture between two activities that were conjoined in the postwar era: “politics” and “policy.” We can think of the latter as the methods by which states order their societies and intervene in their economies. The former comprises the process of what political theorists call “will-formation”: competition between parties, campaign building, the crafting of coalitions.

The 1990s saw a drastic change in the way those two moments interacted. “Policy” became the domain of “unelected power” — organs like the Eurogroup, the EU Commission, and the Bank of England. “Politics,” in turn, was relegated to a media-sphere eternally addicted to novelty. Both were cast as the emanation of the “emancipated” civil society of the 1990s, after the bloodless revolutions in Eastern Europe.

Things turned out depressingly different. Rather than creating space, the destruction of collective institutions in the 1980s — Thatcher’s crushing of the British union movement, Socialist president François Mitterrand’s gutting of the French Communist Party, but also the aging memberships of conservative parties — laid the basis for more elusive forms of collectivity. While politicians were becoming ever more alienated from citizens and trapped in technocratic management, a new form of media seemed to offer a shortcut to the popularity.

From Populism to Techno-Populism

The most potent ideological innovation of the 1990s was thus a new brand of what Chris Bickerton calls “techno-populism.” This new way of doing politics was spearheaded by figures like Tony Blair, Pim Fortuyn, and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy offered the best example of how populism and technocracy could easily be combined — the first a “politics without policy,” the second “a policy without politics.” At the same moment that he launched a “debate” on “national identity” in France, he committed the eurozone to a fresh round of austerity and ramped up the power of the European Central Bank.

French commentators have described Sarkozy’s behavior as “Sarko-Berlusconist.” The connection is not surprising. Berlusconi’s media empire allowed him to control Italian public opinion in the 1990s and stretched his career well into the 2000s. As techno-populists, Sarkozy and Berlusconi combined an obsession with norms and values with a preference for technocratic governance.

That governance has empowered the most undemocratic bodies, but also led to a precarious imbalance at the heart of European states. On the one hand, the “external” sovereignty of those states has only increased. They now head powerful prison systems, undertake ambitious border-control programs, and regenerate banking sectors with new waves of quantitative easing (QE). On the other hand, the last thirty years have also witnessed a far-going weakening of the state’s internal sovereignty — the ties that link states to institutions such as unions, churches, and parties, and allow the latter to exercise power over the former. Governments now face increasing constraints when structuring economic life or redistributing resources, landlocked by a long list of constitutional restrictions. Put briefly, European states are “hard but hollow,” as the Italian political scientist Vincent Della Sala put it — powerful and capacious, mainly in their executive branch, but insulated from any pressure from below.

National and Popular Sovereignty

There are several ways in which populist have sought to respond to this eroded state sovereignty. Right-wing populists have focused on a recalibration of national sovereignty: think of Donald Trump’s contesting of the NAFTA programs, or European right-populists’ (Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen) promise to harden Europe’s border.

Left-populists, on the other hand, have prioritized a defense of popular over national sovereignty, seeking to restore parts of the heritage lost in the neoliberal 1990s. It is here that Mouffe and Laclau’s project turned out to be handy — inspiring movements from Spain’s Podemos to France Insoumise.

This quest for a renewed popular sovereignty has not come without its troubles, however. Paradoxically, one of left-populism’s biggest problems has been the partial death of the world described by Peter Mair. Rather than a void, there has only been a relative erosion of the classical party system. People continue to vote on the basis of class, and trade unions have not disappeared all at once. In some countries they have stubbornly resisted decline and continue to play an important role in political life — think of the Spanish socialists or the Belgian union movements. Even in cases where their decline has been spectacular (the Greek and French socialists) not all their organs have disappeared simultaneously. For left-populists, the “void” was never quite empty enough.

An incomplete void has also meant that left-populists’ achievements tend to be more rhetorical than real. Once populists had their chance at winning a majority — think of Podemos’s failed “sorpasso(catching up) to the Spanish socialists, or Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s inability to reach the second round of the French presidential elections — they usually sought to make peace with mainstream parties. This implied positioning themselves on a left-right axis, or forging alliances with traditional politicians.


Most painfully, however, left-populists have had to “institutionalize.” This has meant moving past slogans like “beyond left-and right” and giving up on their claim to represent “the 99 percent,” restricting themselves to a narrower social base. Yet once “the populist moment” has passed, left-populists tend to face internal party divisions and unbreakable electoral ceilings. This dynamic has become painfully visible in the case of Podemos. After its first electoral setback in 2015, the party entered a period of internal turbulence. It ended in a contest between leaders Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón, followed by a “normalization” via an alliance with the radical left Izquierda Unida (United Left). The process was completed with Podemos’s support for Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist government.

Podemos’s troubles are far from over. About four months ago, fresh fights broke out between Errejón and Iglesias, leading to the former’s resignation. At the base of the quarrel is a disagreement over strategy. On one side, “Errejónists” want to avoid any alliance with the radical left and downplay the latter’s aggressive tone. On the other, “Pablists” wish to fill the empty space left behind by Spanish social democracy and join forces with the existing radical left. While the latter strategy has proven unable to halt Podemos’s electoral downturn, it is unclear whether the former would have had a different impact, given the recent resurgence of the Spanish Socialists.

France Insoumise has faced similar issues since the 2017 presidential election. They occupy an uneasy place in a diffuse anti-Macron opposition, have been unsuccessful in crafting a common front with left forces in the run up to the European elections, and have experienced recurring controversies about party democracy.

These tribulations might well yield one crucial lesson. Unless the populist moment occurs in a context of a complete dismantling of the party system and a dissolution of the left-right axis, any left-wing populist party would have to rethink its strategy.

Disorganization’s Discontents

Decline is not a universal feature of Europe’s left-wing parties, however. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell now head the largest mass-membership party in Western Europe, originating in a union movement that had usually been sidelined by the Blairite generation. Under Corbyn’s leadership, at the 2017 election the Labour Party achieved the largest increase in its share of the vote since 1945. With more than 500,000 members, Labour is now one of the biggest players in European party politics.

At the same time, the union base supporting the Corbyn remains painfully small, confined to public sector workers and an old labor aristocracy. The same holds for the party’s actual membership, which still lacks the mass base of postwar social democrats. Attempts at rebuilding this Labourite culture — think of platforms like Novara Media and or the World Transformed festival — have appeared, yet they are not exempt from the disconnect between electorate and membership that has plagued populists elsewhere. Novara remains a thoroughly London-based platform, and its audience calls to mind Podemos’s status as the “party of professors.” Corbyn has had to maintain a balance between Northern Leave voters who oppose vacillation on Brexit, and vocal support for a People’s Vote in the membership itself (the difficult relationship between the Yellow Vests and Mélenchon’s party, in turn, offers a fresh French case study of this disconnect here).

It is hard to give a final judgement on the left-populist project as a whole, certainly at this point in time. Despite its obvious successes, it remains possible that the success of Mouffe’s populism is more a symptom than a cure. Left-populism happens to thrive in an environment shaped by those other phenomena so characteristic of our age: technocracy, neoliberalism, disconnect between ‘policy’ and ‘politics,” general anti-politics.

One thing is undeniable, however: left-populism has taken stock of an entirely new situation and party landscape, thoroughly transformed by thirty years of neoliberal onslaught. In contrast to a moribund old left, clinging to antiquated remedies when facing annihilation, left-populism has trimmed its sails to the wind. It arose at a time when the most powerful social actor of the twentieth century, the organized working class, remains disorganized to the utmost degree. It was this very disorganization which Wyatt warned against in 1984, at the end of his song:

It seems to me if we forget
Our roots and where we stand
The movement will disintegrate
Like castles built on sand

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Anton Jäger is is a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, working on the history of populism in the United States. Together with Daniel Zamora, he is currently working on an intellectual history of basic income.

Arthur Borriello is a postdoctoral researcher of the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique (F.R.S.–FNRS) affiliated with the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB Cevipol). His research focuses on the political management of the economic crisis within the Euro area and on the upsurge and transformations of populist movements in Southern Europe.

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