Last spring, the world was treated to the ghastly spectacle of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro exchanging soccer jerseys and back-slaps in the White House. Practically speaking, their meeting amounted to little more than lunch and a photo opportunity. But it carried a great deal of symbolic weight. It represented the convergence of reactionary political trends in the Americas and around the world, and it reinforced the perception that democracy is retreating before a cohort of strongmen striding the global stage.
Hand-wringing over the “age of the strongman” has become a staple of mainstream punditry. There is, of course, much to be worried about. In addition to Trump and Bolsonaro, nationalist and authoritarian forces seem to have the upper hand in an alarming number of countries. Xi Jinping has abolished China’s presidential term limits, centralized power, and enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought” in the country’s constitution. Narendra Modi and his aggressive brand of Hindu nationalism won a huge victory in India’s elections earlier this year. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded to the recent coup attempt by cracking down on opposition parties and journalists, and his government has effectively suspended democracy in the country’s Kurdish regions. Viktor Orbán continues to consolidate his ultranationalist regime in Hungary; Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” has killed twenty thousand Filipinos and incited violence against journalists and critics; Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has cleared the way to hold power in Egypt until 2034; Vladimir Putin’s autocratic presidency has no end in sight. While claims of incipient global fascism are overblown, there’s no doubt that this is, as Gramsci’s famous epigram puts it, a time of monsters.
These developments, as well as the broader “populist moment” that spawned them, have made politicians, journalists, and scholars very anxious about the future. They have fueled a cottage industry of think pieces and books dedicated to diagnosing the “democratic recession” that is shaking elite confidence in the durability of Western-style liberal democracy. Indeed, a trip to any bookstore today will greet the visitor with an array of bloodcurdling titles announcing democracy’s impending doom. While anxiety about the durability of democratic government is nothing new, the breadth and depth of pessimism about its prospects marks a sharp contrast with the triumphalism of the post–Cold War years.
The current angst recalls an earlier episode of hand-wringing among the upper echelons of society. In 1975, the Trilateral Commission published a now infamous book called The Crisis of Democracy, a report on the “governability of democracies” from the perspective of the world’s political and economic elites. In his chapter on the United States, Samuel Huntington surveyed the American scene and concluded that the “democratic surge” of the 1960s produced both “a substantial increase in governmental activity and a substantial decrease in government authority.” In every area of American life, groups who had hitherto accepted their marginal and subordinate positions in society had become increasingly assertive, more willing to challenge the holders of power and privilege, more likely to claim their right to participate in the decisions that affected their lives.
For many, this would seem like a positive development, a harbinger of the full extension of democratic rights and freedoms to those who had been previously excluded. For Huntington, however, this was cause for alarm. Demands for a massive expansion of welfare spending put too many burdens on the system while the emergence of “adversarial” media and critical intellectuals repulsed by Vietnam and Watergate undermined the effectiveness of traditional political leadership. Instead of a greater degree of democratic participation, the country needed a “moderation in democracy” that would keep the twin dangers of popular mobilization and ballooning public expenditures in check. Democracy, in other words, had to be saved from itself through a reassertion of elite authority against those who would take it too far if given the chance: striking public employees, militant African Americans, tenured radicals, student protestors.
The financial crash of 2008, like the economic crisis of the early 1970s, marked the beginning of an interregnum in the history of capitalist rule. An interregnum begins when the previously dominant regime, in this case the neoliberal order, suffers a shock of sufficient magnitude to prevent it from keeping potential hegemonic alternatives off the political agenda. The near collapse of the global economy fractured political systems and has fostered an atmosphere of confusion and chaos across the capitalist world. Instead of a relatively stable equilibrium, we find an absence of consensus among elites, the reemergence of competing economic strategies, a decrease in the effectiveness of key institutions, and a realignment of social forces, particularly in the realm of party politics. This last point seems particularly salient today, and constitutes an important difference between the present moment and the 1970s. As Rune Møller Stahl has argued, today’s interregnum not only entails a crisis of the previously dominant economic strategy but a deep crisis of the institutions of representative democracy as well.
This crisis stems above all from the fact that the vast majority of citizens across the advanced capitalist democracies have been systematically prevented from translating their needs, interests, and preferences into effective political representation. Over the last forty years, elites in country after country have followed Huntington’s advice all too well. They have effectively smashed organized labor, rolled back the welfare state and restructured it along neoliberal lines, and shoved the genie of popular mobilization back into the bottle. By any measure, this counterrevolution was a huge success for those who waged it. The “democratic distemper” that so worried Huntington and his co-thinkers was put down, not just in the United States but around the world.
This reassertion of elite dominance generated the defining trends of our time: the massive explosion of inequality, the dismantling of working-class organizations, and stagnant or declining living standards for the vast majority. In the United States, today’s real wage for workers is the same as it was in the 1970s, despite the significant increase in productivity growth that has occurred since then. This gloomy situation is undoubtedly the main cause of the political fractures that are so frightening to the punditocracy. Research has shown that dissatisfaction with the state of democratic politics is strongly related to popular views about the current economic situation as well as assessments of how the average person’s welfare has changed over the last two decades. The list of countries where these assessments are the most negative should not be surprising: Greece, Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Italy, and Tunisia, among others. The United States is in the same neighborhood as the United Kingdom and Hungary, which tracks nicely with political developments in all three countries.
What appears as a crisis of democracy is fundamentally a crisis of the world’s working classes. Universal suffrage and substantively representative institutions are, to a significant extent, the product of struggles from below — and the key actor in these struggles has almost everywhere been the organized working class. It is no accident that the global decline of the labor movement has coincided with many of the most troubling developments of our time: extreme inequality, the hollowing of democratic politics, the return of the racist and nationalist right. Unfortunately, much of the recent commentary on the health of democracy overlooks both the class-struggle origins of democratic politics and the dismantling of collective working-class organizations. Often, the result is an overreliance on cultural explanations of democratic backsliding, and prescriptions that reinforce the mistaken notion that the prudence of elites is democracy’s best defense.
Two recent books — How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt and The People vs. Democracy by Yascha Mounk — exemplify this conservative approach to the crisis of contemporary democracy. Like their predecessors in the Trilateral Commission, these authors’ primary concern is strengthening the position of incumbent elites and the institutions they control under the pretense of protecting and consolidating democratic politics. Then as now, the key maneuver is redefining democracy as a system of elite-driven conflict management rather than popular control of government. Whatever measures of social and political reform they recommend seek to restore the status quo that prevailed before the financial crisis, instead of reducing elite domination or enhancing popular capacities for democratic rule.
Not all assessments of democracy’s ailing fortunes look to incumbent elites to save the people from themselves. Democracy in America? by Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens and For a Left Populism by Chantal Mouffe both recognize that the problem with democracy today is not that there is too much of it, but rather far too little. Page and Gilens exhaustively document the ways in which economic elites dominate the US political system, and how the scope of government activity is severely constrained by capitalist class power. For her part, Mouffe’s work is primarily concerned with formulating a political strategy capable of guiding an effective popular challenge to that power. Both these books make important contributions to understanding the contemporary impasse of democratic politics. Unfortunately, however, neither of them offers a satisfying answer to the question of what is to be done about it, and how. Both tend to reduce the defeat of organized labor to just one explanatory factor among many, and both fail to adequately elaborate the constituencies, agencies, and strategies that would allow a movement for democracy to act upon their often valuable insights.
More Fuel for the Fire
What do we mean by democracy? For our purposes here, democracy is defined by three basic conditions: regular and free election of representatives on the basis of universal and equal suffrage, responsibility of the state bureaucratic and administrative machinery to the popularly elected government, and basic guarantees of freedom of expression and association as well as the protection of individual rights against arbitrary state action. There is widespread agreement that the emergence of political democracy is intimately related to the rise of capitalist social relations, but the nature of that relationship has often been misunderstood. For many scholars, the key development is the emergence of a capitalist class with an interest in breaking apart the fusion of the state with the landowning classes that defined feudalism. Many Marxist accounts of the rise of democracy have also viewed the capitalist class as the main actor in this process, reinforcing the widely held but mistaken notion that basic political rights and freedoms have a bourgeois provenance.
A number of important works, however, have effectively demolished the notion that political democracy is an organic byproduct of capitalist development or the handiwork of the bourgeoisie. Democratic rights and freedoms did not result from the gradual and peaceful spread of wealth, literacy, and urbanization, but rather social upheavals resulting from war and class conflict. It was the emergence of the working class and the labor movement that opened the path to democratization, not the rise to power of the capitalist class. To the extent that they exist, democratic rights and freedoms are the fruit of hard-fought victories won from and defended against the bourgeoisie.
The history of the right to vote shows that the lower classes had to fight their way into the political system by presenting elites with a credible revolutionary threat. The founders of modern representative governments shared the assumption that political participation should be restricted to men of wealth and property. In country after country, elites resisted pressures from below when they could and were forced into concessions when they could not. Political rights were therefore not granted from above, but conquered through mass action by the subordinate and excluded, above all by the organized working classes. The labor movement was not the only social agent that fought for and won the extension of democratic rights and freedoms; in many countries, sections of the middle classes played an important role as well. But the weight of evidence in support of the basic premise is overwhelming. The working class, not the bourgeoisie or other elite actors, has been the most consistent champion of democratic politics around the world. The measure of working-class strength and organization is the measure of democracy itself.
In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt pin much of the blame for democratic backsliding on the actions (or nonactions) of elites. They do not, however, take them to task for busting unions or gutting the welfare state, but rather for aiding and abetting the process of “norm erosion.” For Levitsky and Ziblatt, the establishment and maintenance of democracy ultimately depends on a culture of mutual toleration among elite-level political adversaries. “All successful democracies,” they argue, “rely on informal rules that, though not found in the constitution or any laws, are widely known and respected. In the case of American democracy, this has been vital.” While institutions also play a major role in safeguarding democratic politics, norms are the final bulwark that is supposed to be activated in case of emergency.
False hopes in elite prudence also mar Mounk’s widely discussed work, The People vs. Democracy. Mounk has set himself up as a leading scourge of “populism” in recent years, which in his usage encompasses any political expression he finds to be insufficiently respectful of mainstream political norms. Mounk is not wrong to observe that the relationship between liberalism and democracy seems to be unraveling, and that the underpinnings of liberal democracy are under mounting stress. But his palpable distrust in mass politics prevents him from providing effective answers to the burning questions of our political moment.
For the norm-erosion school, Donald Trump represents the failure of elites to defend a culture of civility and mutual toleration. Figures like Trump always threaten to emerge in periods of turbulence, but it is the job of traditional political leaders, in this view, to prevent them from ever making it onto a ballot in the first place. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, this was much easier to accomplish in the era of political bosses and smoke-filled rooms. By taking important decisions like presidential nominations out of the hands of elites and giving them to voters, reformers have unintentionally eliminated an important part of the “peer review process” and opened the door to “populist outsiders.” Democracy, in their view, can best be protected by political elites with enough prudence to maintain the guardrails and prevent a slide toward demagoguery and extremism.
By contrast, Mounk’s diagnosis of the causes of democratic malaise is actually fairly incisive. He concedes that political systems in countries like the United States and Britain were founded “not to manifest but to oppose democracy,” and that whatever democratic legitimacy they enjoy today was the product of struggles from below. In recent decades, however, this partial democratization of representative institutions has been significantly eroded. There has been a general shift in power away from parliaments and toward bureaucratic agencies, independent central banks, international treaties, and other institutions that insulate elite decision-makers from popular accountability. Even where decisions haven’t been taken out of the realm of democratic contestation, the views and preferences of the majority are often not translated into public policy. Private interests have captured the political system, elites are socially disconnected from the mass of the population, and many supposed democracies have been reduced to little more than competitive oligarchies. The result is mass disillusionment in democratic politics and the emergence of new forces willing and able to take advantage of the situation.
Despite this greater degree of diagnostic clarity, Mounk fails to carry through the logic of the analysis to its conclusion, which would be a reassertion of the need for mass politics and struggles from below — the forces that brought us democratic politics in the first place. For him, the resurgence of electoral participation and the emergence of new political forces is a source of alarm, not potential democratic renewal. “There is good reason to think,” Mounk argues, “that the recent thawing of the party system is far from benign” because they “do not just provide ideological alternatives within the democratic system — they challenge key rules and norms of the system itself.” This dread of “populism” encompasses a disparate array of political forces, from Marine Le Pen, Fidesz, and Alternative für Deutschland — a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots — to Podemos, Syriza, and Jeremy Corbyn. Such capaciousness renders the concept utterly meaningless and reduces it to a tool of political demonology rather than sober analysis.
This impulse to confine political conflict to a narrow range acceptable to elites leads Levitsky and Ziblatt down some very strange interpretive paths. Take their analysis of the coup in Chile, for example. In their view, “politics without guardrails killed democracy in Chile,” an outcome for which the Allende government and its opponents were equally responsible. In reality, neither domestic elites nor the US government could accept the fact that the Popular Unity coalition was elected to see through a democratic transition to socialism in Chile. This process would have required, of course, an irreversible shift in economic and political power from industrialists and landowners to the working class and its allies. In short, it would have entailed a fundamental clash of interests, not simply “incompatible worldviews” or “partisan rivalries.” Levitsky and Ziblatt give us little sense that rational perceptions of power and interest might necessarily result in political conflicts that cannot be forestalled through mutual toleration or institutional forbearance.
This weakness becomes even more obvious when they attempt to explain the origins of the US Civil War. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, democratic norms were not strong in the early American republic. Republicans and Federalists considered their opponents to be mortal enemies and sought to destroy them by almost any means necessary. But over time, a fresh crop of career politicians like Martin Van Buren lowered the temperature and instituted a politics of tolerance and forbearance. This new culture of democratic norms began to unravel, however, under the pressure of conflict over slavery. The country’s fragile norms of mutual toleration were destroyed, and previously unthinkable modes of political activity became acceptable on both sides of the slavery question. Before long, a bloody war broke out, during which President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and issued legally questionable executive orders. After the shooting stopped, the triumphant Union imposed military rule on the states of the former Confederacy. “Mutual toleration was established only after the issue of racial equality was removed from the political agenda,” after the abandonment of Reconstruction and the establishment of Jim Crow in the South.
Levitsky and Ziblatt are at pains to stress that they don’t view slavery or segregation as good things. But their relentless advocacy of mutual toleration necessarily leads them to a both sides–ism that elides fundamental problems of the modern state. In their view, there’s no political disagreement that can’t be dealt with in a spirit of courtesy and reciprocity. But history has shown that conflict — whether at the ballot box, in the streets, or on the field of battle — is sometimes necessary and unavoidable. Elite-level cooperation and compromise simply could not defuse the slavery crisis. As William Seward argued in his famous speech on the eve of the Civil War, the failure to apprehend the “irrepressible conflict” between free labor and slavery induced “so many unsuccessful attempts at final compromise … and it is the existence of this great fact that renders all such pretended compromises, when made, vain and ephemeral.” Conflict is the essence of democratic politics, and there are moments when the fulfillment of democratic justice requires the overthrow of traditional norms, come what may.
The rising generation of young adults has come of age in a period of rampant inequality and blatant political corruption. It is therefore no surprise that this cohort is highly receptive to political appeals from outside the mainstream, including various forms of radical and socialist politics. This flowering of youthful radicalism should be a particular cause for concern, according to Mounk. Unlike the older generations, who lived through the horrors of fascism and actually existing socialism, today’s young adults have little idea of what it would mean for them to live under a different kind of system. Rather than a source of hope, they represent to Mounk a potentially disruptive anti-systemic force that unscrupulous populists won’t hesitate to mobilize if given the chance. Mounk’s condescending alarmism about millennials has been challenged by a number of academics, who accuse him of misrepresenting survey data concerning their views on democracy. But even if his claims concerning young adults’ questionable commitment to democracy were empirically grounded, his explanation for those views would still miss the mark. Youthful discontent with the status quo is driven above all by the fact that young adults cannot expect to do as well or better than their parents did — to say nothing of the looming ecological catastrophe that incumbent elites are doing far too little to address. They want more democracy, not less.
Levitsky and Ziblatt evince a moment of lucidity toward the end of their book, as they search for ways to address the problems of democracy. Something should be done, in their view, to reduce the vast social inequalities that are exacerbating racial and religious resentments in the United States. They’re certainly not wrong about this, but how could a program of redistribution be achieved without a dramatic increase in popular pressure? Levitsky and Ziblatt want a prudently managed reduction of the sources of political conflict. But, as Frederick Douglass memorably put it, you can’t raise crops without plowing up the ground.
To his credit, Mounk recognizes that the current order is in serious need of renovation. But his prescriptions for dealing with the challenges of our time would only pour more fuel on the fire. He wants one, two, many Emmanuel Macrons, an impulse belied by the rebellion of the gilets jaunes. He recognizes the need to raise labor’s bargaining power in a globalized economy, but he emphasizes skill development for individual workers at the expense of collective organization. The same goes for his program to modernize the welfare state, which is premised upon economic flexibility and entrepreneurialism, not the reduction of market dependency or boosting the security and collective strength of the working classes.
In the end, we are once again left to rely on the prudence of elites to deliver us from the current impasse. “Unlikely as it might seem at the moment,” Mounk argues, “the only realistic solution to the crisis of government accountability (and, most likely, the larger crisis of democratic norms) is therefore a negotiated settlement, in which both sides agree to disarm” and political leaders agree to once again observe the unwritten rules of the game. The likes of Mounk, Levitsky, and Ziblatt want nothing more than a return to normalcy. But observance of this very normalcy is what brought us to our dire state of affairs. Macron and Obama are on one side of the coin; Le Pen and Trump are on the other.
Fortunately, not everyone agrees that the ills of democracy can be cured by less democracy. Much of the best recent work on the dysfunctions of the US political system has come out of mainstream Americanist political science, a subfield that has long been criticized for its detachment from issues of public concern. In 2001, the American Political Science Association (APSA) established the Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, and three years later it issued an incisive report that laid out an ambitious research agenda for the field. Over the last fifteen years, important studies by Jacob Hacker, Suzanne Mettler, Martin Gilens, and others have analyzed the massive growth in inequality in the United States and its negative impact on an already counter-majoritarian political system.
In Democracy in America?, Page and Gilens survey the dire state of American politics and call for a thoroughgoing program of democratic renovation. For them, the fundamental failure of the system is the fact that it does not consistently and effectively translate majority preferences into public policy. The interaction of extreme wealth concentration with the undemocratic features of the US constitutional order has made it nearly impossible for citizens to exercise popular control over the government. A small group of very wealthy donors exerts a huge degree of influence over what kinds of actors can get into the political game, as well as the kinds of issues that make their way onto the agenda in the first place. The result is a political system that “often reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office.”
On the basis of their research, Page and Gilens reach a remarkable and widely reported finding: ordinary Americans have essentially zero independent influence over politics and policymaking at the national level. Working- and middle-class people get the policies they want when these preferences coincide with the preferences of the rich — if the rich don’t want it, it’s not very likely to get through Congress. Page and Gilens call this regime a “democracy by coincidence,” a description that doesn’t offer much consolation to those of us who equate democracy with popular rule. They also find that even the richest and most influential Americans often fail to translate their preferences into policy. Wealthy people and corporations almost always succeed at blocking policy changes they don’t want, which tend to be the very policy changes the vast majority wants most — particularly higher taxes on the rich and redistributive social programs. But according to Page and Gilens, even policy changes overwhelmingly supported by the rich have only a fifty-fifty chance of being adopted. The deliberately byzantine design of the US constitutional order (separation of powers, federalism, veto points, etc.) can make it difficult to achieve much of anything through political action.
Even so, it’s quite clear that the rich have little reason to complain about this state of affairs. By investing even a relatively small portion of their massive resources into politics, they’ve made Lenin’s dictum that politics is a concentrated expression of economics all too real. And since the systematic bias toward policy drift mostly benefits those who already hold wealth and power, there is little incentive for them to upend the system, no matter how much they might complain about gridlock and red tape.
Unlike Mounk, Page and Gilens follow the logic of their analysis to the end by calling for a “social movement for democracy” to weaken the overwhelming political power of the rich. To this end, they draw inspiration from the familiar highlights of American popular democracy: Populism, the New Deal period, the Civil Rights Movement. Page and Gilens are rare in recognizing the importance of organized labor to political democracy, and the role that strong unions have played in bringing a modicum of popular power into US politics. But they are ultimately analysts, not strategists. They give us little sense of how the movement they call for might be constructed, and their temperamental preference for moderation cuts against the grain of their own proposals. They are critical of the drift toward oligarchy because, in their view, this has moved the country away from a time when US politics was ostensibly more “moderate, bipartisan, and reasonably democratic.” They call on moderate candidates to run for office, and they deplore the outsize influence that the most strongly partisan activists and voters exercise through primary elections. All of this sits uncomfortably against their comprehensive program for political reconstruction, which includes demands for proportional representation in the House of Representatives, abolition of the Electoral College, a constitutional convention to democratize the Senate and other institutions that can’t feasibly be reorganized under the current Constitution, stripping federal courts of jurisdiction over key political issues, and packing the Supreme Court to dilute its power. This is a recipe for disruption on a massive scale, tantamount to the establishment of a new US republic. Instead of a restoration of bipartisan comity, Page and Gilens have given us an agenda for political revolution, whether they want to acknowledge it or not.
Still, these criticisms do not detract from the valuable contributions that Page and Gilens have made. Their focus on challenging the undemocratic nature of the political regime should be taken up by the resurgent US left, and their call for a wide-ranging movement against the rich is welcome and perhaps unexpected, coming as it does from a pair of rather mainstream political scientists.
Who Are “We”?
Which strategy, then, should guide the movement for democratic renewal? This is the question that Chantal Mouffe has been trying to answer for the last four decades, and her recent book For a Left Populism refines and summarizes many of the key themes of her work. With her late husband, Ernesto Laclau, Mouffe developed the theoretical and strategic vocabulary that informs contemporary movements for “radical democracy” in Europe and the Americas. Anyone who has spent time on the radical left since the 1980s has been directly or indirectly exposed to their ideas, particularly their reformulation of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemonic politics. In their landmark work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (hereafter HSS), Laclau and Mouffe praised Gramsci’s approach to political strategy in the advanced capitalist countries. But in their view, he failed to carry through his analysis to its ostensibly logical end: a rejection of Marxism’s “class essentialism” and its insistence on the organized working class as the leading force for radical social transformation. The working-class movement would still play a role in the movement for radical democracy, but as just one link in a “chain of equivalence” in which no single actor or set of demands carried any particular social weight or strategic importance. Here was the theoretical justification for the “movement of movements” perspective that has been the Left’s default position in the post–Cold War era.
Before entering into a critical assessment of Mouffe’s main themes, it is worth taking a moment to register the important strategic questions that she gets right in the book. Mouffe offers an incisive critique of the horizontalist approach to political organization that has dominated the radical left since the end of the Cold War So long as post-2008 protest formations remained within a horizontalist framework, one that refused any meaningful articulation with existing political institutions, their impact and staying power was limited. They had to turn from protest to politics in order to broaden their appeal and institutionalize their demands, and in doing so they have reinvigorated an organizational form that had been repudiated as an outmoded relic of the twentieth century: the political party. The massive growth of the Corbyn-led Labour Party, the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns, and the emergence of new radical political formations in Europe and Latin America show that, as Mouffe argues, political parties are not obsolete and can be reactivated to advance popular goals and aspirations. Relatedly, the return of the party shows that, contrary to the advocates of horizontalist politics, representation itself is not the problem. The problem with political institutions today is that they are insufficiently representative of the needs and interests of the vast majority. In Mouffe’s view, therefore, the “remedy does not lie in abolishing representation but in making our institutions more representative.” Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Mouffe is correct to argue that the nation-state is still the most strategically decisive institutional level in world politics. For decades, the Left has tended to evacuate the arena of national-level politics in two directions: downward toward autonomist localisms, and upward toward often quite blurry conceptions of transnational politics. Whether we like it or not, the nation-state is still the primary framework through which many of our most pressing problems will have to be addressed and resolved.
Despite these strengths, however, Mouffe’s book bears many of the flaws and limitations of the “discursive turn” in radical politics that she and Laclau did so much to inaugurate in the 1980s. According to Mouffe, the traditional parties of the Left are in crisis because their conceptions of politics are still trapped by a supposedly outmoded dependence on economic and sociological categories. If the Left wants to break out of its impasse and take advantage of the opportunities before it, it must adopt a “discursive strategy of construction of the political frontier between ‘the people’ and ‘the oligarchy.’” The people, in this face-off, represent a “collective will that results from the mobilization of common affects in defense of equality and social justice” and against the chauvinistic politics of right-wing populism. The demands of working people, immigrants, queer people, precarious elements of the middle class, and others should be united in a negative opposition to a common adversary, with “democracy” and “citizenship” serving as the signifiers that bind the various elements together.
These arguments will be familiar to anyone who dutifully worked their way through HSS. Indeed, For a Left Populism reiterates and distills many of the key arguments from that foundational book. The crucial moment in the passage highlighted above is the emphasis on common affects in defense of an abstract value called “democracy.” Such a conception drains democracy of its social content; when translated into practice, it is a politics of style, culture, and discourse — not interests, a concept that is rejected along with the “privileged” status the Left has traditionally assigned to the working class and class politics.
Even so, Mouffe cannot help but take into account the fact that the recovery of class politics must be a central aspect of any strategy for democratic renewal in the present moment. “In fact,” she concedes, “it could be argued that the situation today is the opposite of the one we criticized thirty years ago, and that it is ‘working-class’ demands that are now neglected.” This is certainly the case, but the fact that she shows no sense of responsibility for this situation is rather frustrating. What’s more, today’s “populist moment” signals the crisis of “a set of political-economic practices aimed at imposing the rule of the market … and limiting the role of the state to the protection of private property rights, free markets and free trade.” Considering the crucial importance of political economy in the present moment, Mouffe concludes, the effective construction of a people requires “reasserting the importance of the ‘social question.’”
This constitutes a welcome recalibration of the perspective she and Laclau advanced in HSS, which argued for the full autonomization of politics and ideology from any kind of social basis. Mouffe’s belated rediscovery of political economy, however, sits awkwardly next to her emphasis on common affects over common interests. It also cuts against the grain of her own analysis of Thatcherism, which she takes to be the paradigmatic example of a hegemonic project. Following Stuart Hall, she views Thatcherism as primarily a cultural and ideological phenomenon, and its success as definitive proof of the bankruptcy of “essentialist” class politics. While Thatcher was advancing a new understanding of the values of liberty and equality, an ideological reinterpretation made possible by the crisis of the postwar order, the Labour Party and the trade unions remained prisoners of their congenital economism. Trapped in a conceptual framework inherited from a bygone era, they were “thereby unable to resist the assault of forces opposed to the Keynesian model and this opened the way for the cultural and ideological victory of the neoliberal project.”
Thatcherism undoubtedly had a strong cultural, ideological, and mediatic aspect to it. But the core of the project was a ruthless class war against the labor movement, the Left’s social and organizational backbone, backed by the raw force of state power. Indeed, Thatcher herself understood her project as an attempt to remake Britain’s economic order in the service of her larger political and ideological goals. As she put it in a now infamous 1981 interview,
What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.
Mouffe fundamentally misunderstands why Marxists and socialists have traditionally emphasized the political centrality of the organized working class. She summarily dismisses those “sectors of the left who keep reducing politics to the contradiction of capital/labor and attribute an ontological privilege to the working class, presented as the vehicle for the socialist revolution.” The problem with this formulation is that the socialist emphasis on the working class isn’t ontological, nor is it an expression of some sort of abstract preference. It’s a strategic inference drawn from an analysis of the dynamics of capitalism and class relations. If capital constitutes the main center of power in our society and constitutes the main barrier to the establishment of a truly democratic polity, then it follows that the working-class movement must play a leading role in that struggle.
If the Left truly wants to learn from Thatcherism’s success, it must recover its grounding in the material conditions of working people’s lives. This obviously does not entail a rejection of cultural and ideological interventions, as these will be key to recreating a strong and widely held working-class political identity. But it does entail a strong emphasis on rebuilding working-class organization to the level where it can effectively wield power in the workplace and in politics. Such a commitment cannot be carried out in the absence of a program and a politics that is addressed first and foremost to meeting the material needs and interests of the vast majority. In the absence of such class-based power, abstract appeals to democracy and citizenship may redound much more to the benefit of the Right, not the Left. It’s no accident that right-wing appeals to “take back control” in the name of “the people” have succeeded so well in a context of widespread social disorganization and material deprivation.
In this sense, Mouffe’s brand of left populism may be just as much a symptom of the fractures that have produced figures like Trump than a cure for them. This is reflected perhaps most clearly in Mouffe’s argument for the importance of individual leadership figures in the construction of a people. Since her conception of collective will is grounded in affect and not interest, something must provide the glue that binds the people together. In this case, that binding agent is shared support for a charismatic leader. Indeed, almost every radical movement of our time is closely associated with a leadership figure whose name is virtually synonymous with the movement itself. The trend began in South America, where Lula da Silva and Hugo Chávez stood at the head of popular political movements in Brazil and Venezuela, and has since migrated to Europe and North America. Podemos is inconceivable without Pablo Iglesias; France Insoumise without Jean-Luc Mélenchon; the new radicalism in the Labour Party without Jeremy Corbyn; the resurgent US left without Bernie Sanders; Mexican national reformism without AMLO. The sociologist Paolo Gerbaudo describes this dynamic as a form of “distributed centralization,” which combines a mediatic “hyperleader” at the top with an engaged but largely reactive “superbase” at the bottom. Unlike the mass parties that preceded them, these new formations tend to lack the extensive network of physical structures, intermediate party cadres, and local branches and sections that used to play a major role in making decisions and setting policies. Today’s most successful politicians, whether of the Right or the Left, have learned how to use new digital media to bypass intermediaries and appeal directly to a mass audience, particularly among younger people.
This phenomenon poses obvious dangers. The difficulties that popular movements in Venezuela and Brazil have faced in the absence of their leaders may well offer the left populist forces of Europe and North America an image of their own future. Even so, there is probably no way to avoid the need for charismatic leadership to help overcome the deficiency of popular organization, at least in the short term. Forty years of neoliberalism have disorganized the working classes and undermined the mass political parties that gave them shape through much of the twentieth century. In the current period, leadership figures will continue to play a key role in giving voice to discontent and, hopefully, shaping it into a more stable political expression. The big question, of course, is whether these leaders are willing and able to stimulate mass organization beyond their own projects, and whether the new formations they’re associated with can ultimately outgrow their current dependence on them.
In the meantime, the erosion of democracy’s social substratum will continue to present morbid symptoms in the United States and elsewhere. The hollowing out of civil society and class-based organizations has provided fertile ground for the most antisocial tendencies to thrive, including the alarming proliferation of xenophobic, white supremacist killers incubated on the internet. Whereas historical fascisms grew in a context of intensive party-political and civil society organization, today’s radical right is an expression of profound social disintegration. It is, in the words of Marco Revelli, “the formless form that social malaise and impulses to protest take on in societies that have been pulverized and reworked by globalization and total finance,” and which are highly susceptible to the kinds of disinformation and paranoia that digital technology is so effective at spreading. The main locus of far-right radicalization today isn’t the local branch of a fascist mass party, but rather the anonymized world of online discussion forums and group chats. This is the deeply anti-political environment that has given us the twinned phenomena of Donald Trump and the extremely online mass shooter.
The combination of social disorganization and the breakdown of effective interest representation is a dangerous cocktail. Dictatorship is not on the agenda in capitalist democracies, but this situation has allowed the forces of the radical right to advance their agenda quite effectively through the existing political systems — not least because it reinforces popular cynicism about the value of deliberative and representative democracy. The current sociopolitical terrain is, in many respects, much more favorable to the Right than what remains of the Left, and it will continue to be so in many capitalist democracies, barring significant reversals of fortune.
Still, the situation is far from hopeless — particularly in the United States. Bernie Sanders’s first presidential campaign sparked the beginnings of a revival of the long-dormant US left. The stunning growth of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the election of figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib are among the fruits of that campaign. Sanders’s second campaign has the potential to push these developments even further, even if he doesn’t win the Democratic Party primary campaign or the presidency. It represents a significant opportunity to promote social organization on a mass scale, for as Sanders himself constantly reminds his supporters, there is no way he will be able to break the domination of the billionaire class on his own, even with the powers of the US presidency behind him. His campaign slogan is “Not Me, Us.” This isn’t just cheap campaign talk. Sanders’s campaign is demonstrating its commitment to mass organizing and popular mobilization by using his lists to turn supporters out to picket lines, and to encourage the development of organizing skills among his base.
This is where the other major development in US politics, the modest but unmistakable return of the strike, is so important. The US labor movement has been mired in a seemingly endless decline since the 1970s. Structural changes in the economy, combined with an employers’ offensive supported by politicians, has cut the rate of private sector unionization from roughly 25 percent to just 6.5 percent. Public sector unions were much more successful in maintaining their position, but the erosion of unions in the private sector left them very vulnerable to political and judicial attacks. These culminated in a recent Supreme Court decision called Janus v. American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, in which the conservative majority imposed a so-called “right-to-work” regime on public employment nationwide. This means that union membership in the public sector is now totally voluntary in all fifty states, a significant threat to the to the unions’ organizational and financial security.
All of these pressures, however, seem to have finally aroused a fighting spirit among US workers. Close to 400,000 public education workers went on strike in 2018, bravely led by workers in West Virginia and other Republican-dominated states where public employee strikes are illegal. There were also upsurges in strike activity among health care workers, hotel employees, telecommunications workers, and even in the technology sector, where Google employees walked out in protest of sexual harassment and Big Tech’s collusion with the military-industrial complex. While it may be premature to herald the coming of a strike wave, more American workers went on strike in 2018 than in any other year since the 1980s. Whether this results in a recovery of union organization or the reversal of anti-worker laws still remains to be seen.
The leftward ferment in the electoral arena, combined with the tentative steps toward working-class reorganization, are grounds for hope in democratic renewal. In this context, the most important contribution that Bernie Sanders has made is not his advocacy of Medicare for All or tuition-free public higher education, as welcome and necessary as these demands are. It is his call for a political revolution in the United States. The nascent socialist movement should develop this call into a program for democratic revolution, one that links the democratization of political institutions with support for working-class organizational capacity in politics, the economy, and every arena of social life. This may not be what the ersatz guardians of democracy have in mind, but it is the only genuine cure for democracy’s morbid symptoms.