Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Left populism over the years

A conversation about the rise of the right-wing since the turn of the century, what this tells us about liberal democracy, and the deepening of democracy needed in response.

lead lead Protesters at an "anti-Macron" demonstration organized by La France Insoumise in Marseille, April, 2018. Chagnard Guillaume/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Rosemary Bechler, openDemocracy (RB): Chantal, this is exactly twenty years after my last interview with you.Thank you for giving me this chance to talk to you on the occasion of the most recent reformulation of your project, published this year in For A Left Populism (Verso). I am intrigued to find out from you how you think your thinking has moved on in the intervening years. But the first thing I want to do is to acknowledge the considerable success with which twenty years ago you envisaged the crisis of democracy that we would be encountering today. 

In 1998, it was five years after you had published the first edition of The Return of the Political and six since Dimensions of Radical Democracy: Pluralism, Citizenship, Community. In those works you already anticipated the rise of the radical right in several European countries. At the time you only really had Austria’s Freedom Party in your sights, as well of course as the advance of Le Pen père in France. But you saw these as symptoms of the deep crisis of political identity which liberal democracy was facing. What impressed me then was that your call was not for the demise of liberal democracy, but an urgent invitation to rework liberal democracy in ways that can overcome precisely these types of crisis.

At that time you were talking about the triangulation experiments of New Labour and Clinton’s Democrats in the United States, and how they had removed the conflict between left and right that is an essential component of modern democracy. You argued that doing this had precipitated an archetypal failure in democratic politics; that “the political in its antagonistic dimension” was bound to manifest itself in other channels as a result; and you suggested that conflict would arise from other types of collective identity, around religious, nationalist or ethnic forms of identification.

You were rather scathing at the end of the twentieth century about the distracting new types of obsession with the corruption and/or the sex lives of politicians. And of course, neither of those obsessions has proved to be a passing fad. But what I remember best is that you quoted Elias Canetti approvingly when he said that “the parliamentary system exploits the psychological structure of struggling armies” – struggles in which “the contending parties renounce killing”, and warned that unless a real leftwing emerged, there would be an “explosion of antagonisms unmanageable by the democratic process”, fraught with non-negotiable moral values and essentialist forms of identification.

Looking back on the intervening decades, would you agree that your entire opus has been very much influenced historically by witnessing the deep-structural construction of a Thatcherite hegemony, a process thinkers like Stuart Hall were grappling with for the left, and the failure subsequently of the UK's New Labour to produce any kind of counter-hegemony. Wasn’t this a key founding challenge for your thinking on what would become “left populism”?

Chantal Mouffe (CM): But I would want to go back a bit earlier! It’s very important to begin with the theoretical approach I outlined with Ernesto Laclau in 1985, in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. This informed all my subsequent reflections and as always in my work, that book was both theoretical and political in design. We were thinking in a particular conjuncture: the crisis of the post-war Keynesian welfare state and the rise of neoliberalism with Thatcherism. We were concerned by the incapacity of left politics to take account of a series of movements that had emerged in the wake of the 1968 revolts and that were the expression of resistances which could not be formulated in class terms.

We felt that this was due to an epistemological obstacle in the thinking of the left, which we referred to as “class essentialism”. For both Marxists and social democrats, albeit in slightly different ways, the idea was that class interests would determine your political subjectivity. In Marxism, the main contradiction is the conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and everything needs to be organised around class positions. I remem­ber when we feminists were discussing such questions with left politicians, some of them would say: “Yes that’s very important, but first you know, let’s make the revolution, and then we’ll see what we can do.” You probably remember that particular stage in capitalist patriarchy… Or some would say, “Those are just petit-bourgeois concerns.” That, I would say, was the starting point! So our original question was a political one: how could socialism be redefined to be able to integrate the demands of the new social movements? We proposed that socialism be redefined as a radicalization of democracy.

RB: And it was the same with gay politics, anti-racism – you name it. Something else went with that denial, didn’t it ? If it was the case that one’s subjectivity was entirely based in one’s class position, then all that needed to happen is that the truth of that defining relationship needed to be pointed out to you... and you would recognise it.

CM: Yes you needed to tell workers who didn’t see this that they had “false consciousness”. Examining this question, we came to the conclusion that it was this class essentialism that was the problem.

So we decided that it was necessary to develop a new anti-essentialist approach and this we did by combining insights from post-structuralism and from the thinking of Antonio Gramsci. That was Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, developed in a particular conjuncture, the crisis of social democratic hegemony, But as I wrote in For A Left Populism, today 33 years later, we are in a moment of another crisis, that of neoliberal hegemony.

Of course, the social democratic crisis of that time had its economic determinants, but there was also political failure on the part of the Labour Party of that time, to resist Thatcherism.

RB: In 1998, you told me, “Blair represents a kind of Thatcher with a human face rather than any real attempt to create a new hegemony, to transform the relations of power… Neoliberalism is the only game in town.” 

CM: Yes. Thatcher was able to construct a new, different hegemony. And from 1997 to 2010, New Labour made no attempt at all to counter this. In a Soundings article in 1998 called  ‘A Politics Without Adversary’, I indeed referred to New Labour as ‘Thatcherism with a Human Face.”  Later, in 2005, in On the Political I examined in much more detail how not only New Labour, but all the social democratic parties throughout Europe, had indeed accepted this model. I was concerned then with what I saw as a Europe-wide neoliberal hegemony.

This then was another conjuncture, the moment of Blair and Schröder and their theorists Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck – the moment of the Third Way in which they defended the idea that the adversarial model of politics had been overcome, that antagonism had disappeared, and that as Blair said, we are all middle class now. In between, of course, there had been 1989, the fall of the Soviet Union, and Francis Fukuyama was talking about the end of history. At that time, I was really going against the current, because they were celebrating this evolution saying, “ Democracy is becoming more mature!” and I was claiming that it was a danger for democracy because there was no place any more for the exercise of popular sovereignty.  They were saying, “Democracy is becoming more mature!”

By the way, I have a particular understanding of the term, ‘popular sovereignty’. I don’t believe that popular sovereignty can ever really be put into practise – Hans Kelsen, the Austrian jurist, legal philosopher and author of the 1920 Austrian Constitution, used to say it was a “totemic mask”. What I mean when I invoke the term is that people need to feel that they have a voice, that when they go to vote in an election, they have a real choice. But because there was now no difference between centre right and centre left; because these parties agreed that there was no alternative to neoliberal globalisation; it meant that politics had been reduced to a question of technical decisions that should be taken by experts. So people simply didn’t have a voice. I was warning that this had created the terrain for the rise of rightwing popular parties.

I was going regularly to Austria at the time and was very interested in the trajectory  of Jorg Haider. At that moment there were only two important rightwing popular parties in existence: Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party and Le Pen’s Front National in France. There was also the Flemish Vlaams Blok…

RB: But there wasn’t much else and you said that there would be.

CM:  Exactly. And I have been proven right. People can’t believe that I wrote about this at the turn of the century. They say, “Really, but it is so pertinent for today!” However, at the time, people used to tell me that there was something wrong with my argument and that I only had to look at what was happening in Britain, where there was no rightwing popular party. I said, “No, that’s true. But I think the conditions are ripe for the emergence of such a party.” Of course you need a leader, but the terrain was there. The other example they used was Germany: yes, but now they have got the AfD.

I am absolutely convinced that the current growth of rightwing populist parties is linked to the consensus of the centre and the lack of agonistic debate. In my view, those who are responsible for this situation are the social democrats. Those who are responsible for this situation are the social democrats.

Those are the parties who abandoned the popular classes. It was inevitable, the minute that they began to believe that there was no alternative to neoliberal globalisation, a process as we know in which there are losers and winners – and the losers are the popular classes. In every single country, the social democrats ceased to have any language to address the problems that emerged for them. So they abandoned them and they decided to concentrate all their efforts on the middle class.

This was quite visible in France, for example, because this abandonment was clearly spelt out. The think tank, Terra Nova, considered close to the French Socialist Party, announced that, “The working class are lost to us. They will not vote for us any more. We should concentrate on the middle classes and on the immigrants” – because the immigrants are of course less likely to vote for Le Pen. Naturally, if you have that kind of attitude, the popular classes are going to look somewhere else.

In a sense you don’t expect the right to take care of the interest of the workers. So this is why I am saying that it was the social democrat turn to the right which was at the origin of the development of rightwing populism.

For A Left Populism

RB: Let us move on then to the argument for a left populism. As you write about it now, it is to be understood as a “discursive structure between the people and the oligarchy”. In the ‘populist moment’ that we are now in, you maintain that this is the type of politics needed to recover and deepen democracy. And that it is because of the “variety of democratic demands that exist today” that you have gone beyond the left/right dichotomy, to find this new frontier capable of articulating the collective will…. Could you explain?

CM:  OK, let me try. In order to understand left populism, you need to locate yourself within a specific theoretical approach. The first premise is what I call the dissociative approach towards the political. What is the political? There are two ways to define it. There is the associative view which says that the political is the domain of liberty, of acting in common, and where you should try to establish consensus – the view dominant in liberal democratic political theory, and here I am taking the term liberal in its very broadest sense. Habermas is a liberal in this sense. Then there is the dissociative view which says that politics has to do with conflict and antagonism, which is a very specific type of conflict. Antagonism is a type of conflict which does not have a rational solution. So it is not a question of sitting and discussing and discussing. This is why I am critical of deliberative democracy! In politics there are sometimes tragic choices to be made, because a decision has to be made in an undecidable terrain. The pluralism of values which for me is crucial for a pluralist democracy reaches a point where we can’t reconcile positions any further, and we have to make a choice.

This is why for me, politics is inherently partisan. I inscribe myself in this dissociative view alongside Machiavelli, one of my heroes. He used to say that the people is divided between opposing humori (humours), those of the popolo (common people) and the grandi (great) – “ Their interests are incompatible.” 

It means that politics has to do with how you establish a frontier between the Us and the Them, and that politics always has to do with collective identities. This doesn’t mean that US and Them are always going to be enemies. They could just be different. There is an important principle inscribed in the model of the structural linguist Saussure, who said that identities are always relational. Saussure said that the term ‘mother’ could not be understood if it was not in a particular relation with ‘father’, ‘son’ and so forth. So you never have an identity whose essence is given independently of relationship and context. In the field of politics, where we are always dealing with collective identities, those identities are also relational. Us is always in relation to some Them. The crucial question is, how to establish the political frontier between them. Politics is inherently partisan.

For the liberal – liberalism in the philosophical sense – there is no frontier, no antagonism. Theirs is a pluralism which is not located in the dissociative conception of the political. Marxism does establish a frontier, but the frontier is constructed between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. And this is where we come to the point about left and right.

Many people, including Marxists, believe that left and right describes interests that are already given and that the conflict is between those interests. Today, with the transformation of capitalism, we can’t confine ourselves to the conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. We said this already in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) and were roundly criticised for those views. When Blair and Giddens were heralding the end of the adversarial model, they were right in one regard, that you could no longer divide up society, the field of conflict, in the traditional way.  Their mistake was to say there was no more fundamental conflict.

In fact, the frontier needs to be established differently from the way it is in the model of the class struggle. This is what populism does, it draws the frontier to accommodate the variety of democratic demands that exist today. In Ernesto Laclau’s book, ‘On Populist Reason’ (2007) he said that in fact populism is basically a discursive strategy to establish the political frontier between the under-dog and the oligarchy. So populism is a different way of doing politics that cannot be conceptually understood independently of a dissociative sense of the political.

However, there are many different ways of constructing the populist frontier. All depends on how you construct the people on the one hand and the oligarchy on the other. We are not referring here to terms with a specific empirical referent. These are two political constructions. And when we say the people, there are many different social sectors with heterogeneous demands…

RB: And they all experience subordination.

CM: Yes exactly, but ‘the people’ has to be constructed from these heterogeneous demands. I hope you don’t mind my taking the, for me, paradigmatic example of France: the rightwing populism of Marine Le Pen and leftwing populism of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. For Marine Le Pen, the people is constructed very much in terms of the French National Us, and of course the Them is the immigrants, seen as a danger because they are represented as those who are taking away our jobs and our privileges.

President of the French far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen attends a protest rally against the French government's immigration policies, April, 2018. NurPhoto/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

RB: But isn’t the meritocratic élite also the enemy for Marine Le Pen’s ‘people’ ?

CM: Yes, but it is not what interests me. In the case of Marine Le Pen, I am particularly interested in the popular sectors that she has been able to win over. They are the ones I think who need to be won back, which is where I have a disagreement with people who say that it is unthinkable that the people who voted for Marine Le Pen would ever vote for Mélenchon. This is totally wrong. In fact we have seen in the last election Mélenchon win in Marseille, a stronghold of Marine Le Pen. Another interesting example is François Ruffin who won in Amiens, also in a stronghold of Marine Le Pen: so these people can be won back. Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims is particularly interesting on the reverse direction of conversion, from the Communist Party to the National Front – do you know it?

RB: Yes, I’m a great fan of that book.

CM: Eribon’s family, when he goes back home thirty years later to Reims, feel abandoned by the socialists and the communists, who they think no longer represent their interests. Those are the people who need to be won back.

RB: But isn’t it interesting the way that Didier Eribon precisely escapes from Reims into the meritocratic élite, where he is ashamed to own up to his own background until he reconciles himself to a ‘second coming out’?

CM: Yes, he escaped, but he remains a leftwinger, a very active leftwinger! But to get back to the difference between leftwing populism and rightwing populism, basically of course they have got something in common, which is that they draw the frontier in a ‘transversal’ way, by which I mean that they cut across different social groups. You can see this when Podemos says, “We don’t only want to speak to the people who consider themselves as being on the left and who always vote left. We also want to win to our cause people who have been traditional voters for the Partido Popular, because they are also suffering from these neoliberal policies and they can be won over.”

In this regard I have to say that I feel that on one side the situation today is much worse than the situation when we wrote Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, because in the mid-1980’s the institutions of the welfare state were still very much in place. Now, so much of that has been dismantled. But on the other hand, the potentialities are greater for the construction of a progressive collective will. In particular, as a consequence of the 2008 financial crisis and the policies of austerity, we are living through the process of what I call the oligarchisation of our societies. The gulf has grown between the small group of the very rich and the popular classes and growing sectors of the middle classes that have also entered into a process of  pauperisation and precarisation. That is a very new phenomenon. It means that the conditions of those middle classes are now much more similar to the popular classes In that sense, the constituencies for a progressive, emancipatory, radical democratic project – whatever you want to call it – are potentially greater. What is most important is to have a political project that will try to articulate the demands of the precarious middle class together with the demands of the popular sector, with the LGBT demands, the anti-racist demands and so forth.

My argument is that today we are seeing a lot of resistances to what I call post-democracy in our societies. When I speak of post-democracy I refer to two distinct features, the phenomenon of the ‘Third way’ post-politics that I examined in On the Political, and a much more recent second phenomenon which is oligarchisation. Many resistances to the latter are observable and can be expressed in many different ways.

In fact I think it is interesting here to draw an analogy with the situation analysed by Karl Polanyi in his book, The Great Transformation, published in 1944. In it he used his theory of the ‘double movement’ to show how you were seeing throughout Europe at that time a lot of resistances against the processes of commodification that had been taking place there since the beginning of the century. He also saw the rise of fascism and Nazism as ‘resistances’, but not only these. So you have the hegemony of a model which creates a lot of resistances – Polanyi described this as a ‘counter-movement’ – but one which could take many different progressive as well as reactionary forms. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, for instance, was a progressive resistance against the same process.  I think we have a similar double movement today. The populist movement is a series of resistances against neoliberal globalisation. But those resistances can be articulated in a regressive or progressive way. I think we have a similar double movement today.

I have been accused of presenting these resistances as if they were all against neoliberalism. I do want to say that all those resistances are resistances against the post-democratic situation – these are people who feel that the values of democracy – popular sovereignty, equality, and so forth, have disappeared. My argument is that this post-democracy is indeed a consequence of the hegemony of neoliberal globalisation. But I am not saying that all those resistances are necessarily resistances against neoliberalism. It is one thing to say that these are resistances against post-democracy, and post-democracy a consequence of neoliberalism; and quite another to say that they are all resisting neoliberalism. In fact, many rightwing populist resistances are not questioning the hegemony of neoliberalism at all.

RB: Quite the reverse: we have Trump, Orbán, Erdoğan, Salvini and Five Star promoting neoliberal policies while Macron mobilizes xenophobia. But this raises for me the huge difficulty of being able to distinguish between right and left populism.

In ‘For A Left Populism’ when you are talking about the critical role played by the signifier ‘democracy’ in the political imaginary, you advocate the Gramscian idea of “making critical” already existing activity in liberal democracy, rather than, say, calling for its abandonment. But didn’t Goebbels and Mussolini in the early stages of their rise to power precisely “make critical” the shortfall in post–democracy too? Didn’t they also “transform relations of subordination into sites of an antagonism.” And indeed moving to examples rather closer to home, didn’t Theresa May and Donald Trump in their inaugural speeches, follow exactly the same formula when they spoke of “shifting the balance of Britain decisively in favour of ordinary working class people…” and “transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.”

So my question is, how do people who are third parties observing all this to begin to distinguish between left and right populism when much of the vocabulary and many of the postures are identical? 

CM: You are right – those speeches were pure rightwing populism. But I don’t think it is so difficult to distinguish between them. First let me insist that all those resistances are a reaction against post-democracy. They are democratic resistances and they constitute a cry from the people. They want to have a say. And of course May and Trump respond, as Jorg Haider was already doing in those early years of the rightwing rise – “I’m going to give power back to you, the people”.

But of course the key thing here is who are you going to establish as the adversary, the Them? “Who has taken that away from you?” In the case of rightwing populism in general  it is the immigrants. “You don’t have a say because of the immigrants.” Mélenchon on the other hand, says, “You don’t have a say thanks to the forces of neoliberal globalisation.” So the way that you construct the adversary is decisive.

But there is something else, and this is very important I think. It is the role played by equality in these discourses. I have studied the discourse of Marine Le Pen in some detail, and equality does not play a significant role in what she says. To be sure, at one stage she was much more on the left in her discourse than François Hollande. She was defending the welfare state and very critical of neoliberalism. But she never mobilised the idea of equality. “The welfare state – but only for the French!” That was her discourse. For Jean Luc Mélenchon, the immigrants are a part of the French people. And on the other side are the forces of the political and economic élites who sustain neoliberalism. “The welfare state – but only for the French!”

For me the central criterion is the role that equality plays in the discourse, because in a sense both leftwing and rightwing proclaim that they are going to give a voice back to the people. That is true. But when I speak of post-democracy, the two main values of democracy under attack are popular sovereignty and equality. The rightwing populist wants to recover the popular sovereignty for the National Us, but they don’t mobilise for equality. That is the crucial missing factor.

RB: To pursue this notion of equality, can we dig a little more into how the left populist political project articulates the demands of the people in a way that can overcome its divisions and conflicts of class, gender, or ethnicity? I would like to explore your concept of the ‘chains of equivalence’, by comparing this with a memorable moment in an interview I did with Jean Luc Mélenchon in 2013. This was the year before he published L’Ère du Peuple, and of course he has hugely changed his political vocabulary since then. But at the time, talking about the left, he said:

“Our left is above all cultural. It's a very extensive cultural continent, with many different landscapes, hills, valleys… This image allows me to say that political reconstruction will take place on the ‘broadest cultural field’ and not on strictly political themes. And we try to traverse this broader cultural field looking for where there are overlaps.”

At this point he illustrated his thesis by taking up a series of three overlapping table napkins and continued:

“We take our bearings from the great cultural hegemonies, identities, reference points in France. For example, you're for laicité. You support secularism and are not interested in anything else. You couldn’t care less about right or left. Now, there is a second person who is for sharing.You can't be happy when there are unhappy people. Then, the next person is for equality, and in particular cannot bear inequality between men and women. So there are three landscapes and one place in which all three overlap. If you are here [in the overlap], you are Front de Gauche - if you are here [outside the overlap], it’s something else. I don't have contempt for you, but this is different. The ideological strategy of the Front de Gauche is to reconstruct French cultural hegemony in the Gramscian sense, and to rebuild it together.”

Was it this search for the overlap that moved Mélenchon out of the left that he used to occupy? And was this an adequate illustration of ‘the chains of equivalence’ that I was being treated to here?

CM: Clearly he is speaking here of transversality and the need to articulate a series of different demands.  And he is still saying that. The only difference now is that he is saying that he doesn’t want to make reference to the left, and this is the same with Podemos in Spain as I mentioned. In the book which Íñigo Errejón and I wrote together in 2016, this was the only point of disagreement. “In Spain”, Íñigo said, “you are not going to win people by saying, ‘I’m on the left.’ No! There are too many negative connotations.” And I think in France today, Mélenchon would say the same: when you speak of the left in France, people think of François Hollande! That is the left! Several people in La France Insoumise have told me, “ When we campaign, we can’t present ourselves as being left, because we will be rejected.” But they acknowledge that they come from a left tradition...

RB: Isn’t it the case that Mélenchon’s electorate is clearly leftwing, the young and the working class who don’t vote, and people attracted in the first place by a leftwing social democratic programme?

CM: Of course – so this is pragmatic and only about what label to use. But basically, although he doesn’t use the term, ‘chains of equivalence’, we are talking about how to construct ‘the people’ for a left populist strategy. Left populism is not a regime, it is a discursive strategy of construction of the political frontier. I have to insist on this. If, for instance, La France Insoumise comes to power, they will not be installing a left populist regime – there is no such thing!  Or let us come back to Trump. Trump, most definitely ran a populist campaign. But his regime is not populist. Trump... ran a populist campaign. But his regime is not populist.

So you can see that basically left populism is a way to construct a people, and to create the conditions for a new hegemony. Once that is in place, then, of course, this new hegemony must be reoriented around the recovery and deepening of democracy – since you are in the business of defeating post-democracy. This is when I suppose it will be possible to see the difference between rightwing populism and leftwing populism. Both of them pretend that they are going to recover democracy and give a voice to the people. But the way in which rightwing populists recover this democracy is to restrict it to the nationals, whereas leftwing populism recovers democracy in order to deepen and extend it.

RB: But let me push you for a little more detail now. In your latest book, you quote Ernesto Laclau as saying: “ Each individual demand is constitutively split: on the one hand it is its own particularised self; on the other it points through equivalential links to the totality of the other demands.”  

Mélenchon’s napkin demonstration said that all three demands had to come together into an identical idea in the Front du Gauche. Whereas, it seems to me that it is absolutely essential that a leftwing deepening of democracy is about a mutual, pluralist empowerment, and that is not the same thing as everybody now united behind the same demand against the oligarchy, is it?

CM: No, of course not. But I don’t think that is what Mélenchon meant and it is not what we argue. This is something I have tried to explain. It is in fact a running debate that I have with Didier Eribon who is very worried that when we talk about articulating the different demands, what we will actually do is to homogenise them. He is very Foucauldian in this regard, and I remember that we had the same discussion in the Foucault journal MF with which I was involved.  We insisted, and I still insist, on the necessity to acknowledge the specificity of feminism. But, at the same time, and this is my Gramscian side, I insisted on the need to enter into a chain of equivalence with other struggles. But a chain of equivalence is not simply a rainbow coalition in which you put different struggles next to each other. There can be conflicts between democratic struggles and they need to be articulated. This requires the construction of new subjectivities. A chain of equivalence is not simply a rainbow coalition.

This is one reason why I am critical of the ‘multitude’ in the work of Hardt and Negri, because they take it for granted that all those elements of the multitude converge. And we are saying, no, they do not converge automatically, and indeed in many cases they are in contradiction, because the demands of women can conflict with those of labour for example. So you need to construct ways of formulating each demand so that a chain of equivalence is established: and it is equivalence we are after, not identity. What they have got in common is the common adversary. And what unites those very different constituencies is the need to prevail against that adversary.

Margaret Thatcher for example won over a section of the working class, the elements of the labour aristocracy you might say. People don’t like to talk about that, but she did. And she did it by saying to those workers that she  understood their problems, but that they were caused by the feminists whose insistence on women entering the labour market were taking their jobs. The same with the immigrants. So the aim of those in power is always to divide, and to prevent unity from forming among the oppressed.

What is important is that when you construct an alliance, women, for example, do  formulate their demands in such a way that they cannot be satisfied simply by pushing the burden onto the immigrants, who will then be the ones to lose out.

RB: As in Saskia Sassen’s unforgettable concept of the Global Woman to refer to those immigrants worldwide who increasingly do the caring in advanced societies…

CM: That’s right. But you see what is crucial in each case is creating new forms of subjectivity.

RB: And in this process, wouldn’t you agree that it is not just a question of finding the common enemy, but that this enemy in common gets more deeply characterised as you begin to put together, for example, the experience of oppression of people in work, with insights into patriarchy both from the feminists and from gay activists. These combine to give us a new and indeed deeper sense of the role of the family for example in the reproduction of the system. It is equivalence we are after, not identity.

CM: Finding a common ‘Them’ is a necessary element in the process of creating an ‘Us’, but it is never simply a matter of saying – “Ah, we all have to fight against neoliberalism!” Of course not.

RB: Isn’t this where intersectionality becomes a rather useful analytic framework?

CM: Yes, I agree with that and even if the term in not present in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, I have been arguing that the idea is present. We maybe go further because when speaking of a multiplicity of subject positions you also acknowledge that you can be dominant in one position and dominated in another one, so that there exist oppressed workers who are nevertheless sexist and so on. Those struggles that need to be brought together are very heterogeneous, and this is why we say that a new form of subjectivity has to emerge that is going to impede the adversary who will aim to divide us to satisfy some of the demands, but not others. We need a solidarity which will say, “No. that will not satisfy my demand because you are just going to transfer the burden to other people…”.

So a rainbow coalition can be an early stage, I am not against that. But the construction of a new hegemony requires a new form of subjectivity, and a new kind of common sense.  

RB: Ah yes, common sense. Now I have a real problem with that concept from a British empirical point of view. Because for me common sense statements are pre-eminently those, like the one I recently quoted about the Reithian BBC, “The House of Lords Communications Committee… decided there was no clear definition of what Public Service Broadcasting is – but it didn't matter. It's the sort of thing we all recognise. When it hits you…”. You can never define what makes the BBC such a national treasure, but we nationals all know it. In other words, ‘common sense’ is the very mark of a dominant ideology, isn’t it? Non-negotiable and exclusionary – and what is empowering about that?

Whereas what we have been talking about with respect to the chains of equivalence is something that is consciousness-raising – in particular about the relations of subordination that are being overcome, in different ways, but on all sides? 

CM: Wait a second! I am using ‘common sense’ according to the Gramscian meaning of the term, which has nothing at all to do with British empirical common sense. There is nothing natural about this common sense: it is a total construction. Living in Britain over these years, I have seen, and you must have seen this too, the way in which ‘common sense’ in Britain has been transformed by Thatcherism. I remember when I arrived in 1972, it was a very social democratic country in terms of values. A lot of solidarity was normal. And I have seen that being undermined and undermined and undermined. This is the direct product of the way in which Thatcher was able to construct a neoliberal hegemony and I think that if we are going to break with this hegemony and construct a different one, we need to create a set of values, a different set of expectations, new ways of judging what it is that we aspire to. It is a total transformation that is involved. This is why I am very interested  in artistic and cultural practises, because they play a very important role in the construction of subjectivity and the creation of the common sense

RB: Yes Thatcherite common sense is a very clear example. What is more elusive is to see how left populism works in its emergent stages. Can I give you one more example? This one comes from an article by Omer Tekdemir, one of your students, I believe, who describes the Kurdish-led and left-leaning populist Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) that brought 80 MPs into the Turkish Parliament in June 2015, in this way:

“The HDP established a chain of equivalence between its diverse components without essentialising Kurdish identity over other alliances, using radical democracy as a common point of affiliation. The HDP has identified ‘we’, ‘the People’, in terms of an agonistic pluralism that… promotes compromise in disagreement (such as the association between devout Muslims, Alevis, LGBTs, feminists and Afro-Turks and non-Muslims) positioned within a symbolic democratic ground based on the democratic principles of liberty and equality for all.”

This seems a pretty exact account of the process of constructing a left populist party. But I wondered about one element that seems to be missing. You speak quite a lot about the importance for left populists of constructing a left patriotism to counter the rightwing version. In a country with Kemalist roots, like Turkey, where the ruling party is giving the dominant ideology an increasingly oppressive and nationalist turn, it is hard to see how the HDP could bang on this particular drum? 

CM: I trust my Turkish friends when they tell me that the HDP is clearly a left populist endeavour. As to patriotism, aren’t the HDP trying to redefine Turkish identity in a much more pluralist way? So it is not that the dimension of patriotism is absent, it is just that it resignifies what it is to be Turkish. My insistence on the question of nationalism and patriotism is very much a consequence of my interest in psychoanalysis. I think we need to acknowledge what Freud called a strong libidinal investment in the identification with the nation. I disagree with Habermas’ idea of a post-national identity. We need to see how we can work on national forms of identification and construct them in a way that is really going to be open and pluralistic.

That of course is going to take very different forms in different countries. It is easier in some countries than in others. I think that in France, a left patriotism is much easier because of the French Revolution. You can really establish it on the basis of values that are universalistic values. It is much more difficult in Germany and in Austria where I had quite interesting discussions with my friends at the time of Haider’s rise. I would say that I had never seen a country where the left were so antipatriotic. Austrians are so anti-Austrian – it’s incredible. I used to tell them, “You can’t reduce the whole history of Austria to those years in which some Austrians  were so enthusiastic about the Anschluss. There are a lot of other stories, of Red Vienna, the Austro-Marxists” – and Vienna has had a social-democratic government since then – “You can construct a different narrative about the values of your nation!” 

I can’t imagine a society where these progressive elements and episodes are totally absent. In the case of France it is vital. La France Insoumise is very good about that. They realise that they cannot leave to Marine Le Pen that whole field of patriotism. With her references to Jeanne D’Arc, Le Pen is in the process of constructing a whole narrative of the history and meaning of France around her rightwing values. You need to have a counter-narrative. In Britain, I know this is of interest to Anthony Barnett, but I wouldn’t presume to comment on how you go about it.

All I know is that if you are going to try to envisage how to act politically and how to define an emancipatory project, you need to start from an adequate political anthropology. It is very important. I am often criticised for insisting on the national dimension, but my conviction is that you always have to start from struggle within your country and then from there you can begin to establish alliances with like movements in other countries.

My friends in the anti-globalisation movement, for example, tell me that the problem with that movement was that it was not an emanation of real popular support in each country. A lot of NGO’s were meeting in Porto Alegre and that they had there fantastic discussions, but then they were coming back to their country and there was no real basis of support for what they were doing.  I think you have to start from the roots, from the local, and then move out from there. Ultimately a left populist strategy will only be successful if it manages to exist at the European level, obviously. You can’t think otherwise. And there are struggles where it is very important to organise at the European level – against TTIP for instance.

But with regard to nationalism, the key issue that I want to raise is this. My interest in writing For A Left Populism arises from one central question, which is how to act politically in the present conjuncture? I am convinced that we are at a crucial moment because there is a crisis of the neoliberal hegemony, and here you must understand what I mean. We need to distinguish between neoliberal policies and neoliberal hegemony. Of course neoliberal policies are still powerful but what is in crisis is the hegemony.

For many years neoliberalism in the Anglo-Saxon model was seen as the universal panacea, the only solution. This is why all social democratic parties converted to that cause. Since the 2008 financial crisis, we have seen the cracks appearing, and what for me was another important moment, was 2011, the Indignados and all those other ‘movements of the squares’ rising up. It was when resistances began to come from the left and not only from rightwing populist movements, that we entered  what I call a ‘populist moment’. Of course the outcome depends on which of those two prevails, which side is going to hegemonise those resistances more effectively.

If the left is not able to understand the opportunity that is on offer and to seize the initiative, then it is going to be the rightwing populists who prevail and they will bring in authoritarian, nationalistic regimes. In the name of recovering democracy, they will restrict democracy.

So what I am saying is that it is necessary to know how to fight rightwing populism, and that to do that, you have to avoid what I see so much of on the left, which is a reliance on moral condemnation. “They are fascists!” is the cry, and once you say that, how are you going to continue the fight against them? For example, just before the elections in France, a lot of publications came out arguing that “Marine Le Pen is not Republican!” They were convinced that just saying that they would deter her voters. I was arguing that in that case her party should not have been subsidised in order to allow it to compete in the elections. Either one way or the other.

RB: It is rather like the Remainers in Britain trying to argue that the Brexit referendum vote is just a mistake?

CM: Or Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” to describe those who voted for Trump. I totally disagree with that. I believe it is completely self-defeating and counter-productive. Do you imagine that this rhetoric is going to change hearts and minds? It only reinforces the anti-establishment feelings of those people.

Recently Macron spoke of a “populist leprosy” afflicting Europe, and indeed this is quite familiar this vocabulary of moral disease, the return of the plague and so on..

In a sense it is understandable why social democrats take up that refrain. It gives them the moral highground. They feel: “We are the good democrats!” Except that those good democrats really should understand that if we are where we are it is because of them. I think this moral highground simply helps them to avoid making an auto-critique. Because if they really were to understand the reason for the rise of  rightwing  populism, they would have to recognise that it was because they abandoned the popular sectors. Those good democrats really should understand that if we are where we are it is because of them.

I have been criticised a lot for my unwillingness to label Marine Le Pen as “extreme right” and for sticking to my designation of rightwing populist. But strictly speaking  “extreme right” is an anti-liberal, anti-parliamentary right, that uses and incites violence and does not accept the democratic institutions. Marine Le Pen is not in that category. Of course those extreme right parties do exist in Europe. But so far they are very marginal.

RB: But extreme violence can lie just under the surface of an apparently democratic polity, can’t it, like the murder of Jo Cox MP which suddenly erupted into the early stages of the Brexit process, which has been followed by a marked upsurge in racist and xenophobic violence ever since? These can be given permission by apparently democratic institutions that would never admit to being responsible in any way, just as the AFD denies all linkage to the Nazis who attend the protests they called for in Chemnitz, while stating that they understand why people are so angry.

In fact, here we are back to Canetti. Given the enormous centrality that you accord to the channelling of “antagonism” – struggle that sets out to destroy the enemy – into “agonism” – struggle with an adversary whose legitimacy is perceived as legitimate – (you reiterate this argument as one of two underlying assumptions in your Theoretical Appendix to For A Left Populism) – I wonder that you do not make the commitment to work against violence of all kinds and of course, war and the nationalisms leading to war, a much more distinctive feature of left populism, demarcating it clearly once and for all from rightwing populism. Why not make conscious and explicit something that runs throughout your analysis?

Ultimately, the violence afflicting democratic societies, let alone the threat to the survival of the species unleashed by the same forces, must have at least as much capacity to convert some of the winners under neoliberalism to radical democracy as the “ecological question” that you place at “the centre of any radical democracy agenda”, mustn’t it? 

CM: Antagonism is an ever-present possibility. I’m a Freudian, so I do believe in eros and thanatos: we need a realistic anthropology that recognizes the ineradicability of antagonism. But what one can do is to try and create the conditions for agonism. And the more immediate danger is the coming to power of rightwing populists who are not fascists but who are more authoritarian and who are going to restrict our democratic institutions.

President Emmanuel Macron and Chief of the Defense Staff of the French Army on the Bastille Day military parade, Champs-Elysees, Paris, 2018. Pool/Press Association. All rights reserved.What I am worried about is a situation where political leaders like Emmanuel Macron are so oblivious to the desperation that his policies are causing, that unless La France Insoumise is able to channel the resistances against Macron in an agonistic way towards a radicalisation of democracy, then for sure they could lead to an explosion of violence. I have discussed this with my friends in France recently and we agree that there is a recrudescence precisely of those manifestations of violence at the hands of people who feel that the entire system excludes them. If it has no other way of expressing itself, that anger will explode in violence. Left populism is a way to channel those resistances in an emancipatory direction, not that I believe you could ever have a complete emancipation – but the perpetual radicalisation of democracy, that I do believe in. 

RB: In addressing this need to replace denunciation with hope, you talk interestingly in For A Left Populism ­about the importance of learning from the arts and from cultural workers about how to address the emotions, the affects as you call them.

As we come to a close, I am thinking about everything that we have discussed. We agree on the sheer amount of work that goes into maintaining the neoliberal hegemony, “constantly mobilising people’s desires and shaping their identities” as you put it. We are talking about a massive piece of work, political work, intellectual work, work on the affects, to construct a new counter-hegemony.

But who are the people who are meant to be doing the thinking and the constructing? You have little time for “auto-organisation” and over the decades you have been very consistent in your antipathy to the notion of political agency: in 1993, you told New Times, “ We should be very wary of the concept of agency. The left has always been seeking an agency…  But as we are not seeking a ‘revolutionary’ change we do not need an ‘agency’. We need a maximum number of struggles and their articulation.”  

However, where does the change ultimately come from? You are surely not proposing to leave this work of transformation to a small bunch of political leaders, however charismatic?

CM: Of course not. We used to talk about parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics, and don’t really use these terms any more today. But I have always said that there needed to be much more than purely parliamentary politics dedicated towards this construction of a new hegemony. Nowadays, we are talking about a multiplicity of grass roots movements, social movements, groups which experiment in new forms of living, new experiences of citizenship and democratic participation. I think this is very important. When I disagree, it is with people who claim that they are going to be able to change society exclusively through what I call the ‘horizontal’ level.  I don’t believe that. At some point you need to engage with the political institutions: you need to engage with the state. And you have to come to power and for this you need an electoral machine... But of course, it can’t be only that. To establish a new hegemony it is necessary to create a synergy between electoral politics  and the diversity of progressive civil society struggles and experiences. To articulate the ‘horizontal’ level with the ‘vertical’ one – this is what the left populist strategy advocates.

About the authors

Chantal Mouffe is a Belgian political theorist and professor at the University of Westminster. She has been visiting professor at several European, Latin American and US universities. As an author, she is globally known for Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a radicalization of democracy, which she co-authored with Ernesto Laclau, and her critical readings of Carl Scmitt.

RB, editor

Rosemary Bechler is a mainsite editor of openDemocracy, and a member of the coordinating committee of DiEM25.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.