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Populism, anti-populism and European democracy: a view from the South

Isn’t it time to start dissecting the extremism of this ‘moderate centre’? Is it not the duty of every truly moderate citizen/social scientist, of every democrat, to radically oppose this extremism camouflaged as moderation? 


Republican automatons by George Grosz. Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

The recent debate between Philippe Marlière and Catherine Fieschi around the difficulties in defining populism and the ambiguities marking its political effects have provided the opportunity for the articulation of some elaborate and insightful arguments. However, although they have both already touched upon some of the most relevant features and scientific/political implications of this notion, we think that there is still some (if not a lot of) light to be shed on the matter.

But what is really at stake here? Marlière has rightly stressed from the beginning the ideological uses and abuses of ‘populism’ in mainstream discourses that usually conceal élitist demophobic sentiments, while Fieschi insists on the actuality of a populist danger to democracy. Thus Fieschi’s disagreement with Marlière seems to develop around a core (political) issue, namely the need for a ‘moderate’ (democratic) politics against the (populist) excesses.

A second (underlying) point of discord involves the validity of distinguishing left-wing from right-wing articulations of populist discourse and the possibly differing impacts they may have on democracy. In what follows, we intend to critically engage with both of these issues articulating a view from the crisis-ridden European South.

Deconstructing the ‘Europe vs. populism’ opposition

Let us start with the uses of populism in public debate. In the European context, as we all know, the label ‘populist’ is indiscriminately utilized to describe a vast variety of policies, politicians, parties or rhetorical styles. What this multiplicity of phenomena is supposed to share is revealed by the ‘enlightened’ gaze of the scholar or the public commentator: ‘populism’ is most often treated as a democratic malaise, as a virulent social disease threatening European democracy. It is supposed to invariably involve an irrational Manichean view of society that mesmerizes the ‘immature’ masses, releasing uncontrolled social passions and thereby threatening to tear society apart.

In this prevailing view we find a real ‘trap’ for the political scientist – as well as for every citizen for that matter – already pointed out by Marlière: the temptation to oversimplify, to essentialize, or even hypostasize the object of analysis, to treat it as one and homogenous, as coherent, as a speaking and acting ‘it’.

Ironically enough this type of anti-populist critique is usually articulated in a very populist and Manichean manner: through the drawing of strict dichotomies, evident both in academia, journalism and politics. Such dichotomies include: ‘Democracy vs. Populism’, ‘Pluralism vs. Populism’ or even ‘Europe vs. Populism’. This last one is of particular interest, given our geographical location and the force with which it has been articulated by people like Herman Van Rompuy and Manuel Barroso.

Indeed, post-war Europe seemed to incarnate all the virtues of pluralism and the European Union was initially hailed as an innovative political experiment advancing democratic values, respect for otherness, tolerance, the welfare state, moderation, and so forth. Anybody opposing this project had to be an authoritarian/totalitarian enemy of democracy. Thus, when so-called ‘right-wing populists’ gained momentum from the late 1980s onwards, the representation that dominated the field was that of a clash between Europe, conceived of as intrinsically democratic, moderate, benign, and Populism, conceived of as inherently undemocratic, extreme and malignant.

This representation seemed persuasive to the extent that anti-European extreme right-wing forces were indeed predominantly anti-democratic (although the widening democratic deficit in European Union decision-making started providing them with an indirect democratic aura). However, to the extent that the crisis is transforming almost everything around us, is this representation still valid? Simply put, which ‘Europe’ and which ‘Populism’ can one observe in our crisis-ridden landscape? And how are we to judge their effects on democracy?

The experience from the South can be illuminating precisely because the transformations underway have been imposed here in a more violent and radical way. In fact, what the European periphery has experienced is an EU acting against its very defining values and principles, while local/national ‘moderate centrist’ political actors, claiming to be fundamentally ‘Europeanist’, incarnating the supreme rationality of the European spirit, are becoming more and more anti-democratic in their radical implementation of draconian austerity and neoliberal adjustment policies.

Needless to say, such rationality has nothing to do with reason as understood in the European tradition of reflexivity; it is rather related to the instrumental reason Adorno and Horkheimer have so cogently deconstructed. If one wants to trace the origins of such ‘radicalism’ and ‘rationalism’, the extremist, anti-social individualism of Ayn Rand, her passionate defense of capitalism, can serve as a good guide. It wouldn’t surprise us if Atlas Shrugged was found to be the most popular book in the European Commission book club.

Indeed, high profile intellectuals, like Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck, have already sounded the alarm on Europe’s post-democratic, if not outright authoritarian, mutation, highlighting the need for European politics to return to the rough grounds of ‘the people’.

Echoing similar concerns, Étienne Balibar has also maintained that Europe is increasingly becoming part of the problem, rather than being part of the required democratic solution. And how else could it be, given that major European institutions accept, support or even actively encourage the brutal implementation enacted by national governments in the South?

It is not only that legality has been gradually distanced from legitimacy, that the separation of powers suffers, and that the parliament itself has been marginalised as more and more elements of a virtual ‘rule by decree’ are put in place (all characteristics of the Greek predicament during the last few years of implementing the policies imposed by European and international financial institutions). In addition, and most crucially, what the recent silencing of the public broadcaster in Greece (ERT) has shown is that we are currently witnessing a further escalation in favour of establishing a decisionist system of domination through cruelty. Distanced from any real argumentative/reasonable support, this type of domination can only be described in terms of brutal nihilism.

Can this Europe still claim to be rational and democratic? Only if one favours an unreflexive ‘rationality’ without reason and an oligarchic ‘democracy’ without the demos. Radical change is surely needed, but can this be conceived, decided and implemented without the involvement and consent of the people? Can the European project be reinvigorated without further involving the masses of the people in our common project?

The problem here is that whoever does that, whoever utilizes in her/his discourse the forgotten symbolic resource of ‘the people’, is bound to be accused as an ‘irresponsible populist’ or a ‘demagogue’ and to be demonized as an irrational enemy of democracy and the European project. This is the case even if we are talking about political forces that have nothing to do with the extreme right; even, that is to say, if we are dealing with inclusionary populism and not with the exclusionary dystopias of so-called ‘right-wing populists’, to use a perceptive distinction put forward by Mudde and Kaltwasser.

Once more, the Greek experience can be illuminating here: without any exaggeration what has lately emerged as the central discursive/ideological cleavage in Greek politics is the opposition between populist and anti-populist tendencies, where the accusation of ‘populism’ is used to discredit any political forces resisting austerity measures and defending democratic and social rights against the brutal nihilism sanctioned by the European Commission and the ECB (both integral parts of the troika).

This is especially the case with SYRIZA, the left opposition, with all its references to ‘the people’ and its rejection of hegemonic (oligarchic) solutions to the crisis in favour of restoring democratic legitimacy and popular sovereignty. Who is the good and who is the bad guy here then? The choice is yours!

The extremism of moderation

Moving away from the various biases against populism doesn’t mean that we overlook the deeply problematic ways through which some populist movements articulate their claims to represent ‘the people’, clearly opposing an open and inclusive conception of democracy – relying on charismatic leaders, fueled by resentment, virtually bypassing the institutional framework of representative democracy and/or often containing an illiberal, anti-rights and nationalist potential; to be sure, these aspects need to be taken very seriously into account and Catherine Fieschi is correct to highlight the dark side of this phenomenon.

Still, such a picture cannot exhaust the immense variety of populist articulations. Indeed, by representing excluded groups, by putting forward an egalitarian agenda, other types of populism can also be seen as an integral part of democratic politics, as a source for the renewal of democratic institutions (as certain developments in Latin America during the last ten years have shown).

From this point of view, the more western democracies turn to de-politicized or even oligarchic forms of governance, the more populism will figure as a suitable vehicle for a much-needed re-politicization. Unfortunately, very often pleas for ‘moderate politics’ dangerously flirt with such a post-democratic and de-politicized direction, where politics has abandoned the possibility for real change in favour of a technical administration of public affairs.

As we have tried to show, it is precisely here that we come across some major contradictions. Today, in crisis-ridden Europe, it is the institutional defenders of ‘moderate politics’ that construct a Manichean view of society, dismissing virtually any disagreement as irrational and populist, and thus becoming more and more radicalized and exclusionary.

Given the turn of events in the South in a brutal nihilistic direction, isn’t it time to start dissecting the extremism of this ‘moderate centre’? One of the key terms in grasping this tendency is what we call ‘anti-populism’, a discursive strategy that needs to be studied in its own right, since it often generates its own caricature of the populist ‘enemy’.

Anti-populism refers here to discourses aiming at the ideological policing and the political marginalisation of emerging protest movements against the anti-democratic politics of austerity, especially in countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, etc. As Serge Halimi has recently pointed out in Le Monde Diplomatique,  ‘[a]nyone who criticizes the privileges of the oligarchy, the growing speculation of the leading classes, the gifts to the banks, market liberalization, cuts on wages with the pretext of competitiveness, is denounced as “populist”’.

Indeed, as Jacques Rancière has put it, populism seems to be the ‘convenient name’ under which the denunciation and discrediting of alternatives legitimizes the claim of economic and political elites to ‘govern without the people’, ‘to govern without politics’. Can a sincerely moderate and democratic approach to politics condone this orientation? Or is the duty of every truly moderate citizen/social scientist, of every democrat, to radically oppose this extremism camouflaged as moderation?

Teachers and other municipal workers protest in Athens. Demotix/Wassilis Aswestopoulos.

Deconstructing the ‘theory of extremes’

Let us move on now to the second axis of dispute. Although Fieschi’s argument that populism can constitute a distinct ideology does contribute an important insight to a formal approach to populist discourse (something that should dispel Marlière’s initial reservations regarding the validity of the category itself), the idea that all populisms – right or left – share more or less similar substantive features, initially echoes what in Greece lately goes under the banner of the ‘theory of the two extremes’.

What this ‘theory’ implies is that the radical left opposition, SYRIZA, and the neo-Nazis of the Golden Dawn are basically two sides of the same coin, since there is something equally dangerous for democracy in the extremist populism they both share (a relatively similar argument has also appeared in the French public debate, with the equation of Mélenchon with Marine Le Pen, as Marlière observes).

If one of the key elements of populism is the construction and interpellation of a ‘people’, then a good place to start our examination of the ‘theory of extremes’ would be in singling out differences or similarities between the two constructions, between ‘the people’ of the left and ‘the people’ of the right.

Are these two constructions identical? What happens when we pass from the formal to the substantive level, from that of the signifier to that of the signified? It is clear that in the context of the discourse of both SYRIZA and Front de Gauche, ‘the people’ is called upon to actively participate in a common project for radical democratic change; a project of self-fulfilment and emancipation.

Unlike the ‘people’ of the extreme right, the ‘people’ of the left is usually a plural, future-oriented, inclusionary and active subject unbound by ethnic, racial, sexual, gender or other restrictions; a subject envisaged as acting on initiative and directly intervening in common matters, a subject that does not wait to be led or saved by anyone.

On the contrary, as Caiani and Della Porta have observed in their extensive survey of extreme right discourse in Europe, ‘the people’ of the right and extreme-right is most of the time passive, racially and ethnically exclusionary, painted in anti-democratic and authoritarian colours; a ‘people’ that waits to be saved be a new, more ‘virtuous’ and ethnically ‘pure’ élite to replace the corrupt neoliberal élite currently in power. No wonder that the Greek Golden Dawn espouses the Führerprinzip as the proper incarnation of popular will. It is obvious that, instead of being identical, these two constructions of ‘the people’ have almost nothing in common.

What we need then is to acknowledge the variability/plurality of populist hybrids and the distinct effects they have on democratic institutions. Contrary to simplistic essentializations, we should stress the fact that populism comprises a vast variety of ideological elements – often contradictory – and organizational features. Thus, depending on the socio-political context, it can operate as both a corrective for and a threat to democracy, to borrow Mudde and Kaltawasser’s formulation. As we have seen, it can acquire both inclusionary and exclusionary articulations.

Furthermore, to the extent that the role of ‘the people’ remains central within any democratic regime, to the extent – that is to say – that some kind of populism must remain unavoidable, what we may then need is to cautiously engage with and sublimate the first and fight the second.

Fortunately, that might not be that difficult because, as we have also seen, the extreme right may not be that ‘populist’ after all! Its references to ‘the people’ are, at best, of secondary or peripheral importance; instrumental means utilized to further nationalist, racist and strongly hierarchical ends. As Torcuato di Tella has put it, such ‘radical nationalist’ or ‘radical Right’ forces, which are ‘often branded populist, should be put in a different category, because they are not aimed against the dominant groups but rather against the underprivileged ones they see as threatening’.

Given this stark contrast, how can we interpret the insistence of intellectuals and politicians in Greece, in the European South and in Europe at large on characterizing right-wing extremists as predominantly ‘populist’ instead of racist, authoritarian or outright fascist? Can any body point to any other reason apart from the determination of hegemonic political, economic and intellectual circles to discredit popular demands and delegitimize the European left in its bid to reverse the post-democratic, austerity avalanche sweeping Europe?

At the same time, Marlière is correct to point out that this characterization gradually de-demonizes the extreme right, paving the way for its future systemic rehabilitation when the time demands it (this has already happened in Greece with the inclusion of LAOS, an extreme-right populist party, in the Papademos coalition government that took over from George Papandreou in 2011 with the blessings of the troika).

The task ahead

Thus, the task ahead, in terms of research (and, why not, political) strategies, would be to register the development in Europe of inclusionary populisms, reclaiming ‘the people’ from extreme right-wing associations and re-activating its potential not as a threat but as a corrective to the post-democratic mutations of the democratic legacy of political modernity.

This does not mean that left-wing populism(s) now become a panacea; that, from now on, they would necessarily have to be (unconditionally) accepted as having a positive impact on democracy. Not at all; there are no guarantees here. However, the recent Latin American experience of democratization through left-wing populisms and the current ‘spring’ of left-democratic European populism(s), call us to sharpen our analytical tools and escape our one-sided euro-centric parochialism by adopting a historical, comparative and cross-regional perspective. Our two deconstructive exercises in this text were meant to enhance such a reflexive attitude.

In other words, our role today as social scientists is neither to dismiss populism tout court, nor to idealize it, but rather to critically engage with both populism(s) and the current post-democratic and increasingly anti-democratic malaise in an effort to re-activate the pluralist and egalitarian imaginaries lying at the heart of political modernity. A task that may prove crucial for the survival of democratic Europe itself.

About the authors

Giorgos Katsambekis is lecturer in European and International Politics at Loughborough University. He has previously worked at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and remains a member of the POPULISMUS research team (www.populismus.gr). He is the co-editor of the volumes Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today (Ashgate, 2014) and The Populist Radical Left in Europe (Routledge, forthcoming).

Yannis Stavrakakis is Professor of Political Science at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He is the author of Lacan and the Political (Routledge, 1999) and The Lacanian Left (SUNY Press, 2007) and co-editor of Discourse Theory and Political Analysis (Manchester University Press, 2000). He has published extensively on populist politics and is currently writing a monograph entitled Populism, Anti-populism and Crisis.


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