Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

The populist challenge

Does the fight against post-democracy require a populist political intervention?  Español

Alexis Tsipras at an election rally, May 2014. Athens, Greece. Wikimedia Commons/DTrocks. All rights reserved.

This piece is a development of The Populist Moment, an earlier article recently published by democraciAbierta / openDemocracy.

It is for some time now that voices have warned us of the danger of populism, presented as a 'perversion of democracy'. However, with the victory of the Brexiteers in the UK and Trump's unexpected success in the United States, the denunciation of populism has become more strident. Members of the establishment have seemingly begun to worry about the potential for social discontent they have so far overlooked. We are hounded by alarmist statements claiming that populism must be eliminated because it constitutes a deadly threat to democracy. They believe that the demonization of populism and the fear of a possible return of 'fascism' will be sufficient to prevent the growth of parties and movements that call into question the neoliberal consensus.

It is important to address this anti-populist hysteria by examining what is at stake in the emergence in recent years of the movements called 'populist' . It is imperative to put forward a serene analysis of the current state of our democracies in order to visualize ways to strengthen democratic institutions against the dangers to which they are exposed. Those dangers are real, but they result from the abandonment by those parties presenting themselves as 'democratic' of the principles of popular sovereignty and equality that are constitutive of democratic politics. With the rise of neoliberalism, these principles have been relegated to zombie categories, and this is why our societies have entered a 'post-democratic' era.

It is important to address this anti-populist hysteria by examining what is at stake in the emergence in recent years of the movements called 'populist' .

1.            What exactly is meant by 'post-democracy'? Let us begin by clarifying the meaning of 'democracy'. As it is known, etymologically speaking, democracy comes from the Greek demos/kratos, which means power of the people. It is a principle of legitimacy that is not exercised in the abstract, but instead through specific institutions. When we speak of 'democracy' in Europe we refer to a specific model: the Western model that results from the inscription of the democratic ideal in a particular historical context. This model —which has received a variety of names: modern democracy, representative democracy, parliamentary democracy, constitutional democracy, liberal democracy, pluralist democracy— is characterized by the articulation of two different traditions. On the one hand, the tradition of political liberalism: the rule of law, the separation of powers and the defense of individual freedom; on the other hand, the democratic tradition, whose central ideas are equality and popular sovereignty. Contrary to what is sometimes said, there is no necessary relationship between these two traditions, but only a contingent historical articulation which —as  CB MacPherson has shown — took place in the nineteenth century through the joint struggles of the liberals and the democrats against absolutist regimes.

Some authors like Carl Schmitt affirm that this articulation —which was the origin of parliamentary democracy— produced an unviable regime, as liberalism denies democracy and democracy denies liberalism; others, following Jürgen Habermas, maintain the co-originality of the principles of freedom and equality. Schmitt is certainly right in pointing out the presence of a conflict between the liberal 'grammar' of equality —which postulates universality and the reference to 'humanity'— and the 'grammar' of democratic equality, which requires the construction of a people and a frontier between a 'we' and a 'they'. But, I think he is mistaken in presenting that conflict in terms of a contradiction that must inevitably lead the pluralistic liberal democracy to self-destruction.

In The Democratic Paradox[1], I proposed to conceive the articulation of these traditions —indeed, ultimately irreconcilable— on the mode of a paradoxical configuration, as the locus of a tension that defines the originality of liberal democracy and guarantees its pluralistic character. The democratic logic of constructing a people and defending egalitarian practices is necessary to define a demos and to subvert the tendency of liberal discourse to abstract universalism; but its articulation with liberal logic allows us to challenge the forms of exclusion that are inherent in the political practices of determining the people who will govern. Democratic liberal politics consists of a constant process of negotiation —through different hegemonic configurations— of this constitutive tension. This tension, expressed in political terms along the frontier between right and left, can only be stabilized temporarily through pragmatic negotiations between political forces. These negotiations always establish the hegemony of one of them. Revisiting the history of pluralistic liberal democracy, we find that on some occasions the liberal logic prevailed, and while on others it was the democratic one. Nonetheless the two logics remained in force, and the possibility of an agonistic negotiation between right and left —specific to the liberal-democratic regime,— always remained.

Democratic liberal politics consists of a constant process of negotiation —through different hegemonic configurations— of this constitutive tension.

2.            If the current situation can be described as 'post-democracy', it is because in recent years, with the weakening of democratic values as a consequence of the implementation of neoliberal hegemony, this constitutive tension has been eliminated and the agonistic spaces where different projects of society could confront each other have disappeared. In the political arena, this evolution was made manifest through what I have proposed in On the Political to call  'post-politics' to refer to the blurring of the political frontier between the right and the left.[2] By that term, I mean the consensus established between centre-right and centre-left parties on the idea that there was no alternative to neoliberal globalization. Under the pretext of 'modernization' imposed by globalization, social-democratic parties accepted the diktats of financial capitalism and the limits they imposed to state interventions on their redistributive policies. The role of parliaments and institutions that allow citizens to influence political decisions was drastically reduced, and citizens have been deprived of the possibility of exercising their democratic rights. Elections no longer offer any opportunity to decide on real alternatives through the traditional parties  of 'government'. Politics has become a mere technical issue of managing the established order, a domain reserved to experts. The only thing that post-politics allows is a bipartisan alternation of power between the centre-right and centre-left parties. All those who oppose this 'consensus in the centre' are perceived as 'extremists' and described as 'populists'. Popular sovereignty has been declared obsolete, and democracy has been reduced to its liberal component. Thus one of the fundamental pillars of the democratic ideal was undermined: the power of the people. To be sure, 'democracy' is still spoken of, but only to indicate the existence of elections and the defence of human rights.

These changes at the political level have taken place in the context of a new mode of capitalism regulation, in which financial capital occupies a central place. With the financialization of the economy there was a great expansion of the financial sector at the cost of the productive economy. Under the combined effects of de-industrialization, the promotion of technological changes and processes of relocation to countries where labor was cheaper, many jobs were lost. Privatization and deregulation policies also contributed to creating a situation of endemic unemployment, and workers found themselves in increasingly difficult conditions. If one adds to this the effects of the austerity policies that were imposed after the 2008 crisis, one can understand the causes of the exponential increase of the inequalities we have witnessed in several European countries, particularly in the South. This inequality no longer affects only the working-class, but also a large part of the middleclass, which has entered into a process of pauperization and precarization. Social-democratic parties have accompanied this development, and in many places they have even played an important role in the implementation of neoliberal policies. This contributed to the fact that the other pillar of the democratic ideal —the defense of equality— has also been eliminated from the liberal-democratic discourse. What now rules is an individualistic liberal vision that celebrates consumer society and the freedom that the markets offer.

3.            The result of neoliberal hegemony was the establishment, both socio-economically and politically, of a truly 'oligarchic' regime. It is precisely this oligarchization of European societies that is at the origin of the success of right-wing populist parties. As a matter of fact, they are often the only ones who denounce this situation promising to defend the people against globalization, giving them back the power that has been confiscated by the elites.Translating social problems into an ethnic code, in many countries they articulated in a xenophobic vocabulary the demands of the popular sectors which were ignored by the parties of the centre because they were incompatible with the neoliberal project. The social-democratic parties, prisoners of their post-political dogmas and reluctant to admit their mistakes, refuse to recognize that many of these demands are legitimate democratic demands, to which a progressive answer must be given. Hence their inability to grasp the nature of the populist challenge.

The result of neoliberal hegemony was the establishment, both socio-economically and politically, of a truly 'oligarchic' regime.

In order to appreciate this challenge, it is necessary to reject the simplistic vision disseminated by the media, which brands populism as pure demagoguery. The analytical perspective developed by Ernesto Laclau offers us important theoretical tools to address this question. He defines populism as a way of constructing the political, which consists of establishing a political frontier that divides society into two camps, calling for the mobilization of the 'underdog' against ‘those in power'. This is pertinent when seeking to construct a new subject of collective action —the people— capable of reconfiguring a social order experienced as unjust. It is not an ideology, and cannot be attributed a specific programmatic content. Nor is it a political regime. It is a way of doing politics that can take various forms according to times and places, and is compatible with a variety of institutional forms. Populism refers to the dimension of popular sovereignty and the construction of a demos that is constitutive of democracy. It is precisely this dimension that has been discarded by neoliberal hegemony, and that is why the fight against post-democracy requires a populist political intervention.

4.            The 'populist moment' we are witnessing offers us the opportunity to re-establish a political frontier that allows us to recreate the agonistic tension typical of democracy. In fact, several right-wing populist parties are already doing so, and this explains their recent progress. The strength of right-wing populism can be explained precisely because it was able, in many countries, to draw a frontier and construct a people in order to translate politically the various resistances to the phenomenon of oligarchization induced by neoliberal hegemony. Its appeal is particularly notable within the working-class, but it is also growing within the middle-class affected by the new structures of domination linked to neoliberal globalization.

Unfortunately, so far, the response of progressive forces has not been adequate. They have been influenced by the discourses of the establishment forces, which disqualify populism in order to maintain their domination. They continue to advocate traditional political strategies, unsuited to the deep crisis of legitimacy that affects liberal-democratic regimes. This crisis is the expression of very heterogeneous demands, which cannot be formulated through the right/left cleavage, as traditionally configured. Unlike the struggles characteristic of the era of Fordist capitalism, when there was a working-class defending its specific interests, in post-Fordist neoliberal capitalism resistances have developed at many points outside the productive process. These demands no longer correspond to social sectors defined in sociological terms and by their location in the social structure. Many are claims that touch on questions related to quality of life and have a transversal character. The demands linked to the struggles against sexism, racism and other forms of domination have also become increasingly central. In order to articulate such diversity in a collective will, the traditional left/right frontier no longer works. To federate these diverse struggles demands establishing a synergy between social movement and party forms with the objective of constructing a ‘people', and for that a frontier constructed in a populist way is required.

That does not mean that the left/right opposition is no longer relevant, but it must be posed in another way, with reference on the type of populism at stake and the chains of equivalences through which the 'people' is constructed. Understood as a political category, the people always result from a discursive construction, and the 'we' around which it crystallizes can be constructed in different ways, depending on its constituent elements and how the 'they', whom the people confront, is defined. This is the point of difference between a right-wing populism —such as that of Marine Le Pen, who constructs a people that are limited to 'true nationals', excluding immigrants who are relegated to 'them', along with 'anti-nation' forces of the elites— and a progressive left-wing populism. The latter is represented in France by the movement of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has a broader conception of 'we' that includes immigrants, environmental movements and LGBT groups, defining 'they' as the set of forces whose politics promotes social inequality. In the first case we are faced with an authoritarian populism whose objective is a restriction of democracy, while in the second case it is a populism that aspires to broaden and radicalize democracy.

Understood as a political category, the people always result from a discursive construction, and the 'we' around which it crystallizes can be constructed in different ways.

5. In addition to how the people is constructed, another important question must be considered in order to distinguish between various forms of populism: the way in which the relationship between the people and those 'in power' is conceived. Collective identities always require the distinction of we/they, but in the political field the frontier between the ‘we’ and the ‘they' indicates the presence of an antagonism, that is, of a conflict that cannot have a rational solution. That antagonism, however, can manifest itself in different forms. It can take the form of a friend/enemy confrontation in which the goal is to eradicate the 'they' to establish a radically new order. The French revolution provides an example of this 'antagonistic' populism. That confrontation can, also, take place in a ‘agonistic' form, where 'they' are not seen as an enemy, but as an adversary against whom one will fight through democratic means. For a populist movement to be compatible with pluralistic democracy, the confrontation must be agonistic. An agonistic populism does not advocate total rejection of the existing institutional framework. Its objective is not the destruction of liberal-democratic institutions, but the disarticulation of the elements that constitutes the hegemonic order and the rearticulation of a new hegemony.

A left populism suitable for the European situation must be conceived as a 'radical reformism' which strives to recover and deepen democracy. It is a struggle that is carried out by means of a ' war of position ' within the institutions, in order to transform them. A struggle that, indeed, will require significant institutional changes to allow the popular will to be expressed, but those changes do not pose a radical challenge to the democratic institutions. It is not a question of ending representative democracy, but of strengthening the institutions that give voice to the people. It is a form of 'plebeian republicanism' that is inscribed in the democratic lineage of the republican tradition, whose precursor was Machiavelli.

A left populism suitable for the European situation must be conceived as a 'radical reformism' which strives to recover and deepen democracy.

The current crisis is due to our institutions not being sufficiently representative, not to the very fact of representation itself. The solution cannot be the elimination of representation and the establishment of a 'presentist' democracy, as some claim. As I have emphasized in Agonistics[3], in a democratic society that recognizes the ever-present possibility of antagonism, and where pluralism is not conceived in a harmonious and anti-political way, representative institutions —in giving form to the division of society— play a crucial role because they allow the institutionalization of this conflictual dimension. Now, that role can only be fulfilled through the existence of an agonistic confrontation. The central problem of post-democracy is the absence of such agonistic confrontation and citizens' inability to choose real alternatives. That is why the question of frontiers is decisive.

I am convinced that in the next few years the central axis of the political conflict will be between right-wing and left-wing populism, and it is imperative that progressive sectors understand the importance of involving themselves in that struggle. To devise a left populism requires visualizing politics in a way that recognizes its partisan character. We must discard the dominant rationalist perspective in liberal-democratic political thinking and recognize the importance of common affects (what I call 'passions') in the formation of collective identities. It is through the construction of another people, a collective will that results from the mobilization of the passions in defense of equality and social justice, that it will be possible to combat the xenophobic policies promoted by right-wing populism.

I am convinced that in the next few years the central axis of the political conflict will be between right-wing and left-wing populism, and it is imperative that progressive sectors understand the importance of involving themselves in that struggle.

By re-creating political frontiers, the 'populist moment' we are witnessing in Europe points to a 'return of the political'. A return that may open the way for authoritarian solutions —through regimes that weaken liberal democratic institutions— but which can also lead to a reaffirmation and deepening of democratic values. Everything will depend on the kind of populism that emerges victorious from the struggle against post-politics and post-democracy.


[1]             Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, Versobooks, 2000

[2]              Chantal Mouffe, On the Political, Abigndon, 2005

[3]             Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking The World Politically, Verso, 2013

About the author

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.


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