Can Europe Make It?

Left-transformation versus left-populism: why it matters

The perception of political justice that transforms is very different from the discursive tool of the “national will” used by populists who degrade democracy by equating it with the ballot box.

Seren Selvin Korkmaz Alphan Telek
21 December 2017

US Senator Bernie Sanders (Democrat of Vermont) speaks during a rally led by US Congressional Democrats against President Donald J. Trump's proposed tax plan outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on November 1, 2017. Edelman Alex/Press Association. All rights reserved.“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Victor Hugo

We are in the middle of a swell that has a significant potential to make our daily lives worse than ever. The swell that we discuss is a combination of the political, social and economic dynamics of our age. It reflects itself as a rise of populism in politics; losing a sense of "solidarity," increasing polarization and racism among members of society; and insecure relations in the economy. This setting does not provide much prospect of a peaceful world in which people live as equal and free members of a just society.

The economic insecurity and life full of uncertainties that humanity experiences is not at all fair. Worse, the unequal power relations among and within the nations have caused wars and conflicts that result in the flow of millions of refugees. Moreover, governmental failure in providing inclusive migration policies exacerbate the polarization and racism in host societies. As a result of these experiences, people increasingly feel anger and isolation, since there is no social and political structure which can cope with the current crises of the world. In the absence of socialist, democratic and progressive movements, the contagious ideas that are spread by populist demagogues are perceived as the only means for the salvation of societies and populism has become a shelter for people where they can feel safe.

Nonetheless, the current crisis that the world experiences also has the potential to produce a progressive change for a just society in the future. The most progressive ideas throughout history emerged in severe crises. We argue that the current swell can be reversed with a new political program that offers a change in the everyday life of people who feel they are subjected to structural injustices. This new political program is based on a simple idea: the left-transformation of politics, society and economy – the transformation which will create a democratic political sphere where people are strengthened in decision-making processes; a society where solidarity is based on common good, rather than hatred or anger, becomes the general principle; and an economic structure where relations of production and distribution are arranged to provide people with economic rights. We argue that whoever pursues this idea of a just society is by definition not left-populist. But that they are the transformers of our age.

There are newly emerging transformative movements throughout the world, which construct their policies on the basis of “hope” to change the everyday lives of people and strengthen them in political, economic and social spheres. Those movements are identified as left-populist by the prominent scholar of populism studies, Chantal Mouffe. However, we argue that using the notorious concept of populism undermines the huge potential of those movements and that is why we propose a new conceptualization, left-transformation, to define them.

This article offers a theoretical framework for left-transformation and discusses the potential for change throughout the world by answering the following questions: what advantage does the concept of left-transformation have over that of left-populism? What is left-transformation? Who are the transformers leading progressive change in the world? Does the current age offer the proper conditions for their emergence and flourishing or not? What do their political programs suggest? Is left-transformation achievable? We believe that answering these questions will not only launch a new theoretical debate but also construct a basis for political change. We consider our studies in left-transformation a journey whose road is necessarily uneven and steep. The thing that makes us stay on the road is our belief in change and desire to live in a more just society which will be built on the consolidation of democracy in politics, solidarity in society and secure and just relations of production and distribution in the economy.

On the origins of left-transformation

Let’s elaborate the concept of ‘left-transformation’ first to identify the current political and socio-economic crises in a historical context and secondly to formulate a political agenda which can challenge them. The crises that humanity suffers today are mainly a blend of products of capitalism, and a recent political phenomenon, populism. Inspired by Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, we assert that transformative movements, which have arisen as a reaction in different geographies around the world, are the only agents that can overwhelm this dangerous fusion of capitalism and populism. Recently, the legitimacy crisis of this fusion has created a convenient political environment for socialists, long paralyzed, and newly emerging progressive leftists. That is why transformative movements such as Podemos, Syriza, France Insoumis, the Five Star Movement in Italy, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and Momentum, and Bernie Sanders's alternative politics in the US have started to show significant successes in recently held elections in their countries.

The current crises have appeared in an era that witnessed the emergence of a bogus-democratization after the demise of the idea of socialism. While the violent circumstances of neoliberalism caused the decline of social solidarity, increasing economic inequality and insecurity, bogus-democratization excluded ordinary people from decision-making processes at the local, national and global levels. Individuals during this period feel insecure, alone, vulnerable and worry about the future. In other words, the existing order expunges people’s “right to the future”. That is why over the past two decades, as a political reaction to these morbid syndromes, people have sought shelter in nationalist politics, communitarian solutions, religious fanaticism, and populism. Moreover, isolation, loss of trust, hatred and racism has increased in everyday life. The rise of identity politics has also deepened the ‘otherization’ process in society when it combined with the rising economic inequalities. Rather than fighting with the existing structural injustices which exacerbate inequalities, people have directed their hatred at the “others” even though those people suffer from the same economic and political conditions.

In the absence of an idea that reminds people that in fact they are on the same side against injustice, the main political demarcation line has been constructed on the contradiction between populists and progressives. However, this kind of distinction in politics does not provide a progressive solution to the current crisis. Rather it exacerbates the rise of populism. There are similar groups on each side who suffer from the same conditions and have similar concerns in everyday life. We believe that neither class nor identity politics but a combination of the two can offer a progressive agenda to overcome the humanitarian crisis of the age. We argue that transformative movements combine class and identity politics and represent the "common good" for people from both the populist and progressive constituencies. Furthermore, these movements desire to change the system to provide democracy and inclusion in politics, solidarity in society, secure relations of production and just relations of distribution. This can be done only by ‘justice politics’ using ‘hope’ as a political sentiment that can create and expand the ranks of solidarity. We call this ‘left-transformation’.

Left-transformation vs left-populism: hope vs anger

It is evident that the phenomena that gave birth to the transformative movements were "anger" and "antagonism" towards the plutocracy and political elites who currently dominate the status quo. However, we argue that the only phenomena that can sustain the power of these transformative movements are their “justice” based political programs, and the political sentiment of “hope” that we can transform the world into a liveable place offering equality, freedom, and solidarity.

For a long time, these transformative movements have been called ‘left-populist’. However, as explained in our previous article, although there are some similarities, transformative movements do not share the same root or ideals as populism. We believe that identifying those movements as populist undermines their progressive agendas. To line up the discourses and policies of Le Pen, Wilders, Trump with Podemos, Syriza, France Insoumis under the theoretical category of populism leads to a misreading. There are two main sources of this confusion. First, mainstream media, political actors, and plutocrats define all these transformative-movements as populist because of their desire to undermine the influence and potential of these movements. In other words, a coalition of capitalist powers, institutions and intellectual sources desire to destroy the influence of these movements by distorting them in the public gaze, and undermining their legitimacy.

The second reason is that Chantal Mouffe, the ideologue of these movements, describes these movements as left populist. In the absence of alternative conceptualizations, Mouffe's concept of left-populism has outweighed all the other explanations and has been embraced by the leadership of the transformative-movements. However, we firmly reject this conceptualization. Although it was an appropriate conception in the emerging phases of those movements after 2008, today the concept no longer provides a sufficient tool to distinguish them and it does not serve the purpose of expanding solidarity and support among people.

Mouffe’s conception of left-populism is based on the sentiment of ‘anger’ and ‘antagonism' as a way of doing politics to establish an alternative hegemony over and against capitalism and liberal democracy. Thus, according to Mouffe, a counter-hegemonic movement like Podemos should use the anger of people who suffer from the existing system and pursue that antagonism as a method of mobilisation that will build a strong movement. Her conception of politics requires a polarization both in society and politics.

Chantal Mouffe’s idea of the consolidation of ‘antagonistic politics’ by using ‘anger’ is no longer sufficient to form a feasible and progressive political strategy for these counter-hegemonic movements. By rejecting Mouffe’s theoretical framework, we propose “hope” rather than anger as the benchmark of political sentiment by framing all policies and promises as ‘justice politics.' Why is this necessary today?

It is reasonable and acceptable that ‘anger’ is a fundamental constitutive element of progressive politics. Anger is necessary to reject the exclusionary and non-democratic policies imposed on people. It is an awakening sentiment that initiates a struggle against an unjust everyday life. The conception of antagonistic politics emerges right here since it is the method of making politics that deploys the feeling of anger. Antagonism is constructed by defining an enemy and a struggle against this enemy. Although this type of relationship between political sentiment and a style of making politics is necessary to initiate a political movement, it is not the right strategy to sustain and to expand support for the movement. The politics and discourses of a progressive movement cannot be confined only to antagonism. Rather than anger and antagonism, hope and a ‘justice’ politics can provide an expanding line of solidarity that alone can guarantee the political power to confront the fusion of plutocrats and political elites.

Antagonism as a style of politics has always been a part of political life. However, a ‘justice politics’ around the principle of solidarity and hope is a more radical way of making politics. Left-transformation movements cannot confine themselves only to antagonism. They should provide new programs, new discourses and new policies that can attract people and reach more people as a part of the solidarity they create.

As we claimed before, the thing that mainly distinguishes the left-transformation concept from left-populism is its justice politics. Using the analytical perspective of Erik Olin Wright, we can divide justice into sub-categories: political justice and social justice.[i] Political justice requires the implementation of basic rights not only for citizens but all the people who live in the jurisdiction area of left-transformation movements. Secondly, it demands democratization and an active participation of the people in decision-making processes by strengthening them at the local, national and global levels. This perception of political justice is very different from the discursive tool of the “national will” which is used by the populists. Political justice does not degrade democracy by equating it with going to the ballot box during elections. In other words, political justice does really aim to strengthen both individual and collective participation in political and public spheres.

Furthermore, the idea of social justice requires strengthening people economically: giving them economic rights[ii] such as a universal basic income, job security, and democracy in the workplace, levying taxes on riches, wealth and rentier benefits etc. The underlying principle in the economic field is to make people economically robust so that they are not affected by the flows of market and rents. For a decent life, people must have a right to free education, free health services, social protection and child-caring services etc. However, strengthening people in relations of production by giving them some kind of security is not enough. The distribution of wealth is also not fair. There should be new mechanisms and concepts to cope with this situation. Housing policies, wealth transfers, limits on inheritance, taxes on rentier benefits are some mechanisms transformative movements could employ to curb the deepening inequalities in society. Without a new economic system – relations of production and distribution – initiating these policies, it is impossible to ensure social justice.

Justice politics ensures the strengthening of people both in the political and economic realms. That is why, if the movements who follow the idea of social justice achieve their goals, the polarization, racism, nationalism, religious fanaticism, communitarian fidelities in the social sphere will decline, and solidarity will emerge as the moral value that holds members of the society together in peace. Then we can talk about a just society whose members are equal and free. This is no more about anger: rather, it reflects the hope to change the world.

To sum up, movements like Podemos, Syriza and others are not left-populist but left-transformation movements. Whoever fights for social and political justice is entitled to be a transformer. That is why we call our age the ‘age of transformers’. All the conditions in political, social and economic life force us to find a solution against skyrocketing injustices and inequalities. The existence of these injustices shows the maturity of conditions necessary in order that a left-transformation becomes at once desirable and achievable. We believe that left-transformation is an idea whose time has come. For all those people who demand a democratic world, it is there, waiting to make its move.


[i] Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, p. 12

[ii] Guy Standing

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