Can Europe Make It?

Populism as a thought-defying cliché

To position a new hegemony, heterogeneous social demands have to be yoked together, in order to define what ‘the people’ amounts to. This is why a debate about the rarely-explained term 'populism' is overdue.

Mirko Petersen
10 July 2013

A wider debate about what the often used, but rarely explained term ‘populism’ is all about, seems to be overdue. On openDemocracy, Catherine Fieschi and Philippe Marlière presented their quite different opinions about this phenomenon. In their articles, both authors write about the labelling of very different political parties or politicians as populist. Both use the example of the comparison between Marine Le Pen of the Front National and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Parti de Gauche (leftist party) in France. This list,  contrasting left and right under the umbrella word “populism” can be prolonged, and the comparisons are not just made within national borders. The once former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Germany, Joschka Fischer, for example, called one of the leading figures of Die Linke (a German leftist party), Oscar Lafontaine, “a German Haider”; while a deputy of the German green party has referred to the Hungarian president Victor Orban in a debate in the European Parliament as a “European Chávez”.

All these comparisons leave us puzzled and may well prompt one to ask whether or not it is worth discussing the characteristics of regimes, movements or politicians any more. It seems that by naming somebody or something ‘populist’ we  feel we know what we are dealing with: pure rhetoric, empty promises, irrationality and a leader seducing the masses. But is that really ‘populism’? Or is that not rather a shorthand used in European politics to denounce any sort of obstacle to the administration of neoliberalism? Philippe Marliére is surely right in stating that, “the fight against ‘populism’ seems to be a convenient pretext to dismiss whoever challenges the ideas of what Alain Minc once optimistically called the ‘Circle of Reason’. Others call it the ‘Circle of Neoliberal Thought’. As one might guess from this comment, I consider Marlière’s explanation of populism the better one in this debate, although I think that a different form of argumentation is needed.

Laclau’s approach

What I would like to bring to this exchange is the approach of Ernesto Laclau who rejects any reading of ‘populism’ as “a dangerous excess, which throws all the clean-cut formulae of a rational community into doubt”[1] or as per se anti-democratic, as Fieschi does. What I consider the key element of Laclau’s analysis is to think of populism as a general political logic and not as a type of movement, regime or politician (e.g. liberal, conservative, socialist etc.). I agree with Marliére that the typology associated with populism – the criticism of liberal democracy, values from the past, a Manichean worldview and demagogy among other things – is not very convincing. In addition, we cannot use this typology as an analytical tool to distinguish between what is referred to as ‘populism’ and an allegedly trustworthy, rational, mainstream European politics. If we take the example of the current situation in Greece we only have to ask which solution is truly dangerous: to force a country with an economy in a disastrous condition to shut down their public investments or the ‘populist’ proposal to renegotiate the Greek debt? Marliére provides us with a similar example from France. It was not one of these politicians accused of populism who broke his or her promises to the French people, it was François Hollande who did not break with Sarkozy’s economics as he announced that he would before the French elections. Marliére asks: “If he did not intend to keep this promise, why did he make it in the first place? Wouldn’t Hollande be one of those populists then?”

So if we reject any superficial labelling of political actors as populist, we have to present a better solution. I agree with Fieschi that we cannot just reduce “analyses of populism to nothing”.  Following Laclau’s theory, populist logic starts with a rupture between the dominant power bloc and the dominated sectors of society. This can be the result of a fracture within the power bloc or its inability to absorb popular demands and to prevent conflicts. A profound crisis usually combines both aspects.

Laclau’s thesis is,  “that populism consists in the presentation of popular-democratic interpellations as a synthetic-antagonistic complex with respect to the dominant ideology”.[2]  Rhetoric plays an essential role in this. To position a new hegemony, heterogeneous social demands have to be yoked together, in order to define what the people, “a concept without a defined theoretical status”[3] in a specific context amounts to. For this purpose, empty signifiers (comparable to what Fieschi calls “blanket terms”) like “democracy”, “progress”, “justice” or the like  – expressions which possess connectivity to many different parts of society – are used to bring different parts of society together. This kind of tactic is certainly not limited to political actors who are usually considered populist. The best example for this is Obama’s 2008 electoral campaign. “Change” was the empty signifier many societal groups could identify with who were fed up with the situation under the Bush government. The case of Obama is also important to show the centrality of a leadership figure in any populist logic, which cannot exclusively be linked to authoritarianism. Sometimes it can be the person him or herself - who can become the populist empty signifier.

Overcoming the labelling

It is true that the term “populism” has often been applied to the Latin American context and it may be no coincidence that what I present here is the work of an Argentinian sociologist. But we should not consider populism a result of ideological underdevelopment in the so-called Third World. Laclau’s ideas are also very relevant for comprehending European politics, because the entry onto the European stage of populist movements is rapidly on the rise in these times of economic and political crisis.

Populism is something we can detect and describe but it does not have characteristics as such. We have to overcome the labelling of certain actors as populist because this leads to a narrowing of the political debate. Only if we overcome these kinds of accusations – which are little more than thought-defying clichés – will we be able to discuss political substance again where we might be able to find valid alternatives to the current political disaster.

[1] Laclau, Ernesto: On Populist Reason, London: Verso, 2005, p. X.

[2] Laclau, Ernesto: Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory. Capitalism – Fascism – Populism, London: NLB, 1977, p. 173.

[3] Ibid, p. 165.


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