Rethinking Populism

Is Left populism possible?

We need to fight precarity now and to ensure that, in the process, we retain and enhance the best of our representative institutions.

Spyros A. Sofos
11 January 2021
Green New Deal demo, Detroit, 31 July 2019
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Becker1999 from Grove City, OH, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Rethinking Populism partner banner: Lund, Helsinki and Istanbul Bilgi universities

Back in July 2018, when the idea that led to the birth of the #rethinkingPopulism project was being fleshed out, we argued that, at a time when the ways we think about and practice politics were undergoing a profound transformation, and with populism, as a concept and political strategy, having acquired centre stage in these reconfigurations, we needed a rigorous and constructive debate on how we can develop an understanding of populism that retains a critical edge in intellectual and political terms.

Thin definitions of populism as an ideology proposed by Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, as a largely discursive and stylistic repertoire as Rogers Brubaker suggests, or as a political strategy as Kurt Weyland proposes, share an understanding of populism as characterized by “people-centrism” and a binary, antagonistic representation of society and politics, taking the concrete form of “anti-elitism.” Despite their differences, these approaches have contributed to the understanding of populism as a political Zeitgeist increasingly characteristic of the current conjuncture.

But, if what is pertinent in understanding populism is its strategic dimension, in a political arena permeated by populist discourses and strategy repertoires, many argued, the success story of populist mobilizations needed not be exclusively the property of authoritarian or conservative leaderships but could and should be emulated by the left as long as the popular is defined in progressive, democratic terms. This is a central element in another important current in the study of populism epitomized in the work of Chantal Mouffe whose seminal book, For a Left Populism had just been released at the time. Drawing on Laclau’s earlier work on populism as well as their work on radical democracy, Mouffe argued in favour of a qualitatively different populism that would be best placed to counter and challenge reactionary, xenophobic versions of populism as well as inherently undemocratic, neoliberal technocratic political modes of governance.

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Populism “is not an ideology or a political regime, and, as such, cannot be wed to a specific programmatic content. Better seen as a strategy, it is compatible with different forms of mobilization and governance. It is a way of doing politics which can take various forms, depending on period and place. It emerges when one aims at building a new subject of collective action – the people – capable of reconfiguring a social order lived as unfair”. And, in her article that kickstarted our Left populism debate, Mouffe elaborated: “A left populist strategy acknowledges that politics is a partisan activity in which affects play an important role. Drawing a political frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ‘people’ and the ‘oligarchy’, it is able at mobilizing the affective dimension that is at play in the construction of collective forms of identification.”

Left Populism on the ground

On the ground, parties and movements that situated themselves on the Left had already been developing strategies that diverged from traditional, class-based Left politics. In Latin America where a strong tradition of mobilization of the ‘underdog’, or the “excluded” (and not the working class evoked by European social democracy and communism) had developed over several decades, Left parties mobilized “the people” in opposition to “the establishment” and managed to form governments with ambitious reform programmes, often referred to as the Pink Tide. In Southern Europe, the financial and sovereign debt crises at the end of last decade, and the recession that ensued provided the impetus for the search for an alternative Left politics and, on occasion, for the formation of new organizational schemes such as that of Podemos who sought to harness popular indignation at the harsh policies of austerity introduced to manage the effects of the crises.

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In France, Jean-Luc-Mélenchon’s France Insoumise attempted to transcend the limitations of the class-centred orthodoxy of the Communist Party from which it sprung by opening up to broader constituencies and articulating a more inclusive discourse. On the other side of the Channel, Jeremy Corbyn’s stint at the leadership of the Labour Party was seen by many as an opportunity to recalibrate the party’s political strategy, to construct an expansive “we”, “pull down a corrupt system and build a fairer country that cares for all” as James Schneider suggests in his contribution to our Left Populism debate. The UK debate within the Left echoed similar attempts across the Atlantic to articulate a progressive discourse and political strategy in the Left of the Democratic Party aimed at building a more equitable and just society, and promoting a “Green New Deal”, and spearheaded by Bernie Sanders and a number of Democratic Party legislators and activists, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib.

Zooming back to Europe, proponents of the Left populism thesis looked for such potential even in more ambiguous mobilizations such as those of the Yellow Vests in France, emphasizing precisely their antagonistic ethos and anti-elitist rhetoric, although the effect of their discourse and action in discrediting of the institutions of the, admittedly imperfect, representative democracy has been also noted by critics such as Philippe Marlière who astutely pointed out that “talking about a left or right take-over of the movement seems … to be missing the point. … these actions, which certainly shouldn’t be underestimated, cannot hide the more important and original trend of the movement: the radical mistrust towards representation and political institutions.” Despite referring to just one expression of popular indignation that has not evolved into a concrete populist agenda, Marlière seems to be pointing out an important element of the binary conceptualization of the political that, regardless of the Left or Right predisposition of a movement or party may have concrete political effects. But this is a question that we will return to later on.

The wane of Latin America’s “Pink Tide”, the trajectory of parties associated with the Left, like SYRIZA or Podemos, the end of the effort to recalibrate the strategy and discourse of the Labour Party presided over by Jeremy Corbyn, but also of mobilizations such as the Yellow Vests, and, more recently, the ongoing debates within the US Left with regards to their strategy in the post-Trump era and under a Biden administration, have led sceptics from diverse segments of the political-ideological spectrum to announce the end of Left populism.

We need to reflect on ways to break out of the logic of a Left crisis, to (re)build new solidarities at the time when neoliberalism has eroded sociability, and empathy

The attempt of Spain’s Podemos to convert itself from a repository of indignation into a political force that would not merely engage in performative expressions of popular sovereignty, but strive to “restore the latter” in concrete ways by engaging with the state has led to infighting within its leadership and to compromises with political and social actors it had previously severely criticized or, even worse, demonized. The reversal of its electoral momentum prompted critics to talk about the demise of Left populism as did the similar fate of la France Insoumise north of the border. And as Venizelos and Stavrakakis point out in the case of Greece, the acceptance by SYRIZA of the harsh austerity terms of the financial rescue offered by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund has led to accusations of capitulation and betrayal and to arguments that like in other European cases, Left populism cannot combat the neoliberal onslaught and that it has reached its limits.

The storm after the storm

But the debate is far from over. The electoral defeat of Donald Trump demonstrated the mobilizing and inspirational potential of “left populist strategies” such as the “Green New Deal”, especially among young voters and has prompted renewed discussions on the strategy options for the left that we briefly explored in one of our openDemocracy live talks. Chantal Mouffe discusses the potential of such strategies around which a collective popular force can crystallise in order to counter the economic, social and ecological crisis that the pandemic has brought to the fore and stresses that now more than ever is the time for a Left populist strategy. To this renewed call for a Left populism, Didier Fassin suggests caution, as he points out that the broad strokes of Mouffe’s blueprint do not address problems that might be inherent in what he calls the populist logic. He points to the case of la France Insoumise, whose trajectory reveals limitations and problems that might be related to the idea of the leadership in a binary, antagonistic context. He also notes what he considers a deficit of voice as far as the people are concerned; they “are supposed to be affected emotionally by discourses, images, mobilizations, but they are on the receiving end and not on the emitting side.”

Indeed, there is little clarity regarding the type of the binary divide instituted by Left populism and running through the political and its effects. “Would such a divide reproduce understandings whereby political adversaries are seen as effective foes (to use Carl Schmitt’s terminology) with irreconcilable and mutually incompatible interests that need to be silenced rather than engaged with? Would ‘the people’ be identified in this context as the incarnation of a general will, a vehicle for reifying and naturalizing collective, as opposed to particularistic or individual, rights and interests? Would such modalities make citizenship dependent on belonging in a collectivity incarnating the general will such as, say, the national community (which Mouffe suggests should be embraced as a locus of protection)? And how can representation be operationalised when ‘the people’ is supposed to have one voice and one will. And what will the repercussions of this be with regards to representative democracy?”

Perhaps as Albena Azmanova suggests in her forthcoming contribution to our exchange on Left populism, “a path for radical progressive politics alternative to both the “class struggle” formula of the old Left and the ‘Left populism’ formula of deepening democracy” may lie in “unglamorous policy reforms countering the competitive pursuit of profit (from social enterprises to universal and unconditional welfare)”. “By appeasing the toxic anxieties that have been besetting our societies, the alleviation of precarity, in turn, is likely to foster the solidaristic ethos that is needed for effective redistributive policies.”

Clearly, the debate is far from over. We need to reflect on ways to break out of the logic of a Left crisis, to (re)build new solidarities at the time when neoliberalism has eroded sociability, and empathy and given rise to what Francesco Ronchi has termed new solitudes. We need to fight precarity now and to ensure that, in the process, we retain and enhance the best of our representative institutions.

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