Rethinking Populism: Interview

Situating populism beyond the deformation of Eurocentric and post-democratic narratives

Spyros Sofos talks to Paula Biglieri and Luciana Cadahia about their book ‘Seven Essays on Populism’ and understanding ‘the people’ as a political subjectivity, for our Rethinking Populism project

Luciana Cadahia Paula Biglieri Spyros A. Sofos
11 May 2021, 5.56pm
Chantal Mouffe speaks on ‘The people and politics’ at the homage to Ernesto Laclau held at the Kirchner Cultural Center, Buenos Aires, October, 2015
Wikicommons/ Secretariat for Strategic Coordination for National Thought. Some rights reserved.
Rethinking Populism partner banner: Lund, Helsinki and Istanbul Bilgi universities

Spyros Sofos (SS):Seven Essays on Populism’ is an unusual book. It’s a fiercely and uncompromisingly critical attempt to reconfigure the terms of the existing debate on populism. Not only do you attempt to recover populism from its staple association with the far-Right. But you also differentiate yourselves, and your argument, from seemingly like-minded theorists who do not accept that populism is an exclusively right-wing form of politics.

Instead, you boldly argue that populism is always radical and emancipatory – an anti-authoritarian force – and you suggest that what we call right-wing populism has none of these characteristics and belongs to a different universe, that of fascism. Arguing from a historical perspective, Federico Finchelstein reaches the opposite conclusion: that populism and fascism are contiguous phenomena. Can you tell us more about the difference between these two phenomena?

Paula Bigleri and Luciana Cadahia (PB & LC): If we accept that there is a ‘right-wing’ and a ‘left-wing’ populism, we are equating two phenomena of a very different nature. From our Latin American perspective, this is not only a theoretical mistake, but also a political one.

Especially for those who take a stance on the Left. Because it undermines left-wing populist experiences that try to approach the status quo in a democratic and emancipatory way. If we say that right-wing populism and left-wing populism are made of the same stuff, then we are directly associating them with one another. We are linking left-wing populism with authoritarianism, abuse of power, identitarian policies etc, and we end up drawing a connection between Lula da Silva and Jair Bolsonaro, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Podemos and Vox, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Patricia Bullrich (the newly emerging far-Right leader in Argentina), Gustavo Petro and Álvaro Uribe, and so on.

From this perspective, populism is identified with undemocratic experiences, while what we are proposing in our book is just the opposite – namely, that populism is a radicalisation of democracy that transforms the coordinates by which we understand the term. Why? Because populism materialises a form of democracy that keeps alive the idea of popular emancipation. The accusation of abuse of power suits the neoliberal elites very well. It encourages people, for instance, to disregard any left-wing populist regulation of the labour market or redistribution policy as an authoritarian intervention in the private sphere.

Populism materialises a form of democracy that keeps alive the idea of popular emancipation

But the most problematic point is that it also casts a cloak of suspicion over the thinking of some radical intellectuals or political activists, who, a priori, mistrust any left-wing populist articulation as bound to reveal, sooner or later, their true reactionary colours. This a priori mistrust of radical discourses is even more damaging to left-wing populist experiences than the critique that erodes it from right-wing positions. They adopt these neoliberal clichés and dismiss experiences of popular democracy in government.

You refer to Finchelstein’s work. He draws on all those different clichés associated with populism and tries to make them fit together from a historical perspective. Yet, having read his interview (in the left-wing Argentinean newspaper Pagina 12), our position is not a million miles away from his when he says that Trump, Bolsonaro and Orbán are right-wing populist leaders in a new version of fascism. Because we do think they should be labelled as fascists. But not as populists – for the reasons that we return to below.

But if Finchelstein is defining populism as a kind of fascism, then our arguments are diametrically opposed. That argument semantically conflates the two terms by implying that populism is a kind of natural or logical variation on fascism. For us, there is no such contiguity: fascism and populism are different phenomena, as are ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ populism.

These are distinct phenomena that should not be tagged together under a populism heading. The gist of our argument is that the constitutive structure of any populist expression – if we follow Laclau – is transversed by an egalitarian logic, as it privileges the logic of equivalence over the logic of difference when constructing ‘the people’.

We have argued that the difference between right-wing populism and left-wing populism is the way in which they approach equality – that is to say, how they deal with the privilege of the logic of equivalence and how they organise differences.

Whereas left-wing populism organises differences through articulation (meaning that the formation of ‘the people’ does not suppress the constitutive heterogeneity of those differences), right-wing populism attempts to impose equality through a uniform canon of ‘people like us’ that eliminates differences. This involves a fantasy of the people-as-one: a homogeneous field free of antagonisms.

Furthermore, so-called right-wing populism challenges the phenomenon of globalisation, but not that of neoliberalism. This explains why they solve the problem of equality with authoritarian neoliberalism. Populism, instead, challenges neoliberalism and strives to build more egalitarian international relations to tackle global problems.

Populism challenges neoliberalism and strives to build more egalitarian international relations to tackle global problems

If – as we argue – so-called left-wing populism and right-wing populism represent very different political phenomena, why should we use the same term, populism, for both, especially when a signifier such as fascism is available? Moreover, one of the main characteristics of fascism is the confusion of the idea of the equality of ‘the people’ with identitarian closure through the homogenisation of differences. What is usually called right-wing populism is much better designated fascism, neo-fascism or post-fascism – while left-wing populism should just be called populism.

SS: Your counterposing of populism to fascism rests on a bold argument that you ground both in political experience and in a strand of political theory that is not well known outside Latin America. In so doing, you challenge the insularity of mainstream ‘northern’ political theory. Your book refers to a long line of Latin American political theorists – how have these intellectual and political traditions informed your approach to populism?

PB & LC: As Latin American academics, we’re similar to our colleagues in the rest of what is called the ‘Global South’. We consider ourselves part of the academic world; we read authors and theories from different regions on an equal footing. But some parts of the academic world have not been very interested in what is produced outside the ‘historical centres’ of thought production.

Fortunately, this situation is changing. This is due to two factors: new editorial strategies that enable the dissemination of our work; and the fact that Europe and the US are no longer the indisputable centres for the production of ideas. The field of populism studies offers an interesting twist in this regard, due to the fact that a relationship of greater equality is emerging in the production of knowledge.

We are building international networks on an equal footing and we read each other in two directions: North–South and South–North. This enables a dialogue that pays attention to both the particularities of each region and their commonalities. We would like to emphasise that the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have helped considerably in building these bridges.

But the wish to think of ourselves as ‘out in the world’ (and not as a particularity that confines its thinking to itself) finds its origins in various traditions in Latin America and the Caribbean. On a more regional level, we feel the influence of two great currents. These locate their roots, on the one hand, in the plebeian and socialist republicanism of Simón Rodríguez and José Martí in the 19th century, giving rise to a whole continental experience of articulation between the popular and the emancipating democratic institutions; and, on the other hand, in the legacy of the heterodox Marxism that José Carlos Mariátegui inaugurates with his aesthetic-political assumptions reflected in spaces such as the journal Amauta; the Black Marxism of the Caribbean in intellectuals such as Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, and the influence of Andean thinkers such as Zavaleta Mercado and Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui in Bolivia or Agustín Cueva and Bolivar Echeverría in Ecuador and Mexico.

In Argentina, we recognise ourselves at the intersection of two traditions: national-popular thought and the Lacanian Left. It is here that we can place the classic works of Ernesto Laclau (and those intellectuals who influenced his thought early on, such as Arturo Jauretche, John William Cooke and Jorge Abelardo Ramos), passing through José Aricó, Juan Carlos Portantiero and Emilio de Ípola, to more current references such as Horacio González, María Pía López and Jorge Alemán.

Finally, it is important to add that all the authors and currents mentioned have been configured as a dense network of postcolonial thought, and that decolonial theory is a key strand within this historical accumulation. We make this clarification because in the English-speaking world (especially in the US), it is often believed that postcolonial Latin American and Caribbean thought started with 1990s decolonial theory, omitting the historical role of plebeian republicanism, heterodox Marxism and populism from this struggle from the Global South for epistemological and political emancipation.

SS: If I understand you correctly, you argue that populism has been misinterpreted as an anti-democratic aberration, ignoring the way that political modernity has been articulated and lived in the Global South. This was premised on the normalisation of the Global North as the only possible model for modernity. Can you take us through the way that you see political modernity emerged in the Global South and how populism fits into this constellation of traditions?

PB & LC: First, we would like to make it clear that we reject relativistic conceptions of modernity – as if each place carried out its own unique and untranslatable experience. It seems to us that there is a multicultural trap in this retrospective interpretation of the past that segments the possibilities of understanding the ‘historical knots’ that organise our present. At the same time, it ties us down to particularistic thought and ignores how all these ‘supposed’ particularities are produced and relate to each other in one great epochal and conceptual plot.

But we also distance ourselves from the decolonial interpretation that seeks to challenge modernity as a whole, as simply a history of oppression. From this point of view, on the one hand, modernity would be identified with Europe and oppression, and on the other, Latin America with otherness and passivity. Thus, two opposite and independent poles are configured with reference to each other. As a consequence, our emancipation from the European yoke would hinge on us recovering our ancestral ‘otherness’.

To us, this interpretation – which also rejects the concepts of republic, state, democracy and a long list of etceteras – has two problems. First, it leads to deadlock; namely, in all praxis and all theory (even in language), we will find an impure element that has functioned as a form of oppression by the ‘other’. Still, and this is paradoxical, it leads us to reactionary arguments typical of the Right. For instance, like saying that ‘class struggle’ is a Eurocentric and patriarchal concept and, therefore, we must reject it.

However, we do not consider that this operation performed by decolonial theory is something inherently characteristic of it. Rather, it responds to a way of thinking in our times. We sincerely think that present in all the theoretical proposals where ethics prevail over politics is what we think of as the legacy of Levinas. Once again, each theoretical proposal is assumed to constitute a singularity, but ends up reproducing a more general form that becomes ‘unthinkable’.

Meanwhile, this interpretation does not pay attention to historical processes and all the archival work that historians such as Valeria Coronel, Marixa Lasso, James Sanders and José Figueroa – to name but a few − have been drawing on from the past. The work of these historians helps us think about two aspects. One, the active role of the popular sectors (indigenous, farmers, Black people and female) in the construction of more egalitarian and emancipatory republics. Two, the active role of these sectors in the configuration of modernity itself.

In this sense, we consider modernity a global and dialectical process. A process in tension between a reactive movement and an emancipatory movement. And in this process, Latin America plays a central (not a peripheral) role in the construction of these two movements. In our case, we are interested in thinking about what emancipatory possibilities Latin America engenders for modernity. And Latin American populisms are one more link (theoretical and practical) in a long historical accumulation of democratic experiences of plebeian republicanism.

Patricia Bullrich (the newly emerging far-Right leader in Argentina), February 2021. | Alamy/EFE. All rights reserved.

In that regard, it is not a question of thinking of Latin America as an exception, but as part of a broad process where we help to configure forms of emancipation for the world. We are also the political imagination of the future. Then, one needs to note the difficulty that certain segments of the European intelligentsia have in understanding this, and their oscillation between considering politics in Latin American as remnants of the past (as if ‘Europe’ were in some way the vanguard) or an exotic otherness to be protected in a paternalistic/maternalistic way.

It is no accident that the new political imagination in Europe came from the south, and that this European south has deep roots within Latin America. It is time to understand each other as being situated in a back-and-forth game in the long history of solidarity and emancipation of those in the ‘lower orders’.

SS: In your critique of neoliberal fascism, you attempt to deconstruct approaches developed within the context of the European ‘liberal, anti-communist left’. You single out the thinking of Éric Fassin, who prefers the plural term ‘publics’ in his attempt to maintain a critical distance from majoritarian ‘populist’ logics; and also those from Latin American autonomist traditions, including Svampa and Mondonesi, who, in your opinion, attempt to sever the link between populism and social movements. This critique also takes in republican democratic philosophy insofar as it views populism as a transitory yet disposable step towards the attainment of a civic republicanism (for example, in the work of Villacañas).

PB & LC: In our book, we want to address and deactivate the various arguments that certain left-wing thinking deploys to criticise populism. For this reason, we explore the criticisms made by these three specific currents: European left-wing liberalism; Latin American autonomism; and Left republicanism in Spain.

The first current considers populism as a right-wing experience. The second identifies it with neoliberalism. The third one conceives it as a transitory experience towards republicanism. The first two currents reject populism without further ado, while the third one ‘picks it up’, albeit as a transitional project.

We offer a series of arguments to explain why it is wrong to associate populism with the right-wing (or even with fascism), with neoliberalism or with a transitional experience.

In the first case, we gather together the critiques of Žižek, Fassin and Lazzarato and try to show that the specific rejection of populism by these authors rests on a liberal point of view (although Žižek is not liberal in his intellectual commitment), which confuses the specificity of populist phenomena and cannot capture the radically emancipatory dimension of the populist commitment.

Furthermore, we insist on the importance of bearing in mind the history of Latin American popular struggle to understand how leading plebeian figures impact on and articulate democracy. It seems to us that, without knowing this history in-depth, we run the risk of reproducing a series of prejudices that imbue this triangulation with authoritarianism. There is currently a great confusion – an understandable confusion, given the trauma created by the fascist leaders of the 20th century in Europe – that mixes up leadership with caudillismo and authoritarianism. It seems to us that this is a limitation in our times that favours a very narrow and unilateral reading of leaderships.

But when it comes to Latin America, we are reminded that there are many different types of leadership and that these can also be part of a democratic experience. To consider leading populist figures as a remnant of forms of the past is a manifestation of the naivety of an era that rests on the belief that it has surpassed all previous ones and now finds itself in a more advanced place in history. So it all comes down to historicist prejudices.

In the second case, we argue against autonomism in Latin America, which tends to reject the role that parties, the state and institutions can play in social emancipation. It should be noted that this arises from a debate that originated in the 1990s. That is to say, since then fields such as sociology began to refer to ‘social movements’ as a new actor, independent of left-wing political parties, unions and the classic collective organisations that characterised the struggles in Latin America in the 1960s and ’70s.

Sociology considers these movements ‘autonomous’ in the sense that they do not depend on any party or field beyond their own articulation. In turn, they identify the social movement with the ‘true place’ of the popular and conceive this space as the only one where emancipation can be pursued. Thus, they restrict the possibility of thinking that a union or a political party can also be a popular place for emancipation. Our criticism, therefore, rests on our broader conception of the popular and emancipation. First, it seems to us that social movements are yet another actor within a broader and more complex organisation called the ‘popular field’. Second, we believe that the popular field (movements, unions, parties, etc) is capable of articulating an emancipatory proposal when it has the possibility of governing through the state, transforming institutions and radicalising democracy.

Our criticism rests on our broader conception of the popular and emancipation

For us, it is a historical error to believe that a party or a political project that begins to govern automatically becomes the antagonist of social movements. It is a simplistic and mechanistic reading that does not address the complexity of these projects, and the fact that what is decisive is not so much the spaces but the political projects that occupy and transform those spaces. This does not even coincide with how things happen in practice, where frequently the same subject can affect both a social movement, a party or a union.

Even when a party from the popular field wins the elections, those same subjects go on to occupy a role in the state. The state is not an oppressor by nature. It is only when the oligarchies and corporations dominate it. But when a popular project ‘governs’, the state may become one more instrument for emancipation. We wonder why is it that autonomists cannot understand social victories, often achieved through the articulation of the state and social movements, as steps towards self-determination and emancipation from particular forms of popular oppression? Are these not the demands of social movements when they call, for instance, for free university education or land regulation to avoid forced displacement? Are the interpellations of social movements not a way of demanding more institutionality and the presence of the state in places where it has not historically reached?

In the third case, we reject the idea that populism represents a phase of the transition to republicanism. At least, we reject it in regards to Latin America, since here populism has constituted the form in which plebeian republicanism has been materialising from the 19th century onwards. In general, republicanism is identified with institutions, reason and pluralism, while populism is associated with the charismatic leader, affect and hegemony – as if they were opposing poles and as if the existence of one must cancel out the other.

But if we refer to the legacy of republicanism that unites authors such as Machiavelli, the young Marx or Simón Rodríguez, we find many tools that allow us to think about republicanism together with leaderships, passions and hegemony. There is, in our very tradition of republican thought, a much richer understanding of republicanism. We believe that the liberal side of republicanism has impoverished the understanding of this form of social organisation.

SS: I would like to come back to your critique of Svampa and Mondonesi with regards to their distinction between movement politics and populist politics. You argue that this distinction is arbitrary. Elsewhere in your book, you also raise the interesting argument that populism is feminist by definition. Can you say more about the relationship between populism and collective action through social movements?

PB & LC: We feel our previous answer pretty well covered the first part of your question. But when it comes to feminism, we would like to expand in the following way: feminism is also considered a social movement. And, in that sense, the autonomist readings that prevail make this experience a movement independent from any other. Hence, all the discussions about how to preserve their ‘autonomy’, even to the point that extremely dangerous approaches are developed − characteristic of right-wing logic – that are meant to determine whether or not trans groups are allowed to enter the movement. All of this amounts to false problems that are typical of this autonomist ethos.

This sort of problem was debated thoroughly by feminists in the 1980s in Latin America. There was a debate about whether or not feminism should be independent of political parties, unions, and so on. We believe that feminism goes beyond a social movement. We think that it is something transversal to the popular field – that is, something that permeates parties, unions, institutions and social space itself, in the same way that class struggle and anti-racism go beyond a movement.

We do not say that populism is by nature feminist. Rather, we argue that populism is capable of becoming feminist, insofar as it addresses that form of oppression and articulates the ‘popular field’ involved in the struggle against patriarchy. In a general sense, we also consider populism to be a form of class struggle and a struggle against racism. We need feminist political parties, feminist institutions and, increasingly, feminist social relations. We need to organise in a feminist way within the popular field.

That is our wager: to articulate all forms of struggle against the oppression of the popular field. We believe that it is the only way to build a political imagination for the future beyond neoliberalism and the particularities of identity that segment the struggles of those below. It is not so much about the recognition of our own identity (feminist, indigenous, etc) as about the re-articulation of the very form of social struggles towards an anti-class, anti-racist and feminist society.

SS: Your critique of approaches that stress anti-institutional and decisionist dimensions of populism is buttressed by your use of terms such as ‘ruptural institutionality’ and ‘plebeian republicanism’, which attempt to open spaces away from procedural understandings of democratic institutions towards a more plebeian institutional ‘order’. I find this attempt to think differently intriguing. Could you talk about these terms in particular and the plebeian institutional order you allude to.

PB & LC: We believe that populism implies a break with the status quo. In other words, a break with world and local elites and with the oligarchic forms of social organisation that foster a decorative idea of democracy.

We would even go so far as to say that, right now, a sector of the world elite is testing proposals for authoritarian neoliberalism – that is, post-democratic proposals. Nowadays, this assertion creates a lot of confusion, since it has been thought that populism could be a political logic destined to challenge any form of institutionality and political order.

We would like to clarify that populism has an antagonistic aspect (a break with the oligarchy) and a positive aspect (the building of new social ties). By saying that populism is a logic that configures new social ties, we propose a transformation of the nature of institutions. And, on that point, this coincides with the classic debates of republicanism that distinguish between an oligarchic republicanism and a plebeian republicanism.

Each of these forms of republicanism organises institutions in a very different way. Oligarchic republicanism turns the law into a privilege and a shield for those privileged minorities: the right to penalise protest, the right to collect abusive taxes from the most vulnerable, the right to lock away migrants in camps, and much more. In this case, there is a private use of institutions as a mechanism for dispossession (of territory, wealth, culture and so forth).

For plebeian republicanism, on the other hand, law and institutions can serve to engender equality and freedom. This means: taxing the wealthiest, creating public vaccines, redistributing wealth or actualising feminism. In this direction, we think that populism is the contemporary form of the old struggle between oligarchic republicanism (reaction) and plebeian republicanism (emancipation).

We find ourselves at a loss as to how to imagine ourselves outside capitalism. Perhaps the problem is fixed by the mere formulation of the question. Is not plebeian republicanism one of those broken promises that can help us to unearth the future and imagine ourselves beyond neoliberalism? After all, don’t we have ongoing obligations to those who have died and to generations to come?

For plebeian republicanism, law and institutions can serve to engender equality and freedom

SS: Leadership and militancy (or activism) have been much discussed in the context of populism. But you have developed a theoretical framework that integrates these factors into your understanding of populism in a much more systematic way. Can you revisit the arguments you make in the book concerning both?

PB & LC: Our discussion around militancy arose from rethinking militancy for a post-foundational present. Can we still expect a militancy committed to emancipatory causes in neoliberal times, when it is no longer possible to embrace traditional Left schemas? (We don’t consider alt-right political activism in this context, because we don’t consider this part of populist practices.) With this problem in mind, the first thing we tried to do was to establish what is involved in these post-foundational times.

We turned to Oliver Marchart’s work to clarify that post-foundationalism means to be distanced from foundationalism (the idea of an absolute closure derived from an essence underlying the existing order which functions as an intelligible principle capable of coherently explaining the totality). But it also means that we take our distance from anti-foundationalism (that is, to be open to the absolute absence of any bond that would prevent the establishment of just any meaning).

We assume that there are partial foundations, politically constituted and therefore contestatory, precarious and dislocated. In other words, we affirm that we reject a position locked into a logic of two opposing poles, such as anti-foundation and foundation, pure reactivation or pure sedimentation, full antagonism or full institutionality, complete contingency or complete necessity. Rather, we are in a position that assumes that anti-foundation cuts across foundation, reactivation cuts across sedimentation, antagonism cuts across institutionality, and contingency cuts across necessity.

Second, we noted that assuming a post-foundational position confronted us with a persistent question: what is it that enables one (partial) foundation to be instituted and not another? What is it that makes one prevail over the other? Here, we had to turn to the psychoanalytical reading of Laclau, developed by Gloria Perelló, to find that there is something else that has to do with an intervention that emerges from dislocation (let us remember that Laclau established dislocation as the place of the subject because it occurs as a moment of decision beyond structural determinations, a contingent decision made on the basis of an undecidable structure, that is, the source of freedom).

If one partiality prevails over another one, this is not the result of mere chance, but the encounter between chance and the subject’s decision on an undecidable terrain (which − by the way − is closely linked to affect). This encounter is what Perelló calls contingency. The important point for us is that, on the socio-political terrain, it implies that a political subjectivity is not constituted by necessary determinations in relation to a totality (such as social class in the traditional left-wing schemas). But it is constituted through the contingency that results from an encounter between chance and the subject’s decision on an undecidable terrain.

Thus, the political subjectivity that arises from that encounter will not be determined by the structure, nor will it be an ex nihilo creation. Rather, the socio-political subjectivity that emerges from that encounter will be an antagonistic response to the experience of a lack or dislocation, beyond structural determinations, but falling short of radical indeterminacy.

We think populist subjectivity is an outcome of these kinds of encounters. This is the way in which we think that ‘the people’ of populism emerges (this obviously means understanding ‘the people’ as a political subjectivity, and not as the mere result of a demographic account or election poll). We have to keep in mind that ‘the people’ does not always exist. It is, in fact, something unusual and scarce. And ‘the people’ does not become such without the intervention of social movements, unions, political parties – that is to say, without militancy.

To be a militant in post-foundational times means that those who are willing to engage in antagonistic struggles have to be alert to structural dislocation. Pablo Picasso used to say: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” That is, chance finds militants prepared for the subject to emerge, available to be traversed by contingency, which interrupts impossibility precisely insofar as it pushes the limits of the possible. Populist militancy means going beyond the merely programmatic; it means taking responsibility for the incalculable. It means, quite simply, being guided by an (emancipatory) desire with no guarantees.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData