Populism Without the People

On Chantal Mouffe

Chantal Mouffe

Chantal Mouffe. For a Left Populism. Verso, 2018.

Populism is the shadow of representative democracy. Again and again, populist movements emerge and come to thrive in the gap between the promise of collective sovereignty and the disappointing experience of politics as usual. Their ideological promiscuity is disruptive to established political parties. In the past two years alone, anti-establishment insurgents have imploded or transformed the Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains in France, the Partito Democratico in Italy, even the Labour Party in the United Kingdom. So it is for good reason that populism is a specter that haunts elites, threatening their claim to legitimate rule. In invoking the “people,” populist movements conjure an image of something excessive, overflowing formal institutions, acting in opposition to normal procedures. Even the affects associated with such eruptions—anger, enmity, ressentiment—run counter to the professed liberal ideal of coolheaded deliberation and consensus. Amorphous, shapeshifting, with a taste for destruction: it’s a short leap from the demotic to the demonic. The leap is made shorter still by the powers of demagogic sorcery. In one political analysis after another, populism is reduced to a trait of leadership: a potent combination of charisma, mass-mediated narcissism, and felicitous historical timing.

In the immediate wake of Donald Trump’s election, commentators’ tendency to equate the threat of left and right populism at least gestured towards its ideological variety. Since then, populism tout court has become such efficient shorthand for reactionary xenophobia that politicians need only give voice to anti-immigrant sentiment to earn the label—a move that absolves the sober establishment from its deep complicity in wall- and fortress-building. Whereas scholars of populism have long noted the phenomenon’s ambiguity—its reactionary as well as emancipatory variants—in media discourse the term has come to be much more narrowly construed. In this framing, the options are reduced to a battle between neoliberal technocrats and aspiring authoritarians. Those options may narrow further. Self-styled saviors of democracy from Yascha Mounk to Peter Beinart to John Judis to, most recently, Hillary Clinton exhort liberals to embrace tough-on-immigration nationalism, to prevent this powerful form of social cohesion from being monopolized by the right. In fact, it is precisely those who paint themselves as defenders of liberalism who are the readiest to defer to its mortal enemies. Or perhaps that is too generous to liberalism. With decades of triangulation, the bipartisan establishment has abetted nativism. In acceding to reactionary demands for border militarization, deportation, and criminalization, they helped create the monster whose potent political energy they now alternately decry and seek to channel.

The bipolar elite response to populism is evidence of a broader crisis of legitimation. Amidst staggering inequality, endless war, and radicalization on the right and the left, the establishment’s ideological reserves are depleted. The political center is vulnerable to forces it birthed but cannot hope to contain. “Heighten the contradictions” has transformed from ultra-left call to arms to empirical description of our turbulent world. Reality, in other words, is accelerating, rendering obsolete the status quo ante of political action and analysis.

Staring right into the eye of this tempest, in For a Left Populism, Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe exhorts “the left to grasp the nature of the current conjuncture and the challenge represented by the ‘populist moment.’” For Mouffe, “the crisis of the neoliberal hegemonic formation,” besieged by insurgencies on the right and the left, is an opportunity to be seized. Refreshingly bereft of the sputtering outrage and bafflement that characterizes the growing genre of liberal self-help books, Mouffe channels populism’s agonistic clarity. The left’s task is to establish a stark frontier between the people and the oligarchy, mobilize the heterogeneous masses under the banner of equality and social justice, wrest power from feckless elites, and radicalize democracy.

Mouffe’s interventions have punctuated a long arc of political-economic transformation and evolving left intellectual milieus. Though she was politicized in the radical ferment of the 1960s—and by reading Capital with Louis Althusser—it was the moment of Eurocommunism that framed her central concerns. This was the period in the 1970s when Communist parties in Western Europe began to seek compromises with bourgeois parties in order to enter government, shedding much of the revolutionary Marxist rhetoric that attended their founding in the process. In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Mouffe and her partner and collaborator, the late Ernesto Laclau, developed a theoretical edifice for this departure from the tradition of the First through Fourth Internationals. Their “post-Marxist” emancipatory politics questioned the unity and priority of the industrial working class as the agent of historical change—and socialism as its telos. In an analysis with parallels to the Frankfurt School and other dissident Marxisms of the era, they argued that the commodification and bureaucratization of ever more realms of social life meant the multiplication of relations of subordination. They saw the post-1960s “new social movements” to be politicizing these sites of subordination, resulting in a variegated field of “antagonisms.”

Instead of the industrial proletariat, they located political hope in an agent composed from the articulation of heterogeneous social demands, and instead of socialism (its aura dimmed by association with the Soviet Union), they envisaged “radical democracy.” These terms—radical democracy, antagonism, the plurality of the social, the process of articulation—are the motifs of Mouffe’s many subsequent interventions in democratic theory and left politics. Her work evinces an impressive political prescience: she was both an early critic of neoliberalism, in its Thatcherite and Third Way variants, and an early proponent of a left populist strategy, the salience of which has only grown in the turbulent present. In a rare feat for a political theorist, Mouffe’s texts have inspired left parties and politicians, like Podemos and Jean-Luc Melénchon, to frame their projects as a democratic struggle against unrepresentative elites.

Consistent with Mouffe’s other writings, For a Left Populism draws on the work of two interwar intellectuals: Carl Schmitt and Antonio Gramsci. It might seem strange to place the thought of “the crown jurist of the Third Reich” alongside that of a leader of the Italian Communist Party who was imprisoned by Mussolini’s government, but Mouffe finds in both figures conceptual resources for what she calls an anti-essentialist leftism. From Gramsci, Mouffe takes the concept of hegemony; from Schmitt, the concept of the political. Hegemony names the form of power that cannot be reduced to brute repression alone. Rather, a dominant social group attains hegemony when subaltern groups voluntarily submit to its rule, not under the barrel of a gun but through the force of “common sense” and affective attachments to the existing order. As a corollary, any counter-hegemonic movement from below must contest the prevailing order and the class interests it serves by engaging not only the state but also civil society. Churches, schools, trade unions, sports teams, and all manner of voluntary associations are the battlegrounds of hegemonic struggle. Schmitt’s definition of “the political” dovetails with hegemony’s expansive view of politics: any action is political insofar as it admits of the distinction between the collectivities of “friend” and “enemy.” This distinction is what renders the political the most extreme form of antagonism. Even when it does not reach the pitch of war or revolution, political conflict always pits two groups with not only opposing but incompatible worldviews, the full realization of which would involve the other’s annihilation. For Schmitt, politics is inherently zero-sum. Liberal notions of compromise and consensus are delusions belied by liberals’ own ruthless political maneuvers. It’s not for nothing that Schmitt invokes the example of conflict between the proletarian and capitalist classes. Their “economic” relationship becomes political the moment that the former sees the elimination of the latter as necessary to achieve their ultimate objective of a classless society. For both thinkers, victory entails constructing a popular subjectivity that resonates with everyday experience and attaching it to a compelling political vision. Collective identities are up for grabs—and the left ignores this reality at its own political peril.

This is the essence of Mouffe’s anti-essentialism, which is at heart a critique of mechanistic materialism: collective identities cannot be reduced to their “objective position” in relations of production. This is unobjectionable—so much so that it’s often unclear who, exactly, Mouffe is arguing against. She refers to “sectors of the left” who “attribute an ontological privilege to the working class.” In the context of American politics, the figure of the “class-first brocialist” comes to mind. Such individuals exist, of course, but to conjure this cliché as representative of all those who take class and capitalism seriously is a serious error. Like all such analyses, it cedes ideological ground to the very political establishment that Mouffe identifies as the enemy. This is exactly how liberals would prefer to frame any opposition to their left. For a Left Populism thus feels simultaneously stuck in 1970s-era debates among European communists and on the wrong side of contemporary handwringing over class “versus” race or gender.

As is the case with all counter-hegemonic movements, left populism enters a field already shaped by past victories and defeats. The parties that adopted a Eurocommunist strategy have dissolved or faded from political relevance; socialist and social democratic parties have cozied up to capital. What Mouffe calls the “post-democratic,” “post-political” neoliberal hegemony secured by the likes of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” as Marx had it in the Eighteenth Brumaire. Against a regime that subordinates democratic sovereignty to the market, that appeals to bipartisan consensus and the rule of experts, Mouffe advocates for the construction of a unified popular will targeting the hegemonic order in all its instantiations.

Which sounds good in theory. But who does Mouffe imagine taking up this historic task, and how? Mouffe’s anti-essentialist postulates complicate the answer: if “it is through representation that collective political subjects are created; they do not exist beforehand,” then it logically follows that the process by which they are created is pivotal for their power to effect change. For Mouffe, there are two possibilities: “either by a specific democratic demand that becomes the symbol of the common struggle for the radicalization of democracy, or by the figure of a leader.”

Rather than exploring each of these two routes in turn, or, perhaps more realistically, analyzing them as intertwined dimensions of a counter-hegemonic offensive, Mouffe defends the role of leadership against a kind of anarchist strawman. Protests, she argues, must be “followed by structured political movements, ready to engage with political institutions” if they are to achieve “significant results.” But why is the choice movements or parties, or the implied sequence movements then parties? I would turn Mouffe’s formulation on its head. If, in their ascent to power, “structured political movements”—by which she means parties—are not accompanied by extra-electoral protest movements, then the former are unlikely to achieve the sweeping changes she envisions. After the left achieves power, rebellious grassroots activity is absolutely necessary to hold elected leaders to account. More generally, the process of moving political movements into powerful institutions is inevitably uneven, and the complex relationship between left-populist government and mobilized bases is an essential object of inquiry, especially during this populist moment. Now is the time for reflections on how new popular identities take form and acquire force—and what they do when they achieve state power. These reflections are absent from Mouffe’s book.

More confusing still is Mouffe’s own enigmatic claim that the goal is not “the establishment of a ‘populist regime’. . . but the creation of a hegemonic formation that will foster the recovery and deepening of democracy.” This only sharpens the paradox: if the aim isn’t only to seize the state, but to constitute a new arrangement of power altogether, then the attainment of state power would only constitute one phase in a variegated arc of hegemonic struggle—a process that could not possibly hinge on the solitary “figure of a leader” alone. Yet rather than wrestle with this process, Mouffe inevitably invokes exemplary leaders, isolating them from the broader political ecosystems and projecting onto their unique talent the inevitably collective labor of ideological battle. Recourse to leadership allows Mouffe to evade what political theorist Bonnie Honig calls “the paradox of politics”: the chicken-and-egg dilemma of generating a collective will.

Mouffe’s emphasis on leadership is consonant with her theory of social change. She argues that since there is no guarantee that the oppressed will seek to transform their oppression, “For relations of subordination to be transformed into sites of antagonism, one needs the presence of a discursive ‘exterior’ from which the discourse of subordination can be interrupted.” The social world Mouffe describes feels static: “relations of subordination” simply reproduce themselves until a “discourse” problematizes them. But, as many analysts of capitalism have argued—including two Mouffe cites at length, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello—exploitation requires ongoing ideological justification. The friction between proclamations of freedom and equality, on the one hand, and the everyday experience of domination, on the other, generates the potential for social conflict. Historically dynamic and geographically uneven, capitalism unfolds through such tense contradictions all the way down.

In contrast, Mouffe believes that emancipatory discourses emanate from a position that is somehow external to the power relations they seek to disrupt. While Mouffe acknowledges the power of social movements to contest hegemony, her preferred “left populist strategy” focuses less on forms of self-organization among the exploited and excluded, and more on how those sectors might be enrolled into a political movement headquartered elsewhere. Mouffe writes that such a movement “should address people in a manner able to reach their affects,” “be congruent with the values and the identities of those that it seeks to interpellate,” and “resonate with the problems people encounter in their daily lives, thus offering them a vision of the future that gives them hope.” The agent of empowerment is, however, left unspecified. Understandably, anti-essentialism militates against determining in advance the substantive content of subaltern identity. But, regardless of its content, the choice of words—“address,” “interpellate,” “resonate”—suggests that for Mouffe such an identity emerges in a one-way flow from leader to led. Despite her apparent embrace of contingency, only the “charismatic leader” can serve as the relay point of affective bonds among a more dispersed people. Similarly, the nation-state is “the level [at which] the question of radicalizing democracy must first be posed.” There are many ways to compose a “national” movement, but Mouffe’s examples—Corbyn, Sanders, Mélenchon—suggest a preference for insurgent party leaders who make broad claims to represent the unrepresented. The possibility that the process of radical democracy might instead “first be posed” at the local level—or, in a world marked by climate change and cross-border migration, might evince a transnational character—is outside the realm of possibility. For all her anti-essentialism, top-down leadership and the nation-state constitute the sharply-defined parameters of political possibility.

The very nature of these examples, none of whom have yet attained national power, excuses Mouffe from the task of analyzing the complex trajectory from left populist mobilization to governance, or adjudicating between more and less successful counter-hegemonic tactics. Curiously for a book that lays out a strategy for the left, the only successful political leader discussed at length is a right-wing populist: Margaret Thatcher.

As Stuart Hall argues in his essay “The Neoliberal Revolution,” Thatcher erected a political frontier between the people (taxpayers and customers) and their enemies (bureaucrats and unions). In so doing, she hammered a nail in the coffin of a social democratic order already beset by profitability crises, labor militancy, and elite defection. The success of this hegemonic project is evident in New Labour’s subsequent embrace of the logic of neoliberalism: by accepting Thatcher’s dictum that there was no alternative, they proved it true.

Mouffe takes her proposal to learn from Thatcherism from another of Hall’s influential essays, “Thatcher’s Lessons,” first published in 1988 in Marxism Today. In it, he demonstrated how Thatcher’s conservative movement was successful in part because it operated on the Gramscian terrain of common sense. Thatcher sold controversial austerity policies as vital to secure not only efficiency and consumer choice, but freedom itself. In this context, Hall called upon the left to paint its own vision of an ideal society, to counter privatization with the value of care, and to incorporate feminism and environmentalism into a new conception of socialism. He argued, in other words, for the left to neither cede to neoliberalism nor remain tethered to strategies and identities forged in prior battles, but to throw itself headfirst into the “struggle for popular identities.”

In contrast, Mouffe’s focus on the figure of Thatcher dramatically simplifies the character of this struggle. And the emphasis on leadership and messaging also allows for a suspicious blurring of left and right populism. Mouffe argues that the constituency for left populism must include (and, in the process, transform) those who currently express their disaffection with the status quo in terms of racism and xenophobia. Throughout the book, political parties such as the Front National in France or the Freedom Party of Austria are categorized as “resistances against the post-democratic condition brought about by thirty years of neoliberal hegemony.” Such “resistances” should, Mouffe argues, be channeled by a left-wing leader. But right-wing populism is not simply a form of “resistance.” If the appeal of such movements in part rests in their anti-systemic character, their concrete effect is the opposite: they exacerbate the worst features of the status quo. It is this dual character that makes them so dangerous.

How should the left approach this double-edged political phenomenon? For Mouffe, a viable left strategy would “federate all the democratic struggles.” Therefore, she argues, using labels such as “extreme-right” or “neofascist” to describe these parties’ constituencies is a political nonstarter: “dehumanization of the ‘enemies’ of the bipartisan consensus can be morally comforting, but it is politically disempowering.” Rather, a left populism ought to “recognize the democratic nucleus at the origin of” the increasingly pan-ideological clamor for Fortress Europe. Meanwhile, the immigrants who are the latter’s targets are afforded relatively little attention; they constitute one of so many links in the “chain of equivalence” Mouffe envisions, alongside demands emanating from “the workers” (apparently, a category that does not include immigrants) “and the precarious middle class, as well as other democratic demands, such as those of the LGBT community” (ditto).

Contra Mouffe, left-wing populism is a powerful political strategy not because it wins over adherents of explicitly xenophobic and racist movements, but because, compared to the imploding center, it is more effective at confronting and opposing such movements, and mobilizing those marginalized and disenchanted by the status quo. Insofar as some of the latter are potentially attracted to amorphous or right-wing populisms, they won’t be recruited to the left on the basis of “vocabulary” alone. The languages through which people interpret their social world are both product and determinant of political activity. To speak, as Mouffe does, of discourse as an eminently malleable force, which can magically transform interests and identities, is to reduce what Marx called “the language of real life” that is “directly interwoven with . . . material activity” to focus-group tested messaging in the hands of savvy leaders.

Unlike Mouffe, Hall was careful to distinguish between the nature of Thatcherism and the revitalized left he proposed. The former aligned with transformations in the logic of capitalist development, from Fordist mass production to neoliberalism. This is what gave Thatcherism its air of historical inevitability. The left, in contrast, had to articulate a new vision of socialism precisely when the Soviet Union was dissolving and globe-trotting capital had weakened the structures that had previously sustained worker militancy.

In both that era of historic realignment and in our own “populist moment,” the ends, means, and capacities of the left and right are fundamentally asymmetric. Right-wing populism prefers the masses atomized, individualized, and alienated from their political power, with their collective agency projected onto a leader and their ire misdirected away from the ruling class. Left-wing populism results from and reinforces bonds of solidarity among a historic bloc of the oppressed allied against a shared enemy. This contrast is crucial because it is the very process of solidaristic unification that distinguishes left from right populism in the first place. If Thatcherism teaches us how the ruling class protects itself by absorbing and redeploying threats from below, we need to learn how to empower the working class by exploiting fractures in hegemony wherever we find them. Thatcherism teaches the 1 percent how to divide, but the 99 percent need to learn how to unite.

From the title of the text to its conclusion, Mouffe remains avowedly committed to left populism. But if it can’t be defined in advance by its adherents—or, a la Mouffe, if its adherents can’t be defined in advance, but are the product of potent discursive formulations—what exactly is left about left populism?

Mouffe states that the principles of “equality and social justice” are its defining marks. Yet true to her post-Marxist roots, she is also a fierce critic of in the “left/right frontier . . . as traditionally configured.” The specific qualm with the ‘traditional’ left is its recourse to “determinate social categories.” The obsession with “the social structure” has accorded an “ontological privilege to the working class,” to the neglect of movements apparently not locatable in the social structure: “the defense of the environment, struggles against sexism, racism and other forms of domination.”

She asserts that this “conception of politics that has never been able to bring about any significant improvement in the living conditions of the very people that it claims to represent.” Yes, you read that right. Putting aside the countless examples to the contrary—so many that one could reasonably argue that this tradition, sweeping across almost two centuries, including in its form as anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle, is the primary “conception of politics” that has led to concrete emancipation, among them the very social democratic order the dismantling of which Mouffe laments—by rejecting any analysis that begins from the material conditions of everyday life under capitalism, Mouffe is left with no concrete account of the solidarity that is so central to her left populist program.

In Hall’s well-known formulation, race is the modality through which class is lived. The movement for black lives cannot be analyzed in isolation from capitalism, and neither can the global climate justice movement, or mobilizations against gender violence and inequality, even if, of course, these struggles cannot be reduced to the economic narrowly understood. By conjuring only to reject a vulgar rendering of class, Mouffe ignores the rich theorizations of racial capitalism or Marxist feminism and, avowed anti-essentialism aside, reproduces the notion that the working class is white and male. Despite her emphasis on unifying the people, her book reifies difference, rehashing dated 1960s binaries.

Meanwhile we are in an unprecedented historical moment of unusual vibrancy full of proliferating conflicts and new militancies. In contrast to this vitality, For a Left Populism is oddly bloodless. It reads like a how-to guide for an aspiring candidate looking to put their finger on the pulse of politics. (Kirsten Gillibrand comes to mind.)

Mouffe is right that the road to emancipation runs through something like left populism; there is no way forward that doesn’t involve articulating shared identities and drawing a line between the masses and their enemies. But, attuned as it is to the uniqueness of our present conjuncture, For a Left Populism doesn’t show us the way there. One might attribute the book’s lack of direction not only to Mouffe’s anti-essentialism, but also to her narrowly European field of reference, where with too few exceptions the right-wing has dominated the terrain of populism and sucked social democratic parties into its xenophobic orbit. Mouffe’s analysis might have been different had she reckoned with the vast history of left populism in the Americas, where claims about the people and their powers have in large part been forged out of popular struggles over land, labor, and national sovereignty—struggles from which the complex experiments in left populist governments owe their conditions of possibility.

But even in the European context, Mouffe could have investigated the sobering experience of Syriza in power, or delved into the innovative political organizing that has buoyed Corbyn’s ascent, to take two examples that come to mind immediately. The dearth of specificity about anything except Thatcherite political realignment is telling. It suggests an absence of engagement—and a lack of creativity—from an author out of touch with the range of potentialities in this historic moment of opportunity. In the late 1970s, when Mouffe first emerged, the limits of her analysis were in keeping with the narrowing political prospects of the era, when disillusionment with the Soviet project was acute and the retreat from Marxism near-universal in the Global North. But much has changed in the last four decades, and Mouffe’s timeworn categories are inadequate to the task of left politics today.

The wave of recent militant teachers’ strikes in red states where Trump won in 2016 imparts a vital lesson: it is only in the heat of struggle that identities potentially change. This is not to dismiss the role of leadership and framing (both of which have been key elements in the #RedforEd movement), but rather to assert the centrality of gritty politics and the exigencies of organizing—dynamics notably absent from Mouffe’s text.

For the first time in decades, the US left faces the opportunity to take power, and, just as crucially, finds itself with the will to try. But there are no shortcuts in the form of brilliant leadership or the right vocabulary. “Taking power” is a process that unfolds unevenly over time and space. Behind each comrade recruited, struggle waged, and enemy defeated is a trail of organizational life running through meetings and doorsteps, utilitarian auditoriums, linked arms and sore throats, dive bars and too many emails.

Where all this activity on the left will end up is far from certain, but it seems unlikely that it will, as Mouffe advocates, “restore” or “reestablish the articulation between liberalism and democracy.” The horizon is growing broader by the minute. The containers of class versus identity, the recourse to nationalism in resistance to globalization, and the search for an elusive balance between individual rights and popular sovereignty—these dichotomies failed to serve emancipation in the past. They surely won’t now.

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