Populism vs. the Left?

26 June 2018

(Lire en français)

Review of Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (Verso, 2018)


Though the Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe remains far better known in the Anglo-American world than in France, this may change when her new book, For a Left Populism, appears in French this September. Mouffe’s new pamphlet-length take on left populism is precious reading for anyone hoping to understand what is happenings in Europe today. Though she follows the blueprint of her recent works such The Democratic Paradox (2010), Mouffe dares include the word “populism” in the title for the first time. This is no accident. Though the notion of populism has long been crucial for her thinking, in For a Left Populism, she has a produced a manifesto for populism as a political and social alternative to the status quo.


Mouffe begins from the commonplace opinion that the distinction between left and right is no longer relevant in contemporary liberal democracies. In several places in Europe, politics appears to revolve around a mythical center. As a result, Mouffe writes, “all those who oppose the ‘consensus in the centre’ and the dogma that there is no alternative to neoliberal globalization are presented as ‘extremists’ or disqualified as ‘populists.’” Her suggestion is that in fact, the extremist and simplistic position in contemporary European politics is the idea that “there is no alternative,” an an unflinching belief in “the system.” The groups referred to as populists hold no monopoly of extremism, and one might well define movements such as En Marche! or the German große Koalition as extremisms of the center.  From this point of view, both right and left populism can be seen as attempts to give content and substance to what pretends to be “apolitical,” “neither right nor left,” or more triumphantly, “beyond right and left.”


Chantal Mouffe does not go quite so far. Her claim is that right and left populisms manage to re-politicize a “governance” that denies its own political essence. Populisms are for her a resurgence of repressed desires for politics and democracy. This psychoanalytical approach pervades her thinking when she denounces the rationalist bias of liberalism. Demonstrations are the private parts that liberal society is afraid to show, especially in an omni-mediatized world. Liberal media speak about populist “fears,” but refuse to confront their own fears. As a result, they present the division between the center  and populism as a mere division between rationality and affect. This was a ceaseless refrain during the Brexit campaign.


As regards virtues of “communicational ethics” (Habermas) which was supposed to reign over the liberal City, Mouffe has long claimed to observe its degeneration into a communication system with a single voice, a social “pedagogy” verging on catechism. In its place, Mouffe calls for admitting antagonism and dissensus as criteria of real democracy, provided that the conflict is “sublimated” (another Freudian word) in the public arena. Populism is the power of the majority, but democracy is a way the majority finds this power without excluding minorities. This is what Mouffe means by “radicalizing” democracy, and she seems to ask liberalism: what are you afraid of—radicality, or democracy itself ? In other words, Mouffe challenges liberal democracy to face its own bad conscience.


Mouffe nonetheless runs the considerable risk of confusing left and right under the single label of “populism.” Nowhere has this confusion been clearer in practice than in Italy. The route taken by the Five Star Movement (M5S), a populist movement that originally had some left-wing credibility, hardly appears encouraging for Mouffe’s populist project. If the M5S was able to form a governing coalition with the far right Lega, this was not because the latter adopted a progressive economic platform, but rather because Luigi di Maio adopted the far right’s hardline stance on immigration. And at the same time, the economic positions of the M5S were hardly left-wing to begin with. Its proposal for a flat tax is both populist and neoliberal. In Italy, at least, populism has proved a poor vehicle for left-wing ideas. The Italian situation may be particular due to the country’s position on the receiving end of migration across the Mediterranean, though perhaps it signifies that the European left more broadly will have hard decisions to make on immigration in the near future if it hopes to compete with the populisms of the right. What is certain, however, is that in many European countries, such as Germany and Hungary, it is the right that has claimed populism as its own, and a left-wing version seems unlikely to surface.


One can understand the attempt of a philosopher to reclaim the term “populism.” After all, since “impressionism,” many intellectual vanguards have rallied around labels that were originally coined as insults. Yet such comparisons only go so far: the nineteenth-century neologism “impressionism” suggested the radical novelty of the artists it sought to attack, and at the same time, these artists did not have to distinguish themselves from other artists being called impressionists. Left-wing populists may well recover what is positive in the idea of “populism,” but they may not be able to escape the comparison with populisms on the right, which liberals are happy to provide.


Mouffe undoubtedly puts forward arguments for what is singular about left populism. According to her theory of affects, reminiscent of Frédéric Lordon, there is a distinction between private resentment, which drives the right, and the desire for fraternity on the left. But this brings us suspiciously close to the liberalism Mouffe rejects. Is there no resentment in the oppositions between Us and Them, or between the 99 % and the 1 %? Furthermore, how can we really say which passions are good or bad in the first place? Why can resentment not be considered fair or civic under certain circumstances?


“Populism” is also not the only ambiguous word in Mouffe’s vocabulary. Her most surprising phrase is “radical reformism,” which appears in the book  just where one might have expected a critique of “reform,” a word she believes betrays the quasi-religious foundations of so-called rationalist neoliberalism. This may be simply strategic writing on her part, but is uncertain whether it is the best way to demystify the notion of reform.


Finally, what should be done to “radicalize” democratic institutions? Here appears another ambiguity that may well arise if a left-populist, Mouffe-endorsed movement like Podemos were to take power. Mouffe is familiar with Carl Schmitt, and writes that radicalization of democracy “will no doubt include moments of rupture and a confrontation with the dominant economic interests”; at the same time, it should “not require relinquishing the liberal-democratic principles of legitimacy.” Populism may involve a revolution, but this would be a “citizens’ revolution,” as Jean-Luc Mélenchon has put it, taking place in a legislative framework. Clearly this is very different from right populism, but one begins to wonder if it is indeed populism at all.


A last question arises that is not merely a debate over words. Mouffe is rightfully suspicious towards the notion of the convergence des luttes as an essentialist a priori. However, is left populism the best way to “give a political expression to the articulation of those struggles”? There are several left populisms in Europe, just as Jean-Yves Camus has written that there are several far rights in Europe. It is far from clear that Podemos, Labour and La France Insoumise (FI) are perfectly united. Labour is a traditional party, whereas Podemos and FI grew on the failure of the Spanish and French socialist parties. Even in FI, a dialectic exists between movements like Nuit Debout (comparable to the Indignados movement) and a French Jacobin model reasonably detached from populism: François Ruffin and Jean-Luc Mélenchon do not mean to proceed in the same way, even with similar targets. Chantal Mouffe does not really consider this multiplicity, and perhaps obscures it.


To conclude, it would be unfair to blame an original thinking for misunderstandings and we, as contemporaries, may not be ready yet to understand such a long and complex process. We cannot forget this type of work is intended to fade, as Marx would say, behind political and social action. History will tell us whether populism has embraced the left, or rather whether the left has embraced populism.


Photo Credit: Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación, Chantal Mouffe e Iñigo Errejón en conversación, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.


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  • Quite Likely says:

    I think this comes down a little hard on M5S. The one and only issue for Italy, and much of the rest of Europe, is ending austerity, and that is what the M5S-Lega coalition is trying to do in the face of massive resistance from the European institutions. The fact that they’re doing so through both tax cuts for the rich and increased social spending for the poor reflects the left-right nature of the coalition. It’s awkward to share power across that kind of divide, but that’s what happens when an issue like austerity that is mostly orthogonal to traditional left-right divides comes to the fore.

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