Interview: Chantal Mouffe on democracy, populism, and why the Left needs to read Spinoza

19 August 2021


Chantal Mouffe is a democratic theorist whose work as been cited as an inspiration for radical political movements across the globe, and who has elicited controversy for her advoacy of left-wing populism. She is the Professor of Political Theory at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, and her books include Gramsci and Marxist Theory (Routledge, 1979)Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (with Ernesto Laclau, Verso, 1985), Dimensions of Radical Democracy (Verso, 1992), The Return of the Political (Verso, 1993)The Democratic Paradox (Verso, 2000)On the Political (Routledge, 2005), Agonistics (Verso, 2013), and Podemos: In the Name of the People (Lawrence & Wishart, 2016, with Íñigo Errejón), and For a Left Populism (Verso, 2018).

In this interview,  Tocqueville21 editor David Klemperer asks her to reflect on her work from the perspective of  2021. Does she stand by her previous analyses? Has populism proven to be a successful strategy for the left? And what is the situation of democracy in Europe and America today?


David Klemperer (DK): I will start off by asking about For a Left Populism, which you published in 2018: what you were trying to do with this intervention, and how did it build on your previous work?


Chantal Mouffe (CM): First I need to clarify what I understand by populism because this is a term that is now widely abused. Everyone uses the term “populism” to refer to things they don’t like – in the category of populism they put Bolsonaro, Trump, Erdogan, Modi, Duterte… So I think that it is really important to clarify, when we speak about populism, what we mean by that.


I follow the definition of populism developed by Ernesto Laclau in his book On Populist Reason, where he defines populism as a political strategy of constructing a political frontier. This is an analytical definition – most people who write about populism are really trying to define the content of policies, but according to Laclau, populism is a political strategy. It is not an ideology, it does not have a specific content, and it is not a regime. It is a way of constructing a political frontier, which of course means —and I think this is very important—that it necessarily starts from a certain conception of what the political is, namely, that the political is necessarily partisan. The political always concerns the distinction between an “us” and a “them”, and the political frontier is what separates the “us” from the “them.” This frontier can be constructed in many different ways. For instance, Marxism constructs a frontier between capital and labour. The populist construction of the political frontier is to draw it between “those from below” and “those from above”. Of course, there are many different ways in which those from below and above can be constructed, and this is where lies the difference between right-wing populism and left populism.


The conception of the political that I follow is what is called a “dissociative” conception, that says that  politics is always about conflict and antagonism. If there is something called the political, it is because society is always divided. I think that is something which is very important to acknowledge, and you cannot really understand the populist strategy if you do not accept that its starting point is that society is divided . The dissociative conceptionof the political has a genealogy: you find it in Machiavelli, and later in Hobbes, and then of course in Carl Schmitt, Max Weber, and most recently Claude Lefort. Here there is a clearly different way from liberalism of understanding what the political is, and as a consequence of that of course you understand differently what the aim of democracy is. Is it to establish procedures to establish consensus, or is it to establish institutions to manage conflict and allow dissensus to exist  without leading to civil war. And I think this latter conception is crucial. For me, it is definitely central to understanding the conception of populism that Ernesto Laclau developed and that I follow, that of the construction of the political frontier.


So I will say, first point: politics is about the construction of a frontier.  Liberalism does not construct a frontier. Liberalism involves a belief that there are no insurmountable antagonisms. For them, the aim of democracy is to establish an inclusive consensus. Liberalism therefore follows a conception of the political which is called the “associative” concept of the political: that the domain of the political is a domain of acting in common, the domain of liberty, the domain in which we are going to establish a consensus. That is the dominant view in most liberal political theory. And of course the differences lie in the fact that they are going to offer different strategies to reach this consensus. For instance, if you think about the difference between Habermas and Rawls, the question is whether to centre on undistorted communication or on the veil of ignorance. But the end is always to establish a procedure in order to create consensus.


To take your second question, in order to understand our reflection on populism, we need to go back to the book that Ernesto and I published together in 1985: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. In that book we reflect on what is specific to the political and we say there are two main concepts needed to understand it. The first is antagonism: that is that society is divided, and that the political is about conflictuality. Conflictuality which is linked to antagonism, because of course liberals do accept that there is conflict in society, but they do not accept that there are some conflicts which we call antagonistic, meaning that they do not have rational solutions. So the question is can we find a way in which all those conflicts can be reconciled, and our dissociative conception says, “no, there is antagonism.” Of course, there are some conflicts which can have resolution, but there are also conflicts which cannot have a rational solution, which will necessarily have winners and losers, which are therefore antagonistic conflicts.” And it is these antagonistic conflicts that are the specifically political ones. The second concept is the concept of hegemony. This is linked to a conception which has been called post-foundationalist or anti-essentialist—that the social is always discursively constructed, and that there is no final rational foundation. That helps you understand why there can be left-wing populism and right-wing populism, because the people can be constructed in different ways. “The people” is neither an empirical referent, nor a sociological category, but is always a political construction, and it can be constructed differently, so you can have a people constructed according to right-wing populism and according to left-wing populism. The ‘people’ of left populism consists in the articulation of a multiplicity of democratic demands around issues concerning exploitation, domination of discrimination.


DK: I wonder if we could move on to the specific analysis you have of European and American democracy today.


CM: Coming to the situation today, we are in a situation that I call post-democracy. I am not the first to have used the term—you can find it for instance in the work of Colin Crouch or Jacques Rancière—but my understanding is a bit different.


I insist (and of course, this is not terribly original) that when we speak of democracy today, we speak of the western model of democracy. I do not believe that there is a democracy that we could define that would be universally accepted. What we have is “western democracy,” and western democracy is a specific articulation of two main traditions – the liberal tradition and the democratic tradition. Here I can refer to the work of C.B. Macpherson, the Canadian political theorist, who wrote a nice little book called The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy where he shows how the democratic tradition, whose main values are popular sovereignty and equality, has historically been articulated alongside a liberal tradition of human rights, separation of powers, and rule of law. But contrary to what Habermas offers with his idea of co-originality, the two traditions were not mutually necessary and do not imply each other. Their relationship is that of a contingent articulation. And in that articulation, there is a tension in that (again contrary to Habermas), there is no possibility of complete reconciliation between the two. That is to say that there can never be perfect equality and perfect liberty. There is always lexical order— in some cases liberalism will dominate and the idea of liberty will come first, and in other cases the democratic idea of equality will take precedence.


But I have also argued in my work against Carl Schmitt, who believed that there is necessarily  a contradiction between liberalism and democracy that  must lead liberal democracy to its destruction. In my work on the “Democratic Paradox” I argue that Schmitt is right that liberalism and democracy cannot be perfectly reconciled, but that we should not see this as a contradiction, but as a ‘tension’—a tension which I personally think is very positive. It is basically because of this tension that we can have pluralism. We can see this tension throughout whole history of Western democracy, in struggles over which aspect of Western democracy—the liberal idea or the democratic idea—is going to be the dominant one.


To come to post-democracy, my argument is that today, as a consequence of the hegemony of neoliberalism, we are in a situation in which all the democratic aspects of liberal democracy—namely equality and popular sovereignty—have been emptied. When we speak of democracy or liberal democracy, we now really only have in mind a conception of democracy limited to the liberal ideas of human rights and respect for constitutions, and this is why I say we are in a post-democracy. Societies still call themselves democratic of course, but all the specifically democratic elements have been eliminated or pushed aside. And for me this is what has created the populist moment. The populist moment must be seen as a moment in which there is a reaction—a countermovement, to use Karl Polanyi’s term—in the form of a series of struggles to re-establish the democratic dimensions of popular sovereignty, of equality. This is why I personally believe that we should not necessarily see populism as an enemy of democracy, or even an enemy of liberal democracy. I am not saying that it cannot in some cases lead to some kind of illiberal democracy, but it can also be seen as a way to re-establish the democratic dimension in liberal democracy.


DK: You wrote your book in 2018. Do you think we are still in a populist moment?


CM: Yes, very much so, and I totally disagree with the series of claims made recently saying that the moment of left populism is over. These arguments come from a certain kind of left which says that it is time to return to more traditional Marxist class politics.


I do agree that the situation is not ideal for left populism, because parties that can be seen as having put into practice a left-populist strategy have recently faced setbacks. I say populist strategy, because you can have very different kinds of parties and movements pursuing left populism. In my book I say that Jeremy Corbyn, certainly during his 2017 campaign, was following a left-populist strategy. The strategy of Bernie Sanders was also left-populist, as was the strategy of Podemos, Syriza, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. I am of course perfectly aware that this is not a particularly good moment for those parties right now.


But what I am arguing here is that people who say that left populism is finished because these movements did not come to power have wrongly interpreted left populism as a strategy for what Antonio Gramsci calls the “war of movement”. That is to say, a big sudden push that automatically brings you to power. Of course this has not happened, because left populist movements have so far not won power. But left-populist strategy should be understood as what Gramsci called a “war of position”—i.e. the construction of a hegemony. This is a much longer process, in which you are going to have moments of advance and moments of retreat, and it is not because a battle has been lost that we are going to say “ah, ok, so we were wrong, we should go back to more traditional left politics.”


In fact I would argue that this current moment, the pandemic, is one that clearly calls for a left-populist kind of politics, because it has exacerbated the crisis of neoliberalism. The strategy of populism, and particularly of left-populism, is a strategy that is an answer to the crisis of neoliberalism. There must be a left strategy that can put neoliberalism and financial capitalism into question and that can bring an end to the post-political situation that has existed for the last three decades. There must be the establishment of a clear frontier and the determination of an adversary. I still believe that left populism is the strategy that best corresponds to the present situation, and I do not believe that in this moment any other strategy for the left could be successful.


DK: Do you have any comments on where parties implementing left-populist strategies have gone wrong?


CM: In the case of Corbyn I would make a distinction between the campaigns of 2017 and 2019. The first campaign was clearly based on a left-populist strategy. They established a frontier with the slogan “for the many, not the few,” and they did very well. Unfortunately in 2019 the campaign was not so clear. Corbyn was very good at first when he attacked the rich by saying like Roosevelt that he “welcomed their hatred,” but the problem was that Corbyn’s team were not all in agreement about the kind of strategy to follow. There was a group of advisors who wanted a more traditional kind of politics, and they ultimately won. In the end it was not clear that Corbyn’s strategy in 2019 was in fact left-populist.


It was interesting to compare Labour with the Tories, who were very definitely following a right-wing populist strategy, and who were mobilizing affect. Understanding the importance of affect in politics is another aspect of populist strategy, be it left or right, that I think is very important. You had the politics of Johnson, which were “take back control, get Brexit done”, with no real program, but a strong mobilization of common affects, what I call “passions”. On Labour’s side, you had a very good, very detailed program, but one that did not succeed because of the strategy they were using to mobilize people. It was a kind of campaign that I would call clientelistic—“vote for us and we will give you free broadband, vote for us and we will give you more money for the NHS”—which failed because people cannot be passive recipients of things. It was not a strategy that was empowering people—people felt empowered by Johnson’s rhetoric of “take back control,” but not by the discourse of Labour. And I think that unfortunately when you have a situation in which affects are strongly mobilized by one side and the other side adopts a more rationalist approach, the first side will win.


I think this is one of the reasons why today right-wing movements are much more successful than left-wing ones. I am very concerned that the left is much too rationalistic, and believes that “we should only use arguments, mobilizing affects and passions, that’s what the fascists do.” They believe that if they have a good program, people are going to accept it. Here I think that they should really read Spinoza. Spinoza says that ideas are only powerful when they meet affects, and he also says that to displace one affect, you need to build a stronger affect. So it is not by criticizing things from the point of view of rationality that you get people to move in another direction.


DK: Does the left need to make more use of nationalist sentiment?


CM: I prefer to use the term patriotism. I believe in the need for what I call a “left-wing patriotism,” because patriotism is a very strong affect. Freud for instance is very important on that—Freud insisted on the strong libidinal element that was linked to the signifier “nation.” So if you want to mobilize people, you need to acknowledge that. But it can be mobilized in different ways. You can mobilize it in a progressive way, to seek for instance equality or social justice for all, or you can also mobilize it against immigrants. This is why anti-essentialism is crucial, because affect is not necessarily right-wing! Affects can be mobilized in different ways and I think this is crucial. You cannot leave that terrain to the right, and say “oh no we are just going to use argument.”


DK: Can I ask you to say something specific about France, and the situation of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and La France Insoumise?


CM: I think something similar happened in France to what I have just said about Corbyn. Mélenchon’s campaign in 2017 was very clearly following a left-populist strategy, and went very well. He did not win, of course, but he managed to get almost 20% of the vote, which was extremely  good. Unfortunately in the next election that took place in France, the 2019 European election, the strategy of Mélenchon and La France Insoumise was not a left-populist strategy. Again, not everyone in La France Insoumise agrees with a left-populist strategy, so there are tensions, and in 2019 they decided to adopt more of a traditional left discourse, and they did badly. I do not know what is going to happen next year, and I am not terribly optimistic to be honest, but on the other hand it is not totally impossible that Mélenchon could succeed.


At the moment there are a lot of discussions about the idea of a single presidential candidate to represent all of the left-wing parties. It is evident that if the left goes into the presidential election divided, they are not going to reach the second round. The problem, however, is that even if you unite the left, you only get 30% of the population. So the big debate in France at the moment is between the strategy of uniting the left, and the strategy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and La France Insoumise, who refuse to limit themselves to people who have always voted for the left. In France, there is incredibly high abstention, so the left need to mobilize those abstentionists. And this is why they need to have a discourse which is a transversal one, which is of course exactly what a left-populist strategy is about. The strategy of La France Insoumise is not to unite the existing left, but rather to open themselves to other sectors of the population. I think that is the right strategy.


I think that is what is missing here is a project that can give people enthusiasm for the future, and that is what I am proposing at the moment. I wrote a piece which was published a couple months ago in Open Democracy, where I argue that a left-populist strategy today should articulate a collective will – an “us”, a people – around what I call a green democratic transformation, because the main question today without any doubt is the environmental issue and climate change.


DK: What do we make of  Biden’s victory in America, which seems to signal a surprising durability of the liberal center? Is the liberal consensus more durable than you perhaps thought a few years ago?


CM:  Biden might have been elected as a centrist, but his politics so far after 100 days are not at all a centrist politics. I have many friends in the US from the left of the Democrats who voted Sanders, who are near to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They never expected anything like this, they are very surprised and happy, and they say he may turn out like FDR. They rightly point out that although FDR was not a socialist, he really did very radical policies because of the situation and become of the popular movement. The same happened with Lyndon Johnson, who was definitely a centrist, but who reacted to the situation with very progressive policies. We should not rejoice too early, but I think that is definitely the direction that Biden seems to be going in. It is very different from what was expected of him, and I think in some sense so far he and Sanders have really been in agreement. Biden’s policies are not the expression of the traditional centrism of the Democrats, it is definitely moving towards something more radical.


DK: So do you still believe that the central divide in politics will be between left and right populists?


CM: Yes, I think so. But of course it will take different forms in different countries. But one thing I am concerned about is that this pandemic might  give neoliberalism  a new lease of life. If you had asked me this question this time last year, I would not have said that, because I thought the crisis of neoliberalism was being exacerbated by the pandemic. But what we have seen is through the pandemic is above all a strong demand for protection.


Here I want to refer again to the work of Karl Polanyi, who in his book The Great Transformation indicated that when societies undergo moments of great transformation or disturbance, there is a countermovement which expresses the need for protection. The book, published in the 1940s, was of course referring to what happened in the 1930s, in the US, in Germany, and in Europe in general.  Polanyi said this movement of society to protect and defend itself can be expressed in different ways, and can take progressive and regressive forms. So in the US it led to FDR, but in Europe it led to fascism, to Nazism and to Stalinism. I think we are in an analogous situation today.


This desire for protection is something that the Left in general is not good at addressing, because the Left dislikes the discourse of protection. They say it is not a progressive demand, that it is some kind of conservative thing, and so they lack a language to address it. But if the Left are unable to address the desire for protection, and to present policies which make people feel they will be protected, and protected in a way that deepens democracy, then it will be right-wing populist or centrist movements that people will follow. I think that that is what has happened in France for instance, where Macron policies indicate an  evolution of neoliberalism in a very authoritarian direction. And I would argue that we are seeing the same thing in Britain.


What I think is particularly dangerous is the development and acceptance of what Evgeny Morozov calls “technological solutionism,” because the people who are really profiting from this crisis are the big transnational corporations, the digital giants. Naomi Klein for instance wrote an interesting article warning of the danger of a “Screen New Deal”, accompanied by digital forms of control. And it is true! We are seeing today that measures which people would not have accepted before—that go against our liberty, that control our lives by digital means—are increasingly accepted because they are presented as necessary to protect us from the virus. This is the danger of those digital giants becoming more and more powerful, and developing forms of digital control which are undoubtedly undermining our liberties. And this is something that an authoritarian neoliberalism can perfectly use. So I think that creates a third possibility.


When I wrote For a Left Populism I said that the big question was between right-wing populism and left-wing populism. Today I can see another option in the development of this kind of new authoritarian digital neoliberalism. Of course it would not solve the main problems of our society, because it is still a new form of neoliberalism and financial capitalism. But it could in a sense delay the demise of neoliberalism.


DK: So what we are seeing is not a new hegemonic formation, but a renewal and extension of the current one?


CM: Yeah, it is an adaptation. It is not a rupture with the present hegemonic neoliberal order, but an evolution of the neoliberal order towards authoritarian and digital forms of control. The critical need for protection in our society may give it a chance of surviving. That is something that I had never considered when I wrote For a Left Populism, because this situation is completely new and is very much a consequence of the pandemic.

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