Populism: The Left’s Bad Cholesterol?

29 March 2018


I have a review out today of Eric Fassin’s pamphlet against left populism (and by extension against Jean-Luc Mélenchon), written last spring during the French presidential election campaign but still relevant today. I had originally wanted to title it after this quip from Fassin’s book, but the Jacobin editors went for something more neutral:

Il paraît qu’il existe deux sortes de cholesterol: le bon et le mauvais. Pour la gauche, en revanche, il n’est pas de bon populisme.

This might be slightly overstating the case against left populism—I do think some of what gets lumped under this term is not as frightening as the word now suggests. But what I found useful in Fassin’s book is its implicit argument that most of what is most useful about so-called “populist” movements on the left is really just good grassroots politics, and not populism in the deeper sense meant by people like Chantal Mouffe.


Photo Credit: Parti Socialiste, Jean-Luc Melenchon, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


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  • brent says:

    We can agree that populism, left or right, is a dangerous genie best kept in the bottle. But what then? I don;t glean from your review any lesson whatsoever for what the Left would need to return to power. Holland ended in single-digits, as did his more progressive successor Hamon. Podemos and Syriza, Corbyn and Sanders in their quite different institutional settings have all shown more success in reaching a progressive electorate, as has 5 Stelle in its way. Despite her plurality, Clinton showed that tired third-way neoliberalism can be ineffectual against the most caricatural and offensive form of right populism. The relative successes of Lega and AfD, among many others, make it clear that this anomaly is not particular to the US. So what then?

    What is perhaps most interesting about LFI is not its anti-ECB, vaguely protectionist populism–which by the way never panders to racism or the more virulent forms of nationalism–but rather what is new and visioinary: the call for massive transformation to a public-sector-driven green-energy-based economy, support for localism in agriculture, affiliations with other progressive developing economies, and so forth. (The Movement’s electoral platform document is greatly under-appreciated in this regard.) Potential populist majorities don’t need to see their prejudices enshrined in Trumpian idiocies–they need to see that a better world, a different Europe or America, is possible. Less nose-counting and more visioning would be a good place for theorists like Fassen to launch a more constructive critique.

  • Geof says:

    Exactly agreed on this site’s ceaseless underappreciation of JLM and Insoumise. Populism’s one constant, across all national boundries, is it’s anti-elitist appeal. Melanchon’s survival [on the left,] when all alternatives have disappeared, produces its own respect; the writers here instead prefer to focus on his occasional over-the-top antics, an unimportant factor. They should instead give value to survival, remembering an American politician who ran unsuccessfully for president three times, before the public finally said “Why not give Him a chance?” His name was Ronald Reagan. Perhaps that will someday be JLM’s winning slogan: “Pourquoi pas?”

    p.s. A word of advice for Leftists: PLEASE stop the disconsolate moaning the Hilary and the Left “won the popular vote,” as if a) that matters and b) it were true, which it is not! (Trump + Johnson) > (Clinton + Stein)

  • Jacob Hamburger says:

    My main gripe in this piece was mainly theoretical—I don’t think that there is any requirement for left movements to embrace the full scope of what Mouffe and the movements that are inspired by her work call “populism” in order to be successful, or to engage in the kind of visionary thinking Brent mentions. I have a longer piece coming out this summer about LFI where I do give Mélenchon more of “a chance”, because I understand where a lot of what’s unappealing about him is coming from and agree that it’s too easy to simply dismiss him on those grounds.

    I hope this article didn’t give the impression of me as a bitter Clintonite (it was published in Jacobin after all!). If anything, I think it reveals my preference for Sanders-style politics which I am hesitant to label as “populist”, even though I am well aware that the French context required an entirely different political strategy for the left.

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