Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Left Populism

By Bernard E. Harcourt

In her new book For A Left Populism (Verso 2018), Chantal Mouffe advocates in favor of an egalitarian, open and embracing, populist political strategy that could serve to unite all the people who have been marginalized by the neoliberal global hegemony during the past forty years. As a discursive and rhetorical device, Mouffe argues, left populism can construct an all-embracing “we, the people” around the unsatisfied demands of all those left behind and opposed to the ruling powers. Mouffe identifies elements of this left populist project in the political discourse of Bernie Sanders and Jean-Luc Mélanchon, and in the approach of the Podemos and Syriza parties.

Mouffe repeatedly underscores that her political project is constructivist and anti-essentialist: Mouffe is not trying to instantiate a “real people” and does not favor a hostile or exclusionary notion of “the people.” She views politics through the perspective of agonism rather than antagonism, of adversarial relations rather than friend/enemy relations. (93) Her project is to unite those who have been left behind by means of a more compelling discourse of equality, social justice, and popular sovereignty.

Mouffe tries to avoid the near-consensus of criticism of populism by stating up front that her project is about praxis, not theory. Mouffe proposes a political intervention, not a theory of populism, and she emphasizes that she has “no intention to enter the sterile academic debate about the ‘true nature’ of populism.” (9) Nevertheless, those academic debates haunt the project insofar as they pose real risks associated with populist movements.

Almost uniformly, scholars and commentators critique populism. Jan-Werner Müller, in his book What Is Populism? (Penn 2016), argues that populism is inherently an anti-pluralist strategy that, when it succeeds (invariably with the collaboration of more traditional conservative elites), veers towards exclusionary practices and mass clientelism. Nadia Urbinati, in her article “Political Theory of Populism” (2019), maintains that populism is parasitic to democracy insofar as it exploits democratic failures by means of an us and them logic, but that when it takes power it inevitably pushes the notion of the people into an extreme or authoritarian direction leading to the distortion of democratic institutions and practices (e.g. the rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances, etc.) Jean Cohen, in her paper “What’s Wrong with Normative Theories of Left Populism?” presented at the Constellations conference at Columbia University on November 30, 2018, focuses specifically on the dangers of left populism, arguing that it cannot avoid the authoritarian pitfalls of populism more generally.

What is clear from the confrontation with academic critics of populism, though, is that Chantal Mouffe is focused on how to gain power, whereas most of the critiques of populism are focused on the populist style of governing when in power. This reflects, to a certain extent, the distinction that Urbinati draws between populism as “a movement of opinion” versus populism as “a ruling power within the state.” (2019: *12)

But even with this distinction in mind, the core claim of the academic chorus is that a populist mode of gaining power will inevitably distort democracy in practice. In other words, that there is path dependence: it may not be possible to separate the way a movement takes power from the way it exercises power. There is, certainly, evidence for this. Donald Trump rose to power on a New Right exclusionary populism and has only accentuated the exclusionary nature of his politics in office—to the point where it is now fair to say that he is fueling a fascist, white supremacist, ultranationalist American counterrevolution. There is also evidence for this on the left side of the populist spectrum.

The question for us, then, in reading Mouffe’s book, is whether she has crafted a political strategy of an egalitarian and socially just populism in such a way as to disrupt the path dependence? More concretely, is it possible that Bernie Sanders in power could avoid the problems of really-existing populism—such as its authoritarian tendency, mass clientelism, and democratic distortion? Or Jean-Luc Mélanchon? Did this happen in Greece with Syriza?  Really-existing political phenomena are notoriously difficult to assess, so perhaps we will need to retreat back to theory—but the central question is whether a left populism strategy can be crafted that would avoid the pitfalls of prior populist experiences.

How then do we evaluate Mouffe’s political strategies when the history of populism is so littered with corpses? Perhaps we need to return to the history books and study less spectacular left-populist coalitions like the Front populaire in France (1936-38). Perhaps we should instead project forward and imagine an Ocasio-Cortez or Beto in 2024. Or perhaps we should return to the sharp discontinuity between praxis and theory—which is so central to Chantal Mouffe’s own political intervention.

I.

How can we properly evaluate Chantal Mouffe’s call for a left populism as a form of critical praxis in these troubled times when the definition of “populism” itself is so contested? To give Chantal Mouffe a fair reading and a fair hearing, the place to begin is to delineate clearly and contrast her use of the term populism, especially as against other contemporary usages; and then to articulate her use of the term “left.”

Populism

Mouffe articulates a narrow definition of what she calls populism. Drawing in part on her long collaboration with Ernesto Laclau, Mouffe specifies that she understands populism:

as a discursive strategy of constructing a political frontier dividing society into two camps and calling for the mobilization of the ‘underdog’ against ‘those in power.’ It is not an ideology and cannot be attributed a specific programmatic content. Nor is it a political regime. It is a way of doing politics that can take various ideological forms according to both time and place, and is compatible with a variety of institutional frameworks. (Mouffe 2018: 11)

Let me highlight three dimensions of Mouffe’s definition of “populism”:

  1. Discourse: it is a way of speaking and of doing politics that constructs a subject for political action. Mouffe emphasizes repeatedly that her approach is, in her words, “anti-essentialist.” (10) Mouffe does not suggest that there is a “real” people out there, but that populism rhetorically constructs a political subjectivity that can be called “the people.” Mouffe intends to appropriate the term as a rhetorical and political device to create a movement in these fractured times. The neoliberal hegemony, Mouffe argues, is falling apart. The discursive strategy of “the market” is breaking down. And there is an opening for a new way of speaking and doing politics. We are at a time, Mouffe argues, in which “the possibility arises of constructing a new subject of collective action—the people—capable of reconfiguring a social order experienced as unjust.” (11)
  2. Power: it separates “the underdog” from “those in power.” Notice that the distinction is between those in society who lose and those who have power. Power is key, and it to be understood as something that one has, as a possession—it is to be understood in a pre-Foucaultian way. The structure is similar to the Marxist model of class struggle, but Mouffe emphasizes that the underdogs include a far more copious range of dominations, along gender, sexual, racial, and ethnic lines. The “underdog” label is intended precisely to reject class essentialism and broaden the category to include as well women, trans* and sexual minorities, and racial and ethnic minorities. It is a copious term that is supposed to reflect and grasp “the multiplicity of struggles against different forms of domination.” (2)
  3. Strategy: it is intended to serve as a political intervention and is not intended to get at the essence of what “populism” means. “I have no intention to enter the sterile academic debate about the ‘true nature’ of populism,” Mouffe emphasizes (9). Her use of the term is entirely strategic and punctual. It is intended to function as a partisan political device in these specific times: “in the present conjuncture it provides the adequate strategy to recover and deepen the ideals of equality and popular sovereignty that are constitutive of a democratic politics.” (9)

Along these dimensions, Mouffe strategically uses the term “populism” as a political-rhetorical device to construct a new political subjectivity for those who are out of power at a time when the neoliberal hegemony has fractured.

Left

Chantal Mouffe seeks to discard the left/right distinction as the basis of her discursive strategy and replace it with the distinction, as noted, of underdog and powerful. In this sense, the term “left” is no longer a cardinal term for Mouffe. It is, instead, a descriptive term, a qualifier, an adjective—one intended to capture long-standing democratic values of equality and popular sovereignty as opposed to long-standing liberal values of property and liberty understood as possessive individualism. This represents an intellectual turn for Mouffe, who writes:

When I wrote On the Political [2005] I suggested reviving the left-right frontier, but I am now convinced that, as traditionally configured, such a frontier is no longer adequate to articulate a collective will that contains the variety of democratic demands that exist today. […] Such claims—the defence of the environment, struggles against sexism, racism and other forms of domination—have become increasingly central. […] [As a result] the ‘populist’ dimension is not sufficient to specify the type of politics required by the current conjuncture. It needs to be qualified as a ‘left’ populism to indicate the values that this populism pursues. (Mouffe 2018:6)

Here too, I will highlight three dimensions of Mouffe’s use of the term “left”:

  1. Democratic: it stands in for a centuries-long struggle between liberals and democrats in the political theory sense of the terms. The contrast Mouffe draws here is between, on the one hand, the tradition of political liberalism that upholds the ideals of the rule of law, checks and balances, and individual freedom, that trace back to Locke and C.B. Macpherson’s concept of possessive individualism, and on the other hand, the tradition of democratic governance that traces to the Greek demos and produced a variety of democratic models (representative, constitutional, pluralist, etc.). (14) For Mouffe, the term “left” maps onto the latter democratic tradition. It is important to note that, for Mouffe, the competing tradition of liberalism is what led to neoliberal hegemony, the rule of the market, and the nefarious policies of privatization, austerity, and deregulation (11-13). It is also worth noting that the distinction serves to disambiguate the unitary idea of “liberal democracy” which Mouffe views as confused, paradoxical, irreconcilable, and the source of many of our problems today.
  2. Equality and Social Justice: At the core of that left/democratic tradition are the values of equality and popular sovereignty—which at times Mouffe refers to as “equality and social justice.” (6) The “central ideas” and the very “grammar” of the democratic tradition are those two values. By embracing the democratic tradition, Mouffe intends to promote these central values of equality and social justice: “The democratic logic of constructing a people and defending egalitarian practices is necessary to define a demos and to subvert the tendency of liberal discourse to abstract universalism.” (15)
  3. The People: it is by mapping the term “left” onto this democratic tradition that Mouffe intends to construct “we, the people” as opposed to the experts, the oligarchs, and those in power. When we view politics from this egalitarian democratic perspective, then we see the fundamental opposition as being between, on the one hand, those who are oppressed and claiming political relief—who are making “unsatisfied demands” (23)—from, on the other hand, those who have power and exercise it as oligarchs. The idea of “left populism” thus becomes “a discursive strategy of construction of the political frontier between ‘the people’ and ‘the oligarchy’, [that] constitutes, in the present conjuncture, the type of politics needed to recover and deepen democracy.” (5)

Along these dimensions, then, Mouffe strategically uses the term “left” to contrast her notion of “the people” from that of right-wing populists. For the latter, the “we” of “the people” consists of citizens and patriots of the nation and excludes immigrants and racial, ethnic and sexual minorities. By contrast, the “we” of left populism aims to embrace all persons who are making unsatisfied claims against those in power—all those who are challenging the oligarchy, all those who are voicing democratic demands. As Mouffe explains, “this requires the establishment of a chain of equivalence among the demands of the workers, the immigrants and the precarious middle class, as well as other democratic demands, such as those of the LGBT community. The objective of such a chain is the creation of a new hegemony that will permit the radicalization of democracy.” (24)

The political strategy

Chantal Mouffe’s political goal is to assemble a larger and broader constituency, including, through an open and less judgmental rhetoric, many right-wing populists. The strategy is to unite and confederate all of those who are expressing democratic claims against those in power, not by adopting the anti-immigrant perspectives of the far right but by offering a more compelling discourse and by “orientat[ing] those demands towards more egalitarian objectives.” (22) Mouffe emphasizes: “I believe that, if a different language is made available, many people might experience their situation in a different way and join the progressive struggle.” (22)

Through the use of examples, Mouffe signals precisely what type of politics she proposes: she draws on the case of Jean-Luc Mélanchon’s party La France Insoumise (23) and acknowledges her intellectual debt to Mélanchon and François Ruffin (95); she refers to the Syriza party in Greece and the Podemos party in Spain (20); she also refers to Bernie Sanders as clearly exhibiting a left populist strategy. (81) These are the kinds of popular political movements that Mouffe has in mind.

Mouffe—and Laclau with her earlier—views populism as the full potential of democracy, almost as the telos of democracy. It is the populist movement that fully realizes the central values of democracy—namely equality, social justice, and popular sovereignty. Populism is for Mouffe (and Laclau), in the words of Nadia Urbinati, “democracy at its best.” (Urbinati 2019: *11) “Populism,” Urbinati writes of Mouffe, “is democracy at its best, because the will of the people is constructed through the people’s direct mobilization and consent.  It is also politics at its best, because it employs only discursive devises and the art of persuasion.” (Urbinati *11)

II.

The question is, though, how does Mouffe’s embrace of the term “left populism” respond to the broadsides against populism that characterize most of the literature and research on populism—which is predominantly negative and uses the term “populist” in a predominantly pejorative sense. To be sure, Mouffe is not interested in sterile academic debates, nor in purely definitional questions. Neither am I. But the question that arises is whether those other critiques of populism undermine Mouffe’s argument.

Anti-pluralism

Jan-Werner Müller, in his book What Is Populism? (2016), rejects certain common sense definitions of populism in order to give the term a more specific and unique meaning. Populism, Müller argues, should not be understood primarily as a form of anti-elitism. It may be and often is anti-establishment, but it is not the only political form that opposes the establishment. That is not really what makes them unique. Instead, he writes, “the hallmark of populists is that they claim that they, and they alone, represent the people (or what populists very often refer to as ‘the real people’).”

In this, Müller emphasizes, populists are “anti-pluralist”: they are intolerant of other views, exclude others as illegitimate, and shut out swaths of the population through exclusionary identity politics. The principal strategy of populists is to claim a unique moralized right to the people, to delegitimize any one else’s claim, and to always paint themselves as a silent majority facing off against corrupt and crooked opponents who are only promoting their self-interests (whether in office or out). Whether they are winning or losing, they will always argue that “corrupt elites were manipulating the process behind the scenes.”

Democratic Distortion

Nadia Urbinati worries that populism has, embedded in it, tendencies that may push it towards authoritarianism or totalitarianism. The reason, Urbinati suggests, is that populism is most often tied to strong leadership or, as Laclau noted, most often takes “the name of the leader” (Laclau quoted in Urbinati *4). Populism rarely involves a claim to direct self-government (though we might want to investigate the case of the French Yellow Vests movement here). And when it then comes to power, it is most often under the leadership of a strong figure who enforces the division of the people against the institutions of governance.

Urbinati views populism as parasitic to democracy—as a mode of politics that exploits democratic failures by means of an us and them logic; but that, as such, must necessarily transform when it takes power. That transformation is inevitably problematic because it pushes the notion of the people (now the majority) into an extreme or authoritarian direction. It is in this sense that it risks disfiguring the institutions of democracy. As Urbinati writes, “The analysis of populism in power leads me to conclude that, although it is an internal transformation of representative democracy, populism can disfigure it because it makes the principles of democratic legitimacy (the people and the majority) the possession of a part, which a strong leader embodies and mobilizes against other parts (minorities and the political opposition).  Populism in power is an extreme majoritarianism.” (*4) In sum, Urbinati writes:

populism is structurally marked by a radical partiality in interpreting the people and the majority; this implies that, if comes to power, it can have a disfiguring impact on the institutions, the rule of law, and the division of powers, which comprise constitutional democracy. (*3)

The danger of populism, for Urbinati, is what happens when it prevails and transforms constitutional forms of democracy.

Now, Urbinati tends to confine her analysis to what we might call right-wing populism—forms of populism that, in her words, “restate the sovereign power of the nation against its internal and external enemies, such as the powerful few, the establishment, global capitalism, immigration, or Islamic fundamentalism, the determinant factors in today’s success of populist rhetoric.” (*3)

By contrast, Jean Cohen, in her paper “What’s Wrong with Normative Theories of Left Populism?” presented at the Constellations conference at Columbia University on November 30, 2018, addresses directly left populism and specifically Chantal Mouffe’s version of left populism. Cohen argues that Mouffe’s theoretical commitments conflict with her political commitments, and that her theoretical commitments themselves (especially her Schmittianism) are problematic. Together, this raises the specter that Mouffe’s left populism simply cannot avoid the authoritarian pitfall.

Fascistic Tendencies

While not directly addressing populism, Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them intersects these debates and raises alarms about populist methods. This is not be surprising, given that, as Urbinati and Federico Finchelstein show, populism was predominantly studied in the mid-twentieth century (in the work of Edward Shils for instance) as a subspecies of fascism. (Urbinati 2019: *2) Finchelstein’s new book, From Fascism to Populism in History (California 2017) is essential reading on this topic.

Stanley writes that “The most telling symptom of fascist politics is division. It aims to separate a population into an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’” (Stanley 2018: xvi) To be sure, Stanley notes that many political movements play on such distinctions, including leftist and even communist movements. So the basesfor the distinctions are more telling. Stanley argues that fascist strategies appeal to national, racial, ethnic, and religious distinctions. But notice that these are the same lines as the ones that Müller identifies as “populist.” “Populism,” Müller writes, “inevitably involves a claim to a moral monopoly of representing the supposedly real people – and also inevitably results in exclusionary identity politics.” The question for us is how far that might extend—and whether to left populism. Finchelstein’s argument in From Fascism to Populism offers a nuanced warning on this front.

Delegative, Nepotistic Democracy

As Urbinati notes, another group of scholars, such as Kurt Weyland, Guillermo O’Donnell, and Alan Knight, associate populism in power with a particular form of unmediated and uninstitutionalized governing that depends on nepotistic favors to maintain control over a majority. Weyland describes how a “personalistic leader seeks or exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, uninstitutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganized followers.” (Quoted in Urbinati *10) O’Donnell speaks of populism in power as “a form of a ‘delegative democracy,’ a gigantic machinery of nepotistic favors with an orchestrating propaganda that imputes the difficulty in delivering on promises to the conspiracy, international and domestic, of an all-powerful global machinery.” (Ibid.) The danger here is that populism, once in power, will have not other way of maintaining itself than to engage in mass nepotistic clientelism.

III.

All of these challenges are aimed, though, at populist regimes, not populist movements. The critiques are to populism in power, not populism as a political strategy to gain power. The fact is, however, that Chantal Mouffe is trying to imbue left populism with an ethos of equality, social justice, and popular sovereignty. Those values inherently resist—or are intended to resist—the dangers that the critics identify. Mouffe emphasizes the democratic values that oppose authoritarianism, dictatorship, or delegation. The core of Mouffe’s left populism is a form of radical democracy—not representational, not delegative. Moreover, the centrality of social justice is intended to embrace all marginalized populations—not to exclude minorities. It is an open populism, even open to those who lurch right.

How then do we evaluate Mouffe’s political intervention when the experience of populism is so fraught? This is the central question for Praxis 9/13 and it highlights once again the need to directly address the relationship between critique and praxis–between theory and tactics.

Welcome to Praxis 9/13!

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