By Nikita Shepard
A curious emotion seemed to flow through the discussion of left populism tonight: a nostalgia for an imagined democracy. Both the proponents and the critics of left populism seem united in their evocation of a democracy—perhaps modified by one adjective or another, or perhaps pure and unsullied—that must be defended or returned to. Muller’s final comment made an impassioned plea for “saving democracy” from the menace of populism; many of the commenters joined Mouffe in decrying the “post-democracy” identified by Ranciere; others spoke of how certain populisms reflect or precipitate “democratic decline,” or a “hollowing out of democracy.”
So exactly what is this imagined democracy that populism menaces with hollowing, supersession, decline, or destruction?
“Democracy” suffers perhaps even more acutely from the vagueness, polysemy, and conceptual muddiness attributed to “populism.” However, whereas populism, as Cohen points out, has come to function as a “counter concept” a la Koselleck, defined only by its function to smear that to which it is applied (as, predictably, “anti-democratic”), democracy appears to function in the opposite way—defined only by its function to signify the good and to elevate all that to which it is attached. Representative or direct, state forms or anti-state movements, regimes in power or counter-powers, processes or contents; all of these divergent and often contradictory phenomena can be subsumed under the democratic label—provided the speaker means to attribute normative value to them.
But the imagined democracy evoked by the discussants of left populism takes on a narrower, if still unspecified, form. It appears from the shadow cast by its non-appearance to be located temporally in an unspecified but presumably not-so-distant 19th or 20th century past, and spatially in the governmental apparatuses and/or social movements of some (unnamed) countries of the “West.” It is apparently clear enough that all of the writers and panelists, despite their divergent views, can allude to it and rouse sympathy by calling for its defense. But precisely just what/where/when is this thing that we so fear being “post”?
I believe that this question opens up critical directions for inquiry into praxis in the current moment. Let’s see if attempting to clarify what democracy left populism’s friends and foes alike want us to defend may shed some light on promising directions for reflection and action.
Drawing on the distinction made by Cohen and others between left movements, party movements, populists in power, and populist regimes, I would distinguish between two broad types of imagined democracy that left populism might either embody (Mouffe and sympathizers) or menaces (the critics): that of a state form—whether actual or aspirational, but within the framework of existing power relations and state structures—or a horizon of political possibility, spanning a range of operations not restricted to governmental administration and state power.
We might begin by asking whether the democracy we are called to defend from decline and destruction is a party, state, or governmental apparatus. Most of the comments centering around threats to the democratic (meaning electoral, legislative, executive, or other governmental) process would imply so. What, where, or when, then, is this democratic regime held up as the model threatened by either left populism or its failure to take power?
The risk of this implied logic, of course, is of reproducing a red hat-style appeal for us to “Make America [or wherever] Great Again” through restoring the great Center. Of course, as Fassin wisely reminded us, astute commentators are increasingly articulating the violence of the center; as an example, we might recall that as I write this, Democrats are negotiating an additional billion dollars to militarizing the US/Mexico border. In a settler colonial country built by slave and migrant labor and enriched through imperial conquest and environmental devastation, is there any period of US history that should provide our template for the true and pure democratic state we are to defend? Or are we talking about EU technocratic regimes of the 1980s-2000s, perhaps embodied by Macron? Or the anti-death penalty Mitterand’s principled “unpopulism” of the 1980s? Scandinavian social democracy?
I don’t presume to know the political views of the Praxis seminar’s participants. But for those of us who in general aspire to an internationalist, egalitarian vision of a world in which security does not depend on exclusion and prosperity does not depend on exploitation, just what democratic state regime are we supposed to uphold as our archetype to be defended? Perhaps by adopting a myopic procedural lens and contrasting their less unappealing features to the more execrable alternatives of illiberal regimes, we might resuscitate one or the other of these examples. Yet none look especially promising as templates for the radical social and political transformation urged by the more ambitious left populists.
A contemporary case study of left party populism may point towards the limits of even one of the most ideal and widely praised instance of populists in power: that of Syriza in Greece. After the party’s meteoric rise in 2015 from the assemblies of Syntagma Square to the parliament building its fellow protestors once besieged, Syriza appears to embody the qualities praised by Mouffe while sidestepping many of the problems identified by her critics among tonight’s panelists. So, while recognizing that one case study does not an argument make, what might that left populist party’s example tell us about the prospects of radical populist democracy in power?
Within a year of their election to power and the triumphant referendum in which Greek voters decisively rejected the austerity programs imposed by the EU, Syriza promptly reversed its course and became the administrators of austerity on to the very population that elected it on the basis of their promise to do the opposite. The party ushered in a package of brutal cuts to social spending for the benefit of European creditors at the expense of the Greek population. By 2016, Alexis Tsipras was sitting on panels with the German Finance Minister warning audiences against—wait for it—the “dangers of populism.” As of this January, Greek retirees will face an additional 18% cut in their pensions, with more cuts to social benefits planned for the coming months, as a result of legislation approved unanimously by the left populist party’s delegates last year.
We might conclude that left electoral populism of Syriza provided the only way that capitalism could be stabilized in a potentially revolutionary Greece. (As a side note, tonight’s seminar was the only time I’ve ever attended an event with “left” in the title in which the word capitalism was not uttered once.) With no disrespect intended to our esteemed guest at the previous seminar, a former minister in that party in Tsipras’s cabinet, it would appear that the “idea of communism” filtered through left populist parties in power looks in practice suspiciously similar to neoliberal austerity—something that will not surprise those familiar with the history of actually existing communism.
Aside from the economic impact of these measures on the Greek people, which will be bad enough, the political impact of this betrayal may be even worse. The economic crisis in Greece led to the rise of both the left populists of Syriza as well as the extreme right populists of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn, who propose many similar policies, but restricted to a nationally and racially defined citizenry. When the left populists find that the constraints imposed by playing the role of government leave them no choice but to betray their constituency, it will demoralize the mobilized left and popular sectors that brought them to power, while emboldening and legitimizing the right wing that proposed extreme nationalism as an antidote to EU austerity.
In other words, the real threat of left populism—that is, left populist party movements that gain power and become regimes—is their own success. Unable to solve the fundamental structural crises of capitalism, as indeed no political party can do within the existing framework of national representative politics, they will merely “succeed” in taking power long enough to demoralize their constituencies and embolden their enemies. Some, such as the Venezuelan regime propped up by petro dollars, will last longer, and fall harder; others, like the idealists of Podemos, will never manage to overtake the technocrats.
In this context, cycling back to Harcourt’s initial framing, we might conclude that the problem posed by left populism is not in fact that it undermines social democracy or liberal democracy. The problem is that it does not.
What might happen, then, if we dispense with our nostalgia for an imagined democracy as a state form? What remains is left populism as social movement: the diverse and unruly forces that present, as one panelist eloquently put it, not a fixed program but an open horizon of political possibility. We might then focus more attention on the radical possibilities implied by movements such as the ones mentioned tonight: the radical multi-racial farmers alliances of the late 19th century US, or the Occupy movement and its counterparts in the squares of Barcelona and Athens (on which Podemos and Syriza fed vampirically); the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt; the upheavals against transit fare hikes in Brazil or the planned destruction of Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013; or perhaps even threads within the yellow vest movement in France today. While some of these movements have achieved tangible objectives or even toppled regimes, these criteria aren’t the only ones by which we might evaluate them. We might also look to them as paradigms for a mode of struggle and social reorganization on a radically different basis from representative politics, or even democracy itself (as some of their participants from Spain to Slovenia have argued that we should).
For when it comes down to it, many of the critiques leveled against left populism and populism in general aren’t specific to some particular variant of representative electoral politics—they’re structural features of all contemporary mass democratic politics. A few examples should suffice. As panelists argued, populism is “opportunistic,” and its “host ideologies are expendable.” Look at the platforms and policy positions of the Democratic and Republican parties over the past 100 years and see if that description doesn’t fit. As Muller pointed out, talk of “the people” is indeed a fundamental “part of politics as a vocation.” While he then argues for a meaningful distinction between proposals of peoplehood and made on their behalf as “fallible hypotheses” subject to verification versus absolutist claims, what is overlooked is that contemporary social movements of the past decade have nearly all arisen in anger against “politics as a vocation” itself. Anger at the political class as a class, and more specifically against police as the armed wing defending their interests, does indeed transcend left/right distinctions. However, populism may be less helpful as a label for these outbursts than for the statist movements and parties that appropriate them and attempt to paradoxically channel them into support for new candidates (as with the Brazilian right-wing mass movement modeled in part on the anti-systemic fare hike uprising that arose to impeach Dilma Rousseff and paved the way for the rise of Bolsonaro).
This implies that debating whether this or that party or candidate or movement should “count” as populist is asking the wrong question. These observations point to a much deeper crisis of legitimacy in the notion of representative democracy itself, alongside questions about the shifting role of the state towards an increasingly narrow range of semi-privatized security functions detached from legislative maneuvers and electoral campaigns. As recent examples from Belgium, Northern Ireland, and indeed our very own government shutdown show, the smooth functioning of governmentality relies very little on the conflicts and actions of the political class in most contemporary democracies. Cybernetic governance, bureaucratic administration, and infrastructural power secure the circulation of commodities and the reproduction of social relations; electoral spectacles and legislative debates function primarily as a mechanism of legitimization, with security apparatuses mobilized behind the scenes for when that legitimacy wavers or fails (as the rise and fall of Morsi in Egypt illustrates). Democratic theorists who think that the machinations of politicians—whether populist, technocratic, semi-fascist, or somehow “radically democratic”—exert significant influence on the broad structural features of economic and social life in particular nation states need only refer to the Greek example. The types of radical changes that could actually halt austerity and reorganize economic and social relations in Greece or beyond can only be achieved through active disruption of the flows of infrastructural and cybernetic power—the types of interventions politicians across the spectrum are almost certainly unable and definitely unwilling to undertake, but that rebellious, non-ideological social movements are well positioned to do (as the rise of highway blockades as core tactics from Black Lives Matter to the yellow vest movement indicate).
This has clear implications for praxis. If the defining feature of most revolts of the past decade is disgust for politicians and police, left populist strategies that aspire to the reins of state power will either fail outright (Podemos, Sanders) or fail through success (Syriza). The consequences in either case may be grievous. Instead, we can throw our weight behind the non- and anti-state movements, whether we call them populist or not, who open new horizons of political possibility not yet constrained by the imperatives of governing. We can experiment with tactics and strategies aimed not at shoring up the legitimacy of the processes of electoral representation that have failed us, but intervening directly in the processes and flows that actually structure our daily existence. Rather than aiming to return to, defend, or redeem a nostalgically imagined representative democracy, we should aim to destitute it, to open space for these horizons to unfold beyond the limits of our political imaginations.
Aristides Baltas served as Greek Minister of Culture for Syriza in Alexis Tsipras’s cabinet during the period described above, 2015-16.
 This focus accommodates the important critiques leveled by Benhabib and reinforced by Finkelstein of Mouffe’s perplexing nationalism. In a world in which all of left populism’s antagonists (international capital/bankers, neoliberals and globalists, “the 1%,” and indeed right-wing populists themselves) are clearly organizing transnationally, restricting approaches to the frame of single nation-states makes neither conceptual nor strategic sense.
 On Spain, see “From 15M to Podemos: The Regeneration of Spanish Democracy and the Maligned Promise of Chaos” (https://crimethinc.com/2016/04/05/feature-from-15m-to-podemos-the-regeneration-of-spanish-democracy-and-the-maligned-promise-of-chaos); on Slovenia, see “‘Gotovo je!’ Reflections on Direct Democracy in Slovenia” (https://crimethinc.com/2016/05/11/feature-gotovo-je-reflections-on-direct-democracy-in-slovenia).
 This is not, of course, meant to imply that the actions of politicians have no impact on the lives of the citizenry; they can and often do. But even the frightening consequences of actions of a Trump, Erdogan, or Bolsonaro, disproportionately borne by the most exploited or excluded sectors of “their” and neighboring populations, are marked by more continuity than discontinuity in terms of the fundamental structural features of economic and social life in their respective countries.