Didier Fassin | On Left Populism

By Didier Fassin

Chantal Mouffe builds her manifesto for a left populism on a relatively straightforward political diagnosis. First, we are living through a populist moment, populism being defined as the discursive strategy opposing the elite and the people. It is not an ideology and it can accommodate to various institutional frameworks. Second, this moment results from the crisis of the neoliberal hegemonic formation which had itself replaced the social-democratic welfare state in the 1980s. This crisis corresponds to the disarticulation of liberal principles of freedom and the rule of law from democratic principles of equality and sovereignty of the people, the former remaining alone after the elimination of the latter, which led to the current post-democracy. Third, the left has committed two historical errors: initially, its class essentialism has made it impervious to the emergence of new social movements involving race, gender, sexuality and environment; later, its attempt to propose a third way that would create a consensus at the center generated a post-politics which did not leave space for contradictions and conflicts. Fourth, the combination of post-democracy (decline of social justice and distrust in representation) and of post-politics (extinction of the right/left opposition) paved the way to populism as the only alternative to neoliberalism and response to people’s discontent. Q. E. D.

Based on this diagnosis, Mouffe draws her plan for the left. Paradoxically, Margaret Thatcher serves as her model. She conquered power by using populist arguments, opposing an oppressive establishment of the state and the unions and the industrious people which did not receive the benefits of its labor. But once in power, she developed a classical form of authoritarian neoliberalism which not only allowed her to develop her Hayekian political project but was later adopted by her successors under the aegis of Tony Blair. Populism was therefore a stepping stone to impose a hegemonic model. For her, this is what the left should in turn do, but with for objective the advent of a new hegemony reuniting liberalism and democracy. Populism must serve as a short-term tactic for a long-term strategy. She sees Jeremy Corbyn as the best example of the successful application of this winning scheme as he adopted the opposition us/them. More generally, in her view, populism is the means, radical democracy, which supposes pluralism and representation, the ends. But for populism to exist, there has to be a people. Being anti-essentialist, Mouffe proposes to construct it. Whereas a few decades ago, the left was exclusively focused on the working class, ignoring the new social movements, the opposite can be said today, and the left consequently needs to retrieve the social question while not losing sight of the cause of ethnoracial minorities, feminists, immigrants, and the environment. But it must not do so in a horizontal way. The people must be represented – in its plurality – and it shall have a leader – though not authoritarian. Finally, the struggles should not be global. They need a national frame, in which affective identifications that are crucial to populism can occur.

This is the outline of the diagnosis and the project proposed by Chantal Mouffe. Although the examples she provides mostly come from the European context, I would argue that the type of left populism she calls for in her essay is profoundly influenced by her late husband’s national background. Like the great majority of leftist intellectuals in Argentina, Ernesto Laclau was a kichnerista, that is, a supporter and even informal advisor of Nestor and later Cristina Kirchner, the most recent reincarnations of Peronism. For him, the Kirchners epitomized left populism, with personalized charismatic leadership, vertical political organization, broad popular support, anti-establishment rhetoric, nationalist discourse. But he also regarded as a welcome alternative to the expansion of an aggressive and predatory neoliberalism in Latin America the coming to power of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, in all these cases thanks to the mobilization of grassroots organizations, peasant communities and the working class. For Laclau, these countries showed that left populism could succeed, leading to the election of progressive leaders. The fact that Mouffe does not mention any of these left populist leaders who have inspired Laclau’s 2005 theoretical book On Populist Reason is revealing. Probably, the deteriorated image of Chávez, the hold on power of Morales, the authoritarian style of Correa, and the corruption scandals surrounding Cristina Kirchner demonstrated that the passage from the conquest of power to the mode of governing, evoked by Bernard in his introduction, poses complex questions, although a thorough analysis of their action would give a more balanced assessment recognizing notable achievements in terms of reduction of inequality and illiteracy, for instance. But obviously, Mouffe prefers to discuss European countries where left populism is still relatively immaculate for never having exercised responsibilities, with the only exception of Syriza whose alliance with ANEL, the right-wing populist party, since 2015 she surprisingly forgets to evoke. Indeed, neither the Labor Party, nor Podemos, nor Die Linke, nor La France Insoumise – inasmuch as these parties should be characterized as left populists – have governed. In this respect, Mouffe’s affirmation that La France Insoumise represents the main opposition to the government of Emmanuel Macron is somewhat optimistic as opinion polls for the European elections in May show that, with less than 10 percent of voting intentions, that is, less than half of the percentage of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, the party comes in 5th position. Thus, examining attentively and seriously the experiences of left populism conducted in Latin America, so often caricatured by international conservative and liberal medias, could be a good starting point.

But to return to the two sides of Mouffe’s argument – the diagnosis and the project – I will limit my comments to one point on each of them.

Part of the diagnosis, if not original, is accurate: the general shift to the right of the political spectrum, the delegitimation of the ideas of the left, the blurring of the dividing ideological lines, the hegemony of neoliberalism. I would however argue that the decline of democratic life is also accompanied by a decline of liberal principles: not only is inequality growing and popular sovereignty waning, but freedom and the rule of law are threatened by law and order policies, securitization and surveillance. But my main point is different. I do not think that present right-wing populism is a response to a crisis of neoliberalism, first because it is not a response and second because there is no such crisis. On the contrary, right-wing populism is often a Trojan horse for neoliberalism. Examples abound, but one should suffice. The coming to power of Donald Trump is an electoral victory for populism but a political victory for neoliberalism. The grotesque figure of the president, that is, the unsettling combination of ridiculous and odious, of absurd and obscene, which attracts so effectively the attention of the medias and the public, allows his political allies and rich donors to discreetly get their neoliberal agenda through. Tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, budget reductions for social and health programs, deregulation of finance, consumer protection and environmental preservation, among other decisions less discussed than the President’s tweets, have largely benefited the upper segment of the population while contributing to the increase of economic disparities. This triumph of neoliberalism has been interpreted by some as a typical example of false consciousness since the blue-collar workers who succumbed to the populist candidate’ sirens and voted for him were among those directly affected by his reforms. Yet, it would be more interesting to note two facts: first, exit polls of the presidential election indicate that the percentage of votes in favor of Trump was much higher among the well-off than among low-income households; second, international comparisons establish that the abstention rate, which is always higher among the poor, increases with inequality, the United States having therefore one of the lowest turnouts of Western countries. In other words, it would be more accurate to speak of the enlightened consciousness of the more privileged who vote for the candidate whose policy will benefit them not only directly via his decisions but also indirectly by affecting the abstention rate of the lower social segments.

Regarding the project, even if one accepts the idea that left populism is the lifeline of the left, it is revealing of a somewhat old conception of democracy and of the people, as it leaves little space to participative democracy and to people’s say. First, in Mouffe’s vision, the envisaged democracy is representative and mostly vertical, with the dominant figure of the leader. In the case of La France Insoumise, if it is indisputable that Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s talent of populist tribune explains in good part the initial success of the movement, there is little doubt that its rapid decline after the presidential election has been largely facilitated by his bullish personality, and we have to remember that he recently declared: “My person is sacred.” The contrast between the quality of the debates inside the party and intellectual openness of its members and the simplified messages and dogmatic discourse of the leader is striking. It is more than an idiosyncrasy: it derives from the very populist idea of the supreme leader. Second, in Mouffe’s program, the imagined people does not seem to have a voice; it is rather spoken via the leader. People are supposed to be affected emotionally by discourses, images, mobilizations, but they are more on the receiving end than on the emitting side. They are represented rather than they represent themselves. Although she cites the Indignados three times in passing and even quotes their “We have a vote but we have no voice,” she does not refer to any such movement when she analyzes the construction of the people. Indeed, the people is constructed; it does not seem to construct itself. Significantly, the attitude of the French left parties and trade unions to the gilets jaunes movement – undoubtedly populist and popular, composed of working class and low middle-class – has been at the beginning prudent, if not reluctant, as protesters were depicted by the government and journalists as Poujadists, xenophobic, anti-Semitic. Among the numerous interesting aspects of this almost entirely spontaneous uprising which long refused leaders, two may be retained for our topic. The first lesson is that the two supposedly populist parties have apparently not taken advantage of the situation: the Rassemblement National has remained stable in terms of voting intentions around 21-22 percent; the France Insoumise has even declined from 11-12 to 8-9 percent; the presidential party has slightly progressed, from 19 to 22 percent. In sum, no benefit of the populist uprising for left populism. The second lesson is that on the roundabouts and in the street, it seems that attempts of political exploitation, in particular by the far right, have failed, and that, on the contrary, right and left populists often decided to leave aside their ideological differences and to fraternize against their common enemies, which interestingly was the state rather than the capital. In sum, on the ground, the right-left division seemed to ease somewhat. So, my more general point is that it is crucial to acknowledge and pay attention to actual movements even when they do not fall into the theorists’ categories.

Earlier, I used the formulation: even if one accepts the idea that left populism is the lifeline of the left. I simply want to add that I am not of those who accept this idea (suffice to observe the problematic evolution of Die Linke with Sara Wagenknecht). I believe that the left does not need populism. Instead it needs two things that are definitely missing in many contexts, that of France in particular: ideas and courage.