Jan-Werner Mueller | What’s Left of Left-Wing Populism?

By Jan-Werner Mueller

Nicolás Maduro is losing his grip on power in Venezuela; Podemos, the self-declared left-populist party in Spain, appears to be splitting at the top; Syriza’s popularity is declining.  Conservatives in the US and elsewhere are gleefully pointing to the disaster which Chávismo has become to warn of the dangers of “socialism,” while even more impartial observers might conclude that the long “pink tide” of left-populism is coming to an ignominious end.

Such conclusions run together far too many phenomena which, in the end, have little to do with each other.  There is indeed a self-declared “left populism” that has not only failed economically, but also been shown to be a clear threat to democracy: the Chávismo which claimed exclusively to represent “the people” and declared all opposition to “twenty-first century socialism” to be illegitimate.  But other supposed forms of “left-populism” should be understood as attempts to re-invent social democracy for the twenty-first century, in ways that evidently respect the parameters of pluralist democracies.  If nothing else, such attempts have generated new choices for citizens and thereby alleviated contemporary crises of democratic representation – contrary to the lazy mainstream view that new movements and parties must somehow be “anti-system” and therefore part of the problem, rather than the solution.  But – this is the important lesson – these parties and movements have done well because they are left, not because they are in any meaningful sense populist.

Proponents of left-wing populism have put forward two main reasons for their strategy.  Theorists like Chantal Mouffe already claimed in the 2000s that a convergence of left and right on centrist policies had led to a state of “post-democracy.”  As the Third Way policies adopted by social democrats across the West amounted to “Thatcherism with a human face,” citizens no longer had a real choice: to stick with the metaphor, voters could only opt for Thatcherism with or without a human face, or, as Mouffe put it at one point: the difference was no bigger than that between Pepsi and Coke.  In her eyes, the surge of right-wing populism – starting with figures like Jean-Marie Le Pen and Austria’s Jörg Haider – was a “cry of the people” against a lack of genuine choices.

Even if one shares this diagnosis, one does not have to adopt the second major claim made by proponents of left-populism: that the best response to this crisis of representation was mobilizing citizens with the claim that society is fractured between the people on the one hand, and the oligarchy, or la casta, on the other.  Note the thought that motivated this proposition: citizens are tired of anything traditionally seen as the left; in fact, people are so sick of it that even the very word “left” should not appear in the rhetoric of left-wing populist leaders.  As Podemos intellectuals put it, “if you want to get it right, don’t do what the left would do.”

The wager of this “transversal strategy” cutting across traditional ideological divisions was that during the Eurocrisis citizens would be receptive to the idea that a financial oligarchy should rightfully to be blamed for their woes; but, as important, there was the hope that voters of right-wing populist parties could be persuaded to defect, if presented with a clear option de fact, if not in name, on the left.  They would understand that their problems were not caused by immigrants, but by financialized capitalism.  Didier Eribon’s deeply moving memoir, Return to Reims, was partly such a success in Europe, because it provided a vivid illustration of this idea: Eribon’s mother used to cast her ballot for the Communists, but in the age of socialists-turned-neoliberals, she protest-votes for a Le Pen.

On a very basic level, this is an empirical hypothesis: people-talk will mobilize citizens, workers in particular, whereas a reinvigorated leftist language will not.  Obviously, one or two elections should not decide the fate of a position of political philosophy, but one can still ask: what have been the results of testing this hypothesis?  Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise, switched from a very universalist (and traditionally) socialist rhetoric in his 2012 presidential campaign to one centered on “the people” in the 2017 contest; at rallies, red flags were comprehensively replaced by the Tricolore.  Mélenchon ended up doing very well at the polls and almost reached the run-off – but, as the French sociologist Eric Fassin has pointed out, only around 3 per cent of Front National voters switched to his party.

The seemingly obvious lesson has been taken on by a number of leftists in other parts of Europe: they have to become even more nationalist in order to make the “transversal strategy” work.  Sarah Wagenknecht, a prominent leader of Germany’s Die Linke, has formed a movement “Stand Up!,” which aims not only to unite followers from different left-wing parties – but also to lure voters away from the far-right Alternative for Germany.  The truly distinctive feature of the movement has been its opposition to “open borders.”

It is very doubtful that this strategy will work – in fact, it seems more likely that a stance of at least partly accepting the parameters of right-wing populists will only strengthen the latter.  The left has succeeded where it clearly offered alternatives on questions like housing and the regulation of finance, not where it put people-talk first: just think of Jeremy Corbyn or, for that matter, Bernie Sanders.  These figures hardly offer “socialism,” but a social democratic brew that can appeal to anyone tired of the taste of Pepsi, Coke, and other, only marginally different neoliberal soft drinks (to stick with Mouffe’s metaphor).