Rosalind Morris | For Rejecting a Left Populism

By Rosalind Morris

Chantal Mouffe’s texts, For a Left Populism, is correct in its description of the contemporary conjuncture as a “populist moment,” but the text is more symptomatic of this moment than it is critically analytical. Indeed, as many of the contributors to this week’s discussion argue, Mouffe does not claim to be offering such an analysis, but rather argues for an appropriation and redirection of this recurrently emergent tendency.  But this means reproducing a number of the dangerous analytical errors (or decisions) in populism. There are three especially significant such trends:

The relation with others misconstrued as a question of the enemy

As many of the post-writers this week remarked, Mouffe reduces the question of the relation with others to a question of the enemy (in the mode of Carl Schmitt). The enemy that she postulates for the people is “the establishment,” but the discourse of the enemy and the orientation of the political on the basis of a permanent enemy will never be able to satisfy itself; for animosity is not the same as the individuals who may be perceived as enemies. Thus construed, the populist politics oriented to and by the enemy must either annihilate the state and not merely those who inhabit its bureaucratic-institutional offices. Or, it must find other substitute enemies. If there is a chain of substitutions, this is where it is produced: in the slippage along the associative line between those who can be signified as enemies, and who will be the object of extirpating energies. The enemy, as a general concept, refers to more than the polar opposite in a structure of opposition. It is the name for a menace that one wishes to eliminate, but that can, at the same time never be eliminated; for, only particular enemies can be eliminated.  One of the names for the affect that seeks to eliminate and not merely to oppose its other is “hatred.” This is why a more progressive political demand centers itself on the task of structural transformation grounded in the pedagogical reorientation of consciousness, guided by particular ideas of what is desirable, good and just for the society in question, and not a discursive practice oriented by the concept of the enemy, and the we/they opposition.

The substantialization of “the people”

Mouffe substantializes the conceptual category of “the people,” the symptom of which is the use of the definite article. She does this despite the ostensibly anti-essentialist notion of a chain of equivalences so central to her argument. For Mouffe, Left populism entails an abrogation of the privileged place of the working class as the signifier of the excluded part, and of its valorization of the real site of universality. In its place, she offers a chain of equivalent positions, including migrants, minorities, the working class, the precarious middle class, the unemployed, and the LGBTQ community. Her formulation of this notion is hampered by the fact that it does not adduce the abstract values that can be attributed as qualities to the constituent segments of the chain and that could thus form the basis of the equivalence.  The only abstract quality shared by these groups is their exclusion from the dominant position—but this occurs along different axes. Moreover, these segments contain individuals and groups that are beneficiaries of the larger political economy, and/or that may be oriented toward or complicit with the exclusion of other elements of other segments, along other axes.  Solidarity or alliance politics does not require nor can it be grounded in the equivalence of the solidary/allied parties.

But the substantialist error entails more than this, and it is part and parcel of the backward-looking dimensions of populist thought, dimensions that often manifest themselves in the affective attachment that populists feel toward the past, and indeed the past-as-lost.

Acting in the name of the people can never be the same as “the people” acting, whether in the mode of self-representation or self-organization. The fetish of self-organization, which is so often linked to the idea of popular sovereignty in populist and much Left thought today, too frequently overlooks this dimension of the futurity and perhaps even spectrality of the demos or communities (inadequate term) about which democratic decisions must necessarily be made. No eco-politics adequate to the temporality of the crisis of the anthropocene will be possible without this recognition and the necessary de-substantialization of “the people” that must go along with it.  One cannot act on behalf of “the people” as a substantial, already existing entity. One can only act in the name of the people. If it is to be the basis of an emancipatory politics, the people must include all those who have yet to come, who have yet to arrive on the horizon of the political community and even to be born.  This is why “identity politics,” driven as it is by the desire to find a political representational form for a difference understood as what is and what has been despite the occlusions of history, is so often the bedfellow of populism, even when originating in emancipatory efforts to resist the false self-universalizations of the dominant (cultural, sexual, racial, class) position. Without the recognition of the non-presence, or perhaps of the temporally self-transcendent nature of the political community, however constituted and encompassing more or less of the extra-human world, the aspiration to popular self-representation almost inevitably gives itself up to the fantasy of the Leader as embodiment of the people and of popular will (what Jean Cohen refers to as the logic of  incarnation—the pars pro toto logic—of populism’s “competitive authoritarianism”). Acting in the name of the political community, rather than “the people” ought to mean setting policy, pursuing social goods, mitigating inequality and distributing the social dividend in a manner that both affects and binds those who are not yet among “us”.

The Dialectic of the Local and the Translocal

The substantialist tendency in populist discourse is contradicted not only by the futurity of the community in whose name it acts; it is undermined by the unstable grounds of its origins.  Many writers have observed that the question of populism seems to arise, or to acquire additional force and urgency in a recursive dialectic with forces that are otherwise felt to dissipate the coherence of the previously sedimented political community. It is this previously sedimented community which, finding the content of the “we” in the formulation “we, the people” (the people as bearer of a will) to be under duress, or changing at a pace that cannot be assimilated, tends to gravitate toward (conservative forms of) populism. Thus, finance capital, which is always the agent of a globalizing tendency, as well as its crises, is often the bad object of populists who advocate defensive, or nationalist economic policies and strategies in opposition. Similarly, (im)migration is often postulated as a threat to the previously sedimented community, even when and perhaps especially when that community was itself comprised largely of immigrants.

The dialectic is historically relative and specific.  In the age of memory studies, we might do well to recall here Ernst Renan’s insightful observation, in “What is a Nation?” that nationalist thought requires the forgetting of prior origins (and languages). In the current conjuncture, this observation has to be updated to account for the fact that what people tend to forget is not their origins elsewhere, which are often fetishistically valorized, but their own foreignness.  This simultaneous forgetting of one’s own foreignness, and the narrative memorialization of one’s ancestry in other places generates a powerful drive to postulate identity between origin and destination.  The genealogies of identity so generated are fundamentally preservative and/or conservative. And as a corollary, the contests over the nature and character of “the people” (who is legitimately to be included in the sovereign community) entails an intense investment in the value of priority itself.  Insofar as democratic formations can never ground their legitimacy in anything absolute, insofar as they are always liable to transformation by future generations and the strangers who join them, the value of firstness is hyperbolized—as supplement and mask. The previously sedimented community thus signifies its firstness as constitutive and transposes the content of that firstness into a substantial description, staving off the historical vulnerability to change that the majoritarianism of liberal democracy necessarily entails. The long history of race-based immigration quotas and the bans on various religious minorities in the US, but also in other nations, materialize this.  We know that majoritarianism can be a force for exclusion, and that it is often the instrument of violent normativity, and it is therefore also what leads to border panics and immigration bans. It also legitimates the maintenance of anti-majoritarian institutions, such as the Electoral College. In other words, the substantialist fantasy is haunted by what it opposes. This spectral threat may partly explain the affective intensity of populism.

That which is perceived as a threat to the previously sedimented community can take many forms, and it is significant that populism today can be seen emerging in very different kinds of political formation. It has arisen in the liberal democracies, which have a relatively uninterrupted history of more or less developed Hayek-ian, welfare-statism grounded in industrial and productivist but also consumerist social and economic forms. It has arisen in the wake of state socialism’s and other planned economies’ collapse. It can be seen in the post-independence neocolonial and/or still decolonizing states of Latin America and Asia. And it is to be seen in the spaces where military-aristocratic/monarchical alliance dominates mixed economies, as in Southeast Asia. At issue is the subjective perception of an erosion of the previously sedimented community’s stability, legitimacy and relative claims to determine the conceptual terms within which a polity will be governed.

The problem of the Leader and the subjective dimension

In all of the posts for this week, reference was made to the tendency of populist movements to give rise to authoritarian Leadership, forms of personalistic or clientalist politics, and/or personality cults. The fact that so many populist movements are written under the name of a Leader attests to this fact. Peron, Bolivar and Chavez, Kirchner, Bolivar, Trump, Le Pen, etc..  Mouffe, like Badiou, recognizes and even extols the place of charismatic authority in providing a representation that the people “needs” to sustain its affective energies, its progressive momentum.

Already, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx had derided this personalized representationalism, and attributed it partly to the superstition of the small-holding peasants and the petit bourgeoisie.  But the structural analysis in that text linked this superstitition to the loss of other forms within which lateral solidarities might form the basis of alliance. Our contemporary thinkers tend to focus, rather, on the epistemological and affective function of the Leader—and link it to a critique of the austere rationalism of bureaucratic and technocratic regimes as much as to an absence of organizational mechanisms for producing solidarities beyond those of a presumptive and a prioriclass-identity based in a particular position within the productive field.  Thus construed, the Leader becomes understandable and useful for the satisfaction of an emotional need.  In this sense, a vulgar Weberian ghost haunts Mouffe’s populist machine: disenchantment demands re-enchantment, and the sterile machinery of technocratic governmentality summons the desire for a sublime effervescence.

Unlike Badiou, who explains away the cult of personality as a means to suture over the absence of historical grounding for the claim to legitimacy in post-revolutionary situations, Mouffe argues for the utility of the Leader in the “crystallization of common affects” (70) among a people which is otherwise comprised of differently positioned individuals and groups (the segments of the “chain of equivalences”).  Once again, she rightly identifies a dimension of the populist moment, but rather than critiquing it, accepts and indeed valorizes it. The question she doesn’t ask concerns the nature and mechanisms of this subjective dimension.

It may be useful to consider to expand the horizon a little beyond the European center. And I would argue that there is much to be learned from a brief review of the rise of populist movements and their Leadership cults in Southeast Asia, in the late 1990s, following what, in the discussion of January 23, I referred to as the first and not-yet globalized Financial crisis. The Financial crisis of 2008-09 assumed its global dimension discursively, thanks to the Eurocentrism of much critical theory, and practically, thanks to the power of Western institutions to extend their influence and indeed animating principles across the globe. But its foreshadowing had come two decades previously. In the late nineties in Southeast Asia, the financial sector and the large banks were over-extended by virtue of real estate speculation and debt-trading, but unlike in 2008, many of the largest banks in that region were allowed to fail.  Debt, typically the engine of welfare-state spending, became a crisis partly because local currencies, which had been speculated upon thanks to the deregulation of such trading, and technological developments permitting virtually instantaneous trades.  But the crisis was exacerbated because of international monetary policies dictated by international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank.

In any case, in the aftermath of the crisis of 1997, local populist movements arose and anticipated the trajectory to be followed by populist movements elsewhere, including in the Global North, in four main respects. 1) They were characterized by unprecedented alliances and identifications between the wealthiest and the poorest segments of society, united under the banner of “the people” in apparent opposition to transnational finance capital; 2) they were dependent on social media, which was deployed within a fantasy of immediacy to generate the sensation of connection between the new Leaders and “the people”; 3) they entailed the co-optation by the newly emergent Leadership of the distributive functions which are otherwise the presumptive function of the state but which had been ineffectually managed or corruptly diverted; 4) the appropriation of the distributive function was associated with a renewed personalism in theaters of gift-giving and the personal name-branding of development projects.

What permitted the strong attachments and identifications, between the poorest people and the new Leaders, who were unimaginably wealthy and who shared virtually no experience with the impoverished masses who nonetheless found their mirror images in these popular living icons, was not merely the use of social media and the by-passing of the fourth estate, which, in many cases had been crippled by state-censorship, but the fantasy that these Leaders had, like ordinary citizen/subjects, also been abused by and/or oppressed by the state or its established representatives. The new populist Leaders narrated their exposure to heavy taxation, regulation, state prosecution and/or persecution (often on grounds of electoral irregularities or corruption) into an improbable basis for identification—against the old establishment. And they did so even as they seized the state apparatuses to deregulate through regulation the sectors of the economy in which they themselves were invested. These identifications were based in negative gestures or disidentifications, in precisely the sense that Mouffe describes but does not criticize. However, it is significant that it was not solidarity born of equivalence but (mis)identification that arose in these contexts, and that metastasized to precipitate competitive claims to national belonging, renewed assaults on minoritized groups (sexual, religious and ethnic), and spiraling cycles of strong-man politics. In Thailand and the Philippines, people’s power movements gave way to military coups, often legitimated post-facto with constitutional revisions and formal elections, with the result being that extreme anti-democratic forces came to power. Duterte in the Philippines, and a series of military-led regimes in Thailand.

Yet, if the marginalized poor did, indeed, receive some of the benefits that they had been denied under previous regimes, and if they attributed these benefits to the personal largesse of the new Leaders, who wrote them under their personal signatures, if they identified with these extravagantly wealthy and/or powerful individuals, the question remains: why did they desire such identification? What libidinous energies and investments were available for such mobilization, and why? For the authoritarian dimension was not merely superimposed from above.

Leadership from the Bottom?

It may be that, within liberal electoral orders, the radicalization of democracy, and even the merely vigilant pursuit of its ideals—and especially the ideal of equality—depend on the recursive leavening of institutionalized forces that promote equivalence, and thus depersonalization, by contrary forces. But the notion of contrary forces cannot be reduced to the symmetrical other of depersonalization. The personalization of politics is not an antidote to bureaucratic impersonalism or excessive abstraction; it is a symptom. The deeper problem is the vitiation or even abrogation of the idea of equality relative to that of sovereignty. The result is that sovereignty becomes encircled and limited by identity—a term not of equivalence but of irreducible and incommensurable difference. And this is where, it seems to me, Mouffe is most dangerously incorrect in her reading of populism as an instrument for producing alliance between segments in a chain of equivalences.

In this process, a great deal of contemporary cultural theory and the identity politics it underwrites, must be deemed partly responsible—but that is a question to be pursued elsewhere. In the meantime, it seems crucial to assert that populism is not an antidote to liberalism; but an index of its failure and perhaps incapacity to actualize the ideals of equal freedom and free equality. This is not a matter of a logical contradiction but of the ways in which these terms have been construed, and made the objects of a subjective update, thanks to the privileging of the notion of sovereignty and the hypostatization of identity.  One hastens to add that the idea is not given, it does not come naturally to all people in all times. It is one structure within which people are educated to desire, and to experience themselves as capable of self-realization in the exercise of the will.  But there is no a priori reason for this term to be so privileged. Industrial capitalism required individual subjects to learn to experience themselves as capable of generating surplus, which possibility was constantly stoked and recaptured in and by the notion of the wage. This recursively reproduced subjective possibility is short-circuited in an era of financialization, precarity, and post-wage work.  But it is not eliminated. It is rather hollowed out, rendered a mere form.  The mere enactment of the will as the expression of what one is comes to substitute for a very different possibility, namely of self-transformation in relation to others. There can be no Leader in this project. The Leader is the expression of the idea that there is a substantive, already existing collective whose being can find its representation only in that which shares its substance, and its form of appearance.  The question and the proper object of a political-pedagogical intervention into this field cannot be satisfied by the mere valorization of affective intensity, nor the surrender to Leaders.  It must concern the institutional and cultural processes within which people have learned to relinquish the desire for equality.  And it must renew that desire.