Seyla Benhabib | Brief Reflections on Populism (Left or Right)

By Seyla Benhabib

My comments this evening will be brief. In recent years my work has not focused on populism but almost on all the issues that raise red flags for and are hated by populists: the ethics and politics of cosmopolitanism; immigration and the boundaries of the demos; intercultural understanding particularly with respect to moderate Islam, and the promise and failures of the European Union, particularly with respect to Turkey.  There are excellent posts by colleagues for today’s evening concerning the political sociology, history and theory of populism. I want to begin, therefore, somewhere else: I have had a long-running disagreement with Chantal Mouffe over the years regarding her appropriation of Carl Schmitt for left emancipatory theory and about the very sharp distinction she still draws between liberalism and democracy. I think that this leads her to an incoherent theory of radical democracy, and as Jean Cohen also notes in her post, makes it difficult for her to differentiate between “radical” vs. “illiberal” democracy.

As is well-known, in many works Mouffe has maintained that liberalism is anti-political because it aims at or prioritizes consensus, thus eliminating the existential antagonism of friend/foe that should be at the center of the political.[1] “The negation of the political,” writes Schmitt, “which is inherent in every consistent individualism, leads necessarily to a political practice of distrust toward all conceivable forces and forms of state and government, but never produces its own positive theory of state, government and politics… There exists a liberal policy of trade, church and education, but absolutely no liberal politics, only a liberal critique of politics.” (CP, 70) And according to Schmitt the liberal critique of politics moves between ethics and economics but misses the kernel of the political.

Certainly, Mouffe is aware that in Schmitt’s philosophy this critique of liberalism is accompanied by an essentializing distinction between ‘friend’ and ‘foe.’ Schmitt is too smart not to racialize this distinction but neither can we overlook the fact that he defines ‘the foe’ as “an existential other, a stranger,” with whom “a most intense kind of conflict is possible.” (The Concept of the Political)  Mouffe polishes off the rough edges of Schmitt’s existentialist and racially-tinged authoritarianism and makes out of Schmitt’s existential foe an innocuous adversary. The antagonism vs. agonism dichotomy is supposed to articulate this transformation. Let me direct you to p. 91 of For a Left Populism.  This is not a coherent position.  What kind of pluralism is Mouffe talking about: doctrinal, theological or identity-based cleavages and differences? And what is the larger framework that is supposed to prevent these antagonisms and cleavages from disintegrating into dysfunction and civil war?

Because she is so much at pains to differentiate liberalism from radical democracy, Mouffe also dismisses a theory of rights. She claims that liberalism has reduced democracy to free elections and the defense of human rights; while radical democracy will be based upon the principles of equality and popular sovereignty. [I leave aside the fact that Mouffe says very little about principles of representation as if any democracy without some mechanism of representation were possible.]  But what exactly is equality if it is not first a right to equality before the law; a right to non-discrimination; an equal right to membership via the entitlement to a bundle of political and social rights? In his famous essay of 1950, Citizenship and Social Class, Marshall writes: “The basic human equality of membership … has been enriched with new substance and invested with a formidable array of rights…. It has been clearly identified with the status of citizenship.” (9) And this essay offers one of the most poignant, even if somewhat colonially-tinged analyses of the development of civil, political and social rights through the struggles of the laboring classes from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.  The struggle for rights was a struggle for democracy and often against laissez-faire market liberalism.  I believe that the juxtaposition of the language of rights to the language of democratic citizenship is both historically inadequate and theoretically wrong.

What are some of the political-strategic consequences of these theoretical commitments of Mouffe’s project?  As a political intervention into European debates (and I believe this is how we must read her book, despite some bows in the direction of Bernie Sanders who does not call himself a populist but a democratic socialist), Mouffe is silent about the ‘boundaries of the demos’ problem and the European Union. According to her, the hegemonic struggle to recover democracy needs to start at the level of the nation-state, because “despite having lost many of its prerogatives, [it] is still one of the crucial spaces for the exercise of democracy and popular sovereignty.” (71) Mouffe thus joins Wolfgang Streeck and other neo-nationalist European intellectuals who see in a reconstituted nationalism the focal space for democratic politics.

Instead I would plead for a pluralization of the sites of democratic struggle to include transnational as well as local and regional struggles to join in with national ones.  Unless we stress the interconnectedness between the national and the transnational, such a politics will result in left nationalism, and popular sovereignty will become equated with national sovereignty as such.  A transnational strategy is vitally important for coalition-building: unless we integrate the migrants and refugee populations into the democratic struggle, unless we have a transnational analysis and strategy for facing the immigration and refugee issues, the boundaries of the demos will be re-established by a xenophobic and cruel discourse of  exclusivist and ethnocentric nationalism. This is rampant at the present throughout Europe and through President Trump’s agenda,  but may surface in countries such Brazil, for example, against Black migration from Haiti or the Caribbean. In view of the language of “lost sovereignty” used by the French Right, I am surprised that Mouffe skirts the issue of migration throughout the book[2]. The frenzy created by nativist and ultra-nationalist movements in Europe, Australia, the UK and the USA needs to be analyzed carefully so that we can defuse the symbolic politics of resentment against the stranger.  (der/die Auslaender/in)

I have two final observations to make: I am afraid that I agree with many colleagues in joining the “arid theoretical discussions” about populism and their  warnings about the inevitable slippery slope that leads from populism to authoritarianism. My colleague Aysen Candas will have more to say about Turkey, but the Turkish case may serve as an important warning. Let me begin by going back to Schmitt again: in his 1923 Crises of Parliamentary Democracy, Schmitt juxtaposed democracy by “acclaim” as a viable alternative to the dysfunctional bodies of liberal parliamentary democracies that only seemed to talk and bargain but accomplish little. Democracy by acclaim established a direct connection between a charismatic leader and the people, leading to easier and quicker mobilization of forces and the execution of decisions. Schmitt thus pointed to the path which all populist leaders, and increasingly, President Trump, would follow in our times.

Authoritarian leaders abuse such parliamentary dysfunction and paralyses to sideline this institution even further by intimidating, pressuring–and in some cases–by arresting democratic leaders and lifting their immunity.  This is what Erdogan did with the oppositional parliamentarians of the People’s Democratic Party (HADEP) in 2015 (originally established as an ethic Kurdish party but increasingly advocating a culturally pluralist, social democratic and feminist platform).  Lifting their parliamentary immunity and imprisoning some members of HADEP as well as of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), he was able to proceed with little parliamentary opposition to the constitutional referendum of April 2016. The narrowly won, and most likely, illegally manipulated referendum, transformed Turkey from a parliamentary democracy into an autocratic presidential system by centralizing power in the hands of an executive president who would also be the head of the ruling AK Party. State, movement and party became increasingly integrated. After the election of June 28, 2018 the Turkish Parliament was transformed into one of those “mass pseudo-assemblies” in the style of post-Soviet republics like Kazakhastan and Adzerbeijan.  The continuing presence of opposition parties in this mass assembly is one of the few channels of institutional resistance still available to the Turkish people.  But in the absence of a free media, an increasingly monitored and criminalized civil society, and with the disappearance of an independent judiciary, not even the terminology of ‘illiberal democracy’ can do justice to this kind of regime type which many regard as a kind of populism by excellence. I believe that something much more sinister is happening.

Executive presidentialism, democracy by acclaim, the merging of state institutions with the ruling party and with a more or less militant movement of followers, building on racist, xenophobic, anti-gay, and in some cases, on anti-Semitic ideologies, are common to Russia, the Philippines, Brazil, Turkey and Hungary.  When and if these regime-friendly movements get arms and become vigilantes of the regime, then we can call them fascist.  Turkey is certainly well advanced in this direction.

Populist themes and configurations can be mobilized by left or right-wing forces. In the long run, however, populism is incompatible with democratic liberties and paves the way for authoritarianism.  This is because populism is based on several assumptions (among others to be sure): first, qua democratic sovereign “the people” is identified with the electoral majority of a particular electoral cycle; second, as the embodiment of “the people,” the electorate is given constituent power (i.e to change the constitution); third, only one legitimate interpretation of the common good is said to exist and all factions as well as differences are said to be detrimental to the people; fourth, the people are increasingly viewed as a homogeneous mass.

One final observation: Wherever authoritarian, nativist and plebiscitary modes of democracy have spread, they have been accompanied by attacks on high courts and constitutional courts.  Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán’s court-packing is well-known as are the recent efforts by the Polish Law and Justice Party to curtail the authority of the constitutional as well as regional courts.  Turkish President Erdogan has been court-packing for the last decade, and the new Turkish constitutional referendum has further curtailed the powers of the Constitutional Court.

While these developments are uniformly condemned by progressives, attitudes toward international and transnational courts are equivocal. Many on the Left see these institutions as undemocratic usurpers of the popular will.  My point here is neither that decisions by multilateral or regional courts are always salutary (the European Court of Human Rights has failed in many instances to protect the rights of dissidents, refugees, asylum seekers and Muslim women against the ban on wearing the hijab). Nor am I arguing that it is wrong for citizens to want to see law as “their law” and not to forsake popular sovereignty in law-making.  I am stressing that behind the antagonism toward constitutional courts as well as the hostility toward multi-national courts such as the European Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights, the International Criminal Court (to which the USA acceded under President Clinton and then exited under President G.W. Bush) and the like lies the desire of autocratic regimes not to have their authority challenged by internationally acknowledged human rights standards.  The “sovereigntist” drift of the US Court was explicitly articulated by the late Justice Scalia, picked up steam with Chief Justice Roberts’s decision in the Kiobel case (Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., 569 U.S. 108 (2013)), and is now touted in foreign policy circles by John Bolton.

The interplay and tension between national high courts as well as multinational courts is an aspect of democratic sovereignty that is much misunderstood and subject to much rhetorical misstatement. Negotiating the conflicts and inconsistencies between the expression of popular will (which is neither always wise nor fair) and human rights constraints can be achieved in either one of two ways: either hegemonic nationalism and democratic populism can create an unbridgeable gulf between respect of human rights versus acceding to the popular sovereign’s demands, thus paving the path toward illiberal democracy and autocratic presidentialism.  Or, one can defend a cosmopolitan democracy of public mobilization through which the popular will is modulated, and even at times restrained by, internationally recognized human rights standards. When and if the demos withdraws from such multilateral agreements, it would be appropriate for democrats to ask themselves whose rights have been trampled upon through such moves. Often it will turn out to be that those most vulnerable groups such as prisoners, migrants, refugees, children and the disabled will lose the protection of their international human rights.  A case in point: Many of the future players in the Brexit referendum such as Michael Grove, were the ones who had vociferously objected to the incorporation of the European Charter of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms into British Law.  To diagnose the seamy underside of phrases such as “our sovereignty vs. Brussel’s domination” I would recommend looking closely at the Hirst case which concerns the disenfranchisement of prisoners in Britain against which the European Court of Human Rights insistently and energetically objected.[3]

For all these reasons, permit me therefore, to be deeply skeptical about Chantal Mouffe’s energetic call for a left populism.


[1] Mouffe’s characterization of liberalism often borders on caricature, relying upon an early book by C.B. McPherson on The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (1962).  McPherson’s brilliant book focuses on Hobbes and Locke in particular and has nothing to say about Kantian liberalism nor the significant neo-Kantian reformulation of John Rawls’s theory of “political liberalism.”  At the center of Rawls’ work is not consensus but rather the elucidation of the presuppositions that citizens must entertain toward one another if they are to carry out a political project of cooperation that extends over time in view of the deep divisions and agonism created by differing visions of the good in a liberal-democratic society. To read Rawls as a consensus theorist is to miss completely the dignity of the political in his work that rests on the respect that we must extend to each other as members participating in a common conflictual venture that must extend across time despite our fundamental disagreements. Obviously, liberal democracies are failing in our days in accomplishing this task.

[2] I have written extensively over the years on this question beginning with The Rights of Others. Aliens, Citizens and Residents (2004), Another Cosmopolitanism. Hospitality, Sovereignty and Democratic Iterations (2006), and most recenty, from the perspective of intellectual history and biography in Exile, Statelessness and Migration. Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin (Princeton 2018).

[3] See Seyla Benhabib, “The New Sovereigntism and Transnational Law. Legal Utopianism, Democratic Skepticism and Statist Realism,” Global Constitutionalism, no. 5, Spring 2016, pp. 109-144.