Rethinking Populism

Rethinking Populism

At a Trump rally in Dallas, Texas, September 2015 (Jamelle Bouie / Flickr)

When I was in Spain last winter to do research for a book on European and American populism, the first person I interviewed was Fernando Román, a young councilman from Manzanares, a town outside of Madrid. Fer, as he is called, is a member of Podemos, the new left-wing party that came in a close third to the Socialists (PSOE) and center-right Popular Party (PP) in last June’s elections. Fer was carrying a book, Construir Pueblo (English translation: Podemos: In the Name of the People) that he advised me to read if I wanted to understand Podemos. When I visited Podemos’s bookstore in Madrid, stacks of Construir Pueblo were piled high on the center table.

The book consists of a dialogue between the thirty-two-year-old Íñigo Errejón, the party’s chief strategist and a political scientist at Madrid’s Complutense University, and Chantal Mouffe, a Belgian-born political philosopher in her seventies who teaches at the University of Westminster in England. Mouffe is known for developing a theory of “agonistic” democracy—democracy as rooted in conflict rather than consensus—and for her collaboration with her late husband Ernesto Laclau. Laclau, an Argentinian who taught at the University of Essex, developed the theory of populism that Fer and other Podemos leaders believe to be the basis of their own politics and that Mouffe and Errejón discuss in Construir Pueblo.

Mouffe and Laclau’s influence is not limited to Spain. Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of the Greek left-wing party, Syriza, who is now leading a movement to reform the European Union, got his doctorate at Essex. Rena Dourou, the governor of Athens, and Foteini Vaki, a member of parliament, studied directly under Laclau there. Before his death in 2014, Laclau was also a trusted advisor to presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, both of whom came from the Peronist party.

Laclau and Mouffe have exerted this kind of political influence in spite of having written works that can make Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Mind read like a high school primer. Here is a sample from their masterwork, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy:

Now, in an articulated discursive totality, where every element occupies a differential position—in our terminology, where every element has been reduced to a moment of that totality—all identity is relational and all relations have a necessary character.

Some of the obscurity is due to their adoption of fashionable jargon from Jacques Lacan and the French poststructuralists. But it is also a result of their attempt to break away from dogmas about both socialism and populism that have clouded political debate in Europe.

In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (hereafter, Hegemony), Laclau and Mouffe rejected what the left-wing sociologist C. Wright Mills called the “labor metaphysic”—the belief that socialism or social democracy will issue from the inevitable clash of the working class and the capitalist class. Then Laclau, in his 2005 book On Populist Reason, challenged the view—more prevalent in Europe than the United States—that populism is by its nature limited to a racist, nativist, or proto-fascist ideology of the far right. Laclau and Mouffe in several essays helped explain, in effect, how Podemos and France’s National Front and the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns could all be accurately described as populist. And they present left-wing populism as the appropriate successor for the politics of the older socialist, social democratic, and labor parties.

Ernesto Laclau got his degree and taught at the University of Buenos Aires, where he became active in the Socialist Party of the National Left. In 1969, he went to Oxford to study at the invitation of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. He received his doctorate at Essex in 1977 and, with Argentina under a military junta, joined Essex’s faculty.  Mouffe, borne in Charleroi, Belgium, in 1943, was educated at Louvain, Paris, and Essex, and taught in Bogotá and Paris before joining the faculty at Westminster. She and Laclau were married in 1975.

Both initially belonged to the Marxist left. They were close to French philosopher and Communist Party member Louis Althusser, with whom Mouffe had studied. But each, in their own way, was led to question Marxist orthodoxy. In Laclau’s case, it was his fascination with Juan Perón’s Argentine populism; for Mouffe, it was her own experience teaching in Latin America and her participation in the British feminist movement, whose objectives could not be defined by class struggle or the quest for socialism. In Hegemony, they surveyed and found wanting the history of socialist strategy and began to develop a theory that came to be classified as “post-Marxist.”

When Laclau and Mouffe published Hegemony in 1985, there were still socialist groups and factions within the major social democratic and labor parties in Europe that sought to abolish capitalism. And the parties had not yet embraced a “third way” that eschewed any hint of socialism. In addition, there was an array of social movements that had emerged from the New Left. Laclau and Mouffe set out to show how the explicitly socialist left had gone astray almost a century before and to develop a new strategy for “radical democracy” that incorporated the new social movements.

For Laclau and Mouffe, the trouble with the socialist left began with the German Social Democratic Party, which was the dominant socialist party in Europe before the First World War. Its chief theoretician was Karl Kautsky. His theory of revolution, derived from Marx and Engels, assumed that the capitalist stage of history was driven by the struggle between an ever expanding working class and a small, but enormously powerful, capitalist class. Eventually, the working class, facing immiseration and chaos from growing economic crises, would take over the state and establish a socialist society. The role of revolutionaries, Kautsky and his comrades believed, was to ride this wave of history.

As Laclau and Mouffe recount, Vladimir Lenin rejected this theory of revolution. Lenin accepted that the development of the working class was essential to a socialist revolution, but he maintained that well before it had become a majority, an insurrectionary socialist party—representing the working class’s interests as well as those of the peasants—could seize power. Kautsky’s model of revolution was rooted in economic determinism; Lenin’s in the example of the French Jacobins.

But, as Laclau and Mouffe noted, neither theory brought its desired result. Kautsky’s induced a passivity that aided the militarism of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the rise of Mussolini and Hitler. Lenin’s party-led “dictatorship of the proletariat” degenerated into a dictatorship of the party, and then of a single individual—Joseph Stalin.

For Laclau and Mouffe, Antonio Gramsci was the first theoretician to grasp the failure of both Kautsky’s and Lenin’s approaches. Gramsci, an Italian Communist who died in one of Mussolini’s prisons, insisted that the party had to establish a “historical bloc” composed of the Southern Italian peasantry as well as the Northern Italian working class. He rejected Lenin’s Jacobinism. Socialism would require a “war of position” in which a  Socialist or Communist party would seek to achieve hegemony by establishing counter-institutions and a counter-worldview to those prevailing under capitalism. The capitalist class, Gramsci argued, doesn’t just enjoy a monopoly of force but also of persuasion and has to be challenged on that front.

In Hegemony, Laclau and Mouffe incorporated Gramsci’s ideas of hegemony, war of position, and historical bloc. But they rejected the residual idea of the political primacy of the working class to which he still adhered. Instead, the couple argued that a left must build a historical bloc out of diverse classes—the white-collar as well as blue-collar working class and the small business sector—and diverse struggles (including feminism, anti-racism, anti-war, and ecology) that can’t be reduced to a struggle between classes.   

They also rejected the underlying framework of Marx’s theory of history. They rejected his assumption that the attempt to abolish capitalism and establish socialism was and would be the driving force behind historical change. Instead, they argued that the ideals of democracy, liberty, and equality, articulated by the French Revolution, provided a framework—they use the term “imaginary”—for a left-wing politics that extends the struggle for democracy from the political to the economic to the social realm. They didn’t reject an anti-capitalist politics aimed at an “end to capitalist relations of production” but merely saw it as a “dimension” along with the demands of social movements in a struggle by a historical bloc for “radical democracy.”

In Construir Pueblo, Mouffe sums up their approach:

Our main standpoint was that we had to reformulate the “socialist project” in terms of a radicalization of democracy. That enabled us to break simultaneously both with the Jacobin tradition and with economic determinism; because you cannot speak about the radicalization of democracy without recognizing that there are different forms of subordination that might give rise to a variety of antagonisms, and that all these struggles cannot be viewed simply as the expression of capitalist exploitation.

In describing what “radical democracy” was, and how to achieve it, Laclau and Mouffe fell back on reiterating their rejection of the older socialist strategy. The final chapter of Hegemony is largely a web of abstractions. If the struggle for socialism and against the capitalist class were no longer the unifying principle of left-wing movements, what would take its place? How would the proponents of radical democracy define themselves and how would they define their adversaries? The attempt to answer these questions and to develop a politics that countered the shift of social democratic and labor parties to the “third way” led Laclau and Mouffe to embrace the idea of left-wing populism in Europe even before such parties had formed in Greece, Italy, and Spain.

In the United States, where the term “populist” originated in 1891, it has referred to  movements and candidates on both the right and the left—from the original People’s Party of the 1890s to Huey Long and Father Coughlin, down to Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. In South America, the term is closely associated with the non-Marxist left of Juan Peron and Hugo Chávez. But in Western Europe, the term “populist” has been primarily used in a pejorative way—to refer to demagogic appeals by right-wing parties that, according to their detractors, exploit the public’s ignorance and ethnic and religious resentments.

Influenced by Latin American populism and American history, Laclau attempted in On Populist Reason to counter the standard European usage. “Progress in understanding populism requires,” he wrote, “rescuing it from its marginal position within the discourse of the social sciences. . . . Populism has not only been demoted: it has also been denigrated.”

Laclau analyzed populism as a political logic that could be used by the left, right, and center. It represents a form of political discourse rather than the specific allegiance to a class, ideology, or kind of society. It sets up a conflict between an “underdog” and a “power” that is defined by specific kinds of demands that establish a political “frontier” between the two.

One kind of demand follows what Laclau calls the “logic of difference.” It is eminently negotiable between a party or movement and the powers-that-be and not necessarily tied to any other demands. For instance, a set of voters could demand that federal student loan rates be reduced and that the Affordable Care Act cover the acquisition of hearing aids. These demands could be negotiated and don’t necessarily set up impassable political barriers.

Other kinds of demands follow what Laclau calls a “logic of equivalence.” They are not utopian but are still likely to be rejected by the powers-that-be. One such demand would be Sanders’s for a national $15-an-hour minimum wage or Medicare for all, or Trump’s, for the creation of a wall paid for by Mexico or a tariff on goods from factories that companies have moved out of the country in search of cheaper labor. These kind of demands, if grouped together either on the left or the right, create a “frontier”—a seemingly unbridgeable gap—between the underdog and the power. They become the basis for a populist challenge to authority. What “creates the conditions leading to a populist rupture,” Laclau writes, is “a situation in which a plurality of unsatisfied demands and increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them differentially coexist.”

There is no pre-ordained content to the “underdog” or the “power.” The underdog, which often goes by the name of “the people,” can represent the embattled middle class, the working class, the poor, native-born French citizens, or Christian America. Similarly, the “power” can represent “money power,” “Wall Street,” “London,” or a two-party duopoly of the left center and center right, as has existed, for instance, in France, Greece, or Spain. For the American Tea Party, the elite was initially identified with liberals and government and later with treasonous Republicans. There is also no specific grievance or cause. It can be ending immigration, reforming campaign finance, or abandoning the EU and the euro.

According to Laclau, what holds the underdog coalition together is a set of specific demands that represent a larger end. Laclau cites the case of Polish Solidarity, whose call for workers’ rights in the early 1980s stood in for the larger demand for national independence that neither the Polish Communist government nor the Soviet Union was prepared to grant. In the case of Trump’s campaign, a wall on the Mexican border has that function; for Sanders, it was “political revolution.” A charismatic leader like Lech Walesa, Marine Le Pen, or Ross Perot who makes those demands on behalf of “the people” can serve as an additional point of unification, holding together heterogeneous coalitions that do not necessarily endorse all the demands that the party or candidate makes.

For Laclau and Mouffe, populism is the form a left-wing challenge to the status quo takes. “My position,” Mouffe says in Construir Pueblo, “is that a contemporary project for the radicalization of democracy requires the development of a ‘left-wing populism.’”  That requires the construction of a new political identity. As the Spanish title of Errejón and Mouffe’s book puts it, the left has to “construct a people” not simply to represent a pre-existing historical formation such as the working class or a single cause like feminism or ecology. “Any populist unification takes place on a radically heterogeneous social terrain,” Laclau wrote in On Populist Reason.

For Podemos and other European left-wing populists, the unifying theme has been an end to austerity. The demands to end austerity have created a “frontier” between the people and the elite and have differentiated Podemos in Spain and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement from the prevailing left-center and center-right parties that have acceded to pressure from the Troika of the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission to cut their budgets and raise taxes. But the coalition’s makeup and objectives, its central themes and its leadership could shift depending on historical circumstances. Politics, for Laclau and Mouffe, is a realm of willful contingency, not predetermined necessity.

Between Hegemony’s rejection of the labor metaphysic and Laclau and Mouffe’s embrace of left-wing populism, there are two very important shifts. One is implicit; the other is acknowledged. The first is the abandonment of the Marxist objective of an end to capitalist relations of production as even a “dimension” of left-wing populism. In Construir Pueblo, there is no mention of ending capitalism as an objective of a populist strategy. That’s all to the good, since in the wake of the collapse of Soviet socialism, there is no clear conception any more of what a non-capitalist or Marxist socialist economy would look like, and how it would function successfully.

Secondly, Laclau and Mouffe, and Mouffe in particular, have reevaluated the role of the post–Second World War social democracy that created the advanced welfare states of Western Europe. In Hegemony, there was passing criticism of this social democracy. It had, like its Marxist predecessors, been guilty of “classism”—subordinating all concerns to that of the working class and not acknowledging the important role of the New Left social movements. But at the time, Laclau and Mouffe believed that Western Europe was ready to move beyond social-democracy to embrace their more radical alternative. They didn’t anticipate the triumph of a neoliberal approach that stressed the virtues of unfettered market capitalism and the search for a consensus between center left and center right.

“When we wrote Hegemony and Socialist Strategy . . . we criticized social democracy because it was not able to grasp the meaning of new social movements and because of the fact that social democracy had become too bureaucratic,” Mouffe said in an interview in 2011. “We never expected . . . the end of the hegemony of social democracy and the beginning of the hegemony of neoliberalism. . . . I still advocate the project of radical democracy, but we are no longer in an offensive stage. We are forced to defend the rights we still have, not only social, but also civil rights.”  She reiterated this point in Construir Pueblo: “In 1985 we said ‘we need to radicalize democracy’; now we first need to restore democracy, so we can then radicalize it; the task is far more difficult.”


John B. Judis is the author of The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (Columbia Global Reports, 2016). He is editor-at-large of Talking Points Memo.