Since the beginning of the Eurozone crisis, a number of populist movements have gained support in European countries. Giorgos Katsambekis and Yannis Stavrakakis assess the nature of populism, arguing that the dichotomy between a ‘moderate centre’ and ‘dangerous’ populist movements in countries like Greece does not stand up to scrutiny. They write that the austerity policies pursued by mainstream parties can also be seen as extreme in their own right, and that populist movements are so varied that they cannot feasibly be grouped under the same label. Ultimately it would be more beneficial to critically engage with populism, rather than dismissing or promoting it.

Deconstructing the ‘Europe vs. Populism’ debate

In the European context, ‘populism’ is most often treated as a democratic malaise, as a virulent social disease threatening European democracy. It is supposed to invariably involve an irrational Manichean view of society that mesmerizes the ‘immature’ masses, releases uncontrolled social passions and thus threatens to tear society apart.

Alexis Tsipras, Leader of SYRIZA (Credit: Matthew Tsimitak, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Alexis Tsipras, Leader of SYRIZA (Credit: Matthew Tsimitak, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

In this prevailing view we find a real ‘trap’ for the political scientist: the temptation to oversimplify, to essentialise, or even hypostasise the object of analysis, to treat it as one and homogenous, as coherent, as a speaking and acting ‘it’. Ironically enough this type of anti-populist critique is usually articulated in a very populist and Manichean manner: through the drawing of strict dichotomies. Such dichotomies include: ‘Democracy vs. Populism’, ‘Pluralism vs. Populism’ or even ‘Europe vs. Populism’. This last one is of particular interest, given our geographical location and the force with which it has been articulated by people like Herman Van Rompuy and Manuel Barroso.

Indeed, post-war Europe seemed to incarnate all the virtues of pluralism and the European Union was initially hailed as an innovative political experiment advancing democratic values, respect of otherness, tolerance, the welfare state, moderation, and so forth. Anybody opposing this project had to be an authoritarian/totalitarian enemy of democracy. Thus, when so-called ‘right-wing populists’ gained momentum from the late 1980s onwards, the representation that dominated the field was that of a clash between Europe, conceived of as intrinsically democratic, moderate, benign, and Populism, conceived of as inherently undemocratic, extreme and malignant.

This representation seemed persuasive to the extent that anti-European extreme right-wing forces were indeed predominantly anti-democratic. However, to the extent that the crisis is transforming almost everything around us, is this representation still valid? Simply put, which ‘Europe’ and which ‘Populism’ can one observe in our crisis-ridden landscape? The experience from the South can be illuminating precisely because the transformations underway have been imposed here in a more violent and radical way. In fact, what the European periphery has experienced is an EU acting against its very defining values and principles, while local/national ‘moderate centrist’ political actors, incarnating the supreme rationality of the European spirit, are becoming more and more anti-democratic in their radical implementation of draconian austerity and neoliberal adjustment policies. Needless to say, such rationality has nothing to do with reason as understood in the European tradition of reflexivity.

Indeed, high profile intellectuals, like Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck, have already sounded the alarm on Europe’s post-democratic mutation, highlighting the need for European politics to return to the rough grounds of ‘the people’. Echoing similar concerns, Étienne Balibar has also maintained that Europe is increasingly becoming part of the problem, rather than being part of the required democratic solution. And how else could it be, given that major European institutions accept, support or even actively encourage the brutal implementation enacted by national governments in the South?

It is not only that legality has been gradually distanced from legitimacy, that the separation of powers suffers, and that the parliament itself has been marginalised as more and more elements of a virtual ‘rule by decree’ are put in place (all characteristics of the Greek predicament). In addition, and most crucially, what the recent silencing of the public broadcaster in Greece (ERT) has showed is that we are currently witnessing a further escalation in favour of establishing a decisionist system of domination through cruelty. Distanced from any real argumentative/reasonable support, this type of domination can only be described in terms of brutal nihilism.

Can this Europe still claim to be rational and democratic? Only if one favors an unreflexive ‘rationality’ without reason and an oligarchic ‘democracy’ without the demos. Radical change is surely needed, but can this be conceived, decided and implemented without the involvement and consent of the people? Can the European project be reinvigorated without further involving the masses of the people in our common project? The problem here is that whoever does that, whoever utilizes in her/his discourse the forgotten symbolic resource of ‘the people’, is bound to be accused as an ‘irresponsible populist’ or a ‘demagogue’ and to be demonized as an irrational enemy of democracy and the European project. This is the case even if we are talking about (left-wing) political forces that have nothing to do with the extreme right.

Once more, the Greek experience can be illuminating here: without any exaggeration what has lately emerged as the central discursive/ideological cleavage in Greek politics is the opposition between populist and anti-populist tendencies, where the accusation of ‘populism’ is used to discredit any political forces resisting austerity measures and defending democratic and social rights against the brutal nihilism sanctioned by the European Commission and the ECB. Who is the good and who is the bad guy here then? The choice is yours!

The extremism of moderation

Moving away from the various biases against populism doesn’t mean that we overlook the deeply problematic ways through which some populist movements articulate their claims to represent ‘the people’, clearly opposing an open and inclusive conception of democracy. To be sure, these aspects need to be taken very seriously into account. Still, such a picture cannot exhaust the immense variety of populist articulations. Indeed, by representing excluded groups, by putting forward an egalitarian agenda, other types of populism can also be seen as an integral part of democratic politics, as a source for the renewal of democratic institutions. From this point of view, the more Western democracies turn to de-politicized or even oligarchic forms of governance, the more populism will figure as a suitable vehicle for a much-needed re-politicization. Unfortunately, very often pleas for ‘moderate politics’ dangerously flirt with such a post-democratic and de-politicized direction, where politics has abandoned the possibility for real change in favor of a technical administration of public affairs.

As we have tried to show, it is precisely here that we come across some major contradictions. Today, in a crisis-hit Europe, it is the institutional defenders of ‘moderate politics’ that construct a Manichean view of society, dismissing virtually any disagreement as irrational and populist, and thus becoming more and more radicalised and exclusionary. Given the turn of events in the South towards a brutal nihilistic direction, isn’t it time to start discussing the extremism of this ‘moderate centre’? One of the key terms in grasping this tendency is what we call ‘anti-populism’, a discursive strategy that needs to be studied in its own right since it often generates its own caricature of the populist ‘enemy’.

Anti-populism refers here to discourses aiming at the ideological policing and the political marginalisation of emerging protest movements against the anti-democratic politics of austerity, especially in countries such as Greece, Spain, and Portugal. Indeed, as Jacques Rancière has put it, populism seems to be the ‘convenient name’ under which the denunciation and discrediting of alternatives legitimises the claim of economic and political elites to ‘govern without the people’, ‘to govern without politics’. Can a sincerely moderate and democratic approach to politics condone this orientation? Or is the duty of every truly moderate citizen/social scientist, of every democrat, to radically oppose this extremism camouflaged as moderation?

Deconstructing the ‘theory of extremes’

While the argument, as put forward by Catherine Fieschi, that populism can constitute a distinct ideology does contribute an important insight to a formal approach to populist discourse, the idea that all populisms – right or left – share more or less similar substantive features echoes what in Greece lately goes under the banner of the ‘theory of the two extremes’. What this ‘theory’ implies is that the left-wing opposition, SYRIZA, and the neo-Nazis of the Golden Dawn are basically two sides of the same coin, since there is something equally dangerous for democracy in the extremist populism they both share.

If one of the key elements of populism is the construction and interpellation of a ‘people’, then a good place to start our examination of the ‘theory of extremes’ would be in singling out differences and similarities between the two constructions of the people. Are these two constructions identical? What happens when we pass from the formal to the substantive level? It is clear that in the context of the discourse of SYRIZA, ‘the people’ are called upon to actively participate in a common project for radical democratic change; a project of self-fulfillment and emancipation. Unlike the ‘people’ of the extreme right, the ‘people’ of the left are usually a plural, future-oriented, inclusionary and active subject unbound by ethnic, racial, sexual, gender or other restrictions. They are envisaged as acting on initiative and directly intervening in common matters, a group that does not wait to be led or saved by anyone.

On the contrary, as Caiani and Della Porta have observed, the ‘people’ of the right and extreme-right are mostly passive, racially and ethnically exclusionary, and painted in anti-democratic and authoritarian colours: a ‘people’ that waits to be saved by a new, more ‘virtuous’ and ethnically ‘pure’ elite. No wonder that the Greek Golden Dawn espouses the Führerprinzip as the proper incarnation of popular will. It is obvious that the two constructions of the people have almost nothing in common.

What we need then is to acknowledge the variability/plurality of populist hybrids and the distinct effects they have on democratic institutions. Contrary to simplistic conceptions, populism comprises a vast variety of ideological elements and organisational features. Thus, depending on the socio-political context, it can operate as both a corrective and a threat for democracy, to borrow Mudde and Kaltawasser’s formulation. As we have seen, it can acquire both inclusionary and exclusionary articulations. Furthermore, to the extent that the role of ‘the people’ remains central within any democratic regime, to the extent that some kind of populism will remain unavoidable, what we may need then is to cautiously engage with and sublimate the first and fight the second. Fortunately, that might not be that difficult because, as we have also seen, the extreme right may not be that ‘populist’ after all!

The task ahead

Thus, the task ahead, in terms of research (and, why not, political) strategies, would be to register the development in Europe of inclusionary populisms, reclaiming ‘the people’ from extreme right-wing associations and re-activating its potential not as a threat but as a corrective to the post-democratic mutations of the democratic legacy of political modernity. This does not mean that left-wing populism(s) now become a panacea; that, from now on, they would necessarily have to be (unconditionally) accepted as having a positive impact on democracy. Not at all; there are no guarantees here. However, the recent Latin American experience of democratisation through left-wing populisms and the current ‘spring’ of left-democratic European populism(s), call us to sharpen our analytical tools and escape our one-sided euro-centric parochialism by adopting a historical, comparative and cross-regional perspective.

In other words, our role today as social scientists is neither to dismiss populism, nor to idealise it, but rather to critically engage with both populism(s) and the current post-democratic and increasingly anti-democratic malaise in an effort to re-activate the pluralist and egalitarian imaginaries lying at the heart of political modernity. This is a task that may prove crucial for the survival of democratic Europe itself.

A version of this article originally appeared at openDemocracy. Read the original article here.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the authors

Giorgos Katsambekis – Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
Giorgos Katsambekis is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. His research focuses on contemporary political theory and discourse analysis, studying, more specifically, populism, democracy and post-democracy, as well as contemporary social movements in Greece. He is the co-editor of Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today. The Biopolitics of the Multitude versus the Hegemony of the People (Ashgate, forthcoming).

Yannis Stavrakakis – Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
Yannis Stavrakakis is Professor of Political Science at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. His is the author of Lacan and the Political (Routledge, 1999) and The Lacanian Left (SUNY Press, 2007) and co-editor of Discourse Theory and Political Analysis (Manchester University Press, 2000). He has published extensively on populist politics and is currently writing a monograph entitled Populism, Anti-populism and Crisis.

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