How should Europe react to the rise of populist parties? Chantal Mouffe argues that the consensus established between centre-right and centre-left parties on the notion there is no alternative to neoliberal globalisation has left Europe in a post-democratic phase, fuelling the rise of right-wing populist parties. Moral condemnation and demonisation of the supporters of such parties does not work: what is required is an alternative populism that is reformulated in a progressive way, defining the adversary as the configuration of forces that strengthen and promote the neoliberal project.
We are experiencing a ‘populist moment’ in Europe today. This is a turning point for our democracies, whose future depends on the response to this challenge. To address this situation, it is essential to discard the simplistic vision of the media, presenting populism as mere demagogy, and adopt an analytical perspective. I propose to follow Ernesto Laclau, who defines populism as a way to construct the political by establishing a political frontier that divides society into two camps, appealing to the mobilisation of the ‘people’ against ‘the establishment’. It is necessary to acknowledge, however, that the ‘people’ and ‘the establishment’ are not essentialist categories. They are always discursively constructed and they can take different forms. This is why it is necessary to distinguish between different types of populism.
Examined from this standpoint, Europe’s recent emergence of populist forms of politics should be seen as a reaction against the current post-democratic phase of liberal-democratic politics. Post-democracy is the result of several phenomena that, in recent years, have affected the conditions in which democracy is exercised. The first phenomenon is what I have proposed to call ‘post-politics’, to refer to the blurring of political frontiers between right and left. It is the product of the consensus established between the parties of the centre-right and centre-left on the idea that there is no alternative to neo-liberal globalisation. Under the imperative of ‘modernisation’, they accepted diktats of globalised financial capitalism and the limits it imposed on state intervention and public policies. The role of parliaments and institutions that allow citizens to influence policy decisions was drastically reduced. The notion that represented the heart of the democratic ideal – the sovereignty of the people – was abandoned. Today, talking about “democracy” is only to refer to the existence of elections and the defence of human rights.
These changes at the political level took place within the context of a new ‘neo-liberal’ hegemonic formation, characterised by a form of regulation of capitalism in which the role of financial capital is central. The consequence has been an exponential increase in inequality not only affecting the working-class, but also a great part of the middle-class who have entered a process of pauperisation and precarisation. One can therefore speak of a true phenomenon of ‘oligarchisation’ of our societies.
In those conditions of social and political crisis, a variety of populist movements has emerged rejecting post-politics and post-democracy. They claim to give back to the people the voice that has been confiscated by the elites. Regardless of the problematic forms that some of these movements may take, it is important to recognise the presence among many of them of legitimate democratic aspirations. In several European countries, the aspiration to regain sovereignty has been captured by right-wing populist parties Through a xenophobic discourse that excludes immigrants, considered as a threat to national prosperity, these parties are constructing a ‘people’ whose voice calls for a democracy aimed at exclusively defending the interests of those considered ‘true nationals’. It is the absence of a narrative able to offer a different vocabulary to formulate the resistances against our current post-democratic condition which explains that right-wing populism has an echo in increasingly numerous social sectors. Instead of disqualifying their demands, they need to be formulated in a progressive way, defining the adversary as the configuration of forces that strengthen and promote the neo-liberal project.
It is high time to realise that in order to fight right-wing populism, moral condemnation and demonisation of their supporters does not work. This strategy is completely counterproductive because it reinforces the anti-establishment feelings among the popular classes. The issues that they have put on the agenda need to be addressed by offering them a different answer, one that is able to mobilise common affects towards equality and social justice. The only way to prevent the emergence of right-wing populist parties and to oppose those that already exist is through the construction of another people, promoting a left-wing populist movement that is receptive to the diversity of democratic demands existing in our societies and whose aim is to articulate them in a progressive direction.
To live up to the challenge that the populist moment represents for the future of democracy what is required is indeed the development of a left-wing populism. Its objective should be the constitution of a collective will that establishes a synergy between the multiplicity of social movements and political forces, and whose objective is the deepening of democracy. Given that numerous social sectors suffer from the effects of financialised capitalism, there is potential for this collective will to have a transversal character and to become hegemonic.
Left populism is increasingly popular in the European left and in the last year we have witnessed very promising developments in that direction. In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon enjoyed an excellent result in the 2017 presidential elections, and just a year after its creation, his La France Insoumise movement secured representation in parliament. Despite having only 17 MPs, it represents the main opposition to the government of Emmanuel Macron. In the United Kingdom, the Labour party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has broken with the Blairite agenda and thanks to Momentum, the activist movement, obtained an unexpected good result in the 2017 general election. In both cases, their left populist strategy has allowed them to recover votes from popular sectors which had been attracted by right-wing populists: Mélenchon from the Front National and Corbyn from UKIP.
There is no doubt that, contrary to the view of populism as a perversion of democracy which all of the forces that want to defend the status quo are trying to impose, left-wing populism constitutes in today’s Europe the most adequate political force for recovering and expanding our democratic ideals.
For more information on this topic, see the author’s latest book, For a Left Populism (Verso, 2018)
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Note: A version of this article previously appeared at La Repubblica and the article is published with the author’s permission. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image: Piet Mondrian, 1921 (Public Domain)
Chantal Mouffe – University of Westminster
Chantal Mouffe is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster. She is the author of On the Political (Routledge, 2005) and For a Left Populism (Verso, 2018).
The Left has infiltrated the governments, the Judiciaries, academia, the media, etc….; they are the establishment who live in a bubble completely aloof to the voice of the people. Any so-called Leftist populist movement manipulates those mostly dependent on the government as their pawns in the attempt to prolong the status quo of collectivism and the expansion of government powers (in lieu of free markets and limited government). Any such “voice” of people in a Leftist movement is actually that of the elitist “ventriloquists” whilst using the average dependent person as a puppet for marketing purposes.
The idea Corbyn, Melenchon and the far left are secretly running everything (even brainwashing ordinary people into going to protests) is highly silly even by the standards of normal conspiracy theories. If Corbynistas and Momentum are running the country why are the policies of the government so out of touch with what they support? Do you honestly think we are living in a country with far left economic policies? I am not a Corbyn supporter, I would even rather have May than Corbyn, but what you’ve written here is so out of whack with the real world that I’m mystified how anyone could believe it. In the words of Geoffrey Boycott, give yourself a bloody shake man.
I am not a leftwinger, but even if I was I would still disagree with this. Populism is really a technique, it’s a way to get support. The ideology behind it is usually incidental. Syriza were supposed to be a far left populist party, they got into government and started to look like a normal party that didn’t really know what it was they wanted to do. That’s quite normal for these parties. They are often run by people like Farage who don’t really care about policy and just want to put themselves at the head of an angry group of citizens to get some power and resources for themselves. Because populism is really just about distracting the electorate from difficult problems it can never really give an answer to anything. You can do what the populists want (turn away migrant boats in Italy, take the UK out the European Union, hold a referendum in Greece) but none of that is ever the answer to the problems people are angry about so it achieves nothing even if you do it.
A lot of populism works on that basis. It often is motivated by people calling for a stupid idea (Brexit, some unworkable basic income policy, drastic spending increases) that they know sensible politicians in power can’t support. The fact they can’t support it then becomes the root of these parties’ power. They just keep arguing for the undoable and the more parties in power say no, the more the populist parties gain support. Once they get in power they then find they have nothing to offer beyond some silly sideshow (like Brexit) that will at best do nothing and at worst cause untold problems.
That’s where populism leads whether it’s left-wing or right-wing. It’s a communication strategy not an ideology and it will never have any answers because it’s the political take on throwing the chess pieces on the floor rather than working out the best move.
Having agreed with your critique of populism however, it would be interesting to know how you would deal with it? Populism thrives on the following genuine problems (raised in this article):
– a sense of powerlessness among many people, particularly the “precariat” and welfare recipients
– an increased unwillingness to support or even respect mainstream politicians and their parties (the person on the street – or on Facebook – increasingly believes that they could do better, if only they had a say)
– disillusionment, apathy and hostility towards mainstream political involvement in general
– increased ability for populist politicians and messages to spread influence, via the Internet
– the lack of a “great cause” such as winning a war, or eliminating poverty, which mainstream politicians could use to rally popular support.
I think writers on this blog have already advocated some solutions: greater engagement with the electorate, encouraging political involvement , citizen assemblies etc. But I doubt any solutions are adequate to the task. Instead, while mainstream politicians (at their best) are tied to the thankless task of promoting economic growth, better education and social mobility , (despite many in the electorate not appreciating the technocratic nature of these tasks), they may be bound to accept and embrace some more benign forms of populism simply to remain in power. What do you think?