Since the eruption of the Greek crisis in 2010, few concepts have captured the attention of public and academic debates in Greece more than populism. In lay discourse, populism – understood often as irresponsible macroeconomics and demagogy – is commonly seen as the reason behind the advent of the crisis. In academic research, an intense debate rages between those who define populism as an illiberal ideology that threatens political stability and democracy, and those who view populism as a necessary emancipatory project that empowers the people to resist hostile economic policies.
In a recent article for the International Political Science Review, I challenge some of the common public perceptions about populism, and go beyond the polarized views of Greek populism in the literature. On the one hand, in what may seem surprising to casual observers of Greek politics, I suggest that populism is a relatively rare phenomenon in Greece. On the other hand, I propose a value-neutral view of populism as a reaction to Greece’s inherently peripheral position vis-à-vis the West and Europe.
My conceptualisation of populism draws primarily on the work of Ernesto Laclau, who famously defined it as an antagonistic discourse that divides the political field in two irreconcilable camps, the ‘people’ and ‘official power’. The populist discourse uses the ‘people’ as a so-called empty signifier, i.e. a term that can rally multiple frustrated social demands and marginalized groups.
Populism emerges as little more than the expression of a circumscribed partiality. It starts by constructing a delineated political identity that reacts to representational and material socioeconomic deficits, and the incapacity of official legitimizing discourses to normatively include all members of the political community. But populism also has the ambition to transcend its initial partiality, promising to impose its discursive construction of the ‘people’ as a new dominant definition of the nature and character of the political community – i.e. to construct a new ‘hegemony’ in Laclau’s terminology. Thus, populist discourses are always bifurcated between parochialism and universalism.
In this view, populism reflects fundamental membership crises in a polity – who is a member and how is the ‘real’ political community to be defined. These are usually brought about by political and economic change, and especially elite-driven socioeconomic modernisation. But modernisation is not an insular process. It reflects a state’s effort at adaptation to international geopolitical and economic constellations, as well as dominant international norms of appropriate political and economic rule. Modernisation and its contestation are internationally embedded, even more so for a country like Greece that has always occupied a liminal position with regards to Western and European modernity.
Successive agendas of modernisation in Greece – from state centralisation under the Bavarian regency in the 1830s to Venizelist irredentism in the 1910s, export-led industrialisation in the 1950s, and accession to the European common market and monetary union in the 1990s – can be seen as efforts by state elites to synchronize the Greek state with dominant Western ideas about appropriate political and economic rule – from the enlightened-authoritarian state to the industrialized nation-state, the capitalist state of embedded liberalism, and the Europeanized state of EU integration.
As I show in my article, all these agendas of modernisation drew on the universalism of ideas of Western modernity to justify themselves in the eyes of a population that often had little appetite for thorough change. At key junctures, popular reaction morphed into full-blown populist ruptures: the 1843 popular uprising against the Bavarian absolute monarchy, the 1909 revolution and military coup, the frustrated mass movement of the 1960s that eventually found its way into power via electoral means in 1981, and the 2011 square movement generated by reaction to EU-imposed austerity.
In all these cases one can detect a pattern: a) A broad popular movement challenging the system as a whole on the basis of an alternative universalism emerges; b) This popular movement contracts into a narrower, more parochial populist identity (the autochthones in the 1843-44 constitutional assembly, the anti-Venizelists of 1915-22, PASOK’s 1985 re-election campaign, the anti-memorandum political camp of 2012-15) that fundamentally rejects the universalist claims of Western-inspired modernisation and polarizes against its domestic supporters; c) State elites rearticulate the universalism of modernisation into novel, far-reaching definitions of the political community, usually woven around the rival signifier of the ‘nation’ – e.g. the adoption of irredentism as official ideology after 1844, or the liberal democratisation of 1974; d) Yet state elites can also use residual populism to give modernisation a popular bent: think of the transformation of inter-War anti-Venizelism’s social parochialism into Cold War popular anti-Communism employed by parties of the Right.
This account may suggest that I too see populism as a permanent feature of Greek politics. In fact, my understanding of populism view only the populist ruptures that express widespread discontent with the pace and content of modernisation, as well as their ensuing transformation into parochial, anti-modernisation populist identities, as genuine populism. What feels as endemic populism that has long plagued Greece must be seen more critically as cases either of strategic usage of divisive discourses for legitimation of policies that have long diverted from the original goals of earlier populist ruptures (Papandreou’s rhetoric after 1985; the alleged populism of the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition today); or of the expression of long-existing frustrations with modernisation that are channelled through institutional process (the party of Diligiannis in the 1880s; the anti-Venizelists in the 1920s).
The implications of my analysis for our understanding of the current crisis are twofold. First, I doubt that the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition is still populist after it gave up on the goal of radically realigning Greece’s relationship with the EU in July 2015. Its first six months in power indeed expressed key demands of the populist rupture of 2011, however in a more divisive way as these demands were not only directed against the EU but also galvanized an assiduous polarisation against domestic opponents (as expressed in the campaign of the June referendum). After July however, the residual polarizing rhetoric of SYRIZA-ANEL plays the opposite role, i.e. of domesticating dissent.
Second, I see the reasons behind the severe de-legitimation of the Greek state since 2010 not in populism as such, but in the dominance of residual populist-like discourses in the legitimation of modernisation after the mid-1990s. This was the result primarily of the tactical interests of one party – PASOK – to reconcile its support for market-based reforms and accession to EMU in the 1990s with the material demands of many of its core voters. In this way modernisation was embedded less in a discourse of inclusivity and national unity, than in a rearticulated discourse of polarisation against an ever-menacing, ever-backward looking ‘Right’ and of frustration with the allegedly innate pathologies of a hopelessly conservative and reactionary society. The current membership crisis of the Greek state differs from previous ones precisely in the poverty of inclusive definitions of the political community whose discursive universalism could reproduce domestically the normative universalism of ideas of Western modernity to which the Greek state is constantly trying to adapt.