There is no denying that western Europe is currently witnessing a “populist moment”. This arises from the multiplication of anti-establishment movements, which signal a crisis of neoliberal hegemony. This crisis might indeed open the way for more authoritarian governments, but it can also provide the opportunity for reclaiming and deepening the democratic institutions that have been weakened by 30 years of neoliberalism.
Our current post-democratic condition is the product of several phenomena. The first one, which I call “post-politics”, is the blurring of frontiers between right and left. It is the result of the consensus established between parties of centre-right and centre-left on the idea that there was no alternative to neoliberal globalisation. Under the imperative of “modernisation”, social democrats have accepted the diktats of globalised financial capitalism and the limits it imposes on state intervention and public policies.
Politics has become a mere technical issue of managing the established order, a domain reserved for experts. The sovereignty of the people, a notion at the heart of the democratic ideal, has been declared obsolete. The working class and the already disadvantaged are particularly affected, but also a significant part of the middle classes, who have become poorer and more insecure.
In recent years, various resistance movements have emerged. They embody what Karl Polanyi presented in The Great Transformation as a “countermovement”, by which society reacts against the process of marketisation and pushes for social protection. This countermovement, he pointed out, could take progressive or regressive forms. This ambivalence is also true of today’s populist moment. In several European countries those resistances have been captured by right wing parties that have articulated, in a nationalistic and xenophobic vocabulary, the demands of those abandoned by the centre-left.
Right-wing populists proclaim they will give back to the people the voice that has been captured by the “elites”. They understand that politics is always partisan and requires an us/them confrontation. Furthermore, they recognise the need to mobilise the realm of emotion and sentiment in order to construct collective political identities. Drawing a line between the “people” and the “establishment”, they openly reject the post-political consensus.
Those are precisely the political moves that most parties of the left feel unable to make, owing to their consensual concept of politics and the rationalistic view that passions have to be excluded. For them, only rational debate is acceptable. This explains their hostility to populism, which they associate with demagogy and irrationality. Alas, the challenge of right-wing populism will not be met by stubbornly upholding the post-political consensus and despising the “deplorables”.
Radical democratic direction
The only way to fight right-wing populism is to give a progressive answer to the demands they are expressing in a xenophobic language. This means recognising the existence of a democratic nucleus in those demands and the possibility, through a different discourse, of articulating those demands in a radical democratic direction.
This is the political strategy that I call “left populism”. Its purpose is the construction of a collective will, a “people” whose adversary is the “oligarchy”, the force that sustains the neoliberal order.
It cannot be formulated through the left/right cleavage, as traditionally configured. Unlike the struggles characteristic of the era of Fordist capitalism, when there was a working class that defended its specific interests, resistances have developed beyond the industrial sector. Their demands no longer correspond to defined social groups. Many touch on questions related to quality of life and intersect with issues such as sexism, racism and other forms of domination. With such diversity, the traditional left/right frontier can no longer articulate a collective will.
To bring these diverse struggles together requires establishing a bond between social movements and a new type of party to create a “people” fighting for equality and social justice.
We find such a political strategy in movements such as Podemos in Spain, La France Insoumise of Jean-Luc Melenchon, or Bernie Sanders in the US. This also informs the politics of Jeremy Corbyn, whose endeavour to transform the Labour party into a great popular movement, working “for the many, not the few”, has already succeeded in making it the greatest left party in Europe.
Those movements seek to come to power through elections, but not in order to establish a “populist regime”. Their goal is to recover and deepen democratic institutions. This strategy will take different forms: it could be called “democratic socialism”, “eco-socialism”, “liberal socialism” or “participatory democracy”, depending on the different national context. But what is important, whatever the name, is that “democracy” is the signifier around which these struggles are articulated, and that political liberal institutions are not discarded.
The popularity in the June 2017 parliamentary elections of Melenchon, Francois Ruffin and other candidates of La France Insoumise — including in Marseille and Amiens, previous strongholds of Marine Le Pen — shows that when an egalitarian discourse is available to express their grievances, many people join the progressive struggle. Conceived around radical democratic objectives, populism, far from being a perversion of democracy — a view that the forces defending the status quo try to impose by disqualifying as “extremists” all those who oppose the post-political consensus — constitutes in today’s Europe the best political strategy for reviving and expanding our democratic ideals.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Chantal Mouffe is professor of political theory at the University of Westminster.