The coronavirus crisis has revived the hunt for populists. Like the cartoonish Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, these are said to despise science, the separation of powers, complexity and the rule of law. Pierre Rosanvallon, an advocate for calm, consensus-based democracy, echoes some of these arbitrary critiques of populism. Chantal Mouffe, a renowned theorist of populism, responds.
by Chantal Mouffe
n his recent book Le siècle du populisme (‘The Century of Populism’) (1), Pierre Rosanvallon expresses surprise that, unlike other modern ideologies like liberalism, socialism, communism or anarchism, populism does not tie itself to any major work. Yet it is, according to him, a political proposal endowed with coherence and positive force, though this has not been formalised or developed. In his book, Rosanvallon offers to define the populist doctrine and critique it.
He constructs this doctrine in an arbitrary manner from parts of various origins, repeating clichés that have already been laid out in most critiques of populism. His definition brings nothing new to the thesis many writers have expanded upon, which states that populism consists in opposing a ‘pure people’ to a ‘corrupt elite’ and conceiving of politics as an immediate expression of the ‘general will’ (2) of the people. This is the vision that we find in The Century of Populism, with a few variations.
When Rosanvallon refers to authors who take a different position, he deforms their ideas to make them conform to his thesis. Several of my works are caricatured in this way, to the point where I have to ask myself if this well-known historian has read them, or is exercising a kind of methodologically doubtful dishonesty.
For example, he affirms that I reject liberal representative democracy, whereas my work For a Left Populism emphasises the importance of incorporating this strategy into the framework of pluralist democracy and not give up the principles of political liberalism. Contrary to what Rosanvallon says, I argue in The Democratic Paradox (3) that liberal democracy is the result of the combining of two ultimately incompatible logics, but the tension between equality and liberty, when it manifests in an ‘agonistic’ manner, in the form of a struggle between adversaries, protects pluralism. Similarly, he alleges that I defend unanimity as the regulatory horizon of democratic expression, when the themes of social division and the impossibility of complete consensus are central to all of my thinking.
But if this work aiming to produce a theory of populism does not contribute to a better understanding of the phenomenon, it is primarily because of its hubris: there is no such thing as populism as a single entity that one can theorise about or conceptualise. There are only populisms, which explains why the notion produces so many interpretations and contradictory definitions.
Rather than searching to define the principles of populism, one must examine the political logic set in motion by movements described as ‘populist’. In this way, in On Populist Reason (4) Ernesto Laclau shows that we are dealing with a strategy for constructing a political boundary on the basis of an opposition between those below and those above, between the dominant and the dominated. Movements that adopt populism always arise in the context of a crisis of the hegemonic model. In this light, populism appears to be neither an ideology, nor a regime, nor a specific platform. Everything depends on the way the us/ them opposition is drawn, as well as the historic contexts and socio-economic structures in which this opposition is deployed. Understanding different populisms involves going back to the specific conditions of their emergence rather than reducing them to manifestations of the same ideology, as Rosanvallon does.
Republic of the centre
In his study of populism, instead of clarifying his purpose Rosanvallon reveals the nature and limits of his own conception of democracy. According to him, the democratic theory underpinning populist ideology calls for ‘a borderline form of democracy’ that consists in putting the liberal, representative nature of existing democracies on trial. It does this by contrasting them with an alternative solution based on three characteristics: direct democracy, a project of polarised democracy and an immediate and spontaneous conception of popular expression.
The former secretary of the Saint-Simon Foundation contrasts this supposed populist doctrine to this own conception, developed in his previous works. On a philosophical level, it is a sophisticated version of the dominant doctrine of social-democratic parties under neoliberal hegemony — the ones developed in the 1980s and 1990s by Third Way theoreticians like Anthony Giddens in the United Kingdom and Ulrich Beck in Germany. Their thesis is that we have entered a ‘second modernity’ where the antagonistic model of politics is obsolete, for want of social adversaries. Collective identities like classes have lost their relevance, and the categories of right and left are stale. There remain differences of opinion that could lead to conflict, but these are getting smaller and will vanish if diverse individual demands are reconciled. Therefore, according to Giddens, a ‘politics of life’, linked to environmental, familial, personal and cultural identities, has prevailed over a ‘politics of emancipation’ (5).
The adoption of this view by social-democratic parties is at the root of the social liberalism that has dominated Western Europe since the end of the 1980s. In France, this project — a ‘Republic of the centre’ — found its most fervent devotees around Rosanvallon and intellectuals of the École des hautes etudes en sciences sociales (EHESS)’s Centre Raymond-Aron (6). This intellectual current prioritises the liberal dimension of democracy: it emphasises defending constitutional features to the detriment of political participation by the people. This predominance of liberalism over popular sovereignty leads to ignoring social division, power relations, and antagonistic forms of struggle associated with the notion of class struggle.
Far from constituting democratic progress, a ‘post-political’ vision of this kind, centred around the absence of an alternative to neoliberal globalisation, charges the political system with the task of ‘ruling the void’, as has been shown by Peter Mair (7). In 2005, I argued that the absence of a struggle between opposing social projects robs elections of their meaning and provides fertile ground for the development of right-wing populist parties (8), which can thus claim to return to the people the power confiscated by the establishment. Fifteen years later, the European political landscape supports this hypothesis.
Rosanvallon does not realise that the consensus-based model of a borderless politics is the reason populism has become increasingly strong. In his eyes, only the development of a strong alternative project can stop it in its tracks, a ‘second democratic revolution’ that involves rethinking both citizen participation and democratic institutions. This is how he formulates a series of not uninteresting proposals, which aim to diversify and make more efficient use of democratic institutions, and to widen the reach of citizen participation. For example, to a ‘democracy of authorisation’, which delivers the power to govern through elections, we should add a ‘democracy of governance’, charged with submitting the exercise of power to democratic criteria. But, since these proposals belong to a post-political conception, ignore the antagonisms that structure society and don’t call into question the neoliberal model, one struggles to see how the ‘second democratic revolution’ might contribute to push populist forces into retreat.
Conceiving of populism as a strategy for constructing a political boundary makes the ‘populist moment’ intelligible in a way that Pierre Rosanvallon’s perspective does not. These movements reject the leadership of experts and the reduction of politics to technical questions. They affirm their partisan vision and show the flaws of a consensus-based approach. They reject the post-political and demand that citizens be able to participate in decisions concerning public affairs and not merely control their implementation. Some express their demands in the form of right-wing populism, of the ‘immunitarian’ and xenophobic kind, wishing to constrain democracy to nationals; others do it in the form of a left-wing populism that aims to extend democracy to many domains and deepen it.
To reach that objective, the left’s populist strategy proposes a rupture with the neoliberal order and finance capitalism, which, as sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has shown, are incompatible with democracy (9). It aims to establish a new hegemonic formation capable of affirming the centrality of values like equality and social justice. Such a project does not imply the rejection of the institutions that together constitute democratic pluralism — but its reclamation. In order to set in motion a rupture on that scale, the strategy of left-wing populism is to bring together democratic struggles and create a collective will, an ‘us’ able to transform power relations and install a new social and economic model through what Antonio Gramsci called a ‘war of position’. The conflict between this ‘us’ — articulating different demands linked to conditions of exploitation, domination, and discrimination — and its adversary, a ‘them’ constituted of neoliberal powers and their allies, is how ‘class struggle’ (as it is known in the Marxist tradition) is expressed. It is therefore unsurprising that Rosanvallon should be hostile to it. A prisoner of his own centrist model, he sees all forms of populism as a threat to democracy.
Exhaustion of the neoliberal model
The left’s populist strategy appears particularly pertinent in the context of an exit out from the Covid-19 crisis which has been touted as a prelude for building a new social contract. This time, unlike in the 2008 crisis, a space could open up for the clash of opposing projects. A mere return to business as usual seems unlikely and the state will probably play a role that is both central and more prominent. We may witness the arrival of a ‘state capitalism’ that uses public authorities to rebuild the economy and restore the power of capital. It could take more or less authoritarian forms depending on the political forces at its helm. This scenario would signal either the victory of right-wing populist forces or neoliberalism’s defenders last-ditch attempt to ensure the survival of their model. However, a populist strategy from the left aiming to build popular support for a Green New Deal could also turn this crisis into an opportunity to deeply democratise the existing socioeconomic order and create the conditions for real ecological transition.
By exacerbating inequalities, the coronavirus crisis confirms the exhaustion of the neoliberal model. By recreating political boundaries and reaffirming the existence of antagonisms, it signals a return of the political, and gives a new dimension to the populist moment. Depending on the social forces that seize it, and the manner in which they create an ‘us’/ ‘them’ opposition, this pandemic may unlock authoritarian solutions or lead to a radicalising of democratic values. One thing is for certain: contrary to what Rosanvallon argues, far from threatening democracy, today left-wing populism is the best strategy if we want to orient the forces resisting a post-democratic, neoliberal order in an egalitarian direction.
Chantal Mouffe, Philosopher. Author, most recently, of For a Left Populism (Verso, 2019).
Translated by Lucie Elven.
Keynote speech Chantal Mouffe (University of Westminster) – The crisis of representative democracy and the need for a left-wing populism