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In defence of left-wing populism

There is no better alternative than the rise of the populist left for Europe and beyond. The People's Assembly Against Austerity

In defence of left-wing populism

There is no better alternative than the rise of the populist left for Europe and beyond. The People's Assembly Against Austerity

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


We are witnessing a crisis of representative democracy in most European countries. As I argued in “On the Political”, this is the outcome of the “consensus at the centre” established under the neoliberal hegemony between centre-right and centre-left parties.

This post-political situation has led to the disappearance from political discourse of the idea that there is an alternative to neoliberal globalisation. This forecloses the possibility of agonistic debate and drastically reduces the choice offered to citizens through elections.

There are people who celebrate this consensus. They offer it as a sign that adversarial politics has finally become obsolete so that democracy can mature. I disagree.

A vote but not a voice

The “post-political” situation has created a favourable terrain for populist parties that claim to represent all who feel unheard and ignored in the existing representative system. Their appeal is to “the people” against the uncaring “political establishment” that, having abandoned the popular sectors, concerns itself exclusively with the interests of the elites.

The problem, however, is that in general the populism of those parties has a right-wing character. Often, the way they bring together a series of heterogeneous social demands is by using a xenophobic rhetoric. This constructs the unity of “the people” through the exclusion of immigrants.

Members of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity in the UK protest against the right’s marginalisation of immigrants. David Holt/flickr

So, the crisis of representative democracy is not a crisis of representative democracy per se but a crisis of its current post-democratic incarnation. As Spain’s Indignados protest:

We have a vote but we do not have a voice.

On face value, it seems the best way to restore the partisan nature of politics and thereby remedy the lack of agonistic debate is by reviving the adversarial dimension of the left-right opposition that “third way” politics has evacuated. However, this is simply not going to be possible in most countries. Another strategy is needed.

When we examine the state of the “centre-left” parties in Europe we realise they have become too complicit in the workings of neoliberal hegemony to offer an alternative. This became evident during the crisis of 2008. Even in their window of opportunity, these parties were unable to regain initiative and use the power of the state to put forward a more progressive politics.

Since then, the centre-left’s compromise with the system has deepened. These parties have not only accepted but also contributed to the politics of austerity. The resulting disastrous measures have brought misery and unemployment in Europe.

If the “centre-left” advocates what Stuart Hall calls “a social liberal version of neoliberalism”, it is no surprise that resistance to those measures, when it finally came from the progressive side, could only be expressed through protest movements like the Indignados and Occupy, which called for the rejection of representative institutions.

While these movements brought to the fore the widespread potential of dissatisfaction with the neoliberal order, their refusal to engage with political institutions limited their impact. Without any articulation with parliamentary politics, they soon began to lose their dynamism.

The left’s recent refusal to engage with political institutions has left it struggling for long-term representation. Hernán Piñera/flickr

Progressive politics finds a new way

Fortunately, two exceptions stand out. They indicate how a new progressive politics can be envisaged.

In Greece, Syriza, born of a coalition of different left movements around Synaspismos, the former eurocommunist party of the interior, succeeded in creating a new type of radical party. Its objective was to challenge neoliberal hegemony through parliamentary politics. The aim was clearly not the demise of liberal democratic institutions but rather their transformation into vehicles for the expression of popular demands.

In Spain, the meteoric rise of Podemos in 2014 was due to the capacity of a group of young intellectuals to take advantage of the terrain created by the Indignados to organise a party-movement. The group intended to break the stalemate of the consensual politics established through the transition to democracy but whose exhaustion was now evident. Their strategy was to create a popular collective will by constructing a frontier between the establishment elites (la Casta) and “the people”.

Pablo Iglesias, Podemos secretary-general since 2014, was a lecturer in political science. flickr/Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación Argentina, CC BY-SA

In many European countries we now encounter what can be called “a populist situation”. A vibrant democratic politics can no longer be conceived in terms of the traditional left-right axis.

This is due not only to the post-political blurring of this type of frontier, but also to the fact that the transformations of capitalism brought about by post-Fordism and the dominance of financial capital are at the origin of a multiplicity of new democratic demands. These can no longer be addressed by simply reactivating the left-right confrontation: they require the establishment of a different type of frontier.

What is at stake is the connection of a variety of democratic demands with the potential to create a “collective will” struggling for another hegemony. It is clear that the democratic demands in our society cannot all be expressed through a “verticalist” party form that subordinates mass movements.

Even if it was reformed, it is not always possible or desirable to force democratic demands expressed through horizontal social movements into the hierarchical verticalist mode.

We need a new form of political organisation that can articulate both modes, where the unity of progressive people will be constituted not, as in the case of right-wing populism, by the exclusion of immigrants, but by the determination of an adversary represented by neoliberal forces. This is what I understand by “left-wing populism”.

Reclaiming populism for the left

“Populist” is usually used in a negative way. This is a mistake, because populism represents an important dimension of democracy. Democracy understood as “power of the people” requires the existence of a “demos” – a “people”. Instead of rejecting the term populist, we should reclaim it.

The agonistic struggle is more than a struggle between conflicting hegemonic projects. It is a struggle about the construction of the people.

It is important for the left to grasp the nature of this struggle. Seen in terms of a “collective will”, “the people” are always a political construct.

There is no “we” without a “they”. It is how the adversary is defined that will determine the identity of the people. In this relationship lies one of the main differences between right-wing and left-wing populism.

Many of the demands that exist in a society do not have an essentialist reactionary or progressive character. It is how they are to be articulated that determines their identity.

This brings to the fore the role that representation plays in the constitution of a political force. Representation is not a one-way process going from the represented to the representative, because it is the very identity of the represented that is at stake in the process.

This is the central flaw of those who argue that representative democracy is an oxymoron and that a real democracy should be direct or “presentist”. What needs to be challenged is the lack of alternatives offered to the citizens, not the idea of representation itself.

A pluralist democratic society cannot exist without representation. To begin with, identities are never already given. They are always produced through identification; this process of identification is a process of representation.

Collective political subjects are created through representation. They do not exist beforehand. Every assertion of a political identity is thereby interior, not exterior, to the process of representation.

Second, in a democratic society where pluralism is not envisaged in the harmonious anti-political form and where the ever-present possibility of antagonism is taken into account, representative institutions, by giving form to the division of society, play a crucial role in allowing for the institutionalisation of this conflictual dimension.

Such a role can only be fulfilled through the availability of an agonistic confrontation. The central problem with our current post-political model is the absence of such confrontation. This is not going to be remedied through “horizontalist” practices of local autonomy, self-management and direct democracy that turn away from institutions and the state.

The place of passion in politics

Another important aspect of left-wing populism is that it acknowledges the central role played by affects and passions in politics. I use “passions” to refer to the common affects at play in the collective forms of identification that constitute political identities. Passions perform a central role in the construction of a collective will at the core of any left-wing populist project.

Marine Le Pen has harnessed political passions to establish her right-wing National Front as a political force in France. flickr/Blandine Le Cain, CC BY

The attempt by so many liberal-democratic political theorists to eliminate passion from politics – they refuse to accept its crucial role – is no doubt one of the reasons for their hostility to populism. This is a serious mistake. Only because this terrain has been abandoned to right-wing populists have they been able to make such progress in recent years.

Fortunately, thanks to the development of left-wing populist movements, this could change. It is urgent to understand that the only way to counter right-wing populism is through left-wing populism.

I am convinced we are witnessing a profound transformation of the political frontiers that used to be dominant in Europe. The crucial confrontation is going to be between left-wing populism and right-wing populism.

Crisis and opportunity in Europe

The future of democracy depends on the development of a left-wing populism that could revive interest in politics by mobilising passions and fomenting an agonistic debate about the availability of an alternative to the neoliberal order driving de-democratisation. This mobilisation should take place at the European level. To be victorious, a left-wing populist project needs to foster a left-wing populist movement fighting for a democratic refoundation of Europe.

We urgently need an agonistic confrontation about the future of the European Union. Many people on the left are beginning to doubt the possibility of constructing, within the EU framework, an alternative to the neoliberal model of globalisation.

The EU is increasingly perceived as being an intrinsically neoliberal project that cannot be reformed. It seems vain to try transforming its institutions; the only solution is to exit. Such a pessimistic view is no doubt the result of the fact that all attempts to challenge the prevalent neoliberal rules are constantly presented as anti-European attacks against the EU’s very existence.

Without the possibility of making legitimate criticisms of current neoliberal policies, it is unsurprising that a growing number of people are turning to Euroscepticism. They believe the European project itself is the cause of our predicament. They fear more European integration can only mean a reinforcement of neoliberal hegemony.

Such a position endangers the survival of the European project. The only way to counter it is by creating the conditions for a democratic contestation within the EU.

Rather than surrender to Euroscepticism, it’s possible to rebuild popular support for the European project by taking it in a new democratic direction. Dave Kellam/flickr

At the root of the disaffection with the EU is the absence of a project that could foster a strong identification among the citizens of Europe and provide an objective to mobilise their political passions in a democratic direction.

The EU is currently composed of consumers, not of citizens. It has been mainly constructed around a common market and has never really created an European common will. So it is no wonder that, in times of economic crisis and austerity, some people will begin to question its utility. They forget its important achievement of bringing peace to the continent.

It is a mistake to present this crisis as a crisis of the European project. It is a crisis of its neoliberal incarnation. This is why current attempts to solve it with more neoliberal policies cannot succeed.

A better approach would be to foster popular allegiance to the EU by developing a sociopolitical project that offers an alternative to the prevailing neoliberal model of recent decades. This model is in crisis but a different one is not yet available. We could say, following Gramsci, that we are witnessing an “organic crisis” where the old model cannot continue but the new one is not yet born.

The only way to counter the rise of anti-European sentiments and stop the growth of right-wing populist parties that excite them is to unite European citizens around a political project that gives them hope for a different, more democratic future.

Establishing a synergy between left parties and social movements at the European level would enable the emergence of a collective will that aims to radically transform the existing order.

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