Rethinking Populism

Why a populist Left should rally around a green democratic transformation

The Left must draw a frontier between the people and the oligarchy, and ecological transition is the thing around which a collective popular force can crystallise.

Chantal Mouffe
15 September 2020
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
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Sunrise movement in the USA. All rights reserved.
Rethinking Populism partner banner: Lund, Helsinki and Istanbul Bilgi universities

The end of left populism has recently been announced by several of its critics who claim that, since left populist parties have not been able to reach their goals, it is time to return to the traditional class conception of politics. I want to challenge this view and argue that in the present conjuncture a left populist strategy is more relevant than ever. COVID-19 has exacerbated the existing inequalities and accentuated the organic crisis of neoliberalism. There will be no return to ‘business as usual’ after the pandemic.

There will be no return to ‘business as usual’ after the pandemic.

True, this is what happened after the 2008 economic crisis. But in those years the hegemony of neoliberalism went almost unchallenged and today the political context is different. The 2008 crisis brought to the fore the limits of financial capitalism, and neoliberal globalization has ceased to be considered our fate. After years of ‘post-politics’, when there was no fundamental difference between right and left policies, we are witnessing a ‘return of the political’. Nowadays radical left movements that challenge the social-liberalism of the centre-left parties exist in several countries and diverse forms of activism are flourishing in many domains. Fridays for Future, the youth movement in defence of the climate and the Black Lives Matter anti-racist mobilizations have brought an international visibility to those struggles.

Contesting strategies

I think that what we will see in the aftermath of COVID-19 is a confrontation over the different strategies of how to deal with the economic, social and ecological crisis that the pandemic has brought to the fore. Neoliberals will no doubt try to use state power to reassert the predominance of capital. This ‘state neoliberalism’ could in certain countries be buttressed by authoritarian measures, confirming Wolfgang Streeck’s thesis that democracy and capitalism have become incompatible. Neoliberal authoritarianism might take a digital form as in the ‘Screen New Deal’ envisaged by Naomi Klein. As the current debate about a suitable technological response to the sanitary crisis testifies, there is a growing tendency to consider that the solution consists in procuring apps to control the health of the population. The coronavirus crisis represents a great opportunity for digital giants to establish themselves as the agents of a fully computerized health policy. Their ambition to extend their control to other domains could be legitimized by actively promoting the fashionable ‘technological solutionism’ analyzed by Evgeny Morozov. In his book To save everything, click here[1] Morozov warns us against the dangers of this ideology of solutionism promoted by Silicon Valley and according to which all problems, even political ones, have a technological solution. He points out that solutionists advocate post-ideological measures and deploy technology to avoid politics.

Solutionism is in fact a technological version of the post-political conception that became dominant during the 1990s.

The belief that digital platforms could provide a foundation for the political order chimes with the claim of third way politicians that political antagonisms have been overcome and that left and right are ‘zombie categories’. Solutionism is in fact a technological version of the post-political conception that became dominant during the 1990s. It facilitates the acceptance of post-democratic forms of techno-authoritarianism that remain immune from democratic control. A neoliberal version of techno-authoritarianism might not yet be the techno-totalitarian state of surveillance that some fear, but it could represent the first step in that direction.

A different answer comes from right-wing populist parties. Claiming to be the voice of the people, they are accusing the neoliberal elites of being responsible for the crisis because of their politics of globalization and their abandonment of national sovereignty. To restore this sovereignty they advocate a politics of immunization that would protect nationals by drastically restricting democracy to certain categories and imposing very strict barriers to immigration. Their anti-establishment discourse and their rejection of the rule of transnational corporations are well received in several quarters and resonate with the popular sectors. They could constitute a force of resistance against the post-political rule of high-tech authoritarianism, but at the cost of imposing a nationalistic type of authoritarianism of a xenophobic and socially conservative nature.

Self–protection

To counter those two forms of authoritarianism and have any influence on the direction that our societies will take after the pandemic, the left needs more than good policies. It should also understand how COVID-19 produces emotional reactions that can be exploited to foster anti-democratic advances.

Karl Polanyi provides us here with valuable insights. In his book The Great Transformation, analyzing the devastating consequences of the moves by nineteenth-century liberalism to treat land, labour and money as commodities, Polanyi brought to light how a society imperilled by the dislocation produced by advances of commodification, reacted in the 1930’s with a defensive counter-movement to protect itself, readapting the economy to social needs by re-embedding the market into social structures. He also indicated that the resistances to the dislocation produced by advances of commodification are not bound to take a democratic form. Indeed, in the 30s they led to Roosevelt’s New Deal, but also to fascism or Stalinism. [2]

Polanyi’s idea of a counter-movement has gained great currency in recent years to explain the global growth of contemporary social movements resisting neoliberalism. The aspect of his argument that I would like to emphasize is the importance he attributes to the element of self protection that he sees as constituting the driving force of the counter-movement. His analysis shows that when societies experience serious disturbances in their modes of existence, the need for protection becomes the central demand and that people are likely to follow those who they believe can best provide it.

The need for protection becomes the central demand and… people are likely to follow those who they believe can best provide it.

If I make this reference to Polanyi, it is because I think that today we find ourselves in an analogous situation. Indeed, one of the consequences of the pandemic is to have increased the need for protection. This need for protection explains why many people are currently ready to accept digital forms of control that they have so far opposed. It could no doubt benefit right-wing populists if they are able to convince people that protection requires promoting a view of sovereignty in terms of exclusive nationalism.

Battling over sovereignty

Faced with the danger of authoritarian solutions to the crisis, it is imperative that the left addresses this demand for protection. Unfortunately important sectors of the left have adopted the neoliberal post-political worldview that postulates the end of the adversarial model of politics and conceives moral progress as the creation of a borderless world where everything can move freely and without hindrance. The defence of free trade constitutes for them an article of faith and they tend to be suspicious of the desire for protection of the popular classes, seen as a rejection of the cosmopolitan values that they cherish.

I contend that for the left to abandon notions like sovereignty and protectionism to the right would be a serious political mistake. It would prevent the elaboration of a political project capable of offering any resonance with the demands of the popular classes. It is therefore urgent to engage in an ideological battle to re-signify sovereignty and protectionism, articulating them with the key values of the democratic tradition, in order to deactivate their possible authoritarian connotations. This should not be seen as ‘pandering’ to right-wing populism, as left-populists are sometimes accused of doing. It is always through political battles that the meaning of key political notions is constructed and the confrontation about their signification is a crucial dimension of the hegemonic struggle.

This should not be seen as ‘pandering’ to right-wing populism, as left-populists are sometimes accused of doing.

The importance of affects

The current crisis demands a left populist strategy capable of creating a collective popular force that can bring about a new hegemony in order to recover and deepen democracy. A left populist strategy acknowledges that politics is a partisan activity in which affects play an important role. Drawing a political frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ‘people’ and the ‘oligarchy’, it is able at mobilizing the affective dimension that is at play in the construction of collective forms of identification. This is something that the rationalist theoretical framework that too often informs left politics is unable to account for. Correct ideas are not sufficient and, as Spinoza reminded us, ideas only have force when they meet affects. In politics it is no enough to have a well elaborated programme. To generate loyalty and move people to act, it has to convey affects that resonate with their desires and personal experiences.

The two main passions in politics are fear and hope and for the left it is crucial to federate people around a political project that is not driven by fear but by the perspective of a different world where the democratic principles of equality and popular sovereignty would be implemented. A left populist counter-hegemonic offensive against neoliberalism needs to be launched in the name of a ‘Green Democratic Transformation’, connecting the defence of the environment with the manifold democratic struggles against different forms of inequality. What is at stake is the construction of a collective will, a ‘people’ in which many struggles, not only of a socio-economic nature but also of feminists, antiracists, LGBTIQ+, will find a surface of inscription.

‘Green Democratic Transformation’

To be sure those demands are very heterogeneous and they require some form of articulation. I believe that speaking of a ‘Green Democratic Transformation’ and envisaging the ecological transition as a process of deepening of democracy could provide this articulating principle because it is a project around which a diversity of democratic demands can crystallize. It is the affective force of the democratic imaginary that has guided the struggles for equality and liberty in our societies. Visualizing the necessary ecological transition in the form of a Green Democratic Transformation could activate the democratic imaginary and generate powerful affects among many groups, firmly pointing their desire for protection in an egalitarian direction.

The purpose of a Green Democratic Transformation is the protection of society and its material conditions of existence in a way that empowers people instead of making them retreat in a defensive nationalism or in a passive acceptance of technological solutions. It is protection for the many, not the few, providing social justice and fostering solidarity.

The Green New Deal advocated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise movement in the USA is a good example of such a project because it links the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions with the objective of fixing social problems like inequality and racial injustice. It contains several important proposals that, like the universal guarantee by the state of paid employment in the green economy, are crucial for securing the adhesion of the popular sectors whose jobs are going to be affected. In Britain the Green Industrial Revolution that was a centre-piece of the Labour Party programme under Jeremy Corbyn also asserted that social and economic justice cannot be separated from environmental justice. It promoted measures for a rapid decarbonisation of the economy, jointly with investment in sustainable, well paid and unionised jobs. In contrast to the many other green proposals, both of those projects call for a radical systemic change and recognize that a real ecological transition requires a break with financial capitalism.

Both of those projects call for a radical systemic change and recognize that a real ecological transition requires a break with financial capitalism.

Class struggle and ecological crisis

Those who advocate a left populist strategy are often accused by Marxists of denying the existence of the class struggle: but this is based on a misconception. A left populist strategy acknowledges that society is criss-crossed by antagonisms, some of them being of a socio-economic nature. They can be called ‘class’ antagonisms, provided that this term is not limited to the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. However next to those socio-economic antagonisms, there exist other antagonisms, located in different social relations, giving rise to struggles against other forms of domination. This is why in 1985 in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy[1] we argued for the need to articulate the demands of the working class with those of the social movements, proposing to reformulate socialism as the ‘radicalization of democracy’ understood as the extension of democratic ideals to a wide range of social relations.

Nowadays with the ecological crisis such a project of radicalizing democracy has acquired a new dimension. During the twentieth century what was at the core of the socialist project was the question of inequality, and the fight for social justice was conceived in terms of an equal repartition of the fruits of growth. The struggles of the new social movements added new angles to the question of social justice but their focus was on autonomy and liberty and, with the exception of some ecological movements, they did not fundamentally target the nature of growth.

In the last two decades we have entered a new phase with the climate emergency, in which the struggle for social justice requires putting into question the productivist and extractivist model. Growth has ceased to be considered as a source of protection to become a danger for the material conditions of existence of society. It is not possible any more to envisage a process of radicalization of democracy that does not include the end of a model of growth that endangers the existence of society and whose destructive effects are particularly felt by the more vulnerable groups.

Hence the importance of a left populist strategy seeking to articulate the manifold struggles against oppression and domination around a Green Democratic Transformation with a view to obtaining a democratic rupture with the neoliberal order. This is how ‘class struggle’ takes place today.

Notes

[1] Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here. The Folly of Technological Solutionism, Public Affairs, New York, 2013

[2] An excellent analysis of Polanyi’s importance to understand current populist movements is found in Jorge Tamames, For the People. Left Populism in Spain and the US , Lawrence & Wishart, London 2020

[3] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Verso, London, 1985

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