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Review: For A Left Populism

R. Burke

In 1985 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe published their ground breaking work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Coming at the beginning of the era of neoliberalism’s political and economic hegemony, the pair argued for a radical re-visioning of traditional left politics. This book attempted to integrate the politics of democratic socialism with insights derived from anti-colonial struggles, post-structuralism, and the new social movements addressing racism, sexism, gay rights and environmental issues. The key to this rethinking of left politics was the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, in particular his concept of hegemony, analyzing the way in which a specific social group comes to hold and exercise political power because its interests are seen to coincide with the interests of the larger society. In particular Gramsci was concerned to explain how it was that a distinct minority-the capitalist ruling class-came to be supported by other classes rather than being overthrown by the numerically larger working class. 33 years later Chantal Mouffe restates and updates these ideas in her latest work For a Left Populism.

Mouffe’s For a Left Populism is a slim easy to read volume, a manifesto that presents the core ideas of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy without much of the academic language which can make that book a somewhat challenging read. Mouffe argues that the 2008 economic crisis and its aftermath have thrown the neoliberal hegemony of the last 40 years into question. This has resulted in a ‘populist moment’ in which forces on both the right and left have thrown the “post-political” consensus of neoliberalism into crisis. By “post-political” she refers to the way in which traditional political parties on both the right and left have accepted the neoliberal model, espousing free markets, free trade, deregulation, privatization and austerity. A challenge to this consensus having been ruled out politics has been reduced to the technocratic management of neoliberal policies. This is “what Gramsci calls an interregnum: a period of crisis during which several tenets of the consensus around a hegemonic project are challenged. A solution to the crisis is not in sight and this characterizes the ‘populist moment’ in which we find ourselves today.”

Mouffe argues that the political success of the world-left lies in the acceptance of this situation and the adoption of a populist political strategy. Her approach challenges many of the cherished dogmas of the left. Key to this are two theoretical innovations: “an anti-essentialist approach,” and an “agonistic conception of democracy.”

By an anti-essentialist approach Mouffe mean conceptions of political identities as pre-established. In particular she takes aim at orthodox Marxist dogmas that attribute pre-existing political positions to social classes. Such dogmas assert that membership in a specific class; the working class for example, necessarily implies a specific political orientation such as socialism. Mouffe argues that political identities are socially constructed by political discourses that attempt to create a “chain of equivalences” between diverse identities and issues. She also opposes any attempt that would reduce a socialist politics to an emphasis on class issues at the expense of concerns over issues such as racism, sexism, or the environment.

This of course has led to the inevitable caricaturing of the work of Laclau and Mouffe as somehow ignoring or eschewing class issues in favor of those of ‘the new social movements.’ Far from doing so Mouffe argues that what instead is necessary is the construction of a chain of equivalences between different forms of oppression. Thus class oppression is made equivalent to racial or gender oppression in a movement that opposes all forms of oppression. Indeed she points out that at the time Hegemony and Socialist Strategy had been written much of the left still prioritized class struggles over anti-racist or anti-sexist struggles. Today many people say that the opposite situation holds, with class oppressions being ignored and concerns over racism, sexism or gay rights being emphasized. Much of the Keynesian and social-democratic advances of the post World War 2 era have been unraveled. The proper approach is one that links social appropriation of the means of production with opposition to other forms of oppression.

The other key theoretical approach, an agonistic conception of democracy, is one that accepts conflict as a permanent feature of political life. This rejects an antagonistic approach that perceives political antagonists as enemies to be destroyed, as well as an emphasis on consensus building that attempts to deny competing interests in favor of a technocratic management by centrists. An agonistic conception recognizes instead the permanence of adversarial relations within the rules of liberal democracy. Like Ralph Milliband, Mouffe argues that the institutions of liberal democracy allow a space for a radical, democratic socialist politics to advance. Indeed she argues that there is a permanent and ongoing conflict between liberalism; with its emphasis on the rule of law, separation of powers and individual freedoms, and democracy; which emphasizes popular sovereignty and equality. An agonistic conception of democracy rejects any conception of a society where all conflicts have been harmonized or suppressed, as well as anarchistic doctrines that attempt to do away with or remain uninvolved with the state. For Mouffe the state is a site of struggle in which political adversaries conflict.

Like her partner Laclau, Mouffe sees a populist strategy as one that attempts to establish an “internal frontier” between the people and the oligarchy. What distinguishes a left populism from right-wing variants is precisely its emphasis on a radical democracy, one that attempts an extension of democracy throughout all areas of society, including the economy. This is opposed to a right-wing populism that claims to oppose the elites in the name of the people, but which does so with a restricted concept of the people and does not advance democracy, but authoritarianism instead. Like Laclau she points to the People’s Party of the late 19th century US, from which the term ‘populism’ is derived, as an example of left populism.

One area where For A Left Populism differs from Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is in its recognition of the importance of environmental issues. “It is impossible to envisage a project of radicalization of democracy in which the ‘ecological question’ is not at the centre of the agenda. It is therefore essential to combine this with the social question. No doubt this will require profound changes in our way of life and multifarious resistances will have to be overcome. To abandon the productivist model and to implement the necessary ecological transition will require a truly Gramscian ‘intellectual and moral reform.’ This will certainly not be easy, but an ambitious and well-designed ecological project could offer an attractive vision of a future democratic society that might entice some sectors that are currently within the neoliberal hegemonic bloc.”

For A Left Populism is a timely work, one that is quite relevant to today’s political scene. This reviewer read Hegemony and Socialist Strategy back in 2000, just before the presidential elections. Then it seemed that Laclau and Mouffe had raised some interesting issues, but that their overall approach left the reader uncertain. In the 18 years since the relevance of their work only seems to grow in stature, to the point that it seems to be the only way forward for the world-left. Chantal Mouffe’s For A Left Populism is a definite must-read!

For A Left Populism

By Chantal Mouffe

ISBN-13: 978-1-78663-755-0

Verso Books, London, 2018

98 pages