Europe is living through a “populist moment” and the future of democracy in the region depends on how we respond to this challenge, argues Chantal Mouffe*
To address this situation, we must put aside a simplistic definition of populism, propagated deliberately by the media as pure demagoguery, and rather place it in an analytical perspective. To do this, I suggest following Ernesto Laclau, who defines populism as a form of politics consisting in the establishment of a political boundary within the society, dividing it into two camps, and that calls on “those from below” to mobilize against “those from above”.
Populism is not an ideology, and we cannot assign a specific programmatic content to it. It is not a political system, and can be compatible with a variety of state models. It is an approach to politics that can take various forms, depending on the place and time.
Populism arises when we try to create a new actor of collective action – the people – that is able to reconfigure a social order experienced as unfair. Seen in this light, the recent boom in Europe of populist forms of politics is the expression of a liberal-democratic political crisis resulting from the convergence of several phenomena that have altered the very conditions of the exercise of democracy in recent years.
The first is what I call the “post-political”, that is the blurring of the lines between right and left. This is the result of the consensus reached between the centre-right parties and centre-left from their common conviction that there is no alternative to neoliberal globalization. Under the pretext of “modernization” they have accepted the dictates of globalized financial capitalism and the limits to state intervention and public policy. Therefore, the role of parliaments and institutions that enable citizens to influence political decisions, has been drastically reduced. This has led progressively to a questioning of the very heart of the democratic idea: people power.
Currently, when we talk about democracy, it is only to discuss the holding of elections and human rights. This development is far from being a step towards a more mature society, as we often hear; it actually undermines the very foundations of our Western model of democracy, which is often described a republican. This model is historically derived from the articulation of two traditions: the liberal tradition of the rule of law, separation of powers and the affirmation of individual freedom on the one hand, and the democratic tradition of equality and popular sovereignty on the other. These two political logics are ultimately irreconcilable because there has always be a tension between the principles of freedom and those of equality. But this tension is constitutive of our Republican model because it is what guarantees pluralism. Throughout European history, this tension was negotiated through an agonistic struggle between Right, that favours freedom, and Left, that focuses on equality.
Since the left / right division has disappeared to the extent democracy has been reduced purely to its liberal dimension, the space in which there could be confrontation between political opponents has disappeared too. The democratic aspiration no longer finds channels of expression within the framework of traditional politics. The “demos”, the sovereign people, has been declared a zombie, and we all live now in post-democratic societies.
The increase in inequality affects both classes the middle classes
At political level, these changes are happening within the context of a new hegemonic neoliberal structure, characterized by a form of regulation of capitalism at the centre of which finance capital reigns supreme. We are witnessing an exponential increase in inequalities that affect not only the working class, but also a good part of the middle class, which are undergoing a process of impoverishment and insecurity. Our societies are undergoing a phenomenon of “oligarchisation”.
Against this backdrop of social and political crisis have arisen a variety of populist movements that reject post-politics and post-democracy. They say they will give to the people the voice that was confiscated by elites. Regardless of the problematic forms that some of these movements have taken, it is important to recognize that they are based on legitimate democratic aspirations. The people can nevertheless be constructed [as actor of collective action] in various ways and the problem is they are not all progressives. In several European countries, this aspiration for the recovery of sovereignty has been captured by the right-wing populist parties. They have managed to construct a people through a xenophobic discourse that excludes migrants as a threat to national prosperity. These parties are constructing a people whose voices are calling for a democracy dedicated to defending the interests of nationals.
The only way to prevent the emergence of these parties and to combat existing ones is to build another people by fostering the emergence of a progressive populist movement that is sensitive and responsive to democratic aspirations and capable of directing them towards the defence of equality and social justice.
Build the people
The lack of a narrative capable of offering a different vocabulary to express these democratic requirements explains why right-wing populism has an increasingly large audience in a growing number of sections of the population. There is an urgent need to accept that moral condemnation and demonization of the supporters of this form of populism are useless in the fight against it. These are counter-productive strategies because they reinforce the “anti-establishment” feelings of the popular classes. Instead of disqualifying their claims, we must reformulate them in a progressive language, identifying the enemy as the coalition of forces that support and promote the neoliberal project.
What is at stake is the creation of a collective will capable of creating synergies between multiple social movements and political forces whose common objective is to deepen democracy. Insofar as broad social sectors are suffering the effects of financial capitalism, there is potential for this collective will to cross and go beyond the traditional right / left divide as it is currently positioned. To successfully meet the challenge for the future of democracy the “populist moment” requires a policy that restores the tension between market logic and democratic logic. Contrary to what some claim, this can be done without jeopardizing republican institutions.
Designed in a progressive fashion, populism, far from being a perversion of democracy is the most appropriate political force to recover and strengthen today’s Europe.
*Chantal Mouffe is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster
Source: Memoire Des Luttes
Translation by Revolting Europe