Left populism over the years

Protesters at an "anti-Macron" demonstration organized by La France Insoumise in Marseille, April, 2018. Chagnard Guillaume/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Rosemary Bechler, openDemocracy (RB): Chantal, this
is exactly twenty years after my last interview with you.
Thank you for giving
me this chance to talk to you on the occasion of the most recent reformulation
of your project, published this year in
For A Left Populism (Verso). I am intrigued to
find out from you how you think your thinking has moved on in the intervening
years. But the first thing I want to do is to acknowledge the considerable
success with which twenty years ago you envisaged the crisis
of democracy that we would be encountering today. 

In 1998, it was five years after you had published the
first edition of
The Return of the
Political and six since Dimensions of Radical
Democracy: Pluralism, Citizenship, Community.
In those works you already anticipated the rise of the radical right in several
European countries. At the time you only really had Austria’s Freedom Party in
your sights, as well of course as the advance of Le Pen père in France. But you
saw these as symptoms of the deep crisis of political identity which liberal
democracy was facing. What impressed me
then was that your call was not for the demise of liberal democracy,
but an urgent invitation to rework
liberal democracy in ways that can overcome precisely these types of crisis.

At that time you were talking about the triangulation
experiments of New Labour and Clinton’s Democrats in the United States, and how
they had removed the conflict between left and right that is an essential
component of modern democracy. You argued that doing this had precipitated an
archetypal failure in democratic politics; that “the political in its
antagonistic dimension” was bound to manifest itself in other channels as a
result; and you suggested that conflict would arise from other types of collective
identity, around religious, nationalist or ethnic forms of identification.

You were rather scathing at the end of the twentieth
century about the distracting new types of obsession with
the corruption and/or the sex lives of politicians. And of course, neither of
those obsessions has proved to be a passing fad. But what I remember best is
that you quoted Elias Canetti approvingly when he said that “the parliamentary
system exploits the psychological structure of struggling armies” – struggles
in which “the contending parties renounce killing”, and warned that unless a
real leftwing emerged, there would be an “explosion of antagonisms unmanageable
by the democratic process”, fraught with non-negotiable moral values and
essentialist forms of identification.

Looking back on the intervening decades, would you
agree that your entire opus has been very much influenced historically by witnessing the deep-structural
construction of a Thatcherite hegemony, a
process thinkers like Stuart Hall were grappling with for the left, and the
failure subsequently of the UK's New Labour to produce any kind of counter-hegemony. Wasn’t
this a key founding challenge for your thinking on what would become “left

Chantal Mouffe (CM):
But I would want to go back a bit earlier! It’s very important to begin with
the theoretical approach I outlined with Ernesto Laclau in 1985, in Hegemony
and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics
. This
informed all my subsequent reflections
and as always in my work, that book was both theoretical and political in
design. We were thinking in a particular conjuncture:
the crisis of the post-war Keynesian welfare state and the
rise of neoliberalism with Thatcherism. We were
concerned by the incapacity of left politics to take
account of a series of movements that had emerged in the wake of the 1968
revolts and that were the
expression of resistances which could not be formulated in class

We felt that
this was due to an
epistemological obstacle in the thinking of the left, which we referred to as
“class essentialism”. For both Marxists and social democrats, albeit in
slightly different ways, the idea was that class interests would determine
your political subjectivity. In Marxism, the main contradiction is the conflict
between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and everything needs to be
organised around class positions. I remem­ber
when we feminists were discussing such questions with left politicians,
some of them would say: “Yes that’s very important, but first you know, let’s
make the revolution, and then we’ll see what we can do.” You probably remember
that particular stage in capitalist patriarchy… Or some would say, “Those are
just petit-bourgeois concerns.” That, I would say, was the starting point! So our original
question was a political one: how could socialism be redefined to be able to
integrate the demands of the new social movements? We proposed that socialism
be redefined as a radicalization
of democracy.

RB: And it was
the same with gay politics, anti-racism – you name it. Something else went
with that denial, didn’t it ? If
it was the case that one’s subjectivity was entirely based in one’s class
position, then all that needed to happen is that the truth of that defining
relationship needed to be pointed out to you… and you would recognise it.

CM: Yes you
needed to tell workers who didn’t see this that they had “false consciousness”.
this question, we came to the conclusion
that it was this class essentialism that was the problem.

So we decided that it was necessary to
develop a new anti-essentialist approach and this we did by combining insights
from post-structuralism and from the thinking of Antonio Gramsci. That was Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical
Democratic Politics,
developed in a
particular conjuncture, the crisis of social democratic hegemony,
But as I wrote in For A Left Populism, today 33
years later, we are in a moment of another crisis, that of neoliberal hegemony.

Of course, the social democratic crisis of that time had its
economic determinants, but there was also political failure on the part of the
Labour Party of that time, to resist Thatcherism.

RB: In 1998, you
told me, “Blair represents a kind of Thatcher with a human face rather than any
real attempt to create a new hegemony, to transform the relations of power…
Neoliberalism is the only game in town.” 

CM: Yes.
Thatcher was able to construct a new, different hegemony. And from 1997 to
2010, New Labour made no attempt at all to counter this. In a Soundings article
in 1998 called  ‘A Politics Without
Adversary’, I indeed referred to New Labour as
‘Thatcherism with a Human Face.”  Later, in 2005, in On the Political I examined
in much more detail how not only New Labour, but all the social democratic
parties throughout Europe, had indeed accepted this model. I was concerned then
with what I saw as a Europe-wide neoliberal hegemony.

This then was another conjuncture, the moment of Blair and
Schröder and their theorists Anthony Giddens and
Ulrich Beck – the moment of the Third Way in which they defended
idea that the adversarial model of politics had been overcome, that antagonism
had disappeared, and that as Blair said, we are all middle class now. In
between, of course, there had been 1989, the fall of the Soviet Union,
and Francis Fukuyama was talking about the end of history. At that time, I was
really going against the current, because they were celebrating this evolution
saying, “ Democracy is becoming more mature!”
and I was claiming that it was a danger for
democracy because there was no place any more for
the exercise of popular sovereignty.  They were saying,
“Democracy is becoming more mature!”

By the way, I have a particular
understanding of the term, ‘popular sovereignty’. I don’t believe that popular
sovereignty can ever really be put
into practise – Hans Kelsen, the Austrian jurist, legal philosopher and author
of the 1920 Austrian Constitution, used to say it was a “totemic mask”. What
I mean when I invoke the term is that
people need to feel that they have a voice, that when they go to vote in an
election, they have a real choice. But because there was now no difference
between centre right and centre left; because these parties agreed that there
was no alternative to neoliberal globalisation; it meant that politics had been
reduced to a question of technical decisions that should be
taken by experts. So people simply didn’t have a voice. I was warning that
this had created the terrain for the rise of rightwing popular parties.

I was going regularly to Austria at the time and was very
interested in the trajectory  of Jorg Haider. At that moment there were only
two important rightwing popular parties in existence: Haider’s Austrian Freedom
Party and Le Pen’s Front National in France. There was also the Flemish Vlaams

RB: But there
wasn’t much else and you said that there would be.

CM:  Exactly. And I have been proven right. People
can’t believe that I wrote about this at the turn of the century. They say,
“Really, but it is so pertinent for today!” However, at the time, people
used to tell me that there was something wrong with my argument and that I only
had to look at what was happening in Britain, where there was no
rightwing popular party. I said, “No, that’s true. But I
think the conditions are ripe for the emergence of such a party.” Of course you
need a leader, but the terrain was there. The other example they used was
Germany: yes, but now they have got the AfD.

I am absolutely convinced that the current
growth of rightwing populist parties is
linked to the consensus of the centre and the lack of
agonistic debate. In my view, those who are responsible for
situation are the social democrats. Those
who are responsible for this situation are the social democrats.

Those are the parties who abandoned the popular classes. It
was inevitable, the minute that they began to believe that there was no
alternative to neoliberal globalisation, a process as we know in which there
are losers and winners – and the losers are the popular classes. In every
single country, the social democrats ceased to have any language to address the
problems that emerged for them. So they abandoned them and they decided to
concentrate all their efforts on the middle class.

This was quite visible in France, for example,
because this abandonment was
clearly spelt out. The think tank, Terra Nova,
considered close to the French Socialist Party, announced that,
“The working class are lost to us. They will not vote for us any more. We
should concentrate on the middle classes and on the immigrants” – because the
immigrants are of course less likely to vote for Le Pen. Naturally, if you have
that kind of attitude, the popular classes are going to look somewhere else.

In a sense you don’t expect the right to take care of the
interest of the workers. So this is why I am saying that it was the social
democrat turn to the right which was at the origin of the development of
rightwing populism.

For A Left Populism

RB: Let us move
on then to the argument for a left populism. As you write about it now, it is
to be understood as a “discursive structure between the people and the
oligarchy”. In the ‘populist moment’ that we are now in, you maintain that this
is the type of politics needed to recover and deepen democracy. And that it is
because of the “variety of democratic demands that exist today” that you have
gone beyond the left/right dichotomy, to find this new frontier capable of articulating
the collective will…. Could you explain?

CM:  OK, let me try. In order to understand left
populism, you need to locate yourself within a specific theoretical approach.
The first premise is what I call the dissociative approach towards the
political. What is the political? There are two ways to define it. There is the
associative view which says that the political is the domain of liberty, of
acting in common, and where you should try to establish consensus – the view
dominant in liberal democratic political theory, and here I am taking the term
liberal in its very broadest sense. Habermas is a liberal in this sense. Then
there is the dissociative view which says that politics
has to do with conflict and antagonism, which is a
very specific type of conflict. Antagonism is a type of conflict which does not
have a rational solution. So it is not a question of sitting and discussing and
discussing. This is why I am critical of deliberative democracy! In politics
there are sometimes tragic choices to be made,
because a decision has to be made in an undecidable terrain. The
pluralism of values which for me is crucial for a pluralist democracy reaches a
point where we can’t reconcile positions any further, and we have to
make a choice.

This is why for me, politics is inherently partisan. I inscribe
myself in this dissociative view alongside Machiavelli, one of my heroes. He
used to say that the people is divided between opposing humori (humours), those of the popolo (common people)
and the grandi (great)
– “
Their interests are incompatible.” 

It means that politics has to do with how you establish a
frontier between the Us and the Them, and that politics always has to do with
collective identities. This doesn’t mean that US and
Them are always going to be enemies. They
could just be different. There is an important principle
inscribed in the model of the structural linguist Saussure, who said that
identities are always relational. Saussure said that the term ‘mother’ could
not be understood if it was not in a particular relation with ‘father’, ‘son’
and so forth. So you never have an identity whose essence is given
independently of relationship and context. In the field of politics, where
are always dealing with collective identities, those
identities are also relational.
Us is always in relation to some Them. The crucial question
is, how to establish the political frontier between them. Politics is inherently partisan.

For the liberal – liberalism in the philosophical sense –
there is no frontier, no antagonism. Theirs is a pluralism which is not located
in the dissociative conception of the political.
Marxism does establish a frontier, but the frontier is constructed between the
proletariat and the bourgeoisie. And this is where we come to the point about
left and right.

Many people, including Marxists, believe that left and right
describes interests that are already given and that the
conflict is between those interests. Today, with the transformation of
capitalism, we can’t confine ourselves to the conflict between the proletariat
and the bourgeoisie. We said this already in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) and were roundly criticised
for those views. When Blair and
Giddens were heralding the end of the adversarial model, they were right in one
regard, that you could no longer divide up society, the field of conflict, in the
traditional way.  Their
mistake was to say there was no more fundamental conflict.

In fact, the frontier needs to be
established differently from the way it is in the model of the
class struggle. This is what populism does, it draws the
frontier to accommodate the variety of democratic demands that exist today. In
Ernesto Laclau’s book, ‘On Populist Reason’ (2007) he said that in fact
populism is basically a discursive strategy to establish the political frontier
between the under-dog and the oligarchy. So populism is a different way of
doing politics that cannot be conceptually understood independently of a
dissociative sense of the political.

However, there are many different ways of constructing the
populist frontier. All depends on how you construct the people on the one hand
and the oligarchy on the other. We are not referring here to terms with a
specific empirical referent. These are two political
constructions. And when we say the people, there are many different social
with heterogeneous demands…

RB: And they all
experience subordination.

CM: Yes exactly, but ‘the
people’ has to be
constructed from these heterogeneous demands. I hope you don’t mind my taking
the, for me, paradigmatic example of France: the rightwing populism of Marine
Le Pen and leftwing populism of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. For Marine Le Pen, the
people is constructed very much in terms of the French National Us, and of
course the Them is the immigrants, seen as a danger because they are represented
as those who are taking away our
jobs and our privileges.

President of the French far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen attends a protest rally against the French government's immigration policies, April, 2018. NurPhoto/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

RB: But isn’t
the meritocratic élite also the enemy for Marine Le Pen’s ‘people’ ?

CM: Yes, but
it is not what interests me. In the case of Marine Le Pen, I am particularly
interested in the popular sectors that she has been able to win over. They are
the ones I think who need to be won back, which is where I have a disagreement
with people who say that it is unthinkable that the people who voted for Marine
Le Pen would ever vote for Mélenchon. This is
totally wrong. In fact we have
seen in the last election Mélenchon win in Marseille, a stronghold of Marine Le
Pen. Another interesting example is François Ruffin
who won in Amiens, also in a stronghold of Marine
Le Pen: so these people can be won back. Didier
Eribon’s Returning to Reims is
particularly interesting on the reverse direction of conversion, from the
Communist Party to the National Front – do you know it?

RB: Yes, I’m a
great fan of that book

CM: Eribon’s
family, when he goes back home thirty years later to
Reims, feel abandoned by the socialists and
the communists, who they think no longer represent their
interests. Those are the people who need to be won

RB: But isn’t it
interesting the way that Didier Eribon precisely escapes from Reims into the
meritocratic élite, where he is ashamed to own up to his own background until
he reconciles himself to a ‘second coming out’?

CM: Yes, he
escaped, but he remains a leftwinger, a very active leftwinger! But to get back
to the difference between leftwing populism and rightwing populism, basically
of course they have got something in common, which is that they draw the
frontier in a ‘transversal’ way, by which I mean that they cut across different
social groups. You can see this when Podemos says, “We don’t only want to speak
to the people who consider themselves as being on the left and who always vote
left. We also want to win to our cause people who have been traditional voters
for the Partido Popular, because they are also suffering from these neoliberal
policies and they can be won over.”

In this regard I have to say that I feel that on one side
the situation today is much worse than the situation when we wrote
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, because
in the mid-1980’s the institutions of the welfare state were
still very much in place. Now, so much of that has been dismantled. But on the
other hand, the potentialities are greater for the construction of a
progressive collective will. In particular, as a consequence of
the 2008 financial crisis and the policies of austerity, we are living through
the process of what I call the oligarchisation of our societies. The gulf has
grown between the small group of the very rich and the popular classes and
growing sectors of the middle classes that have also
entered into a process of  pauperisation and precarisation. That is a
very new phenomenon. It means that the conditions of those
middle classes are now much more similar to the popular
classes In that sense, the constituencies for
a progressive, emancipatory, radical democratic project – whatever you want to
call it – are potentially greater. What is most important is to have a
political project that will try to articulate the demands of the precarious
middle class together with the demands of the popular sector, with the LGBT
demands, the anti-racist demands and so

My argument is that today we are seeing a lot of resistances
to what I call post-democracy in our societies. When I speak of post-democracy
I refer to two distinct features, the phenomenon of the ‘Third way’ post-politics
that I examined in On the Political,
and a much more recent second phenomenon which is oligarchisation. Many
resistances to the latter are observable and can be expressed in many different

In fact I think it is interesting here to draw an analogy
with the situation analysed by Karl Polanyi in his book, The Great Transformation, published in 1944. In it he used his
theory of the ‘double movement’ to show how you were seeing throughout Europe
at that time a lot of resistances against the processes of commodification that
had been taking place there since the beginning of the century. He also saw the
rise of fascism and Nazism as ‘resistances’, but not only these. So you have
the hegemony of a model which creates a lot of resistances – Polanyi described
this as a ‘counter-movement’ – but one which could take many different
progressive as well as reactionary forms. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, for instance,
was a progressive resistance against the same process.  I think we have a similar double movement
today. The populist movement is a series of resistances
against neoliberal globalisation. But those resistances can be articulated in a
regressive or progressive way. I think we have a
similar double movement today.

I have been accused of presenting these
resistances as if they were all against
neoliberalism. I do want to say that all those resistances are
resistances against the post-democratic situation – these are people who feel
that the values of democracy – popular sovereignty, equality, and so forth,
have disappeared. My argument is that this post-democracy is indeed a
consequence of the hegemony of neoliberal globalisation. But I am not saying
that all those resistances are necessarily resistances against neoliberalism.
It is one thing to say that these are resistances against post-democracy, and
post-democracy a consequence of neoliberalism; and quite another to say that
they are all resisting neoliberalism. In fact, many rightwing populist
resistances are not questioning the hegemony of neoliberalism at all.

RB: Quite the
reverse: we have Trump, Orbán, Erdoğan
, Salvini and Five Star
promoting neoliberal policies while Macron mobilizes xenophobia. But
this raises for me the huge difficulty of being able to distinguish between
right and left populism.

In ‘For A Left
Populism’ when you are talking about the critical role played by the signifier
‘democracy’ in the political imaginary, you advocate the Gramscian idea of
“making critical” already existing activity in liberal democracy, rather than,
say, calling for its abandonment. But didn’t Goebbels and Mussolini in the
early stages of their rise to power precisely “make critical” the shortfall in post–democracy
too? Didn’t they also “transform relations of subordination into sites of an
antagonism.” And indeed moving to examples rather closer to home, didn’t
Theresa May and Donald Trump in their inaugural speeches, follow exactly the
same formula when they spoke of “
shifting the balance of
Britain decisively in favour of ordinary working class people…” and
“transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the
American People.”

So my question is, how do
people who are third parties observing all this to begin to distinguish between
left and right populism when much of the vocabulary and many of the postures
are identical?

CM: You are right – those
speeches were pure rightwing populism. But I don’t think it is so difficult to
distinguish between them. First let me insist that all those resistances are a
reaction against post-democracy. They are democratic resistances and they
constitute a cry from the people. They want to have a say. And of course May
and Trump respond, as Jorg Haider was
already doing in those early
years of the rightwing rise – “I’m going to give power back to
you, the people”.

of course the key thing here is who are you going to establish as the
adversary, the Them? “Who has taken that away from you?” In the case of
rightwing populism in general  it is the immigrants. “You don’t
have a say because of the immigrants.” Mélenchon on the other hand, says, “You
don’t have a say thanks to the forces of neoliberal globalisation.” So the way
that you construct the adversary
is decisive.

there is something else, and this is very important I think. It is the role
played by equality in these discourses. I have studied the discourse of Marine
Le Pen in some detail, and equality does not play a significant role in what
she says. To be sure, at one
stage she was much more on the left in her discourse than François Hollande. She was defending the
welfare state and very critical of neoliberalism. But she never mobilised the
idea of equality. “The welfare state – but only for the French!” That was her
discourse. For Jean Luc Mélenchon, the immigrants are a part of the French
people. And on the other side are the forces of the political and economic
élites who sustain neoliberalism. “The welfare state – but only for the French!”

me the central criterion
is the role that equality plays in the discourse, because in a sense both
leftwing and rightwing proclaim that they are going to give a voice back to the
people. That is true. But when I speak of post-democracy, the two main values
of democracy under attack are popular sovereignty and equality. The rightwing
populist wants to recover the popular sovereignty for the National Us, but they
don’t mobilise for equality. That is the crucial missing factor.

RB: To pursue this
notion of equality, can we dig a little more into how the left populist political
project articulates the demands of the people in a way that can overcome
its divisions and conflicts of class, gender, or ethnicity? I would like to
explore your concept of the ‘chains of equivalence’, by comparing this with a
memorable moment in an interview I did with Jean Luc Mélenchon in 2013. This
was the year before he published
L’Ère du Peuple, and of course he has hugely changed his political vocabulary since
then. But at the time, talking about the left, he said:

“Our left is above all cultural. It's a very extensive cultural
continent, with many different landscapes, hills, valleys… This image allows me
to say that political reconstruction will take place on the ‘broadest cultural
field’ and not on strictly political themes. And we try to traverse this
broader cultural field looking for where there are overlaps.”

At this point he
illustrated his thesis by taking up a series of three overlapping table napkins
and continued:

“We take our bearings from the great cultural
hegemonies, identities, reference points in France. For example, you're for
laicité. You support secularism and are not interested in anything else. You
couldn’t care less about right or left. Now, there is a second person who is
for sharing.You can't be happy when there are unhappy people. Then, the next
person is for equality, and in particular cannot bear inequality between men
and women. So there are three landscapes and one place in which all three
overlap. If you are here [in the overlap], you are Front de Gauche – if you are
here [outside the overlap], it’s something else. I don't have contempt for you,
but this is different. The ideological strategy of the Front de Gauche is to
reconstruct French cultural hegemony in the Gramscian sense, and to rebuild it

Was it this search for
the overlap that moved Mélenchon out of the left that he used to occupy? And
was this an adequate illustration of ‘the chains of equivalence’ that I was
being treated to here?

CM: Clearly
he is speaking here of transversality and the need to articulate a series of
different demands.  And he is still
saying that. The only difference now is that he is saying that he doesn’t want
to make reference to the left, and this is the same with Podemos in Spain as I
mentioned. In the book which Íñigo Errejón and I wrote together in 2016,
this was the only point of disagreement. “In Spain”, Íñigo said, “you are not
going to win people by saying, ‘I’m on the left.’ No! There are too many
negative connotations.” And I think in France today, Mélenchon would say the
same: when you speak of the left in France, people think of François Hollande! That is the left!
Several people in La France Insoumise have told me, “ When we campaign, we
can’t present ourselves as being left, because we will be rejected.” But they
acknowledge that they come from a left tradition…

RB: Isn’t it the case
that Mélenchon’s electorate is clearly leftwing, the young and the
working class who don’t vote, and people attracted in the first place by a
leftwing social democratic programme?

CM: Of
course – so this is pragmatic and only about what label to use. But basically,
although he doesn’t use the term, ‘chains of equivalence’, we are talking about
how to construct ‘the people’ for a left populist strategy. Left populism
is not a regime, it is a discursive strategy of construction of
the political frontier. I have to insist on this. If, for
instance, La France Insoumise comes to power, they will not be installing a
left populist regime – there is no such thing! 
Or let us come back to Trump. Trump, most definitely ran a populist
campaign. But his regime
is not populist. Trump… ran a
populist campaign. But his regime is not populist.

So you can see that basically left populism is
a way to construct a people, and to create the conditions for a new hegemony.
Once that is in place, then, of course, this new hegemony must be reoriented
around the recovery and deepening of democracy – since you are in the business
of defeating post-democracy. This
is when I suppose it will be possible to see the difference between rightwing
populism and leftwing populism. Both of them pretend that they are going to
recover democracy and give a voice to the people. But the way in which
rightwing populists recover this democracy is to restrict it to the nationals,
whereas leftwing populism recovers democracy in order to deepen and extend

RB: But let me
push you for a little more detail now. In your latest book, you quote Ernesto
Laclau as saying: “ Each individual demand is constitutively split: on the one
hand it is its own particularised self; on the other it points through
equivalential links to the totality of the other demands.”

Mélenchon’s napkin demonstration
said that all three demands had
to come together into an identical idea in the Front du Gauche. Whereas, it
seems to me that it is absolutely essential that a leftwing deepening of democracy
is about a mutual, pluralist empowerment, and that is not the same thing as
everybody now united behind the same demand against the oligarchy, is it?

CM: No, of
course not. But I don’t think that is what Mélenchon meant and it is not what
we argue. This is something I have tried to explain. It is in fact a running
debate that I have with Didier Eribon who is very worried that when we talk
about articulating the different demands, what we will actually do is to homogenise
them. He is very Foucauldian in this regard, and I remember that we had the same
discussion in the Foucault journal MF with which
I was involved.  We insisted, and I still
insist, on the necessity to acknowledge the
specificity of feminism. But, at the same time, and this is my Gramscian side, I insisted
the need to enter into a chain of
equivalence with other struggles. But a chain of equivalence is
not simply a rainbow coalition in which you put different struggles next to each
other. There can be conflicts
between democratic struggles
and they need to be articulated. This
requires the construction of new
subjectivities. A
chain of equivalence is not simply a rainbow coalition.

This is one reason why I am critical of the ‘multitude’ in
the work of Hardt and Negri, because they take it for granted that
all those elements of the multitude converge. And we are saying, no, they do
not converge automatically, and indeed in many cases they are in contradiction,
because the demands of women can conflict with those of labour for example. So
you need to construct ways of formulating each demand
so that a chain of equivalence is established: and it is
equivalence we are after, not identity. What they have got in common is the
common adversary.
And what unites those very different constituencies is the need to prevail
against that adversary.

Margaret Thatcher for example won over a section of the
working class, the elements of the labour aristocracy you might say. People
don’t like to talk about that, but she did. And she did it by saying to those
workers that she  understood
their problems, but that
they were caused by the
feminists whose insistence on women entering the labour market were taking
their jobs. The same with the immigrants. So the aim of those in power
is always to divide, and to prevent unity from forming among the oppressed.

What is important is that when you construct an alliance,
women, for example, do  formulate their
demands in such a way that they cannot be
satisfied simply by pushing the burden onto the immigrants, who will then be
the ones to lose out.

RB: As in Saskia
Sassen’s unforgettable concept of the Global Woman to refer to those immigrants
worldwide who increasingly do the caring in advanced societies…

CM: That’s
right. But you see what is crucial in each case is creating new forms of

RB: And in this
process, wouldn’t you agree that it is not just a question of finding the
common enemy, but that this enemy in common gets more deeply characterised as
you begin to put together, for example, the experience of oppression of people
in work, with insights into patriarchy both from the feminists and from gay
activists. These combine to give us a new and indeed deeper sense of the role
of the family for example in the reproduction of the system.
It is equivalence we are after, not identity.

CM: Finding a common ‘Them’ is
a necessary element in the process of creating an ‘Us’,
but it is never simply a matter of saying – “Ah, we all have to fight against
neoliberalism!” Of course not.

RB: Isn’t this
where intersectionality becomes a rather useful analytic framework?

CM: Yes, I
agree with that and even if the term in not present in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, I have been arguing that the idea
is present. We maybe go further because when speaking of a
multiplicity of subject positions you also
that you can be dominant in one position
and dominated in another one, so that there exist oppressed workers who are
nevertheless sexist and so on. Those struggles that need to be
brought together are very heterogeneous, and this is why we say that a new form
of subjectivity has to emerge that is going to impede the adversary who will
aim to divide
us to satisfy some of the demands, but not others. We need a
solidarity which will say, “No. that will not satisfy my demand because you are
just going to transfer the burden to other people…”.

So a rainbow coalition can be an early stage, I am not
against that. But the construction of a new hegemony requires a new form of
subjectivity, and a new kind of common sense.  

RB: Ah yes, common
sense. Now I have a real problem with that concept from a British empirical
point of view. Because for me common sense statements are pre-eminently those,
like the one I recently quoted about the Reithian BBC, “The House of Lords
Communications Committee… decided there was no clear definition of
what Public Service Broadcasting is – but it didn't matter. It's the
sort of thing we all recognise. When it hits you…”. You can never define what
makes the BBC such a national treasure, but we nationals all know it. In other
words, ‘common sense’ is the very mark of a dominant ideology, isn’t it? Non-negotiable
and exclusionary – and what is empowering about that?

Whereas what we have been
talking about with respect to the chains of equivalence is something that is
consciousness-raising – in particular about the relations of subordination that
are being overcome, in different ways, but on all sides?

CM: Wait a second! I am using
‘common sense’ according to the Gramscian meaning of the term, which has
nothing at all to do with British empirical common sense. There is nothing
natural about this common sense: it is a total construction. Living in Britain
over these years, I have seen, and you must have seen this too, the way in
which ‘common sense’ in Britain has been transformed by Thatcherism. I remember
when I arrived in 1972, it was a very social democratic country in terms of
values. A lot of solidarity was normal. And I have seen that being undermined
and undermined and undermined. This is the direct product of the way in which
Thatcher was able to construct a neoliberal hegemony and I think that if we are
going to break with this hegemony and construct a different one, we need to
create a set of values, a different set of expectations, new ways of judging
what it is that we aspire to. It is a total transformation that is involved. This is
why I am very interested  in artistic and
cultural practises, because they play a very important
role in the construction of subjectivity and the
creation of the common sense

RB: Yes Thatcherite
common sense is a very clear example. What is more elusive is to
see how left populism works in its emergent stages. Can I give you one more example?
This one comes from an article by Omer Tekdemir, one of your students, I
believe, who describes the Kurdish-led and left-leaning populist Peoples’
Democracy Party (HDP) that brought 80 MPs into the Turkish Parliament in June
2015, in this way:

“The HDP established a chain of equivalence between its
diverse components without essentialising Kurdish identity over other
alliances, using radical democracy as a common point of affiliation. The HDP has
identified ‘we’, ‘the People’, in terms of an agonistic pluralism that…
promotes compromise in disagreement (such as the association between devout
Muslims, Alevis, LGBTs, feminists and Afro-Turks and non-Muslims) positioned
within a symbolic democratic ground based on the democratic principles of liberty
and equality for all.”

This seems a pretty exact
account of the process of constructing a left populist party. But I wondered
about one element that seems to be missing. You speak quite a lot about the
importance for left populists of constructing a left patriotism to counter the
rightwing version. In a country with Kemalist roots, like Turkey, where the
ruling party is giving the dominant ideology an increasingly oppressive and nationalist
turn, it is hard to see how the HDP could bang on this particular drum?

CM: I trust my Turkish friends
when they tell me that the HDP
is clearly a left populist endeavour. As
to patriotism, aren’t the HDP trying to redefine Turkish identity in a much
more pluralist way? So it is not that the dimension of patriotism is absent, it
is just that it resignifies what it is to be Turkish. My
insistence on the question of nationalism and patriotism is very much a
consequence of my interest in psychoanalysis. I think we need to acknowledge
what Freud called a strong libidinal investment in the identification with the
nation. I disagree with Habermas’ idea of a post-national identity. We need to
see how we can work on national forms of identification and
construct them in a way that is really going to
be open and pluralistic.

of course is going to take very different forms in different countries. It is
easier in some countries than in others. I think that in France, a left
patriotism is much easier because of the French Revolution. You can really
establish it on the basis of values that are
universalistic values. It is much more difficult in Germany and in Austria where
I had quite interesting discussions with my friends at the time of
Haider’s rise. I would say that I had never seen a country where the left were
so antipatriotic. Austrians are so anti-Austrian – it’s incredible. I used to
tell them, “You can’t reduce the whole history of Austria to those
years in which some Austrians  were so enthusiastic about the Anschluss.
There are
a lot of other stories, of Red Vienna, the Austro-Marxists” – and Vienna has had a
social-democratic government since then
– “You can construct a different narrative about the values of
your nation!” 

can’t imagine a society where these progressive elements and episodes are
totally absent. In the case of France it is vital. La France Insoumise is very
good about that. They realise that they cannot leave to Marine Le Pen that
whole field
of patriotism. With her
references to Jeanne D’Arc,
Le Pen is in the process of constructing a whole narrative of the history and
meaning of France around her rightwing values. You need to have a
counter-narrative. In Britain, I know this is of interest to Anthony Barnett,
but I wouldn’t presume to comment on how you go about it.

I know is that if you are going to try to envisage how to act politically and
how to define an emancipatory project, you need to start from an
adequate political anthropology. It is
very important. I am often criticised for insisting on the national dimension,
but my conviction is that you always have to start from struggle within your
country and then from there you can begin to establish alliances with like
movements in other countries.

friends in the anti-globalisation movement, for example, tell me that the
problem with that movement was that it was not an emanation of real popular
support in each country. A lot of NGO’s were meeting in Porto Alegre and that they
had there fantastic discussions, but then they were coming back to
their country and there was no real basis of support for what they were
doing.  I think you have to start from
the roots, from the local, and then move out from there. Ultimately a left
populist strategy will only be successful if it manages to exist at the European
level, obviously. You can’t think otherwise. And there are struggles where it
is very important to organise at the European level – against TTIP for

with regard to nationalism, the key issue that I want to raise is this. My
interest in writing For A Left Populism arises
from one central question, which
is how to act politically in the present conjuncture? I am
convinced that we are at a crucial moment because there is a crisis of the
neoliberal hegemony, and here you must understand what I mean. We need to
distinguish between neoliberal policies and neoliberal hegemony. Of course neoliberal
policies are still powerful but what is in
crisis is the hegemony.

many years neoliberalism in the Anglo-Saxon model was seen as
the universal panacea, the only solution. This is why all social democratic
parties converted to that cause. Since the 2008 financial crisis, we have seen
the cracks appearing, and what for me was another important moment, was 2011,
the Indignados and all those other ‘movements of the squares’
rising up. It was when resistances began to come from the left and not
only from rightwing populist movements, that we entered  what I call a ‘populist moment’.
Of course the outcome depends on which of those two prevails, which side is
going to hegemonise those resistances more effectively.

the left is not able to understand the opportunity that is on offer and to
seize the initiative, then it is going to be the rightwing populists who
prevail and they will bring in authoritarian, nationalistic regimes. In the
name of recovering democracy, they will restrict democracy.

what I am saying is that it is necessary to know how to fight rightwing
populism, and that to do that, you have to avoid what I see so much of on the
left, which is a reliance on moral condemnation. “They are fascists!” is the
cry, and once you say that, how are you going to continue the fight against
them? For example, just before the elections in France, a lot of publications
came out arguing that “Marine Le Pen is not Republican!” They were convinced
that just saying that they would deter her voters. I was arguing that in that
case her party should not have been subsidised in order to allow it to compete
in the elections. Either one way or the other.

RB: It is rather like
the Remainers in Britain trying to argue that the Brexit referendum vote is just a mistake?

CM: Or Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” to describe those who
voted for Trump. I totally disagree with that. I
believe it is completely self-defeating and counter-productive.
Do you imagine that this rhetoric is going to change hearts and minds? It only
reinforces the anti-establishment feelings of those people.

Macron spoke of a “populist leprosy” afflicting Europe,
and indeed this is quite familiar this vocabulary of moral disease, the return
of the plague and so on..

In a
sense it is understandable why social democrats take up that
refrain. It gives them the moral highground. They
feel: “We are the good democrats!” Except that those good democrats really
should understand that if we are where we are it is because of them.
I think this moral highground simply helps them to avoid making an
auto-critique. Because if they really were to understand the reason for the
rise of  rightwing  populism, they would have to
recognise that it was because they abandoned the popular sectors. Those good
democrats really should understand that if we are where we are it is because of

have been criticised a lot for my unwillingness to label Marine Le Pen as
“extreme right” and for sticking to my designation of rightwing populist. But
strictly speaking  “extreme right” is an
anti-liberal, anti-parliamentary right, that uses and incites violence and does
not accept the democratic institutions. Marine Le Pen is not in that category.
Of course those extreme right parties do exist in Europe. But so far they are
very marginal.

RB: But extreme violence can lie
just under the surface of an apparently democratic polity, can’t it, like the
murder of Jo Cox MP which suddenly erupted into the early stages of the Brexit
process, which has been followed by a marked upsurge in racist and xenophobic
violence ever since? These can be given permission by apparently democratic
institutions that would never admit to being responsible in any way, just as the
AFD denies all linkage to the Nazis who attend the protests they called for in
Chemnitz, while stating that they understand why people are so angry.

In fact, here we are back to
Canetti. Given the enormous centrality that you accord to the channelling of
“antagonism” – struggle that sets out to destroy the enemy – into “agonism” –
struggle with an adversary whose legitimacy is perceived as legitimate – (you
reiterate this argument as one of two underlying assumptions in your
Theoretical Appendix to
For A Left Populism) – I wonder that you do not make
the commitment to work against violence of all kinds and of course, war and the nationalisms leading to war, a much
more distinctive feature of left populism, demarcating it clearly once and for
all from rightwing populism. Why not make conscious and explicit something that
runs throughout your analysis?

Ultimately, the violence
afflicting democratic societies, let alone the threat to the survival of the
species unleashed by the same forces, must have at least as much capacity to
convert some of the winners under neoliberalism to radical democracy as the
“ecological question” that you place at “the centre of any radical democracy
agenda”, mustn’t it?

CM: Antagonism is an ever-present
possibility. I’m a Freudian, so I do believe in eros and thanatos: we need a
realistic anthropology that recognizes the
ineradicability of antagonism. But
what one can do is to try and create the conditions for agonism. And the more
immediate danger is the coming to power of rightwing populists who are not
fascists but who are more authoritarian and who are going to restrict our
democratic institutions.

President Emmanuel Macron and Chief of the Defense Staff of the French Army on the Bastille Day military parade, Champs-Elysees, Paris, 2018. Pool/Press Association. All rights reserved.What
I am worried about is a situation where political leaders like Emmanuel Macron
are so oblivious to the desperation that his policies are causing,
that unless La France Insoumise is able to channel the resistances
against Macron in an agonistic way towards a radicalisation of democracy, then
for sure they could lead to an explosion of
violence. I have discussed this with my friends in France recently and we agree
that there is a recrudescence precisely of those manifestations of violence at
the hands of people who feel that the entire system excludes them. If it has no
other way of expressing itself, that anger will explode in violence. Left
populism is a way to channel those resistances in an emancipatory
direction, not that I believe you could ever have a complete emancipation – but
the perpetual radicalisation of democracy, that I do believe in. 

RB: In addressing this need to replace
denunciation with hope
you talk interestingly in
For A Left Populism
­about the importance of learning from the arts and from cultural workers about how to address the emotions, the affects as you call them.

As we come to a close, I am
thinking about everything that we have discussed. We agree on the sheer amount
of work that goes into maintaining the neoliberal hegemony, “constantly
mobilising people’s desires and shaping their identities” as you put it. We are
talking about a massive piece of work, political work, intellectual work, work
on the affects, to construct a new counter-hegemony.

But who are the people who
are meant to be doing the thinking and the constructing? You have little time
for “auto-organisation” and over the decades you have been very consistent in
your antipathy to the notion of political agency: in 1993, you told New Times,
“ We should be very wary of the concept of agency. The left has always been
seeking an agency…  But as we are not
seeking a ‘revolutionary’ change we do not need an ‘agency’. We need a maximum
number of struggles and their articulation.”  

However, where does the
change ultimately come from? You are surely not proposing to leave this work of
transformation to a small bunch of political leaders, however charismatic?

CM: Of course not. We used to
talk about parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics, and don’t really use
these terms any more today. But I have always said that there needed to be much
more than purely parliamentary politics dedicated towards this
construction of a new hegemony. Nowadays, we are talking about a multiplicity
of grass roots movements, social movements, groups which experiment in new
forms of living, new experiences of citizenship and democratic participation. I
think this is very important. When I disagree, it is
with people who claim
that they are going to be able to change society exclusively
through what I call the ‘horizontal’ level. 
I don’t believe that. At some point you need to engage with the
political institutions: you need to engage with the state. And you have to come
to power and for this you need an electoral machine… But of
course, it can’t be only that. To establish a new hegemony it
necessary to create a synergy between electoral
politics  and the
diversity of progressive civil society struggles and experiences.
articulate the ‘horizontal’ level with the ‘vertical’ one
– this is what the left populist
strategy advocates.

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