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Chantal Mouffe Calls for Labour to Revive Failed ‘Left Populism’ as ‘Green New Deal’.

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Image result for chantal mouffe jean luc melenchon

Mouffe Advising M. 6,31%.

In the  1990s Chantal Mouffe was an avid reader of Carl Schmitt. In her take on the German theorist of the fundamental political antagonism between Friend and Enemy, had to become a democratic clash of opinions. (The Return of the Political. 1993.) In the Democratic Paradox (2000) she argued that the “agonistic practice of valuing and sustaining dissent in the democratic process as a more important goal than  consensus.”

Many writers before her, such as Bernard Crick (In Defence of Politics (1962, and five subsequent editions, the last in 2002) and Claude Lefort  (L’Invention démocratique. Les Limites de la domination totalitaire. 1981) expressed (often without needing words like ‘agonistic) through reading Machiavelli, and the history of the left’s relationship to democracy, have argued for the importance of free debate, disagreement, and rows. The French writer, Jacques Rancière has made something of a career out of arguing for the importance of “disagreement” and dissensus (Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy 1998. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. 2010).

Mouffe’s writing was by contrast aimed at a highly abstract set of liberal writers, such as John Rawls, and Jürgen Habermas, who argued for a liberalism based on an “overlapping consensus” (Rawls, Political Liberalism, 1993), or rational consensus “discourse ethics” bases on an ideal agreements (Habermas). It was an academic intervention in a series of related debates.

Since those days Mouffe has, it is said,  begun to engage in real politics.

The book, “In conversation with Íñigo Errejón Podemos: In the Name of the People (trans. Sirio Canos),  2017 had a wider readership than her books, or those of her late partner, Ernesto Laclau, on the way populism could be seen both as a way of “constructing the people” and upsetting the (alleged) political consensus of Western societies.

Since those days left populist parties have tried to put into practice the principle of ‘post class politics’ that ‘federate the people’ against the elite, the casta, the oligarchy – the permanently floating signifier of that the populist ‘revolt’ is said to be against.

In their best known form, in Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise (LFI), and Podemos, they have reached an impasse.

In France, after getting only 6,3% of the vote in this year’s European elections, LFI faced a major crisis. Some talked of the death of left-wing populism (Le « populisme de gauche » est mort ! June 2019).

The vote of Podemos has declined. They no longer appear an unstoppable force that would replace the Spanish Socialists, the PSOE. Podemos has also split with Mouffe’s friend, Errejón, forming a new party Más País, that is predicted to win seats in the coming elections, and split the left vote further.

Más País, is betting heavily on a version of the Green New Deal. This worth remembering in looking at the Mouffe article that appeared yesterday.

Centrist politics will not defeat Boris Johnson’s rightwing populism

Mouffe repeats her old support for ‘agonistic’ politics.

….fear of populism reveals something troubling about how we currently understand democratic politics. What most people seem to find shocking about Johnson’s strategy is that it involves an “us v them” confrontation – as if democratic politics could avoid conflict between irreconcilable political projects.

But,

Since Thucydides and Machiavelli, we have known that politics involves conflict and antagonism and that it has, by definition, a partisan character. In politics, therefore, we are always dealing with an opposition between “us” and “them” – which means it will always be necessary to draw a political frontier between the two sides.

The post-Marxist theorist repeats the well-worn description of a world in which politics apparently had frozen for decades, from the protests against globalisation, to countless elections, rivalries, changes of government,  to the Arab Spring interspersed.

After decades of “post-politics”, during which citizens were deprived of a voice in the way they were governed – under the pretence there was no alternative – we are now living through a populist moment. Political frontiers that were said to have vanished are now being reinstated, in the name of recovering democracy and popular sovereignty.

She claims that the vote for Brexit was a protest against “post-politics”, although few can recall anything particularly beyond politics’ about the rule of the Conservative-Liberal Coalition dominated by political manoeuvering on a grand scale.

Perhaps people protested against those government’s austerity because of the effects this has on their lives.

But the answer seems to like in the idea that a vote for Brexit was tied up with demands for “Popular sovereignty and democracy”. But was the the anti-EU vote about a real loss of sovereignty and democracy  or the result of a campaign that articulated frustrations on a range of issues (not least immigration) into an “imaginary construction of a nation” under threat from the EU?

Mouffe does not say. Nor does she offer the slightest idea of what “real” popular sovereignty is, putting somebones on the ghostly concept that has floated around politics for over two centuries.

She notes that  “by articulating anti-austerity and anti-establishment sentiments with a nationalistic flavour” they gained support.

By blaming the EU for the deterioration of social and political conditions in the UK, Brexit became a hegemonic signifier – one around which a new “people”, identified as leavers, has coalesced. These are the “people” Johnson pretends to represent and whose will he accuses parliament of disregarding.

Yet many people, given the closeness of the Referendum vote, did not agree.

Why should they have to “understand” people. Why should they listen to Mouffe lecturing them that they should “not demonise all Brexiters as deplorables, or dismiss them for being unable to recognise the intellectual and moral superiority of the European project.”

Either it’s right to argue for Remain – in a strategy of transforming the EU – or it is not.

That is dissensus.

The article offers no answer, or rather one that avoids the issue.

In Britain, as in the rest of Europe, the way to answer the rightwing populist offensive is the construction of another “people” – through the articulation of a project that can link together various demands against the status quo. A project in which both leavers and remainers could feel that they have a voice and that their concerns are taken into account. One signifier for such a project could be a Green New Deal – which articulates multiple environmental and economic struggles around a demand for equality and social justice.

To be sure, such an “us” will never include everybody. It does, of course, require a “them” and the drawing of a political frontier. But we can have a frontier that makes democracy more radical – one that pits the people against the oligarchy, and the many against the few.

That is to plunge into a rusty tool box.

Left wing populist parties have failed to ‘construct’ the people. Targeting the shifting signifiers of the elite has not worked.

As Cédric Durand et Razmig Keucheyan argued, after the defeat of LFI in France, at its best,

L’opposition entre les 1% et les 99% permet peut-être de déclencher un mouvement politique et de l’incarner dans un leader, mais l’empêche de s’inscrire dans la durée.

The opposition between the 1% and the 99%  allows perhaps a political movement to get off the ground and to incarnate it in a leader, but it prevents its long term estbalishment.

There are, they note, fundamental conflicts of interests inside the “people”.

One stands us,  the ‘deplorables’ who back brexit include many, many, people who backed it out of xenophobia.

Understanding them is not just a pleasant sounding word, a wink to the wise, as Mouffe suggests.

It can become part of a left populist strategy.

In Germany, many consider, left populism, with its belief in the “people” “elite” conflict has opened the space to the red-brown politics of national populism.

Pop-Up Populism: The Failure of Left-Wing Nationalism in Germany

Aufstehen’s leaders insisted that their movement was not defined by its opposition to migrants. But they consistently cast migrants as either pawns in the game of finance capital or as the phony poster children of misguided urban idealists.

Theorists of left populism like to argue that “the people” needs an adversary against which it can define itself. Who was “the adversary” for Aufstehen? It was an eclectic group. At its head was Merkel’s government, followed by the forces of what they called “Goldman Sachs capitalism.” Arrayed behind them were a less typical crew for the left: an alliance of migrants (some of whom were suspect followers of “hate preachers of radicalized Islam”) and the naïve leftists who loved them. Together, they played the role of useful idiots for a ruling class intent on driving down wages by swamping the remains of the welfare state.

Against this union of elites and outsiders, Aufstehen offered “the realistic left” a middle approach that distinguished between “forced” and “economic” migration—lest all “competitors for scarce resources at the bottom of society” be given access to the German labor market and social welfare benefits. “If the core concern of leftist politics is to represent the disadvantaged,” Wagenknecht explained, “then the no-borders position is the opposite of being on the left.”

One see how populist rhetoric develops further in this recent interview on the red-brown site Spiked.

Nationalism is the search for a new solidarity’

Red Tory Phillip Blond on Boris, Brexit and the ‘post-liberal’ future.

 I think that what is happening is that nationalism has become a new principle of solidarity. Nationalism is the unifying principle between the vision of ‘Global Britain’ and those people who are demanding solidarity because they’re experiencing insecurity in terms of the care of their parents, the care of the children, and their own situation. There is fundamental realignment going on.

The Green New Deal is not the magic potion to make everybody forget about Brexit and ignore this realignment.

The fight against this nationalist “solidarity”, the rich man at his Brexit castle the poor man at his gate, and for the internationalist anti-Brexit cause, continues.

We need less understanding and more argument, till we have won our case through democratic means.

**********

More reading: 

There are two articles in the latest Historical Materialism which point to further theoretical and practical problems about Left Populism.

Editorial Perspective: Is a ‘Left Populism’ Possible? Panagiotis Sotiris

In contrast to the proposals to think radical and emancipatory politics in terms of a left-populist strategy, we have attempted to present an alternative theorisation based on the dialectical contradictions and dynamics of the contemporary conditions of the subaltern in relation to the possibility to rethink the people, in an anticapitalist, post-national and decolonial way as the people-to-come, the people of the emergence of a new historical bloc. This requires not discursive constructions and rhetorical inventions but a new practice of politics, a new collective elaboration and experimentation for a potential hegemony of the subaltern, in a process that aims to fully unleash the potential of the subaltern for self-government.

Research Article: From the Demise of Social Democracy to the ‘End of Capitalism’  The Intellectual Trajectory of Wolfgang Streeck Jerome Roos

Streeck’s account ends up stripping foreign workers of their status as fellow workers, treating class in narrowly national terms and throwing up a stark divide between the interests of ‘indigenous’ workers on the one hand, and the interests of migrants and refugees on the other. Taken together, these two moves do not only end up obscuring the common interests shared by these groups (in higher wages and increased public spending on education, healthcare and social housing, for instance); they also reinforce a narrative that considers migrants and refugees as mere extensions of the class interests of international capital – and, as such, an existential threat to the integrity of the European welfare state. In the process, Streeck ends up lending legitimacy to the ‘national-populist’ view that immigration, by exerting downward pressure on wages and placing unbearable strains on national welfare systems, constitutes a direct threat to the interests of ‘indigenous’ workers.111 This is a potentially dangerous claim for which there is no convincing evidence. Indeed, research on Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States has demonstrated that in all of these countries immigrants actually bring in more in taxes than they take out in benefits, meaning immigrants, on the whole, far from undermining the integrity of the Western welfare state, actively fund its redistributive policies.112 Moreover, as Tansel and Turner point out with respect to Streeck’s unsubstantiated claims about immigration lowering wages:

… comprehensive reviews on the subject suggest that ‘there is still little evidence of an overall negative impact on jobs or wages’ in the UK. Coupled with the findings of a state-of-the-art research project on asylum seekers which concluded that ‘no clear correlation [exists] between access to the labour market and the number of asylum applications a country received’, it is clear that ‘economic’ arguments against immigration and accepting refugees should be examined under extreme scrutiny.113

And yet, ever since the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015 and the Brexit vote and election of Donald Trump in 2016, immigration policy has increasingly become the stick with which Streeck continues to flog the dead horse of the cosmopolitan centre-left. In a 2017 essay for the Danish Centre for Welfare Studies, he even goes so far as to hold immigrant children – as opposed to government cutbacks on education spending – responsible for crowding public schools (so that ‘“white” parents … will find ways to send their children to schools where they learn the national language properly’), just as he construes immigration as a leading cause of urban segregation, contributing to ‘“white flight” from areas where immigrants cluster’, instead of seeing immigrant neighbourhoods as ethnically diverse working-class communities in their own right, which are often on the front-line of the financialisation-driven process of gentrification and among the first to suffer from austerity.114 Elsewhere, in a recent contribution to the social-democratic journal Juncture, he takes the argument even further, directly reproducing the Islamophobic trope that ‘mass migration’ leads to terrorism:

..

 

Again, as with the notion that immigration lowers wages and welfare provisions, there is little empirical evidence for the claim that it leads to greater terrorist violence. Indeed, notwithstanding a number of high-profile, high-mortality attacks in recent years (most notably those in France in 2015 and 2016), the moving average of victims from terrorist violence in Western Europe decreased sharply during the supposed era of ‘open borders’ since the 1990s compared to the bloody autumn days of Streeck’s idealised welfare state in the 1970s.116 Moreover, the vast majority of terrorist attacks in Europe continue to be committed not by immigrants or refugees with religious-fundamentalist motives, but by European citizens with ethno-nationalist or separatist motives.117

Beyond the liberty he takes with the facts, however, the real irony is that Streeck’s own analysis as laid out in How Will Capitalism End? is characterised precisely by such a ‘lack of any vision of a practically possible progressive future’ that he attributes here to immigrant ‘primitive rebels’. Moreover, it seems to be his own incapacity to imagine a feasible egalitarian alternative beyond the current ‘post-capitalist’ interregnum that is now driving Streeck to join a growing chorus of disillusioned social democrats in responding to the neoliberal pressures on what remains of the European welfare state by jealously guarding its last-remaining crumbs from the claims made upon it by migrant workers and their families. It is a development that has, on occasion, seen Streeck’s views on immigration and refugee policy veer dangerously close to the welfare chauvinism of the nationalist right.118

 

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