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

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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

 

A Critical Account of Laclau and Mouffe on Populism. Part One.

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A Socialist Critique of Laclau and Mouffe, from Discourse to Populism.

“Enfants, enfants, je vous le dis: montez sur une montagne, pourvu qu’elle soit assez haute, regardez aux quatre vents, vous ne verrez qu’enemies.”

Children, children, I say this to you, climb a mountain, providing that it’s high enough, look in all directions, and you will see but enemies.”

Jules Michelet. Le Peuple. 3rd Edition 1846. (1)

Ernesto Laclau (1935 – 2014) was a political theorist, perhaps best known as a ‘post-Marxist’. The former Professor Political Theory at Essex University, he is attributed the founder of the Essex School of Discourse Analysis, and is best known today for his book on a topic which has recently come to dominate politics, On Populist Reason (2005). The Belgium born Chantal Mouffe, his partner, has, like Laclau, passed the major part of her career in British higher education. Their joint book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1986) made a splash, as a critique of class based Marxism that tried to deal with ‘new social movements’. Readers of Marxism Today during the period would have been familiar with the two names, as well as the often virulent critiques of their turn. Norman Geras began with an attack on  “a procession of erstwhile Marxists” (Post Marxism? 1987) But since that time Mouffe, like Laclau, seemed consigned to the decent obscurity of the University.

To the surprise of many in the new century Laclau and Mouffe spread their wings much further than academia. Posthumously Laclau has joined the select group of radical thinkers who have passed from youthful left activism, to being considered, not least by some players on the European left, a real influence on practising politicians. Pablo Iglesias, and Íñigo Errejón, have cited the Argentine born academic as an inspiration for the strategy of their political party, the Spanish Podemos founded in 2014. For those of an historical spirit they may indicate that the tie between radical left-wing Theory and Practice, apparently broken by the decades of Stalinism and the Cold War, and rendered even more marginal by the collapse of Official Communism, has been re-forged.

Mouffe was, and remains, very visible, at least in that select part of the political world that reads the Guardian, the New Statesman, El País, le Monde, and other European heavyweight dailies and magazines. Perhaps the high-water moment of her political influence was seen in her dialogue with leading Podemos figure, Íñigo Errejón in 2016, Podemos In the Name of the People. Mouffe has had the ear of the undisputed leader of the largest French left party now represented in the Assemblée Nationale, La France insoumise (LFI), created in 2016 by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mouffe and Laclau and Mouffe’s influence on Mélenchon and his advisers, particularly during the 2017 Presidential Election, has drawn the attention of the francophone media. The interest, originating in his personal formation in the Argentinian left,  of Laclau in Latin American populism, and relation to the Bolivarian Revolution – a key theme of the chief of LFI – in countries such as Venezuela drew attention and criticism. (2)

Left Populism.

A degree of scepticism about Laclau and Mouffe’s impact is nevertheless needed. The dispute between Errejón and Iglesias indicates that they are thinkers, and above all politicians in their own right. There are even greater doubts about whether anybody outside his inner circle marked Mélenchon’s left populist L’ère du peuple, Mouffe is clearly heard. Whether her recent suggestion that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is also “left populist” will lead a British audience to follow the “clues” for successful radicalism Owen Jones saw in the 2016 book remains less probable. Left populism has not been able to construct a ruling political bloc through on electoral victory. Efforts to go beyond ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the traditional sense have not been crowned with success. Podemos lost seats in the Spanish General Election, and Mélenchon’s La France insoumise has descended to below 10% in the poll. The Bolivarian Revolution has not turned out well, to say the least. (3)

It remains an attractive speculation that Laclau and Mouffe have created a Mirror for the Modern Left Populist Prince. The issue of Populism, which they have covered for many years, is important at the present. This is only one example of how their works might be mined for insights: “As Laclau foresaw” writes Jade Azim, “the success of populist movements depends on a symbolic signifier that can unite varied demands under a single umbrella.” For Nigel Farage, “The Brexit party’s empty signifier is Brexit, uniting a variety of voters under its banner; Farage loyalists, grassroots Conservatives, George Galloway, and the Communist Party. Its genius lies in its simplicity: an ideologically empty home for those angry at what they perceive as a Brexit betrayal by corrupt elites.” One awaits the response of Corbyn’s inner circle to her proposal that the party counter attacks with, “a unifier akin to “Get On With it”, in the context of winning security for businesses and workers alike..”  Apart from the fact that even the Communist Party of Britain has yet to endorse Farage, what kind emotional affect would tie a voter to this “unifier” – which says essentially, I’m not interested. (4)

In the revival of interest in Laclau. though with more detail about his views on populism, Phil writes,

Does Laclau offer any insights? Widening the possibility for the co-option of demands is one. Indeed, what we’re likely to see before the next general election is the wholesale adoption of hard Brexit by the Tories, at least for the cameras and papers anyway. But ultimately, getting down and dirty in the guts of populism is what’s necessary. We know the logic, but the logic isn’t free-floating. It is fed. Elaborating the programme for older voters, who tend to power right populism more than any other demographic, looking at the myriad of unsaid demands and grievances the Brexit chain of equivalence scoops up, challenges us to think about ways of co-opting them and neutralising them. It’s a task easier said than done, and one much harder than Laclau’s book, but done it must be if we are to detoxify politics and banish the hard right from political efficacy permanently.

Laclau on Populism

Phil observes that vagueness and a rhetoric that reveals the “materiality of words” lies at the heart of a wide spectrum of populism.  This is to ignore, in Most recent writings, the importance of emotional ‘affects’. It’s is hard to believe that “re-copting” the nationalist rhetoric of, say, the Brexit Party, its cries of Betrayal, its loathing of Europe,  into an alternative ‘left populism’ based on the ‘People’ can avoid giving credence to the super-charged right-wing ideas used.  Indeed this has been a main charge against La France insoumise, which has sought, endlessly, to make its own chain of equivalence work.  Left politics are based on new demands that break from established ideas, not to mention prejudices, and the xenophobia and racism that have fed the Brexit movement. FInally, language is not ‘out there’, the populists produced them within material party apparatuses, amply funded by sections of the hard-right bourgeoisie. They are “popular” only in the sense that a movement like 19th century French Boulangism was, a plebeian movement funded by fractions of capital that supported French monarchism, and anti-Semites engaged in a struggle with ‘Jewish’ capital. (5)

Perry Anderson on Laclau Today.

This is far from the end of the story. Works, from their joint Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), Laclau’s On Populist Reason (2005) and final writings on ‘rhetoric’, have much wider implications. Mouffe’s essays on political theory, up to Agonistics (2013) the discussion with Errejón, and For a Left Populism (2018) have an enormous range of references, from Gramcsi to Frédéric Lordon.  Are the ideas of Laclau and Mouffe, to cite only a few, on the “empty” and “floating” signifier in the discursive forms that construct the People Against a Them – an Other which Mouffe was to frame in terms adapted from Carl Schmitt as the “Enemy” – guides for radical let alone socialist politics? Perry Anderson, with commendable generosity, has said that Laclau and Mouffe writings of of thirty years ago, which argued for a break with Marxist “economism” and for a “new pluralism” based on radical democracy, and for a “politically constructed collective will” were “augers of the reaction against neo-liberalism”. They anticipated the conditions for the rise of Populism, the present, “when deindustrialisation had shrunk and divided the working class leaving a much more fragmented social landscape and a multiplication of movements, of right and left contesting the established order in the name of the people” – populism, a “bug bear of elites. (6)

The New Leftist remarked critically, if, one may gives him the benefit of the doubt and imagine that he still considers himself  committed to some socialist ideas,  that in Laclau’s On Populist Reason “reference to socialism fades altogether, and populism take over hegemony as the more pointed and powerful signifier of the inherently contingent unification of democratic demands – which in isolation would equally well be woven into an anti-democratic discourse – into a collective will. Bound together by a common set of symbols and affective ties to a leader, and insurgent people can then confront the regnant powers of their society, across the dividing-line of dichotomous antagonism between the two.” Everything becomes an affair of “articulation” joining voices together an attempt to construct a progressive populism embedded in the “national popular” to fight this battle for a “populist rupture”. As Anderson indicated, the People against the Elite, the Oligarchy, comes also in a National Populist guise, the Nations against more enemies than even Jules Michelet could have dreamt up. How these could be articulated into a left movement, other than a ‘red-brown’ or, at best, a ‘Blue Labour’ one that sympathises with them, is never explained. (7)

There are deeper problems with the views of Laclau and Mouffe. Their exaggerated interest in constructing “popular hegemony” (federating the people as Mélenchon’s supporters call it) and blindness towards what Perry Anderson called the “normal forms of hegemony” that of the dominant classes. But assessing Laclau and Mouffe is not easy. The response leads us from theoretical abstractions that would make an E.P.Thompson belch in his tomb, to some of the thorniest issues confronting the present day left. To begin, but not end, they include the nature of the discourse theory that replaced ideology in their work, ‘rhetoric’ and ‘articulation’ in politics, Mouffe’s sketch of ‘agonistic democracy’ right up to the overlaying of class politics by ‘populism’, national identity and sovereignty. As Mouffe put it, “Introducing her latest book the political theorist Chantal Mouffe writes that post-democracy “signals the decline in the role of parliaments and the loss of sovereignty that is the consequence of neoliberal globalisation.” (8)

This complex of theory, often described as abstract, if not rebarbative, is beyond doubt influential, if hardly accessible to a popular audience.  (9)

It is also profoundly wrong implying a shift and opening to Sovereigntist ideas, and has potentially damaging effects in destroying the historic class and ideological basis of the left.


Next section…..from Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory,  Slavoj Žižek. to On Populist Reason….

 

  1. Page 41 Jules Michelet. Le Peuple. 3rd Edition 1846
  2. There are hundreds of articles on this see :Les dangereux affects de Chantal Mouffe. Laurent Joffrin. 2018 Chantal Mouffe, la philosophe préférée de Mélenchon, Corbyn, Iglesias…  Chantal Mouffe, gurú del Podemos de España y del Frente Amplio: “Hay que votar por Guillier”
  3. La influencia de Laclau y Mouffe en Podemos.  Miguel Sanz Alcántara. One of the founders of Podemos cited in their piece, Juan Carlos Monedero, has stated that the impact of Laclau-Mouffe “populist hypothesis” on the party has been framed a posteriori. See for example  Las debilidades de la hipótesis populista y la construcción de un pueblo en marcha. Mélenchon pays homage a number of times to Laclau and Mouffe in Le Choix de l’insoumission (2016). But it is far from rare for a French politician to garnish her or his intellectual authority with weighty sounding influences.
  4. What Ernesto Laclau can teach us about the Brexit Party. New Statesman. 15th of May 2019.
  5.  See “Boulanger’s appeal as a nationalist was added appeal in the face of disillusionment with the Republic installed on 4 September 1870 and gradually solidified during the 1870s, the Third Republic (1870–1940). To most republicans, especially since 1848, the Republic had meant “the social and democratic Republic,” but the Republic now in power seemed to foster big business and industry. The severe recession of 1882, which hit farmers and increased unemployment, particularly in construction and textiles, increased resentment against the Republic among workers, artisans, and small-businesspeople. This resentment was further increased by a corruption scandal that broke in October 1887. President Jules Grèvy’s son-in-law, Daniel Wilson, who lived in the presidential residence, was selling his influence on the president: payment to Wilson was a sure way to get the Legion of Honor. The president was forced to resign at the end of 1887.” “The affair led directly to a new right. Until Boulangism, nationalism had been linked to the Revolutionary tradition of the levée en masse (the nation at arms) and royalists had disdained it. Now nationalists began to envisage authoritarian methods. In the mid-1880s, under a journalist named Paul Déroulède (1846–1914), La ligue des patriotes (the Patriots’ League) developed a new vision: the way to rebuild the nation was to inculcate obedience among the people and authority among their leaders. Monarchists and other conservatives who had initially disdained Boulanger soon saw the value of this kind of nationalism through Boulanger’s ability to draw popular support. If they could not restore the monarchy, they could use this nationalism to aim at an authoritarian regime based on values of nationalism, deference, and hierarchy. And conservatives learned about mass politics. The Dreyfus affair would further hasten their learning process.”
  6. Gramsci’s Heirs. Perry Anderson. New Left Review No 100. 2016. Socialist Strategy Where Next ? January 1981 Marxism Today. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Verso. 1985.
  7. Page 80. Gramsci’s Heirs
  8.  For a Left Populism. Chantal Mouffe 2018. Verso.
  9. For an overview see the review of Ernesto Laclau: Post-Marxism, Populism and Critique. David Howarth. by Will Horner.

Written by Andrew Coates

May 20, 2019 at 12:08 pm

For a Left Populism. Chantal Mouffe. Review: “Neither Left nor Successful”.

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Left Populism, “Neither Left nor Successful”.

For a Left  Populism. Chantal Mouffe.  Verso. 2018

Review: Andrew Coates.

(From the Latest Chartist Magazine.)

Chantal Mouffe and her partner Ernesto Laclau published Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in 1985 She begins For a Left Populism on the “challenge represented by the ‘populist moment’ by referring to the “incapacity of left politics” during the 1980s to grapple with post-68 movements, from the women’s movement to ecology. Anything that could not be thought of in class terms had been rejected. They offered, she states, an alternative, which became associated with the monthly, Marxism Today, against this “class essentialism”. It focused on bringing these new social forces into a left project, the “radicalisation of democracy”. There were angry debates on the left about these claims, focused around the authors’ ‘post-Marxism’ and the importance of class in left politics.

The world has changed. Today Mouffe argues that neoliberalism, austerity, and “oligarchisation”, has brought down living standards and eroded popular sovereignty. The political system is hollowed out. It is “post-democracy”, a term she takes from Colin Crouch and Jacques Rancière (La Mésentente. 1997). A paradigm of ‘consensus’ around the value of the free-market marks Western societies. There is little more detail about what is ‘post’ democratic in the new millennium’s elections, political competition for government and the possibilities for public debate opened up by social media.

How this differs from the previous consensus around the Keynesian welfare state, known in Britain during the 1950s as ‘Butskellism’, is not explored. The thrust is that social democratic and Labour Parties, notably during Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s premierships, accepted the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. As part of this ‘hegemonic’ package they put concern for the Taxpayer over generous public spending. New Labour agreed that privatisation of state functions and industries were “what works”. They aimed at competing on the global market. .

After the 2007 financial crisis people across Europe began to question the belief that these policies brought them any benefit. Those “left behind” by austerity in the wake of the baking crisis and globalised economies, demanded “democratic recognition”. Many Mouffe says, have turned to anti-establishment populist parties of the right, or have expressed their unhappiness through backing the Hard-Right project of Brexit in the UK European Referendum.

The message of For a Left Populism is, “To stop the rise of right-wing populist parties, it is necessary to design a properly political answer through a left populist movement that will federate all the democratic struggles against post-democracy.” She commends the Spanish Podemos, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise (LFI) and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, for “left populist strategies.” 

For a Left Populism draws on many, often very abstract, ideas that Mouffe has developed since the 1980s. This include her writings on Carl Schmitt, Claude Lefort, Jürgen Habermas (amongst many others) and  ‘agonistic democracy”. This is a concept which puts conflict and dissensus at the heart of democratic debate. Conflict, she argues, are the keynotes of pluralist democracy. This is an idea familiar from less elevated works. Bernard Crick’s In Defence of Politics (1964, and later editions) made a vibrant democratic socialist case for the importance of open disagreement and debate for the democratic left. Crick also wrote on how Machiavelli saw “liberty arising from conflicts.” (Introduction to The Discourses. Niccolò Machiavelli. 1970)

For a Left Populism talks about constructing a “collective will”. Left populism, she asserts, draws into its orbit by a “chain of equivalences” a variety of progressive demands, open citizenship. This is the ‘construction of the People”, a collective political agency, “ opposing the ‘people’ against the ‘oligarchy’. For this to work Mouffe follows the late Ernesto Laclau. There has to be “some form of crystallisation of common affects, and affective bonds with a charismatic leader… “ One can see the attraction for Jean-Luc Mélenchon who has made sure that there is no “so-called” democratic opposition in his Web-Platform based movement. It is a “lieu de Rassemblement” (rallying point) not a political party. (1)

Mouffe’s left populism also, centrally, draws on the “libidinal investment at work in national – or regional – forms of identification”…” National identities should be left to the right.  Instead of leaving the field to national populists there should be another outlet, “mobilising…. around a patriotic identification with the more egalitarian aspects of the national tradition.”

Much of this approach to nationalism is drawn out from the tangled thickets of Frédéric Lordon. The French theorist developed from some of  Spinoza’s ideas a picture of the importance of ‘affects’, which he illustrated as attachments of people to national identities, and, above all, nation states. La Société des affects (2013). Lordon, a supporter of Mélenchon has faced charges of nationalism himself. Chantal Mouffe’s French critics have not been slow to point out to the emotional ‘affects’ of voters motivated by anti-immigrant feeling. These are neither legitimate concerns nor are those who have them likely to drop their views to join a left-wing Collective Will. (2)

Since For a Left Populism was published Mélenchon’s Movement has stagnated and declined in polls, down below 10% of voting intentions for the coming European Elections. It has faced a series of internal crises, centring on the lack of democratic decision-making. Marine le Pen appears to have had more of an impact in the Gilets Jaunes uprising than the leader of La France insoumise. After poor regional election results in Andalusia and declining support Podemos, has suffered a serious split. Her interlocutor, Iñigo Errejón (Podemos, In the Name of the People. Iñigo Errejón. Chantal Mouffe. 2016) is now aligned with Más Madrid, a catch-all progressive alliance. Pablo Iglesias is said to project a long-term alliance with the Spanish socialists, the PSOE. The radical left “Anticapitalista” current is in outright opposition.

The problem with left populism is, as Éric Fassin has remarked, is that, “it’s neither left nor a winning strategy.”  Perhaps we should follow his advice and concentrate on creating broad and effective democratic socialist parties and not on ‘federating’ the “people”. (Populisme: le grand ressentiment. 2017) (3)

 

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  1. À propos du mouvement «La France insoumise» Jean-Luc Mélenchon. C:\Documents and Settings\Compaq_Owner\My Documents\À propos du mouvement «La France insoumise» Jean-Luc Mélenchon.htm
  2. Populisme de gauche, du nouveau ? Pierre Khalfa
  3. See also: Left-wing populism.A legacy of defeat: Interview with Éric Fassin Radical Philosophy. 2018. For an overview of Mouffe and Fassin see Jacobin, Can There Be a Left Populism?Jacob Hamburger. There is much to say on the intellectual structure of the ‘affects’ argument, and the abstract account by Mouffe construction of the ‘people’ in a counter-hegemonic direction through relations of equivalence which he does not. Hamburger however makes the valdi points that ‘left populism’ is hard to pin down as one thing (the gulf between Sanders and Corbyn alone is immense, and Podemos and La France insoumise) but fails to deal with anything like the different party structures. One can also see that the “degree of porosity between left and right” is politically fraught with dangers, as, even if minority, Gilets Jaunes red-brown cross-overs indicate. One would also prefer an account which focuses on sovereigntism, national independence as a rampart against neoliberalism, something Jacobin writers have themselves embroidered into a ‘left populism’.

 

As the attraction of ‘left populism’, which is still influential in publications such as New Left Review, and the American Jacobin, and other pro-Brexit groups, wanes,  this important article also in the latest Chartist, continues the argument:

THE DANGER OF LEFT NATIONALISM IN THE UK AND EUROPE

Extract:

A recent book on Corbynism by Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton argues that its key components lie in “seeing the world as constituted essentially of nations” and “posing the nation against global and international capital”. But, the authors point out, the search for sovereignty is destined to fail, not least because “we live in a world structured by capital, a social relation which exists as a world market, from which single states cannot abdicate, no matter how hard they try”. Not only is this emerging aspect of Corbynism pitting itself against the tide of history, but it also produces political rhetoric that shares territory with the nativist Brexiteer right wing. In casting the ‘national community’ as the primary community for whom the left speaks, and in describing not only global flows of capital but also of people as threat to this primary community, the left has clearly contributed to racist othering of migrant workers. Which is why some of Corbyn’s speeches on Europe have drawn praise from the likes of Nigel Farage.

Corbynism’s emerging left nationalism is treading the same path as parts of the French and German left. As far back as 2016 Sahra Wagenknecht of Die Linke challenged Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to accept more than one million refugees, calling for limits on entry. In an environment where the far right is stoking fears about ‘violent’ immigrants with fake news and conspiracy theories, Wagenknecht has called for the deportation of any refugees who ‘abuse’ German hospitality: a call in complete contravention of the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, and one that drew praise from the far right Alternative für Deutschland.

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