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Friends and Enemies: what remains of British ‘left populism’?

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Nationalism and Right-Wing Populism across Europe. A brief overview

“The problem with the populist strategy, for the left, is that it’s neither left nor a winning strategy.” – Left-wing populism. A legacy of defeat: Interview with Éric Fassin. 2018.

This deepening of democracy resonates particularly with the spirit of Momentum, which proposes and seeks to build links with the social movements. This explains the central place given to the struggle against all of the forms of domination and discrimination, from economic relations to other domains like feminist, anti-racist and LGBTQ+ struggles.

It is the articulation of these struggles alongside other forms of domination which stands at the heart if Corbyn’s strategy, and thus qualifies it as a “populism of the left”. The objective is to establish a chain of equivalence between different democratic struggles across British society and to transform the Labour Party into a large popular movement capable of articulating a new hegemony.

From Chantal Mouffe: “Corbyn represents the implementation of a left populist strategy. 2018.

A comprehensive balance-sheet of what was known as ‘left populism’ has yet to be drawn up. This book lays down some markers, from a stand, not uncritically, in favour of left populism, Left Populism in Europe Lessons from Jeremy Corbyn to Podemos Marina Prentoulis 2021 . This, which includes reflections on Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, is being published this autumn, Le populisme de gauche sociologie de la France insoumise (LFI ) Manuel CERVERA-MARZAL. One would also include an update on the coalition between Podemos, the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and the resignation of their leading figure, Pablo Iglesias, who has now retired from politics.

Marina Prentoulis (Left populism: learning from the past, preparing for the future) argues, “What populism of all kinds does – in its right and left wing versions – is create a ‘people’ out of this process of coming together which pits itself against the established elites. At this initial point the political content of the movement is raw material that can turn out to have a left or right wing orientation. It is there to be taken in one direction by a figure like Donald Trump, or another by the Spanish populist left party, Podemos.”

In contrast to Mouffe, and with the advantage of a time distance, she states, “For example, the Labour party – I don’t think that it has ever managed to create ‘a people’ in the way right wing populism did around Brexit.” What Corbynism did, she argues, is draw a new generation of left wing people into activity within Labour and then use their energy to fight in very traditional party terms against the right. It was not the social movement which populist theory sees as the first step in severing the emotional identification with the established order.”

Prentoulis says in defence of the left populist strategy and way of approaching politics, “As democracy seeks to get a grip on the situation once again, identities are as much in the mix as social class, and populism allows us to think through some of the dilemmas of what is inevitably a more fluid and volatile situation.”

This, theoretical and political critique, has been published on the Verso site. It, to say the least, denies the coherence of the founding theorist of left-populism Ernesto Laclau. It is a frontal attack on the “political logic” of left populism in the form theorised by Laclau and Mouffe:

Against populist reason: Ernesto Laclau’s blind alleys

(August 2021)

“Populism,” as a political concept, gained mainstream traction over the 2010s as the neoliberal consensus broke down internationally. But what is populist theory and what is its relationship to the twentieth-century Marxist thought from which it developed? In this piece, Stathis Kouvélakis offers a critical examination of the political logic of Ernesto Laclau’s theory of populism.

Stathis Kouvélakis writes for Contretemps, the French review founded by the 4th International Philosopher, Daniel Bensaïd He has produced a rigorous critique of best known left-wing theorist of populism, Ernesto Laclau. one can focus on this point. He argues, rightly in this Blog’s view, that the theory of populism developed by the late Laclau and extended in the new millennium to cover the L’eft populisms’ of La France insoumise, PODEMOS and Jeremy Corbyn is fundamentally flawed. An attempt at “a general phenomenology of the political constitution of group identities” it is overlain with a political strategy for “radical democratic politics” that fails to offer a left wing, let alone Marxist anchor.

In this context, “Populism’” is ” understood as the generic process of constitution of the subject-people of politics”,

What historical examples back this narrative up? Or as the writer puts it, “what does the contribution of the hegemonic process amount to? It rests in fact on the construction of a cleavage between ‘popular subject’ and ‘enemy’..” As Kouvélakis points out, “To take up the examples cited by Laclau himself, what made the Chartist discourse a populist discourse was the fact that it opposed to the body of ‘real producers’ (workers, craftsmen, self-employed) a minority of ‘idlers and parasites’, who monopolised wealth and appropriated the state through restricted suffrage.”

Like many cases in Laclau’s work this is an analysis of an analysis, in this case of the conclusions of Gareth Stedman Jones’ brilliant, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832–1982, 1983). One could add that Jones shows the words “working class” did not mean, or have the same social references, in 19th century Britain as they do today.

Kouvélakis makes the fundamental point: populism ais not socialism.

Similarly, the discourse of the American ‘progressives’ at the end of the nineteenth century, or of the Peronist movement, a humbled common people to minorities of ‘monopolists’, ‘oligarchies’ seen as monstrous growths on a national body that was fundamentally healthy. The watchwords of contemporary ‘populisms’ do not innovate much, pitting ‘people’ against ‘‘castes’ or ‘oligarchies’; even, in contemporary versions of fascism, against ‘globalised elites’ and ‘migratory submersion’ – to quote just two of Marine Le Pen’s favourite targets.

Behind this is the ambiguity of the ‘democratic demand’, the idea that the people is the subject of democracy (rather than say, the electorate, that is those who actually can vote) can ‘issue’ such calls. He also asks, in contrast to the ‘constitution’ the ‘people’ moments of disintegration, or indeed – one adds – the split of a country into different ‘peoples’ as in the UK and Spain. Where do the more-borders nationalists SNP and the Catalan independence parties, fit into the spectrum of populism? What, equally, of the issue of political “confusionnisme” which this Blog discussed a couple of days ago – Philippe Coffrey talks of “zones of intersection” between left and right populism? Finally the failure of left populism to build its own ‘people’ cannot be theoretically explained away but needs empirical research.

The France based Kouvélakis like Éric Fassin, professeur de sociologie  at a Paris University, must be all too aware of the inability of French left populism (LFI) to make a breakthrough, and the electoral strength of the national populist Front National, now Rassemblement National, normally classed on the far-right. Mélenchon is at present between 11% and 13% support for his 2020 Presidential bid.

Coming from the radical, perhaps Leninist, left, and using the arms of very abstract conceptualisation against Laclau who was a master producer of such discourse, this is the conclusion,

This apparently paradoxical recourse to a social ‘ontology’ that is as trivial as it is incompatible with populist reason can only be understood as an attempt to attribute content, an appearance of concreteness, to categories that have sunk into a bad abstraction. By a final ironic twist, it is a kind of ‘spectral Marxism’ of a particularly evolutionary and historicist variant – in other words, a ‘vulgar’ Marxism in the precise sense in which Marx described as ‘vulgar’ the political economy that succeeded the ‘classics’ (Smith, Ricardo), which comes to haunt a ‘post-Marxism’ determined to liquidate the very idea of revolution.

One does not have to sympathise with “revolution”, a master-signifier if ever there was one, or with the authors’ wider ‘revolutionary’ politics, to agree with some of the critical points Kouvélakis makes. To summarise rather brutally, he indicates just how slippery Laclau, and by extension Mouffe can be. Or, to put it differently, a lot of words tending towards little political change from the left.

As the “populist moment” on the left passes into history one trait remains. Populism of all brands, Laclau asserted, “rests in fact on the construction of a cleavage between ‘popular subject’ and ‘enemy’. Chantal Mouffe’s writings explore in luxuriant detail the concept, which originates in the works of the pro-Nazi German jurist Carl Schmitt (he may have first appeared in her, The Return of the Political. 1993. For Schmitt the carving out of a division between Friend and Enemy is foundational moment in politics. Mouffe attempts to revise Schmitt’s friend/enemy-distinction (The Concept of the Political 1932, English edition 2007) and carve out a theory of agonistic pluralism. 

Yet as can be seen, if Laclau is right, and many suspect he has a point about this as a feature of populism, this trait does not disappear by just adding a dose of pluralism, and accepting the ‘agonistic’ principle, “a practice of democratic engagement that destabilises appeals to authoritative identities and fixed universal principles. It is surely fundamentally anti-pluralist for all that can try to wish the intolerance away.

It is hard to accept that Labour – contrast Corbyn with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, compare a mass democratic party with a ‘movement’ (LFI) built around a ‘charismatic’ chief – was ever populist. Labour politicians do not rail against elites, oligarchies or entrenched political castes. If there was a trace of a cult behind some Corbyn admirers it largely extended to admiring, happy words and feelings, and not a lot further. No doubt one could speculate on the influence within Labour of “libidinal investment at work in national – or regional – forms of identification.”(For a Left  Populism. Chantal Mouffe.  2018).

And yet…… a section of the alt-left media, some of the Corbyn levée, and the anti-Corbyn lot braying for purges, at present having the screaming hab-dabs, seem caught up in defining the Friends and, above all, Enemies….

Written by Andrew Coates

September 7, 2021 at 1:51 pm

Jean Luc-Mélenchon’s weakened La France insoumise looks for Green friends.

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Fameuse photo

Friday: Jean-Luc Mélenchon shares platform with the Green (EELV)  Mayor of Grenoble Éric Piolle. 

Left populism is fizzling out. France has been one of the best known laboratories for this experiment. At one point even the English language left press  was full of article about La France insoumise and its would-be charismatic leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Dullards who expressed doubts about the patriotic side of the one-time Lambertist Trotskyist and life-long admirer of French President François Mitterrand. were regularly treated to lectures on the deeply held love of France’s revolutionary history by the French left.

Yet accusations of nationalism have dogged the rallying-point, as the controversy over anti-immigration sovereigntists such as Djordje Kuzmanovic (edged out in 2018), indicated. A regional councillor, Andréa Kotarac, went so far as to leave LFI last year to give his support to Marine Le Pen in that year’s European election.

The Catholic patriot and socialist writer Charles  Péguy, once wrote, ” Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique” – Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” In the case of La France insoumise it looks as if neither their mystical vision of uniting the people against the elite (Nous-le peuple, eux-les élites) nor their political hopes of “taking the power” are on course.

Readers of La Chute de la maison Mélenchon  by Thomas Guénolé (2019), will know that the attempt to weld together the people an epoch their leader called l’ére des peuples. have had deep problems over the last couple of years. As the political scientist and former activist, who left LFI in a storm of controversy,  wrote, the “movement” of those who ” se reconnaissent dans la démarche de Jean-Luc Mélenchon”. One cause was the lack of any democratic way of bringing supporters to that recognition other than in agreement to the leading group’s views.

“Démocratie véritable et autogestion dans les paroles, mais pilotage centralisé et autoritaire dans la réalité.”

Guénolé launched his broadside against LFI not only because it claimed to offer genuine self-managed democracy in words, but was centralised and authoritarian in reality. Having been created by the Helmsman and his inner circle, drawn initially from the party-club the Parti de gauche (PG)  (which originated as a faction within the Parti Socialiste) LFI, run as a “dictatorship” it expended people’s energy in false hope. It had become concerned with the interests of an small group, not the people of the left as a whole. It  could not be, he argued, in its present form, the basis for a real “union de la gauche” , toute la gauche”, from  the Communists, the Greens, to the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste and Lutte ouvrière, and open to potential offers from the Socialists. This was the basis, he passionately declared,  that could win elections for the French left.

The crises pictured in La Chute have not been overcome.

After having treated his 2017 Presidential score (first round) of  7 million vote (19,58 %) as his personal property, which anybody else on the left had to accept, if he cared to allow them to agree with him, Mélenchon ended up with 17 seats in the National Assembly (out of 577).

He has since seen his electoral position progressively eroded

LFI sank to 6,3% of the vote in the 2019 European elections,

This year’s poor showing in the local elections set the seal on LFI

Their

lists were for the most part eliminated in the first round or (in their rare presence) had a reduced place in the few union lists (with other forces on the left, or with Greens)  where they were present, LFI have failed to meet their targets.

Après l’échec aux municipales, La France insoumise mise déjà sur 2022

At the end of June this year Manon Le Bretton, head of their internal education department, quit her official post in the latest in a new wave of discontent

La France insoumise ne parvient pas à régler ses tensions internes

Abel Mestre. Le Monde 24th of June 2020.

At the beginning of June, Le Monde obtained an internal memo, signed by some forty executives and activists, denouncing “a way of operating that endangers the future of the movement” .

One of the inner party managers, Charlotte Girard, loyal since the days when the PG was part of the Parti Socialiste, resigned. She stated that inside LFI there was no channel to express disagreements, “ il n’y a pas de moyen de ne pas être d’accord ». 

A few days ago the French media carried stories about an opening by LFI towards other groups on the left and to left-wing Greens.

This bloke was on France Inter:

LFI are still going on about their 2017 vote:  Du côté de LFI, les cadres vantent les sept millions d’électeurs qui ont voté “Insoumis” à la présidentielle de 2017.

France Info today.

By sharing the platform with Jean-Luc Mélenchon , it is to the left wing of the environmentalists that the mayor of Grenoble (Isère) Éric Piolle sends a message….“Let us look at each other in our common fights, (…). In a family, there is diversity: we argue, we bother, but in the end (…) we have the same objectives. Our opponent it is the right, it is Macron, it is the extreme right “ , declared the mayor of Grenoble, on the occasion of the summer university of rebellious France in Châteauneuf-sur-Isère.

The France Info (above) report notes that activists from the green party EELV are considerably more sceptical.

As well they might be!

Le Monde, which did not even bother in this article to add the word “left” to the description of LFI as “populist”, continues the saga up till this week.

Affaiblis, les « insoumis » de Jean-Luc Mélenchon sortent de leur isolement

Après des élections municipales compliquées, La France insoumise profite de son université d’été pour tendre la main à l’aile gauche d’Europe Ecologie-Les Verts.

In the meantime the social democratic wing around the Parti Socialiste, in the shape of former editor of Libêration, Laurent Joffrin, have their own plans to draw in the Greens….

We Need to Talk About Jacobin – “Srebrenica massacre” “used to justify more war and US intervention”.

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Image may contain: text that says "J Jacobin @jacobinmag The Srebrenica massacre, which started on this day in 1995, was a tragic event. But for the last twenty years, it's been used to justify more war and US intervention. The Srebrenica Precedent jacobinmag.com"

“Helped justify later interventions, including the ongoing strikes against ISIS.” Jacobin.

To commemorate the anniversary of the Srebrenica Mass Killings the US left magazine Jacobin, which owns the British ‘Tribune’, published this piece:

The Srebrenica Precedent DAVID N. GIBBS

This article has one central theme:

…the widespread belief that Serb forces had committed genocide played a critical role in legitimating the idea of humanitarian intervention, in the Balkans and throughout the world. After Srebrenica, US interventionism would increasingly be presented as a genocide prevention enterprise.

Viewed from a humanitarian standpoint, the US response to the Srebrenica massacre was a lethal fiasco. But despite the ugly facts of the episode, a mythology emerged from Srebrenica that emphasized the supposedly benign character of US intervention. In this telling, US policy was the savior of the Bosnian people and the defender of human rights more generally.

Gibbs has little analysis of the break-up of Yugoslavia (nor why some on the left opposed this) and sees everything through the lens of ‘humanitarian intervention’.

There is a second theme.

The Srebrenica massacre was surely a horrific act, but did it constitute genocide? In a controversial 2003 decision, the ICTY tribunal answered in the affirmative. Its determination that the Srebrenica massacre amounted to genocide has been widely questioned among academic authorities on the topic.

His article does not exactly deny genocide but calls the Srebrenica mass ethnic murder a “massacre”  and, ina  range of claims, which specialists can address, seeks to apportion blame more widely. How far this is true is, as indicated, a matter for those with deep knowledge of the history of the events. This is an extremely partisan field and since some of the people engaged in it are, let’s just say, not friends of the Tendance all one can say is that Gibbs offers only an interpretation. Bu then Gibbs is, to be it politely, somebody who has ploughed this furrow for over a decade. The approval of the World Socialist Web Site indicates it…

But the article has a political intention  for the present day.

If one applies the Gibbs criteria, the ” deliberate mass killings of exceptional size and scale, generally in the range of the hundreds of thousands or millions” where would leave the recent genocide of the Yazidis? The UN Commission of Inquiry stated in 2017, ““The Commission of Inquiry calls on the international community to recognize the crime of genocide being committed by ISIL against the Yazidis and to undertake steps to refer the situation to justice,” said the expert panel in a statement marking the third anniversary of ISIL’s attack on the Yazidis.”

As stated, the article has this much wider purpose,

Twenty years later, Srebrenica is still shaping US foreign policy. NATO interventions in the Balkans served to legitimate both the Atlantic Alliance and US hegemony, and the new language of human rights and genocide prevention has helped justify later interventions, including the ongoing strikes against ISIS.

For Gibbs, channelling his inner ‘anti-imperialism of fools’, the US Western help for the Kurds to fight against Daesh is the “fault” of the West’s claims to stand for human rights. Aiding the Kurdish SDF in its stand against the genociders of ISIS was a Western “intervention”, part of its “hegemony” justified in the name of the “language” of humanitarian intervention which can be traced back to reactions to Srebrenica.

It’s as if an act of mass murder is somehow the ’cause’ of every kind of Western intervention, every kind of duplicitous ‘human rights’ language, a kind of pennant of Western hegemony.

It’s as if there is something “new” about human rights.

If human rights are universal then surely there are times when they can “trump” formal national sovereignty?

Humanitarian intervention can, as the Kurds in Kobane (to cite just one example) know, can be a demand from the people themselves.

Gibbs’ way of looking at mass murder as the bunting of species arguments in favour of preventing genocides  is distasteful to say the least.

Such a conclusion perhaps only tops the rest of this curiously timed article.

What does this show about Jacobin?

It indicates  a deep crisis of moral direction.

Jacobin,  “a leading voice of the American left”, lost its way sometime last year.

A vocal supporter of “left populism” in Europe, and Bernie Sanders in the US, 2019 saw defeat after defeat for its favourite parties. Protest Party, and “lieu de rassemblement” (rallying point) for the People Against the Oligarchy La France insoumise went from 19,9% for the candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the French Presidential contest of 2017 to 6,3% in the European elections. The Greek left party Syriza lost control of the government in July to the right-wing New Democracy.  In Spain Podemos went from 69 seats in the 2015  Congress to 35 after last November’s General General Election. In December the British Labour Party was beaten in a Tory landslide, a party some saw in terms of right-wing national populism.

These were not just temporary setbacks.

In La Chute de la Maison Mélenchon (201(9) former LFI leading activist, the political scientist Thomas  Guénolé, described the rally as a virtual democracy run top-down  by its  would-be’charismatic’ leader. “La France insoumise , c’est moi” (Page 121). (1) Guénolé pointed out that the sociological breakdown of LFI electoral support could not be seen as a new bloc, or “articulation” of the people; it closely resembled the vote for François Hollande, the former Socialist president elected in 2012.

In La Chute Mélenchon’s  failure,  as the Tribune of the People, the embodiment  of the Republic (famously saying “la république, c’est moi”), was to follow his own bent and the advice of those who believed in left-populism. He refused  to recognise the electoral basis of his momentary rise in left-wing voters who saw him – as the other parts of left fragmented , with many going over to Macron’s centrist La République en Marche, as the best placed on the left to oppose the far-right Marine le Pen. As the author puts it,  “he said he united the people, but in reality he briefly brought together the voters of the left (“a dit qu’elle unissait le peuple, mais ce qu’elle a fait, ‘c’est unir l’électorat de gauche” Page 224).

THis did not last. Mélenchon has never been able to negotiate as an equal with other left parties and groups. In the recent French local elections he had to recognise his uneven local implementation and accept a secondary role on a few lists with other left forces, leaving his own party as a marginal player.

LFI represents, as Guénolé indicates, the failure of left populism to replace the division between right and left by one which pits the “99%” against the “oligarchy”, the Casta, the “elite”. Its decline cannot be put down to the personal faults of  bombastic  leader raised in the sectarian school of the Trotskyist current known as Lambertism and years of internal Parti Socialiste factionalism. The political strategy of trying to seize national sovereignty in the name of a federate people has not led to a single electoral victory. Those who float the idea of some kind of ‘progressive nationalism’ and a dose of this populism, to help the British Labour Party regain its lost support, have lost any European model to follow.

Podemos, a democratic party willing to negotiate a left coalition with Spain’s Socialist Party, the PSOE, has discretely dropped this left populist’ core. Left Populist theorist and amateur politician Chantal Mouffe set down a benchmark for the current in her book, ” in conversation with Íñigo Errejón”Podemos: In the Name of the People (2016) Errejón now runs his own micro-party Más País with 3 MPs in Spain’s National Assembly. Podemos has also seen the split away of its leftist wing, la Izquierda anticapitalista (June 2020. Anticapitalistas leave Podemos.)

Despite these set-backs (we would leave it to those familiar with the US to write on Sanders), and the wider issues of what happened to the ‘populist’ left in Latin America, Jacobin nevertheless published this during the pre-lockdown Spring,

Left-Populism Is Down but Not Out

GIORGOS VENIZELOS YANNIS STAVRAKAKIS

We argue that it is not the populist core that is responsible for this outcome, but instead the leftist one.

(Left) Populism does not necessarily entail a form of reformist politics. It is, rather, one way with which a leftist programmatic package (regardless of its degree of radicalism) can develop its capacity to form coalitions, articulate demands, and mobilize supporters in order to construct a collective identity and acquire a form able to undermine the status quo within representative systems. In this sense, all communist, socialist, social-democratic, and radical-leftist projects can be populist, too. A Left program which, let’s say, pushes for redistribution, free health care, or free education can frame these demands in a populist way, i.e., by aiming to regain popular (neither national nor class) sovereignty.

A more restrained analysis, has been made by Lewis Basset.

The Left Must Address a Historic Crisis of Representation

A broad survey of the left-populist parties that have attempted to wed themselves to extraparliamentary movements reveals today little but vacated intent. Podemos’s “circles” have all but disappeared, LFI’s equivalent failed to develop, while Momentum in the UK functioned not at all as a social movement and only a little better as an intraparty faction. But it would be a mistake to blame all this on leadership “betrayals.” Rather, both leaders and movements are limited by an atomized social context.

Elsewhere, economic growth and employment levels had finally begun to recover, while “centrists” had found a source of continuity via Emmanuel Macron in France, Pedro Sánchez in Spain, Joe Biden in the United States, and, perhaps, Keir Starmer in Britain. But the dynamics of this new and profound crisis will provide the context in which popular demands will again go unanswered — and in which new alignments of voters can once again emerge.

Make of that what you will.

In the meantime perhaps in despair Jacobin’s European Editor backed the losing side in the recent Momentum faction fight.

Others suggest that Jacobin’s loss of political direction is more serious.

 

*****

(1) A fuller account of this book would deal with Guénolé’s personal dispute with LFI, and issues with, for example, the running of its media operation, Le Média and financial skullduggery. See La chute de la maison Mélenchon”, autopsie de la France insoumise Par Hadrien Mathoux.

Guénolé’s Petit guide du mensonge en politique, (