For a Left Populism by Chantal Mouffe

★★★★☆ (4/5)

Perhaps it is verbose and pedantic in its style and treatment, but this brief book is a staggering eye-opener for those who find themselves enmeshed in and confused by contemporary political airs. It makes a case for appropriating the word “Populism” within the Leftist spectrum, in accordance with core ideals and foundational values of democracy. Chantal also asserts that the relative “otherness” of Right-wingers must neither be completely erased or stifled, nor be ignored. Rather, Leftists should recognize these divisions as being fundamental to the democratic process and view the Right as adversaries, not enemies.

The author also highlights the unintended consequences of a post-political world where true democratic ideals have perished under the weight of mercenary callings, hyper-individualism and corporatism. Gradual erosion of liberal democracy is not only owed to the rise of the Right-wing but also to duplicitous misgivings by Liberals and Leftists – those who ceded ideas of equality and popular sovereignty in lieu of second-hand power and construction of an abstract enemy.

This is a dense read, especially for a novice. But the author’s stance is worthy of further deliberation, even if the reader disagrees. And that is the essence of intelligent discourse.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book


  • Anti-essentialist theoretical approach that asserts that society is always divided and discursively constructed through hegemonic practice
  • Laclau defines populism as a discursive strategy of constructing a political frontier dividing society into two camps and calling for the mobilization of the ‘underdog’ against ‘those in power’.
  • Neoliberalism is the term currently used to refer to this new hegemonic formation which, far from being limited to the economic domain, also connotes a whole conception of society and of the individual grounded on a philosophy of possessive individualism.
  • The ‘populist moment’, therefore, is the expression of a variety of resistances to the political and economic transformations seen during the years of neoliberal hegemony.
  • ‘Post-democracy’, first proposed by Colin Crouch, signals the decline in the role of parliaments and the loss of sovereignty that is the consequence of neoliberal globalization.

Demise of Democratic Values and Post Politics

  • According to this perspective, that we called ‘class essentialism’, political identities were the expression of the position of the social agents in the relations of production and their interests were defined by this position. It was no surprise that such a perspective was unable to understand demands that were not based on ‘class’.
  • Multiple struggles for emancipation are founded on the plurality of social agents and of their struggles.
  • By claiming that the adversarial model of politics and the left/right opposition had become obsolete, and by celebrating the ‘consensus at the centre’ between centre-right and centre-left, the so-called ‘radical centre’ promoted a technocratic form of politics according to which politics was not a partisan confrontation but the neutral management of public affairs.
  • On the one hand, the tradition of political liberalism: the rule of law, the separation of powers and the defence of individual freedom; on the other hand, the democratic tradition, whose central ideas are equality and popular sovereignty.
  • With the demise of the democratic values of equality and popular sovereignty, the agonistic spaces where different projects of society could confront each other have disappeared and citizens have been deprived of the possibility of exercising their democratic rights.
  • As a result the role of parliaments and institutions that allow citizens to influence political decisions has been drastically reduced. Elections no longer offer any opportunity to decide on real alternatives through the traditional ‘parties of government’. The only thing that post-politics allows is a bipartisan alternation of power between centre-right and centre-left parties. All those who oppose the ‘consensus in the centre’ and the dogma that there is no alternative to neoliberal globalization are presented as ‘extremists’ or disqualified as ‘populists’. Politics therefore has become a mere issue of managing the established order, a domain reserved for experts, and popular sovereignty has been declared obsolete.
  • By drawing a frontier between the ‘people’ and the ‘political establishment’, they were able to translate into a nationalistic vocabulary the demands of the popular sectors who felt excluded from the dominant consensus.
  • Although such protest movements have certainly played a role in the transformation of political consciousness, it is only when they have been followed by structured political movements, ready to engage with political institutions, that significant results have been achieved.
  • They cannot recognize that many of the demands articulated by right-wing populist parties are democratic demands, to which a progressive answer must be given.

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. Instead of excluding a priori the voters of right-wing populist parties as necessarily moved by atavistic passions, condemning them to remain prisoners of those passions forever, it is necessary to recognize the democratic nucleus at the origin of many of their demands. A left populist approach should try to provide a different vocabulary in order to orientate those demands towards more egalitarian objectives. This does not mean condoning the politics of right-wing populist parties, but refusing to attribute to their voters the responsibility for the way their demands are articulated.”

Right-wing populism vs. Left populism

  • Right-wing populism claims that it will bring back popular sovereignty and restore democracy, but this sovereignty is understood as ‘national sovereignty’ and reserved for those deemed to be true ‘nationals’. Right-wing populists do not address the demand for equality and they construct a ‘people’ that excludes numerous categories, usually immigrants, seen as a threat to the identity and the prosperity of the nation.
  • Left populism on the contrary wants to recover democracy to deepen and extend it. A left populist strategy aims at federating the democratic demands into a collective will to construct a ‘we’, a ‘people’ confronting a common adversary: the oligarchy.
  • We are living through a ‘populist moment’. This is the expression of resistances against the post-democratic condition brought about by thirty years of neoliberal hegemony. This hegemony has now entered into crisis and this is creating the opportunity for the establishment of a new hegemonic formation. This new hegemonic formation could be either more authoritarian or more democratic, depending on how those resistances are going to be articulated and the type of politics through which neoliberalism will be challenged.

On Economic Liberty & Democracy

  • To apprehend the nature of the Keynesian welfare state as a hegemonic formation, it is necessary to acknowledge that, although it played a crucial role in subordinating the reproduction of the labour force to the needs of capital, it also laid the conditions for the emergence of a new type of social rights and profoundly transformed democratic common sense, giving legitimacy to a set of demands for economic equality. In several countries, the strength of the trade unions allowed the consolidation of social rights.
  • In his report to the Trilateral Commission in 1975, Samuel Huntington declared that the struggles in the 60s for greater equality and participation had produced a ‘democratic surge’ that had made society ‘ungovernable’. He concluded that ‘the strength of the democratic ideal poses a problem for the governability of democracy.’
  • According to Hayek, the idea of democracy is secondary to the idea of individual liberty, so that a defence of economic liberty and private property replaces a defence of equality as the privileged value in a liberal society.

Gramsci’s Influence

  • Gramsci calls ‘hegemony through neutralization’ or ‘passive revolution’. By that, he refers to a situation where demands that challenge the hegemonic order are recuperated by the existing system, satisfying them in a way that neutralizes their subversive potential.
  • Indeed, Gramsci suggested such a path when he asserted that it was ‘not a question of introducing from scratch a scientific form of thought into everyone’s individual life, but of renovating and making “critical” an already existing activity’.
  • To abandon the productivist model and to implement the necessary ecological transition will require a truly Gramscian ‘intellectual and moral reform’.

Strategy and Objectives of Left Populism

  • The strategy of left populism seeks the establishment of a new hegemonic order within the constitutional liberal-democratic framework and it does not aim at a radical break with pluralist liberal democracy and the foundation of a totally new political order. Its objective is the construction of a collective will, a ‘people’ apt to bring about a new hegemonic formation that will reestablish the articulation between liberalism and democracy that has been disavowed by neoliberalism, putting democratic values in the leading role.
  • In democratic societies, further crucial democratic advances could be carried out through a critical engagement with the existing institutions.
  • Clearly articulating democracy with equal rights, social appropriation of the means of production and popular sovereignty will command a very different politics and inform different socioeconomic practices than when democracy was articulated with the free market, private property and unfettered individualism.
  • In our post-political times the difference between left and right is usually envisaged in terms of a ‘cleavage’–that is, as a type of division which is not structured by an antagonism but signals a mere difference of position. Understood in that way, the left/right distinction is not suited to a project of radicalization of democracy. It is only when it is envisaged in terms of frontier, indicating the existence of an antagonism between the respective positions and the impossibility of a ‘centre position’, that this difference is formulated in a properly political way. I believe that this ‘frontier effect’ is more difficult to convey with notions like ‘progressive’ or ‘democratic’ populism and that ‘left’ populism brings more clearly to the fore the existence of an antagonism between the people and the oligarchy without which a hegemonic strategy cannot be formulated.

On Leadership

  • ‘Leadership’ must be constantly subordinated to the multitude, deployed and dismissed as occasion dictates. If leaders are still necessary and possible in this context, it is only because they serve the productive multitude. This is not an elimination of leadership, then, but an inversion of the political relationship that constitutes it.
  • The leader can be conceived of as a primus inter pares (a first among equals) and it is perfectly possible to establish a different type of relation, less vertical between the leader and the people.

On Agonistic Confrontation – Adversary not Enemy

  • The main problem with existing representative institutions is that they do not allow for the agonistic confrontation between different projects of society which is the very condition of a vibrant democracy. It is this lack of an agonistic confrontation, not the fact of representation, which deprives the citizens of a voice. The remedy does not lie in abolishing representation but in making our institutions more representative. This is indeed the objective of a left populist strategy.
  • What is important is that conflict when it arises does not take the form of an ‘antagonism’ (struggle between enemies) but of an ‘agonism’ (struggle between adversaries). The agonistic confrontation is different from the antagonistic one, not because it allows for a possible consensus, but because the opponent is not considered an enemy to be destroyed but an adversary whose existence is perceived as legitimate.

On the Construction of a People

  • A relation of equivalence is not one in which all differences collapse into identity but in which differences are still active. If such differences were eliminated, that would not be equivalence but a simple identity.
  • To partake in a ‘we’ of radical democratic citizens does not preclude participation in a variety of other ‘we’s’.
  • Once we acknowledge the dimension of ‘the political’, we begin to realize that one of the main challenges for pluralist liberal-democratic politics consists in trying to defuse the potential antagonism that exists in human relations so as to make human coexistence possible. Indeed, the fundamental question is not how to arrive at a consensus reached without exclusion, because this would require the construction of a ‘we’ that would not have a corresponding ‘they’. This is impossible because the very condition for the constitution of a ‘we’ is the demarcation of a ‘they’.

Three kinds of politics within the Left

  1. ‘Pure Reformism’ that accepts both the principles of legitimacy of liberal democracy and the existing neoliberal hegemonic social formation.
  2. ‘Radical Reformism’ that accepts the principles of legitimacy but attempts to implement a different hegemonic formation.
  3. ‘Revolutionary Politics’ seeks a total rupture with the existing sociopolitical order.

Point of divergence on “State” between the different forms of ‘Left’ politics

  • Reformist view envisages the state as a neutral institution whose role is to reconcile the interests of the various social groups and the revolutionary one sees it as an oppressive institution that has to be abolished
  • Radical reformist perspective addresses the question of the state in a different way. Taking its bearings from Gramsci, it conceives the state as a crystallization of the relations of forces and as a terrain of struggle. It is not a homogeneous medium but an uneven set of branches and functions, only relatively integrated by the hegemonic practices that take place within it.

No relationship between Political and Economic Liberalism

  • Despite the claim of many liberal theorists that political liberalism necessarily entails economic liberalism and that a democratic society requires a capitalist economy, it is clear that there is no necessary relationship between capitalism and liberal democracy. It is unfortunate that Marxism has contributed to this confusion by presenting liberal democracy as the superstructure of capitalism.
  • The process of radicalizing democracy necessarily includes an anti-capitalist dimension as many of the forms of subordination that will need to be challenged are the consequences of capitalist relations of production.
  • People do not fight against ‘capitalism’ as an abstract entity because they believe in a ‘law of history’ leading to socialism. It is always on the basis of concrete situations that they are moved to act. If they struggle for equality it is because their resistances to various forms of domination are informed by democratic values and it is around those values, addressing their actual aspirations and subjectivities, and not in the name of anti-capitalism, that people can be mobilized.

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