On the Front Lines of the Populism Wars

BYANTON JÄGER

Left populism might be working in practice — but does it work in theory? A review of Chantal Mouffe’s latest salvo in the “populism wars.”


“I’m a populist — no doubt about that.”

So said French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in September 2010, towards the end of a long interview with the French weekly L’Express. Although at the time the quip was intended to scandalize public opinion, Mélenchon’s statement undoubtedly proved prescient for the European left as a whole. European leftists have steadily been making up their minds about the “p-word” — long associated with marauding masses and postmodern pogroms — and are now embracing their own “left populisms.” In October 2017, for example, Mélenchon himself saw no more need for squeamishness. “I think,” he now declared, “that left populism is the only way forward for the Left.”

Mélenchon’s pronouncements were made in a debate with the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, organized in the aftermath of the French presidential elections. He was also among those singled out for explicit thanks in the acknowledgements of Mouffe’s latest book, For a Left Populism, which offers a summary of her recent thinking on the topic. Like Mélenchon, Mouffe sees no reason to be shy about her sympathies. Somewhere towards the end of her book, she confesses that “it is to be expected that my left populist strategy will be denounced by the sectors of the left who keep reducing politics to the contradiction of capital/labour” and “attribute a … privilege to the working class” — here conveniently “presented as the vehicle for the socialist revolution.” Such objections, she claims, are as old as her work itself. ‘There is no point in answering them,” Mouffe writes, “since they proceed from the very conception of politics against which I have been arguing.”

Mouffe’s statement is representative of her recent arguments for left populism. Instead of undertaking a ritualistic rehearsal of age-old arguments (“class” versus “mass,” “people” versus “workers”), hers is a polemical pamphlet, not an academic treatise. “I would like to make clear,” she states at the beginning of For a Left Populism, “that my aim is not to add another contribution to the already plethoric field of ‘populism studies.’” Furthermore, she also has “no intention to enter the sterile academic debate about the ‘true nature’ of populism.” Instead, her book “is meant to be a political intervention,” and “openly acknowledges its partisan nature.”

This candor should come as no surprise — certainly for readers acquainted with the broader body of Mouffe’s work. Since her last major work, Agonistics (2013), Mouffe’s main interventions as a writer have involved direct engagement with political actors. A two-part dialogue with Podemos figurehead Inigo Errejon (Podemos: In the Name of the People, 2016), for example, saw her discussing the ins and outs of political struggle in the Southern periphery in the aftermath of the eurocrisis. A French translation of her English work, On the Political(L’illusion du consensus), has now finally been issued, after a delay of more than fifteen years. As it stands, philosophical momentum seems to be on Mouffe’s side.

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