Opportunity in Crises: On Chantal Mouffe’s ‘For a Left Populism’

By adopting a populist strategy, the left could finally overcome neoliberalism, replacing it with a deeper, kinder and more radical form of democracy, Mouffe argues.

For a Left Populism
Chantal Mouffe
Verso Books
Jul 2018

As mainstream western politicians lament the rise of populist extremists, especially on the extreme right, the traditional parties of the left have struggled awkwardly with how to respond to the state of affairs. Join with the ‘responsible right’ in a coalition to defend democracy against populist extremists? Continue present course, and hope the extreme right self-destructs, or that the ship somehow rights itself on its own and returns to an even centrist keel?

Political philosopher Chantal Mouffe has a more daring suggestion. The ‘left’ ought to pursue a populist strategy of its own. The up-ending of politics-as-we-know-it (which is to say, the politics of the past 30 years) is less of a crisis and more of an opportunity for the left. Indeed, amid the expanding genre of books warning of the imminent decline of democracy and rise of fascism, what is most distinct about Mouffe’s For a Left Populism is that it moves beyond vague warnings, and frames the chaos of the present as an opportunity. Her work provides a forcefully articulated blueprint for how the left should pursue it.

Neoliberalism—that hegemonic form of extreme economic liberalism and social individualism made popular by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan back in the ’70s and ’80s, has long been a thorn in the left’s side. Amid the implosion of the welfare state and the privatization-by-stealth of leftist social programs like medical care (in those countries fortunate enough to have achieved them), the mainstream socialist/labour/left parties of most countries grudgingly made their peace with neoliberal hegemony, accepting its diktats, surrendering popular sovereignty to the banks and financial institutions, and even becoming the vehicle for the tax cuts and austerity budgets which have so disgusted the voting population (with the result that many of them have simply stopped voting).

But the political turmoil the world is now facing – the rise of populism and extremism is its most visible face – represents a moment of tremendous weakness for neoliberalism, Mouffe argues. By adopting a populist strategy, the left could finally overcome neoliberalism, replacing it with a deeper, kinder and more radical form of democracy. Not necessarily a return to the welfare state “golden years” of the post-war ’50s and ’60s, but a renewed and radicalized democracy more appropriate to the present moment of ecological crisis, identity politics, and tremendous technological change.


From Social Movements to Post-Politics

The trajectory of Mouffe’s work over the years has followed closely the shifting trails of Euro-American democracy. She was an early theorist of the social movements which generated today’s identity politics, arguing they held more valence for the general public than old theoretical categories like ‘working-class’ and ‘capitalist’. She and her colleagues also challenged the view of a consensus-based politics which tries to align everyone on the same side, arguing instead for a democracy grounded in ‘agonism’, a political theory which sees political struggle and conflict as a positive thing.

So what happened to liberal democracy? The centre did not hold. Liberalism triumphed over democratic values in many ways, leading to the financialization of the economy (and disruption of its productive base: all those lost factory and manufacturing jobs) and the oligarchization of society, dominated by a handful of elites whose wealth is beyond all reason.

As well, the neoliberal state sought to institutionalize its hegemony through ‘post-politics’—the assertion that certain formerly politicized principles were actually unchangeable facts. The disenfranchised public was told that although it could still cast ballots, no radical change was actually possible: globalization, free trade, the dominance of credit agencies, financial institutions and austerity budgets were outside the pale of democratic politics.

Naturally, this angered many people—the majority who do not benefit from the permanence of this oligarchic state of affairs—and has led to the ‘populist moment’. Populism expresses itself in, among other things, parties or individuals telling people they can re-assert their political control over the very institutions they were being told they had no control over. Hence the absurdities of Donald Trump: many of his supporters care less about how logical his promises and actions are, but feel triumphant that he enacts them in spite of all those elites who told him (and his supporters) they could not. Even his absurdities are the reflection of this spirit of “Oh yeah? Who says we can’t? We can and we will! You’re not the boss of us!”

Toward a Left Populism

For a progressive, the positive in all this is that populism can work both ways – not only for the right, but also for the left.

So, if populism is a means but not an end, how should the left use it? To create a ‘new hegemonic formation’, says Mouffe. The current hegemonic formation is a neoliberal capitalist one, the one privileging those capitalist elites who assert that the present state of affairs is timeless and unchangeable. Yet clearly it is changeable, and the neoliberal moment is in crisis because not only has it created immense inequality and ecological disaster, but also because it’s sparked an inchoate opposition among those who find the current state of affairs repugnant. So far, that backlash has been channeled by right-wing extremists (in Hungary, Russia, the Philippines, etc.) or self-serving imbeciles like Trump, who don’t really provide an alternative but who have used the desire to dethrone neoliberal post-politics as a way of gaining personal power.

If the right can achieve all of this, then imagine what the left could do if it also tapped into this power, suggests Mouffe’s work.

For Mouffe, all this provides an untapped opportunity for the Left—to channel this backlash in a leftish direction; a direction more authentically left and progressive than the politics practised by all those social democratic parties that sold out to neoliberalism in the ’90s and ’00s. The nascent success of Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK demonstrate a move toward this style of left populism. Back in the ’80s, right-wing conservatives like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan used populism to unseat social democracy and establish their own new neoliberal hegemonic formation, which held sway for almost 40 years. Now the Left could use the present moment of instability in the same way.

But to what end? What is the end-goal? Revolution? No, says Mouffe. That is certainly one possibility, but she does not advocate the sort of “total rupture with the existing socio-political order” that an out-and-out revolution, of a Marxist or Leninist sort, would involve. Instead she advocates “democratic radicalization”—a deepening of democracy that preserves the loose liberal-democratic state, but re-establishes the primacy of democratic and egalitarian values over liberal ones (the opposite reigns today).

Mouffe is quick to observe that the actual form this can take is impossible to sketch out in detail. She doesn’t seek to present a specific political program, but rather a theoretical model for how the left, in all of its varied local and national expressions around the world, can use a populist strategy to shape their localized political movements and challenge both the hegemony of neoliberalism and the extreme right.


Agonism and Affect

Central to Mouffe’s thought is the notion of ‘agonism’. It’s a different way of thinking about conflict in democratic politics than that which most of us are used to. Think the point of democratic politics is to get everyone to reach consensus and all wind up happily on the same page? Think again. Conflict and confrontation is essential for a healthy democracy, Mouffe says. What distinguishes democracy from other forms of government is that in a democracy, members agree to engage in the confrontation of ideas within clearly bounded limits. But struggle they must.

Mouffe contrasts ‘agonism‘ with ‘antagonism’. Under the antagonistic model, opposite sides of an issue see each other as enemies to be destroyed (this sounds not too far off the mark from contemporary politics in countries like the United States). But that’s not right, says Mouffe. They ought to see each other as adversaries, not to be destroyed, but to be contested.

For Mouffe, politics is a vibrant, fluctuating field of constantly shifting identities, ideas, feelings and affects. This is also essential to an agonistic conception of democracy. Opposite sides aren’t (or shouldn’t) conceive of themselves as permanent, eternal rivals. We are all comprised of complex identities, and our positions on issues change frequently (this is a good thing). So someone who identifies with the Democratic party on one issue, might disagree with them on another. Someone who identifies as radical feminist in some ways, might not necessarily agree with all the values that are customarily associated with it. Mouffe’s politics is profoundly anti-essentialist – our positions and identities are constantly in flux.

Moreover, Mouffe highlights the importance of ‘affect’. The study of ‘affect’ comprises a complex philosophical field: something more than just ’emotion’ or ‘feeling’, it corresponds to the way in which we can be inspired, moved, appealed to and ‘woke’. Our sympathies can shift; our angers can be roused; our hopes lifted. Human beings are moved by their passions, not always (or even often) by rational or interest-based logic.

Mouffe chastises ‘the left’ for failing to recognize this the way the right has. By resting convinced that simple presentation of data and statistics will persuade people to vote in their best interests, leftist politicians fail to realize that people often prefer to vote with their feelings, not their logic. Admiration, love, hate, can all compel people to vote for or against a candidate or party, often more effectively than a considered and rational analysis of the facts.

“The fundamental mistake of the ‘ultra left,'” she writes, “has always been to ignore this. They do not engage with how people are in reality, but with how they should be according to their theories. As a result, they see their role as bringing the ‘truth’ about their situation to bear. Instead of designating the adversaries in ways that people can identify, they use abstract categories like ‘capitalism’, thereby failing to mobilize the affective dimension necessary to motivate people to act politically. They are in fact insensitive to people’s effective demands… That is why they always remain in marginal positions.”

The affective dimension of politics is important, because it feeds into making politics a vibrant, dynamic field of competition. It means that someone who votes Republican one year might be inspired to vote for a Democrat candidate the next year. Someone who voted against refugee/migrant support initiatives might meet a migrant, or hear a particularly compelling story, that generates the sympathy necessary for them to change their mind and vote for greater migrant support initiatives next time round.

And political figures – candidates, organizers, members – have a role to play in catalyzing these affects, in inspiring and moving us. This is what politics should be – never with the end goal of rousing hatred against the other side or urging their destruction, but rather with an understanding that the most compelling, emotionally catalyzing (and yes, occasionally even logical) side will prevail. And next time round, it might be the other side. Or a totally new side.

This healthy political conflict is, again, what Mouffe refers to as ‘agonism’ (she even wrote a book on it: Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically, Verso, 2013). It calls for a deeper and more authentic form of political adversarialism than the stale interchange of a two-party system, or a ‘post-politics’ in which our votes don’t actually change anything; it’s predicated on the need for a deeper, more radical and authentic democracy. The key point is that there be mutually recognized boundaries to this conflict: no one advocates the destruction of the other side, or of the system itself. Those who do, are operating outside the system, and must be recognized as threats to democracy (and neutralized in some fashion). They threaten not just a particular idea or issue, but the viability of the entire system. Some might certainly argue that many of today’s politicians have crossed that line, advocating hate or even elimination of their opponents.

Constructing a People

Mouffe only briefly recaps her position on all this in For a Left Populism. The point is to remind us that democratic politics is not intended to be consensus-based but adversarial, and is always predicated on the construction of a ‘we’ and a ‘they’. And that’s not a bad thing, she says. To recognize this is not to say that ‘we’ should rule and ‘they’ should be destroyed; it is merely to say that there is a temporarily irreconcilable difference (of opinion, belief, emotion) which must be mediated through democratic political struggle. We need to remind ourselves that ‘they’ should never be fixed and universalizing identities (Jews, refugees, women, Muslims) but rather a temporary oppositional political identity, and the people who hold those politics should still have our respect as people and equals, albeit also as contingent and temporary adversaries on an issue.

Yet the ‘we’ and ‘they’, as contingent and shifting political identities, is important; it’s crucial to constructing a ‘people’ in a left populist movement, if we are to avoid essentializing identities. The Occupy movement tapped into this with its ‘99%’ rhetoric, as have other movements around the world seeking to draw a conflictual relationship between the rich elites and everyone else. Where Trump and the Right draw distinctions between white American citizens and racialized migrants, the Left has drawn distinctions between the 99 percent and the one-percent, or the elites, and everyone else.

Don’t Be Afraid of Populism

The ‘left’ seems uncertain about how to respond to the rise of fascist populism, and the aim of Mouffe’s argument in For A Left Populism seems to be to offer a gentle and guiding hand, assuaging the conscience of those who feel uncomfortable with the idea of tapping into populist rhetoric as a way of resisting its use by the right. She provides a theoretical and in some ways ethical framework for the use of populism by the left. Importantly, she reminds us that the present moment, for all its chaos and uncertainty, offers tremendous opportunity. The grip of neoliberalism, both economic and political, has been weakened by the rise of populism and is vulnerable to being replaced by a new hegemonic socio-political framework. What that framework will be, is anyone’s guess. There are forces actively at work seeking to impose a regressive, fascist structure in its place. But the left has an opportunity to bring into being a hegemonic political framework that is more deeply democratic and responsive to the needs of a vibrant, egalitarian democracy. However, the time to act is now.

Whose Left?

What precisely, does Mouffe mean by ‘the left’? Is it really a compelling enough label for anti-fascists of all political stripes to rally behind? Isn’t the label ‘the left’ tainted by all kinds of 20th century stereotypes, ranging from Stalinist extremists on the right (of the left), to anarchist priest-killers on the left (of the left)? Not to mention all those supposed social democratic and labour parties on the centre (of the left) that sold out in the ’90s and ’00s?

Fair point, admits Mouffe. But she believes there’s still a broad and compelling enough inspirational affect behind ‘the left’ for it to serve as the rallying point for a movement toward anti-fascist, pro-democratic renewal. “I believe that it is important to speak of ‘left’ populism in reference to another meaning of ‘left’, which… signals the values that it defends: equality and social justice,” she writes.

Eighty years ago, former Communist Arthur Koestler struggled with the same problem in the wake of the Soviet Union’s betrayal of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. He and countless other Communists lost their faith in what was a jarring realization that the dream of a progressive Soviet state had died under Stalin. No longer able to ascribe to a Soviet or even Communist identity, he was left struggling to label “that better, optimistic half of humanity which was called the Left because it believed in social evolution.” In his work from this period he settled on precisely that label to define the ‘left’ – “the optimistic half of humanity” – and that’s perhaps as good a definition as any.

Mouffe’s book is short but nevertheless represents a tremendous accomplishment. It offers an impressively well-structured analysis and theoretical plan for moving forward and taking advantage of neoliberalism’s weakened condition to establish a deeper, kinder democracy. Like all her work, it’s couched in highly technical and at times mind-numbingly abstract theoretical jargon, but unlike the work of other academics, working through the complicated sentence structures and highly detailed theoretical abstractions reveals a clear, precise framework for understanding political struggle and change. Most importantly, it offers a clear way forward for the left, and one adaptable to a variety of local conditions.

“Instead of seeing the populist moment only as a threat to democracy, it is urgent to realize that it also offers the opportunity for its radicalization,” Mouffe writes.

“Will this project succeed? There is of course no guarantee, but it would be a serious mistake to miss the chance…”