Free Spaces was first published in 1986, second edition way back in 1992, yet the ways it thinks about space, conviviality, democracy, communities and societies that work…pretty timeless. Not everything, of course. But I love how it brings the ways in which people live in and occupy the physical spaces around them with the processes that contribute to political and social engagement, the ability to work across difference, the capacity to listen to others to build a better world. As they write:
Free Spaces asks an elemental but important question. What are the environments, the public spaces, in which ordinary people become participants in the complex, ambiguous, engaging conversation about democracy: participators in governance rather than spectators or complainers, victims or accomplices? What are the roots not simply of movements against oppression but also, more positively, of those democratic social movements which both enlarge the opportunities for participation and enhance people’s ability to participate in the public world? (viii)
It’s interesting also that they differentiate the positive kinds of neighbourhood activism and organising from the reactive through differences and a narrowed understanding of ‘public’, I think it would be really useful to bring this a little more into conversation with the renewed wave of thinking about populism (see for example Muller or Revelli).
Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason is like the mother of all books on populism. Partly in its difficulty (Sweet Christmas is difficult an understatement), but also, after much struggle for comprehension, its depth of understanding of populism and how exactly it works. It is thus quite a different book from those by Jan-Werner Müller or Marco Revelli. Luckily it is fairly unique.
That all goes to say this is a boring work in progress that should be read as such even more than all my other boring posts on books.
It is in argument with both work on populism and the masses as well as with thinking around class formation and revolution and agency within Marxism. As well as with Hegel and Zizek and others. I do not untangle all of these arguments. Could not. I love the concept of hegemony but hardly touch it as constituted here. I still can’t decide whether I even want to read Lacan. Life is short and I still wish people had gone with Fromm as their psychoanalyst of choice. But no.
Part I: The Denigration of the Masses
Just to give you a taste of the language:
As I argue there, the impossibility of fixing the unity of a social formation in any conceptually graspable object leads to the centrality of naming in constituting that unity, while the need for a social cement to assemble the heterogeneous elements once their logic of articulation (functionalist or structuralist) no longer gives this affect its centrality in social explanation. Freud had already clearly understood it: the social bond is a libidinal one… ‘Populism’ was always linked to a dangerous excess, which puts the clear-cut moulds of a rational community into question. So my task, as I conceived it was to bring to light the specific logics inherent in that excess, and to argue that, far from corresponding to marginal phenomena they are inscribed in the actual working of any communitarian space. (x)
But there is some clarity here as for Laclau, like Müller and others, it is not the content of struggle but the form of it that defines populism.
My attempt has not been to find the true referent of populism, but to do the opposite: to show that populism has no referential unity because it is ascribed not to a delimitable phenomenon but to a social logic whose effects cut across many phenomena. Populism is, quite simply, a way of constructing the political. (xi)
His argument, as I understand it, is that within much of political theory populism cannot be well understood because of its own limits of how it understands people as social agents. In his words, the impasse is ‘rooted in the limitation of the ontological tools currently available to political analysis … the limits inherent in the ways in which Political Theory has approached the question of how social agents ‘totalize’ the ensemble of their political experience‘ (4).
This has happened in the way that it has been defined from the beginning ‘in terms of ‘vagueness’, ‘imprecision’, imprecision’, intellectual poverty’, purely transient’ as a phenomenon, manipulative’ in its procedures, and so on‘. It has been separated from ‘what is rational and conceptually apprehensible in political action from its dichotomic opposite: a populism conceived as irrational and undefinable‘ (16). If defined as irrational, how then can political theory understand its rationalities? This block comes from the longstanding academic distrust, fear and sometimes hatred of the masses, the bestowing of all rationality on the individual alone.
…the rabble of the cities which was, for Taine, the real actor in the revolutionary process. Within this general decline, any group could degenerate into a crowd. Taine anticipates what will become the established wisdom among crowd theorists —namely; that rationality belongs to the individual, who loses many of his rational attributes when he participates in a crowd. He likes to compare crowd behaviour to inferior forms of life, like plants or animals, or to primitive forms of social organization. (34)
This distrust is still shaping how much of the discourse around populism forms today. Part of why I find Müller’s work helpful in defining precisely what is dangerous in the constructions of populism (the exclusivity of definition of ‘a people’ leaving those outside open to violence and repression) as opposed to this general distaste for mass movement. And of course, Laclau argues that there also exists psychology specific to popular identity:
Whatever its short-comings, crowd psychology had touched on some crucially important aspects in the construction of social and political identities — aspects which had not been properly addressed before. The relationship between words and images, the predominance of the ’emotive’ over the ‘rational’, the sense of omnipotence, the suggestibility and the identification with the leaders, and so on, are all too real features of collective behaviour. (39)
Part II: Constructing the ‘People’
The real usefulness of Laclau for my own thinking and work lies in this way of thinking through how ‘the people’ is constructed, though mostly written off by other authors — a single paragraph in Müller for example, that hardly does this work justice. But you have to work through a whole lot of difficult theoretical work to get there.
The two pejorative propositions to which I referred were: (1) that populism is vague and indeterminate in the audience to which it addresses itself, in its discourse, and in its political postulates; (2) that populism is mere rhetoric. To this I opposed two different possibilities: (1) that vagueness and indeterminacy are not shortcomings of a discourse about social reality, but, in some circumstances, inscribed in social reality as such; (2) that rhetoric is not epiphenomenal vis-a-vis a self-contained conceptual structure, for no conceptual structure finds its internal cohesion without appealing to rhetorical devices. If this is so, the conclusion would be that populism is the royal road to understanding something about the ontological constitution of the political as such. (67)
Again, this highlights how Laclau sees this work contributing to how we understand politics much more broadly.
The categories he describes as central to his approach:
Discourse. Discourse is the primary terrain of the constitution of objectivity as such. By discourse, as I have attempted to make clear several times, I do not mean something that is essentially restricted to the areas of speech and writing, but any complex of elements in which relations play the constitutive role. This means that elements do not pre-exist the relational complex but are constituted through it. (68)
Empty signifiers and hegemony.
Given that we are dealing with purely differential identities, we have, in some way, to determine the whole within which those identities, as different, are constituted (the problem would not, obviously, arise if we were dealing with positive, only externally related, identities).
Since we are not postulating any necessary structural centre, endowed with an a priori ‘determination in the last instance’ capacity, `centring’ effects that manage to constitute a precarious totalizing horizon have to proceed from the interaction of the differences themselves. How is this possible?
Rhetoric. There is a rhetorical displacement whenever a literal term is substituted by a figural one. (70-71)
Where Müller defines as populism one group forming itself as ‘a people’ exclusionary to others and under a charismatic leader, he does not really go into how this happens. For Laclau, it is this how that is central to populism’s definition.
we can see populism as one way of constituting the very unity of the group [as opposed to the ideology or mobilization of an already constituted group]…’the people’ is not something of the nature of an ideological expression, but a real relation between social agents. It is, in other terms, one way of constituting the unity of the group. Obviously, it is not the only way of doing so. There are other logics operating within the social, and making possible types of identity different from the populist one. (73)
Central to this is what Laclau terms the ‘internal frontier’, the dividing line between us and them. This resonates strongly with Revelli’s description of the importance of borders and internal segregation. This oppositional character is central to all definitions. I find Laclau’s language here quite difficult, but this conceptualisation really useful:
…we have here the formation of an internal frontier, a dichotomization of the local political spectrum through the emergence of an equivalential chain of unsatisfied demands. The requests are turning into claims. … A plurality of demands which, through their equivalential articulation, constitute a broader social subjectivity we will call popular demands – they start, at a very incipient level, to constitute the `people’ as a potential historical actor. Here we have, in embryo, a populist configuration. We already have two clear preconditions of populism: (1) the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power; and (2) an equivalential articulation of demands making the emergence of the ‘people’ possible. There is a third precondition which does not really arise until the political mobilization has reached a higher level: the unification of these various demands —whose equivalence, up to that point, had not gone beyond a feeling of vague solidarity — into a stable system of signification (74).
This essentially means that multiple groups and multiple demands can be brought together (the equivalential chain or articulation) in a way that does not eliminate differences, merely connects them together in opposition. The existence of the internal or antagonistic frontier in one requirement for this, the second that all of these demands must be able to see themselves as represented by one central demand wide enough, vague enough, to allow their own issue to fit under it — what Laclau terms the ’empty signifier’.
I particularly like the initial requirement of ‘requests’ becoming ‘claims’ and demands, this is the moment individual discontent and resistance can become movement, right? But not necessarily a populist one.
Also required is crisis.
Without this initial break-down of something in the social order — however minimal that something could initially be — there is no possibility of antagonism, frontier, or, ultimately, ‘people’. (85)
And within this break down is needed both unfulfilled demands and unresponsive power. Where these occur, and there exists an internal frontier (the other side of which sits unresponsive power) and a growing ‘equivalential bond’ there remains the moment in which the links between these different groups and demands is forged,
… equivalential relations would not go beyond a vague feeling of solidarity if they did not crystallize in a certain discursive identity which no longer represents democratic demands as equivalent, but the equivalential link as such. It is only that moment of crystallization that constitutes the ‘people’ of populism. What was simply a mediation between demands now acquires a consistency of its own. Although the link was originally ancillary to the demands, it now reacts over them and, through an inversion of the relationship, starts behaving as their ground. Without this operation of inversion, there would be no populism. (93)
This link becomes in its way more prominent than the demands themselves. This happens when
…some kind of common denominator has to be found which embodies the totality of the series. Since this common denominator has to come from the series itself, it can only be an individual demand which, for a set of circumstantial reasons, acquires a certain centrality (Let us remember our Solidarnosc example, above.) This is the hegemonic operation, which I have already described. There is no hegemony without constructing a popular identity out of a plurality of democratic demands. So let us locate the popular identity within the relational complex which explains the conditions of both its emergence and its dissolution.
Two aspects of the constitution of popular identities are important for us. First, the demand which the popular identity crystallizes is internally split: on the one hand, it remains a particular demand; on the other, its own particularity comes to signify something quite different from itself: the total chain of equivalential demands. While it remains a particular demand, it also becomes the signifier of a wider universality. (95)
It is thus not a question of ‘finding an abstract common feature underlying all social grievances, but with a performative operation constituting the chain as such’
It is like the process of condensation in dreams: an image does not express its own particularity, but a plurality of quite dissimilar currents of unconscious thought which find their expression in that single image. It is well known that Althusser used this notion of condensation to analyse the Russian Revolution: all the antagonisms within Russian society were condensed in a ruptural unity around demands for ‘bread, peace and land’. The moment of emptiness is decisive here: without empty terms such as ‘justice’, ‘freedom’, and so on being invested into the three demands, the latter would have remained closed in their particularism; but because of the radical character of the investment, something of the emptiness of ‘justice’ and `freedom’ was transmitted to the demands, which thus became the names of a universality that transcended their actual particular contents. (97)
This means that the ‘problem’ of the vagueness and imprecision of populist symbols as described in much of the literature is actually its key feature required for its existence.
On to the nature of populist leadership.
A second problem that is not completely solved in the literature on populism concerns the centrality of the leader. How do we explain it? The two most common types of explanation are ‘suggestion’ — a category taken from crowd theorists — and ‘manipulation’ — or, quite frequently, a combination of the two (a combination which presents no major problems since each shades easily into the other). In my view, this kind of explanation is useless. For even if we were going to accept the ‘manipulation’ argument, the most it would explain is the subjective intention of the leader, but we would remain in the dark as to why the manipulation succeeds — that is to say, we would know nothing about the kind of relation which is subsumed under the label of ‘manipulation’. (99)
Sometimes I think he is at his clearest when laying out quite how others are wrong. The leader is in some ways like the empty signifier. A necessary focus. As Laclau writes:
However, the symbolic unification of the group around a individuality — and here I agree with Freud — is inherent to the formation of a ‘people’. (100)
And on to the final attribute, and into the great world of affect. A world of theory I work with very little. This is a handy summary of how far we are though:
A final and crucial dimension must, however, be added to our analysis. Our whole approach to populism turns, as we have seen, around the following theses: (1) the emergence of the ‘people’ requires the passage – via equivalences – from isolated, heterogeneous demands to a ‘global’ demand which involves the formation of political frontiers and the discursive construction of power as an antagonistic force; (2) since, however, this passage does not follow from a mere analysis of the heterogeneous demands themselves – there is no logical, dialectical or semiotic transition from one level to the other – something qualitatively new has to intervene. This is why ‘naming’ can have the retroactive effect I have described. This qualitatively differentiated and irreducible moment is what I have called ‘radical investment’. … It is clear, however, that if an entity becomes the object of an investment – as in being in love, or in hatred – the investment belongs necessarily to the order of affect. (110)
An this is a more complex way to theorise how a part of ‘the people’ tries to constitute itself as the whole:
So we can conclude that any social whole results from an indissociable articulation between signifying and affective dimensions. But in discussing the constitution of popular identities, we are dealing with a very particular type of whole: not one which is just composed of parts, but one in which a part functions as the whole (in our example: a plebs claiming to be identical with the populus). 111
That requires more thought perhaps. But finally we are ready to bring it all together. The three aspects then of populism:
First, it should be clear at this stage that by ‘populism’ we do not understand a type of movement — identifiable with either a special social base or a particular ideological orientation — but a political logic…. I see social logics as involving a rarefied system of statements — that is to say, a system of rules drawing a horizon within which some objects are representable while others are excluded. So we can talk about the logics of kinship, of the market — even of chess-playing (to use Wittgenstein’s example). A political logic, however, has something specific to it which is important to stress. While social logics consist in rule-following, political logics are related to the institution of the social. Such an institution, however, as we already know, is not an arbitrary fiat but proceeds out of social demands and is, in that sense, inherent to any process of social change. This change, as we also know, takes place through the variable articulation of equivalence and difference, and the equivalential moment presupposes the constitution of a global political subject bringing together a plurality of social demands. This in turn involves, as we have seen, the construction of internal frontiers and the identification of an institutionalized ‘other’. (117)
There are two other aspects from our previous discussion which have to come into our conceptual characterization of populism: those which concern naming and affect. … From this we can deduce that the language of a populist discourse — whether of Left or Right — is always going to be imprecise and fluctuating: not because of any cognitive failure, but because it tries to operate performatively within a social reality which is to a large extent heterogeneous and fluctuating. I see this moment of vagueness and imprecision — which, it should be clear, does not have any pejorative connotation for me — as an essential component of any populist operation. (118)
I’m no longer quoting Laclau but trying to put this into my words because this still seems unclear to me…There must be a particular demand unfulfilled that can in a sense stand in for multiple demands, or the equivalential chain in Laclau’s language. There is a tension between the differences among the multiple demands and the particular demand, but neither can fully stand in for the other so this tension must be present and balanced to create movement. These must be contained within ‘an anti-institutional dimension, of a certain challenge to political normalization, to ‘business as usual’…There is in any society a reservoir of raw anti-status-quo feelings which crystallize in some symbols quite independently of the forms of their political articulation, and it is their presence we intuitively perceive when we call a discourse or a mobilization ‘populistic’. (123)
These charts defiinitely helped me understand this better…particularly thinking about the differences between domination and hegemony. So, domination:
He gives the example of the Russian Tsar on the one side of the dichotomic frontier, with multiple sectors of society standing in opposition each with their own demands, but uniting in an ‘equivalential chain’ behind the demands of D1 (which becomes the signifier).
Hegemony is the process by which the group on the other side of the dichotomic frontier works to incorporate the demands of certain of these sectors to ‘interrupt’ the creation of an oppositional equivalential chain through creation of an equivalential chain of their own, blurring the lines of this frontier and ensure their hold on power. It looks more like this:
So what happens to the ‘signifier’ demand of D1 when their other interests are accommodated/co-opted and people change sides as it were? It has to be recast, a new signifier/symbol found and this is always what is at stake in moments of change and crisis when this signifier is suddenly ‘floating’, requiring redefinition after the break up of what was a stable formation. Laclau makes the really interesting observation here about how often it is not precisely the content of D1 that matters to individuals, but its form, ie its radicalism. This explains why so many of the left seemingly quite easily can swing to the right — the swing in support for the New Deal to New Conservativism for example. Laclau writes that for a very long time conservative populism would have been unthinkable in the US, as the conservative tradition was ‘centred on ‘defence of unregulated capitalism and the discouragement of any kind of grass-roots mobilization‘. This began to change with McCarthyism, and a shift in discourse shift from workers to ‘regular Joe’. This marked a break between populism and liberalism, witnessed the New Deal’s discourse in retreat and the moment it fell apart as middle America experience a great loss of power, stuck between Washington elites and demands of ‘minority’ groups. This is a pursuasive narrative to some degree, though I think the faultlines of race and gender cleave this in two just a little, force a more historic look at ‘conservatism’
There follows some arguments with Marxist ideas of the working class as the agents of social change and how this is now untenable. This is undoubtedly my favourite sentence for style and verve.
The ‘peoples without history’ have occupied centre stage to the point of shattering the very notion of a teleological historicity. So forget Hegel. (147-148)
Part III: Populist Variations
This is where all of the theory is brought somewhat to earth. Somewhat.
It is not just the idea of ‘the people’ that must be constructed, but also the antagonistic frontier. I do myself feel a desire to make this all a little more material here, root this in concrete oppressions. But this wider definition makes more sense of the rise of Trump and the revolt of the still-well-to-do-though-not-as-well-to-do-as-before masses. This is a political process and upends Habermas and Rawls who see representative democracy as politicians representing the will of the people presuming that to be pre-existing when in fact it must be constructed. This is why populism can fit within both totalitarian and liberal democratic regimes.
And again, it does not arise without crisis. This is so prescient of our current conjuncture.
populism never emerges from an absolute outside and advances in such a way that the previous state of affairs dissolves around it, but proceeds by articulating fragmented and dislocated demands around a new core. So some degree of crisis in the old structure is a necessary precondition of populism for, as we have seen, popular identities require equivalential chains of unfulfilled demands. Without the slump of the 1930s, Hitler would have remained a vociferous fringe ringleader. (177)
The possibilities for movement are three:
1. A largely self-structured institutional system which relegates to a marginal position any anti-institutional challenge — that is to sat; the latter’s ability to constitute equivalential chains is minimal (this would correspond to the first two situations within Schedler’s model).
2. The system is less well structured, and requires some kind of periodical recomposition. Here the possibility of populism in the Schedler/ Surel’s sense arises: the system can be challenged, but since its ability for self-structuration is still considerable, the populist forces have to operate both as ‘insiders’ and as ‘outsiders’.
3. The system has entered a period of ‘organic crisis’ in the Gramscian sense. In that case, the populist forces challenging it have to do more than engage themselves in the ambiguous position of subverting the system and, at the same time, being integrated into it: they have to reconstruct the nation around a new popular core. Here, the recon-structive task prevails over that of subversion. (178)
Key to remember (and perhaps quite usefully illustrated by Italy’s three different populist movements in the past few years)
there is nothing automatic about the emergence of a ‘people’. On the contrary, it is the result of a complex construction process which can, among other possibilities, fail to achieve its aim. The reasons for this are clear: political identities are the result of the articulation (that tension) of the opposed logics of equivalence and difference, and the mere fact that the balance between these logics is broken by one of the two poles prevailing beyond a certain point over the other, is enough to cause the ‘people’ as a political actor to disintegrate. (200)
Laclau has all these lists and bullet points which usually serve to make things clearer but I am not entirely certain these do. I think they do. These refer to the ‘set of theoretical decisions necessary for something like a ‘people’ to become intelligible, then the historical conditions that make its emergence possible’
A first theoretical decision is to conceive of the ‘people’ as a political category, not as a datum of the social structure. This designates not a given group, but an act of institution that creates a new agency out of a plurality of heterogeneous elements. For this reason, I have insisted from the very beginning that my minimal unit of analysis would not be the group, as a referent, but the socio-political demand.
It is in this contamination of the universality of the populus by the partality of the plebs that the peculiarity of the ‘people’ as a historical actor lies. The logic construction is what I have called ‘populist reason’. (224) On the universality of the partial: A popular demand is one that embodies the absent fullness of the community through a potentially endless chain of equivalences. That is why populist reason — which amounts, as we have seen, to political reason tout court breaks with two forms of rationality which herald the end of politics: a total revolutionary event that, bringing about the full reconciliation of society with itself, would make the political moment superfluous, or a mere gradualist practice that reduces politics to administration.
Let us move now to the other angle: the partiality of the universal. This is where the true ontological option underlying our analysis is to be found. Whatever ontic content we decide to privilege in an ontological investment, the traces of that investment cannot be entirely concealed. The partiality we privilege will also be the point that universality necessarily inhabits. The key question is: does this ‘inhabiting’ do away with the specificity of the particular, such that universality becomes the true medium for an unlimited logical mediation, and particularity the merely apparent field of expressive mediation? Or, rather: does the latter oppose a non-transparent medium to an otherwise transparent experience, so that an irreducibly opaque (non-)representative moment becomes constitutive? (225)
… the unity of the social agent is the result of a plurality of social demands coming together through equivalential (metonymic) relations of contiguity, the Contingent moment of naming has an absolutely central and constitutive role. The psychoanalytic category of overdetermination points in the same direction. In this respect, naming is the key moment in the constitution of a ‘people’, whose boundaries and equivalential components permanently fluctuate. Whether nationalism, for instance, is going to become a central signifier in the constitution of popular identities depends on a contingent history impossible to determine through a priori means. (227)
I copy at such length because I might not be understanding. The ‘people’ are constructed through politics, and do not pre-exist politics in some natural organic form to be discovered or tapped. This politics and process of construction centres around a socio-political demand. Through this a portion of the larger population articulated around this demand comes to argue it represents the whole — the universality of the partial. Number 3…whew. That demand, that partial population claiming to speak for the whole will shape future politics. There is more there I am not getting. And that finally for all of this to come together, it is the naming of that demand that is central, and this will be shaped by the particular history and circumstances of each ‘people’ so formed rather than necessarily by class a la Marx.
And to come to a finale:
We need to make a final point. The passage from one hegemonic formation, or popular configuration, to another will always involve a radical break, a creatio ex nihilo. It is not that all the elements of an emerging configuration have to be entirely new, but rather that the articulating point, the partial object around which the hegemonic formation is reconstituted as a new totality, does not derive its central role from any logic already operating within the preceding situation. Here we are close to Lacan’s passage a l’acte, which has been central in recent discussions concerning the ethics of the Real…As the equivalential/articulating moment does not proceed.from logical need for each demand to move into the others, what is crucial for the emergence of the ‘people’ as a new historical actor is that the unification of a plurality of demands in a new configuration is constitutive and not derivative. In other words, it constitutes an act in the strict sense for it does not have its source in anything external to itself. The emergence of the ‘people’ as a historical actor is thus always transgressive vis-a-vis the situation preceding it. (228)
And there we are. I am most familiar with the rise of the Alt Right, and this helps explain so much I think. That they are not the oppressed as Revelli writes, but the winners of a previous era now experiencing some loss. The insane multiplicity of agendas and conspiracy theories and religious congregations that have somehow come together (without agreeing with each other and even hating each other, the perfect equivalential chain really) around a billionaire and his claim to make America Great Again and to be cleaning out the swamp. The visible construction of these discourses through media. I like Revelli’s addition of the right-wing twist, with its need for evil elites and a third group as scapegoat — immigrants.
Laclau was writing long before this of course. He ends with some thoughts on the conjuncture he was writing within:
The question concerning historical conditions should therefore be: are we living in societies that tend to increase social homogeneity through immanent infrastructural mechanisms or, on the contrary do we inhabit a historical terrain where the proliferation of heterogeneous points of rupture and antagonisms require increasingly political forms of social reaggregation…
the answer yes, and why?
globalized capitalism. By capitalism, of course, we should no longer understand a self-enclosed totality governed by movements derived from the contradictions of commodity as an elementary form. We can no longer understand capitalism as a purely economic reality, but as a complex in which economic, political, military, technological and other determinations — each endowed with its own logic and a certain autonomy — enter into the determination of the movement of the whole. In other terms, heterogeneity belongs to the essence of capitalism, the partial stabilizations of which are hegemonic in nature. (230)
Let the crises and rise of populisms begin.
Laclau, Ernesto (2005) On Populist Reason. London and New York: Verso.
This is just a very short introduction the subject, and very clearly written. It has three goals: to help define what qualifies as populism, looks at some of the deeper causes, and what a successful response might look like.
For Müller, there are three conditions to a movement to qualify as populism:
it must be critical of elites.
it must be antipluralist. ‘Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people. Populism is always a form of identity politics (though not all versions of identity politics are populist)’ (3). It is exclusionary, leaving some outside the boundaries, and therein lies its danger (4)
it represents a particular form of governance: attempts to hijack the state apparatus; corruption and ‘mass clientelism’; efforts systematically to suppress civil society
Chapter 1: What Populists Say
Notes through 60s and 70s, the ‘spectre’ of populism as identified by Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner was that of the 3rd world anticolonial struggles. Ah, the glory days. This was a time where populism, he argues, was often understood as ‘progressive’ or ‘grassroots’ across the Americas, if not in Europe with its ties to fascism. Like Laclau and Revelli he critiques the efforts to define populism by the content of the struggle, and looks rather to its form, as is made clear in the definition above and this:
Populism…is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified–but, I shall argue, ultimately fictional–people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. (19-20)
The critique of elites is not in itself enough for populism to exist, it is rather that in opposition there is a ‘claim that a part of the people is the people–and that only the populist authentically identifies and represents this real or true people‘ (22). It is not the content of the moral critique, but the existence of this moral authentic people in opposition to those who are immoral and outside.
Content is of course required, and usually consists of a ‘singular common good, that the people can discern and will it, and that a politician or a party (or, less plausibly, a movement) can unambiguously implement it as policy‘ (25).
Just how this content comes to stand in for a multitude of demands among a multitude of groups to construct a unified opposition is, of course, a massive part of Laclau’s work. For Müller, this combination of belief in ‘the people’ and belief in the chosen representative are seen as above democratic politics, leading to passive participation and power invested in the leader. He doesn’t engage in the same kind of critique in the current form of our democratic system itself as a cause of passivity and goad towards this kind of populism as Revelli does.
He notes the rise of the internet as giving a new sense of direct democracy and communication, where everyday Americans can have direct contact with those in power that no longer require intermediary institutions and democratic forms. That’s quite an interesting thing to think about, particularly in relation to the US’s alt right.
Chapter 2: What Populists Do
I won’t get into his arguments around Chavez, surely it is the violent and well-funded attempts to depose a leader that do more to define their response than ‘populism’ per se? But anyway, he explores ‘three populist techniques for governing and their moral justification’. Again, they attempt to ‘colonize’ or ‘occupy’ the state, transforming civil services. They openly trade mass material and immaterial favours for support. The act harshly to critics in the 3rd sector and elsewhere
Müller usefully ends with 7 theses on populism summarising his argument:
Populism is neither the authentic part of modern democratic politics nor a kind of pathology caused by irrational citizens. It is the permanent shadow of representative politics. There is always the possibility for an actor to speak in the name of the “real people” as a way of contesting currently powerful elites. There was no populism in ancient Athens; demagoguery perhaps, but no populism, since the latter exists only in representative systems. Populists are not against the principle of political representation; they just insist that only they themselves are legitimate representatives.
Not everyone who criticizes elites is a populist. In addition to being antielitist, populists are antipluralist. They claim that they and they alone represent the people. All other political competitors are essentially illegitimate, and anyone who does not support them is not properly part of the people. When in opposition, populists will necessarily insist that elites are immoral, whereas the people are a moral, homogeneous entity whose will cannot err.
it can often seem. that populists claim to represent the common good as willed by the people. On closer inspection, it turns out that what matters for populists is less the product of a genuine process of will-formation or a common good that anyone with common sense can glean than a symbolic representation of the “real people” from which the correct policy is then deduced. This renders the political position of a populist immune to empirical refutation. Populists can always play off the “real people” or “silent majority” against elected representatives and the official outcome of a vote.
While populists often call for referenda, such exercises are not about initiating open-ended processes of democratic will-formation among citizens. Populists simply wish to be confirmed in what they have already determined the will of the real people to be. Populism is not a path to more participation in politics.
Populists can govern, and they are likely to do so in line with their basic commitment to the idea that only they represent the people. Concretely, they will engage in occupying the state, mass clientelism and corruption, and the suppression of anything like a critical civil society. These practices find an explicit moral justification in the populist political imagination and hence can be avowed openly Populists can also write constitutions; these will be partisan or “exclusive” constitutions designed to keep populists in power in the name of perpetuating some supposed original and authentic popular will. They are likely to lead to serious constitutional conflict at some point or other.
populists should be criticized for what they are—a real danger to democracy (and not lot to “liberalism”). But that does not mean that one should not engage them in political debate. Talking with populists is not the same as talking like populists. One can take the problems they raise seriously without accepting the ways in which they frame these problems.
Populism is not a corrective to liberal democracy in the sense of bringing politics “closer to the people” or even reasserting popular sovereignty, as is sometimes claimed. But it can be useful in making it clear that parts of the population really are unrepresented (the lack of representation might concern interests or identity, or both). This does not justify the populist claim that only their supporters are the real people and that they are the sole legitimate representatives. Populism, then, should force defenders of liberal democracy to think harder about what current failures of representation might be. It should also push them to address more general moral questions. What are the criteria for belonging to the polity? Why exactly is pluralism worth preserving? And how can one address the concerns of populist voters understood as free and equal citizens, not as pathological cases of men and women driven by frustration, anger, and resentment? The hope is that this book has suggested at least some preliminary answers to these questions. (101-103)
Writing an article — very behind on an article — for an issue on populism and trying to get my head around what it is, where we are in this current moment. Because of course, as a community organiser looking to the Global South and particularly Latin America for inspiration and examples of massive and transformative social movement, populism did not seem a terrible thing. Europe, of course, might be another matter. And here we are today, Revelli captures quite nicely the discourse — and realities — we are facing:
“one government after another has been conquered by political forces that can be classified – or in any case, have been classified – as ‘populists’. And, here, this means a ‘populism’ riddled with xenophobia and strongly hostile to the last generation of civil rights measures.
Everywhere in the West, political systems have been shaken.”
And of course it is this brand of populism that raises huge challenges for anyone who believes in the slogan ‘all power to the people’ and direct democracy.
“The truth is that democracy and populism are interlinked by an unbreakable connection….we will discuss populism first of all as a ‘symptom’ of a deeper illness – even if one we are too often silent about – of democracy itself. It is the outward manifestation of a sickness in the contemporary form of democracy – the only one that has established itself in modernity, erected over the ruins of participatory utopias – that is, representative democracy. Whenever some part of ‘the people’, or an entire people, does not feel represented, it returns to one or another kind of reaction that takes the name ‘populism’…Today, it manifests itself as a ‘senile disorder of democracy’. For the thinning-out of democratic processes and the return of oligarchic dynamics at the heart of the mature democracies marginalise or betray the mandate of a people whose ‘sceptre’ of power has been taken away. Post-twentieth-century populism is, in a sense, a ‘revolt of the included’ who have now been pushed to the margins. In both cases, what we might call the ‘populist syndrome’ is the product of a deficit of representation. For this reason, one recent scholar of populism used a particularly felicitous expression when he defined it as ‘something like a permanent shadow of modern representative democracy’.4”
I like this. The problem is not democracy or the evil nature of the masses, but a broken system that has betrayed its promise. Populism as symptom…but what actually is it?
“It is not an ‘ism’ like the others that we have scattered over the course of modern history, in the manner of socialism, communism, liberalism, fascism and so on, which we either identified with (through belonging) or fought against (through opposition). It is a much more impalpable entity, less identifiable within specific confines or labels. It is a mood. It is the formless form that social malaise and impulses to protest take on in societies that have been pulverised and reworked by globalisation and total finance – what Luciano Gallino has called ‘finance-capitalism’ – in the era in which there is a lack of voice or organisation. Which is to say, in the vacuum produced by the dissolution of what was once ‘the Left’, and of its capacity to articulate protest as a proposal for change and an alternative to the present state of things.
This demands a focus on what this book defines as a ‘populism-as-context’. This constitutes, so to speak, a problematic defined by the ‘zeitgeist’: the political-cultural climate of our time, which impresses its own changing pattern upon the political life of whole national or even transnational communities…Then we will seek to define the other level of populism, what we could consider its – less generic, better-delimited – ‘inner circle’. This is what we could define as ‘populism-as-project’: the populism embodied in a more recognisable ‘political subject’ endowed with its own ‘political culture’ and which works not only to give voice to protest, but also to contend for government (and the exercise of power).”
This is a beginning that will be fleshed out further through the book. Populism as mood and as context, and then populism as project. I like this distinction, this allows attention to be paid to broad social forces as well as to those who work powerfully to shape and channel popular discontent into very specific forms. With the shifting of mass and social media, this is a visible process.
Characteristics of Populism
Revelli identifies three characteristics by which populism is defined: 1) idea of an entity known as ‘the people’, 2) who stand in opposition to the abuse or betrayal of a ‘them’, 3) who are working for an upheaval, a levelling to restore the will of ‘the people’.
A little more on each of these. First:
the supreme, paramount centrality assumed therein by the reference to the people, understood in its ‘warm’ dimension as a living community, almost a sort of pre-political and pre-civic entity, a Rousseauian ‘natural state’. An organic entity, which thus does not allow distinctions within its ranks – for they would be seen as damaging and reprehensible divisions. … a vertical one in which the logic of ‘above and below’ instead prevails. Indeed, in this spatiality, the protagonists in the conflict belong to different levels and, in some senses, opposed and self-referential life-worlds.
the idea of betrayal: with some abuse, some undue misappropriation, some conspiracy organised at the expense of the honest citizens. This conforms to a style of thinking that reframes conflict not only in political or social terms but also, primarily, in ethical’ ones: as the moral counterposition of the righteous and the ungodly, the honest and the corrupt, ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’… “connected to some moral construction of the antithetical ‘other’, in the conflict in which the constitutive values of the community of reference are ultimately revealed.”
the imaginary of upheaval: chasing out the usurper-oligarchy – i.e., removing the ‘foreign body’ – and restoring a popular sovereignty that is finally recognised. This sovereignty is no longer exercised through the mediation of the old representative institutions, but thanks to the action of the leader (who tends to be a charismatic leader or in any case emotionally linked to ‘ordinary folks”
Where these three characteristics exist, there continued to be the distinction made earlier between populism as context and populism as project:
populism as a generic (and generalised) mood – attached to a still-vague attitude of distance from, and hostility toward, institutional actors and the establishment – and, on the other hand, populism as a true and proper political culture unto itself, determined to seek power in a strategic manner, on the basis of a specific political programme. With this second, less generic sense of populism, awareness has grown of the sharp divergence in the various ‘souls’ of this phenomenon. Or, if you prefer, between ‘political families’ that are so distant from one another (and essentially, counterposed) that they can no longer be brought together under the same term.”
I quite like this distinction between left and right wing populism drawn from John B. Judis – The Populist Explosion — he’s not often cited among references to Müller, Mudde, Kazin and Laclau on populism but from reading this he sounds quite interesting:
“Left-wing populists’, Judis writes ‘champion the people against an elite or an establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top.’ Conversely, ‘rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.”
More from Judis (via Revelli of course) on the ‘family of the Right’, the entanglement of race and borders and segregation…exactly what I have been working on for so long:
that component which…constructs the unity of the people conceived ‘as a whole’ using techniques that are particularly dear to organicist and, in general, nationalist political cultures. These latter tend to favour an ethnic, racial or in any case strongly identitarian connotation of ‘people’ and its ring-fencing or ‘spatialisation’ within societies that are enclosed behind strongly drawn borders and boundaries. This connotation does apply to political phenomena like Trump in the United States; Orbán in Hungary and the political formations on the rise in the Visegrad region more generally; Marine Le Pen in France; Matteo Salvini in Italy; and the AfD in Germany – but certainly not to movements like Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. This book will focus especially on this former group, those in which what we have called ‘populism-as-project’ is most evident.
While he focuses on populism-as-project, which I confess I also find most interesting, the context cannot be forgotten. He describes the changes between today’s populisms — what he calls the ‘populism of the new millennium’ — and those of earlier periods in terms of the new post-2008 financial crash (discussed also by both Judis and Müller). That moment we thought everything might come down but instead things have been shakily taped together even as this swing to right (and left) has intensified. The difference is
its ‘genetic’ relationship with an unprecedented systemic crisis. This is a crisis of representation and, at the same time, a crisis of the legitimation of contemporary political systems, which have suddenly been left without any ideology to justify them. They seem incapable of keeping faith with their own promises or remaining true to the fundamentals that convinced their respective citizenries to trust in their mechanisms of government, beginning with the first foundation of ‘democratic government’: popular sovereignty.
For Revelli, Andrew Jackson was the first US populist as founder of the Democratic party and known by the nickname of ‘King Mob’. There is a lot more to be thought through here connecting his project of genocide to open up lands for the poor and rebellious whites of the colonies with current populism, but I will think that through later. Or maybe return to Roediger who details all of this so beautifully in relation to the formation of white and working class identities. The forms populism takes surely follow some of these ruts laid down over the centuries. But the actual populist movement in the late 1800s offered some hope for a little while.
Anyway, like for Laclau, there is needed an antagonistic frontier, a struggle between two Americas. For Ravelli on the one side is Trump’s countryside, of peripheries and old industrial towns, rust belt, abandoned by the Left. These aren’t perhaps explored as much as I would like — what are these geographies, how does class and privilege work within them now? The numbers show, and Revelli states very clearly, that this is not a revolt of the poor. Instead it is a revolt of the middle and upper classes of whites, who feel not just loss, but that others have actively divested them of key aspects of their lives and identities: male privilege, income, social status, recognition of work, respect for faith and country, their place in the world. Lumped together as ‘them’ are the worlds of finance and banks, the forces of globalisation, the swamp of Washington, LGBT activists, Hollywood celebrities, people of color. As Revelli writes, those who mobilised for Trump the winners of the previous era now increasingly facing hard times. This curious collection of ‘others’ along with more traditional cleavages of race and gender help explain what I still find slightly hard to understand.
The fact that the rage of the deprived could identify with a billionaire – his wealth built on rent – is in a sense the watershed between the original populism and the populism that follows the end of the twentieth century. Such is the oxymoronic clash between ‘on top’ and ‘down below’ that has risen from the ashes of the twentieth-century Left/Right pairing.
I know far more about the US of course than the UK, an next to nothing about the populism now rising in France, Italy, Hungary and elsewhere. This was a great introduction to these even if I still need to do more reading to see whether I fully agree. But he is pursuasive that most of these follow much of the same pattern with their own historical and geographical constellations of factors. The geographies of Brexit show the strength of feeling within the same industrial heartland, rural periphery and areas of greatest social suffering. Immigration is, of course, a key politics in both.
What is interesting for the UK is that the most important indicator in terms of the distribution of the vote turned out to be the provision of public services and policies for balancing the public accounts. In UK, where cuts had come the hardest, the vote for Brexit was strongest.
What lay behind the polarisation of the British referendum, then, was not ‘political cultures’ that had already clustered together. It was not driven by hardened and stable identitarian blocs, or by loyal electorates massed in solid political containers. No: there was a diffuse mood and a generalised sense of discontent (or instability). Above all, there was a fragmented society that struggled to find the words, the language, to express and identify itself.
As a geographer I couldn’t fail to love this:
“It provides further confirmation of the fact that if we want to ‘read’ the populist phenomenon in the new millennium, maps are more eloquent than tables of statistics: not only the socio-economic map, but also the historical one. As we already saw in the American and British cases, the longue durée dynamics tend to re-emerge over the ruins of the political cultures of the twentieth century, revealing older dividing lines. Revealing, in the Polish case, is one such dividing line that dates back to the period immediately subsequent to the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the territorial partition of Poland among the Empires.”
A brief look at Italy, which is perhaps the most fascinating:
“In fact, in Italy, populism appeared not in one variant but three, which followed one after the other in (relatively quick) succession. We could call these three ‘forms’ and three ‘figures’ of neo-populism by the names of their eponymous ‘heroes’: Berlusconism, Grillism and Renzism. The three differ in terms of the timing of their ‘rise’ and their ‘period of hegemony’, as well as in terms of their ‘political culture’ – if such a weighty term can be applied to such phenomena. But they are also united by certain traits they have in common, and not only at a formal level.
With Grillo’s M5S to the left and ‘encouraging participative citizen democracy, defending a universalist welfare state, and protecting and championing common and/or public goods (citizens’ income and standing for investment in school and public healthcare)’ while the other two are very different indeed. Yet all populist, and all with another characteristic:
All three of these political experiences are characterised by a strong personalisation.
So to summarise. The geographies of populism:
This map of malaise, which takes account of the reduction in both ‘disposible income’ and ‘market income’, can almost entirely be traced onto the map of the insurgent political phenomena classified as ‘populism’. And this malaise applies to both ‘capital’s side’ (in particular financial investment and productive activities) and ‘labour’s side’. The former was hit by the conjunctural effects of the crisis and the latter was already heavily penalised relative to capital by structural transformations which had been taking place during the long gestation period that preceded the subprime explosion.
Altogether, they form a multitude of the dissatisfied and enraged – above all, the ‘betrayed’, or those who consider themselves as such – transversally distributed across Western societies, extraneous to the traditional political cultures since none of them still represent the new conditions of the masses. These latter are themselves out of place, as they find themselves in the unprecedented condition of the politically homeless. Humiliated by the distance that they see growing between themselves and the few who stand at the top of the pyramid (despite their small numbers, the only ones visible in the media space that has replaced all previous public spaces). Lacking in a language suitable for communicating their own stories, or even to structure an account of themselves, they are thus consigned to resentment and rancour.
It is these characteristics, and perhaps that across the board this is emerging from those who were ‘winners of the previous era’, that characterises what still for me remains so paradoxical:
Almost everywhere, the neo-populist agitation from below is openly exploited by those who in fact stand up above, without any seeming contradiction. And perhaps this explains the reason why Europe’s governing elites, and with them the greater part of the ‘system’s information system’, in fact dedicate themselves much more energetically and effectively to fighting and destabilising the only experiences that have proven a convincing and credible factor for combating this type of contagion.”
That would be the left and its alternatives.
[Revelli, Marco. (2019) The New Populism: Democracy Stares into the Abyss. London and New York: Verso]
Another post on Robert Fisher’s Let the People Decide, that starts back in 1886 (pt 1) to root this in some of the US’s history, and the last post on the 1960s…all too brief as I think about it. But time marches on, Fisher takes us through the 1970s, and it’s interesting to consider the decade from Fisher’s view. Sadly at no point does fashion enter the discourse.
The New Populism of the 1970s
The 1970s was certainly a very bad time for cities — I very much appreciate, as I say, how Fisher weaves in some of the political and economic context for the organizing that was happening. As he writes
Neoconservative strategies for urban change became commonplace. Using models of “planned shrinkage” or “triage,” officials planned to bulldoze or ignore the poorest areas of the city. (136)
And they did to a great extent, I can’t really imagine watching that, going through that..
Fisher opens a section on the roots of the New Populism with a quote from Tom Hayden, ‘The radicalism of the 1960s has become the common sense of the 1970s’. He cites Mike Miller of the Organize Training Center in SF (hi Mike!) as describing “the basic values of the new populism are the values of democracy.” Fisher continues with a full quote: “Its fundamental analysis is that “unchecked power has become concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people who are at the helm of the major corporations of the nation.”
So what does Fisher mean by populism here in this context?
While it is critical of elements of the economic system, it sees bigness and unaccountable power, rather than capitalism, as the fundamental problem. (139)
Despite Hayden’s quote, Fisher describes community organizing through this decade as working to tone down from the 1960s, to return to Alinsky and rebuild. Given the repression and that people in power recognized Alinksy’s work as much less threatening than that say of SNCC, such a return could be helpful in achieving concrete wins. Fisher writes that while Alinsky himself and earlier Alinskyite organizations in mid 1960s through 1970s ‘practiced ideology of equality and the tactics of non-violent confrontation of the civil rights movement’, they would come to shift over this second decade ‘from a civil rights orientation to an emphasis on negotiation and community development’ (142).
Fisher also notes the way that community organizations themselves became more conservative over time (thought he notes most organizations had a life of only around 6 years, so survival into conservatism was rare, an interesting thing to think about). TWO in Woodlawn became involved in development, built housing, ran a head start program, moved into ignoring radical roots in demanding long-term change and instead bargained to improve conditions on a very local level.
This chapter opens with a quote from ACORN president Steve McDonald:
Some people say what does ACORN want? The answer is simple: We want sufficient power in our cities and states to speak–and be heard–and heeded–for the interest of the majority of citizens. We want to participate in community and civil affairs, not as second class citizens because we don’t drive Rolls Royces, but as men and women committed to a better future where our concerns are met with justice and dignity; where wealth, race and religion are insufficient excuses to prevent equal participation and impact in government; where any person can protect his or her family and join with others in community strength; and where, as ACORN’s slogan goes, “the People Shall Rule.” That is what ACORN wants. Nothing more and nothing less.
–Steve McDonald, ACORN president, quoted p 145
He describes the central program of community organizing in this decade:
The essence of neo-Alinskyism in the 1970s was to develop more political organizations rooted in neighborhoods, grounded in local concerns, and focused on winning concrete gains. The goal was to advance social and economic democracy, empower people, and challenge power relations within and beyond the neighborhood.
There were many such organizations, most of them able to
acknowledge that fundamental social change in this country demands a multi-issue, multiclass, multiracial, national effort that rests on grassroots organizing but goes beyond the neighborhood or community units. (146)
These are organizations that broke away from the IAF model, which Fisher argues had become highly professionalized and large-scale. Of course, this mode has continued in parallel, and been most successful in Mexican-American communities of the South West, where churches remained very strong and were willing to play a role in local issues.
I definitely need to read more about Fred Ross, who worked with Alinsky but shifted the model in important ways, as he emphasized door-to-door, issue organizing (and Cesar Chavez of course). He also inspired the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), and out of this came Wade Rathke who would start up ACORN to avoid what we saw as weaknesses of NWRO which often divided neighbors
The ACORN Model as summarised by Fisher:
You, the organizer, are sent to a community — you don’t come with an issue, but openly organize for social and economic justice for low and moderate income people
Develop internal contacts. Get people’s name, go to their homes for talks.
Organize the first house meeting. Want it to be representative of the community, under 12 people. This will become a committee, begin to identify issues (149)
Promote the organization. Go door to door with organizing committee, engage people.
Honor the organizing process. Do not make assumptions, remain open, create index files on people you meet.
Identify an issue. This should appeal to most people, it doesn’t matter the issue, but that people get involved, the organizer presents options and way to deal with it
Hold a neighborhood meeting. Big event, invite everyone you have contact with. Get membership — ‘The dues are significant not only because they provide some funding but, more important, because people relate differently to an organization that they own. (151)
Fisher’s critique — that they still tended to stay away from issues that would ‘jeopardise a victory’. Like racism… The thinking was very much like that of Alinsky’s, and organizers avoided issues that undermined unity and clouded the focus on the “real enemy.” (151)
Winning, noted by some, was an ‘obsession’ with ACORN.
ACORN also moved towards electoral politics, to hold power rather than just pressuring those in power. As Fisher writes, there was also:
a strong tendency in ACORN and related efforts to remain staff intensive, to see the organizer as an “expert” who practices a method, almost a “science,” of organizing. In some projects grassroots participation tended to appear only at selected and critical times–at mass meetings, direct actions, and elections… (153)
Political education was de-emphasized, pragmatism made the rule, the goal to move from one victory to the next rather than moving more slowly through a process of education. This probably isn’t entirely fair to many local chapters, but I only worked with them very tangentially in LA. This theme of electoral power has certainly been picked up by other groups though.
I have his book on ACORN sitting in a stack, not sure when I’ll get a chance to read it, but hopefully not before too long.
It can’t be ignored, of course, that some of these ideas have also been taken up by more right-wing neighbourhood groups like ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights) in Boston with their ‘a,b,c’ program: antiabortion, antibusing, anticommunism. A working class organization but affiliated with business. Although seen as aberrations, Fisher writes that these were the other side of populism without conscious political education. He’s probably right about that.
Alinsky style and tactics were also taken up by community development organizations through this decade and into the next, but Fisher notes how they tended to become steadily more conservative both in tactics and vision as they established themselves. Having only known the well established versions, I’d certainly agree that this was true in many, but not all cases.
This was also a decade of growing numbers of women getting involved and moving into leadership. There was also a growing realisation that successful organizing not actually built on self-interest alone, but also idealism and the implementation of people’s own vision.
But more on that, surprisingly, in the 1980s.
[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]