For a Left Populism by Chantal Mouffe (London: Verso, 2018; 98 pp.; ISBN 978–1–78663–755–0).

In her new book, the political theorist Chantal Mouffe aims to give a theoretical framework to “left populism”, a political strategy that she sees as embodied by a range of new leftist projects across Europe including (to different extents) Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, Syriza, Podemos, Die Linke in Germany, and the Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal.

Mouffe is best known as the co-author (with Ernesto Laclau) of the enormously influential Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is one of the key texts of post-Marxism, and in it Laclau and Mouffe put forward what they call an “anti-essentialist” reading of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. In their account of hegemony, class interests are only one sort of political identity, and should not be accorded any necessary (or “essential”) centrality. For A Left Populism is, in large part, a reflection on the changing political situation in Britain and across Western Europe since the context of the mid-1980s in which Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was written.

In For a Left Populism, Mouffe presents a view of contemporary politics as characterised above all by a “populist moment”. This populist moment arises because of the breakdown of neoliberal hegemony that has dominated Western Europe since the 1980s. (In many ways, the breakdown of this hegemony is equivalent to asserting the end of Mark Fisher’s idea of “capitalist realism”.) For Mouffe, the breakdown of the dominance of neoliberalism opens the door to a new politics as it offers the opportunity for the creation of a new subject of collective action (the people) capable of reconfiguring the social order. Much of the response to the breakdown of this hegemony in the long wake of the financial crisis has come from the right, which has mobilized voters away from traditional party structures typically around economic nationalization and anti-immigration rhetoric. Mouffe’s aim is instead to provide the theoretical framework for a populist response to the current moment that comes from the left.

The first part of Mouffe’s account is her description of the present as a “populist moment”. The populist moment, in Mouffe’s account, arises because the centre-left and the centre-right have proved themselves incapable of responding to the breakdown of neoliberal hegemony. Mouffe argues that the populist moment draws on a number of sources in contemporary politics, most importantly:

(1) Post-democracy, in which the constitutive tension between democracy and liberty has been hollowed out as the popular sovereignty aspect of democracy (the democratic principle) focused on elections and mass participation has been replaced by a liberal interpretation of democracy that emphasises checks, balances, and institutions.

(2) Post-politics, in which the frontier between left and right is blurred by the “necessities” of globalization, and consensus is put forward as the aim and mode of politics (while those who oppose the dogma of “there is no alternative” from the left or the right seen as “extremists”).

(3) Oligarchization, in which extreme inequality has been driven by the growth in wealth of the 1% (and the 0.1%) in the context of an increasingly financialized, deregulated, and privatized economy.

(4) The death of social democracy, which has seen social democratic parties across Europe rejected by voters who see them as compromised by their turn to “left-neoliberalism” in the 1990s and 2000s.

All of these aspects of the current moment are, crucially for Mouffe, in flux and currently under challenge. The populist moment is, then, one that offers the possibility of change and radical mobilization.

The second key aspect of Mouffe’s argument is that the way in which neoliberalism became dominant needs to be understood in order for the left to articulare a successful populist response to its breakdown. Mouffe’s account of how the neoliberal model became hegemonic draws heavily on the work of Stuart Hall and has a similar goal, namely working out what the left can learn from Thatcherism. In Mouffe’s account Thatcher drew the line between the “forces of establishment” (state bureaucrats, trade unions, and those who benefitted from state handouts) and the industrious “people”. Mouffe draws on Hall’s analysis of Thatcherism as a combination of organic Toryism (which emphasises ideas of nation, family, duty, authority, standards, and traditionalism) with an emerging neoliberalism that articulated concepts of self-interest, competitive individualism, and anti-statism. Thatcher also drew on resistance to the bureaucratic and collectivist implementation of the welfare state, as well as mobilizing voters by opposing working class interests to immigrants and feminists.

New Labour then followed, as a continuation of the Thatcherite project (in Thatcher’s own words, famously, Tony Blair was her greatest achievement as it showed that her opponents had been forced to change their mind); Blairism retained Thatcher’s ideas of the taxpayer, the customer, and the choice agenda. At the same time, the Third Way model abandoned a conflictual model of politics for one that prized consensus and technical solutions to problems.

More widely, neoliberalism from the 1990s showed itself particularly adept at incorporating countercultural elements and artistic critiques of various kinds, and using them to make arguments about the liberalization of labour and the importance of a selfish individualism to achieving freedom.

In Mouffe’s view, the populist moment of 2018 presents an opportunity for the left. Specifically, there is a chance to articulate a left populism that looks to federate all the forces against post-democracy. Central to left populism is the need to define on the one hand an adversary and on the other hand the “people”. Establishing the agonism (conflict between adversaries) rather than antagonism (conflict between enemies) between the two is crucial. Mouffe’s account of populism is based on a model of political conflict we might call “non-class struggle”.

Mouffe describes her overall position as one of “radical reformism”, as a kind of “third way” (not her words) of the left that sits between pure reformism and revolutionary politics. Importantly, then, Mouffe’s left populism is one that seeks to break with the existing hegemonic order but not with the institutions of liberal democracy or the state. Mouffe also makes it clear that her model of left populism does not necessitate a revolutionary rupture, and instead advocates a hegemonic transformation that re-establishes the relationship between liberalism and democracy that post-democracy has hollowed out.

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