“Populism” is not the solution

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By LUIS FELIPE MIGUEL*

The left needs to present a horizon that promotes overcoming oppression and deprivation. The way to this is an anti-capitalist project

“Populism” is one of those words so worn out by usage that it's hard to give them conceptual rigor. Its use in different historical contexts refers to phenomena that are very different from each other – such as putting Andrew Jackson in the same basket, the narodnik Russians and Latin American rulers of the middle of the last century?

In journalistic language and mainstream In Political Science today, populism is a generic label that identifies any leadership or discourse that is considered demagogic and that departs from the liberal consensus. The two aspects, by the way, are complementary, since everything that deviates from this consensus is considered demagogic. beforehand. The idea of ​​populism is useful, therefore, to build the image of a virtuous center and to match its opponents on the left and right. Trump and Maduro, Bolsonaro and Lula, the “politically incorrect” of the extreme right and policies to help the poorest are presented as opposite, but symmetrical incarnations of the same evil.

Perhaps surprisingly, a portion of leftist thought has taken up the notion of a chameleonic populism, with incarnations across the entire political spectrum, but endowing it with positivity. The main person responsible for gait it was the late Ernesto Laclau, who sees it as the invocation of an indeterminate and vague people, made a collective subject of the struggle against some discursively constructed “other”. For Laclau, this feature of populism must be understood as a response to a social reality that is itself marked by vagueness and indetermination.

However, that verdict would need to be demonstrated. Is social reality really so vague, so indeterminate? Or is our analysis vague and indeterminate, lazy or impotent in the face of a complex reality? Furthermore, it should be remembered that Laclau himself never tires of affirming the productive nature of political discourse (his response to the other constant accusation against populism, that it is “mere rhetoric”). In this case, would populism be a reflection or – by betting on a deliberately fluid and uncertain collective subject – a producer of the indeterminacy of social reality?

At a time when the left finds it difficult to activate its social base, hit by accelerated changes in the world of work and by the neoliberal ideological offensive, the populist drift presents itself as seductive. Authors like Nancy Fraser pin their hopes on an imprecise “progressive populism”. But the main spokesperson for the project is Chantal Mouffe. In text recently translated into Portuguese – posted on the website Other words, she criticizes “the rationalist theoretical framework that often sustains left-wing politics” in favor of a populist strategy oriented towards an equally elusive “green democratic transformation”.

This is one updating, intended for a wide audience, of the ideas that Mouffe expressed in his book For a Left populism (Verse, 2018). Mouffe's reading of populism is even more Schmittian than Laclau's. It is about drawing the dividing line between “friend” and “enemy” in such a way as to coincide with a definition of “people” and “anti-people”.

As it is a discursive construction, there is an infinite malleability for the design of such a border. The “people” can be defined in opposition to foreigners. Or to “well-thinking elites” interested in minority rights. Or the corrupt. Mouffe does not develop the point, with which he would certainly agree, but it is important to put into perspective the tendency towards uncritical acceptance of the category “people” to which this approach to the phenomenon of populism gives rise. The fact that the boundary between people and establishment is often false and manipulated in favor of one's own establishment it just doesn't come across as an important issue.

Mouffe criticizes, in a way that seems right to me, the position of much of the center-left, which is condemned to defend liberal institutions, limited democracy and the status quo. In the book, she writes that the strength of right-wing populism lies in its ability to create an us/them boundary that opposes the oligarchization of neoliberal politics. And she goes a step further: classifying these parties, leaders and movements as “extreme right” or “neo-fascists” is a way of rejecting their demands without recognizing “the democratic dimension of many of them”.

At this point, a certain Platonic view of the category “people” emerges, which is characteristic of Mouffe's most recent reflection. She says the only way to confront right-wing populisms is to give “a progressive response to the democratic demands they are expressing in xenophobic language”, which again includes valid criticism of the posture of much of the left as guardians of the liberal order, but it makes light of the fact that anything that is presented in the name of a category constructed as “the people” is, by definition, democratic.

However, as noted (among others) Éric Fassin, the collective identity constructed by right-wing populism is founded on a political affection, resentment, which is very far from the revolt that is characteristic of left-wing politics. Bringing both positions closer together due to a superficial rhetorical neighborhood is to obscure reality – and it is unforgivable for someone, like Mouffe, who claims that it is necessary to “replace affections at the center of politics” (quote is from the eye of the article translated into Portuguese). , therefore the responsibility of the edition, but it summarizes his thinking well).

For Mouffe, however, the answer to current challenges consists in building “another people” – I quote the 2018 book again – different from that of the populist right, through the “mobilization of passions in defense of equality and social justice”, the which requires discarding such a rationalist approach. Although politics is certainly not done without passion, it is difficult to throw reason away, as Mouffe seems to do, in search of an amorphous mass that projects its unity in affective identification with a leader – which is the horizon of positive reinterpretations of the populist phenomenon.

The main problem, it seems to me, is the lack of materiality of the categories. The relationship between de-democratization and the empire of financial capital is just a tenuous and faded backdrop. The people of Mouffe, an “empty signifier”, does not refer to any relationship of domination, so the relationship between democracy and the fight against forms of domination present in society cannot be established.

Despite all his criticisms of the triumph of liberalism over democracy, the liberal framework that separates politics as a separate sphere is not challenged. Part of his theoretical limitations stem from his tendency to reduce political struggle to electoral competition (which is clearly stated in his earlier book, Agonistics, 2013): the indeterminate people whose great quality is being a majority is the image of the indistinct electorate of liberal democracies. It is curious that representative institutions are at the heart of the path proposed for the new left at the very moment when, thanks to the increasingly uncontrolled power of capital, they are showing themselves to be more emptied of power.

The bet on populism appears as a kind of fast track for the mobilization of subordinates, replacing class politics. In the text recently translated into Brazil, Mouffe derives this position from the one expressed in Hegemony and socialist strategy, the book published by her and Laclau in the 1980s. Here, it is necessary to point out that Mouffe is making a biased and myopic reading of Mouffe herself. The populist option is a big step backwards in relation to the proposals that Laclau and Mouffe were then presenting.

Diagnosing the crisis of the conception of socialism based on the “ontological centrality of the working class”, on the idea of ​​the Revolution and on the belief in the possibility of a perfectly homogeneous collective will, “which would render the moment of politics useless”, Hegemony and socialist strategy proposes that the task of the left is to promote the articulation of diverse emancipatory demands. It is imperative to overcome any unilateral reading of social domination and understand that the class axis is not the only one, nor does it have automatic primacy, accepting, as a data of reality to be worked on by the political imagination, the presence and centrality of the emancipatory demands of others oppressed groups, as well as the fact that these multiple demands do not harmonize on their own. The policy of the left, therefore, involves articulating them in a project of social transformation.

It is a vision, however, that departs from the concrete determinations of domination and proposes to articulate the dominated groups not as an “empty signifier”, to be arbitrarily produced by any political discourse, but in the midst of an emancipatory project. Mouffe errs in judging that the alternative to “progressive populism” is a return to twentieth-century forms of political struggle. It is not a question of recovering belief in the teleological mission of the working class, much less of judging that the task consists in making the “class in itself” become a “class for itself”. Rather, it is a question of understanding the mechanisms of the different forms of social domination and, in particular, of understanding that the capitalist order is the thread that unifies them.

Maurizio Lazzarato's critique of left-wing populism in the style of "We can” – transferring capitalism to the background and focusing on a social transformation centered on political representation – is also valid, and not by chance, for Mouffe. The left needs to present a horizon of radical change, for the working class, for women, for the black population, for indigenous peoples, for the LGBT community, a horizon that promotes overcoming oppression and deprivation. The path to this is not a populist discourse, but an anti-capitalist project.

* Luis Felipe Miguel He is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at UnB, where he coordinates the Research Group on Democracy and Inequalities (Demodê). Author, among other books, of Domination and resistance: challenges for an emancipatory policy (Boitempo).

 

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