Which future for democratic politics

Il·lustració. © Susana Blasco / Descalza

We are up against a crisis of neoliberal hegemony that could pave the way for authoritarian governments, but that can also present the opportunity to restore and strengthen democratic institutions through what Chantal Mouffe calls “left-wing populism”. According to Mouffe, this is the most promising political strategy for restoring and expanding democratic ideals in Europe today.

These are clearly unsettled times for democratic politics. In many European countries we are witnessing the increasing success of right-wing populist parties. From several quarters we hear the claim that democracy is in danger and many voices raise the alarm against a possible return of ‘fascism’.

We are no doubt witnessing a crisis of neoliberal hegemony that might indeed open the way for authoritarian governments, but it can also provide the opportunity for reclaiming and deepening the democratic institutions that have been weakened by the ‘post-democratic’ condition issuing from thirty years of neoliberalism.

This post-democratic condition is the product of several phenomena. The first one, that I have proposed to call 'post-politics', is the blurring of political frontiers between right and left. It is the result of the consensus established between parties of center-right and center-left on the idea that there was no alternative to neo-liberal globalization. Under the imperative of 'modernization', social-democrats have accepted the diktats of globalized financial capitalism and the limits it imposes on state intervention and public policies.

Politics has become a mere technical issue of managing the established order, a domain reserved to experts. The sovereignty of the people, notion that is at the heart of the democratic ideal, has been declared obsolete. Post-politics only allows for an alternation in power between the centre-right and the centre-left. The agonistic confrontation between different political projects, crucial for democratic politics, has been eliminated.

This post-political evolution has taken place in a socio-economic context characterized by the dominance of financial capitalism. The financialization of the economy has been accompanied by privatization and deregulation policies which, jointly with the austerity measures imposed after the 2008 crisis, have provoked an exponential increase in inequality.

This affects particularly the already disadvantaged popular sectors and the working class but also a significant part of the middle classes which have entered into a process of pauperization and precarization. One can truly speak of a phenomenon of ‘oligarchization’ of our societies.

In recent years, various movements of resistance have emerged against the post-democratic dismissal of popular sovereignty and the devastating consequences of neoliberal globalization. They can be interpreted on the mode of what Karl Polanyi presented in The Great Transformation as a ‘countermovement’ by which society reacted against the process of marketization and pushed for social protection. This countermovement, he pointed out, could take progressive or regressive forms.

This ambivalence is also true of the current conjuncture. In several European countries those resistances have been captured by right-wing populist parties which have articulated in a nationalistic and xenophobic vocabulary the demands of the popular sectors, abandoned by the centre-left since their conversion to neoliberalism.

Right-wing populists proclaim that they will give back to the people the voice that has been confiscated by the elites. They have understood that politics is always ‘partisan’ and that it requires a we/they confrontation. Furthermore, they recognize the need to mobilize affects to construct collective political identities. Drawing the political frontier in a ‘populist’ way between the ‘people’ and the ‘establishment’, they openly reject the post-political consensus.

Those are precisely the proper political moves that most left-parties are precluded to make by their consensual conception of politics and the rationalistic view that passions have to be excluded from democratic politics. For them only rational arguments and procedures are acceptable. This explains their hostility to populism which they assimilate to demagogy and irrationality.

From right-wing populism to left-wing populism

Alas, it is not by stubbornly upholding the post-political consensus that one can meet the challenge of right-wing populism. It is vital to understand that in order to fight right-wing populism the strategy of moral condemnation and demonization of their electorate is totally counterproductive because it reinforces the anti-establishment feelings among the popular classes. It is the absence of a political project able to provide a different vocabulary to formulate what are at the origin genuine grievances which explains that right-wing populism has an echo in increasingly numerous social sectors.

The only way to counter the rise of right-wing populism is by giving a progressive answer to the demands that they are expressing in a xenophobic language. This supposes recognizing the existence of a democratic nucleus in those demands and the possibility, through a different discourse, of articulating in a progressive direction the multifarious resistances to the consequences of neoliberal globalization. Classifying right-wing populist parties as ‘extreme-right’ or ‘fascist’, presenting them as a kind of moral disease, as the return of ‘the brown plague’, and attributing their appeal to lack of education or atavistic factors, is of course very convenient for the forces of the centre-left. It allows them to dismiss all their demands and to avoid acknowledging their own responsibility in their emergence.

To design a properly political answer, it is necessary to realize that the current populist moment is the expression of very heterogeneous demands, which cannot be formulated through the left/right cleavage as traditionally configured. Unlike the era of fordist capitalism characterized by struggles organized around the centrality of a working class defending its specific interests, in post-fordist neoliberal capitalism, resistances have developed at many points outside the productive process. These demands no longer correspond to social sectors defined in sociological terms and by their location in the social structure and many are claims that have a transversal character. Moreover the demands linked to the struggles against sexism, racism, as well as those concerning the environment, have become increasingly central.

To federate these diverse struggles requires establishing a synergy between social movements and party forms with the objective of constructing a ‘people’, mobilizing common affects towards equality and social justice. This is the political strategy that I call ‘left populism’. Its purpose is the construction of a ‘collective will’, a ‘people’ whose adversary is constituted by the ‘oligarchy’ and all the forces that sustain the neoliberal order. The goal is to lay the basis of a new hegemonic formation that will operate an ecological bifurcation that will secure the habitability of the planet for humans and non humans and create the conditions for recovering and deepening democratic institutions. The process of radicalizing democratic institutions will no doubt include moments of rupture and a confrontation with the dominant economic interests. It is a ‘radical reformist’ strategy that comports an anti-capitalist dimension but that does not require relinquishing liberal-democratic institutions.

This hegemonic formation will take different shapes according to the specific trajectories, national contexts and traditions involved. There is no blueprint to follow or final destination to reach. What is important, whatever the name, is that ‘democracy’ is the hegemonic signifier around which the diverse struggles are articulated and that pluralist institutions are not discarded. Conceived around radical democratic objectives, left populism, far from being a perversion of democracy, a view that the forces defending the status-quo are trying to impose by disqualifying as ‘extremists’ and ‘enemies of pluralism’ all those who oppose the post-political consensus, constitutes in today's Europe the most promising political strategy for reviving and expanding the democratic ideals.

Recommended publications

  • Por un populismo de izquierdaSiglo XXI, Buenos Aires, 2018
  • Agonística: Pensar el mundo políticamenteFondo de Cultura Económica, Buenos Aires, 2014

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