We need to recover democracy and to radicalize it

Famous political theorist Chantal Mouffe speaks about populism and its relation to democracy, conception of left populism and the strategies that are most necessary for the left at our historical moment

Chantal Mouffe is professor of Political Theory at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. She is a cowriter of the seminal Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), one of the best known contemporary books that discusses radical political theory. She is best known for her conception of radical democracy and her notion of agonistic pluralism. Among her books are The Democratic Paradox, On the Political, Agonistics: Thinking The World Politically. She has just published For a Left Populism with the radical left press Verso.

Mouffe was in Sofia at the invitation of Human and Social Studies Foundation for a conference under the title “Populism and Propaganda: New Intersections”. In this interview we talk about the significance of her theoretical and political work concerning populism and its relation to democracy, and in particular about the conception of left populism and the strategies that are most necessary for the left at our historical moment.

Is democracy possible without populism?

Chantal Mouffe: Well, it depends on how you put the question. There is a necessary dimension of populism in democracy. Etymologically, democracy comes from “demos” and “cratos”, meaning the power of the demos and demos being the people acting politically. In order to have democracy you need to have a constitution of a people. If you understand by populism precisely the constitution of the people, then for me it is a necessary dimension. Particularly, it also depends on what democracy you speak about. When we speak about democracy in Western Europe, or rather in the Western World, we speak of democracy as a principle of legitimacy. It means that the power comes from the people. At this level democracy is a kind of regime that is distinguished from oligarchy, from monarchy, etc. The main question is what I call the principle of legitimacy, or where does the legitimacy of power rest. In a democratic regime it rests in the people. But this principle of legitimacy never exists in the abstract. It is always inscribed in a specific context, in a specific tradition, in a specific culture, and in the case of the western model of democracy, it is inscribed in a specific context which is very much marked by the Judeo-Christian history. Many of the features of what we understand by democracy today in Western Europe come from that tradition.

For instance, there is a heated discussion about secularization. And this is an important discussion and particularly if we are thinking of the way in which the western model can be universalized. Recent (and not so recent) studies show that the theory of secularization rises from the protestant reformation which is something very specific to our western history. For some people this raises the question: on which ground are we going to say that a country is democratic? Is secularization the necessary condition to speak about democracy or not? I tend to accept the contextual framework in opposition to the universalistic framework. That is one of the disagreements I have with Jürgen Habermas. I do not think that the western model of democracy is the rational solution, that it has some kind of ontological privilege. It is something that is very much our political language-game, to refer to Wittgenstein. But for instance, I don’t think that if the Chinese or the Muslims want to become democratic they have to necessarily become western.  When we speak about democracy we need to really always think of the ways in which the democratic principle can be inscribed in different contexts and within different institutions.

Can you tell us more about your conception of left populism and its role in this democratic process?

Our model of democracy is the articulation of two different traditions: that of liberty and that of equality. The democratic principle, the democratic idea is inscribed within the context of liberal institutions. And here I insist that I speak only about political liberalism as I think that the link which has been established between democracy and capitalism is something that is completely contingent (even though some people say we can’t have democracy without capitalism). It is true that so far, in our historical democracy, we have only had a democratic system when there has been capitalism, but this is not a necessary condition at all. At the same time, this specificity of western democracy – the articulation of the tradition of liberty with the tradition of equality – created the specificity of pluralist democracy because there is necessarily something that I call “agonistic tension” between these two, in the sense that liberty and equality do not go necessarily together, contrary to what Habermas is saying. Again, this is why I insist that liberal democracy is contingent. We know countries which are liberal but not democratic and countries which are democratic but not liberal. In Latin America for instance there are interesting examples. Liberal democracy is precisely the articulation of these two traditions which can never be totally reconciled. There is always one tradition that is the dominant one. Either it is the liberal tradition – and then democracy is there therefore subordinated, or vice versa. And I think that the entire history of our liberal democratic societies is a history in which there are negotiations between which one of these two is the guiding principle. And this kind of agonistic tension is for me what is really specific to our model of democracy.

What has happened in recent years, basically in the last thirty years, as a consequence of the hegemony of neoliberalism, is that the democratic element has been pushed aside. When we speak of democracy today, what we have in mind is basically the rule of law, elections, etc., but everything that has to do with the key democratic idea which is equality, and popular sovereignty is considered not as important. This is the origin of what I call the post-democratic condition. So, we still pretend to be democratic but in fact all democratic aspects have been eviscerated from this model and I see the development of populist movements in general as a reaction against that. They are an expression of resistances against the post-democracy. People demand to have a voice. In my work I see the development of populism as a consequence of the post-political situation. Democratic politics in the terms of popular sovereignty requires that when people go to vote, they have a real choice; if they have two programs center-right, center-left which are basically the same except for small differences, people do not actually have a voice. For instance, what the Indignados in Spain were saying “we have a vote but we don’t have a voice”, meaning we don’t have a choice. And this is something which we see more and more in protest movements like Occupy or Indignados which are expressions of resistances and of people calling for a voice. We have already had that from a right-wing perspective as well, in the example of Jörg Haider’s Freedom party of Austria.  I have been studying in my work the way in which he was articulating resistances against the consensual politics that have been dominant for many years in the Austrian grand coalition between the dominant parties – conservative and social-democrat which were dividing the posts between themselves, there were a lot of people who felt left out of that. And in fact, the success of Haider came from the fact that he was able to understand that and claim that he was going to give back to the people the voice that had been confiscated by the elites. The question of the success of right wing populists is very much related to the fact that they present themselves as being against the establishment and as giving a voice to the people. Of course, this voice is articulated in very nationalistic and xenophobic terms.

What is new and important in my mind is that since 2011, more or less, we are seeing left-wing articulations of this dissatisfaction. And what I call “the populist moment” is precisely a moment in which this post-political condition is challenged both from the side of right-wing populism and left-wing populism. My understanding is that the only way to fight against right wing populism is by developing a left populism. It is not the tradition of social democratic parties who are going to be able to stop the rise of right wing populism, because in fact, they are in great part responsible for the development of those movements. They are the ones who abandoned the working class, they are the ones who centered themselves around the interests of the middle class and as a result there were all those popular sectors who felt lack of representation at the level of politics. This has created the terrain for the success of right wing populism and it is not the social-democratic parties who are going to be able to change this unless they transform themselves. The exception so far is the labor party with Jeremy Corbin who is recovering the radical tradition of the left. It was interesting to see that during the last elections they were able to recover part of the voters of UKIP – the right-wing populists. We have seen that in France with Mélenchon as well. Only left populists are able to respond to the democratic demand and stop the rise of right-wing populism. If today there is a crisis of democratic representation, it is only left populist parties who can bring a solution to that in order to recover democracy.  Because in fact the problem with the hegemony of neoliberalism is that many of the important advances that have been done previously under social democracy and the welfare state have been taken away.

So we need to recover democracy to fight against post-democracy, not simply to go back to the previous situation but to radicalize democracy. We need to recover democracy and to radicalize it. To make it much more inclusive than it was under social democracy. And I see this as the necessary strategy of left populism.

What is the place of anti-capitalist struggles in this left construction of the people?

Well, I think that for me the objective of the left populist movement is the radicalization of democracy and that obviously necessarily includes an anti-capitalist dimension. Radicalization of democracy undertakes the form of what I call a “chain of equivalence”, or to federate democratic demands. An important part of those democratic demands, of course, is that they are a reaction against the forms of domination, exploitation which are related to capitalism. In fact, you cannot satisfy those demands without putting into question capitalist relations. So there is an important anti-capitalist dimension but it is not the only one. I think that there are many forms of domination which are not the product of capitalism – racism, sexism, etc. This does not mean that they are not in many cases articulated with capitalism, and you cannot say that they are totally different, but you cannot also say that well, once we get rid of capitalism there won’t be sexism and racism anymore. So this is why in the project Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, the book that I wrote with Ernesto Laclau, we proposed to redefine socialism in terms of radicalization of democracy. The socialist struggle concerned the extension of equality on the level of the economy. This is an important part of the process of radicalization of democracy but you cannot just say that this is the only element. What I mean by this is that in this chain of equivalence I mentioned, you need to articulate the demands of the working class, the demands of the so-called new social movements and other demands which are not necessarily the expression of class conflict. Of course, it is not as if class conflict disappears but not all forms of antagonism can be subsumed under the question of class. That was our argument.

This is why our position has been classified as post-Marxist. We insisted that we do not have a problem with that term on the condition that we recognize that this is not anti-Marxist; it is “post” in the sense that there are very important contributions done by Marx but we need to develop them. Here for me, and for Ernesto too, a figure like Gramsci is very important, because he extended the comprehension of domination. In general, we need to be open for new studies and theories which make us understand the new forms of domination, which someone like Gramsci would not even think of. In this case, I am very much interested in the work of David Harvey, a Marxist geographer, and his concept of “accumulation through dispossession” to refer to new forms of domination which are the consequence of the development of neoliberalism. So, those are things that neither Marx, nor Gramsci, would have imagined, because that was not the situation they were living in.

We need always to try to understand the changing conditions on the level of the economy and the consequences of the development of financial capitalism. And this is where, I think, the notion of left-wing populism could really become a basis for a collective will. In fact, I would say, that today, in one way or another, we all live under the effects of the new financial capital. Under the Fordist model you were basically working in a factory and there you were suffering from its effects. Today, under the post-Fordist model, all of us – even people who have nothing to do with the industrial production – experience the consequences of this form of domination of financial capital. This, on the other hand, means that we can mobilize many social sectors which have not traditionally considered themselves as being part of the left.

People often say that the struggle today is between the losers and the winners of globalization, that there is this big divide. Then some conclude that the winners cannot be part of the struggle against capitalism. I don’t believe that. One point that I find important to develop is that there are some issues that could bring on board the so-called winners of globalization for an emancipatory project. For instance, the question of ecology is very important. Think of it: you can be in a very good economic situation, a real “winner,” but you might become aware of the fact that the consequences of the neoliberal model are really going to destroy the planet and create a situation in which your children and your grandchildren will suffer  – you become aware that if you want to create a decent future for your offspring, you need to put into question the actual economic and political model. So you begin to understand that the neoliberal model is really at the origins of the destruction of the environment, and that is how you can be won over for a project of another form of hegemony.

But going back to populism, it seems that there is a real hatred towards such movements. We can hear it very clearly in the media. Populism is presented as the chief problem when it comes to pointing the blame for the problems of democracy, for its destruction even. What brings about this hatred of populism?

Well, I think, in some sense, it is completely normal that most of the media is trying to delegitimate those popular demands because they represent a threat to the consensus of the center. They feel that it is their power which is at stake. So the strategy that the establishment developed was to present those demands as a danger to democracy; and in order to preserve the democratic institutions you would need to defend the status quo. This is completely perverse because in fact it is precisely this status quo which is at the origins of the crisis of these institutions. The existing neoliberal hegemony is precisely the one that creates the development of the right-wing populism.

This is where I think left-wing populism is important. If we only had the forces of the status quo on the political spectrum – center-right, center-left, and the right-wing populism, there would be really a terrible situation. Left-wing populists are the ones who are trying to give a different perspective and to put the consensus into question in order to radicalize democracy. I think that we are at a moment which is quite crucial. In his famous book The Great Transformation Karl Polanyi speaks of counter-movements and resistances to the big process of commodification (of course, he was writing in the early 1940s). But these counter-movements, he says, could take two different directions: they can create a more authoritarian regime, and this is what happened with the rise of fascism, or they could represent a chance for something more democratic. And I think that today we are in a very similar situation: populism is a counter-movement to the effects of neoliberal globalization, but this counter-movement could open the way to more authoritarian regimes, or to more democratic ones. This is why I find left-wing populism so important to democracy.

It seems though that European political and economic elites of today are more willing to cooperate with right-wing populists (for example in Austria or in Italy), than with populist movements on the left (like Mélenchon in France).

That’s true. In France for instance the media gives the floor much more to Marine Le Pen than to Jean-Luc Mélenchon. And you might wonder why? For sure, they both represent a threat to the power of the elite and the media, but it is as if they find a bigger danger on the side of left-wing populism. There is however an explanation for this. Let’s take the economic elites: most of the right-wing populist movements do not really put into question neoliberalism. What they want – and this is definitely the case of Marine Le Pen – is a nationalist capitalism (in her case, “French capitalism”) so they do not question the basic economic model, and in a sense, it is less threatening to the system. Mélenchon fights for something much more radical that would break with the economic forces in power. It is true then that they direct their attacks much more towards the left-wing populists. At the end of the day, the challenge of right-wing populism is seen by the actual hegemonic forces as less dangerous as compared to the challenge presented by the left populists.

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