On the Front Lines of the Populism Wars

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Jacob Richter
On the Front Lines of the Populism Wars

Does real class politics emerge from populist movements, contrary to what populist advocates and detractors have claimed?

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/06/for-a-left-populism-mouffe-review

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When Zizek accused Laclau of “playing into the hands of the right” by stressing left populism’s need to rely on the “construction of an enemy,” Laclau saw no need to refute this accusation. “I would even say,” he stated, “that the construction of a popular identity against an enemy is the very definition of what politics is about.”

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Left populism’s left critics, however, have trouble answering one specific question. Why does left populism work (above all, at the ballot box), and why are a growing number of European leftists so irresistibly attracted to it?

The main factor here undoubtedly lies with Mouffe’s stubborn refusal to give up on a notion of “representation.”

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According to Mouffe, the response to the “populist moment” does not lie in a frantic flight from mediating institutions altogether, but rather “in making our institutions more representative,” the true objective of every “left populist strategy.” Social subjects, she argues, “cannot exist without representation.”

Mouffe is understandably triumphant about the results of this method.

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Instead, the “people” need to be constructed and moulded, something that will have to be done through the use of some central agency — here controversially taken up by the figure of the “leader.”

On the Left, this view has always elicited a certain skepticism. Left populism’s dependence on the figure of the leader has led many detractors to accuse it of top-downism, even Bonapartism. It also explains the vociferous complaints from liberal writers, accusing left populists not only of “anti-liberalism” but of an even more primary “anti-pluralism.” To specialists such as Jan-Werner Müller, Cas Mudde, and Matthijs Rooduijn, for instance, the notion that liberal democracy can be “saved” by sending an occasional surge of populist electricity through the system is unrealistic at best, and positively dangerous at worst. In their eyes, Mouffe’s populism will never be able to keep its promise of safeguarding “real pluralism” in the long run — an argument Mudde and Müller have illustrated by pointing to Hugo Chavez’s “good-populism-turned-bad.

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Her left populism, as another writer once said, “has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, nor in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity.” This seems reasonable — certainly when erstwhile enemies such as Zizek and Negri have themselves acknowledged that the left populists have won the game.

Yet the question remains when exactly left populism will come to speak in that language of “steel, cement, and electricity.”