Chantal Mouffe: ‘only populism can save the left’

Political scientists typically see politics as an exercise in consensus-building. But Chantal Mouffe tells John Morgan that the left must learn from right-wing populists’ exploitation of “them and us” narratives if it is not to be vanquished by them

April 4, 2019
Chantal Mouffe
Source: Alamy (edited)

Chantal Mouffe has been described as the “godmother” of Podemos, the Spanish left-wing populist party founded by political science academics in 2014. According to Le Monde, she also “inspires” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French left-wing populist who won three times as many votes as the Socialist Party candidate in the 2017 presidential election (although she denies that she “dictates” his policies). In the UK, Jon Trickett, one of the “big four” MPs leading the Labour Party alongside Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, spoke at the launch of her most recent book, For a Left Populism.

Mouffe is emeritus professor of political theory at the University of Westminster, an institution she joined in 1995. Perhaps her best-known book is 2005’s On the Political, which attacked the centrist consensus politics then dominant across the West. This consensus ignored the reality that “to have a real purchase on people’s desires…democratic politics must have a partisan character” and must recognise people’s yearning to share in collective identities, Mouffe argued. Consensus politics would provide fertile ground for right-wing populists, who could replace “the weakened left/right opposition” with a “new type of we/they constructed around an opposition between ‘the people’ and ‘the establishment’”, she warned. Mouffe noted the emergence of Ukip in the UK, suggesting that the demands of voters abandoned by consensus politics “could easily be articulated through a populist discourse by a skilful demagogue”.

In recent years, a number of French and British commentators have seen these arguments as prescient, pushing the 75-year-old Mouffe to greater prominence than ever before in those countries. In her latest book, she argues that only left populism – based on a constructed frontier between “the people” and “the oligarchy” – can stave off xenophobic right-wing populism. Mouffe is a theorist who has achieved some significant influence on political practice. But her embrace of left-wing populism is controversial – one review in a centre-left French newspaper asked whether hers is an “ideology that borders on demagogy”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education at her flat in north-west London, Mouffe says that she has always thought of herself not as an academic but “more as an intellectual in the French sense”: as “an activist, but through ideas”.

Mouffe was born in French-speaking Belgium to a “bourgeois Catholic family” and studied philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven between 1960 and 1964. She traces her politicisation to this period – the era of the Cuban revolution and Algeria’s war of independence from France – and to the influence of Latin American students at Leuven, who were part of the “strong left-wing Catholic movement at that point”.

After marrying a Colombian she met at Leuven and moving to Colombia with a quickly dropped plan to “prepare trade union leaders”, Mouffe became “an academic by accident”, teaching philosophy at the National University of Colombia aged 23. She then took an MA in political science at the University of Essex, where the “orientation” of her life was changed by meeting her second husband, Ernesto Laclau, who went on to be a future professor of political theory at Essex and an influential scholar of populism (he died in 2014).

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Mouffe’s first book was an edited work on Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist theoretician whose concept of hegemony is central to her work. Gramscian hegemony – supposedly in fashion with British politicians ranging from Corbyn to Michael Gove – refers to a ruling class’ or government’s use of culture and ideas to achieve total political dominance. In For a Left Populism, Mouffe calls for the left to learn from Margaret Thatcher, who was “well aware of the partisan nature of politics and the importance of the hegemonic struggle”. Thatcher’s “strategy was clearly a populist one”, she writes, building a frontier between “the forces of the establishment” (state bureaucrats, trade unions) and the industrious “people”, so as to win round “important sectors of the working class”.

Mouffe’s first teaching post in Europe was at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris, a job she landed through the institution’s founder, Jacques Derrida. But on the back of a very positive reception in the US for her 1985 book with Laclau, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, she also enjoyed short-term spells at Harvard, Cornell and Princeton universities, becoming a sort of “freelance intellectual”.

In her flat, one wall is decorated with mementos of travels around the world: a painting of a multiplicity of Christ figures, a lute-like musical instrument, a devil mask. Her attack on consensus politics in On the Political took as “an important reference point” the politics of Austria (where she is about to return for another stint at Vienna’s Institute for Human Sciences). Specifically, she examined the rise of Jörg Haider, leader of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria that finished second in the 1999 parliamentary election and formed a government with the third-placed, centre-right Austrian People’s Party, sparking an outcry by other European Union countries. Mouffe attributes his rise to the “grand coalition” between the People’s Party and the social democrats that had dominated post-war Austria, giving Haider the basis to say, in her paraphrase: “I’m going to give you, the people excluded by the elite of the establishment, a voice.”

In 1995, Mouffe was offered an associate post at Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy. The offer, she says, was motivated by the university’s desire to capitalise on her publication record, but her references convinced it to offer her a full research fellowship instead. It was “a kind of offer you can’t refuse…I was being paid for things I was doing in any case, but without being really properly paid”.

The fellowship led on to a permanent role and Mouffe spent the rest of her career at Westminster, before retiring and accepting emeritus status last year. She praises the “very pluralistic” atmosphere in its department of politics and international relations, highlighting its large number of international students. She had several chances to move “to more prestigious places, but I’ve always thought: ‘Why?...They have treated me well.’”

When On the Political was published in 2005, it was as part of a series published by Routledge called Thinking in Action. Mouffe says she had wrangles with an editor, who thought “many [of her] articulations were jargon”. It is, she insists, a book “written for a wider public”, as that was the aim of the series – although some readers may sympathise with that editor.

Either way, the book became “much better known abroad than in Britain” when it was first published, she says. One reason was that “intellectuals are not very important in Britain”, but another was that she was “writing against the current” at a time when there was still political “euphoria about consensus” and prime minister Tony Blair’s “third way” between traditional left and right: “I said: no, it’s a great danger, because this creates the terrain for the development of right-wing populism.”

When the book was translated into French in 2016, the topicality of its arguments on populism attracted media attention, which had a knock-on effect in the UK. On the Political urged Europe’s social democratic parties to recover their left-wing identities. However, by the time of For a Left Populism in 2018, Mouffe saw some social democratic parties as “beyond repair” and believed a new kind of politics was needed. The response of social democratic governments to the financial crisis – which she characterises as intervention only to “save the banks”, followed by austerity – convinced her that “social democratic parties had become too complicit with neoliberalism to hope that they are going to break with neoliberalism”, with agendas of privatisation, deregulation and the acceptance of “exponential” growth in inequality, she says.

For a Left Populism’s conception of “the people”, united against “a common adversary: the oligarchy”, brings together the “democratic demands” of workers, immigrants, the “precarious middle class”, the “defence of the environment, struggles against sexism, racism and other forms of domination”. While for a centrist politician such as Emmanuel Macron “there is no political frontier”, for Mouffe, “politics is necessarily a construction of a frontier” because “society is divided”. Only a left-wing populism, she argues, can emotionally connect with voters whose need for collective identity may otherwise lead them into support for right-wing populists, potentially delivering a “hegemonic” power shift.

Mouffe’s theories have had concrete political impact. Conversations she had with Íñigo Errejón, one of the political science academics who founded Podemos, were published in 2016 as a book, Podemos: in the Name of the People. Errejón – who recently decided to campaign for a cross-party movement after clashing with fellow Podemos leaders – has told Mouffe that reading Hegemony and Socialist Strategy while a student was “the illumination” for him, she says. She sees a “direct influence” between that book, with its argument that politics is about the construction of identities, and Podemos’ project to “speak not only to the people who consider themselves…the left”, but to win over right-leaning voters suffering from austerity. It was “wonderful to see” that translation of her ideas into political reality, she adds.

Mouffe says she has a “very different” link with Mélenchon, the former Socialist Party politician who founded La France Insoumise (“Unbowed France”) in 2017. She and Laclau first met the future presidential candidate at a conference in Buenos Aires in 2012. The conversation, she says, covered her belief that “the left is much too rationalistic” and wrongly thinks that “mobilising [emotions] is something the right, the fascists, do”. According to Mouffe, Mélenchon responded: “You cannot imagine how happy I am that you, a political theorist, say something like that.” But Mouffe says it is “not that [Mélenchon] suddenly became a populist [by] reading us – no. We just helped him to consolidate the intuition he had already.” She adds that “many stupid things have been written in France” about her supposed dictation of Mélenchon’s policies.

On Labour, Mouffe says there are “several people in the group around Corbyn who are very interested in my ideas”, singling out Trickett, the shadow lord president of the council and shadow minister for the Cabinet Office. As well as speaking at the launch of For a Left Populism, he appeared on stage in conversation with Mouffe at last year’s The World Transformed, the festival of ideas organised by pro-Corbyn group Momentum.

Labour figures have confirmed to her that they are following a left populist strategy, says Mouffe. For a Left Populism highlights the way Corbyn’s Labour has used the slogan “For the many, not the few”. It was previously used under Blair, but “people around Corbyn” told Mouffe that they had “resignified” it “as a frontier”, with “the people” cast as the many and “the establishment” cast as the few. “This is why I agree that they are putting in practice a left populist strategy,” she says.

This might be part of the explanation of why Corbyn has been so reluctant to oppose Brexit – seeing it, perhaps, as a populist revolt against the establishment that Labour must channel leftwards rather than fight. But Labour’s populist strategy has some way to go to make it truly popular, if current polling is accurate. Meanwhile, eight Labour MPs recently exited the party, citing its Brexit stance and failure to deal with antisemitism, to form “The Independent Group” alongside three Conservative defectors – preaching the kind of centrist consensus politics blamed by Mouffe for the rise of right-wing populism.

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Mouffe sees herself at odds with the “associative view” of politics that is the dominant current of academic political theory and that sees the aim of politics as being to arrive at a rational consensus. She subscribes to the “dissociative view”, which depicts politics as a “field of conflict” in which “one side is going to win and the other is going to lose”. The dominance of the former theory is “a real problem” as “one cannot understand the success of right-wing populism if you start from a rationalistic, essentialist perspective”, she argues.

Some critics of Mouffe have also suggested that her understanding of left-wing populism is at odds with mainstream scholarly definitions of populism, and that her “pluralist vision” of “the people” is better described as social democracy. Others have asked whether, once the left adopts a strategy focusing on “the naming of enemies”, there is a risk that “certain aspects of fascism (such as antisemitism) start to creep into its programme”.

Perhaps the term “populism” is just too tarred with negative connotations to be much use to anyone billing themselves as progressive?

Mouffe responds that her envisioned frontier between “the people” and “the establishment” depicts the latter only as adversaries, “not as enemies to be destroyed”. Moreover, the negative view of populism is “very specific to Western Europe”, she argues. In the US (home of the original populists, the farmers who formed the Populist Party in the 1890s), Mouffe says there is “much more acceptance of the idea of left populism”, highlighting Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as examples.

“I think the way in which the term ‘populism’ is used is ridiculous,” continues Mouffe. “Basically everything that you don’t like is populist…Every critique of the neoliberal establishment – ‘ah, this is populist’.”

Here, Mouffe takes strong issue with Jan Werner-Müller, professor of politics at Princeton and author of the widely accessible Penguin paperback What is Populism?, who defines populism as pitting a homogeneous vision of “the people – always defined as righteous and morally pure”, against an “immoral, corrupt elite”. In his conception, there is “no left-wing populism”, says Mouffe. Werner-Müller has referred to Venezuela’s “Chavismo” as an example where “a particular left-wing ideology…has been inserted into a framework that all populists share”. But, he argues, populists depict “all citizens who do not support them as traitors” and themselves as sole representatives of a virtuous people; they are “not just anti-elitist, but also anti-pluralist”. Hence, “other contemporary forms of so-called left populism should be understood as attempts to reinvent social democracy,” rather than populism, he has written. Mouffe agrees that “there is a form of populism that constructs the people as homogeneous and necessarily good and the establishment of elites as necessarily bad”. But that, she adds, is “only one form of populism”.

Mouffe also objects to some academics’ depiction of populism as an ideology when it should be understood as a strategy. Corbyn, should he ever win an election, is “not going to establish a populist regime” but one of “democratic socialism”, she argues.

Given all these difficulties around the concept of populism, why is she using it? For a Left Populism was a “partisan political intervention” and “not a book written for theorists”, she explains. “I do feel a sense of political urgency. We are in a situation in which it’s very important that the left understands the appeal of right-wing populist parties.” This is because if such parties are able to “convince people that the main problem today is about immigration, then…the [outcome] of this crisis of neoliberal hegemony is going to be an authoritarian regime.” Talking in terms of populism “helps us understand that…many of those demands which are articulated by right-wing populist parties are democratic demands”.

The rise of populism and the apparent decline of consensus politics across much of the West will afford us ample further opportunity to see how closely Mouffe’s theories match reality.

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Reader's comments (6)

You can have open borders or a welfare state, but not both. Otherwise "the people" pay in, but other people get the benefit.
Chantal Mouffe was not only not “prescient” she wasn't even saying anything especially new. Criticisms of the “post war consensus” go back to the 50s and 60s - in the UK in the 1950s the term “Butskellism” was coined to make this point? Likewise the breakdown of this 'consensus' has long been predicted. And as for the Left being populist - the revolutionary socialist Left always has been - or at least tried. The Bolsheviks slogan in 1917 was "Bread, Peace and Land. All Power To The Soviets". pretty populist?
The problem here is that the view is that there is a single definition of populism and what you are seeing is a competition. The one espoused here is just one of what we call "Varieties of Populism" (there are also Varieties of Capitalism). We show that most populists through the history of the last century rarely fit into a single definitional box. What is common across them all is Ambrose Bierce's definition of politics as "A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”
If you want concensus, true governance by the collective will of the people, the divisive nature of populism is not the way to go. You need to make the effort to produce a compelling narrative that brings people together in agreement about the merit of the ideas you are peddling, rather than the admittedly easier route of whipping up resentments between groups of people in order to get into office. It depends if you genuinely want to bring peace and prosperity to the entire population or are more interested in getting into power for personal gain... and, of course, actually have some ideas about how best to improve things for everyone rather than selected groups, and the intellectual capacity to put them across -skills lacking in just about all poiticians at the moment, sadly.
Agree entirely, well said
Consensus politics is on the wane, being substituted by partisan populism - would that ‘establishment vs oligarchy ‘ politics provide an emotional connection to the ‘left’ or the ‘right’. That distinction is now blurred by the construction of new identities , the society now no longer the old divisions electorally appealing. What is at stake is the mapping of the new frontiers of identity politics, which comes back to consensus politics that has emotional connectivity in a ‘we’ and ‘them’ divisions - this would be a hugh leap in the practice of politics.