Notes on Chantal Mouffe's Lecture ‘Linker Populismus’

By Francis Isaac, Government Watch (G-Watch)

SO36 is a large music bar in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, known for hosting punk rock concerts and has been a fixture of Germany’s counter-cultural scene for the past four decades. But on the evening of 3 October 2018, this rebel hangout (that once featured Iggy Pop and David Bowie) was converted into a lecture hall that could accommodate close to three hundred people.

Scheduled to speak that night was Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe who, along with Ernesto Laclau, introduced the concept of ‘radical democracy’ in their seminal work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Organized by Germany’s “far left” political party Die Linke, Mouffe gave a talk entitled Linker Populismus (Left Populism).

She began by acknowledging that Europe is now in the midst of a ‘populist moment,’ as seen in the emergence of populist movements from both the Left and the Right. Mouffe further claimed that this populist moment is a consequence of “post-democracy” which, in her account, has two dimensions: (1) post-politics and (2) oligarchization.

Post-politics refers to the trend among European mainstream parties during the immediate post-Cold War period to gradually move towards the center. By doing so, mainstream parties (with the Social Democrats on the Left and the Christian Democrats on the Right) have become indistinguishable from one another.

Mouffe added that for the past two decades, the mainstream electoral Left has adopted the same neoliberal prescriptions that were first proposed by their supposed opponents from the Right such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Believing a la Francis Fukuyama that “history has already come to an end,” the mainstream Left has practically abandoned its original mission of overthrowing capitalism, and has instead chosen the more mundane task of managing its various excesses and complexities. This position was most clearly exemplified in Britain by the “New Labour” government of Tony Blair and in Germany by Gerhard Schröder’s concept of “Die Neue Mitte.”

The turn towards post-politics, however, had negative effects on European societies; for not only did it end ideological debates (among mainstream politicians at least), but it has also deprived voters of any genuine options during elections. Mouffe also argued that by accepting the present economic system, the mainstream Left has also consented to the prevalence of social inequality, since it is the unavoidable outcome of capitalism. And as the gap between elites and ordinary citizens continue to widen, the latter becomes increasingly powerless while the former are able to practically monopolize electoral politics. Mouffe calls this phenomenon as oligarchization, wherein power has become so narrowly concentrated that voters lack any real choice despite having free, fair and regular elections.

Since the present rulers see no alternative to capitalism, it not surprising that society nowadays is constantly being subjected to neoliberal assault. But this situation, Mouffe told her audience, is also generating its own “counter-movement.” Citing Karl Polanyi’s book The Great Transformation, Mouffe gave the impression that the Industrial Revolution did not only create the modern factory system, but it also tried to establish a supposedly self-regulating free market that would sweep away all traditional forms of social relations. However, by the 1930s, the devastation that laissez-faire capitalism had brought in its wake was so massive that it prompted society to defend itself, enacting various social protection measures such as free healthcare, unemployment insurance and old age pension.

Mouffe believes that a similar dynamic is now underway, noting the “multiplication of resistance” to neoliberalism’s attempt to commodify all aspects of human existence. This marks the “return of conflictuality,” and the recognition that antagonism is present in all social relations.

“Liberalism,” however, “denies the political frontier” by assuming that consensus is possible and that different perspectives can be brought together into a completely harmonious ensemble. On the other hand, Orthodox Marxism reduces all antagonisms to class conflict and assigns to the proletariat the historical role of ending human exploitation.

Mouffe disagrees with both positions. She believes that “not all antagonisms can be resolved,” since our differences cannot be settled in a strictly rational way. At the same time, Mouffe asserts that “not all conflicts are class based,” adding that the “proletarian struggle has no ontological privilege.”

Because society is deeply divided into various contending values and perspectives, it is imperative for the Left to gain hegemony by creating a “chain of equivalence” among the different progressive struggles. Writers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri assume that this unity can be automatically generated, which then leads to the creation of a new revolutionary social subject that they call the “multitude.” Mouffe, however, insists that this is not the case, stating instead that unity has to be carefully constructed using a strategy capable of articulating multiple forms of antagonisms. She further pointed out that the demos is not an empirical referent but is the result of articulation. This means that “the people” (as a political category) has to be deliberately constructed, and this can only be done by providing a common voice to society’s various struggles and interests.

It is in this context that the importance of populism becomes clear, since its ultimate aim is to aggregate different class and societal groups into a cohesive political community. Mouffe even cited Laclau who defined populism as a “discursive strategy of constructing the political frontier.”

Her analysis is therefore at odds with the attitude of most leaders of Europe whose default response to populism is one of outrage and moral condemnation. One clear example is that of French President Emmanuel Marcron who, in a speech in June 2018, warned his fellow Europeans of the populist “leprosy” that is now spreading throughout the continent.

For Mouffe, populism is not a moral disease but a purposive way of reconstructing the demos. Thus, in the hands of the radical Left, populism can be used as a strategy to gain power, akin to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the “war of position.” By attaining power, the Left can then rebuild society, not by managing neoliberalism, but by radically rearranging the relations of power.

Mouffe also stressed the important role of the “leader” in the struggle for power. Since the popular will cannot be forged on purely rational terms, the chain of equivalence would therefore need an “articulating principle”—id est, a symbol or focal point of all the struggles. She further added that the leader need not be a single person or a charismatic individual, but it could also be a group or even an campaign, so long as these serve as the “crystallization of all other struggles.” To prove her point, Mouffe cited the case of Spain wherein the women’s movement has now become the focal point of all the other struggles.

It was almost ten in the evening when the lecture was brought to a close. As the lights were again turned on, people grabbed their coats and headed for the exit, with some buying copies of Mouffe’s book. Drunk with fresh ideas, a few young people walked towards a nearby pub to continue the discussion, while the rest called it a night and went home.

The autumn night was bitterly cold, but it didn’t seem to matter to Berlin’s Leftwing activists, determined more than ever to create a new chain of equivalence that the world today so desperately needs.