“Populism” against democracy or Europe against itself? Challenging conceptual orthodoxies

Giorgos Katsambekis

(Originally published in the collective volume Populism, Political Ecology and the Balkans, Athens: Green Institute Greece, 2014, pp. 43-55) – source ΧΡΟΝΟΣ

Katsabekis-Giorgos-0413-f336f3a1Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser introduce their recent volume, entitled Populism in Europe and the Americas, as follows: ‘One of the most used and abused terms inside and outside of academia is undoubtedly populism’ (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2012: 1). It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to maintain that statements like this one have become cliché among academics discussing populism, reflecting an urgent need to seriously engage with populism’s meaning, implications and ambivalences. Indeed, the label ‘populist’ is persistently utilized across the western world to signify a vast variety of policies, ideas and practices, to the extent that for some academics and intellectuals it has become misleading, if not useless (Roxborough 1984; Marlière 2013).[1] Especially within the European context, ‘populism’ is often treated by scholars, politicians and commentators as a democratic malaise or a social disease and definitely a threat to democracy and the future of the European project. Most of the times viewed with repugnance, it is supposed to be an irrational, radical, Manichean and anti-pluralist view of society that misguides the ‘immature’ and ‘uneducated’ masses, releases uncontrolled social passions, erodes democratic institutions from within and thus threatens to tear society apart (Karalis 2010; Fieschi 2013; Swoboda & Wiersma 2008; Meijers 2011; Morris 2012; Abts & Rummens 2007; Kampfner 2005; Stephens 2013).

Taken in this manner, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of the European media saw the impressive rise of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in the recent Italian elections as an alarming ‘populist flood’ (Padovani 2013) and a real threat to the Italian democracy. A few months earlier, similar concerns were voiced by European media on the occasion of the Greek elections. In the Greek case the ‘populist danger’ was incarnated mainly by the radical left SYRIZA, led by Alexis Tsipras, and its intention to go against the austerity agenda, radically opposing the hegemony of neoliberal policies. Thus, both Grillo and Tsipras were often described by top European media (like the German weekly Spiegel) as the ‘most dangerous men in Europe’. To be sure, Europe has found its ‘bogeyman’; or ‘bogeymen’: the ‘bad populists’, sometimes also described as ‘reluctant radicals’, the anti-European, ‘masters of simplification’ that should be driven back to an idealized ‘moderate politics’ (Fieschi 2013).

But is this really the case? In what follows I intend to challenge this orthodoxy, that seems to be dominant both inside and outside the academia, and underline the dangers that such a narrow-minded and unhistorical take on populism entails. After all, recent theoretical elaborations and historical experience have clearly shown that populism cannot be a priori perceived as good or bad, democratic or antidemocratic, progressive or reactionary as such (see Canovan 1999; Laclau 2005; Panizza 2005; Mudde and Kaltwasser 2012). Populism and democracy seem to be ‘inextricably linked’ (Albertazzi & McDonnell 2008: 10) and historically we have witnessed a vast variety of populist hybrids; populist movements that were progressive and democratic and other cases that were authoritarian and antidemocratic, populists of the Left and populists of the Right, populisms in power and populisms in opposition, populisms in the streets and populisms in office. Would anyone ever suggest that movements like the OWS and the Tea Party, both branded populist, represent a similar set of values and an equal threat to democracy? Is Hugo Chávez the same with Jörg Haider? Or Alexis Tsipras the same with Marine Le Pen? The answer is obviously no. Nevertheless, I do not imply though that there exists a ‘good’ populism of the Left and a ‘bad’ populism of the Right. Such a biased simplification would not only be unhistorical, but also scientifically obsolete. What I merely imply is that each historical case, each specific manifestation of populism should be studied in its specificity, in a comparative perspective and without a priori dismissals.

Therefore, against the ‘anti-populist’ common places, that tend to lump together anything that is perceived or stigmatized as ‘populism’, overseeing significant ideological and political differences among the various cases, what I will suggest is that the deeply post-democratic turn of today’s Europe poses an often underestimated danger to democracy; a danger equal, if not even greater than the scarecrow of a loosely defined ‘populism’. Indeed, what today’s anti-populist hysteria unintentionally reveals, is the marginalization of the very ‘people’ as the subject of democratic politics (d’ Eramo 2013; Rancière 2006). Moreover it is this post-democratic consensus that by negating disagreement and democratic dissent ultimately nurtures not only the worst and most antidemocratic variations of populism, but also the various new nationalist extremisms, giving them ground to appear as the only true alternatives against an elitist and ‘blocked’ system.

My argument advances in two steps. First, I will deconstruct the most common arguments against populism, that often appear in both political and academic/journalist discourses. And second, I will try to demonstrate the consequences of an instrumentalised ‘anti-populism’ through a brief examination of the Greek crisis and its discursive administration by the Greek and European elite(s).


Deconstructing the ‘anti-populist’ common places

1. So what is it that makes populism so dangerous for democracy? One of the most common characteristics that comes up as particularly threatening in the relevant discussion is populism’s Manichean view of society; a view that by simplifying the complexities of social relations separates the social between two broader camps, ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘people’ and the ‘establishment’, ‘power’ and the ‘underdog’. We can understand this as the element of oppositionality; an element that admittedly is crucial in the articulation of a populist discourse. Such ‘Manichean’ views of society are often perceived as particularly threatening since they introduce sharp cleavages and dividing lines within a society that according to the hegemonic strand of thought should be fully reconciled. But one should still pose the question: could there be democratic politics – or politics at all – without adversaries and without identity/group formations? This kind of argument takes us back to the classic elaborations of Carl Schmitt on the nature of ‘the political’, namely that the specificity of ‘the political’ lies within the distinction between friend and enemy (Schmitt 2007: 26).

Chantal Mouffe’s re-reading of Schmitt stages this antagonistic relationship within an agonistic and pluralist conjunction transforming the Schmittian enmity to a politicized and ‘tamed’ relation between political adversaries (Mouffe 2005: 16); a relation that is vital for democratic politics to flourish. The difference between raw antagonism (in the Schmittian sense) and pluralistic agonsim (in Mouffe’s sense) is that in the second case the opponents are conceived of as sharing a common symbolic ground, a ground of common principles and values (like liberty, equality, tolerance, and so on) and accept each other’s legitimacy to doubt and disagree (Mouffe 2000; 2005; 2013). Even if we manage to achieve a broad consensus on this common symbolic ground, ‘there will always be disagreement concerning the meaning of those values and the way they should be implemented’ (Mouffe 2013: 8). Hence, the ineradicability – if not necessity – of antagonism and division within a democratic society. After all the basic novelty of democratic modernity lies in the recognition and legitimization of political disagreement, of doubt and of struggle as parts inherent to the political process (Rancière 2010a: 37-38). So when negating antagonism in the name of ‘democratic moderation’, the critics of populism also negate politics in its democratic perspective. For what is politics without the formation of an ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them’ and without deciding on concrete contested issues; without the ever present possibility of new subjectivities that challenge a fixed constellation of meaning? Thus, as Mouffe would say, our task in democratic politics can be better conceived as a constant effort to transform antagonistic relations to agonistic ones and ‘tame’ ‘raw’ antagonisms in ways that can be dealt with politically.

I believe that the key notion in understanding this objection to populism is consensus. ‘Consensus’ has been indeed one of the key signifiers of the West’s liberal democratic tradition at least for the last twenty years (Rancière 2010a; 2010b). What ‘consensus’ signifies is the desire for a fully reconciled society that is devoid of conflict and division and ultimately beyond antagonism (Mouffe 2000). But a society beyond antagonism – as I already implied – means a society without politics, which ends up meaning a democracy without the demos and its discord; finally, a democracy without ‘the people’ (Rancière 2006; Feinberg 2008). I believe that it is this post-democratic prejudice (Rancière 2006; Crouch 2004; Mouffe 2005) that has become hegemonic, that leads to this kind of simplistic arguments against populism which ends up lumping together almost anything that stands against the dominant model of politics. Dare to protest against the politics of austerity and you will surely be renounced as a ‘populist enemy of democracy’! Furthermore, to reveal anti-populism’s selective, if not hypocritical, sensitivities, this kind of ‘anti-populist critique is usually articulated in a very populist and Manichean manner: through the drawing of strict dichotomies, evident both in academia, journalism and politics. Such dichotomies include: “Democracy vs. Populism”, “Pluralism vs. Populism” or even “Europe vs. Populism”’ (Katsambekis & Stavrakakis 2013). Indeed, the hegemonic discourse is overwhelmed by such polarizations.

To put it in Ernesto Laclau’s words, what today’s rejection of populism seems to entail is ‘the dismissal of politics tout court’, and ‘the assertion that the management of community is a concern of an administrative power whose source of legitimacy is a proper knowledge of what a “good” community is’ (Laclau 2005: x). ‘Proper knowledge’ or ‘expertise’ can be seen here as metonymies of the pre-democratic logic of the arkhè, that entails a “‘normal” distribution of positions that defines who exercises power and who is subject to it’(Rancière 2010a: 30-31). Today, the logic of the arkhè can be better described in terms of post-political technocracy, expertocracy, or even neo-aristocratism (d’ Eramo 2013).


2. A second standard line of critique against populism entails the objection of collective passions as opposed to a strictly rationalist, passionless and ‘moderate’ politics. The question to ask here could go like this: Aren’t political passions a key ingredient in group formation and identification and thus in (democratic) politics? Again, what this line of critique entails is an indirect dismissal of democratic politics itself, for what it envisages is a society in which politics is reduced to a neutral field of competing individuals, driven by their rationally calculated interests; what could elsewise be described as a society of robots. But we know from Freud’s theory of identifications and Mouffe’s rendering of Freud that ‘one cannot understand democratic politics without acknowledging passions as the moving force in the field of politics’ (Mouffe 2002: 8). Collective forms of identification around specific objects always entail something more than mere calculation, namely, affective investment. By denying the affective dimension of politics and by suppressing the signifiers of political passion in public discourse we are bound to witness a ‘return of the suppressed’ and a ‘displacement of affective energy’ (Stavrakakis 2005: 80) probably in ways ‘which cannot be contained by the democratic process’ (Mouffe 2000: 104). The recent neo-Nazi emergence in Greece faces us with such a challenge.

So, instead of eliminating passions from the public sphere, what the task for a vibrant democratic project should be is ‘to “tame” these passions by mobilizing them for democratic ends and by creating collective forms of identification around democratic objectives’ (Mouffe 2002: 9). To be sure, an inclusive and pluralist democratic populism could very well do the job; at least certainly better than a purely ‘rationalist’ project devoid of affective content. Bringing the discussion back to Europe, one can recall here the famous words of a great Europeanist, Jacques Delors: ‘you don’t fall in love with a common market; you need something else’ (Delors in Bideleux, 2001: 25). That is exactly the case for crisis-hit Europe today, only now things are much worse than in the eve of the new millennium. Paraphrasing Delors’ statement, today one could say that it is impossible to fall in love with structural adjustments and fiscal austerity; especially when you are starving.


3. A last pair of negative features attributed to populism would involve irrationality and moralism. Again it is a really slippery terrain to cross and several questions arise: a. who is to determine what is rational and what is irrational, except maybe the dominant ideology?, and b. isn’t today’s hegemonic discourse that demonizes populism as an absolute evil a predominantly moralistic one? Dealing with issues of what is and what isn’t ‘rational’ is never beyond the context of specific correlations of power. We know from Foucault’s both archeological and (especially) genealogical writings that a claim to ‘truth’, and thus ‘rationality’, is always a crystallization/fragment of a specific ‘regime of knowledge’ or ‘regime of truth’ (see Foucault 1980; Phillips & Jørgensen 2002: 12-16).[2] In other words, ‘rationality is constituted in and through discursive power struggles’ (Torfing 2005: 8). The claim to one’s ‘rationality’ against the enemy’s ‘irrationality’ thus serves as a convenient discursive device for the displacement of disagreement from the field of politics and its placement on the ‘neutral’ field of mere ‘necessity’, a-political ‘capacity’ and technocratic ‘know-how’.

Ironically enough, the claim to ‘rationality’ also operates in the field of morals that it supposedly seeks to oppose. This happens because it often generates an absolute and moralist dismissal of the political adversary’s claim(s), reducing him/her to a mere unworthy enemy, with whom there is nothing to discuss due to the lack of the common symbolic ground that is necessary for a rational confrontation to unfold. Mudde and Kaltwasser offer again some useful insights concerning this kind of objections to populism. They show that critics of populism usually proclaim themselves as ‘good democrats’, while reducing at the same time the populists to ‘evil forces’. Ultimately ‘this reaction is quite similar to the populist language, since it assumes that the political world should be seen as a moral battle, which is (almost) impossible to solve through democratic channels’ (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2012: 2013).


Anti-populism and post-democracy: lessons from the Greek crisis

Having deconstructed the main common places of antipopulist critique I can now move to the Greek case and the way the European elites have dealt with it. To be sure, this is a case where the most common objections to populism, as described above, were in full operation in public debate, leading to the articulation of a predominantly anti-populist discourse.

Where to begin? Maybe from the outbreak of the crisis in 2009. When Greece found itself in the eye of the storm, the administration of the crisis was immediately elevated by the government to the status of the ultimate national issue. Anyone that opposed the austerity agenda and the so called ‘troika’, was simultaneously branded populist and certainly ‘irrational’. Discussion around possible alternatives was systematically suppressed, and whenever it was brought up it would immediately deteriorated to a monologue around mere economic necessity and logistics, around which the ‘uneducated’ and ‘immature’ masses of the people were considered inadequate. The undeclared ‘state of emergency’ would cast ever since its long shadow over any possible alternative, paving the way for all kinds of deviations from democratic ‘normality’ (the continuous violation of the Constitution, the effective suspension of social welfare and civil rights, assaults on freedom of speech and an unprecedented rise in police brutality paint the picture of an outright authoritarian shift in late post-democratic Greece).

The mixture of this ‘state of emergency’, with the desired ‘consensus politics’, gave life to what I would like to call ‘emergency consensus’. Let’s make this a bit clearer. The European Commission – operating as the executive arm of the EU – right from the start demanded that all Greek political parties consent on the bailout terms and pledge to continue on the same track; it even asked from the Greek opposition to provide written support to the country’s bailout plan, for the flow of emergency borrowing to continue. ‘Consensus’, that usually appeared in European leaders’ discourse as an advice or wishful thinking appeared now as raw blackmail. The EU’s ‘threat’ could be formulated as follows: ‘either you all consent to the policies dictated by the “troika”, or you do not see another installment and you go bankrupt’. But this was not enough. Europe’s post-political – and ultimately antidemocratic – cynicism would yet again be clearly revealed when the Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, would express his intention to call a referendum on the bailout deal on October 2011. A few days after his announcement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, along with other European officials would publicly humiliate him at the G20 summit in France and force him to cancel the referendum, which was described as a dangerous ‘populist’ and ‘opportunistic’ move.

The Commission’s pleas for consensus would soon be fully realized as PASOK and ND, along with the marginal far-right neopopulist party LAOS would form a coalition government under the unelected ex-central banker, Lucas Papademos. It should be rather striking in this case that the EU strongly encouraged such a political alliance with a xenophobic extreme right party, while some years earlier it imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria, reacting to the participation of the extreme right-wing populist Freedom Party in the Austrian government. LAOS is a political party that belongs to the broader family of far-right xenophobic neopopulist parties in Europe. And yet it became overnight a ‘reliable political partner’ and a ‘responsible ally’, as long as it would support the austerity agenda. What this case teaches us is that ‘populism’ appears to be dangerous only under certain conditions: only as long as it poses a threat to the established power bloc.

It was around the same days that the EU encouraged the formation of a similar government in Italy, under the unelected technocrat Mario Monti, in order to ‘calm the markets’. This blatant disregard for popular sovereignty in the service of the ‘markets’ in Italy and Greece and the subsequent imposition of an ‘emergency consensus’ was very likely among the crucial factors that fueled the major political realignment in both countries when the time for national elections came. The choreography that led to the critical elections of 2012-2013 in both Greece and Italy can be described as follows: After the first austerity measures, barely legitimized governments tried to suppress popular dissent. Then, when popular unrest seemed beyond control and the notorious ‘markets’ were sounding the alarm, popular sovereignty was effectively bypassed and unelected technocrats imposed further harsh austerity measures with no popular/democratic legitimization. Finally, when the people were given the chance to voice their disagreement through national elections they did it with a rather spectacular, and in the case of Greece also very alarming, way, voting against the current administration of the crisis.

It is crucial to briefly recall here the anti-populist hysteria in the Greek and European media right before the Greek elections of May/June 2012. Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF, urged the Greek electorate not to vote for parties that are ‘ostentatiously populist’ (Lagarde, 2012). Angela Merkel would make similar statements, while EU officials also voiced their concerns against the irresponsible ‘populist’ political parties that threatened to tear the ‘Memorandum’ apart and oust the ‘troika’. The editorials of German newspapers like the Bild and the Financial Times Deutschland would openly call the Greeks not to vote for the dangerously ‘populist’ SYRIZA, even addressing them in their own language (Bild 2012; FTD 2012). The Bild would go so far as to warn the Greek electorate – in the most genuinely Thatcherite manner that – ‘Tomorrow you might have elections. But you don’t have any alternatives’ (Bild 2012; emphasis mine). Needless to say, such agonising warnings against the ‘populist danger’ among Greek mainstream politicians, commentators and intellectuals had already become a constant.

Such attempts to influence the electoral outcome in an otherwise democratic sovereign state were bound to strike a nerve. And while everybody seemed to worry about ‘populism’ the real shock came from neo-Nazism and the extremist party Golden Dawn. Maybe this can serve as a clear illustration of the consequences of the European elite’s stubborn sticking to a ‘consensus politics’ that behind the mask of moralistic anti-populism dismisses any social reaction and any political opposition to the dominant agenda, thus truly radicalizing disagreement.


Concluding remarks: returning to the rough grounds of ‘the people’

To sum up, we can say that European anti-populism, during the years of crisis, operated as a proper Ideological State Apparatus (Althusser 1971). As an (initially) effective technique for disciplining a public sphere on the lookout for alternatives and constantly seeking a better way out of the socio-economic impasse. But the ‘anti-populist’ strategy seems to have a backfiring effect. The people in Greece and the European periphery are found caught in a deadlock: on the one hand, there is an austerity agenda which is only bound to inflict more pain on the already aching social body; on the other hand, the available anti-austerity alternatives are effectively excluded from the public sphere, stigmatized as ‘destructive populism’. So, by not giving ground to popular dissent to unfold in a political way through an open and agonistic public sphere (Mouffe 2005c), by suppressing collective passions as archaism that should be eliminated, and by demonizing any anti-austerity alternative, the ‘emergency consensus’ seems to push frustrated subjects to radically oppose the political system and express themselves in more radical and often a-political – if not anti-political – ways. It is in this context that the recent developments in both Greece and Italy should be assessed.

There are some last conclusions to be drawn from the picture I have sketched out above. First, the research on populism should drop its moral biases and stop approaching populism as a threat or illness of democracy. Indeed, significant steps towards this direction have already been taken and this should be acknowledged (see Laclau 2005; Mouffe 2013: 123; Mudde & Kaltwasser 2012; 2013). Second, ‘anti-populism’ needs to be studied in its own right, as a distinct discursive repertoire and probably as part of the on-going post-democratic turn of western democracies.


Maybe today the task for Europe’s progressive political forces isn’t to merely ‘fight populism’, as if it were a concrete ideology or political movement, but rather to work towards the radicalization of European democracy and the re-activation of the egalitarian and libertarian imaginaries that lie at the heart of democratic modernity. No doubt, such a process would call for an unbiased critical engagement with populism’s egalitarian and democratic features/aspects; an agonistic engagement with its radical democratic promise and its claims for inclusion. Such a radicalization, such a re-activation of democratic agonism would probably counter today’s post-democratic and antidemocratic tendencies of/within Europe; tendencies that aren’t to be found only in marginal nationalist or populist parties, but also in European governments – that is at the heart of the ‘mainstream’, or what others like to call ‘moderate politics’.[3] And of course, as Étienne Balibar recently noted, this re-activation of democracy in Europe is something that ‘can only come from the bottom up’ (Balibar 2013), that is by returning to the rough grounds of ‘the people’.