America in Populist Times: An Interview With Chantal Mouffe

America in Populist Times: An Interview With Chantal Mouffe

America in Populist Times: An Interview With Chantal Mouffe

One of the preeminent theorists on democracy, social movements, and populism, her work was an inspiration to Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.


Chantal Mouffe is one of the preeminent political theorists on democracy, populism, and social movements in the world today. She has written extensively about the crisis of neoliberalism, political identity, and democratic socialism.

Mouffe is widely recognized as the thought leader behind some of the most exciting political developments in Europe. The founders of the new Spanish political party Podemos have taken substantial inspiration from Mouffe’s work alongside her late husband, Ernesto Laclau. Syriza’s path to power in Greece has been driven by the ideas of Mouffe and Laclau—the governor of Athens and former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis were among their students.

Iñigo Errejón, political secretary of Podemos, summed up Mouffe and Laclau’s work on populism over the past 30 years in an obituary he wrote after Laclau’s passing.

Politics is neither akin to a boxing match (a mere clash or the arbitration between existing actors) nor a game of chess (alliances, movements and tactics using already-given pieces), but a continual ‘war of position’—with episodes of movement, but also, of course, the balances of force frozen in institutions—in order to constitute the sides (the identities), the terms, and the battleground itself. To speak of the fragmentation of possible identities and their contingency is not to celebrate particularisms nor the conservative myth of the end of antagonism; rather, it means awareness of the irreplaceable need for politics for the purposes of articulating and generating imaginaries that can unite and mobilise people.

I sat down with Mouffe two months before the election to discuss populist politics, the American election, and #AllofUs, an electoral project that a group of young movement leaders in the United States have recently launched.

Waleed Shahid: What are your thoughts about the development and popularity of left and right-wing populism in the United States?

Chantal Mouffe: I’m not a specialist of the United States. I see Sanders as an example of a left-populist movement and Trump as a right-populist. It is really a pity that Sanders did not get the nomination. He would have had a much better chance against Trump and would have brought together many more people through pure enthusiasm for an alternative and change. I would definitely be curious to hear more about why people think Bernie Sanders didn’t do well with minorities.

Like in the United States, the social democratic parties in Europe have abandoned grounding themselves in the struggles of the popular classes—workers, the middle class, students. There has been an oligarchization of politics. The gulf between the popular classes and the wealthy is growing. The people feel like they are not being represented by the dominant parties, hence the popularity of Marine Le Pen and Podemos and Syriza.

Trump’s base is also part of the popular classes because they have also been abandoned by neoliberalism. The white working and middle classes used to have more social and economic rights, and Trump is using a racist populism to appeal to that feeling and construct a new political identity beyond just left versus right.

In response, the left must create what I call a “a populist frontier” of all the popular classes against the elites and establishment. The only candidate who could have provided this alternative was Sanders.

In France, the majority of the working class is voting for Marine Le Pen. It’s easy to understand, because these sectors have become the losers in globalization. Le Pen has been able to articulate—in a xenophobic vocabulary—the demands of the popular classes. They are democratic demands. They are ordinary people who are suffering. But Le Pen comes with the discourse: “I understand that you are suffering. The people who are responsible are the immigrants.” She is establishing a frontier against immigrants. Le Pen says that she cares about the people while the French Socialist Party—like Clinton—has no discourse about people’s genuine problems with the status quo. People don’t trust the establishment leaders and parties anymore. They no longer convince.

It seems to me that this is what Sanders was trying to do. He was giving another answer. The adversary is not immigrants, but it’s Wall Street and financial interests. This is left-wing populism. But it’s not only about the demands of the working class. It’s also about establishing what I call “a chain of equivalence” between different sectors: the demands of the feminists, civil rights, and different movements.

A chain of equivalence is very difficult to establish on the left. It means that the groups in the chain each have their own particular relation to the power structure. But they are still able to act in a unified manner around some form of a common agenda. But the chain is not about uniting all demands into one single and homogeneous movement. This grouping of forces simply begins to see themselves in solidarity with one another and disadvantaged by the existing power structure. Each link in the chain remains distinct, but they begin to operate together, in concert.

But in order to for the chain of equivalence to be established, you need to define a common adversary. That’s how it becomes a united chain.

Do you think Sanders was able to establish a chain of equivalence?

To some degree, yes. Over the last 10 years there has been a renaissance of movements led by young people in the United States: immigrant rights, Occupy Wall Street, the climate movement, Black Lives Matter, and Fight for 15. Sanders repeatedly called for a “political revolution” to take on Wall Street and the billionaire class. This began to establish a kind of “chain” for all the dissatisfied people who did not belong to any movements or organizations but felt activated by the fervor of the election season and Sanders’s message.

But his campaign didn’t really tell a story about “America” in the same way that Trump did. And many writers criticized his campaign’s inability to narrate the connection between racism and economic inequality—perpetually central to the politics of the United States.

I speak a lot about populism in Europe. But many Europeans don’t like the term “populism” because it connotes fascism or strongman leadership. But in America you do have a tradition of progressive populism. You don’t have the same stigma, do you?

There was some stuff coming out of liberal and pro-Clinton sectors of the media and political class about Sanders’s angry and divisive rhetoric. One Democratic politician even called Sanders a McCarthyite because he wanted to put politicians who took money from banks on “show trials.” Some people characterized Sanders’s base as an angry mob unwilling to listen and compromise. But you’re right; I don’t think it has the same negative connotations as in Europe.

I do still think that the culture of the left in the United States is somewhat averse to populism because we are averse to universalist politics. The dominant political framework on the left is intersectionality, and a particular stand of intersectional discourse has often led the left into particularism and difference rather than universalism. Solidarity among the working class has always been fraught due to the persistence of racism.

Yes, this is also a major problem. But I do not like the term “universalism.” I prefer the term “establishing a collective will.” This is about how we think about different people coming together for common cause and aspirations. Do we have the right tools and language to think about this project?

I am not talking about abandoning particular forms of struggle. But when we talk about collective will, we will inevitably create some contradictions. That is politics. The chain of equivalence is about mobilizing people together through their different struggles—we call this a convergence of struggles. And creating a bond between those struggles in a way that recognizes the specificities of different struggles but also fiercely recognizing the commonalities and solidarities among the various struggles.

In the United States this is a very big problem to confront. There is a tendency in recent years in the American left toward a particular form of identity politics that doesn’t imagine itself as the powerful collective. We must recognize that there is a specificity to the feminist struggle or black struggle. Their form of domination is specific. We can’t say all of this is a product of capitalism and all we need is socialism.

In Europe, the opposite tendency is very strong. People on the left say: “All those struggles are middle class and the main struggle is the class struggle.” It’s good to put this dogma into question.

In the United States, you have the opposite problem. You have too much identity politics and not enough collective struggle. How do you bring these two things together? I discussed this with Iñigo Errejón from Podemos in our latest book, Podemos: In the Name of the People. Politics must be about establishing a collective struggle between a large “us” and a small “them.” This is the whole point. This frontier can be established in a traditional, Marxist way: working class versus the capitalists. But it doesn’t work in the United States because of racism and now will never work in Europe anymore.

We need to establish a frontier in a populist way —the people versus the establishment and the elite. “The people” is a political construction. The task of the left is to construct “a people.” The difference between left and right is that we construct different forms of “the people.” The chain of equivalence is different. Left-wing populism is crucial to bring together all these struggles of identity alongside the working-class issues. Americans won’t confront the system of dominance unless you can answer this crucial question.

I think that Sanders was able to put out a compelling identification and description of a “them” but he was less able to articulate an “us” or “the people.” I think President Obama, especially during his campaign in 2008, was much more adept at constructing an “us” but there was no identifiable “them” at all.

I was not terribly excited about Obama. His politics was dogged by the neoliberal politics of consensus. Of course, I thought it was historic that a black man could be president of the United States. But I was always skeptical. My American friends were very enthusiastic. But he never defined a common adversary.

Obama tried to reach an understanding with the Republicans and build consensus. When I came back to the United States in 2010, people on the left called him a traitor. But he never pretended to be a revolutionary. He never pretended to be radical. Some people on the left saw him as a radical. But Obama had told us all along, “We are good people, we are all going to come together.”

Since Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party has become the party of Wall Street. This explains why many popular sectors are dissatisfied. The left should really try to understand this. There is no political expression for the real demands of the people other than Trump right now.

Republicans have monopolized the representation of white people and what it means to be a “true American.” And Democrats have said they represent the minorities and the cosmopolitan classes. There are some among the Socialist Party in France who advocate that the party should forget the working class because they belong to Le Pen now and will never return to the Socialist Party. Now these leaders say that the Socialist Party is the party of immigrants and the cosmopolitan middle and upper classes. This is a huge problem.

What do you think about the relationship between social movements and these new political parties?

Like Occupy, many movements in Europe did not want any link with traditional institutions and parties. It is what we call “autonomism.” They wanted “real democracy” in the streets, no formal leaders and no parties. They were in favor of exodus from institutions and electoral politics. But after the explosion of the 15-M movement in Spain [the demonstrations in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol in May 2011], the right wing achieved an even larger majority in the next election partly because the movement told people to give up on the electoral and political system. It wasn’t that the right wing won more votes; it was because the Socialist Party lost 5 million votes due to absenteeism. This is the vacuum that Podemos stepped into because it was disastrous.

Movements cannot be left just to the streets. I am very critical of the idea of politics as fomenting a moment of total rupture with the existing status quo. This is not how revolutions work. At some point, mobilizations will lose steam. You cannot change things only on the horizontal level of social movements. You have to develop what Podemos calls “an electoral war machine.” You need to try to come to real power in the institutions and government. That is the line of Syriza as well.

Many left-wing movements and leaders don’t want to engage in elections. This is true of movements in Greece and France. Many movement leaders say that elections are for the stupid sheep because politicians will always turn against you. There was a lot of opposition from the social movements about launching Podemos. And they are still criticized by the movement leaders for entering the parliamentary system. Many movement leaders continue to say that Podemos co-opted the movements and is now corrupted by parliamentary politics, but they are a minority.

But Podemos never said that the only solution is entering into government. They say they are filling a void. Left-wing populism should see a relationship between the horizontal in the streets and vertical in the institutions. Some people say that the state and parties are corrupt so we only need social movements. Other people think that we only need to win elections and take seats in parliament. Both modes of thinking are wrong. We need an articulation of a “movement party” with a critical electoral dimension that is linked with the movements but also distinct and independent. But there is always tension between movements and parties.

You write that the task of the left is to restore democracy and recover the social democratic tradition. Can you say more about this? Is social democracy still the horizon?

I don’t know what people on the left mean when they talk about creating something new. The leaders of Podemos do not mean that they want the left to come back to traditional European social democracy of the mid-century. They are saying something that might be differently articulated in the United States. Podemos leaders state that there have been many social rights that have been won in the 20th century but have been dismantled by neoliberalism. The first step is to recover and expand those democratic rights.

When I wrote Hegemony and Socialist Strategy 30 years ago with Ernesto Laclau, we were still under a social-democratic hegemony. It was just the beginning of neoliberalism. Our argument was that we needed to radicalize democracy. We were saying to push forward what had been won under social democracy. We thought that social democracy had not been sensitive to new demands from the movements of feminism, anti-racism, ecology, and LGBT. These were not part of the traditional socialist agenda.

Thirty years later, a lot of things that had been won have now been dismantled. When I talk about recovering democracy, we mean to recover all those rights that existed before they had been taken away. The aim is still to radicalize democracy, but in order to radicalize it you first need to recover it.

We are living in post-democratic societies. We are in societies that call themselves democratic, but democracy here works in some sort of vacuum. There is no real possibility for people to exercise their rights of citizenship. We need to fight to reestablish a vibrant democracy and then fight for a radicalization of how we conceive of democracy.

In the present state, we really are in a condition that is much worse than 50 years ago. The first step is to reestablish what has been lost. The ultra-left is wrong when they publicly advocate for the destruction of capitalism, of the state, and things like this. This is the part of the left that has always existed without any real influence, power, or strategy.

We need a war of position where progressive forces can build real influence in civil society, the dominant institutions, mainstream culture, and the media. We need to start from the ordinary struggles that large portions of society face. There are lots of different struggles, but we need to establish a real chain of equivalence to confront the dominant struggles against a common adversary—and not simply link the struggles, which is only one step. The enemy is Wall Street, the political establishment, the oligarchy. We will always fail unless we articulate collective wills in the language of the people.

This is the main problem that I see in the left in the United States. There is a huge gulf between the language of the people and the language of the movements. I understand it is not easy in the United States for a variety of reasons—there has never been a real left party in the United States and you live in an incredibly diverse country. But elections are where people must come together for common aspirations. Elections offer real opportunities to articulate different kinds of struggles in the form of a collective will. And this must be intentionally constructed. It’s latent and there, but the new political identity and bonds of solidarity must be actively constructed by leaders with care and discipline.

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