June 8, 2018

Understanding Right and Left Populisms


President Rafael Correa


Neoliberal globalization has increased both economic insecurity and cultural anxiety. Have theories of populism taken adequate account of such insecurity – key to understanding the difference between right and left populisms?


By Dr. Samir Gandesha / 05.23.2018
Assistant Professor of Humanities
Director, Institute for the Humanities
Simon Fraser University


We appear to be living in an age of populism. Over the past two decades, we have witnessed the rise of right-wing populist parties throughout Europe such as Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, Victor Orban’s Fidesz Party in Hungary, and the Polish Law and Justice Party. Today, the Five-Star Movement is in the process of negotiating a coalition arrangement with the far-right Liga Nord.

Such a development hasn’t been confined to Europe but is a global phenomenon as evinced, for example, by the electoral triumphs of Narendra Modi in India in 2014 and that of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey as early as 2003. But no phenomena more clearly evince this thesis than the stunning victory of Donald J. Trump in the 2016 American presidential election and the triumph of the Leave Campaign led by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

But there has also been a populism of the left. The Arab Spring was widely regarded as a broad-based, if short-lived, popular revolt and therefore as a kind of populism in the streets in 2011. The events of Tahrir Square profoundly inspired the Occupy Movement. Radiating out beyond Zuccotti Park, the movement spread through much of the western world. Arguably, the Occupy Movement’s most significant and enduring effect was to be felt five years later in the rising support for Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Latin America, moreover, has seen a dramatic revival of populism in the Bolivarian model in the Chavez/Maduro regime in Venezuela and in Evo Morales in Bolivia as well as in the Kirchner governments in Argentina. The dramatic global rise of populist parties and movements has resulted in a burgeoning scholarship on this most slippery of political concepts.

But can we understand populism with more precision? How can we account for its recent pervasiveness? I will focus on two exemplary accounts of populism before trying to arrive at some conclusions of how to understand the difference between right and left forms of populism in the context of neo-liberal globalization.

The first account is a recent widely-cited and discussed empirical study by Norris and Inglehart (2016). The second is a more theoretical account of populism by Ernesto Laclau articulated over several decades (Laclau 1977, Laclau and Mouffe 1985, Laclau 2006). If Norris and Inglehart struggle to come to terms with the populism of the left, then Laclau struggles to come to adequate grips with the populism of the right. The former draw upon a somewhat narrow definition of populism, emphasizing its anti-establishment, authoritarian and nativist dimensions; the latter understands populism as a logic constituted by the establishment of an “equivalential chain” of differentdemands. It appears to suggest that populism is a democratic, horizontal and egalitarian discourse.

Populism explained: economic insecurity or cultural backlash?

paper widely discussed in the media by Pippa Norris of Harvard University and Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan suggests – following Cas Mudde – that populism shares three distinct elements: 1) anti-establishmentism, 2) authoritarianism and 3) nativism. The first contrasts with the established structures of representative democracy; the second with the principles of liberalism (in particular with the protection of minority rights), and emphasizes the direct expression of popular will via charismatic leadership, referenda and plebiscites that circumvent the typical checks and balances of liberal-democracy; and the third contrasts with cosmopolitanism.

Building on Mudde’s conceptualization, the authors develop a heuristic model of populism based upon two distinct axes: economic and cultural. The former has to do with the level of state management of the economy, and the latter has to do with “conservative” versus “progressive” values. The authors suggest three possible analytical types of explanation for the rise of populism: 1) the rules of the game, 2) the “supply-side” of the market of party politics and 3) the “demand-side” of party politics. They gear their explanation to the third dimension and suggest that this can be understood to have two distinct – though not mutually exclusive – causes. The first is that populism emerges in response to economic insecurity, and the second is that populism appears as a backlash by older white males to the erosion of traditional cultural values.

Norris and Inglehart argue that the latter is the most convincing argument: “We believe that these are the groups most likely to feel that they have become strangers from the predominant values in their own country, left behind by progressive tides of cultural change which they do not share… The silent revolution of the 1970s appears to have spawned an angry and resentful counter-revolutionary backlash today.”

While the empirical data the authors cite to support their argument is indeed impressive, it is possible to raise significant objections about the way they framethis evidence. First, the separation of “supply” and “demand” explanations seems deeply dubious. In strictly economic terms, according to Say’s law of markets, for example, aggregate production necessarily creates an equal quantity of aggregate demand.

A second objection arises from the cultural backlash argument: by mischaracterizing Mudde’s definition as inherently authoritarian and nativist, Norris and Inglehart bias their conclusion towards culturalist explanations.

A third objection is that it is deeply debatable that “progressive values” are on the ascendant. Indeed, today it is far from clear what comprises “progressive values,” as we saw in the recent Democratic Presidential Nomination pitting Hilary Rodham Clinton against Bernie Sanders. This opposition has been echoed in debates between political theorists in terms of the relative priority between politics of recognition versus redistribution.

Whether populism can be understood exclusively in terms of traditionalist backlash is also debatable. If this was the predominant measure of populist politics, one could expect recent immigrants – who themselves hold traditional values – to the US, the UK and other parts of Europe to join in these movements. However, far from this being the case, they are often the targets of the backlash.

Finally, one wonders whether the authors don’t seriously underestimate the threat right-wing populism poses to the institutions of liberal-democracy in the United States. A worrying inference that the authors explicitly draw from their progressivist premises is that populism will eventually die out. The study therefore fails to sufficiently appreciate the ways in which populist governments seek to institutionalize their agendas, thereby changing the rules of the game. This has become most drastically evident in the case of Poland, for example, in which Andrzej Duda (leader of the right-populist Law and Justice party) has significantly limited the autonomy of the judicial branch of government. Other such examples abound.

Understanding populist reason

In his hugely influential yet profoundly controversial work with Chantal Mouffe entitled Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau seeks to develop his analysis of populism so as to generate a new post-Marxist politics. In other words, Laclau is developing in a British context a political strategy that is germane to a context that has seen the rise of what Stuart Hall has called “authoritarian populism” in the form of Thatcherism. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy differs from Laclau’s earlier work in at least two ways: 1) it breaks with Althusserian Marxism, particularly that of Nicos Poulantzas, insofar as it no longer accords the working class a privileged role in social transformation; and 2) it provides a discursive account of the social. As he and Mouffe argue:

In our view, in order to advance in the determination of social antagonisms, it is necessary to analyse the plurality of diverse and frequently contradictory positions, and to discard the idea of a perfectly unified and homogenous agent, such as the ‘working class’ of classical discourse. The search for the ‘true’ working class and its limits is a false problem, and as such lacks any theoretical or political relevance.

The continuity, however, lies in the fact that Laclau insists upon the centrality of the concept of hegemonic articulation of heterogeneous political demands as the basis of a leftist political strategy.

In On Populist Reason (2005) Laclau argues against those political theorists who claim that populism is an irrational political discourse by reconstructing and foregrounding, as the title suggests, populism’s own distinctive reason. Its logic is that of an “antagonistic synthesis,” but now understood as an equivalential articulation of differences – that is a linking together of what different political demands share in common – in relation to a common “antagonistic frontier”. For Laclau, all democratic politics are, in fact, populist. In other words, if we assume that society is inherently heterogeneous, politics must entail the hegemonic articulation of a multiplicity of political demands in a manner that is always provisional and open to revision. A given hegemonic equivalential articulation of differences is always shifting, temporary and open because based on a logic of the empty signifier.

The key difference from his previous work is Laclau’s attempt to conceptualize the affective dimension of politics via Lacanian psychoanalysis.  John Kraniauskas understands this as the articulation of a Gramscian Lacan in contradistinction to Žižek’s Hegelian Lacan. While the latter takes, as its point of departure, the understanding of the “desire of the Other” (the impossible-because-unattainable desire for intersubjective recognition), the former can be understood in terms of political desire.

For Laclau political desire is geared to what Lacan calls the “objet petit a,” meaning a partial object that is a fragment of the Real (that which eludes symbolization yet is caught within the symbolic order). The “object petit a” is often symbolized by the bountiful breast and, as such, promises a return to an original plenitude prior to the symbolic order based on the split between signifier and signified.

Political desire, then, is established through the Name or the coincidence of signifier and signified that is only set retroactively. The key point Laclau is making here is that this Lacanian understanding of political desire enables an alternative to Freud’s, the latter being mass politics grounded in the love of an authoritarian leader who represents the Imago of the father. In contrast, political desire grounded in the utopic logic of the “objet petit a” is characterized by the horizontal relations between brothers (and presumably, sisters).

Several criticisms can be made of Laclau’s approach to populism. Critics have drawn attention to its formalism, stemming from its reliance on structural linguistics in which signification is understood by way of a system of differences with no positive terms. This formalist premise is the basis for his understanding of the figure of the people as an empty signifier that can take on radically divergent contents. What the approach seems to elide is the historical continuity of this figure.

Secondly, it appears that Laclau thinks either we must conceive of necessity in reductive terms that is, of a closed historical totality, or the social dissolves completely into an infinite, deconstructive play of radical difference. This is untenable.

Thirdly, Laclau also downplays the role of institutions in historical change and continuity. Can we understand the mechanism of articulation other than through institutions such as the state, political parties, trades unions, and the whole host of organizations and associations that comprised what Gramsci called “civil society”?

Finally and most importantly for our purposes, the above questions are raised by the Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis upon which Laclau depends to ground his account of populism, in particular to rescue populism from the “denigration of the masses” of figures like Gustav Le Bon. Laclau’s engagement with Freudian social psychology, however, must be regarded as a missed opportunity, since he ignores the problem that occupies such an important role in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, namely the phenomenon of the regression of the group through a libidinal cathexis in the figure of the leader possessed of (real or imaginary) strength. Such an investment constitutes what Erich Fromm called an “escape from freedom.”

Differentiating right and left populisms

According to David Harvey, neoliberal globalization is comprised of four processes: accumulation by dispossession; de-regulation; privatization; and an upward re-distribution of wealth. Taken together they have increased both economic insecurity and cultural anxiety via three features in particular: the creation of surplus peoples, rising global inequality, and threats to identity.

The anxiety wrought by neoliberal globalization has created a rich and fertile ground for populist politics of both right and left. Neither Norris and Inglehart nor Laclau adequately account for such insecurity in their theorization of populism. As we have seen, populism can be understood as a mobilizing discourse that conceives of political subjectivity as comprised of “the people.” Yet this figure of “the people,” as Agamben has indicated in What is a people? (2000) is deeply ambivalent insofar as it can be understood both in terms of the  body politic as a whole (as in the US Constitution’s “We the People”), or in terms of what Ranciere calls the “part that has no part,” or the dispossessed and the displaced; as in “The people united shall never be defeated,” or in the Black Panthers’ famous slogan: “All Power to the People.”

In this dichotomy, the figure of “the people” can be understood in terms of its differential deployments by right and left, which themselves must be understood in terms of the respective enemies through which “the people” is constructed. And this is the decisive dimension of populism.

Right populism conflates “the people” with an embattled nation confronting its external enemies: Islamic terrorism, refugees, the European Commission, the International Jewish conspiracy, and so on. The left, in marked contrast, defines “the people” in relation to the social structures and institutions – for example, state and capital – that thwart its aspirations for self-determination; a construction which does not necessarily, however, preclude hospitality towards the Other.

In other words, right-wing or authoritarian populism defines the enemy in personalized terms, whereas, while this is not always true, left-wing populism tends to define the enemy in terms of bearers of socio-economic structures and rarely as particular groups. The right, in a tradition stemming back to Hobbes, takes insecurity and anxiety as the necessary, unavoidable, and indeed perhaps even favourable product of capitalist social relations. It transforms such insecurity and anxiety into the fear of the stranger and an argument for a punitive state. In contrast, the left seeks to provide an account of the sources of such insecurity in the processes that have led to the dismantling of the welfare state, and corresponding phenomena such as “zero-hours” contracts, the casualization of labour, and generalized precarity. It then proposes transformative and egalitarian solutions to these problems. Of course, left populism can also turn authoritarian – largely though not exclusively due to the interference and threatened military intervention of the global hegemon and its allies – with an increasing vilification of the opposition, as we saw in Venezuela and Ecuador with Rafael Correa.


Originally published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

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