A conversation with Chantal Mouffe

by Florian Malzacher

You have often emphasised your belief that only a left populism could stop the rise of the right-wing. You propose a political strategy that does not shy away from passionate campaigns, from clear statements, from direct confrontation. And there seems to have been a clear momentum for such a development – with Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, with Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US and many more. But today we rather witness a conservative or even authoritarian turn. Is left populism for progressive movements and parties still the path to follow?

I strongly disagree with the view that the time for leftist populism is over and that now it is time to return to traditional left politics, meaning: class politics.
When you look at Podemos in Spain for example: people are complaining that the movement did not achieve what was hoped for. But expectations were just too high, the hope that everything would change immediately. That is a wrong understanding of left populism. Left populism is not to be envisaged in terms of what Antonio Gramsci called a “war of manoeuvre”, a fast insurrection, but instead in terms of a “war of position”, a complex struggle that needs time. We should not imagine a movement that emerges and then straight comes to power. It is a process, a hegemonic struggle. What is at stake is the construction of a new hegemony.
The argument that the momentum for left populism has passed is therefore based on a wrong understanding of this strategy. It is always going to be a process, a war of position in which there will be moments of advance and moments of retreats.
We see that clearly in Latin America. After the ‘pink tide’ there was quite a setback – but now we see the return of national populist movements to power in several countries. For Europe, we will see… Obviously Corbyn did not win the election, but the struggle continues. Let’s see what happens in France with Jean-Luc Mélenchon – I am not very optimistic that he will win next year, but it is not completely impossible. And even if he doesn’t win – that does not mean that left populism is finished. I am convinced this is the only strategy for the left to win, the only type of politics that corresponds with the current situation. I don’t see any other way. Certainly not returning to traditional politics. And the pandemic shows this even more clearly.

How do you define left populism?

It is a political strategy in which we can basically distinguish three main features:
First of all, it requires defining an adversary, drawing a political frontier – a frontier between those ‘from below’ and ‘those from above’. You might argue that this is what traditional Marxists always have been saying. And yes, with this point I agree. But for a traditional Marxist this frontier is between the working class and the capitalist class. In the times we are living in, we can’t just limit the project of the left to the interests of the workers. Their interests are important and socialist parties have for too long abandoned the working class. But in our societies, there are also many other important issues like ecology, feminism, anti-racism and LGBT+ demands.
So that is the second feature: a leftist populist strategy aims at the construction of a ‘people’, a transversal collective will in which many different democratic demands, coming from a variety of sectors are taken into account. The demands of the working class have to be articulated with the demands of other social movements. So you need to construct a ‘people’ that is an articulation of what Ernesto Laclau and I in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy called “a chain of equivalence” between several democratic demands. This is a clear difference to the traditional Marxist strategy.
The third important feature is that in the construction of this collective will it is vital to take account of the affective dimension, the part of common affects that I call ‘passions’. This collective will is not going to be created solely on the basis of arguments and a good program. We need to acknowledge the crucial role played by passions – I cannot repeat that often enough. The left is much too rationalistic!

You live in London – was this lack of passion one reason why Corbyn’s campaign failed so drastically that the Labour party lost severely against Boris Johnson’s conservative Tories?

Yes, the British elections are a very interesting example. Within Jeremy Corbyn’s team there was a fight between the ones arguing for a populist strategy on one side and the labour traditionalists on the other side. The campaign started actually very well. I remember Corbyn’s first speech: it was fantastic. He created a strong frontier between ‘the many’ and ‘the few’. But later the discourse changed, the traditionalists had won the internal fight. And they started to talk only about the program – which was a good program. But they talked in depth about a lot of details and plans: Vote for us and you will get free broadband, vote for us and we are going to finance this project or that initiative…. But you don’t mobilise people like that! It becomes too consumerist, too client-oriented. People don’t feel empowered by that discourse.
So we had on one side Boris Johnson calling for „Get Brexit done, take back control“ – a right wing populism with absolutely no program but a mobilizing discourse. On the other side we had the Labour Party with a very good, detailed program but unable to mobilise people by giving them sense of empowerment. And this is a general problem with the left. The left does not understand that correct ideas and good policies are not sufficient. As Spinoza reminds us, ideas only have force when they meet affects. In order to generate enthusiasm and move people to act, one has to convey affects that resonate with their desires and personal experiences.
Unfortunately, too often with the left the mobilization of passion is discredited as fascist, as something that only the right wing is doing.

But isn’t it important that the left stays scrupulous towards simplifications or even lies and does not follow the example of the Johnsons?

Of course! I am not saying the left should do the same as the right. You can learn from the right the importance of the mobilization of affects without copying the ways how they do that. But, yes, it is true: it is more difficult for the left because we should not promise things that we can’t deliver. But affect can be mobilized in many different ways. The rationalism of the left is linked to the refusal to learn from psychoanalysis and to understand the many different ways in which affects can be mobilized.

There was a lot of passion, a lot of affect in the square movements about ten years ago – for example at the assemblies of Occupy Wall Street or in Spain, Greece etc. They were political events but also highly affective experiences…

Yes, when you look at the Indignados, when you look at Occupy Wall Street, there was a mobilisation of strong affects in the way they demanded social justice. It shows that affects are not necessarily linked to the production of racist sentiments. Passions can be mobilized for justice. But in general, left parties are not good at doing that. In fact, they are afraid of the mobilization of the masses. This is an old discussion, particularly in Germany. The German philosopher Ernst Bloch criticized the limitations of the left as early as the mid-1930s. According to him the success of Hitler was linked to his capacity to comprehend the frustrated demands existing inside the German masses, energies that could have been transformed in a positive way but that ended up being oriented in an opposite direction

Where does that leave us in this moment of the pandemic where all kinds of mobilisations of the right are happening?

Contrary to people like Slavoj Zizek I never was convinced that the pandemic would open a window for communism. And today I am rather pessimistic. The pandemic has created a strong demand for protection. That is something that the Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi saw clearly in the 1940s: when societies experience serious disturbances in their modes of life, the need to protection becomes a central demand and the people are likely to follow those who they believe can best provide it. Polanyi points out that this demand for protection can take progressive forms, like with Roosevelt’s New Deal but it also can take regressive ones like fascism or Stalinism. I think today we are in an analogous situation: the pandemic is creating a feeling that we need to be protected. It creates a situation that could no doubt benefit right-wing populists if they are able to convince people that protection requires promoting a view of sovereignty in terms of exclusive nationalism.
For the left this is a difficult situation, because it tends to see the demand for protection as suspicious, as not progressive. So the left often doesn’t even have any discourse to address it. But I think that this demand for protection can and has to be articulated in an emancipatory way.

But the concept of care – as one form of protection – has become quite important in arts and discourse in recent years. And there was a very interesting moment at the beginning at the pandemic where there was much talk about the need to protect others, to take care of others – and not only of oneself. I found that quite astonishing because this was not primarily along the usual lines of economic considerations.

My problem with the politics of care is that it is too consensual. It does not recognize the need to construct a frontier and to define an adversary. This is a problem I also have with most ecological movements. Fridays for Future is an amazing movement, led by remarkable young people. But they are extremely consensual. They believe everybody will agree with them. That the evidence is so clear, that no one could argue against it. Well, I am sorry, that is not the case. There is an adversary. They need to realize that the forces of financial capitalism are going to resist strongly. Again, the trap of pure rationalism: every rational being should agree… Most ecological parties are not clear enough about the need to break with neoliberalism and financial capitalism. There will not be any solution to the ecological crisis without a rupture with financial capitalism that is to a large extent responsible for the acceleration of the climate catastrophe. Without a clear break with neoliberal hegemony, there won’t be a solution. All this talk about ‘green capitalism’ is a dangerous illusion– as is the idea that the solution could be a mainly technological one.
I am afraid that the pandemic might in fact give a new lease of life to neoliberalism. A transformed neoliberalism, an authoritarian neoliberalism. The development of authoritarianism in France and Britain for example is already very advanced. The repression of movements of resistance and the police violence are really worrying.
This neoliberal authoritarianism might very well take a digital form – as a ‘Screen New Deal’ envisaged by Naomi Klein. Those who are coming out of this pandemic in a stronger position are the big digital corporations. And they promise a solution to the pandemic crisis through algorithms, health apps etc. They are trying to convince us that all our problems, even political ones can be treated digitally. In his book To save everything, click here Evgeny Morozov calls this “technological solutionism”. He actually points out that solutionists advocate post-ideological measures and deploy technology to avoid politics. I feel that in the current conditions this solutionist discourse is is being received increasingly positively. Many measures that only one year ago would have been met with much suspicion are now widely accepted. In the name of solving the problems caused by the pandemic we are made to accept many new forms of digital control.

Which leads again to the necessity of left populism.

Yes. I think, the pandemic produced three different possible answers: authoritarian neoliberalism, right wing populism and – as the only emancipatory solution: left populism. But I am aware that the conditions are not really good for that solution. Which does not mean that it is not the correct one! One can’t argue: oh, when it is the correct way then it should easily win. That’s not how it works! In the field of politics, you always are faced by adversaries and they are no guaranties.

Let’s come back to the aspect of passion, because this is also where the arts come in.

Yes, of course. Artistic practices really have really an important role to play. The field of culture in general is a crucial terrain for the mobilisation of passions. This is why I see a strong link between left populism and critical artistic practices.

A lot of artists are part of progressive movements and also see their work as a contribution to these struggles. On the other hand, there is always a friction between art and activism, art and politics. What is it in your view that art can contribute?

I am obviously not going to tell artists what they should do. But I am interested, for example. in the way that Bruno Latour is using theatre to convey his ecological discourse in his collaboration with the director Frédérique Aït-Touati. Latour is not an artist, but he understands the importance of translating ideas through artistic means. This way artistic practices contribute to the transformation of the common sense. But this is of course only one specific example.
What is at stake is to create a new imaginary. In order to mobilize people, we need to stimulate desire. So for me the role of art in progressive struggles is to create new imaginaries with which people can be mobilized in an emancipatory way. And of course, artists do that very differently. I insist on being very pluralistic with respect to artistic practices and aesthetics. I don’t believe for example that if something is beautiful is automatically is bourgeois. No, the beautiful can be extremely subversive. And artistic practices can play a political role in many different ways.

Especially ecological movements often have problems creating new imaginaries – on one hand the crisis is very concrete on the other hand it is very complex and abstract. So much of the imaginary concentrates on picturing the coming catastrophe – and not on envisioning alternative futures.

Indeed, our main challenge is the ecological crisis and the left needs to address that in a way that mobilizes people. And this can’t work by only showing the negative side and creating fear. One needs to show that there is an ecological project that could also bring more justice, better lives for many people etc. This is how a left populist strategy envisages the necessary ecological bifurcation which has to be inscribed in the project of radicalising democracy – that is an idea that resonates with people. I call that a “Green Democratic Transformation”: the ecological transition as a process of deepening of democracy.  This Green Democratic Transformation” addresses the need of protection in our society in a way that empowers people instead of making them retreat in a defensive nationalism or in a passive acceptance of technological solutions. It is protection for the many, not the few, providing social justice and fostering solidarity. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal is a good example of such a project because it links the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions with the objective of fixing social problems like inequality and racial injustice.
And artistic and cultural practices can contribute to foment the desire for such a change and create situations where very abstract ideas about ecology can be grasped in a different way. After all it is in the cultural field of what Gramsci called ‘civil society’ that common sense is created. And we desperately need to create a new common sense. We need to create a new social imaginary around a Green Democratic Transformation.