Much ado about populism?

by | 2 May 2017 | The Blog | 0 comments

A response to Aslanidis (2016) “Populist Social Movements of the Great Recession”, Mobilization 21(3):301-321 (following discussion in the movements@manchester reading group 25th April 2017)

Populism is the big news of the 2010s. We’ve had the rise of Trump and Bernie Sanders, Le Pen, Brexit, Podemos, Syriza, the Tea Party movement, Occupy, and even Jeremy Corbyn’s recent “populist relaunch”. This has led to a predictable clamour of popular and academic comment on who counts as ‘populist’ and whether it’s something to welcome or to be feared. In fact, debates over what exactly we mean by ‘populism’ have been commonplace since Edward Shils reintroduced the term in the 1950s. Marco D’Eramo recently recounted a conference at the LSE over 50 years ago where ‘Isaiah Berlin cautioned against falling prey to “a Cinderella complex”, the notion that “there exists a shoe—the word populism—for which somewhere there must exist a foot”’. As a way of avoiding this Cinderalla complex, D’Eramo advises us to forget the question of what is populism, and instead to ask ‘when did this term appear? How has its meaning changed? Who uses it? When? Why? To what purpose?’. Bearing in mind that the word ‘populism’ is normally used as an insult, this is a serious challenge to using it as an analytic concept.

Paris Aslanidis’s work is a brave response to this challenge.  Grounding his project in from social movement studies, quantitative political science, discourse analysis and his  and drawing on own fieldwork with Greek indignados he suggests that populism is a recurrent pattern which deserves to be analysed as such. His central argument is that ‘populism’ is best understood as a discursive frame which pits the ‘people’ against a corrupt ‘elite’ who have usurped popular sovereignty. In this sense it offers a diagnosis of what is wrong with society (the elite have taken political power for their own ends) and motivates a collective subject (the people) to take action against it. This is not a radically new definition but the conceptual clarity that Aslanidis brings to the subject is extremely valuable.

Assuming we believe that there is a subset of ‘populist’ political movements and parties which deserve to be treated as a group, there are two obvious challenges to Aslanidis’s definition. First, the background notion of popular sovereignty that populists invoke can differ enormously. The British imaginary of an ‘independent Blighty’ is a long way from American constitutionalism or la republique français. As well as national variation there is also a split between understanding popular sovereignty as embodied in a party or person, and as being embodied in a process of direct democracy. So Occupy and the indignados movements in Spain and Greece took popular sovereignty to imply a participatory, grassroots approach to politics. Meanwhile populist fascist movements traditionally embody the general will of the people in a single authoritarian leader. If these different understandings of popular sovereignty undermine what the various actors mean when they invoke “the people”, then we should be sceptical about whether they really are using equivalent discursive frames.

As well as masking significant variation in the meanings underpinning the terms “people” and “elite”, Aslandis’s definition is also fairly broad. Almost all mass political parties have to make majoritarian claims to represent the people, whether they use that term or not. And a rhetorical focus on  ‘corrupt elites’ unites hugely disparate groups, from the 18th century English Radical movement with Movimento 5 Stelle. Even Theresa May talks about “ordinary people” beset by an EU elite and overpaid CEOs. Does that mean the Conservatives are now also populists? It’s true that Theresa May is borrowing a rhetorical trick from other leaders who we might be more comfortable describing as populist, but words and phrases come in and out of fashion all the time. Surely we want our discursive definition of populism to tell us something more substantive about the sort of political party we are dealing with? Aslanidis implies that populist movements, as identified by their rhetoric, are also distinctive in terms of their broad range of policy goals and broad scope of membership. The distinction between social movements which are based around an explicitly sectional membership and those which aspire to represent ‘the people’ as a whole is certainly important. But in terms of policy goals Aslanidis is on more uncertain ground. Were UKIP a sort of populist single-issue group? Did the Spanish indignados really have any really have no other political goals policy goals beyond ending corruption? Aslanidis accepts that movements can be more or less populist and even encourages this continuum to be operationalised and measured, but by deliberately casting his net so wide, he might be undermining its potential utility as an independent variable.

Moreover, by focusing purely on discourse we obscure the meaning ‘populism’ originally had when it was reintroduced in the 1950s and which appears to terrify so many people today: populism as a way of governing. By claiming to know and act on behalf of the ‘people’, populists pose a threat to both liberal notions of division of powers and rule of law and also to Burkean notions of the value of traditional institutions. So when Mao mobilised the people of China against the party apparatus he himself had built, or when Trump, Putin, Erdogan or the Daily Mail attack the judiciary in the name of the people, that is populism as a form of governance. This idea of populism as an attack on institutions echoes Weber’s notion of charisma as a disruptive force which allows movements to break the ‘iron cage’ of bureaucratic rationality. However, while charisma derives legitimacy from an all encompassing ‘mission’, populism derives it from a ‘people’ that is not only homogenised but is also exclusive.

It is this implied exclusivity of the people that makes the adoption of populism as a strategy for the left extremely dangerous. Inspired by the theoretical writings of Ernesto Laclua and Chantal Mouffe, Podemos and La France Insoumise have most explicitly pursued a populist approach to pursue a left-wing project. They see populism as a discursive process where diverse social groups are linked by a chain of equivalent grievances and then collected under the empty signifier of “the people”. However, it’s worth wondering how empty that signifier really is. In principle it’s possible to define ‘the people’ in purely negative terms: as those who are not the elite. The ’99%’ might be seen as an attempt to do this. Yet it is ultimately impossible for an identity to be made salient if it has no roots in people’s personal biographies: no one thinks of themselves in apothatic terms and so an identity based on that will struggle to achieve salience. And moreover, given that politics is (almost exclusively) conducted on a national stage, any sense of the people will tend to be nationally bounded. Indeed Aslanidis describes this process as one of moving from a passive, liberal citizenship to an active, republican one. But ideas of the nation, whether defined as an ethnic nationality or as citizenship, are never entirely empty; they always imply the exclusion or effacement of minorities and non-citizens. And a political project built around ‘the people’ will be limited and coloured by that exclusion. In fact, the left’s reluctance to embrace nationalism might explain why right wing populists have been so much more successful in recent years. There is no left alternative to the ready availability of ‘nationalism’ as a master frame to give concrete content to the idea of the people.

Ultimately however, it’s unlikely that the left will be able to avoid appealing to ‘the people’. Laclau and Mouffe intend it as an alternative to Marxist ideas of class identity. But, even within Marxism, feminist insistence on the centrality of reproductive labour to capitalism has extended ‘the working class’ so much that it is almost coterminous with the citizenry Important differences obviously remain (namely that Marxism has a very different diagnosis of the problems we face) but it is increasingly difficult to imagine a left wing politics that doesn’t make some bid to mobilise ‘the people’.

All power to the people.


Matteo Tiratelli

Matteo is a PhD student at the University of Manchester looking at the changing practice of rioting in Britain over the long 19th century. Research interests include riots and violent resistance, social history, Marxism and interactionism.