A discussion of populism today needs to feature Ernesto Laclau. It is not only his entanglement with the important discussions and concepts within ‘continental’ political philosophy, but also and perhaps primarily his strong influence on European politics as an academic that makes him important to discuss. Through his position at the University of Essex, he was an important factor in the shaping of the two strongest European political movements of our time: Syriza (Greece) and Podemos (Spain). Laclau has contributed in no small way to the ideas of leading figures such as Yanis Varoufakis and Íñigo Errejón (Hancox 2015, Errejón 2014). His novel way of understanding populism breaks with the standard reaction of dismissal.
When a disruption of consensus occurs – for example, the failure of the referendum on the European Constitution – the experts have a readymade explanation: “if science did not impress its legitimacy on the people, it is because the people is ignorant. If progress does not progress, it is because of the backward” (Rancière 2007, 79). Through the mediation of the term ‘populism’, any kind of dissent is grouped in with the same negative connotation of ignorance and backwardness. For the radical political thinker Rancière, this means the concept is both able to hide and demonstrate the disparity between expert legitimacy and popular legitimacy. ‘Populism’ suggests that although the present mob is not able to constitute a political actor, there is a people out there in virtue of which the political system as a whole is legitimated. What it actually signifies, however, is the unmasking of every dissensual people as unworthy and so, in the final instance, it stands for the “intense wish of the oligarch” to govern without people, without politics (ibid, 80). The line separating politics from non-politics is effectively drawn around the prevailing consensus, automatically condemning the demand for alternatives as something like Jeroen Dijsselbloem’s ‘ideological tales’.
Laclau adds something to this initial discussion. He shows the historical roots of populism’s dismissal in theories of mass psychology: from that field arises the idea that the general people constitute a threat to real politics. The typical criticism quickly points out the ‘emptiness’ of the concepts worn on the populist’s sleeve: the ‘freedom’ of a Freedom Party, for example. Imagine a sarcastic undertone: what does this freedom consist in, exactly? Likewise, the passionate, sometimes frenzied nature of the ‘party mob’ is seen as a threat. In both respects, populism appears to be the evil twin of politics. Such a description presupposes an account of politics as the primary organization of political energies and demands, and sees populism as its subversion. According to Laclau, it is actually populism itself that should be seen as the prime mover of politics. We need to master some concepts in order to understand how this works.
First, there is the concept of discourse. Not confined to linguistic utterances in the classical sense of the word, this concept describes anything that is essentially relational and concerned with meaning. This includes acts such as a populist politician formulating his ideal of the people. The reason ‘discourse’ is still an apt name is that discourse has a linguistic structure in the sense of De Saussure. Individual terms have no positive signification – there is nothing about the word ‘tree’ itself that makes it refer to a tree rather than the number three, say; likewise for a concept like freedom. Instead, an individual word forms a complex whole with all the other words in the language, and the meaning of each word is secured through the differential relations binding all the words together. Laclau extends this analysis of language to the realm of meaning as such (Laclau 2007, 68).
Second, whereas discourse enables us to understand in what sense politics could be a battle over meanings, we need the concept of hegemony to grasp why it would be a battle over meanings. There are some complicated steps to follow here. The differential relations that constitute the complex of meaning do not allow us to refer to that complex itself, since an internal difference would still be formulated in terms of the complex itself without being able to name its limits. In other words, what is required is the external difference of something other. This cannot simply be another difference in the sense of the internal differential relations; it has to be an excluded element. It is only this element that gives a certain unity to that complex. Vis-à-vis the excluded element, all differential relations suddenly take on an equivalential relationship: they are equivalent to each other qua rejecting the excluded identity, and this jeopardizes their own particular identity. This in turn means that the totality of the complex of meaning is a failed totality, but still a necessary one. “Impossible, because the tension between equivalence and difference is ultimately insurmountable; necessary, because without some kind of closure, however precarious it might be, there would be no signification and no identity” (ibid, 70). Hegemony, a concept taken from Antonio Gramsci, denotes the political claim that one string of relations embodies the totality. It is a particularity occupying the space of universality, but contingently so (ibid, 115). That is to say, there is no ‘really deserving party’ in politics, only the struggle over what desert would consist in. In populist terms, it is a plebs claiming for itself the position of populus (ibid, 94).
Because the description of both politics and populism is highly formal, it is possible to draw far-reaching conclusions on the basis of this short description. First of all, because the struggle between difference and equivalence defines antagonism as such, all antagonism and every unfulfilled demand is political. This is a justifiable conclusion since, for Laclau, any unfulfilled demand constitutes a break in relation to the differential status quo, or what Rancière would call police. Secondly, the nature of such a break is never a singular demand, but one that is overdetermined by equivalential logics (ibid, 230-231). For instance, when I insist on a pay rise, that insistence ‘carries with it’ notions of justice that affects other domains as well. This equivalence does not pre-exist my claiming it as a unity. It is in fact ‘named’ and constituted as an equivalential chain by my act of insisting on the pay rise. Because this very same dynamic defines populism, Laclau concludes that “political subjects are always, in one way or another, popular subjects”: in the very gesture of equivalence, we are constructing a people that does not yet exist (ibid, 231; 154). In the final step of our analysis, Laclau emphasizes that we are not dealing with two kinds of politics: populism is the only politics, in the sense explained above. Any other supposed kind of politics “simply involves the death of politics and its reabsorption by the sedimented forms of the social. This distinction coincides, to a large extent with the one proposed by Rancière between la police and le peuple (…)” (ibid, 155).
This shaking-up of the standard way of thinking about populism and politics thus keys into an important discussion about the proper site of politics, and how politics or the political relates to the institutions we standardly describe as ‘political’. It is time to look more deeply into political difference, both from the perspective of populism and from the perspective of depoliticization critique. How we evaluate populism, and in the final instance our criteria of evaluation themselves, will depend on that analysis – but it will be a while before we can return to populism. For now, let us ask: how should we conceive of the difference between politics and the political?