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Mouffe’s elaboration of a left populist strategy contains some useful insights but ultimately rests on the centrist ideology that it appears to criticise, argues Josh Newman

Chantal Mouffe, For A Left Populism (Verso Books 2018), 93pp

This intervention by Chantal Mouffe follows neatly on from Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Verso Books 1985), a joint effort with Ernest Laclau. This work established itself in the so-called post-Marxist tradition, rejecting many or all of the central aspects of Marxism under the broad accusation of ‘essentialism’. For A Left Populism continues in this way and is highly critical of what she calls the ‘traditional’ or ‘hard’ left. This element of Mouffe’s thought deserves serious critical attention but initially it is worth laying out some of the strengths of the book and its aims.

The essential aspect of the left populism that Mouffe advocates is a new hegemony to deepen and radicalise democracy. She claims that the current political situation across Europe can be described as a ‘populist moment’ and that the crisis of the neoliberal hegemonic formation ‘opens the possibility for the construction of a more democratic order’ (p.1). The fundamental way in which she suggests this should be done is to reaffirm a frontier between the ‘oligarchy’ and the ‘people’. She correctly claims that ‘the so-called radical centre promoted a technocratic form of politics which was not a partisan confrontation but the neutral management of public affairs’ (p.4).

She raises the basic but important point that ‘when we speak of democracy in Europe, we refer to a specific model’ (p.14). At this moment it seems that there is still scope in her story for a radical reimagining of what democracy could mean beyond the fairly limited structures of Western liberal democracies. This is positive groundwork, but it turns out that her analysis really has little to distinguish it from the more or less progressive liberal one. Mouffe suggests that we should affirm an ‘antagonistic struggle between different projects of society’ (p.17). This appears to be a somewhat radical recommendation that sits in the Marxist tradition but there are two important strands to her argument here that I believe underpin the weaknesses of her analysis.

Abandoning class analysis

Firstly, she appears to reject the idea that class antagonisms are built into the essential structure of capitalism and suggests that these antagonisms need to be created rather than recognised and exploited. Put another way, this implies that class antagonism is something we can choose to read into society or not, rather than part of the material reality of society. Secondly, she does not believe that a ‘“revolutionary” break with the liberal democratic regime’ (p.36) is necessary. I would argue that both of these are fairly crippling weaknesses in her account of how the left should envision the way forward at this populist moment and will start with the second.

She defends this idea in two main ways. She first claims that the original revolutions, which led to the creation of modern liberal democracies, contained in them the same impulses that the left should be fighting for today, but that ‘their constitutive principles of liberty and equality for all were not put into practice’ (p.39). However, whilst words like these may have been present in the constitutions of the French and American revolutions, these were ultimately revolutions of the small, rising bourgeoisie which established the property-based class lines which are still in place today. Equally, given the immense inequality and exclusion of the working class from politics today, it is difficult to see how the enormous changes required to redress this imbalance would not constitute some sort of revolutionary break with our present liberal institutions.

So, Mouffe says that the promises of universal liberty in the bourgeois revolutions were not correctly put into practice. Yet, these revolutions were explicitly based in the bourgeois question of property ownership and as such were never going to extend power to the poor, unpropertied classes. The most important thing to take away from discussion of these revolutions, but which Mouffe does not address, is that not only can profound social change be achieved by revolution, but these very institutions that we are talking about now were forged in revolution. So, we know that a given class can lastingly reshape society in its own image through revolution and we should not lose sight of that.

The capitalist state reverts to type

Her second defence of the anti-revolutionary claim is that immense societal change has happened within these institutions and she points to what happened in Britain under Thatcherism to justify this. It is certainly true that British society looked very different in the late 1980s than it did in social democracy’s golden years after the Second World War. However, the very fact that this possibility exists suggests that any of the democratic gains that she claims would be possible under something like the present system would be very easily and quickly reversible by any change in government. As well as this, you could argue that the thirty years of relatively strong labour power after the war were exceptional. Really, Thatcher just set about reverting the liberal capitalist state to its more natural condition.

Her rejection of the primacy of a class-based analysis is encapsulated in her persistent dismissal of ‘essentialism’ in traditional leftist thought. Mouffe claims that the social justice and environmental movements of the 1960s and 70s meant that ‘the field of conflict was extended rather than being concentrated in a privileged agent like the working class’ (p.3, my italics). She suggests this should be embraced and that class should be one among many issues that the left fights on, rather than the prism through which all others are analysed.

This implicitly rejects either that we should tailor resistance to the material conditions we are resisting, or that the material conditions of contemporary capitalism are primarily structured on class-based exploitation, or both. With this she departs from the most fundamental aspects of a Marxist critique of capitalism and begins the collapse into a liberal, universal one. It is difficult to see how a genuine deepening of democracy into the economy could be radically and sustainably implemented along the lines that she is proposing.

This is not a new criticism of Mouffe’s work and no doubt it is not one that she would consider to have much weight, since she very clearly distances herself from the aims of the ‘traditional left’.

The basic idea of creating a new hegemony to deepen and radicalise the democratic structure of our society is one that surely every leftist must be on board with. However, the analysis on which she bases her project has far more in common with the liberal vision of society than the Marxist one and I would argue that it does not allow for a genuinely hegemonic transformation of society in favour of the ‘people’ as against the ‘oligarchy’ as she claims.