The inadequacy of the concept of populism

Populism: Le grand resentment
Forfatter: Éric Fassin
Forlag: Textuel (Frankrike)
Populism is not a negative response to neoliberalism, but neoliberalism's own instrument, says sociologist Éric Fassin.


Wherever we look, there are populists. In the US we have Trump, in the UK Nigel Farage, in France Le Pen, in the Netherlands Gert Wilders, in the Philippines Duterte. Populism is one of the most widely used explanations of the ongoing political upheaval, which began in earnest with Brexit and continued with Trump's election victory and Le Pen's second place in France. The influential US journal Foreign Affairs has recently had a theme number on the phenomenon, and according to YouGov, half the population of twelve European countries has "authoritarian populist positions". Belgian political philosopher Chantal Mouffe talks about living in "the age of populism". In response to the financial crisis and the so-called refugee crisis, the people reject the elite and refuse to vote on the old parties and their candidates. Of course, we also know the phenomenon in a Nordic context: In Denmark, the Danish People's Party went from getting 12,3 to 21,2 percent of the votes in the general election in 2015, and this has a decisive influence on the policy that Lars Løkke Rasmussen's Left governments lead. In Norway, the Progress Party has been in government with the Right since 2013, in Finland the True Finns have done the same with the Center Party and the Collective Party since 2015. And in Sweden, the Swedish Democrats brought in the Riksdag in 2014 with 12,9 percent of the vote. Populism is apparently the new black policy.

The nature of populism. But what exactly is populism? German politologist Jan-Werner Müller describes populism as a political movement that appeals to the "people" and presents itself as "the people's voice". Like when Trump says Obama is African or Clinton is bought by Wall Street, but that he himself is the authentic expression of America and the representative of the silent majority. For Müller, populism is an anti-pluralistic political project. The late Argentine philosopher Ernesto Laclau and his partner, the aforementioned Mouffe, in turn understand populism as an expression of the basic linguistic openness of politics, where the formation of identities is central. Populism is a particular articulation logic in which the people give up what it perceives as oppressive structures of power. It is thus a strategy in which society is articulated and thus discursively created in a particularly conflicting way that makes it possible to criticize the established system.

The left has turned politics into a formal, institutional matter, which has opened the door to the right-wing populist movements.

The answer to Trump and Le Pen, according to Mouffe, is that the left is becoming populist. European social democracies and the Left in general have ended up turning politics into a formal, institutional matter, which has opened the door to the right-wing populist parties and movements, Mouffe argues. Politics has turned into administration. That's the problem. Bernie Sanders was an attempt at a popular, populist mobilization in the United States, according to Mouffe. The Democrats' election of Clinton left the entire path to Trump, who could subsequently blame Clinton and Washington for the financial crisis and the buyout of the banks.

Most non-voters. French sociologist Éric Fassin goes in his new book Populism. Le grand resentment is right both with the idea of ​​populism as a political movement and with the notion of leftist populism. The term populism erases important political differences and risks destroying the left as a political position and project, he writes.
According to Fassin, the various circulating descriptions of populism are flawed. The notion of populism as an expression of the people is wrong. If you take a closer look at which population groups actually voted for Trump, then it turns out that the term populism doesn't fit. It wasn't the white working class that voted for Trump – it's more complicated, Fassin writes. The poorest Americans who voted voted for Clinton for the most part. Also for the whites. Trump's voters came from the working, middle and upper classes, financially considered. Fassin shows how income, education, religion and race together draw a more complex picture of the votes cast. So talking about the people voting for Trump is misguided. But more importantly, he writes, a very large proportion of poor Americans did not vote at all. Therefore, it does not really make sense to talk about populism as a struggle between the people and the elite; It may well be Trump's own narrative, but it doesn't fit, Fassin notes dryly.

A dose of populism ensures popular support for neoliberalism.

Politics is emotion. One of the central points of discussion in Fassin's book is the question of the relationship between neoliberalism and populism. Often the populist parties are understood as parties protesting against neoliberalism and global capitalism, such as Trump thundering against both the relocation of jobs to China and international trade agreements. But as Fassin writes, most populist politicians like Trump are rather to be understood as a continuation of neoliberal politics. That's the case with leaders like Erdogan and Duterte, just as it is with Trump. Fassin, therefore, proposes to understand populism as a kind of ideological complement to neoliberalism after the motto "neoliberalism to the rich, and nationalism to the poor". A dose of populism ensures popular support for neoliberalism. Fassin picks up the arguments for this reading with cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who already in the 80s tried to analyze Thatcher as an expression of "authoritarian populism." Rather than understanding populism as opposed to neoliberalism, we must understand populism as the instrument of neoliberalism, as a xenophobic, nationalist dimension, neoliberalism can activate.
Like Laclau and Mouffe, Fassin is perfectly clear that politics today is not just a rational argument, but just as much a matter of emotion. And that the left in Europe and the United States has not been able to speak adequately to voters' feelings. Politics were largely for administration in the 90s and 00s when Social Democrats and Socialists were in power. Therefore, the left must, of course, try to speak passionately about politics and address the wishes and dreams of voters, but of course dissatisfaction. However, that does not mean, Fassin points out, that the left must try to hijack the right-wing populism voters. It is not the same effects that go out on the two wings, and you can not just swing from right to left.

Left Populism? No! The emotions of right-wing populism are reactive, they are resentment-based. That is not the left's, according to Fassin. Any notion of a left-wing populism must therefore be rejected. The term actually illustrates the problem itself: populism first, and then the left. It is "populism" that is the noun, and "the leftist" that is the adjective.
Hereby we are at the core of Fassin's criticism. The term populism tends to dissolve the most important political difference, namely that between the left and the right. That is the crucial distinction politically, Fassin writes. And only if we maintain the left / right contradiction can we take up the fight against populism and neoliberalism. Without the contradiction between left and right, the class struggle perspective disappears. Therefore, we should not start talking like the right-wing populists, who stretch the political horizon as a matter of "us" against "them," but hold on to the contradiction between left and right. We need to take the issue of emotion seriously and try to formulate a positive leftist perspective that can mobilize those who do not vote, but we should not try to hijack the right wing voters. It is those who do not vote, the left must hold, not those who already vote for the right.
Fassin's otherwise excellent criticism of the populism analysis thus ends up as a not very convincing defense of the good old West European left wing and its parties. The question is, after all, whether or not time has run out from that project. As Fassin himself writes, more and more people have abandoned politics. Maybe that's where the critical potential exists today. So in an anti-political position that has abandoned the established parliamentary system and the national democratic framework.

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