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"Populism is a necessity"

For Belgian political scientist and post-Marxist Chantal Mouffe, right-wing populism is not a problem, as long as there is left-wing populism to counterbalance it. She tells Julia Korbik why populism could actually foster democracy instead of threatening it.

The European: Ms. Mouffe, you argue that many countries in the European Union are in a situation of “post-politics.” What do you mean by that?
Mouffe: That there is really no longer a striking difference between the policies of center-left and center-right parties.

The European: How so?
Mouffe: Center-right and center-left-parties offer a variant of the same kind of politics. Center-left parties do not offer an alternative to the neoliberal globalization promoted by the Center-right. The only thing the Center-left can do is to manage it a bit more humanely. This creates a consensus of the center, which leaves the people without a real choice between different alternatives.

The European: What is the consequence of that?
Mouffe: Either the people lose their interest in politics – that’s why there is so much abstention – or the people tend to vote for right-wing populist parties as we currently witness in a lot of countries. Those populist parties at least pretend to offer an alternative: they are against the establishment; they take the demands of the people into account and claim that they are speaking on their behalf. That is why I think this post-political situation is at the origin of the growing success of right-wing populist parties all across Europe.

The European: So, to put it provocatively: Would you say that the European Union needs more populists in order to spark off a real debate?
Mouffe: We have to talk about what kind of populism is desirable. In general there is a tendency to see populism as something profoundly negative and essentially demagogic. But in fact there is a certain necessity for populism in democratic politics.

The European: How do you mean that?
Mouffe: For me democratic politics has to do with the creation of a people, of a collective will. This is what populism is trying to do and it’s why I don’t think populism is necessarily undemocratic. However, we need to ask how this “people” needs to be created in order to foster democratic politics.

“A complete return to purely national politics”

The European: And how do right-wing populists answer this question?
Mouffe: When they speak about “the people,” they refer to an entity that is restricted to a certain category of people from which immigrants are excluded. This is usually accompanied by a xenophobic discourse, which is of course very negative for democracy. But let’s not forget the possibility of a left-wing populism in which the notion of “the people” is constructed in a different way: it includes both immigrants and all the people who are working in a specific country. The adversaries of the people in this case are not the immigrants, but the big transnational corporations and all the forces of neoliberal globalization. For me, the development of a left-wing populism is the only way to fight against the growing success of right-wing populism.

The European: Fighting fire with fire – so to speak.
Mouffe: As I said: in many countries, right-wing populists are the ones who speak and appeal to the popular sector. What we increasingly see is that socialist, social-democratic, or labor parties abandon the popular classes. They are more concerned with representing the middle classes. The result is that there are many sectors that do not feel represented by the existing left-parties. This is why they tend to be attracted by right-wing populism. Both in France, with Marine Le Pen and the Front National, and in Austria, with Heinz-Christian Strache and the FPÖ, the right-wing populists have increasingly added to their discourse themes which they basically stole from the discourse of the Left. The defense of the welfare state and the public sector are just two examples of issue areas that socialist and social-democratic parties have abandoned over the years because they have opted for the neoliberal ideology.

The European: You have argued that populist parties are often the only ones claiming that there is a real alternative to the politics of the center. But in most cases, the proposed alternatives are quite utopian.
Mouffe: Absolutely. Marine Le Pen’s political program would be a catastrophe for France! She wants to get out of the European Union, she wants to get out of the Euro and she wants to close the French frontiers – a complete return to purely national politics. Of course this isn’t realistic! Le Pen’s program is also completely unacceptable from a moral point. It’s deeply xenophobic. For Le Pen, the Muslims are the adversaries of the French people. She presents them as a threat to the secular principles of the French Republic. We see a similar phenomenon in the Netherlands with Geert Wilders. The assumption is: Muslims cannot be integrated because they do not accept our values concerning the equality of gays, women etc. Of course this kind of politics is not compatible with a pluralist conception of democracy.

The European: You spoke about the chances of left-wing populism. What solutions does it offer in contrast to right-wing populism?
Mouffe: Left-wing populism has to take into account the concerns of the people by proposing other solutions and by trying to find ways to fight against the neoliberal globalization. Of course, the aim is not to reject globalization – that is simply not possible – but to fight for an alternative version of it. Right-wing populist parties simply reject globalization. They want to come back to the traditional nation state, which is impossible today. The tricky question for the Left is how to take account of the popular demands that call for an alternative to Neoliberalism and to envisage what could be a realistic alternative in the present circumstances.

The European: Isn’t it a bit too easy to say that left-wing populism is the solution in the fight against right-wing populism? After all, even left-wing populism is a kind of populism.
Mouffe: Yes, but as I said, populism itself is not a bad thing! My point is that populism is a necessary dimension of democratic politics. There is a necessity to take into account the demands of the people and to create a collective will. The crucial issue is how the “people” is constructed. This also requires us to acknowledge another dimension that I think is very important: the role of passion in politics.

“The neoliberal incarnation of the European project”

The European: What do you mean by “passion in politics”?
Mouffe: It refers to everything that is related to the affective dimension that is mobilized in politics. The affective dimension is at the origin of collective forms of identification. To create a people you need to mobilize this affective dimension in order to create a collective will and to make people identify with a project. But in the post-political situation that we witness at the moment, both center-right and center-left believe that passion is something that can only be used by the Right end of the political spectrum. I think that’s a very dangerous appraisal.

The European: Why?
Mouffe: If you leave the affective dimension to right-wing populists, there is no way to fight against them. Not only has the affective dimension to be acknowledged, but it also has to be recognized that this affective dimension can be shaped in a much more progressive way. The two main passions in politics are fear and hope. The right-wing populists use fear – that is why they are fighting against immigrants. And it’s important for left-wing populists to mobilize the passion of hope: to show that there is an alternative to the current situation with the growing gap between rich and poor and the destruction of the welfare state. Right-wing populist are very much aware of the importance of using this affective dimension. It is crucial for the Left to acknowledge it and to intervene, to mobilize and to foster affect in order to create collective forms of identification that could deepen democracy.

The European: Do you therefore think that populism – because of its use of passion – is a chance for the European Union and could help the latter in overcoming the consensus between center-right and center-left?
Mouffe: Maybe, but not when we’re talking about right-wing populism. I think that it will be important to create some kind of left-wing European populism.

The European: How could that happen?
Mouffe: It would have to rally the people of Europe around a project that will put forward a different kind of Europe. I am convinced that the lack of alternatives to the current neoliberal Europe is one of the reasons why there is so much rejection of the European Union – which is often presented as a crisis of the European project. I, however, think that it’s rather a crisis of the neoliberal incarnation of the European project.

The European: Not the European Union itself is put into question, but merely its current state of affairs.
Mouffe: Exactly. Not so long ago, the European Union was something that people could identify with. But over the last ten years things have changed: we’ve seen a growing movement of Euroskepticism and Euro-rejection. For me the reason for that is clear: people today can’t identify with this neoliberal Europe. They experience that it does not take into account their concerns, especially when it comes to jobs. Quite the contrary: many European policies are destroying jobs.

“Parties on their own are not enough”

The European: What can be done to change this?
Mouffe: We need to create a European project that people can identify with. The people have to know that if they don’t want a neoliberal Europe, they can always create a different one. However, what I observe is a tendency to always present people who are critical of the neoliberal Europe as anti-European. But they are not!

The European: Do you have an example?
Mouffe: The case of the 2012 elections in Greece is very interesting. When Alexis Tsipras and his EU-critical alliance Syriza – for me definitely the example of left-wing populism – didn’t win, everybody was relieved: Thank god the pro-Europeans won! But Tsipras wasn’t anti-European! He never proposed to leave the European Union or the Euro. What he and his alliance wanted was a reform of Europe. I think this is what we need – we should understand that people who want a different Europe are not anti-European.

The European: How can we overcome the notion that critics of the European project always have to be fundamentally anti-European? I know that conflict has an important place in your theory of agonism.
Mouffe: In the European Parliament there exists an alliance of left parties that are critical of the current state of the European Union. It’s interesting to see that all over Europe there are groups getting organized in order to elaborate a different kind of European Union. And I think it would be really important that all those groups would join hands because the movement is currently very dispersed. I very much believe in the importance of joining forces within the more traditional representative forms and the new social movements.

The European: Isn’t that already happening?
Mouffe: No, because there is a position – exemplified by the Indignados and the Occupy movement – which claims that we need to reject the institutions of representative democracy. The idea in many social movements is that we need a completely different, horizontal, democratic model. That we don’t need parties because they’re obsolete. Well, I don’t believe that. I think parties are necessary for democracy. In a pluralist democracy, parties play a crucial role in allowing the institutionalization of conflicts. But parties on their own are not enough. They need to work with social movements. What is needed is a synergy between social movements and parties

The European: The lack of debate at the European level is often criticized. What has to be done to stimulate debate?
Mouffe: I think we need to politicize Europe and to abandon the view that Europe is some kind of neutral institutional arrangement. I think that’s also another reason why there is no real debate about what kind of Europe we want. The struggle between a left-wing conception of Europe and a right-wing conception should be promoted and valued. Such a debate would certainly contribute to fostering interest among people. The disinterest in European elections results from a feeling that nothing important is at stake here.

“Institutions can be radicalized”

The European: You mean, we need some radical solutions.
Mouffe: It depends on what you mean by “radical.” It is not a question of destroying the current order and to abandon the market. For me, the problem is that the Anglo-American model has become increasingly dominant in Europe. We have to recover what is at the core of the European identity. It is nearly a given in a social democracy with its emphasis on equality, social rights, and the welfare state. It certainly needs to be adapted to the present situation and include the demands of the social movements. I’m not saying that we should go back to the welfare state we had thirty years ago. But those values – social rights and the ways in which they can be implemented and deepened – is something really important. I’m quite sure that if this were at the center of European politics, people would become interested again and would identify with the European project.

The Europan: You’re famous for coining the term “radical democracy.” What would a radically democratic European Union look like?
Mouffe: What I mean by radical democracy is a radicalization of the liberal-democratic institutions. Many people have misunderstood this and think that the project of radical democracy requires a rejection of the liberal-democratic institutions of representative democracy. It doesn’t!

The European: What does it require instead?
Mouffe: It will deepen and extend current democratic institutions. This is why the project of radical democracy is opposed to the notion that we need a revolution, that liberal democracy has to be destroyed in order to construct a real democracy. That’s not what I mean. Liberal-democratic institutions can be radicalized; they can be made more democratic. To work within the system is about transforming its institutions, making them much more accountable, more representative – and this is an objective towards which parties and social movements need to work together.

The European: Is this kind of democratic project even realistic? It is at least very demanding?
Mouffe: This radical Reformism or radical social-democratic project is certainly something that can be envisaged through an immanent critique of liberal-democratic institutions if we accept that the ethical and political principles of liberal democracy are liberty and equality for all – one can’t find more radical principles. The project of radical democracy consists in pushing our societies to really put into practice the ideals that they profess.

This interview originally appeared on The European’s European Elections Special Website. For more articles visit:


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