Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Laclau on Populism

Populist politics is back in a big way. Nigel Farage's Brexit Party is upsetting the polls based on a very simple premise: Leave won the 2016 EU referendum, and the parliamentary elites are taking your Brexit away from you. Crude, not strictly speaking true, but effective. How do you beat Farage, then? How can the populist surge be pushed back and the Brexit Party made as irrelevant as, say, Change UK? Unfortunately, there's no quick fix - an effective counter to far right populism doesn't begin in the period immediately prior to a set of elections. This we know, or at least should know. We are, after all, talking about the collective wisdom - a term I'm using advisedly - of mainstream politics.

How to get to grips with populism? On Populist Reason by Ernesto Laclau sounds like a good place for, well, precisely the reasons why his most famous work, co-written with Chantal Mouffe, got the brickbats. In their Hegemony and Socialist Strategy they provoked a great deal of controversy by arguing there was no necessary correspondence between class and politics, that socialism and the working class had a historic relationship but one that was contingent. i.e. You could not read off the politics of revolution and communism from the positioning of proletarians as a class who sold their labour power for a living. This was roundly criticised, but they were right in one crucial aspect. Class, class identities, and class politics are not something that should be assumed: it is something to be established and built in the first place. In so far as class politics exists in Laclau and Mouffe's terms, it is an accomplishment. Class struggle isn't just there, it exists only in as far as it is pursued. Hence one reason why the far left tend not to get anywhere is because rather than trying to create a politicised class subject, they assume it already exists and will attract such workers through exemplary activism and ultra correct politics. Class therefore is after the fact, not a priori.

This methodological note is useful for populism because we know the kinds of formations contemporary populisms have thrown up did not exist before the fact. They are not "natural" outgrowths of certain demographics, but are contingent phenomena requiring an explanation. This is the task Laclau sets himself.

What then is specific to populism? Anti-elitism? Vagueness? Irrationalism? Charismatic leaders? Catastrophism? The sovereignty of the people? Laclau observes you find these characteristics in all kinds of political movements to greater or lesser degrees. For instance, Tony Blair is the standard bearer of "normal", "sensible" politics with his centre grounds, technocracy, and (alleged) commitment to "what works". Yet at one time or another, he employed all the populist devices. If those stratagems are what constitutes populism, then clearly it's a label without any utility. Yet there are obvious differences between the Tories and the Brexit Party, between En Marche and the Front National, between the Merkel's Christian Democrats and Alternative für Deutschland. Nigel Farage's politics aren't any different to a great many Tory backbenchers (and why the Brexit Party should not be separated from recomposing the Tory vote), but there's a certain something that makes his enterprise qualitatively different to the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, David Davis, etc. How do we separate out the specific qualities of populism?

Laclau proposes taking what is often assumed exceptional about populism - the stress on vagueness and rhetoric - and turning this supposition on its head. Far from being unique, vagueness, or indeterminacy, and rhetoric are inscribed in the social and are therefore properties of "normal" politics. To tease sense out of this observation, he proposes three basic concepts. First is discourse, which Laclau treats as the overall complex of social relations - what Marxists call totality. Here, actions are what they are and acquire meaning by virtue of their difference with other actions. Second is an interplay between empty signifiers and hegemony. Like relations, identities (individual and group) are differential and therefore have meaning through difference with others. The character of these differences and the sedimenting of identities into partial wholes takes place within a totality, which determines what is and isn't outside. For instance, in liberal democratic politics parties identify each other by their differences, but all are equivalent vs what the system excludes: terrorism, foreign enemies, extremist politics. However, this complex totality is never complete, it can never fully totalise and close off against the outside. Therefore limits require policing, and so one difference within this complex assumes the representation of its incompleteness. Effectively, a particularity assumes the responsibility of universal signification. This is an outcome of struggle, and is therefore a hegemonic operation and results in an empty signifier - a difference among differences that works as a first among equals, and represents the rest. For instance, the Tory stress on the deficit to the exclusion of all else strung together a series of policies and positions while excluding its opposite, which was Miliband social democracy-lite. One policy objective, reducing public spending, overwrote and signified everything else, including the government's political economy. Likewise with the SNP, their one main policy - Scottish independence - simultaneously signifies the rest of their policy agenda and excludes its opponents, the resolutely unionist Westminster parties.

Laclau's third concept is rhetoric. Words matter, in that they have material force. They also distort and slip their meanings. For instance, Cicero noted there are only so many words to name all the things in the world, so they will acquire new meanings and cast off others. For example, an organ is a term for your innards, an institution, and a musical instrument. This matters for Laclau because hegemony operates in more or less the same way. Differences and equivalences proliferate within its boundaries, their dynamism and slippages inscribing and informing hegemony, but never so that their co-option is total. Their excess overflows hegemony's capacity for neat capture, meaning inclusion always goes hand-in-hand with exclusion.

What has this got to do with populism? In this abstract rendering of the political/social, populism produces a particular kind of challenge to it. Beginning with a political demand, some times they are fulfilled (absorbed) by the powers that be, sometimes not. Again, in line with Laclau's approach to discourse each demand differs. If it is granted, it is accepted in a 'differential', or isolated way. However, if it is refused it can combine with other different demands as something that has been knocked back. In this sense, more funding for young people's mental health, calls to scrap fracking, and demanding a fairer voting system, for example, are equivalences by virtue if their rejection. These can combine into a chain of equivalences with each articulator finding common cause with others. Therefore we have an internal barrier - a repeat refusal, leading to antagonism - and an articulation, the linking up of variegated demands. This begets a third moment: the formation and consolidation of equivalential chains in a popular identity, a political subjectivity that is something more than these chains. However, because totalisation is impossible the line between differential, or democratic demands and equivalential (antagonised) demands are unstable, sharp incorporation/non-incorporation slipping into and out of populist chains and turning up in other, non-populist chains. For instance, how UKIP's demand for an EU membership referendum was adopted by the Conservatives.

It follows then that rather than being a movement, in the sense of a species of social movement, populism is a type of political logic, and goes some way to explaining how populism can carry different kinds of politics. Populism is no more right wing than it is left wing. Second, its imprecision and fuzziness is thanks to its chains of equivalences - what's in, what's out (and by extension, who's in, who's out), and lastly a logic constantly subject to the conflict between democratic and equivalential demands.

There is much more to Laclau's argument, including the construction of 'the people' of populism and the naming of equivalential chains in the person of a charismatic leader. But by thinking about populism as a logic, it is possible to start thinking about strategies for disrupting the populism of opponents and, if it's your political bag, constructing a populism conducive to your politics. Let's have a quick think about this in relation to Farage and the Brexit Party. Brexit is the empty signifier. It is an equivalential demand par excellence symbolising the antagonism between the people and the elite because a) the people voted for it and b) the parliamentary machinations since are elite attempts to water it down, frustrate it, and reverse it. As such, every other grievance, unmet demand, and general sense of powerlessness can be thrown into this perfect container, everything that is outside to Westminster can fuel this catch-all grievance engine. The same logic extends to Farage and the people he's selected to run with him. Farage is an outsider in Westminster terms, and while he has not allowed anyone else to challenge his authority, his running mates are outsiders too. The ex-RCP and their Warrington Bomb/porn for paedos peccadilloes, and the sundry Islamophobes find their status cemented every time the media pulls something up from their past to discredit them. This form of populism may well have the effect of mobilising people against them to try and swamp them in the course of an election, but it doesn't disrupt the support they have.

Does Laclau offer any insights? Widening the possibility for the co-option of demands is one. Indeed, what we're likely to see before the next general election is the wholesale adoption of hard Brexit by the Tories, at least for the cameras and papers anyway. But ultimately, getting down and dirty in the guts of populism is what's necessary. We know the logic, but the logic isn't free-floating. It is fed. Elaborating the programme for older voters, who tend to power right populism more than any other demographic, looking at the myriad of unsaid demands and grievances the Brexit chain of equivalence scoops up, challenges us to think about ways of co-opting them and neutralising them. It's a task easier said than done, and one much harder than Laclau's book, but done it must be if we are to detoxify politics and banish the hard right from political efficacy permanently.


Speedy said...

You can never exclude the hard right permanently because it is not a political opinion but a characteristic.

As you say, populism is politics-neutral, its a strategy, something the USSR used effectively until a cocktail of economic failure, outside competition and sheer political error led to its downfall. It is not even political - religion is almost defined by them and us.

You lost me on some of the technical stuff, but it seems to me that what you're saying is populism needs fertile ground. The fertile ground of Brexit (if we concentrate on elder voters) has been long in preparation - there is as you have said the economic aspect of accumulated wealth and security, but also the specific attributes of a generation of Baby Boomers who first "threw off the shackles" of the 50s and 60s (actually thought they did - a bourgeois revolution) and then shaped by Thatcherism, the long tail of the class system and the right-hegemony of the mass media.

You can slice this cake however you like - a populism for millennials? Maybe an Instagram star. The problem is democracy (it wasn't a "problem" in the USSR as it was a means of control). Populism cannot deliver in democracy (because by definition populism is undeliverable) but it can destroy it.

It's like a dragon in GoT - whoever's got one is going to turn into a despot basically, and burn down Kings Landing.

Anonymous said...

(When I use the word you or your I do not literally mean the author!)
Populism is a pejorative term because it assumes your analysis is correct and objective whereas those of your enemies are irrational, it assumes the people who support you are logical and the people who support your opponents are illogical. In other words you embody everything that is intelligent and thoughtful and your opponents pander to ignorance and prejudice.

Now I am perfectly willing to accept the latter but less willing to then assume you embody all that is intelligent and thoughtful. For example my claim is that much of liberal politics is simply the reverse side of the coin from so called populist politics, in other words it isn’t built on any objective scientific analysis but is simply one assertion put forward to negate another assertion. It is a battle of ideologies with erroneous claims.

Doesn’t the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau sum up liberalism? He speaks of transgender and women’s rights while at the same time he dumps toxic waste on the poorest people and does everything in his power to keep doing it!

The other thing about populism is that it assumes anything popular is somehow based on ignorance, so it’s the actual opposite of democracy. Democracy assumes that 100 people will make better decisions than 1 person whereas those who bandy about populism fear the decisions of the 100 and therefore reverse the equation. For them 2 ‘informed’ people make better decisions than 100 people without a firm grasp of the facts. This assumes that facts are more important than people’s innate sensory perception and their ability to process information sub consciously to arrive at decisions that result in better outcomes. Underlying this is the assumption that machines should not only replace human physical labour but also should replace human experience. Machines know what is best for humans more than the humans do! This fits in very well with capitalisms general dehumanising affects.

Populism is also a loaded term because they don’t call it nicheism, the fact that they call it populist and not for example atomist politics is because the people who use the term have a negative view of the masses, especially when they come together to express shared opinions. Personally I think atomism is a better word, these are opinions not of a shared popular group but are the fragments of a strategy to divide and conquer.