Academic Papers

Can left-wing populism revive social democracy?

This paper investigates the concept of populism, in particular in relation to the way in which left-wing traditional parties and new actors have (or have not) adapted to modern populist discourses in the light of the popular rejection of traditional institutions and parties.

The aim of this paper is to establish whether left-wing populism can be a solution to the democratic crisis. To do that I will first describe the context in which populist parties have grown for the purpose of understanding its roots. Secondly, I will discuss the various account given to the general concept of populism in order to establish under which understanding of the concept we can make the case for a populist left. Thirdly, I will investigate the concept of hegemony and common sense developed by Gramsci together with the different accounts of left-wing populism to explain why social-democratic parties have lost the battle for hegemony and their ability to represent the subaltern classes. In conclusion, I will argue that left-wing populism can revive social democracy as soon as it is able to affect the battle for hegemony and power and to move beyond the Neoliberal hegemony.

The process of globalization, which is everything but a new concept (The Economist, 2018), has taken a particular path since the 90s, when the effect of Neoliberal policies were slowly becoming real, showing the essence of Neoliberalism: an economic and political theory which aimed at creating a certain social order, with specific power relations and with an hierarchical economic system that allocates consistent portions of wealth in the hands of a restricted elite through deregulation of markets, marketization and privatization (Harvey, 2007).

Together with that, it brought the first populist parties in councils and parliaments, especially in Europe. These new actors have become today mainstream, remaining stable and gaining strength, against the odds. While traditional parties of the left have slowly abandoned the ideologies that had characterized the world until the end of the cold war (leaving space to its winner) populism as a reaction to certain policies and to the political system itself was planting its seeds (Mudde,2016).

The traditional social-democratic parties in Europe have recently disappeared from the political spectrum and the right-wing nationalist narrative is becoming mainstream. Except for a few cases, the left worldwide seems to struggle in reorganizing itself around a political project, and the distance with the impoverished ones confirms this trend of self-referentiality.  While the far right has reorganized around this new ground, addressing people issues and fears in a deviant way, the left have failed to see what was going on in the real world, and has turned into a sort of political elite which invoked ‘responsibility’ against what they called ‘the enemy’ of democracy: populist parties.  As argued by Hermann (2007), after having abandoned an alternative view or analysis of the world, turning to what we could call a liberal and pro-market left, it did not take too much (but not even it was a quick process) for socialist and democratic parties in Europe and in the world to lose consensus, contact with the world and people.

France and the electoral disappearance of the historical Socialist party, the US with the victory of Donald Trump and just recently Italy (Bloomberg.com, 2018), where the democratic party scored its worse performance for a progressive party in the history of the Italian Republic, leaving the people to be represented in large part by the new-born populist five start movement and the xenophobic and racist Northern League (Squires and Foster, 2018).  After this global debacle, the question that comes naturally is: will left-wing populism be the solution to revive democratic participation?  Just a few realities today seem to be moving in the right direction, at least if we look at how they score electorally. The British labour party, the Spanish Podemos and the Greek Syriza are some of the most important realities of left-wing movements and parties which have tried to interpret the sentiment of society and to drive it towards an emancipatory project.

The most recognized account of populist parties, without differentiating between left and right wing, is that they share the vision of the ‘common’ against an illegitimate and selfish elite (Mudde, 2004 ,p.543). Later, Mudde and Kaltwasser (2013) divided populism into two categories: exclusionary populism, proper of Europe, and inclusionary populism (proper of Latin America). However, the class-dimension of populism seems to be neglected and reduced to the right-wing nationalist narrative and version of populism in Europe. The fact that there is a hegemonic discourse which exploits populist sentiments to reach specific goals is evident but electoral trends show that there is a class dimension in the support of right-wing populist parties in Europe, not reducible to the fear of the ‘Other’, which however plays a role in it. (The Guardian, 2018).

Authors such as Mudde (2016) underline that a negative attitude towards immigration, for example, is something that characterized one kind of populism, not populism itself. What they believe is that the notion of populism relates to the notion of antagonism between the people and the elite, which are not representatives of the common will. There is, however, a more complex discussion when she defines populism as a thin-centred Ideology, a notion that was originally coined by Freeden (2016) to talk about those ideologies that were not fulfilling all the requirements needed to be proper ideologies. If the study of Mudde and others on Latin America is important, they do not explain alone the reason why populism should be intended as an Ideology. Authors such as Aslanidis (2016) underline how this account is problematic as it fails to catch the broader reality of the populist discourse.

The debate around the nature of ideology is highly contested. On Ideology, Althusser contribution is important especially since he defines some agents of populism, from the educational system to the media (in Eagleton, 2007). Following his framework, it would be wrong to categorize a phenomenon that arises in opposition to the classical ‘neoliberal’ institutions and to the mainstream order (that later gets interpreted from different stands and with different aims) as an ideological phenomenon.

Populism is often defined as a tool to give power back to ‘the people’ as they are the one that ultimately should be represented. The notion of the ‘common’ stresses the idea that the political elite is not representing the interests of ‘the people’ and that, some add, it entails a process of ‘othering’ of particular categories in society that would not belong to the ‘majority’ (the immigrants, the financial elite). However, as Otjes and Louwerse (2015) argue, it is not clear if the latter is a characteristic of populism itself since it relates to the way in which right-wing or left-wing populist parties fight for hegemony and consensus. Only on issues such as the rejection of the supranational order, populist parties often share a common ground.

Relevant on this issue is the differentiation of populism made by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who differentiate between a fallacious populism which interpret people’s fears and use their sufferings to prompt xenophobia and the ‘war between the poor’, and an ‘healthy’ one, which is aimed at uniting ordinary people against a governing economic and political elite that makes the interest of the 1% (Houwen, 2011).

Some, as Stavrakakis and Katsambekis  (2014) as concerns Syriza, argues that the difference between left-wing populism and right-wing populism is that the former is emancipatory and stresses the need to overcome wealth inequalities and the neoliberal discourse in order to change the common sense and ultimately society, while the latter has a strong nationalist claim that exacerbates the differences between national people and foreigners, promoting the idea that the cause of their impoverishment is always the corrupt elite that is bringing immigrants, who in turn steal jobs. The literature regarding left-wing populism and its difference from right-wing populism is still contested. However, to confuse the notion of populism with the one of demagogy is a conceptual mistake.

March (2017) in a study about populism in Britain, argues that more than populism itself, the study of Ideology and its interaction with the populist discourse is fundamental to understand the nature of left and right-wing populisms. There is enough academic evidence to say that the composition of these two opposing concepts (elite versus the people) will be dependent on the political identification of the populist party in question and thus that populism is a concept that often combines with ideologies or discourses and thus political views.

Following Gramsci, the political struggle is never fixed but hegemonic. What Gramsci called “cultural hegemony”, is the idea that classes are not a fixed or ‘natural’ elements characterizing the society, but they are ultimately the product of common sense and the dominant/hegemonic discourse (Hall, 1985).

Populism, in this sense, is an opportunity for the left to reconnect with the people, with the common sense that shapes society and especially with those who suffer the consequences of Neoliberal globalization by having their wealth expropriate, and by being considered just in relation to their production value. To liquidate populism as a solely ‘bad’ or ‘demagogic’ reality means not to understand and thus to participate in the struggle for hegemony. As the Marxist philosopher Althusser argued, the common sense is the product of people experiences with the real world, and being absent in that real world for a movement that wants to represent the interest of the many, means to abandon its duty (in Althusser,2007).

This becomes clear when we look at voting patterns and we realize that, both in Europe and elsewhere, those classified under the category of working class are today the supporter of right-wing populist parties. If the cultural argument has certainly its consistency, it is hard to neglect how, for example, the Italian working class, included members of the historical trade unions, have supported right-wing populist parties such as the Northern League (Squires and Foster, 2018), a party whose leader, protectionist on paper and neoliberal in reality,  has been really careful in attacking trade unions and in labelling them as a useless feature of the past, contrary to the third-way of the democratic party.

As the study from Oesch (2008) shows, there is evidence from countries such as Austria, France, Belgium, Norway, and Switzerland that this process was already in place many years ago. As Oesch argues (p.351) workers are the losers of globalization and modernity. The slow dismantling of industrial mass production, the slow process of privatization and deregulation of markets to foster foreign investments, the practice of dislocation and mass redundancies have led to a situation where the one suffering the most the consequences of those policies, have turned to those that were at least offering an alternative to the ‘progressive’ path a neoliberal world, that was not seeing the masses imploding and were still promoting more free trade policies while imposing austerity measures and asking for sacrifice to ordinary working people (see Hobolt, 2015).

Mouffe (2018) argues that we are in a time of crisis and of resistance as a consequence of the Neoliberal hegemony and the rhetoric of ‘moderation’, something that seemed more to be a tool to hide political conflict and to limit the agonistic struggle. What she describes as a “post-political” situation, has led to a de-politicization of politics and thus has given credit to the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to neoliberalism. We need to fight the construct of the concept of people used by the far-right populist message to unify communities under the national umbrella and the xenophobic stance towards the different. Mouffe argues that the center-left parties in Europe have become subordinated to the Neoliberal hegemony and that thus they have no more credibility to offer a new vision, as they implemented the policies that have generated wealth inequalities, redistributing wealth from the bottom to the top. Since the mainstream left has not generally been able to move away from Neoliberalism, often trying to offer a ‘softer’ version of it stressing more the necessity of equity but failing in proposing a credible alternative, so it is not clear how they can win the battle for hegemony and change, eventually, the common sense. This is why I believe, as Mouffe argues, that:” Instead of rejecting the term populist, we should reclaim it”.

In conclusion, the popular element and the popular dimension of democracy does not leave the left any other choice if not to participate in the struggle for hegemony to avoid that the right-wing xenophobic rhetoric will be the only one left to give a shape to the concept of the people and to define what is known in society. In this sense, left-wing populism can revive social democracy by driving those stances towards a democratic, fairer and more inclusive society that represents the interests of the many, without discriminating and scapegoating the poor, the elderly and the diverse because they were not the responsible for the 2008 financial crisis, for which working people are still paying the price all over the world (Obstfeld and Rogoff, 2009).

-Lorenzo Cortinovis





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