Leftwing populism: a primer

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections the question of leftwing populism (or left populism for short) is heavily debated among activists and progressives. Some people continue to sneer at all mentions of populism, seeing it as a betrayal of Marxist orthodoxy, or worse as a concession to rightwing politics. But many are realising that devising a successful progressive strategy in the Trump era, requires an understanding of populism and its direction towards progressive ends.

We currently live in what many have described as a populist moment that is upsetting the political order and favouring the rise of anti-establishment populist movements. The 2008 financial crash has profoundly shaken the credibility of the neoliberal free-market ideology that was installed since the 1980s and was accepted by the entire political mainstream. This crisis of legitimacy has opened the way for new populist movements on both the Right and on the Left, that are currently challenging neoliberal hegemony.

The unfolding of the present populist moment makes the understanding and appropriation of populism for progressive ends a matter of great urgency. This necessity is however confronted on the one hand with the great confusion around the term populism and on the other hand with the fact that it still carries evident pejorative connotations in public discourse. When people think of populism they mostly associate it with an irrational political attitude and identify populism with rightwing and xenophobic populism as exemplified by Trump, Farage and Le Pen. This is the main reason for the great suspicion on the Left towards populism. Yet, rightwing populism is only one of the possible manifestations of populist politics.

In recent years we have witnessed a number of leftwing populist phenomena in Europe and the US, that demonstrate how populism is not necessarily associated with rightwing orientations. The foremost example is Podemos in Spain, a party that has been explicitly described by many of its activists as “populist” as well as Bernie Sanders’s campaign in the US Democratic Party primaries, and Syriza in Greece which also displayed populist features.

These phenomena are the most recent manifestation of a longstanding lineage of leftwing populism which includes the socialist populism of Latin American movements, from Chavez to Morales, and whose origins hark back to the popular movements of the 19th century, such as the Narodniki, and the Chartists.

This primer aims at providing a quick introduction to leftwing populism. It covers recent leftwing populist parties and candidates in the US and Europe, looking at them through the lens of the literature on leftwing and progressive populism in authors as Antonio Gramsci, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. The text covers a number of key issues, including populism’s relationship with collective identity, class and the nation, as well as the differences between leftwing and rightwing populism.

This text is conceived as a work-in-progress that will be progressively improved and refined through the feedback of its readers. My hope is that it will contribute to dispel some of the confusion that is currently associated with the notion of leftwing populism and facilitate a more informed and strategic discussion on this notion.

1. Left populism pits the People against the Oligarchy

Populism, in its both leftwing and rightwing manifestations, revolves around the construction of the people in opposition to various enemies. The people is a “universal subject”, one which can encompass, at least in theory the entire citizenry, the totality of a given political community. This radical inclusivity and transversality is both its strength and weakness. The coherence of popular identity involves, as Ernesto Laclau puts it, the tracing of a clear frontier between the People and its enemies. The “we” of the People relies in other words on the presence of a clearly identified and visible Other, a “them”, in opposition to which the People can identify itself.

For rightwing populists the “enemies of the people” are foreigners and ethnic minorities. For leftwing populists instead the enemy is the Oligarchy, as an elite defined in socio-economic and power terms. It comprises bankers, rogue entrepreneurs and corrupt politicians who are accused of mistreating ordinary people: the 1% invoked by Occupy Wall Street’s slogan “We are the 99 percent”. The enemies of leftwing populism thus closely resemble those of the traditional Left. Leftwing populism adds a political dimension to the construction of the enemy. It targets not only capitalists but also puts an emphasis on the role played by their political allies and denounces political corruption as a means for vested interest to prevail over the general interest.

2. Left populism centers on the reclaiming of popular sovereignty

Popular sovereignty as the idea that the People has a right to govern itself without interference from special interests and external forces is the central demand of leftwing populism. Popular sovereignty is a term that is now also invoked by rightwing populists such as Marine Le Pen. However, it was at its inception a foundational concept in the birth the modern Left at the end of the 18th century. It was first theorised in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and it went on to inspire the American and French revolution, and the popular movements of the 19th century. Popular sovereignty has since been incorporated in many republican systems, as seen for example in the “We the People” preamble of the US constitution.

As populist movements often denounce popular sovereignty has been betrayed in practice, due to the increasing distance between citizens and their self-serving political representatives. This is particularly evident in present “post-democratic” times, marked by an increasing alienation of the citizenry from political institutions, and an alliance between the business elites and politicians of all mainstream parties at the expenses of ordinary citizens. Confronting this situation of democratic deficit leftwing populism calls for a restoration of popular sovereignty, and for a reclaiming of the State as the means through which to exercise people power.

3. Left populism is the progressive ideology for times of organic crisis

Populism, in both its leftwing and rightwing form, is an ideology that frequently arises at times of great instability, or of “organic crisis”, to use Antonio Gramsci’s term. These are times in which the pre-existing structures of representation become delinked from their traditional social bases, thus making many people feel they have no voice. We live at such a time of organic crisis: the crisis of the neoliberal order that has dominated politics for the last 30 years. The 2008 financial crisis has demonstrated the failure of the free-market ideology and produced widespread social distress, and has ushered in a phase of interregnum, a transitional phase beyond the neoliberal order whose outcome is still uncertain.

The rapid rise of both rightwing and leftwing populism is a symptom of how deep the discontent and anger with the neoliberal establishment and its political representatives runs. Both rightwing and leftwing populism criticise the liberal worldview and value, with its idea of a self-regulating market and a world of free flows beyond the control of governments. However, these two populist camps develop such criticism of neoliberalism in radically different ways. What rightwing populists have in stock is a more exploitative and authoritarian form of capitalism, a sort of new monopoly capitalism for the 21st century and a world marked by intolerance towards ethnic and religious minorities. Leftwing populists propose a radically different solution to the present interregnum, one which centers on a process of economic redistribution from the rich to the poor to move beyond the present state of extreme inequality, on the defense and development of public services, and on the construction of a more inclusive society.

4. Left populism is a response to post-industrial class fragmentation

One of the main differences between the populist Left and traditional Left lies in their analysis of class structure. The traditional Left saw in the working class as it emerged in the industrial era the necessary revolutionary subject. It focused on building organisational structures rooted in the workplace, and in particular in factories such as unions and cooperatives, on whose back, higher-order structures, such as federations and parties were in turn constructed. The leftwing populism of the 21st century, especially as it emerges in the US and in Europe, faces a very different social condition. It develops in the context of a post-industrial economy, in which the service sector has more than trebled the manufacturing sector, and is marked by extreme diversification and fragmentation of working conditions.

This is a society in which the dense and relatively homogeneous Proletariat of the industrial era gives way to the dispersed and individualised Precariat. It is a society, in which the sphere of work does not constitute anymore for many people the primary source of social identity. This is also due to the fact that the crisis has been swelling the ranks of the poor and the unemployed. In this context, the idea of the working class, which served as the central referent for 20th century Left, does not seem able to function as a unifying collective identity. To cope with this situation, leftwing populism, mobilises the notion of the People as a unifying and synchretic subject that can encompass different social fractions that feel at a disadvantage in the present predicament: the disaffected working class, the declining middle class, the new poor, and the precarious youth of graduates who cannot get on the employment ladder nor on the housing ladder. Leftwing populism unifying appeal to the People thus provides a means to overcome at the political level, the extreme fragmentation that nowadays exist at the social level. Its primary contribution to leftwing strategy is the construction of a new “historic bloc” out of a multiplicity of socio-demographic fractions.

5. Left populism invokes civic patriotism

Many people are suspicious of leftwing populism because they fear that alike rightwing populism it necessarily carries nationalism and xenophobia. This is however not true, as it is demonstrated by the practice of leftwing populist parties and political leaders who have been adamant about their universalism and anti-racist orientation. It is true however that populism invokes a civic patriotism, as a sense of pride in a culturally/territorially defined community, be it at local, national or regional level. Leftwing populist movements have often appealed to people’s sense of belonging and pride in their community as a resource for mobilisation.

Leftwing populism accepts that territorial and in particular national identity constitute an important feature in the experience of the majority of citizens around the world, especially those of lower income brackets, who do not have access to a more cosmopolitan lifestyle and world-view. National identity does not necessarily imply hatred for those who do not pertain to that community, or to migrants who were born elsewhere. Alike populism it can take both progressive and regressive, inclusive and exclusive manifestations. The nation can be seen as one scale of human experience in present society, among many other scales. It is thus important is to avoid the judgmental attitude that the traditional Left has often displayed towards national and territorial identities and to understand that there can be no real internationalism, unless we deal with the national question.

6. Left populism combines radical democracy and personal leadership

Leftwing populism involves a call for radical democracy, a demand that ordinary citizens have a direct say on all important issues affecting their everyday life. Leftwing populist movements have often pursued constitutional changes to facilitate a more direct participation of the citizenry in political decisions. Furthermore, they have promoted the creation of various institutions of direct democracy, including referenda, popular initiatives, participatory budgeting, and local consultations.

This pursuit of radical democracy is however accompanied by the reliance on personal and charismatic leadership, what constitutes a typical trait of many leftwing populist movements, as seen in the prominence of figures as Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales or Pablo Igleasias. The presence of charismatic leadersihp may seem to contradict the commitment to radical democracy. However, this is not entirely true. Obviously leaders need to be carefully controlled and monitored to avoid authoritarian distortions. Yet, the presence of charismatic leaders can provide an antidote to the byzantinism and intrigues of parliamentary politics. It makes one individual responsible for carrying out the popular mandate and thus provides citizens with a clearly identifiable pressure point to ensure that their will is carried out.

7. Left populism is not the aspirine of the 21st century Left

Leftwing populism should not be understood as a miraculous cure for all political problems. It is not the aspirine of the 21st century Left. If anything the theory of populism reflects a typically post-modern awareness of the fallibility of human pursuits, and of the need to refrain from messianic and totalising political solutions as those of 20th century totalitarianisms. Leftwing populism should be seen not as “the solution”, but rather as one the necessary in the development of an effective Left strategy in the 21st century.

Leftwing populism can in fact be combined with other progressive ideological orientations. It does not preclude the pursuit of socialist policies, such as collective ownership of strategic industries, strong welfare provisions and public services and a tight regulation of the economy. In fact, these are precisely the policies that have been carried out by recent examples of leftwing populism, as seen in the pink wave of socialist populism in Latin America.

Leftwing populism re-frames these policies as not being simply “class policies”, but also “popular policies”: policies which benefit not just one social class narrowly defined in socio-economic terms, but a broad coalition of different class fractions and socio-demographics, and ultimately aim at advancing the conditions of the entirety of a political community. In taking the state leftwing populism does not aim at the dictatorship of the proletariat, the domination of one class over all other classes, but at the construction of an inclusive and democratic popular power.

This primer is work-in-progress. I am eager to hear your feedback and comments, to integrate them in future revisions.