We need popular participation, not populism
Publisher: Red Pepper
Date Written: 27/02/2017
Year Published: 2017
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX20532
Wainright dissects the problems with liberal democracy and argues for real democratic self-government.
When the cold war was over and the free market right victorious, the new participatory left nevertheless continued to grow and make significant breakthroughs, most notably in Latin America in the 1990s. At this point, liberal elites screeched 'populism' as their term of abuse, for Lula's Workers Party, Evo Morales' Socialist Movement, and Chavez's successful overthrow of Venezuela's military dictatorship.
In response, Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau (1935-2014) exposed this attack for what it was and still is: a class-based contempt and fear of the people as self-determining political actors; a thoroughly anti-democratic rejection of the 'intrusion' of workers and peasants into the sacred citadels of government. His long-time collaborator, Chantal Mouffe, has followed this with a powerful analysis of the tensions between liberalism and democracy. She shows how democracy, with its concern with inequality, will never flourish if it remains subordinate to liberalism, through which equality is sidelined by an abstract and therefore partial notion of freedom.
While there is much of value in both their analyses, their solution - to assert, from the left, the need for 'a political frontier' that divides society into two camps, calling for the mobilisation of the 'underdog' against 'those in power', 'them' and 'us' - is not a sufficient condition for an effective transformative strategy.
Arguably, such a reframing is a necessary condition for gaining a popular hearing electorally. Certainly, the rightward move towards a self-satisfied consensual centre, highlighted by Mouffe, left the electoral battlefield wide open to the populist right. But breaking the constraining hold of liberalism - and a proper challenge the inequalities that feed the right -- requires a more structural reconfiguration of politics and capitalism than this.