When Ernesto Laclau passed away last April aged 78, few would have guessed that this Argentinian-born, Oxford-educated post-Marxist would become the key intellectual figure behind a political process that exploded into life a mere six weeks later, when Spanish leftist party Podemos won five seats and 1.2m votes in last May’s European elections.
Laclau’s goal was to invert the analysis on populism – overturning the received wisdom that, explicitly or implicitly, always uses the term pejoratively. Usually, describing a person or a movement as populist implies that they appeal to basest instincts, hitting the lowest common denominators like a hammer on windchimes, sacrificing intellectual acuity in the name of short-term success.
Why, Laclau asked, should this necessarily be so? What if vagueness, simplification and imprecision were good, necessary qualities in a political movement? He writes: “Is not the ‘vagueness’ of populist discourses the consequence of social reality itself being, in some situations, vague and undetermined?” It is important, Laclau goes on, to “explore the performative dimensions” of populism. What is the process of simplification and emptying in aid of? What is “the social rationality they express”?
In the case of Podemos, repeatedly attacking la casta (the elites) may seem simple or trite on paper, as some have argued, but expressing your disavowal in the context of Spain’s domination by a corrupt, unreformable “regime of 78” (the year of the post-Franco constitution) which is in thrall to the troika and their friends in the bailed-out banks, as well as 40 years of Francoist patriarchy before that, becomes potentially transcendent.
Laclau also encouraged the likes of Podemos to think about who is served by anti-populism. The dismissal and denigration of populism has been “part of the discursive construction of a certain normality, of an ascetic political universe from which its dangerous logics had to be excluded”. It is here that Laclau’s words illuminate the present crisis: this universe, this constructed normality, is tragically familiar. It is one in which the centre polices the boundaries of political thought; and it is a universe in which Ed Miliband can be called “red” while promising to enforce neoliberal austerity policies. It is also a universe in which prominent leaders of the nominal left, from the Parliamentary Labour Party to Trotskyites, exhibit a pathological lack of faith in large swathes of the population.
And this is the nub: populism is seen as dangerous because democracy is dangerous. “Rationality belongs to the individual,” Laclau writes, characterising the anti-populist thesis, and when the individual takes part in a crowd or a mass movement they are subject to the most criminal or beastly elements of that group and undergo a “biological retrogression” to a less enlightened state of being.
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