Left-Populism Is Down but Not Out

Setbacks for left-wing parties across Europe have led many analysts to declare the end of the “left-populist moment” which began after the financial crisis. But these defeats don’t have to be permanent — and populist strategies remain a vital means of mass mobilization.

Spain's Deputy Prime Minister for Social Rights and Sustainable Development Pablo Iglesias waits for the opening ceremony of the Spanish 14th legislature at the lower house of parliament, on February 3, 2020 in Madrid. Javier Soriano AFP via Getty

Following Syriza’s capitulation in Greece, Podemos’s compromises in Spain, and then the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in December 2019, skepticism seems to be spreading within left-wing circles as to the viability of populism as a political strategy for the Left. Similar discussions had already developed with regard to Latin American countries, especially as right-wing administrations replaced the left-populist governments associated with the “Pink Tide” of the 2000s.

This skepticism is often accompanied by the argument that the populist moment for the Left is now over. Even many of those once sympathetic toward the left-populist strategy now doubt its effectiveness, sometimes instead advocating a return to the purity of a class-based strategy. Recently, Jacobin dedicated a whole issue to left populism, in which it discussed Europe’s “short-lived and cruel … experiment in left populism [which] had ground to a halt”. The Italian version of the same issue of Jacobin was entitled “Where populism ended up.”

But even without ignoring populism’s limitations, we would like to scrutinize the claim that it has failed. Declarations of such end points often betray a linear and determinist logic — and thus seem to ignore the fluidity and contingency of the political and the continually reactivated cycles of political antagonism. Consider, for example, Argentina, where the populist left returned to power in 2019 after a four-year break — or Latin America more broadly, a continent that seems to be experiencing another “populist moment.” We would argue that these cycles of decline and reactivation are embedded in the political struggle itself — and thus demand a more open-ended perspective.

On the Decline?

The connection between populism and the Left is not new. But left populism most recently reemerged in light of the social exhaustion, discontent, and political disillusionment in the years after the 2008 financial collapse. Indeed, the square movements in Spain and Greece and the Occupy movement in the United States marked a turn in the politics of the last decade. While in European pundit discourse “populism” is conventionally associated with regressive politics, nationalism, and demagogy, these movements put forward demands in favor of democracy, equality, dignity, and economic justice. This challenged the mainstream — and left experts puzzled. In a sense transferring the legacy of the alter-globalization movement into the electoral arena, these movements opened up discussions about the reorganization and reorientation of left strategy; they basically brought “the party” and the question of how to govern back onto center-stage.

The following years saw numerous experiments seeking ways out of the Left’s chronic deadlock (an impasse amply illustrated by the events of 1989 as of 1968). Some addressed questions of participation and focused on digital forms of organization, communication, and democracy. While many favored a movement-oriented structure, others favored more hierarchical organization and others a blend of both. Some pushed for more radicalism in terms of their left discourse and program and others for less. Essentially, this was a polymorphic collection of political experiments that often shared little in terms of their internal architecture (and the picture is even more diverse if we include Latin America). But, importantly, their logic of articulation and symbolism employed a new political grammar that prioritized a profound people-centrism and anti-elitism (followed, secondarily, by more traditional class-based leftist traits).

But it didn’t all go to plan. Spain’s Podemos could be considered a paradigmatic case of left-wing populism that sought to “restore popular sovereignty” by “seizing the state.” After bitter fights within its leadership and various attempts to form coalitions with forces that it previously considered “the establishment” — interwoven with the rise of right-populist competitors — Podemos lost much of its credibility. Its institutional engagement was accompanied by critical setbacks, and its electoral momentum faded; however, Podemos has recently reached an agreement with the social-democratic PSOE to form a government on a social policy agenda.

Similarly, Jean-Luc-Mélenchon’s popularity has also faded in France. While his France Insoumise amassed popular support, making it the leading force of the French left, its mixed messages, ambiguous stances (for example, on Europe), and the often erratic character of its leader, made its political proposal unreadable. All these cost France Insoumise momentum since its height at the 2017 presidential election.

The most promising example of radical-left populism was Syriza in Greece. The story is largely known. Syriza emerged out of the post-2008 cycle of resurgent popular mobilization to demand state power and the reversal of neoliberal policies. The stakes were high, as were the promises made by Alexis Tsipras — and the hopes the people placed on his shoulders. Yet already a few months into its administration — suffering its lack of leverage in its negotiations with international creditors — Syriza signed a harsh austerity agreement. Soon, Syriza’s story took on different labels, marking the bitter taste it left for the Greek and the international left: “capitulation,” “the Greek case,” “Syriza’s failure,” even “the betrayal.”

The July 2019 elections in Greece saw the Right regain power. We are, then, perhaps confronted with the return of “the establishment.” However, it is important to note that the percentage Syriza secured, pushing it into opposition, was not all that distant from the one it first lifted it to power.

Without neglecting certain policy areas where Syriza attempted to safeguard and modestly expand the last bastions of social rights for the super-marginalized, clearly the party failed to deliver its key promise. After all, it had built itself around economic demands for the restoration of the popular sectors’ previous conditions and, most importantly, the cancelling of the Greek debt and the reversal of austerity measures. This is clearly the focus of the criticism Syriza, and by extension the “left-populist strategy,” received. Yet, the key question is whether Syriza’s populism was the specific reason for its failure. A similar question could be posed for Podemos and Corbyn, too.

It seems that the above assumption is grounded on the hypothesis that “more class politics and less populism could be the right recipe for the Left.” It is no secret that the last wave of left-populist (electoral) resurgence has not produced the desired results. But can the failure of Syriza, for example, stand in for the failure of populist strategies in general? Our central argument is that we need to distinguish — analytically at least — populist strategy from ideological content.

Clarifications on Left Populism

Such an analysis naturally turns to competing definitions of populism. But let’s not get bogged down in these — often reductionist — academic debates. What we wish to highlight is the strategic dimension of populism. Populist strategy performatively constructs a potent popular collective subject: a democratic majority constructed in the process of political action, rather than posited a priori. This process incorporates diverse struggles and demands, in the name of the “people” that is to be constructed rather than a “people” which is already there. Such a strategy is not, of course, guaranteed success; it is not a panacea, and other contingent factors are important in shaping its trajectory — especially after it enters government.

Within societies marked by multiple divisions, inequalities, and polarizations, populism thus indicates a discursive practice that aims at creating links between the excluded and suffering in order to empower them in their struggles to redress this exclusion. These discourses are articulated around “the people” as the central political subject demanding incorporation into the political community — restoring dignity and equality and honoring the commitment to “popular sovereignty.”

Hence, “people-centrism” is the first criterion for the discursive identification of populism. At the same time, this populist agency — which creates a politically potent people out of heterogeneous movements and activities, a multitude — employs a dichotomic, antagonistic representation of the sociopolitical field. The latter is divided between “Us” and “Them,” “People” and “Establishment,” “99 percent” and “1 percent.” As such, “anti-elitism” constitutes the second criterion for a rigorous identification of populism.

And that’s all — no more, no less.

Such a strategy can be, and has been, effective in many historic examples. But it provides no guarantee of success for the particular policies advanced, nor does it tip the balance of political antagonism forever.

Indeed, we ought to turn our focus away from any essentialist assumptions on populism, and instead focus on its strategic operation. Deconstructing the Left (class-based) critique of populism, we identify two currents structuring the assumption that populism necessarily fails. First, in these perspectives, populism fails because it is necessarily reformist. Its nature not to collide with capitalism will eventually reveal its limits. This is what summarizes the most recent European experience of left populism, according to these accounts. But, one wonders, to what other (supposedly victorious) option is this strategy compared?

Second, the left-wing critique of populism suggests that the populist moment for the Left is now necessarily over. We find the latter assumption problematic in that it ascribes some teleological essence to populism and to history in general. But it is important to focus on the performative dynamics in populism, found in its mobilizing function, rather than some imagined programmatic essence linked to specific outcomes. Let us approach these issues one by one.

It is true that Europe’s left populists have not succeeded in delivering most of their anti-neoliberal promises. It is also true that they underwent profound transformations due to institutionalization. We argue that it is not the populist core that is responsible for this outcome, but instead the leftist one.

(Left) Populism does not necessarily entail a form of reformist politics. It is, rather, one way with which a leftist programmatic package (regardless of its degree of radicalism) can develop its capacity to form coalitions, articulate demands, and mobilize supporters in order to construct a collective identity and acquire a form able to undermine the status quo within representative systems. In this sense, all communist, socialist, social-democratic, and radical-leftist projects can be populist, too. A Left program which, let’s say, pushes for redistribution, free health care, or free education can frame these demands in a populist way, i.e., by aiming to regain popular (neither national nor class) sovereignty.

Syriza’s limitations, for example, were not rooted in the fact that the party followed a populist strategy. Rather, they resulted from its gradual abandonment of its commitment to a clear break with neoliberalism. In fact, without a populist mobilizing strategy, Syriza — and Podemos — would not have been in a place to either honor or betray its policy commitments, to start with; while Bernie Sanders would not have been able to popularize his social-democratic agenda in the United States either. Nobody would have heard about them, in the first place.

The second problem emerging from the purist left critique suggests that the populist moment is now over for the Left. Yes, the picture in 2020 differs vastly from the proto-populist cycle of protest in 2010–12 and the subsequent rise of populist movement parties. Looking at their electoral fortunes, they seem to be on the defensive. What we observe instead is a resurgence of a regressive “populist” right. In a sense, then, the political opportunity attached to that specific moment may perhaps belong to the past. One ought not forget, however, that just as that political wave emerged “out of nothing,” unexpectedly, and became the hope of millions of people — channeling widespread frustration into an electoral project — it can also reemerge. This is precisely what has happened in Argentina. But it doesn’t come by magic.

Left Anti-Populism?

Often, the artificial dilemma which prioritizes “class” over “populist” (and, by extension, popular?) politics takes an anti-populist form. Contemporary anti-populism became evident, in renewed fashion, in the post-2008 years, as a denunciation of the square movements calling for “popular sovereignty” and “real democracy”; it reached its peak with the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Across these years, “everything and everyone we didn’t like” was framed as populist.

Anti-populism usually emanates from a liberal or extreme-centrist perspective, but we have recently observed left currents within this discursive repertoire (see for example some orthodox communists, for whom “the people” lacks historically the consciousness to lead the political struggle, and cosmopolitan leftists of the urban class for whom “the people” often appears as too kitsch in matters of taste). Although liberals and leftists have fundamental ideological differences, their anti-populism often shares a very similar logic.

In both anti-populisms, there is an embedded elitism, which tends to highlight some political agency assumed to be fundamentally and essentially superior. In the case of the liberals, it is the market, the institutions or the technocrats that always “know better”; in the case of left anti-populism, it is “the class” and its vanguard that does so. In both cases however, “the people” or “plebs” are an amorphous mass that is not legitimate enough to lead — either due to technical (in)capacity or its underdeveloped political consciousness. This hierarchy is what reveals the embedded elitism of all anti-populism. In the first case, this is founded on the superior knowledge and experience of a new aristocracy; in the second case, in the superior epistemological and political value of historical materialism.

The Limits of Populism in Government

Obviously populist projects are not panaceas. In fact, one can point to a number of limitations they may face. For a start, even when a populist strategy proves to be electorally victorious, it cannot guarantee the (continuous) hegemony of the political agent employing it. A deep and lengthy — obviously not, in any sense, eternal — hegemony would require additional tools and resources. This would include some sort of technical expertise and creative spirit regarding institutional design, combined with a firm (not to be confused with idealistic) democratic ethos.

Apart from that, the “clear and present” danger any populist force faces is the co-optation of its democratic radicalism. This happens if it succumbs to established (elitist) values and the preexisting post-democratic institutions of a society — to “business as usual.” Despite their radical rhetoric, very often populist projects are overdetermined by such features and prove to be unable to push forward genuine democratic renewal, especially when they face strong and determined opposition at the level of the national or the international institutional setting. They gradually get absorbed by so-called “democratic elitism” and, trapped within the tensions of representation, and their agency is gradually reduced to largely cosmetic or secondary gestures. This means they fail to facilitate further democratization and substantive popular empowerment (as for instance in Greece).

Under more favorable conditions, a populist government may (as in Argentina and Venezuela) manage to achieve many of its primary goals and enjoy continuous reelection, introducing quite considerable changes advancing the socioeconomic position and the political incorporation of popular sectors, reversing the spiraling downward social mobility of crisis-ridden middle classes, and raising the impoverished living standards of the lower classes. Yet even so, it may fail to impact considerably on the modes of production and the psychosocial framing of consumption which conditions the majority of social identities. In Venezuela, for example, social change seems to have been premised on the use of revenue from high oil prices; when the latter started to suffer, the Chavista movement failed to offer any real alternatives.

Yet, Venezuela belongs to a group of Latin American countries in which populism mainly meant the integration of the excluded masses into institutional life, as if for the first time — this prospect was enough to trigger pernicious polarization, eventually leading into a virtual civil war. It may thus be seen to have little relevance for what is happening in so-called “established democracies” in Europe. Let’s turn to Argentina, instead, which is located much closer to the European paradigm.

In Argentina, many years of heterodox populist rule have managed to restore the precrisis status of the fallen middle classes and to advance the lower classes. But when these classes again felt some stability and security, they turned back to old consumerist mores (overvaluing the free international movement of capital, going after imported goods with a vengeance, etc.). This meant serving the fragile Argentinian economy up to the forces of neoliberal globalization that led, once more, to a very deep crisis and another intervention by the IMF.

In other words, notwithstanding the many advances it achieved, contemporary left-wing Peronism in Argentina got trapped in a “nostalgic” or “mimetic” psychosocial turn back to the past. This reproduced types of identity relying on globalized capitalism, and thus in the long run benefitted political forces that represented a return to neoliberal “normality” (President Mauricio Macri). In the words of ex-president of Uruguay Pepe Mujica, although leftist Latin American governments dealt with relative success with the problem of poverty, they did this in a way that transformed the poor into consumers and not citizens.

Losing the House?

Perhaps we did bet a lot on populism. But did we lose the house because of it? Most of the limitations we have addressed above with respect to the implementation of the supposed populist “program” seem to follow from the difficulties that emerge in government. To be sure, it is not easy to combine populist priorities with a governmental rationale. Some populists were confronted with their inability to break with a preexisting political culture or socioeconomic frame or to handle anti-populist attacks in a way that protected or extended popular empowerment.

These issues, however, do not seem to be inherent to populist strategy itself. Such overdetermination and co-optation by outside forces can affect more or less all political movements (even class-based ones) when they come up against similar challenges within particular historical contexts. In fact, they may point to a broader limitation affecting left-wing commitments in the twenty-first century and the difficult passage to postcapitalist alternatives.

In his introductory article for the last issue of Jacobin, Bhaskar Sunkara argued that populism is not what the ruling class are really afraid of: “populism is the buzzword of the moment, but make no mistake about why the ruling class fears Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. They fear the erosion of their ill-gotten wealth and privilege. They still fear, in other words, not populism but socialism.” This is true! But we would make a small addition: what is terrifying the establishment is both the cause behind a certain mobilization (call it socialism) as well as the strategic ability to mobilize itself (populism).

At any rate, it needs to be stressed that without the populist strategy, socialist and progressive ideas would never acquire salience and a broader appeal. Without such a strategy, the ideas of Sanders would have never moved from the margins to the mainstream of American society. This strategy is not a recent phenomenon invented by the advocates of left populism — they just described and codified how it works. It was historically manifested in a “popular front” and other strategies and in the everyday practices of left parties well before the present conjuncture.

Perhaps, purist Marxists should pay a little bit more attention to Marx’s own preoccupation with the opening-out of the working class and the role of dichotomic political representations. He commented on the processes that institute a collective subject as a revolutionary agent:

No class of civil society can play this role without arousing a moment of enthusiasm in itself and in the masses, a moment in which it fraternizes and merges with society in general …. For one estate to be acknowledged as the estate of the whole society, all the defects of society must conversely be concentrated in another class.

In fact, it seems that especially in the last years of his life, Marx was very much aware of the need to address “the people” as something broader than the working class as identified in any one socioeconomic context. This is perhaps the reason why recent decades have seen a lot of challenging research on Marx’s interest in Russian populism, his correspondence with Vera Zasulich, and so on.

If we ignore all this, then the Left may well be heading down a path to voluntary insignificance — choosing to self-isolate. We should not be denying populism’s strengths, but rather discussing the historical conditions that favor it, and what can allow it to deliver when left populists get into power.