All posts by Hans Marius Hansteen

About Hans Marius Hansteen

Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Bergen, Norway

“Polite Conversation is now Undesirable”: Peace and Agonism in Georg Johannesen’s Rhetoric

When I tell the truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those that do. (William Blake)

Sometimes, the voice for peace is aggressive, oppositional and agonistic to the point of violence. The Norwegian rhetorician, author and public intellectual Georg Johannesen (1931-2005) was no stranger to forceful rhetoric. Indeed, the promotion of peace by conscious and forceful articulation of agonism is one of the central and recurring motifs across his multifaceted oeuvre. In this article, I will focus on one, short, and relatively early text by Johannesen. It is an illustrative example of the rhetoric of what I suggest calling “counterhegemonic peace movements” in the nuclear age. Apart from introducing Georg Johannesen to a non-Norwegian public, the aim of this paper is to sketch out what I mean by that.

This topic fits well into the thematic framework of “reason and emotions in the landscape of (contemporary) politics”. The United Nations adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons on June 7th, 2017. This is obviously a landmark decision and may be taken as an index of hope. On the other hand: None of the nuclear powers nor their allies have signed or ratified it. Whether we regard these facts optimistically or pessimistically, there is no doubt: The nuclear age is still our age. Thus, the history of controversy regarding nuclear weapons is an important element in the ‘ontology of the present’ (Foucault), and it does indeed highlight the conceptual complexity of relations between reason and emotion.

First, the nuclear age is an age of fear. Fear, however, is not irrational. According to the Philosopher (Aristotle), it is crucial to fear the right things at the right time and in the right way. This is courage: the apt response to danger. The fear of nuclear war is perfectly rational. Advocates for nuclear deterrence acknowledge this; according to this doctrine, it is the fear of nuclear escalation that prevent nuclear powers from going to war against each other. Advocates for nuclear disarmament counter this by pointing out that effective deterrence presuppose an effective treat, i.e. the readiness to use the weapons; to avoid the danger of nuclear escalation (and the devastating effects of even limited deployment of nuclear arms), these weapons should be abolished altogether.

The landscape of contemporary politics has the possibility of nuclear war as its horizon. Thus, the bomb is already in use by virtue of its very existence, as Georg Johannesen pointed out in the preface to his 1981 book Om den norske skrivemåten (“On the Norwegian Way of Writing”). He wrote that at a time of accelerating arms race – and of mass protest against it. The text we will present and discuss here is however some twenty years older. It was published as an editorial in a Norwegian journal in 1962 and reproduced in Georg Johannesen’s 1975 book Om den norske tenkemåten (“On the Norwegian Way of Thinking”). The initial publication did indeed cause a stir, but the reprints has reached a substantially greater audience. Both Om den norske tenkemåten and Om den norske skrivemåten were reprinted in 2004, and once again in 2019. The “Editorial” translated in extenso below.

Georg Johannesen – a very short introduction

Well-known in Norway as an author, as a public intellectual and as an academic, Georg Johannesen was outstanding, albeit controversial, in all these fields. What made him unique, however, was the way in which he combined them. As he himself put it: “If you divide GJ into three parts: 1) the scholar, 2) the poet and 3) the politician, I reinterpret this to be a division in accordance with three different situations in the interviewer, not in GJ.”[1] Some of his poetry is published in translations (into English, German, French, Serbo-Croatian and Vietnamese), and Norwegian actor Geddy Anniksdal has toured the world with three solo performances based on texts by Georg Johannesen.[2] Apart from this, Georg Johannesen is virtually unknown outside of Norway. An introduction is thus appropriate.

Georg Johannesen was born and raised in Bergen, in a lower middle-class family; Word War II and the German occupation (1940-45) left strong and lasting impressions in an obviously sensitive and intelligent child. He was never a pacifist but refused to do military service; of the 18 months of alternative service for conscientious objectors, he spent ten in prison. He studied English, History and Norwegian at the University of Oslo from 1953 on. Before graduating in history of literature in 1960, he had published a novel in 1957 and a volume of poetry two years later. Both earned considerable attention; in particular, Dikt 1959 (“Poems 1959”) was hailed as the voice of a new generation.

Georg Johannesen was a member of Sosialistisk studentlag (“Socialist students’ society”), affiliated with the Norwegian Labour party. He edited the society’s journal Underveis and wrote regularly for Orientering. This weekly paper was the mouthpiece of the opposition against NATO and more generally for the left wing of the Labour party. The majority of the Socialist student’s society, including Georg Johannesen, was expelled from the Labour party’s youth organization in 1959, following a visit to the GDR. (The loyal minority included Thorvald Stoltenberg, Knut Frydenlund og Gro Harlem Brundtland, who later held central positions in state and party.)This was a prelude to the events leading to the founding of Sosialistisk folkeparti (“Socialist people’s party”) in 1961: The Labour party turned down initiatives that would have committed Norway to disconnect from the nuclear strategy of the NATO and also banned any association with Orientering for party members. In the general elections of the same year, the new left-wing party won two seats in parliament, breaking the majority that the Labour party had held since 1945. Georg Johannesen joined the new party from the beginning.

Partisan commitment: A document and an example

This situation is the backdrop for Georg Johannesen’s 1962 text, to which we will turn in a moment. First, some details on the publication in which it occurred. Among the initiators of the Socialist people’s party were Torolf Solheim (1907-1995), veteran from the Communist resistance (but a member of the Labour party during the first post-war years), who published the periodical Fossegrimen (1954-1968). (“Fossegrimen” is a well-known figure in Norwegian folklore and national iconography. He lives in waterfalls and is a master fiddler; the best folk musicians are supposedly his pupils.)  For a period from 1962 on the journal was renamed Veien Frem (“The Way Forwards”), as a continuation of the antifascist periodical of the same name, published in the 1930ies by Nordahl Grieg (1902-1943); this was also a way of reclaiming a patriotic icon for the left. (Journalist, poet, playwright and novelist Nordahl Grieg earned controversy for his plays, writings and communist leanings during the 30ies. His wartime poetry, however, was in high esteem across the political spectrum. He died in an air raid over Berlin, aboard a Lancaster bomber as an enlisted reporter.)

In 1962, Georg Johannesen as one of the co-editors of Fossegrimen/Veien Frem, and wrote the following editorial statement:

The new weapons originated here. Our most prominent ally made them during their last fight with our second most prominent ally. Our allies number three and four also possess such weapons. (West Germany only demand them, it is part of sovereignty, one claims there.)

In our states, there is no insight. There, the perdition of humanity is prepared; at the same time, one perceives oneself to be extraordinary advocates for human dignity. This trick is called freedom. To prepare insight, we must create contempt for the western freedom.

We are, for instance, not impressed by the fact that we are permitted to publish this journal with deviant opinions. We understand that it occurs to be quite harmless to the harmful people. We ourselves will know exactly when we have found the way forwards: the moment when they want to prohibit us.

The will to war equals the enthusiasm for the western freedom. The hatred to Russia equals the lack of insight now demanded from everyone. For who can claim that the Russians are so much worse than us that it justifies our current policy? We repeat that the new weapons originated here; they were used twice by our great friend, who still show no signs of de-Trumanisation.

For this is the most important difference between the 30ies and the 60ies: the ones that the 30ies fought now govern us. It is possible that there are other villains, but here we are governed by our own.

We should no longer engage in alehouse politics and whisper the three princes of Laos a word of advice. We should try to prepare ourselves for something that must happen precisely here and in short time. If this sounds like a threat, it is correct. If it sounds like an empty threat, it is also correct. Now, nuclear Catholics and nuclear Protestants confront each other like fascists and antifascists once did. This is the most important similarity between the 30ies and today.

Polite conversation with supporters of NATO is now undesirable. From three reasons:

It would be far from matter-of-factly to discuss with a man who without insight ran about with a loaded gun. Knocking him over is matter-of-factly. We do not believe in the distinction between evil and stupidity or in the usefulness of explaining without changing.

Increased use of invectives would make Norwegian politics more matter-of-factly. Our spades should transform into spades, and our governments into what they are. This is insight.

We intend to seize power in this country, and then we intend to put Hallvard Lange and similar before a court of law. There, conversation may commence.[3]

Hallvard Lange (1902-1970), was Norwegian minister of foreign affairs (Labour) from 1946 until 1965. Two notes on the translation: “Alehouse politics” is in the original “politiske kannestøperier”, an allusion to Ludvig Holberg’s comedy Den politiske Kannestøber (“The political Tinker”, 1722). The expression “matter-of-factly” translates the Norwegian “saklig”; it has strong normative connotations, pertaining ideals of unbiased, reasonable and rational public and academic discourse.

“Saklighet” was a key term in Arne Næss’ En del elementære logiske emner (“Some elementary logical topics”). First published in 1947, Næss’ book has seen eleven reprints, and was until the turn of the millenim by far the most used textbook for examen philosophicum, the introduction to philosophy course still mandatory for all university students in Norway. Næss himself was a pacifist, maintained “saklighet” as a basic democratic virtue, and appealed to it in his unequivocal critique of cold-war-policies, cf. his contribution “Mer saklighet i Øst-Vest-debattene” (“More matter-of-fact-ness in East-West Debates”) in Tenk en gang til – om fred og forsvar (“Think once again – on peace and defence”, Oslo, Tanum 1952). Among the contributors to that volume, all highly critical of cold-war-policies (and Norway’s role in it), were Gutorm Gjessing, professor of etnography at the University of Oslo and co-initiator of Sosialistisk Folkeparti in 1961.

Ever since its publication, the “Editorial” has been cited as proof of Georg Johannesen’s alleged extremism, which supposedly has exerted bad influence on generations of Norwegian leftists. It is obviously provocative, and intentionally so, but the message is extremely matter-of-factly: To start a political party is to seek power. If you accuse your adversaries of complicity in severe crimes, they should be allowed to answer – preferably before a court of justice. It is of course impolite to call the government ‘villains’; this government does, however, support the nuclear strategy of the NATO, which imply threatening with nuclear weapons. If we (reasonably) assume that the deployment of nuclear arms implies total war, threatening with nuclear weapons (which imply the will to use them), is arguably in close vicinity of fascism. To produce and possess nuclear weapons is arguably to prepare for the perpetration of crimes against humanity. Etc.

Georg Johannesen’s attack on the moral and political integrity of the government was thus an attack on the doxa (‘the Norwegian way of thinking’); an attempt to shift the premises of the discussion, and a call for mobilization. At the time of its initial publication, it addressed a specific political situation – but more than that, it thematized the situation as such. Most of all, it was an attempt to clarify the self-understanding of the left-wing opposition and its new-formed party. Unsurprisingly, the message did not come down well with everyone, especially among the party’s academic supporters. Left-wing students like Jon Elster and Nils Petter Gleditsch (both of whom were to become prominent academics) were loudly critical.[4] After all, it was their circles who were accused of engaging in “ale-house politics” (i.e. giving priority to academic discussions of international affairs at the expense of working for change at home).

When reprinted in a volume of “Articles and interventions on cultural and socio-political issues 1954-74” (as the subtitle translates), the text was in one sense made available as a historical document. But along with the rest of the book, it became something more: a kind of bottled message for successive generations of new readers. Historical source-material becomes a source of self-reflection for those readers who somehow identify with the historical understanding articulated in the text. A rhetorical intervention in a specific situation becomes an articulation of the “ontology of the present”. Pertaining to the initial publication, the “Editorial” may be read as an appeal to members and supporters of the newly formed party in the specific constellation of Norwegian politics in the early 1960ies. For subsequent generations of readers, it becomes an example of partisan reasoning as such, and of the necessity of partisan commitment.

Note that “partisan reasoning” and “partisan commitment”, as I use the terms here, does not mean to subordinate one’s reasoning to party doctrine or one’s commitments to party discipline. A political party in the ordinary sense of the word, is a way of organizing political activity – including collective reasoning – around shared commitments.[5] Parties (as political organisations) express partisan commitments, they do not create them. Commitments to collective ideals and projects are partisan to the extent that they are opposed to and in conflict with other ideals and projects. Partisan reasoning is agonistic and relational; it must reflect upon one’s own commitments, upon the adversary and upon the nature of the conflict. Albeit analytically separable, these aspects will always be articulated on each other.

All these aspects are obviously present in Georg Johannesen’s text. It appeals to mobilization of a partisan “we”, aware of its present powerlessness, but committed to seek the power needed effect change. It makes serious charges against those in power, i.e. it goes far beyond expressing disagreement. Finally, the conflict is described as a matter of life and death, notably in a non-metaphorical sense. It is this combination that illustrate the rhetoric of counter-hegemonic peace movements in the nuclear age.

Hegemony and opposition

Before I give an outline of my idea of counter-hegemonic peace movements in the nuclear age, some – tentative – conceptual clarifications are in place. ‘Hegemony’ is used here in a broadly ‘neo-gramscian’ manner, inspired by Laclau and Mouffe. [6] Theoretically, the concept of hegemony can be used to trace the internal relations between material, institutional and symbolic domination, while avoiding reductionism. Hegemony is intended to account for non-coercive forms of domination, particularly in settings marked by social, cultural and political diversity. Here, domination works by organizing, rather than by suppressing pluralism – and the same goes for resistance. Religious hegemony is not the power to impose orthodoxy, but the capacity to draw the line between heterodoxy and heresy, and to determine the terms of recognition and toleration. Political hegemony may acknowledge, recognize and even encourage oppositional voices and movements; it works through the designation of spaces and roles for partisan commitments and in the soft and subtle limits put on them. Loyal opposition is a part of hegemony.

Rhetorical hegemony is the capacity to define the limits of legitimate public expression. To clarify, we may make an ad hoc distinction between disagreement and dissent. Let us say that disagreement pertain to differences of opinions, attitudes and commitments that appear legitimate within a shared framework. If the framework itself is challenged, we encounter deeper or more radical differences. This is what I call dissent: The expression of opinions, attitudes and commitments that are incompatible with the generally accepted framework. They are not necessarily intended to challenge hegemony but nevertheless expose the limits of legitimate public expressions. Dissent makes the framework visible by showing that not everyone shares what is taken to be common ground. In this sense, dissent is a political analogy to the anomalies that expose the presuppositions of a scientific paradigm, i.e. the kind of hegemony that unites a research discipline.[7]

Occasional expressions of dissent are normally put aside, much like anomalies in normal science; they will supposedly wither away or be dealt with later. Recurring protest may, however, turn into a more persistent opposition against current policies. The more central the policies challenged by opposition are to hegemony, the more difficult it will be to accommodate oppositional claims. Permanent frustration will potentially severe loyalty on both sides and turn differences into conflict: Opposition becomes the other of the hegemonic “we”, and the dominant powers becomes the other of the oppositional “we”. Normal politics – melioristic mitigation of differences – is replaced by political agonism, postulating a division in the ‘body politic’.

In standard usage, the ‘body politic’ is united under a single governmental authority.[8] A divided body politic is thus a contradiction in terms, expressive of a genuine paradox. In theories of radical democracy, this paradox is the locus of the political: Any authority is legitimate only to the extent that it is contestable in principle; if it is contested in fact, authority weakens by loss of legitimacy. Political stability require that the basis for legitimate authority is not seriously challenged; in other words, that hegemony prevails in circumscribing opposition. Hegemony is at safest where opposition need not be taken seriously.

Rhetorical hegemony does not work by suppression of oppositional voices. In democracies, the limits of legitimate public expression are not maintained by censorship, but by symbolic power, the authority that unites public opinion (the ‘soul’ of the ‘body politic’). This unity is not a matter of a unitary doctrine, but of doxa – a shared framework within which disagreement is possible and accepted. Symbolic power is operative in authorising some voices, arguments and expressions as valuable and relevant to the formation of public opinion, and relegating others to the margins of public debate. When not met with silence, dissenters are typically met with ridicule, condescendence and suspicion. Divergent opinions and expressions are tolerated to the extent that they do not challenge hegemony. Sometimes, they are the negative foil for the projection of hegemonic commitments; sometimes they may be acclaimed as a ‘useful corrective’ that ultimately assert the correctness of hegemony.

Thus, even radical opposition may be co-opted, either negatively, as the incarnation of disloyalty, or positively, by limited concessions or varieties of repressive tolerance. But the heart of the matter remains. Radical opposition, appealing to common sense, decency and commitment to the common good, challenge the unity of public opinion. Dissent articulates impertinent questions: Is ‘common sense’ really common? Does it really make sense? Is the ‘common good’ good for all and everyone? When oppositional claims are consistently frustrated, and oppositional voices are relegated, parts of the opposition may eventually question hegemony as such.

Campaigns for nuclear disarmament will e.g. argue that nuclear deterrence is too expensive and risky by the standards of common sense; that threatening potential enemies with annihilation is the epitome of indecency; and finally that peace is acknowledged as fundamental to the common good. Advocates of status quo who want to counter such arguments head-on, may apply varieties of the common saying “That May Be True in Theory, but It Is of No Use in Practice”, insinuating a lack of understanding on part of the opposition. “Matter-of-factly” reference to Realpolitik is often accompanied by overt attacks on the integrity of the opposition: Conscientious objectors may be accused of cowardice; to address the consequences of nuclear war may be dismissed as alarmism; activists may be described alternatively as naïve or cunning, i.e. as either the enemy’s useful idiots or his agents.

The conscious dissident does not believe in the mitigation of differences but rather take an agonistic stance towards commonly accepted premises for communication. Often, the standards of polite conversation are broken: The dissident address topics that are normally avoided or euphemised, in a confrontational manner, disrespectful of common symbols and commitments. Georg Johannesen’s text above is a case in point.

From fear to anger: Contesting deterrence

No one deny that nuclear weapons are extremely powerful and dangerous; the foreseeable consequences of any use of them give reason to fear. This fear is ontologically constitutive for the nuclear age; it is ‘our age’ insofar as there is a ‘we’ that is aware of the existential threat of nuclear disaster. Foucault coined the notion of the “ontology of the present” in commentaries on Kant’s writings on enlightenment and revolution.[9] In Kant’s interpretation the enthusiasm for the idea of a republic, voiced by spectators witnessing the French revolution from a safe distance, was a “historical sign”, indicating humanity’s moral disposition.[10] In analogy, the reactions to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could also be interpreted as a historical sign, indicative of the moral disposition of distant spectators. This analogy would certainly merit closer examination. For now, it must suffice to note that a salient point in the ‘ontology of the present’ is the interpretation of public responses to events that reveal and evoke hope and fear simultaneously.

The doctrine of nuclear deterrence is based on a certain interpretation of the rationality of fear: Supposedly, the fear of nuclear escalation – to the point of mutually assured destruction – makes it rational to avoid or limit war as much as possible. Several objections can be raised against this: There are e.g. good reasons to avoid or limit war anyways, and nuclear powers may wage conventional wars on the assumption that their geopolitical adversaries are deterred from interference, etc. In this context, I will focus on the role of fear in the contestation of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. A basic point in the rejection of deterrence is that nuclear deterrence itself is dangerous; it is a risk-game based on heightening the stakes infinitely. Moreover, deterrence relies on the effectiveness of threats, and a threat is effective to the extent that it implies its potential execution. Put simply: If we have reason to fear nuclear war, we have reason to fear those who threaten with nuclear arms – and no less our allies than our enemies.

Even to put forward such a description of the situation is a counter-hegemonic move, inasmuch as it undermines conditions for trust and loyalty that seem to be indispensable for a stable political order. That the wider public is reluctant to accept this understanding of the situation may indicate the strength of the hegemony. Apathy seem to be a more common response, since to accept this understanding of the situation give reason to despair. The response of peace movements is to politicise despair by transforming fear into anger and directing it towards those responsible. I repeat that fear is not irrational per se; neither is anger. Righteous anger is an apt response to grave injustice and arguably the most important political emotion, precisely because of its intrinsic links to reason, i.e. justifiable accusations, claims, and projects. So long as these accusations, claims and projects remain controversial, any commitment to them will remain partisan, and their justification will be an articulation of partisan reason.


Representing the Socialist people’s party, Georg Johannesen was a member of Oslo’s city council 1967-71, focusing on urban development (i.e. housing and traffic policies). He ran unsuccessfully for parliament in 1969, was not elected to the central committee of the party, and eventually withdrew from party politics. From the early 1970ies, Georg Johannesen was affiliated with the University of Bergen, as a researcher and eventually as associate professor at the department of Nordic studies. He was pioneer in the study of popular literature and non-fiction, demanding a “totalized” concept of literature, and introduced a rhetorical turn in Nordic studies and didactics.

His re-education from freelance author and translator to university teacher involved (according to his own words) “ten years of serious hobby studies of among other subjects: Norwegian literary criticism, classical rhetoric, language theory from abroad, continental sociology, Norwegian daily press and public broadcasting, moral philosophy and religious texts, party programs or poetry.”[11] Basically, he was catching up with his European contemporaries. His age peers count intellectual celebrities like Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Guy Debord, Félix Guattari, Umberto Eco and others. WWII and its aftermath shaped their formative years, they all digested intellectual impulses from structuralism and western Marxism; as publicly visible but not yet established intellectuals, with an independent attitude to genre and disciplinary boundaries, they became anti-authoritarian authorities in the 1960ies and beyond.

Georg Johannesen’s deconstructive reading and his rhizomatic writing may well be characterised as post-structuralist and post-marxist. Note, however, that these terms should not be taken to indicate that structuralism and Marxism are obsolete. The point is rather to avoid falling behind the insights from them, and to continue the investigations into the (de)formation of language and discourse that they inspire. When Georg Johannesen turned from activism to academic pursuits (at a time when numerous students made the opposite turn), this was not a farewell to his basic commitments. We may put it this way: He had challenged hegemony and tried to change the premises of debate by rhetorical effort. This however, proved extremely difficult, and he turned to the study of rhetoric in order to understand the operation of hegemony and the formation of the premises of public discourse.

“If I take part in public debate”, Georg Johannesen used to say, “it is to expose the moderator as the enemy”. His last book was on history’s losers and was aptly titled Eksil (“Exile”). It was published in 2005. He passed away unexpectedly on Christmas eve the same year; two months short of his 75th birthday. From 1986 on, Georg Johannsen received a Norwegian government grant.[12] He continued in a part-time position at the University of Bergen, from 1996 as professor of rhetoric. The experts who assessed his qualifications for professorship, noted matter-of-factly that international rhetorical research has been completely unaffected by Georg Johannesens activities.[13]

Georg Johannesen explicitly downplayed his own impact factor: “I may have influenced some dozens of students and five to ten close friends of mine.”[14] This may of course be dismissed as an instance of false modesty, but in view of the consistency of Georg Johannesen’s commitments, it carries a more sincere significance. In 1967 he claimed that world peace is best served if states like Norway are abolished. The reasons he pointed out are still valid: Reliance on nuclear arms and NATO membership, overconsumption of resources, and the unwillingness to face up to the fact that we are governed by our own villains.


[1] Georg Johannesen and Hans Marius Hansteen in conversation: “Skiljet mellom forskar og diktar er skapt av ein dum forskar” [“The distinction between scholar and poet is invented by a stupid scholar”], i Gjerdåker/Skarheim (red.) Samtaler på universitetet. 19 faglige møter mellom lærer og student. Oslo, Universitetsforlaget, 1991, s 69. Translated here.

[2] Internationally, Anniksdal perform in English and Spanish. Her shows are produced by the independent theater company Grenland Friteater: Blue is the Smoke of War (1997-2005), No Doctor for the Dead / No doctor par les muertos (2004-) and 7 Songs of the Refugee (2015-).

[3] Georg Johannesen: “Lederartikkel”, in: Om den norske tenkemåten, 1975, p 114-115. Translated here.

[4] Cf. Helge Vold: “Om Veien Frem og Fossegrimen”, in Basar, 2, 1978 (p 66).

[5] Cf Jonathan White and Lea Ypi: The Meaning of Partisanship, Oxford, Oxford Univ. Press 2016.

[6] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London, Verso 2001 (first edition 1985).

[7] Thomas S. Kuhn described the history of science in political terms, and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions highlight how seemingly pure intellectual commitments are emotionally charged and entangled in power relations. Kuhn was inspired by French historical epistemology; this may account for the ‘family resemblance’ to Foucault’s notions of discouse, explicitly applied in Laclau and Mouffe’s reformulation of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony.

[8] “body politic,” Dictionary, Accessed 6/5/2020.

[9] Michel Foucault (1986) “Kant on Enlightenment and revolution”, Economy and Society, 15:1, 88-96, DOI: 10.1080/03085148600000016 See also: Foucault: “What is Enlightenment?” in The Foucault Reader, NY, Pantheon Books, 1984, p 32-50.

[10] Cf. Kant, Streit der Fakultäten.

[11] Om den norske skrivemåten. “Innledning” [“introduction”], 1981, p 7.

[12] A Norwegian government grant (“statsstipend”) is awarded by parliament in order to give select individuals opportunity to pursue scholarly, artistic and cultural activity on an independent basis.

[13] Øivind Andersen, Jørgen Fafner og Kurt Johannesson: “Georg Johannesens retorikkforskning” / in: Arnfinn Åslund (red.) Johannesens bok. Om og til Georg Johannesen. Oslo, Cappelen 1996, p 328.

[14] Hans Marius Hansteen and Georg Johannesen in conversation, op cit page 75.

Populism as an Essentially Contested Concept or: On the Dangers of Centrism

Three years into his term, hardly anyone would call the French president successful, I guess. Back in 2017, however, Emmanuel Macron’s election was met with great expectations, bordering on enthusiasm, by many commentators. It was perceived as a token of hope, because it was said to prove that it was possible to defeat populism. I found this rather puzzling. As many others, I was relieved that Marine Le Pen was unable to rally more than a third of the electorate behind her chauvinist programme, but was it really an achievement to beat her? Could not virtually anyone have done?  Moreover, what was it supposed to mean, that Macron defeated populism?

Of course, Le Pen exemplifies what is commonly known as “populist rhetoric”. Typical elements easily recognized are: The promise to change the game of ordinary party politics; staging as the leader of a movement, and as the voice of the common sense of ordinary people; exploiting prejudice; and not least, standing up against what is described as imminent dangers to the national interest and wellbeing of the people.[1] Now, the obvious differences between their programmes should not make us blind for the striking similarities between the contestants. Macron, as well, promised a new beginning; staged himself as leader of a movement, and as the voice of common sense; he too exploited prejudice and purported to stand up against an imminent danger to the interests and well-being of the nation. The difference, of course, is that the “common sense” that he appealed to, was the general worldview of the educated, urban middle classes, whose most deep-rooted prejudice is the belief that they themselves are unprejudiced. Of course, the imminent danger to the nation, as perceived by the followers of Macron, was not immigrants or Muslims, but the populists – and notably, not only on the right wing.

  1. Populism as a polemical concept

The term “populism” is most often used polemically, and notably as a pejorative term, denoting an actual or potential threat to democracy. Projecting all problems and challenges to democracy into the image of the populist danger, is a key feature of “centrism” as a mirror image of populism. On the other hand, blaming the liberal mainstream for all problems and frustrations is a key feature of “populism” as a mirror image of centrism. In this way, politics seems like a house of mirrors – where, as we know, it may be difficult to tell left from right.[2]

Preliminary, we may distinguish between “populist rhetoric” and “the rhetoric of populism”: On the level of “populist rhetoric”, we have the polemical use of (positive) references to “the people” – as in speaking for the people, in the name of common sense, defending the people, mobilizing the people, and so on. What I call “the rhetoric of populism”, work on a different level, where we encounter the polemical use of (negative) references to “populism” – as in attacking “populists” and “populist rhetoric” in the name of reason. “Populism” is sometimes regarded as a symptom, sometimes as the illness itself – but in any case as a problem. This is why the widespread and recurring “rhetoric of populism” is so problematic, in my view.

My concern here is not with strategic communication, so I restrict myself to few words on why I would not recommend the “rhetoric of populism” as an important ingredient in political communication. Most obviously, it is merely reactive – the opponent will keep the initiative; it is negative – your own virtues stand out only in contrast the vices of your opponent; it stays on the surface –substantial debate over programmes are avoided.(Of course, this gamble may work, sometimes: Macron’s greatest asset in the second round of the 2017 elections was the fact that he was not Le Pen.) Last, not least, the rhetoric of populism has an unmistakable tinge of paternalism, of talking down to people. At the end of the day, this will only strengthen the appeal of straightforward populist rhetoric. Bluntly put, you will not enlighten anyone by calling him or her stupid. If someone, in your honest opinion, is prejudiced, misguided or in illusion, you should rather appeal to their capacity for thinking, and provide them with reasons and occasion for revising their opinions. However, the problem with the rhetoric of populism is more profound than the – very real – possibility of alienating voters by offending their intelligence.

There are, of course, good reason to be sceptical towards anyone proclaiming to be the “voice of the people” – but the rhetoric of populism tend to delegitimize any positive reference to “the people”. If speaking of “the people”, or even worse, for “the people”, becomes suspect in itself, it affects any attempt to give voice to popular concerns: The rhetoric of populism tend to discredit any defence of “the people” and any political mobilization in the name of “the people”. This is a profound problem, I think, for (at least) two, interrelated reasons: Firstly, important conceptual resources for the understanding of social and political dynamics are lost. Secondly, and even more severe, the concept of democracy itself becomes obscure. After all, the literal meaning of “democracy” is “rule of the people”. The term “populism” derive from “populus”, which is but the Latin word for “demos”.

2. Towards an analytic concept of populism

To address the first of these problems, I will give a very brief sketch of the concept of “populism” in recent theories of “radical democracy”. My main reference is the book On Populist Reason, published in 2005 by Argentinian-born political theorist Ernesto Laclau.[3] As I read it, the author attempt to establish “populism” as an analytical concept, intended to clarify the dynamics of social, cultural and political conflict. A basic assumption is that these aspects are always interrelated, or, in Laclau’s own usage, ‘articulated’ on each other. What we get, is a framework for interpreting movements that challenge domination. If applied in a value-neutral, descriptive manner, this works somewhat like a Weberian “ideal type”. In addition, and in accordance with his own political commitments, the author attempt to do something more. Laclau is not presenting a political programme, but an enquiry into the conditions of possibility for left-wing populism. (On Populist Reason is thus a sequel to Laclau and Mouffe’s earlier work on Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.[4]) For the present purposes, I restrict myself to paraphrasing the image of the dynamics of political mobilization offered, and notably in a different vocabulary. Here, the point of interest is not Laclau’s theoretical approach as such, but the socio-political phenomena that it highlights; my argument is inspired by, but does not rest on Laclau’s writings.

From time to time, everyone experience suffering, injustice, dissatisfaction – and most of the time, we endure; blame ourselves, bad luck, the way things are; or we cling to the belief that things will work out, eventually. Every now and then, patience reach its limit, however. We complain; demand something done, that something change. If this happen, life goes on. If not, our grievances may turn into frustrations of a second order; we blame those obstructing our attempts at relieving our situation. Our disappointment (or anger) may fuel demands for greater changes; we may question the competence or good will of the people in charge, or even institutions and power structures. We want to hold something or someone responsible – and most of the time, we leave it there, maybe clenching our fist in the pocket.

Sometimes, however, we become aware that we are not alone; others share our experiences, and we voice our claims together. As I understand Laclau, this is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for a social movement to begin. The crucial point is when a group constituted by a common demand becomes aware of groups with similar, but not identical, experiences and claims. Somehow, we come to perceive our claims as being of the same kind, directed at the same kind of adversaries. Different claims are linked, in what Laclau terms a “chain of equivalence”. Taken together, these may challenge the legitimacy of the socio-political order, by questioning “hegemony”, that is, the collective imagery (“culture” or “ideology”) that provide legitimacy to the prevailing order.

Some of the motivation for the notion of “populist reason” is that such challenges to the power structures are typically expressed in terms of a conflict between “the people” and “those in power”. In Laclau’s words:

“A plurality of demands which, through their equivalential articulation, constitute a broader social subjectivity we will call popular demands – they start, at a very incipient level, to constitute the ‘people’ as a potential historical actor. We have already two clear preconditions for populism: (1) the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power; and (2) an equivalential articulation of demands making the emergence of the ‘people’ possible. There is a third precondition which does not really arise until the political mobilization has reached a higher level: the unification of these various demands – whose equivalence, up to that point, had not gone beyond a feeling of vague solidarity – into a stable system of signification.”[5]

Now, the stability of a system of signification is always relative and precarious, and the vagueness and indeterminacy of the notions involved is necessary, and indeed an essential part of political dynamic, as Laclau describes it: “[V]agueness and indeterminacy are not shortcomings of a discourse about social reality, but, in some circumstances, inscribed in social reality as such”.[6] Neither individuals nor groups exist as self-contained entities that enter into relations; rather, they become what they are by and through their relations. (This is what Laclau means by ‘articulation’). To ascribe e.g. ‘interests’, ‘identities’, ‘values’ or ‘aims’ to individuals or groups is part and parcel of the process of signification through which these individuals and groups come to be at all.

Such processes are altogether rhetorical. The words and imagery that shape the perception and presentation of the parties, are part of the conflict, and shaped by the conflict. At the incipient level, even the definition of the situation is at stake: Are we dealing with disagreement within a given framework, or questioning the framework as such? In the first case, we encounter contended issues, or problems, approachable one by one, in the second, about conflict proper, where a number of different claims, taken together, come to signify social division. A series of different demands become a “chain” when some of them becomes placeholders for them all; this is how protesting groups become a movement.

An example from the history of the labour movement may be how the eight-hour working day became a slogan and a rallying point: Immediately, it was about conditions of work, but per implication, it was also about the conditions for political participation, family life, culture etc. More generally, the heyday of labour movements has been when they were genuinely populist – in the positive sense – that is, at times and places where “the working class” and its organisations – unions and parties – was widely perceived as the legitimate placeholder of “the people” – over against “the ruling classes”.

Of course, you cannot conjure up constellations like that. However, we may draw some lessons.

(1) Popular discontent will sometimes inspire social movements; as political movements, they will typically take populist form. Under given circumstances they may effect profound changes to society.

(2) Populist movements – i.e. broad, socio-political and cultural mobilizations in the name of “the people” against “those in power” – are vital to democracy, past and present. Without them, no processes of democratization in the past, and no productive confrontations on vital issues now and in the future.

(3) Political movements aiming at social change should be assessed on their political practice, i.e. what they aim at, and the means they employ. Bluntly put, the problem with right-wing populists is their right-wing policies, not their populism per se.

(4) The programmes and practices of some populist movements are indeed threatening the “agonistic pluralism” that is essential to democracy; however, this should not make us blind to other threats, notably those associated with the discrediting of any populist agenda.

3. Populism (and democracy) as contested concepts

My title allude to the notion of “Essentially Contested Concepts”, which was introduced by the British philosopher W B Gallie in a talk at The Aristotelian Society in London in 1956 – quite far from current poststructuralist theories of “radical democracy”.[7] In my view, however, it makes sense even in our context. His starting point is the observation that it is much easier to come to terms about questions of, say, the size and materials of a painting, than to agree on whether or not it should be regarded as a piece of art. That we do have different and even conflicting interpretations of it, is, according to Gallie, an essential feature of the concept of art itself. Furthermore, the elaboration of such conflicts, will indeed further our understanding – both of the concept and of art. His other examples of such essentially contested concepts include “christian doctrine”, “social justice” and, most notably for our topic: “Democracy”.

One of the features that make a notion belong to the class of essentially contested concepts, is that it denotes a complex phenomenon; one that may be described in different ways, highlighting different aspects as the most important ones. However, Gallie insist that the contestant conceptions is somehow perceived to refer to the same basic ideas – otherwise, we are simply dealing with ambiguity or “essentially confused concepts”. Furthermore, these ideas seem to be “ideals” of sorts, or, as Gallie puts it, essentially contested concepts are “appreciative”. Democracy is a contested concept because and as long as those who disagree over the interpretation of the concept and of what institutions, policies and practices deserve the name, at some level share the idea that democracy is something that should be pursued.

What then with “populism”? Maybe it is simply an essentially confused concept. Most certainly, it is not an “appreciative” concept, given the fact that it is often used pejoratively, denoting something negative, even dangerous. It is nevertheless, and this gets me to my conclusion – albeit a preliminary one – a concept that is essential to the conception of “Democracy” that I endorse. (Of course, I recognize that competing conceptions of democracy are possible.)

An essential feature of “democracy”, as I understand the concept, is that “the people” – the “demos” – is the basis of legitimacy for institutions and policies. This, however, does not imply that “democracy” has solved the problem of legitimacy. On the contrary, democracy imply that questions of legitimacy in principle are kept open to public contestation. Of course, some degree of institutional stability is generally desirable – but mainly as a framework for productive conflict and disagreement. Sometimes decisions have to be made and carried out, but legitimate policies should always be open to revision.

The word “democracy” involves a reference to “the people”. Moreover, the idea of democratic legitimacy refer to “the people” – and thus depend on the symbolic representation of “the people”, that is, on the words, images and social practices that shape the presentation and perception of “the people” and the relation between “the people” and “those in power”. According to the ideals of democracy, those in power should be representatives of the people. The reality of this is often questionable, however. Maybe we should question it, even more often and more profoundly than the usual business of politics allow. In times of crises, when the legitimacy of institutions and policies are at stake, profound conflicts over the symbolic representation of “the people” is bound to occur, in some form or another: What is a people? Who are the people? Who can legitimately claim to speak for the people? Whose claims, which attitudes and what commitments count – in fact and in principle – when we quarrel, fight and try to make decisions about the common good?

The mirror-house where “populist rhetoric” confront “the rhetoric of populism” is not the place to answer, or even pose these questions – because neither party recognize the problem. On the one hand, we have those who purport to have the answer – to know the identity of the people and of the enemy. On the other hand, we have those who dismiss the question – and thereby dissolve the democratic people, insisting that we are all individuals, that is, consumers and voters. In the realm of politics, voters are treated as consumers: Competition replace productive conflict and contestation. Spin and branding replace movements and parties.



[1] Cf Alberto Giordano: “Populism, Prejudice and the Rhetoric of Privilege”, in Nordicum-Meditarraneum, vol 12, no. 3

[2] For a critical discussion of recent approaches to populism’ in political theory, cf Yannis Stavrakakis and Anton Jäger: «Accomplishmens and limitations of the ‘new’ mainstream in contemporary populism studies», in: European Journal of Social Theory, 2018, vol 21(4) pp 547-565.

[3] Ernesto Laclau:On Populist Reason, London/New York: Verso 2005.

[4] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics [1985], second edition, London/New York: Verso 2001.

[5] Laclau 2005, p 74.

[6] Ibid, p 67.

[7] Gallie, W. B. “Essentially Contested Concepts.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 56, 1955, pp. 167–198. JSTOR,