Tag Archives: ideology

The Rhetoric of Identity in Right- and Left-wing Populism: A Brief Survey

Among all the theoretical contributions on the topic, I will rely on the approach which classifies populism as a political style, marked by a set of rhetorical and discoursive practices. In this sense, it seems possible to find some connections even between apparently opposite positions when it comes to the adoption of a common populist strategy and its communicative codes. Within this discursive pattern, shared by a politically heterogeneous group of actors, contemporary politics tends to rely more intensively on the logic of othering, namely a process through which the affirmation of one’s own identity depends on the positioning in an opposite front compared to the one of the different enemy. The us vs them rhetoric showed itself efficient because, by simplifying public space, it allows an immediate identification of the individual with a collective front, in addition to a clear discovery of her/his political rival. But how does populism make the spreading of this discursive divide concretely operational? Benjamin Moffitt has persuasively claimed that the appeal of populist rhetoric results from the adoption of a series of narratives, actions and linguistic choices through which populist parties establish a privileged communicative bond with their public. Under these terms, populism as a political style achieves a performative act, and through its discoursive practices ties in a political relationship which «typically consists of a proclaimed relationship with the ‘public’, an us/them attitude and […] a period of crisis and mobilization» (Moffitt 2016: 31).

 

Laclau: the Populist Construction of Political Identity

Among the most discussed theorists who adopted and developed this interpretative approach we may find Ernesto Laclau, who based his research precisely on the performative features detectable in populist political discourse. In his well-known On Populist Reason the Argentinian scholar proposes an original reading of the phenomenon as he starts wondering: «why could some political alternatives or aims be expressed only through populist means?» (Laclau 2005: 17). The identity crisis that, on different levels, is affecting the traditional actors of the political arena is self-evident: but what are the trajectories of possible evolution of this crisis? Is there any social rationality behind populism? Would it be possible to take advantage of its impetus?

Setting himself apart from the many scholars and policymakers who deem it a pathological disease of contemporary politics, Laclau considers populism an occurrence to study in the light of social dynamics in the process of community building, as a natural process of articulation of the various issues, inscribed in the grammar of the political itself; that is, a natural expression of the political character organic to each individual. From this point of view, populism refers to «a constant dimension of political action which necessarily arises (in different degrees) in all political discourses, subverting and complicating the operations of the so-called ‘more mature’ ideologies» (Laclau 2005: 18). From this constructive approach, which evaluates the performing acts achieved by populism through its discoursive and rhetorical practices, we could try to draw an analytic framework in order to understand the nature and legitimacy of two political movements featuring a different ideological baggage but linked by a common political style.

 

The New Heroes: Right-wing and Left-wing populism

In particular, it aims to consider how the current political background tends to shape up in a dichotomic distinction between right-wing populism and left-wing populism, evolving from the traditional right and left positions. Populism is no longer to be understood as a distinctive feature of both extreme right and left: its historical developments, indeed, «followed the inner opportunities offered by the particular dynamics of competition» (Tarchi 2015: 71), so as to generate different outcomes in different backgrounds (that’s the case when we compare European and Latin American populisms). To make my point clearer, I will rely on the contributions by two scholars which are expressly fitting in the explanation of this approach, both based on the interpretative structure of Laclau’s populism: the political theories of Alain De Benoist and Chantal Mouffe. In fact, they have been trying to sketch a populism vision rooted, respectively, on the traditional values of the right and the left through a bunch of very close discoursive practices and namely through the us vs them logic. The first pattern which leaves the mark of populism on the political outline provided by De Benoist and Mouffe is precisely the rhetoric of antagonism, which must be understood as the ground of the associative practice. The expression of the different souls that make up a community must depend, according to this logic, on the grouping of issues and positions along a frontier, which would set up the conditions for a dialogic struggle for hegemony (in Gramscian terms). The need to resort to populist discoursive strategies arises, according to De Benoist and Mouffe, when the demands of the various social groups of a given historical society become aware of their public role and ask for the building of new frontiers in order to articulate themselves and express their own political identity, positioning on one of the two sides of this frontier.

 

The Populist Democratic Revolution

The institution of a new antagonistic frontier serves as a tool to guide public opinion and comes in response to the tendency to occupy the central stage of the political spectrum that marks, according to both De Benoist and Mouffe, most traditional parties in many European democracies. This process reveals itself through the rise of anti-establishment, grassroots movements who claim their political autonomy and the satisfaction of their demands, while their ideological roots may equally be right-wing or left-wing. The democratic balance is broken, according to the analysis of both theorists, when centre-right and centre-left parties merge into a dominant ideology which «argues that there’s no alternative to the neoliberal order and that the break-up of people in the global market is the only horizon of human history» (De Benoist 2017: 29). They identify this unifying tendency as a direct consequence of an ‘original sin’: the surrender of the traditional left to the laws of globalisation.

Speaking of which I find quite meaningful the analysis of the French philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa, who maintains that the convergence of the right and the left towards a undefined program starts right when the left moves away from its ideological origins, joining the cultural values and codes of liberal society such as «cult of modernisation to the bitter end, mandatory and permanent mobility (both geographically and professionally) and moral and cultural transgression» (Michéa 2005: 45). Framing his analysis on a revision of the political history of French socialism, Michéa argues that the left persuaded itself of the impossibility of overcoming capitalism and renounced to the traditional connection with the working-class movements (Michéa 2005: 122). The ‘treason’ of the left converts it into a political entity incapable of grasping and meeting the needs of the various social groups that used to refer to it, through a «progressive dissolution of the socialist ideal of a society without social classes […] in the liberal night when all of the cows are grey» (Michéa 2005: 28). In the meantime, that portion of the right which does not accept any loosening of its positions to converge towards a centrist perspective, finds in populism a perfect discoursive frame in order to broadcast its most relevant purposes, often extreme in their shapes.

As a consequence of the homogenisation of the political offer, the democratic principle of a free and responsible choice between two opposite alternatives fails and citizens get deprived of the concrete chance of expression of their beliefs. This is why Mouffe demands the necessity of a democratic revolution, which would appear on stage with the rise of «new social movements» and from the «questioning of many other forms of inequality» (Mouffe 2018: 51), something that requires a new identity partition in the political scheme. The Belgian scholar takes this binary logic straight out of the definition of the ‘political’ developed by Carl Schmitt, according to whom a political community finds its identity when confronting the otherness of an enemy, whose existence comes into being «when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity» (Schmitt 2007 [1932]: 28).

The antagonistic dimension becomes an interpretative key of every aspect of the political life inside a given community, therefore requires the establishment of a series of novel politically opposed borders, which would distinguish a new us from a new them. Namely, the precise discoursive setting populism rests on. Both right and left-wing populisms build their political proposal aiming to respond to the unsatisfied demands of society, re-articulating community along a frontier. As Silvio Waisbord argues, this kind of Manichean storytelling is fostered as well by the evolution of contemporary media, more and more characterized by the communicative modality named post-truth. Denying the information model which refers to the existence of a one and only rational, empirical and demonstrable truth, post-truth assumes that «we cannot overcome subjectivity and that diverse publics lack shared norms and values» (Waisbord 2018: 4). According to the aforementioned perspective, populism looks at this fragmented and multifaceted portrait of reality and therefore chooses to highlight the alternative political choices, insofar as expressions of different souls which don’t deny each other, but clash in an hegemonic war for dominion.

 

France 2017: A Case Study On Populist Construction of Identity

A very clear, practical example of the meaningfulness of this theoretical approach is supplied by contemporary French politics. Recent Presidential elections held in April 2017 saw the lining up on one side of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing figure, fuelled by a well-prepared populist rhetoric; on the other, Jean-Luc Mélenchon tried to bring back together some pieces of the French left. France Insoumise took advantage, as well as Le Pen’s Front National, of the proclaimed effectiveness of populist rhetoric to present itself to the voters; an ideal case to show how two forces so distant as to their ideological origins can share a discoursive strategy. Both parties defined a collective identity – us – made up of strong symbolical meanings and created an enemy to fight against. The us pictured in  such a storytelling is represented by the people, which should be understood in term of a collective and autonomous political subject, structured around a series of cultural and linguistic features.

The myths of homeland and of the drapeau tricolore bleu, blanc, rouge lies at the heart of the Front National’s (now Rassemblement National) political rhetoric and it’s no surprise that Marine Le Pen labelled herself «the candidate of the people» (Le Pen 2017). Similarly, Jean-Luc Mélenchon fills his storytelling with metaphors taken from the natural world, suggesting the existence of a people anything but artificially built but constructed around innate and emotional boundaries: «take a listen everybody to the whistle coming from our ranks […] like the sound of wind blowing through leaves, like the one of rain on stone. This sound hasn’t a name, but a signal, the one of the strength of the people when it burst into history» (Mélenchon 2017). On the other side of the frontier, the portrait of a them with deliberately liquid boundaries and unidentifiable in a single social group: the enemy is sketched as the symbol of an external domination, applying a strong political and financial pressure over the people. A collective them occasionally embodied by the ruling class of the country, the financial oligarchy, the technocratic bureaucracy of Brussels and many more options.

This binary logic of counterposing the two fronts therefore leads to an identification process based on nationality; namely, a discoursive practice appealing to the attachment to homeland and its values in emotional terms. The political discourse is then framed not only to deliver its storytelling but to push citizens towards its internalization through a shift which involves the emotional level, in order to strengthen the bond with a collective external entity. Chantal Mouffe deems that this ‘sentimental’ blueprint is fundamental for an effective political discourse and finds its justification directly in Freudian psychoanalysis: way before speaking of rational choices, it is fundamental to get in contact with the irrational side of the individual, to the «strong libidinal investment operating in the forms of identification» (Mouffe 2018: 85). Here we may find the reason why of the myths of the France Fière, la République, the flag and the defense of the national idiom, recurring in the discursive practices of both Rassemblement National and France Insoumise, as a plea to the emotional sphere of each individual.

 

A Common Style with Many Variations: The Value of Ideology in French Populism

While we can assert that a faint line runs between left and right-wing populist discourses, both adopting a language equally aimed at identifying a frontier defined by an emotional connection to the nation, it is not necessarily true that populism flattens the ideological stances cherished by its actors. Mouffe herself remarks that the same discoursive practice of dividing public space in two opponents could be developed in the light of different ideological criteria. When right-wing populism builds its concept of ‘nation’ not merely in patriotic but nationalistic terms, it implies that we should exclude from the collective us immigrants and people belonging to different cultures, none of which would find her/his own space in the national storytelling pattern. According to her, instead, the project for a left populism should extend the democratic horizon towards everyone opposing the hegemonic domination of the oligarchic and financial establishment, including in the project «workers, immigrants and the precarious middle class, as well as other democratic demands such as the LGBT community» (Mouffe 2018: 27).

Drawing on this outline, all through the 2017 presidential campaign the alignment of the two parties along a frontier showed up to be divergent in many topics and mostly when the identity discourse went through the immigration issue. Le Pen’s right-wing populism maintained a coherent approach with the most radical conservative tradition on this matter, putting the safeguard of the French cultural baggage and the highest standards of national solidarity over the opening of society to multiculturalism. Resorting to the motto «rétablir les frontières nationales et sortir de l’espace Schengen», even through the militarisation of borders, Le Pen stands against ius soli as well: «L’acquisition de la nationalité française sera possible uniquement par la filiation ou la naturalisation» (Front National 2017). Instead of seeking for compromises and practical solutions to the integration issues, right-wing populism rather goes for a neat rhetoric according to which every single hole in the wall endangers community as a whole.

On the other side, France Insoumise sets out the limits of its frontier fostering a strong patriotic pride but still tracing its identity border along a more inclusive line, strengthening its own idea of national identity through the need to integrate outer elements in the horizon of the country: «France is a political community, not an ethnic reality. It’s therefore the existence of a common destiny who should ground access to nationality» (Féraud and Senon, 2017: 23). A left-populist social model needs to be based on shared but not exclusive cultural elements, which could be imparted to individuals and social groups who want to join the community. In his fight against political élites and financial oligarchy Mélenchon includes migrants as well, since they become the first victims of the common enemy, instead of being its instrumental allies. The only immigration to fight against is the one which comes through the «free trade routes» and gets abused as regard to the lowering of «wages and putting an additional pressure on social rights» (Mélenchon 2018).

In sum, both Front National and France Insoumise share a common, divisive rhetorical pattern, while pursuing partially different ends and targeting somehow diverse segments of public opinion in terms of ideological belonging.

 

Speaking of Left-wing Populism: A (Momentary) Conclusion

Laclau argued long ago that «between left-wing and right-wing populism, there is a nebulous no-man’s-land which can be crossed — and has been crossed — in many directions» (Laclau 2005: 87). Until recently, right-wing populism proved to be more efficient in leveraging the emotional sphere of many citizens and drawing an identity narrative which expressed people’s frustration for its exclusion from political life. According to Chantal Mouffe this is the place where the challenge for a left populism lies: the aim should consist in the adoption of an alike rhetorical pattern supporting an identity discourse set to build a collective opposition to the historical hegemonic élite while inclusive of any social force oppressed by the actual dominion, driving this emotional identification towards «better and more egalitarian perspectives inside the national tradition» (Mouffe 2018: 85).

 

References
De Benoist, A. (2017), Populismo. La fine della destra e della sinistra, Bologna: Arianna Editrice.

Eatwell, R.; Goodwin, M. (2018), National Populism: The revolt against liberal democracy, London: Pelican.

Féraud, B.; Senon, É. (2017), Livrets de la France Insoumise, Respecter les migrants, régler les causes des migrations: https://avenirencommun.fr/le-livret-migrations/.

Front National (2017), 144 Engagement Présidentiels. Election Présidentielle – 23 avril et 7 mai 2017: http://www.rassemblementnational.fr/pdf/144-engagements.pdf.

Laclau, E. (2005), On Populist Reason, London: Verso.

Le Pen, M (2017), Tweet, April 23, 2017: https://twitter.com/mlp_officiel/status/856223578957766656.

Mélenchon, J-L. (2017), Défilé pour la 6e République – #18mars2017, Youtube video, March 18 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3153&v=b5atq_VZd2M.

Mélenchon, J-L. (2018), Tweet, August 25, 2018. Web. January 1 2019, https://twitter.com/jlmelenchon/status/1033399841752317957?lang=it.

Michéa, J-C. (2015), I misteri della Sinistra. Dall’ideale illuminista al trionfo del capitalismo assoluto, Vicenza: Neri Pozza.

Moffit, B. (2016), The Global Rise of Populism, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mouffe, C. (2018), For a Left Populism, London: Verso.

Schmitt, C. (2007 [1932]), The Concept of the Political, edited by G. Schwab, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Tarchi, M. (2015), Italia populista, Bologna: Il Mulino.

Waisbord, S. (2018), The Elective Affinity Between Post-truth Communication and Populist Politics, Communication Research and Practice. Web. January 19 2018, https://doi.org/10.1080/22041451.2018.1428928

In Lightning Memory: A Philosophical Dictionary à la Baroncelli

The following definitions combine insightful personal memories and personally memorable insights that I recall from, or associate with, Flavio Baroncelli (1944–2007) qua eloquent and witty teacher, brilliant and ingenious writer, fast and sharp conversationalist, generous and kind human being, and committed promoter of the teacher- and student exchange programmes linking together Iceland, my adoptive country, and the University of Genoa, my alma mater. Not all of them must be taken literally or too seriously; besides, I would not agree with some of them myself! All of them are, however, sincere tokens of gratitude, friendship and love to a truly remarkable individual, who enjoyed entertaining and shocking his audiences, but above all liked making them think, debate, and think some more. Furthermore, these definitions are a creative and inevitably poor attempt at exemplifying for the Anglophone public the sort of pithy and humorous style that, inter alia, made Baroncelli famous in Italy in his day.

 

Actuality

Another word for potentiality.

 

Addiction

A disease mistaken for moral failure.

 

Adulation

Causing pleasure by sly words, even when the listener knows that they are lies. Philosophers, in their stately parlance, would call it a perlocutionary speech act.

 

Advertising

The daily demonstration of how little control we have over our own will.

 

Agnosticism

A polite way for educated people to be open-minded pluralists in theory but narrow-minded atheists in practice.

 

Analysis (of concepts)

The bizarre tendency to turn ambiguous profundity into unambiguous superficiality.

 

Analytic (philosophy)

A typically modern attempt at making self-conscious philosophers sound like respectable scientists.

 

Banking

The best way to acquire power in a capitalist society, especially if one wishes to destroy it.

 

Beauty (physical)

One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the good luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.

 

Bedroom

A seemingly private place where both neighbours and State authorities seem often eager to enter.

 

Brotherhood

The least understood yet most important principle of the French Revolution: without a modicum of genuinely felt compassion among fellow citizens, both liberty and equality will get used to ruin someone else’s life.

 

Censorship

A dangerous and stupid way not to listen to dangerous and stupid claims.

 

Chickens

When rasping hopelessly and continuously on a hard road surface, they exemplify instinctual behaviour as opposed to deliberate.

 

Cigarettes

Powerful, sweet, devious killers.

 

Clarity

The curse of any philosopher who may wish to come across as deep, original and worthy of enduring attention.

 

Coherence (aka consistency)

The unhealthy obsession with getting rid of all the instances of personal diversity, creativity, capriciousness and experimentalism that make individual life interesting and collective life possible.

 

Communism

The 20th-century political scarecrow that, for the duration of about one generation, made the de iure liberal countries of the world be actually a little more liberal than their de facto oligarchic past and present flag out.

 

Compassion

The most important virtue cultivated by Christianity.

 

Competition

A much-cherished liberal value, as long as it does not apply to oneself.

 

Complaining

Generally loathed by the very same people who have most reason to complain—an instance of slave morality.

 

Continental (philosophy)

A not-so-modern attempt at making self-important philosophers sound like profound mystics.

 

Courage

Someone else’s form of madness.

 

Culture

The folklore of the rich.

 

Daydreaming

Coping with far-too-real nightmares.

 

Defecation

Its training in infancy reveals how people prefer freedom to be qualified and circumscribed.

 

Discipline (and Punish)

The most important book by Michel Foucault, who taught us that the more societies publicly incense liberty and call themselves “liberal”, the less freedom common people truly enjoy in order to do as they please.

 

Dogs

The ideal sort of loyal, selfless, hard-working and simple-mindedly grateful employees that employers would like to have.

 

Economics (contemporary)

A branch of mathematics mistaken for empirical science.

 

Economics (modern)

A branch of philosophy mistaken for empirical science.

 

Elucidation

Clarification articulating possible meanings of a pithy expression, with consequent loss of aesthetic and thought-provoking value of the latter. Sterilisation by explanation. (E.g. paraphrasing a poem, explaining a joke.)

 

Emancipation

The possibility for all people to be as bad and as silly as the rich and powerful minorities frequently are.

 

Etiquette

Aristocracy’s last ditch at controlling modern society.

 

Euphemism

See “Get lost!” below.

 

Evolution

It is only after Darwin that people understood what the heck Lucretius and Telesio were talking about.

 

Exceptions (making)

The first step towards tolerance and pluralism.

 

Faith

An option generally available only to a person who stops doubting.

 

Folklore

The culture of the poor.

 

Geese

Birds that can be confused with swans, especially in Iceland.

 

Geometry

An exact formal science that can be used rhetorically as a persuasive labelling method for inexact metaphysical reasoning.

 

Get (lost!)

Uttered in a timely fashion, it can save a person the trouble of having to answer a difficult question.

 

Greek

If ancient, it is an excellent way to display one’s own erudition.

 

Health

The true source of happiness, yet regularly forgotten until missing.

 

Hegel (Georg Friedrich)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that nothing stays the same.

 

History (of ideas)

A way to find out why we think the way we think.

 

Homogenisation

The equalising social process deplored by anthropologists whereby identifying the poor, the outcast, the loathed, the derided and the downtrodden becomes a little less easy.

 

Hume (David)

An uncharacteristically prodigal Scotsman, he noticed that the only way to be sure that all matches in the box do work is to light them all up.

 

Hypocrisy

The misunderstood virtue of avoiding conflict in reality by accepting conflict in principle.

 

Ideology

A set of loosely interconnected concepts, some of which may be even mutually contradictory, that allow people to feel justified in their claims and actions, or at least to project an air of justification for them.

 

Illness

The demonstration of the bodily basis of the mind.

 

Indifference

The least acknowledged yet most important virtue in a pluralist society: by caring little about what other people believe or do, mutual tolerance can be the norm.

 

Insight (aka Intuition)

Prejudice we like.

 

Institutions

The remarkable social invention whereby to preserve the memory of past errors and make the inexorably ignorant new generations somewhat less likely to repeat them.

 

Intervention (by the State)

A much-loathed socialist value, which liberals accept as soon as they are in trouble.

 

Jokes

A valuable means of instruction that can reach even those who do not wish to be instructed.

 

Kant (Immanuel)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote two tomes to undo an earlier one.

 

Knowledge

That which philosophers seek and analyse most, and yet have the least of.

 

Language

The precious and inevitable source of all misunderstandings.

 

Lashes (by whip)

As long as someone else gets more than you do, most slaves will not rebel against slavery.

 

Latin

Another good way to show one’s own erudition.

 

Liberalism

The political wisdom teaching that State authority should be used only to protect a person from her worst enemies: her neighbours.

 

Life

A rather bothersome business, but also the only one in town.

 

Lust

An open motive among men; less so among women. Gender equality’s lewd horizon.

 

Magic

Another way to understand religion.

 

Marx (Karl)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that, normally, if the employer gets more, the employee gets less—and vice versa.

 

Meritocracy

A neologism by the privileged.

 

Mixed (marriage)

The easiest and fastest way to explain why a marriage did not last. No such option is available for divorces between people of the same ethnic origin, the explanation of which may then take years of keen psychological scrutiny.

 

Montaigne (Michel de)

His essays became so famous and commonplace that later philosophers forgot to mention the source of the ideas that they discussed and, eventually, Montaigne himself. There can be such a thing as too much fame.

 

More (Thomas)

Great wisdom expressed with clarity.

 

Nietzsche (Friedrich)

An atypical German philosopher, he wrote aphorisms to acknowledge a major yet neglected motive of human thought and action: resentment.

 

Nothingness

The likeliest outcome of a person’s life, which we spend trying not to think about it.

 

Order

In practice, the supreme official principle of social life.

 

Originality

The future outcome of the present ignorance about the past.

 

Pain (and Pleasure)

The fabric of our inner tapestry.

 

Philosophy

When good, it is the playful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to break apart, toy with and recombine concepts, beliefs and habits of thought, in order to make better sense of them. When bad, it is the skillful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to do the same and, in the end, be even more confused.

 

Poetry

An artificial reminder of life’s beauty.

 

Political (correctness)

The ungainly social process whereby the less respected members of a community can have a chance to be paid a little more respect.

 

Pornography

A widespread yet uncomfortable signpost of liberal freedom.

 

Potentiality

Another word for actuality.

 

Poverty

A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes deplorable or intolerable to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.

 

Prejudice

Insights we dislike.

 

Pride

A vice leading frequently to virtuous behaviour.

 

Quality

Often confused with quantity.

 

Quantity

Often confused with quality.

 

Questions

The best instrument available to reveal how ignorant we are, no matter the number of university degrees we may have.

 

Race

A historically popular but unnecessary notion which justifies people being nasty to one another. In its absence, freckles or bad pronunciation can serve the same purpose.

 

Radicalism

The art of making outlandish ideas sound plausible, thus duly impressing unsuspecting young minds and potential sexual partners.

 

Reason

The perplexing faculty to take apart whatever solid conclusion we had reached before.

 

Rhetoric

The unjustly neglected study of how language shapes people’s life under all circumstances.

 

Righteousness

The most dangerous virtue cultivated by Christianity.

 

Scepticism

Unwise over-intelligent overthinking—it is by far too delightful an endeavour for most philosophers to resist the temptation of indulging in it despite their own better judgment.

 

Sparrows

A natural reminder of life’s beauty.

 

Spinoza (Baruch)

Great wisdom could be expressed with more clarity.

 

Stratification

Having someone below you is usually more important than having someone above—another instance of slave morality.

 

Straw-man (fallacies)

Mistaken by logicians as fictional errors, they are the far-too-real claims of ordinary men and women; if one is willing, and brave enough, to listen to real people.

 

Stupidity

The regularly underplayed yet visibly increased outcome of greater freedom in human societies.

 

Swans

Birds that can be confused with geese, especially in Iceland.

 

Syllogism

A structured way of thinking and talking that allows the person using it to come across as astoundingly intelligent and thereby force another to shut up, even if the latter may actually be right.

 

Tolerance

The socially crucial ability to endure people that we dislike.

 

Toleration

The perplexing notion whereby tolerance is not enough in society, for we must also like the people that we dislike.

 

Torture

The most efficient way to get bad information from innocent weaklings and no information at all from guilty brutes.

 

Transubstantiation

To modern eyes, an old form of cannibalism.

 

Ugliness (physical)

One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the ill luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.

 

Unpleasantness

That from which all great ideologies wish to free us once and for all, but which all great historians tell us that we must accept for any human endeavour to have a chance to work at all.

 

Urination

See defecation.

 

Violence

Whether threatened or applied, it is in practice the supreme unofficial principle of social life.

 

Voltaire

The best example of how being a master of style condemns a man to being remembered as a minor thinker.

 

Wealth

A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes invisible to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.

 

Will

We like thinking of it as free, despite all contrary evidence.

 

Wittgenstein (Ludwig)

A Continental philosopher mistaken for an analytical one.

 

Xanadu

One of the many words for the imaginary place of endless joy that all cultures have concocted and that only some silly philosophers would state not to want to go to.

 

Youth

The time of peak performance in a person’s life, the rest of which is spent trying to make use of ridiculous concepts that can help that person to enjoy some respect and self-respect: the wisdom of old age, the charm of grey hair, the value of experience, etc.

 

Zionist

Often confused with “Jewish” and “Israeli”, it can be combined with them in the following matrix:

Jewish, Israeli and Zionist

Non-Jewish, Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Non-Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Non-Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Non-Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Non-Israeli and Non-Zionist

Is Populism an Ideology or a Tool? Of Reason or Passions?

First – a disclaimer. Dealing in political philosophy is, or can be, a theoretical endeavor replete with conceptual analysis and critical moments. When we move to political science (with no undue weight attached to the “science” moniker) the tension between theory and praxis becomes more tenuous, with concrete description moving forward to a more essential position.[1] Description, however, of facts, persons, movements, and phenomena is temporally determined: facts, persons, movements and phenomena change. And the dependence of theory on descriptions, or at least their mutual effect, makes the theoretical aspects of the analysis contingent as well. This is all merely to say that there is no certainty or permanence attendant on the current offering in this article. It was, when first presented in November 2019, an investigation into populism which seemed to be exquisitely pertinent to (then) current events. The research and investigation of populism grew, in the past half-decade immensely; in fact, the Cambridge Dictionary 2017 “word of the year” was populism. But in the intervening months the human, political scene has been so upended that I am now a little less certain as to the meaning and ensuing relevance of populism to (now) current events. That is to say, its future purchase is perceptibly uncertain.

The title above is formulated as a question; I will be here questioning the presuppositions behind that question. In other words, I will be in the gratifying position of questioning my own thoughts – thoughts that are held, I presume, by many others; thoughts that are, and have been for a while now, almost consensual in common political discourse. First, however, let me begin with two short stories to set the stage.

In 1996, in one of a multitude of cafeteria conversations had in a university in Israel – where university cafeterias are, by definition, the setting for political discussion – in an unexceptional meeting with another philosopher, I voiced the so often articulated lament and fear that we in Israel were plunging into “fascism”.[2] My interlocutor, the formidable Marcelo Dascal, a philosopher of modernity (Kant, Leibniz) and of language (dealing mostly in pragmatics and the theory of controversies), was of Brazilian extraction, i.e., from South America with its attendant political sensitivities. His critical comment to me was that fascism was a misnomer for what we were afraid of. What we were facing with great and justified trepidation was, he said, populism!

Many years later, in the American context, after the election of Donald Trump as president and as his presidency was clearly becoming a subject of media consternation, the popular news anchor Rachel Maddow began speaking of populism as well. What was striking about Maddow’s mention of populism was its positive tenor: it seemed that she was attributing populism to a democratic milieu, pinpointing it as one of the helpful modi of democratic action. It was only after several such affirmative allusions to populism that she began – perhaps as a result of collegial correction – to associate populism to President Trump and to accordingly negate it.

Defining Populism

In the descriptive invitation to the conference where I first presented these observations, and in multitudinous other sources, we encounter the statement that “politics is the art of persuasion,” adding that “too often reasonable arguments can only persuade people to a limited extent.” But we must make note here of the difference between persuasion and convincing. The art of persuasion is the oft-quoted definition of rhetoric, while convincing is more robustly due to reason and logic. Of course, these two – rhetoric and logic – are not strictly unrelated when we view them under the spotlights of persuasion and convincing. Some may think that logic and rational argument – i.e., convincing – are the best tools of persuasion. Others hold that rhetoric – i.e., persuasion (perhaps even its turn to emotions) – must be guided by rational, even cynical, calculation. Together they recruit both rationality and passion, and politics is an obvious locus of the two together. Since populism is a political concept it behooves us to ask about its turn to and roots in both rationality and passions.

The analytic exercise to be tried out here asks about populism with a view to reason and passions; it also attempts to decipher whether populism is a tool, is only a tool, or is also a tool. And if a tool at all, then to what purpose? Populism is an “ism,” and isms are viewpoints, worldviews, positions, and doctrines – viz. capitalism, communism, socialism, liberalism, feminism, etc.; or tools and methods – like prohibitionism, criticism, plagiarism, terrorism. Some isms (e.g., colonialism, intellectualism, supernaturalism) are both. The first step of our analysis consists, subsequently, of the question “is populism an ideological goal”, i.e., a worldview that provides one with a goal to be achieved? Or is it a tool with which one works for achieving a goal (and what, then, is the goal)?

Answering this essential question doubtlessly involves defining populism; perusal of handy definitions and characterizations is therefore instructive. Kazin is explicit as a definition-provider turning to rhetorical method: “The most basic and telling definition of populism: a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter” (2017 (1995), 1). Mudde and Kaltwasser provide the category of ideology as the natural home for populism, defining it as “… a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” (2017, 6).

Laclau is profound, yet perhaps less overt, telling us that “[b]y ‘populism’ we do not understand a type of movement — identifiable with either a special social base or a particular ideological orientation — but a political logic…. The language of a populist discourse — whether left or right — is always going to be imprecise and fluctuating” (2018 (2005)). Urbinati seems to be putting the vagueness of the term along with its uncertain categorization, gestured at by Laclau, up front: “The term ‘populism’ itself is ambiguous and is difficult to define in a sharp and uncontested way. This is because it is not an ideology or a specific political regime but rather a representative process, through which a collective subject is constructed so that it can achieve power” (2019). Norris and Inglehart take the double path, of rhetoric and ideology, in saying that “[p]opulism is understood… minimally as a style of rhetoric reflecting first-order principles about who should rule, claiming that legitimate power rests with “the people” not the elites” (2019, 4). And Pappas seems to unequivocally adopt the ideological path by identifying populism as a political stance of modernity: “Populism as a modern historical phenomenon pertains to a type of democracy that stands midway between liberalism and autocracy” (2019).

These absorbing “definitions” may sometimes propel us automatically to an answer regarding the ideology vs. tool question.  Kazin and Urbinati gesture at a tool while Mudde and Kaltwasser, along with Papps, pinpoint an ideology. Some – like Norris and Inglehart – overrun the two; others, like Laclau, seem to evade the issue (perhaps deliberately). These latter provide, finally, outstanding portrayals of populism that leave the question open, providing challenging insights that, indeed, continue harping upon it. Such is Chantal Mouffe’s suggestion (which is, of course, attributed to Laclau). In her shared depiction (2016, 3-4), populism is the creation of a people; the creation of a people has to do with the establishment of a boundary between an “us” and a “them”; and that boundary is (perhaps usually, perhaps always) between the people and the establishment! Noticeably, these features may manifest, alternatively or in chorus, both the essence of a worldview (about a people, an “us”, a distinction, and an identity) and the efficacy of a tool (as the crux of creation).

 

Short Detour: Populism and Fascism

The first story above addressed the distinction, yet also similarity, between populism and fascism and noted the perceived affinity between them. Initially attributed to Mussolini and semantically carrying the emblem of fasces – a bundle of elm or birch rods with an ax as the symbol of penal authority – fascism is clearly a political ideology. It is often associated with centralized dictatorship, with social and economic regulation, and with violent suppression of any opposition, all of which are, in actuality, tools in the service of an ideology, a worldview. And the essential, important part of the worldview, a veritable Weltanschauung, is its highest value: the nation (or sometimes the state or even the race), clearly posited over the individual. Importantly, it is fascism, while usually adopting extreme militaristic ultra-nationalism, that holds a contempt for democracy and liberalism and elevates social hierarchies that are “natural” (i.e., the rule of elites). German fascism, for example, was dedicated to creating a Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community), where individual interests significantly made way for national ones. The nation was the people. And therein lies the connection between populism and fascism!

Seeing populism and fascism as two foundational ideologies,[3] we may differentiate between them by identifying the core matrices of the former as the “plain” people, the self-serving elites, and rule by popular will, and those of the latter as the holistic “nation,” the “new man,” and an authoritarian state. These are then used to assess political manifestations as one or the other. But this recognition of the ideological difference between populism and fascism cannot ignore their inter-merging: in practice, fascism has borrowed aspects of populist discourse and style, and populism can degenerate into leader-oriented authoritarian and exclusionary politics. In other words, these two ideologies make use of the same tools in the praxis which is a quest for conceptually distinct goals. Indeed, tracing the historical routes fascism and populism have followed, Finchelstein notes that “… fascism morphed into populism in history”! He sees the “dictatorial genealogies of modern populism” in fascism: “… populism is an authoritarian form of democracy that emerged originally as a postwar reformulation of fascism.” Locating both ideologies on general spectra, populism is placed between democracy and dictatorship and, more explicitly, between liberalism and fascism. “After 1945, especially in Latin America, and later in the rest of the world, fascism often became populism – not the other way around.” The circumstantial and universal post-war repudiation of fascism led to a “democratic reformulation” of regimes that “drew on residues of fascism to challenge liberalism… but still engaged in democratic electoral processes” (2017).[4]

Populism as a Tool – and More

Assuming we continue positing a working hypothesis of the possibility of viewing populism as a tool, the second step of our exercise consists of a conditional question: If a tool, then for what?  The practical, obvious goal is – in politics – to achieve power. The more significant goal is – in politics – to further an ideology. And that is what invariably leads, immediately, to the most tasking aspect of our questioning – an awareness of different goals being pursued by populism and, very explicitly, the possibility of “right populism” and “left populism.” Recall our second opening vignette – about the television anchor, Rachel Maddow, on the American TV channel MSNBC, consensually accepted as a “left” media venue. Her transformative move from viewing populism positively (or, at the very least, neutrally) to attaching it to negative aspirations (mostly Trump’s) reflected the common wisdom which associates populism with the right. (This also coheres with the conflation between populism and fascism above.)  It befits us to ask, however, how or why that move was made; in other words, how and why have we arrived at an almost consensually negative reference to (rightist) populism? Is this a general characterization of populism adopted by the liberal persuasion, that is to say, the more easily articulated liberal characterization of populism? (And what is to be the (crude) place of an economically rightist while culturally leftist liberal persuasion vis à vis populism?)

A simple yet admittedly also simplistic suggestion holds that right populism – as a political tool, and very explicitly a rhetorical tool – appeals to emotions. Correspondingly, left populism is taken as appealing to reason. (There it is again – the difference, in rhetorical terms, between persuasion and convincing.) This basic bifurcation provides a tempting answer to questions concerning the (usual) success of rightist populism: it is more rhetorically proficient, a better tool. This is, however, overly facile. We move forward, therefore, to considering populism not as a means to an end; or as not only a means (to some complexly related end).

This third step of the exercise, speculating upon populism in a more intricate fashion than as simply a tool for political ends, enjoins us to ask yet again what we mean by populism. The work of three philosophers – Simon Critchley, Nancy Fraser, and Chantal Mouffe – will serve admirably in pointing to different conceptualizations of populism, more complex and therefore perhaps more difficult to grasp or even achieve. The fascination in their work inheres it its ability to guide us through a differentiation between leftist populism and rightist populism, producing, consequently, a composite blend between reason and passion.

Different Options of Populism

In an interview conducted in 2015 Simon Critchley expounded on his (then) current view of politics in Europe and in the U.S.A. Two outstanding perceptions arise from the context of that interview. First, 2015 – pre-Brexit and pre-Trump – is certainly at risk of being anachronistic in principle, not just circumstantially. Secondly, as insinuated in my opening paragraph, given the current global crises (COVID-19 and BLM, just for starters), the fluency of Critchley’s world-view stands in stark contrast to many present equivocations. But even given the times of the interview and the then general exclamation of the threat of populism, it is striking that he is not averse to saying “the European Union has a deficit of populism” (Critchley 2015)!

Looking to both Gramsci and Laclau, Critchley locates a clearly formulated leftist populism, straightforwardly distinguished from rightist populism. Gramsci’s intuition that in politics we must deal with the formation of a group and, more so, the establishment of “common sense” among groups that have different, diverging beliefs, commitments and commitments is well-known, of course. Laclau’s additional posit that “all political discourse is populist” gives one pause, but is made clear when we realize that politics is the business of formation of a group which we recognize as “the people” – putting together individuals and groups having particular interests and becoming a “commonality.” Attending to this group – the people, the commonality – is precisely populism and clearly left-wing politics would be much the poorer for ignoring it. Politics is not merely governance; it is, or should be, “good” populism. One does not want left-wing politics to give that up and engage only in value-less governance; one needs “good” populisms, run by “genius” politicians who can create a “genius” politics bringing that very “people” together.

How do we differentiate, however, between left populism and right populism, that is to say, between good and bad populism? Here Critchley provides us with robust philosophical criteria. Turning to Rousseau and the idea of universality, he distinguishes between “local populism” (which emphasizes a particular nation or race) and “universal populism” (which insists on equality or equal participation). The essential, practical point of cleavage is that the first is exclusivist, the second inclusivist. The former is rightist populism, the latter leftist populism. This has interesting consequential points of note. Languages, for instance, may be exploited to emphasize exclusivity; just as fruitfully – perhaps more so – they function to connect and unify differences. They are, simultaneously, tools of local and universal populism. Critchley’s attitude to nations and nation-states is a similar attempt to contain a uniqueness of a people in the political structure of an inclusive universalism. Thus, the nation-state may be done away with (in favor of greater and more tolerant governance-structures), but the nation and one’s identification with it is not easily denied. The European Union’s formal desertion of the nation-state was laudable, but its attempt to kill the nation itself, and all it entailed in human intercourse, failed, because persons must identify with something (a party, a people, a nation). Thus is explained the “backward” move to local, exclusivist populism seen today – or in 2015 – in Europe.

Thus far Critchley has hailed the ideological goal of populism. Yet importantly, he brings in the importance of our way of doing politics, i.e., our means to the end of universal populism. “There can be no politics without passions,” he says, “… and it then becomes a question of how these morals [in the sense of the ways of life, the practices and ways of life that the people take part in], which are passionate, can be mobilized and transformed… the task of politics is the linking of politics to morals and morals to passions and then having the political skill to re-describe those morals and these passions for different purposes.” So using and turning to passions is a tool for “different purposes” – and these can be leftist or rightist. Does that mean we address different emotions, different passions, for left and for right, in leftist and rightist populism?

Critchley says yes and no. For him “anger is the first political emotion,” but the right uses it much more efficiently while the left and liberal-left want to defuse the anger and make politics dispassionate. The left should use anger, but use it differently and more intricately. In great ­­­detail Critchley has set out the analysis of how important legitimate politics is (winking again at Rousseau) and how populist movements can make peace with “regular” institutional politics. That is to say, the art of politics “consists in taking the passion… and linking that to the formation of a set of political institutions.” Clearly then, Critchley is offering us a meld between passion and reason – a combined left populism.

Two years after Critchley’s interview – that is, after Brexit and after Trump – Nancy Fraser engages generally with similar issues, addresses the relevant political context, and offers, in particular, an additional vocabulary that contributes to our thoughts on differing populisms (Fraser 2017). Her impetus is the current (in 2017) global political crisis, which is importantly part of a general (political, financial, cultural, social) crisis. Its political strand is, in Gramscian terms again, a crisis of hegemony.[5]

A stimulating aspect of Fraser’s analysis is her history of how the current, populist moment in the U.S. – Trump and Sanders (in 2016) – came to be. Note that Fraser charges both protagonists with populism, but these are diametrically different versions of populism. Sanders’ is termed a “politics of recognition,” voiced in universalist and egalitarian language (against the rigged economy), talking to a broad working class “us” – factory workers, public-sector employees, service workers, with active recognition of women, immigrants, and minorities. Contrastingly, Trump emphasizes nationalist and protectionist tropes, heavily tinged with the usual hate-foci of misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and anti-immigrant bias. The “us” in his rhetoric is to be expected: male, white, straight, and Christian. Importantly, however, in both cases the populist practice is rhetorical. Rhetorically, Sanders’ “expansive view of the U.S. working class” distinguishes his populism from Trump’s narrow, exclusionary one.

As in Critchley’s nomenclature, this is a turn to inclusivity as opposed to exclusivity, yet with both under the populist umbrella. Fraser calls them reactionary vs. progressive populism. Trump’s rhetoric (during the presidential campaign) turned to a “hyper-reactionary politics of recognition with populist politics of distribution”; Sanders’ rhetoric – imbedded in an ideology – used an “inclusive politics of recognition with pro-working family politics of distribution.” But, in fact, Sanders lost, and Trump has reneged on the fabricated populist politics of distribution, adopting, instead, a hyper-reactionary politics of recognition. According to Fraser this is not even reactionary populism but rather hyper-reactionary neoliberalism.

Fraser’s thoughts are of the concrete political American situation and its devastating developments. Since the shape of things to come, as it seemed in 2017, is shady at best, it is legitimate for her to ask “Could populism still be a possible option… in the longer term?” That populism is, for her, an ideology to be treasured in its progressive form; its success using the strategic tool of “us” is not, however, assured or even promising.

Profound Populism

Moving on to Chantal Mouffe (2016) we encounter a philosopher in whose writings on politics the theoretical and practical cannot be detached. Committed to “doing” politics as much as to investigating its thought, Mouffe in earlier times was devoted to bringing back the old lines between Left and Right. She viewed European social-democracy as having failed to fight against the center-right (which was “captured” by neo-liberalism, inadequately challenging it, saving the banks, insisting on austerity, etc.). Her more recent work has, however, moved onwards, admitting that there is a need to go beyond that traditional social-democratic Left and reach out to more of the “people,” including the poor and the middle class. In this sense, there is the necessity to “build a new political identity,” in Gramsci’s words, a “collective will,” a people. “Our lives and our bodies are all today affected by the consequences of financialized capitalism. It is on this terrain that we can hope to build a transversal project. This construction of a transversal political identity articulated in an emancipatory project is what I call a people” (2016, 3).

For Mouffe, just as for Critchley and Fraser, there is a right and a left populism. Right populism is the result of a “cross-sectional vote” voicing values – i.e., moral, national, and religious norms – that are right wing. So left populism must do the same with left-wing values; condemning xenophobia or authoritarianism is an explicitly mandated left-populist maneuver. This is a substantial move since, she says, “the difference between a right-wing populism and a left-wing one owes to the fact that the former tends to restrict democracy while the latter works to extend and radicalize democracy” (ibid.).

For Mouffe, following Laclau’s definition of populism (as creation of a people, enacting a boundary between “us” and “them”), the question hinges on who is “us” and who is “them.” Significantly, there is no denial on her part of the otherness of “them,” but rather a nuanced understanding of that other. The “them” can be either an enemy or an adversary. An enemy must be killed; with an adversary the antagonism “is negotiated within the framework of democratic institutions.” The result is more, not less democracy – a democracy which is radically reformed and pluralized. The inclusivity here is impressive, with an emphasis on pluralism – a recognition of the heterogeneous and divergent demands of groups. So, the demands are not those of “a people” as against a super-rich minority (see Occupy Wall Street), but a pluralist framework for negotiating conflicts. This is actually a move from liberalism to democracy: the rule of the majority with essential respect for minorities.

Is this populism a tool or an ideology? And does it turn to passion or reason? “What defines politics is an irreducible dimension of conflictuality…” Mouffe says (2016, 5). But there is no way to simply work through conflicts rationally, since that would just be “governance” rather than real politics. Antagonism is present in a conflict with no rational solution; instead, there is a demand that one take sides. “Taking sides – and for me, that is what politics is – thus introduces another fundamental element, which is the role of passions and emotions” (ibid.). “Us” is emotional! So, we must recognize the antagonism, between adversaries, not enemies, in a conflict that cannot be rationally decided. And we must establish democratic institutions which envelope and domesticate the antagonism, even while it still exists, and let emotions thrive in the places of culture.  “The place for emotions and emotional identifications is essential” (2016, 6).

The implications here for the left are immense: it cannot and should not remain devoted to rationality alone and thereby evade populism (and fascism). “You do not fight emotions with ideas, but with emotions stronger than those you want to displace. And for ideas to have some force, they have to translate into emotions”[6] (2016, 7). This does not mean leaving rationality behind; but it does mean that the Left must not think that it can limit itself to a rationalist idea of politics. It is mandated to turn to populism as a politics melding reason and passion.

Conclusion

If populism is merely a rhetorical tool, it can be used for right or left ideologies with a turn to passion or reason respectively; thus imagined it is, ultimately, uninteresting (except for students of rhetoric). If populism is an ideology, placing the people in the place of its highest value, it can be pulled to the right deteriorating into fascism, or to the left aspiring to (a greater and better) democracy. Reason and passion then play a more delicately tinged role, and the recognition of both as essential to praxis – without nevertheless denying the theory – permits us to enquire about and critique populism as an authentic doing of politics.

 

References

Cas Mudde, Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser. 2017. Populism: A Very Short Introduction. New York NY: Oxford University Press.

Critchley, Simon, interview by Giorgos Katsambekis. 2015. The European Union has a deficit of populism Thessaloniki: POPULISMUS Interventions No. I, (April).

Eatwell, Robert. 2017. “Populism and Fascism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Populism, edited by Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198803560.013.14.

Finchelstein, Federico. 2019. From Fascism to Populism in History. Oakland CA: University of California Press.

Fraser, Nancy. 2017. “From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump – and Beyond.” American Affairs, November 20: 1-30.

Kazin, Michael. 2017. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Laclau, Ernesto. 2018 (2005). On Populist Reason. London and Brooklyn: Verso.

Mouffe, Chantal. 2016. We urgently need to promote a left-populism. Translated by David Broder. Interview in Regards (Summer).

Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Pappas, Takis S. 2019. Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pippa Norris, Ronald Inglehart. 2019. Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism. Cambridge University Press.

Urbinati, Nadia. 2019. Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy. Harvard University Press.

Endnotes

[1] This is reminiscent of the Wittgensteinian edict of description in philosophy: “We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.” (Philosophical Investigations 109).

[2] The scare-quotes around “fascism” are intentional, of course. I will return to the populism-fascism duo shortly.

[3] See Eatwell, 2017.

[4] For an instructive analysis of the populism/fascism relation, see especially Urbinati 2019 (Introduction).

[5] For Gramsci, “hegemony” is the ruling class’s creation of a natural status for its rule through the adoption of its world view by the whole society as common sensical. This become institutional and organizational by the coalition of social forces which produce a “hegemonic bloc”. Other, “lower” classes can challenge the ruling hegemony by creating a “counter-hegemony” and a “counterhegemonic bloc”.

[6] Mouffe adds a personal note: “That is why I find Carl Schmitt interesting when he remarks that liberals claim to be able to talk about politics using a vocabulary borrowed from economics or morality. Fundamentally, liberals are trying to build a political philosophy without politics”.

Asger Sørensen, Capitalism, Alienation and Critique: Studies in Economy and Dialectics (Leiden: Brill, 2019)

The compilation of texts under the title Capitalism, Alienation and Critique: Studies in Economy and Dialectics is Volume one of a trilogy named Dialectics, Deontology and Democracy by Asger Sørensen. The collection is a child of its time: ambivalently modest and dashing when stating its aim, it scratches the surface of vital questions about human prospects impregnated in a global capitalist system and goes in-depth at others in the same class of issues, offering both less and more than what one might expect under certain headings.

The volume includes seven main Chapters divided in two parts (i.e. Economy and Dialectics) and throughout comes back to the initial argument that dialectics, deontology and democracy are “obligatory and necessary ways of relating to social reality” (p.11). Notwithstanding that ‘necessity’ arguments invoke primarily the necessity of immediate syllogistic precision, the exploration is generally done without being oblivious to the need to question various claims on ‘validity’ or to think of (social) science as a political practice. The included name index with bibliography and a separate subject index could well serve students stepping into the world of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, getting inspired by the Hegelian dialectical nuances of Aufhebung, or discovering briefly Durkheim’s sociological conception of value as a way to situate persistent to this day realities, in which liberal politics ‘liberate’ the economic decision-making from moral reasoning.

An Interlude considers the potency of the classical Critical Theory and its current relevance, whereas the work concludes with a Postscript where the critique of political economy is continued from the first part and refreshingly deepened. This last and closing section in fact abounds with solid critique of several layers of capitalist ideology and is perhaps what one might prefer to read precisely in the first part dedicated to Economics, rather than an analysis of George Bataille’s quasi-political and neo-gnostic flow-of-energy concept on general economy in a macro- and micro- perspective.

The second part dedicated to Dialectics has a low start. Its beginning chapter dedicates only few lines to summarizing Aristotle’s contribution to the topic. The point is not that there is no mention of Topika or Analitika protera or that relevant works from Aristotle’s deeply political anthropoeia philosophia are, as if, footnoted (and briefly abstracted in other chapters), but that in the volume’s Introduction, the author summarizes this Chapter as the one where “dialectics is presented in a very classical philosophical way, i.e. taking it all the way from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Marx […]” (p.14). A careful reader (or simply a radical one in the sense of going back to the original ancient text in the spirit of the Hegelian Bildung tradition) can arrive to Aristotle’s dialectics either through his logic and the understanding of dialectic premises, or his Metaphysics and the theory of ousia. At least, this is what one would expect from a classical philosophical treatment.

Hence, the reader gets the impression that Aristotle somehow falls under the ‘et al.’ category, which the author uses throughout the entire volume. No matter how playfully or only practically intended, the ‘et al.’ practice is at points inadmissible for arguments’ sake, opening up with no need a dismissive context which inadvertently goes against the author’s own hailing of credible normative frameworks and emancipatory politics. At times the usage is outright obdurate as in “[…] and the discovery of Auschwitz et al. […]” (p.49). In any case, even if the promised classical treatment is missing as a simple consequence of preference or choice of focus, we should be mindful that these themselves might be due to a long tradition of ‘readings’ of Aristotle which sometimes impoverish dizzyingly (Kant), adapt fecundly (Hegel) or appropriate catachrestically (Heidegger) Aristotle’s potent theoretical system and dialectic approach.

In this sense, by being too eager to ‘move on’ in his argumentation at points too quickly, Sørensen risks being not radical enough in the most necessary sense, the political one. Leaving unmined treasures of insights and knots that could have been brought to light is evidenced also when the dynamic of lotteries, gambling halls, internet scams and casinos is put under the umbrella of ‘ideology of hope’ (p.290), without mining one’s own or contextual anthropological assumptions as crucial for giving a consistently critical perspective. The work itself, for instance, is seen as seeking to contribute to the establishment “of credible normative frameworks enabling us to comprehend conceptually, and hopefully also to cope with, the current human predicament, while remaining painfully aware that such an ambition may in fact be overly presumptuous” (p.20). Perhaps claiming an aim only to give it up rhetorically in the same assertion might be attractive to a certain readership, but some might see the claimed scope as complacent and missing any substantial ethico-political challenge. Moreover, even though Sørensen is afraid that Honneth’s critique might be politically impotent “due to its very radicality” (p.12), the reader might wonder what in particular is radical in reducing Critical Theory to social philosophy, given also the well-presented argument on Honneth’s approach in light of the classical critical project (p.67-82).

Imprecision, inaccuracies, and possible contradictions are thus somewhat burdensome, even though the volume is not lacking in solid demonstrations; among else, into how the ever-growing mathematization of political economy is covering up its deeply ideological violence, which leaves out the problem of social (and political) justice. Nonetheless, the claim that an apolitical relation to social reality fails to recognize the value of all intermediary institutions, since it subscribes to the idea of a single individual facing the absolute (p.122), is potentially ideological itself if left unpacked, despite one’s otherwise evident dedication to the critical project. The fact that Durkheim’s or our current intermediary institutions would condition an answer to relevant questions, or aim to eliminate the challenging ethico-political questions altogether, does not cancel or salvage us from the human condition and facing ‘the absolute’ whose historical trajectory, from God to State to Market, is only a potent soil to plough into critically.

The collection is therefore a good reminder of a struggle. A struggle of weakened States embedded in the new practices of imperialism and fragmented by the cynical ideology of global capitalism, which relies on the displaced likelihood that once something happens, it can be quickly renormalized as already having been possible. Examples abound, but think of a recent one: the imposition of a European State onto a non-European one to change its name even in its relation to all other states, against the clear will of the only sovereign (i.e., the people) and through an openly illegal and anti-constitutional process, but such that the first (politically) demarcates the (ethnic) identity of the ‘Other’ by claiming exclusivity over cultural history and even symbols. It is such political violence par excellence that defines our current world, alongside the direct one and the one that counts several millions of people as nothing, for they are neither consumers nor employees. But, if we do not see that all three orders of violence sit in the lap of greed, force and ‘this is mine’ ideology so typical of capitalism, we have understood nothing of its nature.

Hence, if our aim is effective change of the conditions currently guiding people’s lives, the grand problem might not even be how do we system-wise sustain such change and reach those that are most in need of justice and equality. Badiou has already addressed this question elsewhere. Rather, are we aware that an ‘all-inclusive’ proletarization is already underway? Such that we are all (beyond the classical image of proletarians) potentially stripped of our substance? We could, at least potentially, imagine a rich rather than a meagre symbolic life offered to newborns brought to a world of biogenetic manipulation (geared, likely, out of any democratic oversight) and threatening ecological breakdown, coupled exponentially with freedom reconfigured as being able to follow one’s whims: yet lo and behold, our political problem is deeply ethical. It reconfigures for each of us the quintessential question of what do you believe in and hope for, and how do you live in the name of it.

There was a reason why Marx was concerned with raising the awareness of the working class and the need for unity in making a change that will indeed not be in the interest of the few only, and why education is such a potent ‘game-changer’, or why for that matter Hegel was obsessed with Bildung in line with the tradition of the classical Athenian polis, and his view that critique presupposes alienation. Potentially excluded from our very substance, each-of-us a Homo Sacer might be the only proper conceptual start.