“We need a new social Imaginary”

A conversation with Chantal Mouffe
by Florian Malzacher

In: Demokratie heute. Probleme der Repräsentation. Eds. Florian Malzacher, Raimar Stange. Exhibition Catalogue. Berlin: KINDL – Zentrum für zeitgenössische Kunst, 2021. 14-15.

You have often emphasised your belief that only a left populism could stop the rise of the right-wing. You propose a political strategy that does not shy away from passionate campaigns, from clear statements, from direct confrontation. And there seems to have been a clear momentum for such a development – with Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, with Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US and many more. But today we rather witness a conservative or even authoritarian turn. Is left populism for progressive movements and parties still the path to follow?

I strongly disagree with the view that the time for leftist populism is over and that now it is time to return to traditional left politics, meaning: class politics. When you look at Podemos in Spain for example: people are complaining that the movement did not achieve what was hoped for. But expectations were just too high, the hope that everything would change immediately. That is a wrong understanding of left populism. Left populism is not to be envisaged in terms of what Antonio Gramsci called a “war of manoeuvre”, a fast insurrection, but instead in terms of a “war of position”, a complex struggle that needs time. We should not imagine a movement that emerges and then straight comes to power. It is a process, a hegemonic struggle. What is at stake is the construction of a new hegemony. The argument that the momentum for left populism has passed is therefore based on a wrong understanding of this strategy. It is always going to be a process, a war of position in which there will be moments of advance and moments of retreats.
We see that clearly in Latin America. After the ‘pink tide’ there was quite a setback – but now we see the return of national populist movements to power in several countries. For Europe, we will see… Obviously Corbyn did not win the election, but the struggle continues. Let’s see what happens in France with Jean-Luc Mélenchon – I am not very optimistic that he will win next year, but it is not completely impossible. And even if he doesn’t win – that does not mean that left populism is finished. I am convinced this is the only strategy for the left to win, the only type of politics that corresponds with the current situation. I don’t see any other way. Certainly not returning to traditional politics. And the pandemic shows this even more clearly.

How do you define left populism?

It is a political strategy in which we can basically distinguish three main features: First of all, it requires defining an adversary, drawing a political frontier – a frontier between those ‘from below’ and ‘those from above’. You might argue that this is what traditional Marxists always have been saying. And yes, with this point I agree. But for a traditional Marxist this frontier is between the working class and the capitalist class. In the times we are living in, we can’t just limit the project of the left to the interests of the workers. Their interests are important and socialist parties have for too long abandoned the working class. But in our societies, there are also many other important issues like ecology, feminism, anti-racism and LGBT+ demands.
So that is the second feature: a leftist populist strategy aims at the construction of a ‘people’, a transversal collective will in which many different democratic demands, coming from a variety of sectors are taken into account. The demands of the working class have to be articulated with the demands of other social movements. So you need to construct a ‘people’ that is an articulation of what Ernesto Laclau and I in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy called “a chain of equivalence” between several democratic demands. This is a clear difference to the traditional Marxist strategy.
The third important feature is that in the construction of this collective will it is vital to take account of the affective dimension, the part of common affects that I call ‘passions’. This collective will is not going to be created solely on the basis of arguments and a good program. We need to acknowledge the crucial role played by passions – I cannot repeat that often enough. The left is much too rationalistic