Populism everywhere

On Populist Reason
Ernesto Laclau
, Verso, 2005

At some point I thought that it is a good idea to write a paper on populism and recognition with a couple of other philosophers. Now I’m not that sure anymore. Nevertheless, my co-writer Joonas insisted that I really should read this book by Laclau as a) it’s great and b) it’s about populism. As these both are seemingly good reasons, I spent the better part of the last three days to read (somewhat quickly and superficially) through it.

Laclau starts by showing how the previous analyses of populism are ambiguous and in general inconsistent. He is quite blunt here and that makes some entertaining reading. What’s interesting is that Laclau seems to want to get away from the distinction between normal and pathological (i.e. populist) forms of politics and understand populism rather as a dimension of political culture or result of a discursive labeling of certain political movements. This, in turn, goes partly against what we want to claim about populism as a pathological form of identity politics. In any case, Laclau traces the history of group/crowd/public analysis and aims to show that is indeed a trend towards dismantling any easy dichotomies (like normal-pathological).

After the more historical part he gets to the main point – defining populism in his own terms. And here are those terms:

“Here our exploration comes to an end. The emergence of the ‘people’ depends on three variables I have isolated: equivalential relations hegemonically represented through empty signifiers; displacement of internal frontiers through the production of floating signifiers; and a constitutive heterogeneity which makes dialectical retrievals impossible and gives its true centrality to political articulation. We have now reached a fully developed notion of populism.” (p.156)

One could note that Laclau isn’t overly clear with his own distinctions either. Especially the key section on the concepts of discourse, empty signifiers, hegemony and rhetoric (p.68-72) is quite quick and requires a much broader understanding of theoretical background assumptions of this particular discussion than I, for example, have.

Nevertheless, there are some observations that should be central for any theorist of populism. Firstly, populism is about ‘people’ and about “a partiality which wants to function as the totality of the community” (p.81). This is exactly what The Finns Party (formerly known as True Finns) has been doing all along: they represent themselves as ‘the people’ or claim to represent ‘the people’ that is set against the corrupt elite or, in the more nationalist circles, any non-Finn outsiders.

Secondly, populist movements are motivated by an experience of a lack. By constructing the ‘people’, populists aim to give name to the “absent fullness” (p.85). However, it seems that this lack cannot fully be sated. In fact, it wasn’t completely clear to me where this lack even comes from. I presume that there is a psychoanalytical story to tell as what Laclau mostly does is to weave together psychoanalysis and linguistic analysis.

By naming the ‘people’ (and other things) we make them to be. As Laclau puts it: “rhetorical mechanisms […] constitute the anatomy of the social world” (p. 110). Populism is thus linked with social ontology. The point Laclau makes is actually even more general as all the struggles (to get rid of the lack and various demands) are political and all politics is more or less populism. In short, we constitute or institute the social world through politics. The similarity with psychoanalysis is present also in here as Laclau understands psychoanalysis as something that has less to do with psychology and more to do with constitution and ontology. This is probably something that some more developmentally inclined psychonanalysts would not completely agree with.

For me, one of Lacklau’s main omissions is the analysis of how the social world itself affects the naming processes. (Hegelian mutual constitution, anyone?) Similarly, how the power relations function in the context of naming is left underanalyzed. Power is surely mentioned but that’s roughly it.

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Returning the book after scanning those pages that were missing from the more or less legal pdf.

Another thing is that Laclau seem to discuss only nation states’ internal populist movements. Does populism become possible only in a nation state? This does not sound believable. Smaller (communal) and larger (EU) democratic units can also suffer from it. And when I say suffer, I mean it. However, here Laclau does not help at all. When is populism (or naming and social creation) bad, wrong, or pathological? There are times when Laclau uses terms like ‘imaginary’ in pejorative sense (p.187) but ‘the people’ is always imaginary and that does not seem to be a problem. This book does not give normative tools to separate populism from other political movements or, if all politics is populism, it does not give tools to normatively evaluate different political movements. Laclau’s own position seems to be that we’d just better realize that we live with a multiplicity of identities as this opens a way to understand and live with others. In the end, this all just left me with a stronger conviction that there is still plenty of room for the (semi-Hegelian) talk about constitution of demands and realization of freedom in the institutional world.

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2 thoughts on “Populism everywhere

  1. Thanks Onni; I don’t know Laclau either, so can’t help if there are misunderstandings. But I have lots of questions, like you, about the definition you reproduce above. I guess I’d like to read some of the historical analyses to see how he identifies the concept.

    Am I write in thinking that one of the points at stake here is that political discourses – given they are populist on this definition – involve a kind of hollowing out to identify the mass of people, at the same time as that process is constituted by obscuring the inevitable differences, or heterogeneity, that makes up the social mass?

    That seems to create the problem that no-one ever really feels like they are the people, even while political discourses constantly appeal to to various names for that body. But that does seem to suggest that there are better and worse ways of pursuing populism.

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  2. Cheers Andrew! Sorry for the late reply too. It’s been a hell of a week. (Two paper deadlines, a conference on populism, and I also started teaching a course on recognition.)

    As for the ‘hollowing out’, I think you are right.Especially if we think that people have some pre-existing identities before the populist/political movement. Of course the politicians need to try to formulate ‘the people’ in a way that allows identification with it. I suppose that if it becomes too rigidly defined, that’s a problem as people won’t find themselves in it. Similarly, if it’s too loose, that’s too distant from anyone’s ‘practical identity’.

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