Written by Ritchie Savage
Ernesto Laclau, who passed away on Sunday, April 13, 2014, is known primarily as an Argentinian political theorist who wrote about populism, socialism, and political discourse. Populism is commonly referred to as a type of politics that exalts the ‘people’ and pits them against the elite. Laclau’s work on populism and political discourse has important ramifications for how we can reconceptualize the role of new social movements, such as Occupy.
Even though the formula for populism is relatively simple, a conception of people vs. power, the genesis of the concept is complex. Initially, two bodies of academic literature emerged in two different regional contexts to explain certain cases. In 1934, an Italian sociologist named Gino Germani immigrated to Argentina, fleeing from Mussolini’s fascist regime. Once in Argentina, he wrote about what he saw as a new form of politics evidenced in the leadership of Juan Perón – a type of politics he characterized as a ‘national popular’ movement that blended aspects of democratic participation and authoritarianism. This model could also be extended to characterize the leadership of other mid-twentieth century Latin American politicians, such as Vargas in Brazil and Cardenas in Mexico. In this sense, Germani provided a kind of historical model for understanding this new form of politics in relation to the experience of economic and political development specific to Latin American countries, referred to as modernization.
However, in the United States, populism has come to mean something slightly different, with reference to different historical cases. Authors such as Richard Hofstadter and John Hicks, in writing about the legacy of populism in the U.S., refer back to the People’s Party of the 1890s – a grassroots political movement that developed out of a white farmers’ alliance in the South. These farmers cultivated the idea that they were an ordinary people oppressed by an elite, such as ‘big business,’ expressing the hardships they experienced as a result of the crop lien system. The interesting move that Hofstadter made in his essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” was to try to link up rhetoric propagated in the era of McCarthyism with this historical legacy traced back to the People’s Party. This led to a watershed both in the U.S. academic literature and even in the media, where it is now common to refer to examples of ‘populist rhetoric’ found in a tradition of U.S. politicians that spans from William Jennings Bryan to Barack Obama, but also in contemporary U.S. social movements, such as the Tea Party and Occupy.
It gets more complicated. Just as the term ‘populism’ has been used to refer to cases of politics in the U.S. from the 1890s to the present, it has been applied to two subsequent waves of politicians in Latin America, spanning from the aforementioned mid-twentieth century cases to figures like Venezuela’s Chávez (and now Maduro), Bolivia’s Morales, and Ecuador’s Correa in the present. Still yet, the term also found its application in Europe as theorists like Margaret Canovan and Paul Taggart have attempted to explain the emergence of European political parties in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as Jörg Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front. Following this line of thought, there is much concern in the present about parties in Europe such as Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary, as these parties are not only populist, but also display neofascist characteristics.
And now people talk about cases of populism present all over the world.
So, right wing or left wing, politician or movement, rhetoric or action, here or there, past or present – to what sort of thing does populism refer?
Laclau gave us the first iteration of his theory of populism in his 1977 classic, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory. He entered into the debate on populism, following the trail of Germani and other Latin American political theorists, in the discussion about Peronism. Laclau’s initial innovation in conceptualizing populism was to break with Germani’s model for understanding the specific form of Latin American populism as an outcome of processes of modernization. Instead, Laclau inaugurated a paradigm shift in conceiving of populism in broader terms as a form of political discourse. The utility of this new definition of populism was that it allowed for more comparisons to cases of political movements outside of Latin America, insofar as this definition was no longer bound up with historical processes of economic and political development specific to Latin America.
One of the most important characteristics of the new discursive definition that Laclau developed in this book was that populism as a discourse creates a separation and antagonism between the people and the power bloc. Not unlike previous political theories, such as that of Carl Schmitt, Laclau asserted that populist discourse constructs an ‘enemy.’ Populists point to those politicians with power in the sphere of institutionalized politics and blame them for not representing the interests of the people. Populists then claim to embody the interests of the people as a way to maneuver themselves into positions of power. With all of the cases Laclau considers, he shows how this populist discourse is one that can be employed, in ideological terms, across the political spectrum from Left to Right.
In, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau and Mouffe develop this conception of political discourse further, showing how a particular form of populist discourse can be utilized by the Left in order to foster political identities and fight for socialist causes. The idea of a discourse that pits the people against groups in power remains central to this theory. Following the theory of structural linguistics pioneered by Ferdinand de Saussure, Laclau and Mouffe add to this conception of political discourse that there are certain signifiers, such as ‘people,’ ‘nation,’ and ‘revolution,’ which can be utilized in order to foster political identities. The special quality of these signifiers is that they are capable of becoming saturated with many meanings. In this way, signifiers, such as the ‘people,’ when introduced in a political discourse can create stable political identities by linking together a vast plethora of democratic demands. *For Laclau, creating forms of political discourse that revolve around these signifiers, which link demands and create identities, is the key to ushering in new forms of socialist and radical democratic change – for instance, to create more just forms of governance, to include marginalized groups in decision-making, and to enact policies geared toward the redistribution of wealth.
At this point, I think we can take Laclau’s fully formulated conception of populist discourse in his last book, On Populist Reason, and show how his theory is applicable to a movement such as Occupy. First you have what Laclau refers to as an ‘empty signifier,’ like ‘Occupy,’ which is devoid of specific content and can function as an umbrella concept for linking together democratic demands. The signifier ‘Occupy’ is also linked to an ‘antagonistic rift’ between the people and the enemy. In the discourse of Occupy, this would be the separation between the ‘99%’ and the ‘1%.’ Just as Laclau’s definition of populist discourse stipulates, the idea that “We are the 99%” provides for a political identity that embodies a notion the ‘people’ against the ‘1%,’ a conception of the enemy as an economic and political elite that is oppressing and exploiting us. It follows that ‘Occupy’ as an empty signifier was capable of taking, what were previously, a series of isolated democratic demands and now linking them together into a set of unified popular demands. Thus Occupy brought together workers demanding rights, students mired in debt, people discriminated against along lines of race and sex, immigrants demanding reform, and more
Perhaps one of the most important and controversial points that Laclau makes in On Populist Reason is that “populism is the royal road to understanding something about the ontological constitution of the political as such”. What he means is that populism reveals something that is at the heart of all forms of politics. Following thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Jacques Lacan, Laclau alludes to the fact that the unconscious is structured like a language, and populism itself is like a manifestation of the unconscious symbolic structure of the political. This idea has been interpreted as a threat to already existing normative democratic theories in a couple of different ways.
Among political theorists, one of the main concerns with contemporary cases of populism is that they constitute threats to institutionalized democratic politics, where in Latin America, cases of populism such as Chavismo are sometimes suggested as having authoritarian tendencies, and in Europe, new cases of populism invite comparisons to cases of both authoritarianism and fascism. Thus, if populism is tied to the very notion of the political itself, there would be no way to single out cases of politics as “populist” in order to signify that they pose a threat to democracy. In other words, if the very foundation of politics is based in a symbolic structure similar to what Laclau describes as populism, then one loses the ability to solely categorize certain right-wing or authoritarian political movements or regimes as populist.
But if Laclau is right, then populism might truly represent a much more complicated phenomenon. For Laclau, typically the event that sets off these symbolic processes of political identity formation is what he refers to as a ‘dislocation,’ which is a kind of real social crisis that presents an obstacle to being represented within language. For instance, it could be an economic crisis, like that of 2008, and our inability to completely wrap our minds around the center of the problem and what caused it. Political identity formations then emerge on the symbolic level to sort of fill in the gap – to be able to describe the cause of the crisis and the solution to it.
In this sense, we can see how populist movements of both the Left and the Right have emerged in the United States in the wake of the 2008 crisis, first the Tea Party and then Occupy. Both movements employ empty signifiers and link democratic demands around political identities in order to propose solutions to the problem. As the repercussions of the economic crisis have stretched to Europe, we might similarly look at the rise of Golden Dawn and Syriza in Greece.
Yet even though movements on both sides of the political spectrum might share some kernel of the same unconscious symbolic structure, this is not necessarily bad news. To view this as bad news would be to stress that from this perspective there is, in reality, simply a void in the center of all politics, which is constitutively lacking in any content and structured by unwieldy unconscious and linguistic forces. This view could lead to an extreme nihilism implying the idea of the death of politics or that authentic political action is impossible.
But for Laclau, this is good news. From his Marxist roots in Gramscian theory, he believed we could use and manipulate the symbolic structure of populist discourse in order to fight for progressive causes. And he led by example, becoming an important figure in Argentinian politics, sometimes even wielding a populist discourse to thwart his enemies. This is how I will like to remember him, as a kind of populist superhero.
Sometimes I think it is the lack of content, which the empty signifier implies, that constitutes a threat. There is the idea that with all this emptiness, and availability to absorb possible meanings, the empty signifier can really take up a lot of space. It can stand in for the people, after all. Sometimes the empty signifier can also be extremely destructive, in a paradoxically productive political sense. Laclau was aware of this – that empty signifiers are capable of taking up an important symbolic space, which allows for political action to take place.
Take the empty signifier, ‘Occupy,’ again. This is a potentially dangerous signifier, and that is why it was perceived as a threat by the Right. What does ‘Occupy’ mean, essentially? To take up space. Here we have a signifier that takes up significant symbolic space in our imagination, prompting us to take up more symbolic and even physical space. O-c-c-u-p-y. It almost exists, as Žižek would claim, as pure negation. Like Bartleby’s ‘I would prefer not to,’ there is no content to the negation. Even before Occupying ‘Something,’ there is the idea of ‘Occupy’ itself – to simply exist and take up space – symbolically, politically, physically.
This is not really a eulogy for Laclau, nor is it for Occupy, because these ideas are not dead.
Ritchie Savage recently earned his Ph.D. in Sociology from The New School for Social Research. He is currently working on the book, “Populism in the Americas,” and he teaches sociology courses as a Visiting Instructor at Pratt Institute and as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Baruch College.