A new di­rec­tion for democ­racy

For A Left Pop­ulism BY CHAN­TAL MOUFFE Verso, £10.99

Sunday Herald Life - - Books Reviews - Re­view by Jamie Maxwell

GOR­DON Brown’s first act af­ter he be­came Chan­cel­lor of the Ex­che­quer in 1997 was to grant the Bank of Eng­land op­er­a­tional in­de­pen­dence.

The move was meant to sig­nal a new­found prag­ma­tism in Labour’s ap­proach to the econ­omy – no more reck­less spend­ing, no more ex­ces­sive bor­row­ing, no more out­landish left­wing de­mands for full em­ploy­ment. In­stead, in stark con­trast to the be­hav­iour of pre­vi­ous Labour gov­ern­ments, the Blair-Brown ad­min­is­tra­tion would be a re­spon­si­ble ste­ward of Bri­tain’s na­tional fi­nances.

This must have seemed like a smart idea at the time. What bet­ter way to shore up Labour’s fis­cal cre­den­tials than by hand­ing power over a key eco­nomic lever – mon­e­tary pol­icy – to a panel of ex­perts?

In fact, it was cat­a­stroph­i­cally mis­judged. By in­sist­ing that strict in­fla­tion tar­gets and “sound money” be en­forced by com­mit­tee, rather than overseen by par­lia­ment, Brown was telling vot­ers that some is­sues were sim­ply too im­por­tant for them to de­cide. And that, as it turns out, is not some­thing vot­ers par­tic­u­larly want to hear.

Two decades on, New Labour’s tech­no­cratic ob­ses­sion with bud­getary dis­ci­pline – an ob­ses­sion en­thu­si­as­ti­cally shared by sub­se­quent Tory gov­ern­ments – has been drowned out by the Brexit ral­ly­ing cry of “take back con­trol”. But take back con­trol of what, and to whose ben­e­fit?

In her con­cise, timely, and provoca­tive new book, For

A Left Pop­ulism, the Bel­gian po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist Chan­tal Mouffe ar­gues that cap­i­tal­ism – at least in its cur­rent, rad­i­cally dereg­u­lated form – has been bad for democ­racy.

The con­ver­gence of es­tab­lished so­cial demo­cratic par­ties around a Thatcherite eco­nomic con­sen­sus – pri­va­tised in­dus­tries, fi­nance-led growth, weak trade unions and global free trade – has robbed the pub­lic of a clear choice be­tween right and left, more in­equal­ity or less, leav­ing the space for col­lec­tive de­ci­sion­mak­ing crit­i­cally re­duced.

The re­sult, Mouffe says, has been the rise of a new kind of ad­ver­sar­ial pol­i­tics that prom­ises to re­store “sovereignty” to the peo­ple by over­turn­ing a failed sta­tus quo. At one end of the spec­trum stand Brexit, Trump, and Europe’s var­i­ous as­cen­dant far-right or­gan­i­sa­tions. At the other, there’s Jeremy Cor­byn, Bernie San­ders, and the an­ti­aus­ter­ity move­ment, Pode­mos, in Spain.

Mouffe’s ac­count of pop­ulism turns the dom­i­nant lib­eral anal­y­sis on its head.

Ac­cord­ing to prom­i­nent cen­trist writ­ers such as Ian Brem­mer and Yascha Mounk, pop­ulism is an in­her­ently au­thor­i­tar­ian ide­ol­ogy that aims to sub­vert tra­di­tional con­sti­tu­tional checks and bal­ances in or­der to con­cen­trate power in the hands of a sin­gle po­lit­i­cal party or per­son­al­ity.

But for Mouffe, it is a nec­es­sary ve­hi­cle for demo­cratic re­newal: western coun­tries are al­ready ruled by tiny, self­s­e­lect­ing elites whose poli­cies have laid waste to the planet’s re­sources – in the ab­sence of far­reach­ing po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic change, there will be very lit­tle free­dom left to de­fend. “In­stead of see­ing the pop­ulist mo­ment as a threat to democ­racy, it is ur­gent to re­alise that it also of­fers the op­por­tu­nity for [democ­racy’s] rad­i­cal­iza­tion,” she writes.

Mouffe re­jects the no­tion that all pop­ulisms are the same: while the right whips up anger to­wards im­mi­grants, for­eign­ers, and other blame­less mi­nori­ties, the left rails against the real source of cri­sis – an econ­omy run by the ul­tra-rich, in the in­ter­ests of the ul­tra-rich, at ev­ery­one else’s ex­pense.

If pro­gres­sive forces are ac­tu­ally go­ing to win, how­ever, they will have to ditch the old con­sen­sual model of Third Way pol­i­tics cham­pi­oned by Tony Blair and Gor­don Brown in favour of a more as­sertive and po­lar­is­ing ap­proach.

Mouffe cites Jeremy Cor­byn’s pointed at­tacks on the Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal, me­dia and fi­nan­cial es­tab­lish­ments – “the oli­garchy,” as she calls them – as a lead­ing con­tem­po­rary ex­am­ple of the left-pop­ulist style, and notes how ef­fec­tive pop­ulist rhetoric has been in bring­ing a fresh gen­er­a­tion of ac­tivists into the party fold.

“It is very telling that for the re­cent elec­toral cam­paign, [Labour] used the Blairite slo­gan ‘For the many, not the few’, but re-sig­ni­fied it in an ag­o­nis­tic way as con­struct­ing a po­lit­i­cal fron­tier be­tween ‘we’ and ‘they’,” she says. “Cor­byn has been able to at­tract a huge fol­low­ing among young peo­ple [which] tes­ti­fies to the ca­pac­ity of left pop­ulism to give a new im­pulse to demo­cratic pol­i­tics.”

In some re­spects, Mouffe’s ar­gu­ment in For A Left Pop­ulism is just a cau­tiously

up­dated ver­sion of the the­sis she has been de­vel­op­ing since the mid-1980s, when, along­side her late hus­band, the Ar­gen­tinian aca­demic Ernesto La­clau, she pub­lished a se­ries of highly in­flu­en­tial es­says ex­plor­ing “post-Marx­ist” so­cial­ist the­ory. Yet it is a tes­ta­ment to the tremen­dous pre­science of her thought that the ideas she and La­clau first ar­tic­u­lated more than 30 years ago re­main so res­o­nant to­day – per­haps more res­o­nant than ever, in fact.

Mouffe’s early work grap­pled with the chal­lenge posed by the bur­geon­ing ide­o­log­i­cal hege­mony of Thatcherism af­ter the col­lapse of post-war so­cial democ­racy. But in the wake of the 2008 fi­nan­cial crash, that hege­mony it­self has be­gun to fade, which is why so many cen­tre-left par­ties that still un­crit­i­cally subscribe to it are now strug­gling in the polls.

The brac­ing cen­tral as­ser­tion of this book is that ne­olib­er­al­ism is fast ap­proach­ing its ex­piry date and that what­ever comes next will be shaped ei­ther by the rad­i­cal left or the pseud­o­fas­cist right. One way or the other, though, the era of sti­fling cen­trist man­age­ri­al­ism is dead.

Chan­tal Mouffe sug­gests Jeremy Cor­byn’s cur­rent rhetoric is a lead­ing ex­am­ple of mod­ern the left-pop­ulist style

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