Many serious observers hold that the crisis in Europe has not come to an end. With the restructuring of the Greek national debt and the enlargement of the European Stability Mechanism, only time was bought, yet the fundamental problems of over-accumulation2 and the imbalances of the current accounts among the members of the Eurozone still persist.
Moreover, the agreement on the fiscal pact last March targets a sustained cementing of austerity politics accompanied by an authoritarian and centralist turn of EU integration under German hegemony. Should the fiscal pact indeed take effect, which under the complex ratification processes of 25 states is not to be taken for granted3, and should it be administered with the intended hardships, it will end by destroying the European social model, including dramatic reductions of living standards of populations in all parts of Europe.
Under these conditions, a renewed outbreak of the European debt and banking crisis within the foreseeable future is not unlikely. Probable consequences – this is the hypothesis of what follows here – would be a more or less voluntary departure of several single states from the monetary union. However, this is not first and foremost an economic question, but primarily a political one.
The breaking apart of the monetary union would make manifest and transform the latent crisis of European integration into a hard fact. It would lead to a qualitative shift in power relations in favour of the highest performing export oriented economies of the EU and could be the overture to a deep political earthquake all across the EU.
In a situation like this, nationalist, xenophobic and authoritarian right-wing forces could begin to go beyond the roles they have thus far played.
In the period between June 2009 and March 2011, right-wing parties obtained 155 of 3,066 seats in 13 parliaments, which represents approximately 5 % of the electorate. Moreover, this trend was also expressed by a strengthening of right-wing populist, Euro-sceptical parties in the European Parliament elections in 2010.
Even though national specifics are relevant to understanding the phenomena, these developments indicate a profound change in European political geography. As Tanja Binder shows in her study on the right in Europe, this is also occurring within the framework of a general rightist trend in the course of the latest period. “Only rightist populist parties have been able to expand their voter base” (see Binder, 2009, p. 60).
This means we are not dealing with dangerous yet sectarian groups at the margin of the society but with parties who are succeeding in pushing themselves into the centre of societies and influencing the political agenda even of moderate mainstream parties.
The parties under scrutiny have in fact modernised both their agenda and their vocabulary and therefore cannot be labelled easily as traditional right extremists. That is why contemporary political science uses the notion of “right-wing populism“ to characterise them. Typically “populism” then is characterised by a description, in which the following characteristics are named most frequently:
However, attempts to apply these qualifications allegedly common to concrete cases demonstrate deviations rather than offering confirmation, which makes doubtful the usefulness of positivistic characteristics.
What therefore seems more relevant is a theoretical approach. For this we cannot do without the works of Ernesto Laclau. He proposes that populism be characterised not first and foremost through its empirical phenomena, beyond those mentioned above – the “popular-democratic appeal, in other words, a direct addressing of the people, in its language and through its symbols, which all significant political parties have to attempt – but through the fact that those appeals are presented as an ‘antagonistic option’ against the ideology of the hegemonic bloc” (see Laclau, 1981: 151).
In Laclau’s (post)-structuralist analysis, a populist discourse is essentially characterised by its attempt to take up democratic demands which originally exist in their particularity and can be absorbed under normal circumstances by the institutions; but at a certain moment they cannot be further satisfied within the system. In articulating these demands like the members of a chain (“equivalential chain“ in his language), and providing them with a symbolic and political representation (a common signifier), be it by a slogan, a political vision or a leader, the former particular demands are transformed “into a broader social subjectivity which is synonymous with saying that it constitutes the people as a potential historical actor“ (Ernesto Laclau, 2005: 74).
With Laclau’s “equivalential chain” we cannot help being reminded of the well-known passage in Lenin’s “What is to be Done“, in which the ideal of a social-democratic professional revolutionary is expressed as the “tribune of the people“ “who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture“ (Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, Chapt. III: E)
Would we therefore have to interpret Lenin’s brand of communism as a sort of “left populism“?
At this point, the limits of the political application of Ernesto Laclau’s analytical instrument come clearly into focus. It is to his credit that he has provided a usable concept for a structural analysis of political discourses. From this we can also deduce changes in political perspective: While the conventional liberal mainstream knows no better than to use the notion “populism” in a moralistic, pejorative way, it appears in Laclau as “one legitimate way among others of constructing the political bond” (ibid. 63). And, moreover, as he indicates at the end of his book: “The Political becomes synonymous with populism…since the construction of the ‘people’ is the political act par excellence” (Laclau 2005: 154).
This has one political consequence: If the construction of the people forms the essence of the political, the verdict of populism attached in an inflationary way to nearly any oppositional movement, regardless of its contents and aims, clearly becomes a “denigration of the masses“ on the part of the liberal main-stream due to their silent complicity with elites who are increasingly unable to justify their politics vis-à-vis the general population.
Yet, the “equivalent chain“ proposed by Laclau, “Hitler, Mao, Perón und De Gaulle”, is not at all convincing, and neither is the more general assertion that “‘populism’ (is) not a type of movement – identifiable with either a special social base or a particular ideological orientation – but a political logic” (Laclau: 2005: 117), last but not least because the political question stimulated by it – namely whether the left to be successful should also act in “populist“ ways – leads one astray.
In an earlier study, in which his analysis seemed closer to Marxism, Laclau demonstrates that “the appearance of populism is historically tied to a crisis of the dominant ideological discourse, which is on the other hand part of a general social crisis” (Laclau, 1981: 153). However, if populism is constituted by the fact that popular-democratic elements are presented as an antagonistic option against the ideology of the dominant bloc this does not necessarily imply that populism is equivalent to a revolutionary movement.
On the contrary, to stimulate a populist development it may suffice, as Laclau writes, that one class or class fraction needs a fundamental change within the power bloc to sustain its assertion of hegemony.
In this sense he distinguishes with good reason a populism of the ruling classes and a populism of the governed classes (Laclau: 1981: 151).
In other words, each crisis must be examined from two perspectives:
a) from the perspective of those being governed;
b) from the perspective of those being in power.
Regarding the latter, the critical question is if, and in what ways, today’s rightist movements in Europe coincide with interests emerging within “the dominant class, more precisely in a group of the dominant class which facing the crisis of the dominant discourse wants to establish a new hegemony and thus sees itself forced to appeal against established ideology to ‘the Volk’ as a whole” (ibid. p. 153).
With regard to those who are governed the pivotal point is the serious deterioration of the social climate which is sufficiently documented throughout Europe, even in Germany, which is the first country at the core of the privileged zones of the Euro-territory. In questionnaires, more than half of the German population indicatse that it feels threatened by current economic developments: 37% of them say they are “irritated“ and 33% “angry“ (Institute for Conflict and Violence Research – IKG, 2010: p. 3).
According to the same research, rightist, even extreme right, attitudes are on the rise in cases in which people are personally impacted by the crisis. Whoever feels threatened by the crisis tends to lean towards Islamophobia, xenophobia, defence of the privileges of established circles (“Etabiertenvorrechte”), anti-Semitism as well as a tendency towards sexism and homophobia (ibid. p 8). And all this still in a situation in which no outspokenly right populist party exists.
Changes in mass consciousness of such quality and to such extents must always have to do with changes in peoples’ practical life circumstances and also within the world of work where according to Gramsci, “hegemony originates” (see Gramsci, 1991, p. 132).
The trivial liberal mainstream conforts itself by arguing that change is always connected to insecurity. Moreover, so the argument goes, the losses which result so to speak naturally from “globalisation” hit certain social strata hardest, and they then become prone to rightist attitudes. Yet, this view simplifies and extenuates reality.
Indeed, social deterioration is becoming more and more recognised by masses of the people as a consequence of a politics which accepts the demands of financial markets and transnational enterprises as hard objective facts and imposes them as practical constraints on the populations. Moreover, since the 1980s, a whole generation experienced “change” and “reform” as being synonymous with growing suffering at the work place, insecurity and deterioration of the sense of equality. The key notion here is known as “precariety”, which amounts to the practical negation of the welfare state achieved in Europe after World War II. Reaching far beyond the broad and ever growing zone of vulnerability it creates, precariousness of labour relations disintegrates the entire working world, including the zone of normal working relations (see Dörre/Kraemer/Speidel, 2004: p. 96).
While precariety effects the entirety of our societies, more and more people are in fact living under conditions of general scarcity, scarcity of goods and services, of security, of acceptance, of stable social relations, a state which the survey denotes as a “negative individualism” which opens the field for an increase of rightist populist orientations (Ibid. p. 101).
This means: If we want to delineate the social origins of the rise of extreme right positions coming into the “centre of society”, the decreasing integration capacity of the welfare state combined with the weakening of organised labour has to be one of the focal points of our analyses. Ironically, modernised right-wing populist parties which hitherto advocated a pure anti-statist neoliberalism now posture as defenders of the welfare state – albeit with the crucial reservation that the “merit-based” welfare state be made exclusively accessible to the native populations.
This is much more than pure demagogy, as it demonstrates one of Laclau’s most important arguments, namely that significations in political discourses can float between opposing camps (“floating signifier”): The social welfare state in Europe has always been part and parcel of the process of income distribution in the framework of the nation-state. Once the neoliberal mantra is accepted that the further expansion of the welfare state is neither desirable nor possible due to financial limits, in other words once the disarticulation of social, so to say class-wise, distribution is accepted, even the idea of the welfare state is in danger of collapsing into its opposite – a reactive nationalism aimed at exclusion (compare, for example, the programme decided on in June 2011 by the Freedom Party of Austria).
Let us be careful! The conclusion often heard within liberal discourse – in which populism is first and foremost a phenomenon of a white, male under-class which rightfully experiences itself as a bunch of losers of modernisation and globalisation – does not hold up to empirical analysis. As demonstrated in the German survey quoted above, right-wing populist leanings have increased in parallel to the deepening of crisis on all social levels of income, since 2009 notably also within upper-income strata. The latter withhold their support from weaker groups and tend to downgrade them. Additionally, an aggressively loaded Islamophobia noticed in the centre, as well as left of centre, has significantly increased (ibid. p. 13).
In this respect, we read in the final summary of the IKG study: “In the wake of economic and societal effects of the crisis … we are dealing with an increasingly brutalised bourgeoisie … which additionally is spurred on by the press, that is, by allegedly liberal dailies and weeklies. It is not the size but the power of influence of higher income groups contributing to the negative transformation of the current social and political climate, which needs here to be taken in account.
Existing empirical data in various countries demonstrate that an increasing number of those who feel threatened in their social existence by the crisis, tend to create an internal distancing from democracy. The crisis of political representation as witnessed throughout Europe is particularly grave, as the working class and popular strata need more from politics when faced with economic and social crisis.
Instead, the political class turns them over to the chill of financial markets. This has of course severe consequences, as the right/left dichotomy is no longer perceived by a large segment of the society as a rough equivalent of an upper-class / lower-class dichotomy. However, “crisis of political representation” seems to be too big a term to describe a fundamental process: the lack of interest shown by politicians in the working class and other popular strata is met by the populations’ lack of interest in politics.
In other words, alliances between middle-class strata and working people hitherto negotiated by the social-democratic and the green parties under the banner of a moderate neoliberalism, dissolve ostensibly, while political liberalism takes on an elitist character.
In this critical situation, the new right offers the possibility of rebellion without questioning the basic structures of capitalist property, as Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936 with reference to fascism which, as he said, sees salvation in “the masses achieving their expression (however by no means their rights)“ (Benjamin, 1963: p. 41).
In closing: Following Ernesto Laclau’s analysis we have isolated a decisive characteristic of populism, in that it represents an “antagonistic option“ that collides with the ideology of the power blocs. However, this antagonistic option can be formulated from two positions which in themselves are antagonistic positions, that is, either from the standpoint of the right or from the left; from that of the dominant, or that of the governed class. This led us to the limits of Laclau’s analytical points of departure, in that according to him both positions could be subsumed under the common notion of “populism”, which in turn would depreciate the substantively opposed contents into mere variants of the same thing. But what matters politically is not the identity; it is on the contrary the difference.
In this context, the notion of “populism” seems a euphemism for a new nationalist, xenophobic and anti-democratic right wing!
There is a paradox. The more successful the new right option has become in elections, the greater, so far, has been its failure when it had to stand the test of being in government. But we should not derive too much comfort from this considering that in Austria, for example, although Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party failed spectacularly in its government participation between 2000 and 2006, according to recent poll it is expected to come out of the forthcoming elections as a major political force.
The question is whether or not the “anti-elitism”, which marks the new right movements from their very inception, will turn into more than a gesture in consequence of the crisis or, to put it in other words, will coalesce into a project of groups of the ruling class.
Here the circle closes, as the answer to the question is intimately linked to the crisis of European integration, which conversely triggers the increasing nationalisms provoked by the austerity policies and the centralist authoritarian turn of the EU.
Much will depend on which of the competing concepts of the future role of Germany will prevail within its elites, and in this respect we must not take anything for granted at the moment; much of course will depend on the struggles unfolding particularly in the South of Europe on national levels against the austerity programs imposed on these countries.
Perhaps we will soon live to see a Europe in which the paths of nations will lead in opposite directions, either because the nationalist option within the ruling class will become decisive as well as popular by means of a new right wing, or because populations in single states will push for politics alternative to the prevalent austerity politics imposed through institutions of the EU.
In the case of any of the possible developments, the question of a peaceful, democratic future of national relations within a Europe based on solidarity, which requires a fundamentally restructured EU, will be at the centre of political struggles. What is however new is that this will take place in a constant confrontation with a new right wing and the nationalisms and chauvinisms embodied by it.
It is interesting that almost all of Marx’s famous text The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte — discussing something which today we might consider a predecessor of so called “populism” – deals with an analysis of the failures and defeats of diverse opposing forces – of liberalism and the left.
As far as today’s political left in Europe is concerned it is important to understand the close connection between material struggles and the struggle for power with the struggle to interpret the crisis. The left may prevail in this struggle over nationalism if it is able to develop a modernised class-based discourse and to articulate it with the very diverse popular demands of women, the trade unions, the ecologists, etc.
Some call this discourse “populist”. We know better: it is European and democratic.
Binder, Tanja: Erfolge der Rechten – Defizite der Linken? Eine Studie zur Entwicklung rechtsliberaler, rechtskonservativer und rechtspopulistischer Parteien in Westeuropa, Manuskript, Berlin 2009
Dörre, Klaus/ Kraemer, Klaus/ Speidel Frederic: “Marktsteuerung und Prekarisierung von Arbeit – Nährboden für rechtspopulistische Orientierungen“ in: Bischoff, Joachim/ Dörre Klaus/ Gauthier, Elisbath et al. : Moderner Rechtspopulismus. Ursachen, Wirkungen, Gegenstrategien, VSA-Verlag Hamburg, 2004
Gramsci, Antonio: Gefängnishefte [Prison Notebooks] vol. 6, Argument-Verlag 1991
Institut für Interdisziplinäre Gewaltforschung: Unruhige Zeiten, Presseinformation zur Präsentation der Langzeituntersuchung ‚Gruppenbezogene Menschenfeindlichkeit‘, Berlin, 2010
Jenkins, Patrick/Braithwaite, Tom/ Masters Brooke: “New force emerges from the shadows”, in: Financial Times, April 10, 2012
Laclau, Ernesto: On Populist Reason, Verso, 2005
Laclau, Ernesto: “Politik und Ideologie im Marxismus. Kapitalismus Faschismus – Populismus“, Argument-Verlag, Berlin, 1981.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich: What Is To Be Done? – Burning Questions for Our Movement, in Collected Works vol. 5, 1961.
Marx, Karl: Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte in: Marx/Engels-Werke (MEW) vol. 8, p. 111 – 208, Dietz Verlag, Berlin/O, 1969
The above article is published in: transform! european journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue, 10/2012.