Populism and Chantal Mouffe
In 2018, Chantal Mouffe tried to reclaim the idea of populism for the left. She argued the left must abandon its technocratic inclinations to reclaim a populist message for the masses and the working class in particular. Mouffe is widely considered a philosopher of democracy so her embrace of populism caught some off guard. Many view her as the definitive scholar of the school of radical democracy. Radical democracy, of course, defines itself apart from most other schools of democracy already. Nonetheless, most intellectuals view populism as a threat to democracy rather than a tool for democracy.
Some might wonder whether Mouffe was genuine in her embrace of populism. Perhaps her form of populism was different. Mouffe would probably argue it was different in at least one respect. She argued for a populism of the left opposed to the more pervasive form of right-wing populism seen in Hungary, Brazil, and even the United States. Still, she views right-wing populism with a degree of respect. She visualizes “a ‘return of the political’ that would take the form of a struggle between right-wing populism and left populism.” Indeed, she seems to view neoliberalism as a greater threat to democracy than right-wing populists.
However, her disdain for neoliberalism extends beyond its prescriptions (or rather proscriptions) for economic policy. She does not like its technocratic impulse to shut down debate. Yet in this way, her frustration is less with neoliberalism as such than what Christopher Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti call technopopulism. She writes, “In the name of recovering democracy, they are in fact calling for restricting it.” So, Mouffe directs her aim at centrists and moderates who use technocratic solutions to appeal to the people. Mouffe cannot tolerate moderates. For her democracy is radical in its substance and its process.
Hegemony and Pluralism
Still, radical democracy does not require the adoption of radical political ideologies. Mouffe writes in For a Left Populism, “The left populist strategy is not an avatar of the ‘extreme left’ but a different way of envisaging the rupture with neoliberalism through the recovery and radicalization of democracy.” Radical democracy depends more on the process than on the substance of those ideas. For Mouffe, the radicalization of democracy requires for a wide range of perspectives. Indeed, the radicalization of democracy begins with a radically pluralistic society with multiple perspectives and opinions.
However, Mouffe wants something more than just diversity of ideas. She wants “a vibrant clash of democratic political positions.” In other words, she wants distinctive ideas and debate rather than the compromise and moderation of different positions. In this way the radicalization of democracy becomes difficult without radical ideas. Neoliberalism, according to Mouffe, shut down the possibility for radical pluralism through an appeal to consensus. So, Mouffe doesn’t just dislike neoliberalism, but any effort to remove the political from public policy deliberations. In this manner her attack is just as strong against technocratic policy wonks who fail to consider the importance of affects, identity, and ideology in their recommendations.
Nonetheless, it’s difficult even for Mouffe to separate the substance of politics from the democratic process. She admits, “There is necessarily an ‘anti-capitalist’ dimension in the struggle for the radicalization of democracy.” This comes across as though there is not room for capitalist perspectives in Mouffe’s pluralistic society. A truly radical democratic society would erase capitalist sentiments from its community. So, it sounds as though Mouffe wants a hegemony of left-wing ideas rather than a truly diverse range of perspectives or ideas. Hence, the appeal of populist techniques to achieve ideological ambitions.
A Green Democratic Revolution?
Ultimately, I found Towards a Green Democratic Revolution an odd book. In many ways, it was a restatement of her earlier book For a Left Populism. The first three chapters serve as a restatement of ideas from her earlier writings. She waits until the final chapter to integrate the idea of a Green Democratic Revolution into a wider populism of the left. The Green New Deal proposed in the United States becomea a template rather than the Green Parties that have become prevalent throughout Europe. The Green Parties offer a more technocratic approach to environmental politics that is portrayed as outside the traditional left-right political spectrum.
In contrast, the Green New Deal is unapologetically a product of the left. It strives to link issues of economic injustice to the emerging environmental crisis. On the surface, it comes across as a template for a populism of the left. However, Mouffe does not explain why it has not inspired widespread popular mobilization. In fact, it has appealed more to the technocratic left than the working masses. Moreover, left-wing populists in countries like Mexico and Venezuela have embraced fossil fuels.
Chile actually offers the best example of a marriage between economic and environmental injustice into a form of left-wing populism, but its experience is noticeably absent from Mouffe’s account. Perhaps even more puzzling is the absence of any discussion about the populist backlash to environmental policies like the gilet jaunes movement in France. While the gilet jaunes movement does not mean the climate crisis has no populist appeal, it does raise challenges and merits a response. In the end, Towards a Green Democratic Revolution is simply uneven. Its focus is not really about a green democratic revolution. Indeed, it’s discussed almost like an afterthought rather than the primary subject of the book.