Interview #9 with Samuele Mazzolini: Trans-Atlantic Left-Wing Populism

foto mazzoliniIn this interview, Samuele Mazzolini discusses the similarities and differences between Latin American left-wing populism (especially in Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia) and European left-wing populism ( in particular about Syriza, Corbyn and Podemos).

Mazzolini is a PhD candidate in Ideology and Discourse Analysis at the University of Essex. His theoretical research focuses on the notions of populism and hegemony in Laclau, while empirically he works on the experiences of the Italian Communist Party and the Ecuadorian Citizens’ Revolution. He previously worked for the Ecuadorian government and was until little ago a regular columnist of the State-owned daily newspaper El Telégrafo. He is a blogger for the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano.

1) Let’s start from where we left. In the last interview (it was April 2015) you said that “while in Latin America populism is widely accepted and internalised within the Left, in Europe this is not so, and we may speak of Spain and Greece as interesting laboratories in this sense”. In the meantime Podemos’ participation in national elections was not up to expectations, in the UK Corbyn’s populist approach did not convince the establishment of the Labour party, and the leaders of Syriza had to give up on many promises they made before the elections thus losing part of their popular support. The European wave of left-wing populism has already given way to regret and disenchantment or the political laboratory is still working?

All in all, I think it would be wrong to maintain that there has been a left-wing populist wave as such in Europe and that this has led to regret and disenchantment. One swallow doesn’t make a summer. The phenomena you mention can now hardly be clustered together and some nuances should be introduced. Let’s mention them briefly one by one.


Podemos is possibly the most populist of these experiments, even though they have scaled down their populist discourse over time. Ernesto Laclau conceptualised populism as a political logic consisting in the operation of dividing society into two camps, whereby a plebs claims to be the only legitimate populus as opposed to an adversary (typically a self-interested elite). At the same time, the move is accompanied by the articulation of a series of heterogeneous demands that are not being satisfied by the adversary, which traditionally holds economic and/or political power. Now, these two moments do not always necessarily proceed together at the same pace. You can still try to articulate demands, while blurring a bit the us vs them rhetoric. This is what happened with Podemos. We can thus say that Podemos by and large still fits in the populist category, but some compromise had to be made and the complete alterity initially maintained with the rest of the political system has been broken. Such a change was paradoxically due to two different trends.

  • On one side, Podemos has entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida in the run-up to the last elections. Even though Izquierda Unida was not precisely the main actor of the ‘system’ that Podemos criticized, it was still part of that ‘constitutive outside’ upon which the very creation of Podemos was predicated. More in general, Pablo Iglesias has recently tried to move the party to the left. This move runs counter to the original intuition according to which it was necessary to abandon the left-right dichotomy in order to interpellate the people starting from some of the common elements present in society. The bottom-line here was: the majority of the people is interested in certain issues, such as keeping the health and education services public and of good quality, not in our leftist symbolism. Iglesias seems to have backtracked on this. Behind this, there seems to be a misinterpretation. He thinks that the prolonged focus on the electoral (due to a series of calls to the polls one after another) and the consequent penetration of Podemos into the institutions has undermined its popular appeal. For him, the fact of being in the institutions and having to get the hands dirty in the unsexy world of administrative acts distances Podemos from that aura which permitted to entice the excluded sectors of society. Hence, the radicalisation to the left. This is premised on an erroneous reading of Laclau: for the Argentine, you never find pure populism or pure institutionalism, but typically a combination of the two in various degrees. Even the most populist experiment needs some form of institutionalisation in order to function. Moreover, the fact of entering into the institutions does not necessarily hamper the possibility of creating a people. It all depends on how you frame your presence in the institutions and what you do within them. I am aware that he is keen to avoid undertaking the degenerative arc of the Italian Communist Party, which from a certain point became complicit with the system. But working towards the construction of a new hegemony means being able to conduct a struggle on a wide and differentiated spectrum of fronts: the institutions, the streets, the recreational, the culture, etc. I understand that maintaining a fundamental alterity with the system while orchestrating the tensions inherent to the presence in many different sites of the social is no easy matter. But re-proposing a dichotomy between the institutions and the streets would be self-defeating for Podemos.
  • On the other side however, the complete alterity has been broken also in the name of the attempt to occupy what has been called ‘political centrality’ (not to be confused with the political centre). More in particular, the widespread urgency to get rid of Rajoy and Partido Popular (PP) has led Podemos, and Errejón in particular, to entertain the possibility of a post-alliance with the socialists (PSOE). The fact is that the average citizen who has not voted for PP is first and foremost concerned with the awful perspective of another Rajoy government, not with ideological purity, which is more of a militant obsession. All this reveals the issue around which the current rivalry between Iglesias and Errejón revolves: the former is interested in recuperating his old leftist credentials, while the latter is keen to forge a national-popular project, a new political identity capable of stepping out the box that made the radical left an unappealing option for the vast majority of the people, and to move the country towards a progressive course by starting from the contingent elements of which Spanish society is made, not from utopian dreams. Of the two, I think the approach adopted by Iglesias has been quite damaging from the point of view of the strategy and can partly explain the electoral disappointment.



Athens (2016)

In the case of Syriza instead, its reluctance to respect the outcome of the referendum and pursue a more radical strategy in summer 2015 has practically eliminated the frontier upon which its populist appeal was constructed. The acceptance of further austerity measures has dismantled the nodal point around which they rallied the whole population. Syriza was first and foremost the anti-austerity party and based its politics on the distinction between those in favour of the memorandum and those against the memorandum; now that demand can hardly be upheld by Tsipras’ party.

Of course, Syriza still claims to be different from the rest of the system by foregrounding its willingness to tackle corruption and to manage austerity in a fairer way. But this does not do the trick as the opposition to austerity used to. That was a societal horizon that cut across Left and Right and could unite beyond (and even re-draw) traditional political allegiances.

Labour Party

As for Corbyn, I would not say that he embodies a populist approach. His is a much more classical leftist kind of discourse. The fact that he has being re-selected as party leader – a happy outcome, if you ask me – does not mean that he is likely to fare well among the electorate. Many leftists have taken advantage of the new norms regulating the selection of the Labour leader, which give more voice to the grassroots at the expense of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Despite certainly signaling a wider dissatisfaction with the status quo (especially within the trade union movement), for now this only means that leftist militants are more politically engaged than the apathetic Third Way-ers and the like.

2) What about the Five Star Movement (5SM) in Italy? Now Grillo’s party administrates the capital (Rome) and another very important city (Turin). Do you think they are ready to govern the country? Which would be the consequences?

I am always pretty skeptical of the rhetoric according to which this or that political subject is not ‘ready to govern’. I think that a quite patronising and technocratic attitude often underlies this type of claim. Having said that the 5SM is doing everything to belie me.

The recent chaos regarding the formation of Virgina Raggi’s town council reveals sheer amateurism. But it is important to analyse the origins of such a chaos. What this ultimately proves is that 5SM lacks a unifying political culture and, by the same token, a coherent analysis and understanding of society. This is why I like to compare, with due precautions, the 5SM to Peronism : through his rhetoric, Perón managed to put together constituencies entirely at odds with each other, without really amalgamating them. Once in power such diversity came to the fore and dramatically intensified following his death. In both cases, the elements entering a relation of equivalence (to say it à la Laclau) are too many and too heterogeneous to give birth to a coherent discourse.

If 5SM took power at a national level they would only demonstrate that, on a huge number of issues, they are deeply divided. What do they think about taxation? What is their stance on international issues? Are they for or against austerity? Nobody really knows. In this regard, I think that their experience in power would be a failure. But a necessary one: as they have occupied the discursive terrain of the underdog so well, a truly progressive and democratic populism has found it difficult to emerge (let alone the fact that the Italian Left has so far been reluctant to engender one). As populism tends to flourish in conditions of crisis, it is not certain that the same window of opportunity for another populist intervention will still be there once all their limitations are clear to everyone, but their decline is the conditio sine qua non for something more promising to emerge.

3) Since we are discussing the process of institutionalization of populist parties, it is necessary look at Latin America. Considering the cases of Correa (Ecuador), Morales (Bolivia) and Maduro (Venezuela), let’s try to observe to populist actors once they are not anymore at the opposition. Did they change their discourses once in power? Did their parties adapt to the new situation, and how? The interpretations of ‘who is the people’ and ‘who are the elites’ remained the same?

In the case of Venezuela, the discourse has shifted considerably from the first Chávez who took power in 1998 to what came later, especially after the failed coup in 2002. That is when the real radicalisation took place. Initially, his was a democratic discourse putting emphasis on the struggle against corruption, with only hints of social democratic reforms.

In the cases of Bolivia and Ecuador, the discourses deployed have been rather stable. They have not become institutional in the traditional sense of turning their back on the people and betraying the aspirations upon which they built their success the minute after they took power. Even though they have moderated and shifted to the center over time, especially in Ecuador, these are governments that, by and large, have consistently delivered. The social indicators’ improvements – with some recent setbacks, mainly due to the crisis – are a proof of that.

In Venezuela, the story is less linear and would take a treatise to make full justice to it. Certainly, some good results have been achieved insofar as the social empowerment of the most vulnerable sections of society is concerned, but they are ever more overshadowed by equally appalling results in terms of macro-economic management and crime upsurge.

However, the story does not end here. In the case I know better, the Ecuadorian one (though the upshot of this line of reasoning applies in an even more dramatic fashion to the Venezuelan case), the register of the enemies has been amended: no longer just the mainstream press, big banks, agro-exporters and the oligarchies more in general, but anyone disagreeing with Correa, regardless from which position. Despite the main adversaries are still those set out at the beginning, a qualitative shift has taken place.

The polarisation fostered by Correa – and amplified by his opponents – has got so out of hand that it has gradually lost its meaning. Now, it all hinges around his personality. Any pedagogical attempt to change the political culture has failed quite miserably. The management of antagonism and of the friend-enemy dialectic that permeates all politics has been, it must be said, an utter failure.

4) What can European left-wing populist actors learn from the Latin American cases? Their success is replicable to a certain extent in the Old Continent? Is it possible to succeed, in Europe, for a movement with strong anti-liberal attitudes towards opponents, check and balances, and institutions?

I think lessons can be learnt, but need to be applied to the context. In particular, what can be apprehended is the willingness to create a national-popular identity, forged by the appeal to a shared sentiment of opposition against economic and political elites. This move permits exceeding the boundaries of the ‘already converted’ and reach out constituencies that are otherwise unmoved by the messages of the Left. The Latin American populist wave teaches us that it is possible to create a new ‘us’ from the dispersed demands that are systematically frustrated by the power holders.

Nevertheless, I doubt that the Latin American success can be replicable in Europe to the same extent and in the same terms. As the experience of Podemos proves, power is endowed, to use a Gramscian terminology, with many trenches and fortifications that impede the swift change of political loyalties that we have witnessed in Latin America. It is therefore much more difficult, for the European populist left, to obtain the sweeping electoral successes of Chávez, Morales and Correa.

European societies are much more complex and difficult to overturn. If an ‘electoral war of maneuver’ was sufficient in Latin America, this is far from enough in Europe, where a much longer and more nuanced war of position is needed.

Errejón recently recognised just that: the time for an electoral blitzkrieg is over, now it is the time for a work of ‘cultural and institutional craftmanship’. Nevertheless, the blitzkrieg electoral strategy was not entirely devoid of sense for Podemos: obtaining some 20% of the electoral consensus may certainly be ephemeral per se, but gives enough footing from which to continue the battle. Otherwise, Podemos would have just been another marginal party on the fringes with pathetic percentages. The elites are scared of Podemos, while they are largely unperturbed by other radical leftist projects.

As for the anti-liberal attitude displayed by Latin American populism, I agree that it does not fare well in Europe. Actually, some political (and I highlight ‘only political’) liberalism should be welcome. The allergy to pluralism that has been fostered by Latin American progressive populism is certainly not a happy outcome.

5) The strategists and key figures of Podemos took inspiration from the Venezuelan model in pragmatic terms, and from the positions of Laclau in theoretical terms. Is it possible to argue that the limited electoral success of Podemos (limited only to a certain extent – and compared to the expectations) is linked to the badly connoted relationship with the Venezuelan regime?

Spanish media pressed hard on this issue in order to discredit Podemos. More than taking votes away from Podemos, this has brought many conservatives to cast again their ballot for PP. Even though they were disenchanted with it, they did so in order to avoid what was felt as a menace. The PP propaganda engineered by Jim Messina has done just that: re-conquering portions of ideologically-close electorate by portraying Podemos as a threat. However, it is true that Podemos and Izquierda Unida lost more than a million votes as compared to December 2015. I think this can be best explained by reference to the strategy of uniting with the radical left and with the inherent difficulties of making inroads in Europe with a project that challenges the status quo, no matters how intelligently.

6) The New York Times recently reported that “The shadow cast by Venezuela has been so long that its president, Nicolás Maduro, recently invited Spain’s politicians to hold their election debate in Caracas ‘so that I can also participate, and perhaps I will win the elections in Spain’.” Beyond the alleged financial links between Podemos and the Venezuelan regime, which are the ideological connections between the two movements? And which role does the Latin American experience play in determining the strategies of Podemos and other parties in Europe?


Puppet of Hugo Chavez

As Errejón once made clear in an interview he released to me, Podemos would not be as it is without the experience in Latin America behind many of the party’s leaders (including himself and Pablo Iglesias). It provided the intuitions I previously mentioned. In terms of ideological orientation however, I would not exaggerate the influence. The only real content that has been somehow imported into the normative repertoire of Podemos is that of plurinationality, a notion that has found concrete application in Bolivia – and to a less extent in Ecuador – to recognise and deal with the presence of different nationalities in a single State.

7) How do you interpret the future of left-wing populism in Europe and the Americas? Movements like Occupy Wall Street or the Indignados, and politicians like Sanders or Corbyn, are a short-lived exception or a new phenomenon? Will the model of Chavismo and caudillismo prevail or is it possible to imagine a sort of liberal, progressive left-wing populism being successful on the two sides of the ocean?

There are different kinds of political actors and phenomena among those you mention. I tend to think that social mobilisations are hard to maintain alive over time. It is an illusion to believe that people can remain mobilised indefinitely and that the bulk of the population is composed by committed activists. A degree of institutionalisation is necessary for those energies to be transferred onto the political system and to have a real impact. Otherwise, they risk to be dissipated and to fuel frustration and impotence.

In this sense, I see populist parties as well equipped to bridge the expansion of demands and protest with the necessity to transform the institutions in a progressive sense. But what is needed is a combination of the horizontal and of the vertical dimensions of politics. As put by Laclau: ‘the horizontal dimension of autonomy will be incapable, left to itself, of bringing about long-term historical change if it is not complemented by the vertical dimension of hegemony – in other words, a radical transformation of the state. Equally, hegemony that is not accompanied by mass action at the level of civil society leads to a bureaucratism that will be easily colonized by the corporative power of the forces of the status quo’.

Having said this, what the future of left-wing populism in the two continents will be is contingent and unforeseeable. What I can say is that the recent wave of left-wing populism engendered in Latin America is tainted by two general pathologies. These also demand a reformulation of certain theses of Laclau (and that’s what I am working on).

The first one is that populism has been articulated with logics that are inimical to democracy. This needs not to be so, but we should be honest on the fact that in the Latin American instance, populism has been accompanied by good doses of caudillismo and some authoritarianism. The passage from the centrality to the leader to the centrality of the ideas has been entirely abdicated. When invoking populism from a left-wing perspective, we need to make sure that it maintains itself plural and does not attempt to cancel out heterogeneity in the name of a fictitious unity. Internal deliberation within the popular camp should not be suppressed, but enhanced.

The aggressiveness of the Latin American elites has often been the excuse for reducing debate to a minimum in what may called a ‘besieged fortress syndrome’. I understand that such elites are particularly difficult to deal with. They are racist, aggressive and try to defend medieval privileges tooth and nail. But the way to deal with them consisting of self-absorption and contumely has been wrong and counter-productive, especially because the same hostile attitude has been deployed towards any opponent, even those that it would be hard to define as elites. In turn, this approach of self-sufficiency has made it ever more difficult for the popular camp to maintain itself open and intuit the new orientations, demands and common senses emerging in society. In theoretical terms, this means reconciling the notion of populism with those of radical democracy and agonism (see Chantal Mouffe on these concepts). I think that any defense of populism should be complemented by an ethos of openness towards the contingent.

The second pathology (which is correlated to the first one) has been that populism has only given rise to an electoral hegemony that has lasted for some 15-20 years – and which is now facing some critical bottlenecks. A number of neoliberal policies have been challenged and replaced. It will not be easy for the Right to dismantle certain social programs, not to mention that the salience of many left-wing issues in public debates is there to stay. More in general, a Latin Americanist, neo-developmentalist and egalitarian identity is still alive and kicking below the bottlenecks and contradictions faced by the (ex) populist governments: a crucial reservoir that can be still mobilised even where the popular camp has been defeated. Nevertheless, the social formation has by and large remained the same. Most importantly, the subjectivity has remained neoliberal. This is very visible, just to make an example, in the hyper-consumerist patterns of the subject, well highlighted by the disenchantment of the middle classes -the main economic and social beneficiaries of the pink tide- towards populist governments and its protectionist policies.

What I claim is that there has been no adaptive-educational dimension which tailors the civilization and morality of the broader popular masses to the political project. These progressive projects have hardly won a leading role in the different spheres of society: in the economy, in culture, in the intellectual and moral life.

That is why the excessive proximity between the notion of populism and that of hegemony as postulated by Laclau is misplaced. A successful populism may generate some changes here and there – even beneficial and important ones -, but hegemony is something else. It sets the very parameters of politics and life.

The Gramscian notion of time is key here to understand the difference. Accordingly (and only very succinctly), each present is pierced by two temporal forms: one plural, and the other singular. The plural temporality is characterised by the confrontation between different political projects, whose outcome varies continuously. It is, in other words, the sphere of the occasional as it allows for rapid twists: the victory of one project can be undone a moment after by another project. On the contrary, the singular temporality (also called hegemonic) consists of much longer and relatively more permanent structures that set the ground and establish the contours within which the plural struggle among different projects can take place. We may think of it as the spirit of an époque: far-reaching socio-political processes that show a certain degree of stability and draw the perimeter within which the game of the plural temporality can occur. The conjunction between the two forms of temporality happens when a project emerging in the sphere of plural temporality is capable of transcending that camp and impose itself by setting a new singular temporality. The Latin American pink tide has only operated within the former.

As for Europe, left-wing populism will make more inroads if the entrenched suspicion towards populism within the Left is won. This requires another war of position of its own: challenging established common senses in order to build new ones among the mobilised sectors of society. It is not easy. Take the Italian Left for example. Various attitudes permeate not only the leaders of its various subjects, but trickle down to the bases and constitute a sort of political anthropology of militancy. These attitudes’ origins vary in time and nature and are not always to be found together or in equal amounts, but they are all fairly inimical to the perspective of ‘creating a people’. Verbal maximalism (an old vice of the Italian Left ), detachment from reality by way of creation of small communities of activists that estrange themselves from what goes on in real life (social media have massively amplified this), over-exaggeration of the importance of normative debates, condemnation without comprehension of any political phenomenon involving the middle sectors, ideological purity, complete rejection of the role of the leader, attachment to old-fashioned symbols and liturgies, penchant for petty fights, baroque language, and so on. These are very difficult premises for a leftist populism to emerge.

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