Transnational Left-Wing Populism: A Response to Trump’s Victory (?)

In this article, Panos Panayotu* introduces the concept of transnational left-wing populism and explains why it is a necessary answer to Donald Trump’s victory. Following Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, he provides a brief overview about the advantages of a populist movement which goes beyond national boundaries and that provides an alternative approach to globalization.


Jonathan Matthew Smucker might be right in stressing that the key factor to Donald Trump’s victory was that he “intuitively understood the populist times we are living in”. But is Donald Trump a populist? Much has been written about the aforementioned question and to be clear from the very beginning I belong to those people who question this naming. From Donald Trump to Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Andrzej Duda, Norbert Hofer, Geert Wilders and the “Alternative for Germany”, populism has become the “convenient name” to characterize the rise of far-right nationalists who struggle to return to the phantoms of the past.

To put it in the words of Yannis Stavrakakis, “is the concept of ‘populism’ the proper theoretico-political instrument through which such identifications should be perceived, categorized and debated?” (2013: 25). “Trump’s win may be just the beginning of a global populist wave” was the provocative title of Griff Witte, Emily Rauhala and Dom Phillips’ article in The Washington Post. Apparently the authors adopted the mainstream negative, demonized, depiction of populism which perceives the phenomenon in question as the biggest threat to democracy. What the present article purports to do is precisely to turn this argument around.

A transnational populist movement, I claim, might be a response to Trump’s victory and the rise of an exclusionary right which is the real danger for democracy. Is a transnational populism possible? This question touches on several topics: first of all, what is populism? Is it an ideology or a political strategy? To remind ourselves of Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser’s famous question, is it a threat or a corrective for democracy? Let us take one step at a time.

Some scholars define populism as an ideology or, more accurately, as a thin-centered ideology (Mudde 2004), while others perceive it as a political strategy, as a certain way of doing politics. I understand populism as a discourse in the laclausian sense: populism is a political logic characterized by the discursive construction of a popular subjectivity, that is a “we, the people” and its adversary, that is a “they, the establishment” (Laclau 2005: 39). Francisco Panizza captures this point nicely when he stresses that populism is “an anti-status-quo discourse that simplifies the political space by symbolically dividing society between ‘the people’ and its ‘other'” (2005: 3).

Therefore one could argue that there are two “minimal criteria” to identify a populist discourse: (1) the central reference to “the people” and (2) the separation and the antagonistic opposition of “the people” against the establishment. What populists seem to understand very well is that politics is about the creation of a “we” versus a “they”, in other words, about the creation of collective identities. This is not by definition something negative, undemocratic or demagogic nor something positive and democratic as not all types of populism are the same. We could have left-wing and right-wing populism, progressive and reactionary, inclusive and exclusionary populism. The question that arises now is: what kind of populism is preferable?

If we were to assume that Donald Trump and other Trumps around the world are right-wing populists and not just nationalists, nativists, racists or misanthropists, what is needed to challenge them is left-wing populism. As a matter of fact Trump’s discourse is a xenophobic and exclusionary one. It excludes immigrants, undermines women and jeopardizes LGBT rights. A left-wing populism, on the other hand, should focus on inclusive practices. It should construct a people that involves migrants and stand up for human rights. In my view this left-wing populism should also emphasize its transnational aspect. Now we are coming to the million dollar question: is a transnational populism possible and, if so, what does it have to offer?

The truth is that although there are many studies on different nationally-bounded cases, research on transnational populism is very underdeveloped. This happens because often populism is wrongly identified as nationalism, and “the people” is always identified with the nation. On the other hand, by understanding populism as a logic following Ernesto Laclau’s formal approach, it is possible to see populism in its transnational dimension, beyond a specific content and context. This “detachment from the content”, in other words the separation of populism as a logic from its empirical manifestations and discourses, opens the possibility of a transnational populism.

This would have several advantages. First, transnational populism could identify the real adversary of the people: neoliberalism. Not the migrants or other minorities, but the anti-democratic supranational institutions and the transnational elites who promote the neoliberal approach to globalization. Second, this type of populism could bring together diverse national identities and oppose those transnational elites in a more efficient and coordinated way. Third, it could offer a credible idea of sustainable and democratic globalization. As Chantal Mouffe has put it “the aim is not to reject globalization, but to fight for an alternative version of it. Right-wing populist parties simply reject globalization. They want to come back to the tradition state, which is impossible today“. Finally, transnational populism could provide a model for the anti-fascist resistance required to prevent a “post-modern version of the 1930s” (Varoufakis 2016).

DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025), launched by Yanis Varoufakis on 9th February 2016, moves into that direction. It attempts to construct an inclusive, democratic and transnational idea of “the people” that can stand against the transnational European elites, the supranational structures of the EU and the global markets, with the aim of taking back democracy. Hence, what we possibly need is an internationalist DiEM, a progressive transnational populist movement that will mobilize passions in a democratic and progressive direction. If the election of Donald Trump produces such a response, then there might be some hope.


References:

Gallie, W. Bryce (1956) Essentially Contested Concepts, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, 56: 167-198.

DiEM25 (2016) A Manifesto for Democratising Europe, diem24.org

Laclau, Ernesto (2005) Populism: What’s in a Name? in Panizza, Franscisco (Ed.), (2005) Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, London: Verso.

Levitsky, Steven and Kenneth Roberts (eds.), (2011) The Resurgence of the Latin American Left, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Mudde, Cas (2004) The Populist Zeitgeist, Government and Opposition, 39: 542-563.

Mudde, Cas and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser (ed), (2012), Populism in Europe and the Americas Threat or Corrective for Democracy? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smucker, Jonathan Matthew, How to Win in Populist times, Waging Nonviolence. N.p., 11 Nov. 2016.

Stavrakakis, Yannis (2013) The European Populist Challenge, Anali Hrvatskog politološkog društva: časopis za politologiju, 10: 25-39. Retrieved from http://hrcak.srce.hr/123089

Varoufakis, Yanis (2016) And the Weak Suffer What They Must? Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability, London: Bodley Head.

Witte, Griff, Rauhala Emily, and Philips Dom. “Trump’s Win May Be Just the Beginning of a Global Populist Wave .” The Washington Post, 13 Nov. 2016.


panos*Panos Panayotu recently completed his postgraduate studies at the University of Essex in Ideology and Discourse Analysis. His academic interests include populism and his dissertation is about transnational populism.

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