14 minuten

Sacrificing democracy

Reflections on the populist challenge

In a deeply de-politicized EU, where any form of popular resistance is spontaneously stigmatized and condemned as 'populism', one cannot but sound the alarm: Aren't we today, in the name of 'economic necessity', sacrificing democracy? And at what cost? 

Populists vs. anti-populists

Almost everyone nowadays talks about populism; this peculiar political virus which is supposed to infect our otherwise 'stable' and 'healthy' existing democracies. Especially in crisis-struck Greece, mainstream political parties often claim to march against the various 'irresponsible' populists whose 'irrational' claims and demands against the austerity agenda 'poison' the so much-desired consensus. And indeed, one of the most interesting features of the recent Greek elections was the emergence of what we could call the populist/anti-populist divide, mainly put forward by mainstream political parties and most of the media (Katsambekis 2012). And that's not the case only in Greece, since the debate on the emerging political/ideological dividing line between 'populists' and 'anti-populists', or the 'responsible' and the 'irresponsible' political forces, has already spread all over Europe and the Americas (see also Stavrakakis 2012a: 2289-2290). No doubt then, reflection and critique on the meaning and significance of 'populism', as well as the various language games developing around 'the people' and democracy constitutes an urgent priority for contemporary political research and critical thought. The recent developments in Greece offer, in my view, fertile empirical ground for such reflections to unfold, since they highlight both the stakes for contemporary democracy and the various paradoxes, misunderstandings and dangers that the ongoing discussion on populism entails.

Is populism really the enemy?

However, before moving on to commenting on any populist movement or political party, one should first answer a critical question(s): Is populism really the enemy? Are we so sure that what threatens democracy today is a loosely defined 'populism' that is often related or equated with demagoguery, nationalism or right-wing extremism, mere statism or clientelism? To be sure the answer is not that obvious, not that simple; especially if we get out of the Eurocentric trend of perceiving populism as something a priori 'bad' and antidemocratic.

I would propose that there are two levels of analysis that need to be taken into account when dealing with questions around populism:
(a) The level of critical theorization and scientific analysis. What we could call 'Populism for political scientists'. At this level we are expected to pursue answers to questions such as 'what is populism'? Is it an ideology, a movement, or maybe a type of political discourse? How can we conceptually grasp its distinctive features? 'What are the specific characteristics that render a political party or movement populist? Which are the most suitable tools to theorize and analyze the phenomenon? Our main focus at this level should be the populist party, the populist leader or movement, and to be more precise, their discourse.

(b) The level of public discourse and polemics, where 'populism' becomes a political 'tool' or even a 'stigma' for the political adversary. At this level what is at stake is to understand the operation of the various ideological uses of the signifier 'populism' in public discourse, political debate and journalism, even in the academia. Our main focus at this level should be the way that various agents instrumentalize populism, or even turn into a 'political weapon' to discredit a political or ideological opponent.

I maintain that balancing between those two levels of analysis can protect us from oversimplifications and the essentialization of the term 'populism' itself as something with a fixed particular a-historical/transhistorical content; good or bad, democratic or antidemocratic, progressive or reactionary, left or right.

Populism is bad, because it's bad

Starting with the first level, one of the most common misunderstandings or mistakes, when dealing with contemporary populism(s), especially in the European context, is using the term 'populism' to refer exclusively to the extreme or the far right. Yannis Stavrakakis is right when he points out that sticking to such 'a restrictive association between "populism" and the extreme right poses certain dangers that have not been taken into account, especially in times of crisis' (Stavrakakis 2012b: 73). Such an association traps the researcher in a tautological deadlock where populism is bad simply because it is... bad! Such an association is evident also in a recent Green European Foundation publication entitled 'Populism in Europe' (Meijers 2011). While the title prepares us to read a book about 'populism', the actual content of the book is referring almost exclusively to right wing populism and the ways to deal with it. It is indicative of such an association/equation that the editor of this publication, Erica Meijers, suggests in her introduction that the populists'
proclaimed aim is to protect the identity of the 'Christian Western civilisation' by closing borders and attacking cultural, ethnic and religious minorities. They create an unbridgeable gap between the 'bad' elite, the 'good' people and the 'other' (usually minority groups) (Meijers 2011: 5).

Of course such formulations apply only to right-wing and extreme right populism in Europe and not to populism(s) in general all over the world and throughout history. That is probably why the editors of the German translation of the same book –being more cautious and precise– intervened and changed the title to 'Rechtspopulismus in Europa', which means 'Right-wing populism in Europe'. Meijers for a moment corrects her first point of over-generalization when she points that the aim of the volume is to find 'out what populism means today and how to deal with it' (Meijers 2011: 6), but the rest of her introduction is overwhelmed by points that tend to hypostasize and essentialize 'populism' as something fixed, fundamentally bad and anti-democratic, as a 'problem' to be dealt with; not a political logic amongst others that we should understand, explain and account for. This direction is evident in formulations suggesting that '[p]opulists use the term "people" in an absolute and exclusive way' (Meijers 2011: 11-12), or that populist politicians focus on 'the need for more repressive and authoritative political methods', while, at the same time, they 'are still harping on the old "mechanisms of exclusion and xenophobic nationalism"' (Meijers 2011: 7-8). One can only wonder how could these characterizations apply to European left-wing populisms like the one of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Front de Gauche in France or that of Alexis Tsipras and SYRIZA in Greece; populisms which construct a 'people' which is rather inclusive and democratic. Not to mention Latin American left-wing populists like Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa or Néstor Kirchner and contemporary social movements, like the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS), which have been branded 'populist' (Brown 2011).

Populism as a reaction to the structure of power

It is true that in the last decades Europe has witnessed the rise of various right-wing xenophobic and sometimes extremist political parties, which were also characterized by a populist logic. This fact however cannot and should not lead us to generalizations that ignore or overlook the rich historical experience of extremely diverse populist phenomena. In history we shall find populisms closely bound to a leader and leaderless populisms, populisms that were clearly democratic and progressive and populisms antidemocratic and reactionary, populisms in the streets and populisms in power, the populism of Hugo Chávez and the populism of Jörg Haider, the populism of the OWS movement and the populism of the Tea Party.
That's why approaches which avoid essentialism and focus more on the structural features of populism, or even hypothesize that populism –under certain circumstances– could revitalize the democratic imaginary against the elitist 'de-democratization' of our times, are increasingly gaining ground in the relevant discussion and research (Canovan 1999; Laclau 2005; Balibar 2010). That's because they offer a solid ground upon which we can approach populism without prejudices. Populism, in this context is perceived as neither 'good' nor 'bad' per se. As Margaret Canovan has brilliantly put it in a classic essay,

[p]opulism [...] can have different contents depending on the establishment it is mobilizing against. Where economic policy is concerned, for example, populists in one country with a hegemonic commitment to high taxation to fund a generous welfare state may embrace an agenda of economic liberalism, while other populists elsewhere are reacting against a free market hegemony by demanding protectionism and more state provision. This does not in itself demonstrate (as is sometimes claimed) that populists are either unprincipled or confused: merely that what makes them populist is their reaction to the structure of power (Canovan 1999: 4; emphasis added).

Criteria for populism

That is why it is one of the researcher's crucial tasks to delve into the particular populist discourses and unmask the core ideological elements of each case; to clarify which 'people' does a given discourse speak of and where exactly is 'the people', as a subject, placed within a given discourse and against which enemy does it mobilize. Therefore, it is impossible to offer here a definition of populism; it is, however, possible to propose some significant criteria that can help us dodge analytical/methodological impasses. Those criteria draw on the approaches of Laclau (1977; 2005) and Canovan (1999; 2001) –probably the most cited theoreticians on the subject of populism– and would involve (a) the structural location of the signifier 'the people', or its metonymies, in a given discourse; namely if 'the people' acquires the operation of a central reference, and, (b) the discursive representation of society as divided by a fundamental antagonism between 'us' and 'them', 'the people' and the 'establishment', 'power' and the 'underdog' (see Stavrakakis 2004: 254-258). We could name this strategy 'discursive', since it is inspired by the 'Essex school' of discourse analysis (Howarth, Norval & Stavrakakis 2000), or 'structural', since it focuses on form and structural features of a given discourse, the specific way that it articulates its particular contents.

For example, using such an approach one could easily split the difference between political parties that are nowadays branded populist in Greece. I'm referring here to the radical left SYRIZA and the neo-Nazi extremist Golden Dawn. On the case of Golden Dawn we're facing one of the most common side-effects of the equation of 'populism' with the extreme right. Commentators tend to brand the Golden Dawn 'populist' while the role of 'the people' in its discourse is secondary, if not opportunistic (Stavrakakis 2012b: 74). Indeed Golden Dawn's discourse wouldn't make any sense without the signifiers 'nation' and 'race', since we're dealing with a neo-fascist, or rather neo-Nazi hybrid and an ideological constellation primarily nationalist, racist and deeply xenophobic. One could even suggest that the Golden Dawn is not a 'populist' party to begin with; although its discourse often articulates populist elements. It is evident that its enemy, in many cases, is not primarily the 'elite', the 'establishment' or the 'power block'. One of Golden Dawn's well known MPs, Ilias Panagiotaros, in a recent interview given to BBC, described the two opposing camps in the Greek society today as follows:

Greek society is ready –even though no-one likes this– to have a fight: a new type of civil war. On the one side there will be nationalists like us, and Greeks who want our country to be as it used to be, and on the other side illegal immigrants, anarchists and all those who have destroyed Athens several times (Mason 2012).

In this discursive representation of the Greek society, the 'power block', the 'elite' or the 'establishment' as an opponent is nowhere to be found. Thus, the 'people' of the Golden Dawn is envisioned as a racially 'pure people', which is called upon to become part of a strictly hierarchical militaristic organization under an undisputed Führer. Clearly democracy has no place in such a structure; quite the opposite (Psarras 2012). Hence, this 'people' is a 'people' waiting to be saved by another elite, supposedly a better one. That is something that confirms Caiani and Della Porta's hypothesis that the 'people' of the extreme right is a rather passive people, subject to new hierarchies and elitist structures; a people quite different than the one of the left (Caiani & Della Porta 2011: 197).

The people

Let's take a look now at 'the people' of the Greek left, the 'people' that are interpellated in SYRIZA's discourse. Here we shall find a completely different picture. SYRIZA's 'people' is a subject tightly bound to collective action and a project of self-emancipation. 'The people' in this context is called upon to actively participate in a common project for radical democratic change. Unlike the 'people' of the extreme right, the 'people' of the left is an inclusive and active subject, a subject that is acting on initiative and directly intervenes in common matters, a subject that does not wait to be led or saved by anyone. Alexis Tsipras has made that very clear in a recent interview for a Greek independent magazine (Unfollow):

There are many things that should change in the people's perception on how we are to overcome the crisis. Because I see that there is a certainty amongst people that we are coming [...] in a logic of assignment. I'm assigning this task to you to save us. I' m sitting on the couch. You can save us. [...] That's completely wrong and that is the big challenge for us. To change this attitude of the world. (Tsipras 2012: 48).

It is characteristic that the magazine conducting the interview displayed Tsipras on its cover with the title 'HE WONT SAVE YOU. What are you going to do?'. In the next issue's cover we see the leader of the Golden Dawn with a very different title 'HE WILL SAVE YOU. Don't do anything' (Unfollow 2012). There is not much to comment here. The antithesis is more than clear and the meaning of the two captions more than obvious, contrasting the two types of populism, the two very different interpellations of the 'people'.

Sacrificing democracy

Moving now on the second level of analysis we could support the hypothesis that populism appears to be 'dangerous' (for the 'anti-populists or the so called 'modernizers') only under certain conditions: only as long as it poses a substantial threat to the established power block. As long as it is no longer considered to be an opposing power, a 'threat' that challenges a given constellation of power, it can become an equal and 'responsible' ally. That is exactly the case with the Greek extreme right populist party LAOS (Popular Orthodox Rally) that participated in a coalition government with PASOK and ND under the unelected technocrat Lucas Papademos, right before the elections of May 2012. A political party that since its establishment in September 2000 was dismissed as either 'extremist' or 'populist' by mainstream political parties, became overnight a 'reliable political partner', a 'responsible ally', as long as it would support the austerity programme dictated by the so called 'Memorandum of Understanding' that was imposed by the notorious 'troika'. It is rather striking in this case that the European Union strongly encouraged such a political alliance with an extreme right party while some years earlier it would impose diplomatic sanctions on a member state, namely Austria, as a reaction to the entrance of Jörg Haider's extreme right-wing populist FPÖ (Freedom Party) into the Austrian government.

What has changed in just a decade and the EU now supports the participation of extremist parties in a European government rather than punishing it? Isn't this really telling about the way the stigma of 'populism' is instrumentalized by political agents at the national, but also at the international level? Doesn't this tell us something about the 'fallacy of anti-populism' (Kratsev 2007: 59)? By legitimizing the far right's racist and xenophobic ideas, in the name of 'economic necessity' and 'responsibility', the EU and Greek technocrats in the last years have abrogated popular will and paved the way for the neo-Nazi emergence, which can now present itself as the only 'real alternative', a 'true' representative of the 'voice of the people'. In a deeply de-politicized EU, where any form of popular resistance is spontaneously stigmatized and condemned as 'populism', one cannot but sound the alarm: aren't we in this way drifting towards a post-democratic elitist Europe? Aren't we today, in the name of 'economic necessity', sacrificing democracy? And at what cost? 

*Talk presented at the Green European Foundation workshop on ‘Populism in Greece’, Athens, 8 November 2012. I would like to thank Dick Pels and the Intellectum team from Greece (especially Athena Avgitidou) for the invitation to talk at the GEF workshop. Also, I would like to thank Yannis Stavrakakis for commenting on earlier versions of this paper.




  • Balibar, Etienne (2010) 'Europe: Final Crisis? Some Theses', Theory & Event, vol. 13, no. 2, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theory_and_event/v013/13.2.balibar.html.
  • Brown, Wendy (2011) 'Occupy Wall Street: return of the repressed Res-Publica', Theory and Event, vol. 14, no. 4, supplement.
  • Caiani, Manuela & Della Porta, Donatella (2011) 'The Elitist Populism of the Extreme Right', Acta Politica, vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 180-202.
  • Canovan, Margaret (1999) 'Populism', in Clarke, Paul Barry & Foweraker, Joe (eds), Encyclopedia of Democratic Thought, London & New York: Routledge, pp. 674-679.
  • Canovan, Margaret (1999) 'Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy', Political Studies, XLVII, pp. 2-16.
  • Howarth, David, Norval, Aletta & Stavrakakis, Yannis (eds) (2000) Discourse Theory and Political Analysis, Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press - St Martin's Press.
  • Katsambekis, Giorgos (2012) 'The Populist/Antipopulist Divide in the Greek Elections', Fair Observer, October 19, http://www.fairobserver.com/article/populistantipopulist-divide-greek-el... .
  • Kratsev, Ivan (2007) 'The strange death of the liberal consensus', Journal of democracy, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 56-63.
  • Laclau, Ernesto (2005) On populist reason, London & New York: Verso.
  • Mason, Paul (2012) 'Alarm at Greek police 'collusion' with far-right Golden Dawn', BBC, October 17, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-19976841, accessed 2 November 2012.
  • Meijers, Erica (2011) 'Introduction', in Erica Meijers (ed.) Populism in Europe, Vienna: Green European Foundation, pp. 5-12.
  • Psarras, Dimitris (2012) The black bible of the Golden Dawn, Athens: Polis (In Greek).
  • Stavrakakis, Yannis (2012a) 'Beyond the Spirits of Capitalism? Prohibition, Enjoyment and Social Change', Cardozo Law Review, vol. 33, no. 6, pp. 2289-2306.
  • Stavrakakis, Yannis (2012b) 'Beyond the Extreme Right: The European Populist Challenge', in New Populisms and the European Right and Far Right Parties. The Challenge and the Perspectives for the Left, Edizioni Punto Rosso, Milano 2012, pp. 73-77.
  • Stavrakakis, Yannis (2004) 'Antinomies of formalism: Laclau's theory of populism and the lessons from religious populism in Greece', Journal of Political Ideologies, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 253-267.
  • Tsipras, Alexis (2012) 'They aren't done with us. They see us in their sleep', interview to Unfollow magazine, no. 9 (In Greek).
  • Unfollow (magazine) (2012), no. 10 (In Greek). 

Gerelateerde artikelen