This blog entry presents a reflection on an interesting discussion on Populism I had with our guest blogger Zoran Oklopcic (see his article on the concept of a nation). The discussion concentrated on Ernesto Laclau’s “On Populist Reason” and on the positions considering populism as being an essential component of politics.
When we talk about populism which is evidently strongly present in the political systems of contemporary liberal democracies we ask ourselves is it actually a sign of decline of politics, or as Laclau likes to think of it, “the arrival at a fully political era” (On Populist Reason, p. 222). For Laclau populism is “the very essence of the political”. Populism, according to many, represents the only way, to challenge the hegemonic system of the globalized market and the national political elites that essentially support it and play by the rules of this system. According to such views there seems to be indeed such a think as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ populism. Arguably, ‘good’ populism being the later and ‘bad’ populism being the populist rhetoric espoused by the rulling actors in the hegemonic order aimed at strengthening their policies, take for example the rhetoric of Bush's “war on terrorism” and so on. There is of course a neutral understanding of populism, that understands populism as the “critical fulcrum upon which our understanding of contemporary politics is based” rather than an aberration or a “demagogical monstrosity”. Some think that, “the ontological structure of populism sketched by Laclau doesn’t carry with it any necessary political direction” and that it can capture both “progressive or socialist movement” as well as “an incipient fascist state”(see).
The problem is how to draw a line (if one thinks this should be done) between legitimate and illegitimate populism, and what is to represent this overarching legitimacy if indeed something should do it? Is Nader’s populism justifiable and Bush’s not? Is the populism of some radical French left wingers more justifiable than Le Pen’s? Is one to look at the result to find the answer about the legitimacy of political action and if this is so, are we saying that “the end justifies the means”…but what is the end…Communists had their own…today’s political actors have their own…are they all legitimate despite the fact that they make the voters decide on the basis of “empty political signifiers”…are we simply to accept populism as a manifestation of the deficiencies of our political system (democracy) without trying to reach an arguably impossible goal of deciding on its legitimacy? Do we indeed have an alternative? Can we improve our democracies as to render them more resistant to populist kidnapping, if this is kidnapping after all? Read Laclau.