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We Bet the House on Left Populism — and Lost

Four years ago, we celebrated Europe’s left-populist push. Now we have to look seriously at how little was accomplished and what might have been lost.

Four years ago, British journalist Paul Mason found himself uncontrollably excited.

He was standing in the middle of Athens’s Syntagma Square, surrounded by thousands of Greek protesters singing songs and chanting slogans from the country’s fight against the dictatorship of the 1970s. Ahead of him was Alexis Tsipras, leader of a six-month-old government now stuck in a protracted battle with European authorities. Tsipras had been campaigning for a “no” vote in the referendum scheduled for the next day, launched as the last move in a standoff with the Eurogroup and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Mason himself had been following these events closely for Britain’s Channel 4 News, as well as informing followers on Twitter and drafting rousing columns for the Guardian.

Mason was hardly alone in his excitement. Jacobin published dozens of articles on the drama. In a July 2015 video, the American anarchist David Graeber said that Syriza would “bring down the international financial system,” while philosopher Toni Negri, always up for a revolt, thought that a “true social Europe” was now “incoming.” In less than a week, “oxi” (Greek for “no”) hashtags had flooded Twitter and led to the foundation of a German newspaper with the same name. As Stathis Kouvelakis put it in 2016, “the Greek case” gave leftists “a glimpse of what an alternative might be.”

It is easy to dismiss these halcyon moments. Four years later, Mason’s and Graeber’s excitement appear as distant as it was burlesque. Later that summer, Syriza signed an even harsher austerity compact than the one rejected in the referendum. The deal was dismissed as “the greatest disaster of macro-economic management ever” by Yanis Varoufakis himself, and the party was ousted by the center right in elections earlier this year.

Short-lived and cruel, Europe’s experiment in left populism had ground to a halt. This feeling was amplified by another list of setbacks. Podemos lost votes in Spain and failed to enter into coalition with the socialists in 2019. Collapsing polling numbers, uneasy anti-Macron antics, and election scandals have rocked France Insoumise. Germany’s experiments with left populism in the Aufstehen movement never took off to begin with. Across the channel, Jeremy Corbyn appears to be the last man standing.

Glory Days

The roots of this fleeting left-populist moment can be traced back almost a decade. Although the 2008 crisis saw its start in the United States, its fallout quickly reached Europe, toppling private banks that had engaged in risky lending and in turn appealed to governments for help. With liquidity bound up in the financial industry, most Southern European countries opted for harsh austerity measures that decimated their public sectors.

These measures were near universally accepted by the political class — both die-hard conservatives and social democrats found themselves toeing the neoliberal line.

As an early response, people flocked to squares in several Southern cities throughout 2010 and 2011. Known as the Indignados in Spain and the Aganaktismenoi in Greece, these leaderless movements sparked the popular imagination but offered a hazy path forward. The upsurge in Spain, for example, relied on spontaneous gatherings by students and workers reading out testimonies of the crisis and refused to spell out a set of demands. In Greece, protesters set fire a to a Christmas tree and stormed parliament — powerful demonstrations of discontent, but without a program for change.

For the Left, this tactic had its obvious limits. By 2012, it was clear that the Indignados could not sustain another march on the squares and that energy was fading. “The crisis is not enough,” said one activist in 2012, disillusioned with the anti-institutional bent of the protests. Without a solid leadership, the movement would become prey for demagogic adventurers and cynics.

From Square to Party

European left populism was born out of a moment of reorientation. Realizing the transitory nature of movements such as Occupy, the idea was to finally return to the party form and seize the state. This move into party politics was tracked by a sprawling academic literature. “Populism” not only became the favored buzzword for pundits, it fueled a consultancy industry in which politicians sought out advice from scholars on how to build dikes against populist tides at home.

But on the other side of the barricades, Argentinian theorist Ernesto Laclau became the prime evangelist for figures within Syriza, Podemos, and France Insoumise. Though Laclau passed away in 2014, just before the moment reached its peak, his populist credentials were impeccable: he had been close to Hugo Chávez and openly supported part of the Kirchner government in the early 2000s. Since his post-Marxist turn in the 1980s, Laclau had urged the European left to leave behind both outdated appeals to “class” and to go on the offensive on a new axis — the “people” vs. the “elite.”

There were clear conditions for Laclau’s left-populist surge. European party democracy was facing a historic crisis, exemplified by the complete inability of the Greek social-democratic party (PASOK) to come up with an alternative to its euro-dictates. “Pasokification” quickly became a metonym for a general trend. In the years preceding the crisis, European parties had steadily un-coupled themselves from their social bases and relied ever more strongly on PR and marketing techniques. The result was increased volatility, more power for technocrats, and an utterly disorganized working class.

The fact that citizens first responded to 2011 austerity measures spontaneously in the streets pointed to the tightness of their repertoire. Their options were either the referendum, the riot, or the angry Facebook comment.

Ruling the Void

The hollowing out of Europe’s political parties has aptly been described by the Irish political scientist Peter Mair as leading to a state in which parties “rule the void.” European politicians now have such little idea of what is at play in their populations that they’re forced to speculate on what might constitute a successful program. This has led to a rupture between two fields traditionally conjoined in the postwar era — “politics” and “policy.”

We can think of the latter as the difficult work of state negotiation and technical adjustment, the bargaining basis by which governments order their societies and intervene in their economies. The former concerns the process of what political scientists call “popular will formation”: competition between parties, campaign building, electoral outbidding, and the crafting of coalitions.

The growing PR industry here offers succor. Instead of listening to the needs of a base or obeying the dictates of a party machine, politicians increasingly rely upon an army of spin doctors and consultants in order to fabricate a popular will. It’s a process prefigured by new media gurus like Alastair Campbell in the 1980s and ’90s.

After the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and the consolidation of the single currency, European “policy” became the exclusive domain of unelected power — organs such as the Eurogroup, the European Commission, the World Trade Organization, and central banks, all populated by the wizards of the neoliberal universe. “Politics,” in turn, was relegated to a mediasphere addicted to novelty. Somewhat hopefully, it was supplemented by the emergence of the internet and its early democratic promise. This was the long-awaited arrival of the emancipated civil society liberals dreamed of in the 1980s, when thinkers such as Foucault and Lyotard called for the “opening up and proliferating of new discourses.”

The results were anything but emancipatory. The destruction of collective institutions in the 1980s — signaled by Thatcher’s crushing of the union movement and Mitterrand’s gutting of the French Communist Party, but also visible in the rapidly aging membership of conservative parties — made possible by new spectral forms of collectivity. Among them was the rise of a particularly brash ethno-nationalism, fueled by the feedback loops of an anarchic internet and a savvy alt-right that developed there.

What’s more, the undeniable erosion of state sovereignty in Europe provoked populist responses on both the Right and the Left. Right-wing populists have mainly focused on a recalibration of national sovereignty: Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orbán, and Marine Le Pen promise to reinstate a punitive border regime. Left populists, on the other hand, have prioritized a defense of popular over national sovereignty, seeking to restore social safety nets and organs of democracy lost in the neoliberal 1990s.

Sociology & Destiny

Unlike the age of the mass party, this new left populism found itself spread out among a mishmash of groups. On one side, there were older blue-collar workers, hit harder by the recession in Southern European countries and generally tied to national welfare states. Since the gutting of communist parties, they had either dropped out of voting or had been lured to new nationalist formations such as UKIP, the Front National, Vlaams Belang, and the Lega Nord.

Figures such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Pablo Iglesias were always open about their desire to herd these voters back to the Left. This was signaled by slogans such as Mélenchon’s “fâchés mais pas fachos” (“angry but not fascist”) or Íñigo Errejón and Iglesias’s desire to “go beyond left and right.” Populist theorists also tended to take the lead here. Laclau collaborator Chantal Mouffe herself has always been stern about the need to recognize the “rational kernel” of right populists. Rather than dismissing these voters as “sad subjects” in need of therapy, she proposed a strategy of recuperation: if the Left failed to bring these voters back into the tent, it couldn’t win.

Such a message was not always easy to sell. The primary skeptics were the other group of left-populist voters — young professionals. Highly educated, networked, and web-savvy, most of them graduated straight from the university and into the tight labor market of the 2010s. Many of them ended up in service jobs. Combined with a new internet-enabled public sphere freed of its “old media” shackles, most of them were up for radicalization. When Tsipras was elected in 2015, he counted no less than 30 percent of Greek youth among his supporters.

But their cultural outlook did not always mesh with the older, working-class base targeted by left populists. This became visible in Corbyn’s Labour Party, where a precarious coalition between blue-collar Northern workers and cosmopolitan Southern millennials started to dissolve over the Brexit vote. A similar split happened in much of continental Europe. There, as Adam Tooze notes, the European Union had given “voice and agency to a substantial cohort of educated middle-class and professional Europeans” and “their angry and disappointed younger siblings, cousins, etc.” A disconnect with many older working-class voters, coupled with a lack of party infrastructure, meant that assembling a majoritarian constituency was almost impossible.

It is no surprise, then, that the left populists who have managed to attain some kind of political viability have often done so within traditional left parties. Corbyn’s Labour, for instance, has relied on an internal populist dynamic to sideline the moderates and Blairites in his way. The same holds for the Belgian Workers’ Party, which has evolved into something of a mass representative of working-class union politics in the country.

Too Left, Too Populist

Left populists had always made clear that they could never function as a panacea. Syriza was not supposed to magically reorder the political economy of an entire continent. “How many divisions does the pope have?” Pablo Iglesias asked just after Tsipras’s surrender, emphasizing that they could not shoulder the task alone. Nonetheless, there’s a lingering sense of disenchantment when it comes to left populism. It has not been able to make good on its promises, signaled by recent setbacks for Die Linke, Podemos, and France Insoumise.

In a certain sense, left populism tried to synthesize what couldn’t be synthesized — too “left” to fully profit from the breakdown of the traditional party system, and too “populist” to answer key organizational questions. Parties such as the Five Star Movement, for instance, were happy to leave behind references to a left-right cleavage and embrace a catchall approach. In contrast, Podemos constantly found itself drawn back to its far-left background and castigated as “communist” by its opponents.

In the meantime, the disorganized polity made in neoliberalism’s wake has produced even more elusive modes of protest, with which Europe’s left populists seem to have trouble catching up. These range from France’s gilets jaunes to the Brexit vote and the rise of a new Nationalist International. These are now joined by the dogged survival (and, in some cases, full-scale return) of social democracy in Spain and Portugal. Traditional party politics, it seems, dies hard.

This has led to a backlog of right-wing contenders, who have been quicker to refuel for another round. Lega’s Salvini, for instance, now stands out as one of the most powerful politicians in Europe. His genius was marrying an existing regionalist party — founded in the 1990s to stave off Southern “leeches” — with a new digital arsenal. The latter was geared toward clicks, shares, and sound bites.

No less than 3 million followers receive daily updates from Salvini on Facebook, and on Twitter, “Matteo” is a phenomenon. Instead of conjuring a party out of thin air, Salvini — like Corbyn – simply hijacked an existing structure and hitched it to his crusade. The payoff was considerable. It has allowed Salvini to both rally core voters through mass mobilization and draw in a new, algorithmic set of “followers” in the country’s South.

Populism, Systemic and Anti-Systemic

Left populists have usually had no such battering rams at their disposal. Without sturdy party structures to hold on to a sizable section of the public, there’s the danger of a “pop-up populism” in which a party operates without a base, mirroring Occupy’s problem of a base without a party.

Executing Salvini’s right-populist plans will always be an easier task, because they are not truly anti-systemic. In essence, they require little but a cosmetic fix to European debt ceilings and occasional cultural posturing about “defending Western values.” When it comes to migration, Angela Merkel and Salvini have little to disagree on, except on how to distribute its financial load.

Left populists want more than the whole cake. Instead, they have sought to seize the bakery itself — a far-reaching overhaul of the Eurozone, a departure from austerity programs, and an ambitious expansion of social provision. This required the perfectly timed rise of several left-populist movements in a domino-like coordination, something Varoufakis is now trying to push on a supranational level with the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (diem25). Right-wing populists have no need for such ambition. Instead, they’re happy to stoke culture wars and attack the irrationality of the European Central Bank.

There is no denying the threat these actors pose. Salvini, Orbán, Le Pen, and Thierry Baudet are no defenders of basic liberties. But panic is not analysis. These right populists need to be taken seriously, both as electoral actors and as intellectual opponents navigating a new political terrain. Already in 2002, Slavoj Žižek saw that “the tragic thing is that the only serious political force which is today ‘alive’ is the new populist Right.” “Apart from anaemic economic administration,” he noted, contemporary liberalism’s “main function” was “to guarantee that nothing will really happen in politics” while “today, the populist Right acts, sets the pace, determines the problematic of the political struggle, and the liberal centre is reduced to a ‘reactive force.’”Almost two decades later, his judgment remains painfully on target.

From Mass to Swarm

Since 2002, commentators have tended to read our political age through older analytical prisms. But we are no longer in the 1930s. Revolution is not on the agenda, nor world war. Perhaps the most important factor is the practical absence of a mobilized citizenry. Both in the 1930s and the 1790s, masses were on the move, fighting wars, contesting elections, populating public space.

It is a serious question whether these “masses” still exist today. The internet has pulverized the traditional social sphere while making possible new forms of association. But it has also decreased the possibility for mass mobilization and made politics bewilderingly volatile. In March 2019, Paul Mason posted a comment on his Twitter feed in which he claimed that the Brexit process, recently rattled by another parliamentary rejection, was “now in the hands of the masses.”

The strange nature of this statement speaks volumes about today’s populist moment. Contemporary “populists” like Boris Johnson, Salvini, and Orbán might have their followers, sympathizers, likers, and sharers. But they hardly have masses. Masses can move, march, chant, fight. None of that exists in 2019.

The new populism is no mass affair. Rather, it’s the politics of a swarm. Swarms roam, rage, scream, only to end in monotonous drones. Their movements are headed not by party tribunes, but by what Paolo Gerbaudo has called “hyperleaders,” figures whose media presence imparts coherence to a coalition where otherwise there would be none. There is no Trumpism without Trump.

A New Sack of Potatoes

Perhaps the most powerful precedent for this situation can be found in Karl Marx’s readings of the 1848 revolution. At the start of that year, riots had swept through Paris, stirred by a food crisis that depressed incomes for urban workers. Instead of yielding to this agitation, however, Napoléon III rallied an apathetic farming population and ordered them to quash the revolt.

Memorably, Marx described French peasants as a “sack of potatoes,” a “simple accretion” whose “similarity of … interests produces no community, no national linkage and no political organization.” And since these farmers “couldn’t represent themselves,” “they had to be represented” — in this case, by a king.

It was precisely such a top-down push that some left populists sought to provide for our era. A disorganized society simply might need an organizational stir from above. This option is still on the table: not all of Europe’s left-populist experiments have fizzled out.

Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, for instance, have always made it clear that their primary goals will remain “pre-political”: making possible forms of organizing rendered inane by thirty years of neoliberal onslaught. This would include repealing British anti-union laws, introducing mandatory unionization, and giving workers shares in companies.

Given the Brexit crisis, this path now appears secondary. Paul Mason, for instance, finds himself marching on Downing Street rather than Syntagma Square for a canceled Brexit.

It is unlikely that this tactic will materialize without occasional shocks. History is not linear. “Many corporatist formations,” the historian Loren Goldner once wrote, “were built decades ago by workers willing to break the law.” But parliamentary work remains equally important. Modernizing the British state, ridding it of its aristocratic hangovers, and restoring full sovereignty would be the first task of a Corbynism in power. This would make possible the reconstitution of a working-class public sphere.

Once that is achieved, politics will finally be possible again — and populism and technocracy will hopefully no longer be the only games in town.