Go back to Narratives Social justice

In the name of the people

Jean-Marie Durand


Kaleider - The Money (Tianjin, China) © Courtesy of Propel China - Kaleider - The Money (Tianjin, China) © Courtesy of Propel China

In the face of increasing authoritarian trends, demagogy, discredited elites, and public indifference, public opinion and political leaders are oscillating between popular and populism. Join us as we delve into the modern challenges of democracy.

"People”, “popular”. Today there is no political leader who does not claim to be the sole representative of the people. As if, having been mistreated by harsh social measures, the frustrations and hopes of the people are finally worth taking into account. The result is that in 2017, the people are faced with a paradoxical situation in the majority of democracies around the world. They have been weakened and taken advantage of, but have never had so many self-proclaimed defenders, (populist?) leaders who declare that they are ready to stand up for the people.

So will the nation be grateful to these populist leaders? Are we going to fall for this trick that is vulnerable to all kinds of subterfuge and manipulation? Who is this people which they claim to represent? From the people to the popular mood, populism to demagogy, the sovereignty of the people to xenophobic nationalism, there are too many blind spots preventing us from clearly understanding the modern-day challenges of the place of the people in a democratic game full of pitfalls. “There is simply no strict and broadly accepted democratic theory for defining the people”, underlines German political commentator Jan-Werner Müller, author of What is Populism? (Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Populist Explosion

While there is no doubt that we have been experiencing a “populist wave” since 2010, we are still struggling to grasp the consequences or understand what it means. The populist explosion comes in a baffling range of diverse and sometimes contradictory forms. It is reflected in the authoritarian style of leaders such as Donald Trump in the USA, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. But it can also be seen in the potential for other political forces in Europe to come to power, with Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, the FPO in Austria, the PVV in the Netherlands, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, and more.

Trying to list all these political movements and leaders that claim to exclusively represent the people immediately encounters a problem. In the words of sociologist Eric Fassin in his most recent essay Populisme: le grand ressentiment (Populism: the great resentment) (Textuel, 2017), it is impossible to find “a common denominator in this range of national variations, from one end of the political spectrum to the other”. The whole problem of the word “populism” today is reflected in the range of its different meanings. Populism remains ill-defined, despite the countless theories going around. And it is this lack of definition that makes public debate difficult, because both politicians and intellectuals are tearing each other apart over the definition of their latest fad. To summarise, “how can we define something which refuses to be defined, since the meanings of the term vary depending on historical circumstances, national contexts and political uses?” asks Eric Fassin. “In the terms of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, we have to stop looking for a common substance behind this substantive: ‘as in ordinary language, and it is even truer in ordinary political language, the people and parties that we call populist have a family resemblance, but there is no set of traits that are common to them all, and to them alone’.” What is populism?

A way of exerting or winning power? A political style? A clear ideology? A left- or rightwing phenomenon? A way of reviving or breaking free of democracy? For Swiss historian Damir Skenderovic, author of the entry on populism in the second tome of the Dictionnaire des concepts nomades en sciences humaines (Dictionary of nomadic concepts in human sciences), edited by Olivier Christin (Métailié, 2010), “there are two opposing approaches: on one side, populism defined as a political form – a style or strategy, and on the other, populism as an ideology, a Manichean doctrine that explains the world as a dichotomy between the people and the elite”. From this perspective, populism establishes a conception of the world that divides society into two homogeneous groups: the “good” people and the “bad” elite who refuses the mediation systems in place within representative democracies.

Emke Idema - RULEtm © Thomas Lenden


“the spirit of the people”

 For German political commentator, Jan- Werner Müller, populists can be recognised by their “moral monopoly of representation”. Beyond their geographical and political backgrounds, populists all claim “we alone are the people.” Such that, for Müller, populism is not only “anti-elite” but also, and especially, “anti-pluralism”. And therefore authoritarian. “Populists do not claim: ‘We are the 99%’. They claim nothing less than to represent the 100%.” Müller warns against falling into semantic traps, observing that criticising elites remains essential to his definition, but is insufficient on its own. Populism actually focuses more on “the spirit of the people” rather than the general will. This spirit of the people is associated with widespread suspicion of representative institutions. “The era of representative politics is coming to an end”, says Müller, underscoring the need for “citizens to have the feeling that they control their own destinies”.

The Belgian philosopher, Chantal Mouffe, and author of the recent essay L’Illusion du consensus (The Illusion of Consensus) (Albin Michel, 2016), calls for the creation of a “left-wing populism” to counter this lack of representation and the abandonment of the people, who are left to their own devices rather than protected from the harmful effects of neoliberal globalisation. She understands the working class voting for the French National Front as a “perverted demand for democracy” which “requires another response” – a “leftwing populism”. For Mouffe, “the purpose of democracy is to transform antagonism into agonism”, i.e. to create opposition between “us” and “them” no longer on the basis of moral criteria, but of political criteria. A democracy worthy of the name should not seek to overcome the opposition between friend and enemy, but to “express it differently”. According to this friend of the Podemos political party in Spain, far from being a threat, populism becomes a remedy, giving life back to democracy and becoming a source of salvation for the political left.

But over and above the consistency of its perspective on democracy, is this combative vision not likely to revive political violence? For philosopher Marc Crépon, on the contrary, democracy requires us to first consider the open violence in some populist discourse. Populist leaders excite the most negative popular passions, with the intention of making the people believe that they are in sync with their aspirations and will listen to them. In his most recent essay L’Epreuve de la haine. Essai sur le refus de la violence (The challenge of hatred. Essay on the refusal of violence) (Odile Jacob, 2016), Marc Crépon invites us to foster the interest of the citizens in political life by other means, such as dialogue, and to create participatory forms of democracy. “In the face of the verbal one-upmanship and the trivialisation of force, which are the distinctive traits of our time, we also need a culture of non-violence.”

Towards a “Counter-Populism”

So how can we get away from the spectre of violence while also combatting the disenfranchisement of the people? Is reason necessarily on the side of the elites, with confusion on the side of the people? Political commentator Yves Sintomer, a specialist in representative democracy procedures, observes that denouncing populism also means clearly rejecting “the gulf opening up between elites and citizens”. We need not to throw the people out with the populist bathwater. When Marine Le Pen uses her slogan “In the name of the people”, it is not the call of the people, but her “conception of the people” in ethnic terms, which is problematic, underlines Yves Sintomer (see Libération, 16 November 2016, “Pourquoi tous ces populistes?” (Why all these populists?). More than populism, as such, it is xenophobia, nationalism, islamophobia and anti- Semitism that undermine democracy.

This is why, in the words of philosopher Etienne Balibar, it is more important than ever to implement a European, and particularly cosmopolitan, “counterpopulism”. This opposite concept in reaction to populism involves refusing to give up the sovereign nation to xenophobic nationalism, and to seek above all the “missing people”, i.e. those who abstain, who no longer believe in the virtues of a social and representative democracy. The only way that we can hope to make the people happy once more is through counterpopulism.