Populism is one of the most studied political phenomena of our time. However, what
do we mean by this term? Many scholars have attempted to remedy the vagueness and uncertainty of the concept of populism. Among these attempts at theorizing, the one developed by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe has met with some success. Populism is not just one aspect of their philosophy, but the key to reading all of their work. This article proposes to show how their theory of populism provides an extremely stimulating politi- cal ontology but a particularly poor theory of democracy. The Laclau-Mouffian ontology breaks with social contract theorists and then contemporary liberal philosophers. This dominant conception sees politics as a contract between individuals on a rational basis. Conversely, the two theorists of populism view politics as a conflict between collectives on an affective basis. Here we have a triple opposition – between individual and collec- tive, between reason and affects, between consensus and conflict – which testifies to the originality of Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of politics. But – this is the paradox – Mouffe and Laclau adopt a sketchy, conventional and unsatisfactory theory of democracy. They associate democracy with political parties, elections, representation, the state and even the existence of a charismatic leader. Doing so, they adhere to the most common ideas of modernity and they miss the true nature of democracy.
The article published here is an edited, augmented, and translated English version of a book chapter published two years earlier in my book: Post-Truth. Why it should be celebrated (Lormont, Bord de l´eau, 2019). I try to identify the contributions and the limits of the populist theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. At the time when I learned about the work of these two philosophers, the left-wing populism they called for met several electoral successes on the European scene: a meteoric breakthrough by Podemos in 2014, Syriza government in 2015, accession of Jeremy Corbyn to the head of Labour at the same time, launch of France insoumise in 2016 with an honorable score for its leader the following year. But the current political situation is very fluid, things are changing rapidly, and the victorious cycle that began in 2014 and which was still underway in 2018 when I wrote the first version of this text now seems to be be closed.
Indeed, since the 2019 elections, left-wing populists represent less than 5% of those elected to the European Parliament. Jeremy Corbyn has been kicked out of Labour. France insoumise tumbles from ballot to ballot. Alexis Tsipras has given way to a right-wing government. Podemos serves as a surge force for a government dominated by socialists. Bernie Sanders, despite an honorable campaign, lost the Democratic Party primary for the second time. Left-wing populism no longer pays. Some of its promoters are abandoning it in order to return to the defense of a more consensual “socialism”. The focus on the climate issue seems to benefit green parties. Identity tensions play into the hands of the right. And the center-left forces have enough resources to stay in power in several European countries. The populist left is marginalized. But don’t we say that the margins light up the center?
If this is the case, then the electoral woes of left-wing populists should not lead political scientists to abandon the study of this political stream. For my part, I bet that left-wing populism has a lot to teach us about the state of our democracies. It is a magnifying mirror of the changes in contemporary political life. In this regard, the writings of Laclau and Mouffe remain very topical. It’s not about subscribing to it, it’s about confronting it. Despite the disagreements I have with them, and which I set out in this article, their political ontology is to me one of the most stimulating of our time.