Few words offer a more tantalizing, but also a more frustratingly vague, indication of our contemporary era than “populism.” The statistics speak for themselves: from 1970 to 2010, the number of Anglophone publications containing the term rose from 300 to more than 800, creeping to over a thousand in 2010. In English, over 500 academic publications have appeared on the topic in the past year, while newspapers are currently running special series on it. A journal exclusively dedicated to it was launched in 2017 — the bluntly titled Populism.
Such a sprawling literature, of course, only tracks a deeper trend. Globally, movements speaking on behalf of “the people” have won majorities, ousted incumbents, attacked courts, and locked up opponents. In this story, populism is both actor and symptom, the expression of a deep, structural crisis rolling across global democracies of which Europe is the epicenter. In the latter case, a wide range of actors is compressed for the occasion: Pablo Iglesias, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and Beppe Grillo are but some of the politicians who qualify for the label.
With this increasing popularity also comes an analytical challenge — is it possible to say anything new about the subject? Bookshelves bulging with populist “explosions,” “menaces,” and “threats” now increasingly suggest a bleak prospect: populism studies itself is in a crisis of originality. Cas Mudde, informal doyen of the profession, has himself spoken of the need to distinguish populism from adjacent concepts, such as nativism and nationalism, while veteran scholars have begun to call for an outright moratorium on it. At the same time, the Left’s nominal populist experiments in Europe — Podemos, La France Insoumise, Más País, Corbynism — have hit a political wall, losing elections or becoming custodians for older social-democratic parties. Taken together, these trends call for a deeper reflection on Europe’s recent populist experience.
This article places Europe’s current “populist moment” in wider context. It begins by locating populism — left, right, and nonpartisan — within the broader crisis of mediation in European polities after the fall of party democracy, and it follows up with a balance sheet for each variant, focusing specifically on left-populist outfits. More than a reflexive dismissal or an endorsement, it offers a systemic analysis of populism’s rise and draws out an equally systemic response.
Dilemmas of Definition
Attempts at defining populism must contend with the fact that it is an “essentially contested concept.” About twenty different definitions have been recorded over the last ten years, all launched from within different corners of the academe. Populism is hardly alone in its contestability, of course: terms such as “liberalism,” “socialism,” “ecologism,” “republicanism,” “fascism,” and “conservatism” are equally subject to linguistic disputation. Yet there is something unique about populism. Liberalism, socialism, and republicanism have all been claimed by identifiable historical movements . Britain, France, and Germany still have their self-declared conservative parties, while socialists continue to sit in many European parliaments. Populism barely has such real-life referents. Since its spread in the 1980s, the word has seen an almost exclusively external usage, deployed by journalists, academics, and politicians to either describe, or — more regularly — denigrate their opponents. The only movement that explicitly claimed the term was the American People’s Party of 1892, founded to break a Democratic-Republican oligopoly and join workers and farmers in a “producerist” coalition (it was also the party that first introduced the term into the American lexicon).
For the majority of the twentieth century, the party remained the only known referent of the word. In the 1930s, translations began popping up in French; in the 1950s, the term first appeared in Spanish and German. Only in the 1970s and 1980s did a burgeoning field of far-right studies start using the term, which steadily gave populism traction in European debates. The last ten years have certainly made it easier to distinguish these polemics from scientific usages. Thanks to an academic gold rush, populism studies has grown into a rich research field where different definitions now vie for dominance. This has created a sense of confusion — who speaks for populism? — but also allows for useful differentiation. Scholarship on this subject can be sorted into four broad, interdependent categories: (i) strategic, (ii) ideological, (iii) discursive, and (iv) institutional definitions.
The first tradition is represented by writers such as Kenneth Roberts, Kurt Weyland, and other Latin Americanists. They see populism essentially as a political tactic deployed by leaders to rally a disorganized populace. Going back to work by Gino Germani and Torcuato Di Tella in the first waves of Latin-American modernization theory, its criterion for distinguishing populists from non-populists is whether or not the political strategy mobilizes a “people” against an elite and solidifies its grip on state power through patrimonial networks. Leader-centrism is an integral feature of this definition. “Under populism,” one proponent summarizes, “the connection between leader and followers is based mostly on direct, quasi-personal contact, not on organizational intermediation.”1 Other voices in this tradition claim that populists “mobilize mass support via anti-establishment appeals” by means of a “personalistic linkage to voters, circumventing parties and other forms of institutional mediation.” Such a definition places populism both within and outside of the state, wielded by leaders seeking and consolidating power. This focus allows for both empirical testability and operationalization, but it rarely offers a full etiology of populism itself.
A second and more prominent tradition usually opts for a “thin ideological” approach. This is the route taken by the “ideational” school represented by writers as diverse as Cas Mudde, Jan-Werner Müller, Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Stefan Rummens, Matthijs Rooduijn, and Sarah de Lange. None of these definitions are perfectly contiguous. Nonetheless, all see populism essentially as an ideology, here understood as the “decontestation” of a set of contested concepts. Kickstarted by Mudde’s work in the early 2000s, this variant of populism is not necessarily institutionally articulated; it can occur in both consolidated and young democracies. As an ideology, populism divides a population into two opposing camps: the people and the elite, both taken as homogeneous by the populists, while state policy is supposed to enact “the will of the people.” The tradition’s casting of populism as a thin ideology implies that it points to no hard set of beliefs that all populists share. Rather, populism has to attach itself to a “host ideology” and can never operate in stand-alone form (strictly populist parties, therefore, are almost structurally impossible). Operationally, this spans variants such as a “populist nationalism” (National Rally), a “populist socialism” (Podemos), a “populist fascism” (Golden Dawn), or a “populist nativism” (Vlaams Belang). Since Mudde’s first work on the topic in the early 2000s, this definition has also become the go-to tool for disciplinary outsiders.
A third strand of research heads in a discursive direction and contains a swath of sub-traditions. First launched by Ernesto Laclau in 1977, this discursive current sees populism neither as ideology nor as strategy but rather as a “political logic” latently present in every political space. The definition is discursive insofar as it views populism as a rhetorical means of shaping popular subjects, creating a “people” out of diffuse groups and subjects. Its valence is also intrinsically linguistic: populist logics enter into effect when a certain social actor creates a “front of equivalences” between different unfulfilled demands in a given society against a “constitutive outside.” Enemy formation is therefore a crucial feature of every populist movement, not simply a democratic danger. This offers a flexible and bite-size definition of populism. Discourse theorists are able to detect it in multiple contexts and make operationalization of the concept relatively easy. But it often comes at the expense of contextual specificity. As critics point out, everyone becomes a (potential) populist to discourse theorists, while no sociological and programmatic content is ever attributed to the movements themselves. Discourse theory also lacks a full account of the preconditions of a populist moment. Except for an overdetermined notion of crisis, it is not clear what distinguishes populist from non-populist politics. Instead, the latter now has a residual presence in every politics and can flare up at any moment. Historically, such a statement sidesteps any questions of causal drivers and simply insists on contingency as the basis for populist politics.
A fourth tradition corrects the same formalism and represents a more openly institutional strand. It is carried by writers such as Chris Bickerton, Peter Mair, Hanspeter Kriesi, and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti. Although indebted to the ideological definition of populism, it distinguishes itself by a stronger emphasis on the institutional preconditions for populist success. The decline of party democracy and its dwindling member base creates space for new political communication, driving demands for direct democracy capable of sidestepping classical party channels. This places populism in a complementary relation to technocracy, another dominant phenomenon of the age. Populism, like technocracy, negates the intrinsic pluralism and partisanship and is hostile to mediation. As a tradition, institutionalists thus place populism in a specific historical context and examine the infrastructural conditions for its success.
All of these definitions have their own virtues and vices. “Strategists” offer a convincing account of populist mobilization, but they often lack focus on populist beliefs. “Ideologists,” in turn, are attentive to these populist belief systems, but at the expense of more institutional stories. Discourse theorists grasp the linguistic logics of every populist moment and go beyond a narrow focus on ideology. They rightly insist on populism’s intimate relationship to modern representative democracy. But they often do so at the expense of contextual specificity and are averse to causal accounts. When do populist moments end? How do they arise? What drives them? Institutionalists, in turn, offer the most satisfying story about the historical preconditions for a “populist explosion,” but they are regularly at risk of reducing populism to its structural drivers. They might also neglect the contribution of political actors themselves.
Packed together, however, these traditions allow for a comprehensive conceptualization that can span linguistic, institutional, and strategic stories. In its current European context, contemporary populism presents a specific political logic operative in an era of declining party mediation. This means populism both expresses and reshapes the relationship between state and society in an era of neoliberalism. Rhetorically, appeals to a “homogeneous” people pan out precisely because previous social markers of class, religion, and status have been eroded and have made citizens more receptive to new categories. Movements can convincingly be typified as populist when they work in this context of declining party democracy and deploy a concept of “people” in antagonistic fashion, in both a thin (rhetorical) and thick (ideological) register. But populism remains a surface manifestation here. The underlying factor is a lack of intermediation: the disappearance of organs that previously stood between citizens and states and mediated citizens’ relationships to those states. Such a definition still grants internal differentiation between different populist variants — left, right, and nonpartisan — yet does not downplay its broader systemic nature. It also allows for cross-party variation and gradualist notions of populism. Two separate parties or politicians can both be populist to differing degrees and still find themselves in opposition. Today’s populism comes in more and less inclusive and exclusive, pure and impure versions. Invariably, its expression depends on local contexts and is subject to the constraints of political economy and party systems. Populism overall, however, is an ideology of “disintermediation,” both responding to and remolding citizens’ relationship to their states.
Such a definition should caution us against facile comparisons with the 1930s or the late nineteenth century, often pinpointed as previous periods of populist success. Although aspects of fascist movements have reappeared in recent years, the organizational basis for them is completely absent. Europe faces a massively demobilized citizenry with little experience of combat, mass electoral mobilization, or state-driven violence. Fascism, in contrast, was a response to mass working-class agitation, recent suffrage extension, paramilitary activity, and an overbearing civil society. Today’s populism arises in a completely different set of contexts: declining membership rates, falling electoral participation, asset-based growth, and a radically embedded form of neoliberalism. While these might carry their own contemporary dangers — perspective matters here — they cannot be compared to twentieth-century precedents. Both descriptively and normatively, the contours of today’s populism are different.
What explains populism’s irresistible attraction? To start, it is important to distinguish between populism as reality and populism as signifier. The first refers to a complex cluster of phenomena ranging from party ideology and organization to statecraft, while the second includes the usage of a term in specific debates. As for the latter, it is clear that academics and journalists have a specific incentive to label movements “populist” — journalists can avoid overheated references to the far right, accusing someone of demagoguery without openly saying the word, while academics draw grant money from an anti-populist consulting industry. In both a colloquial and specialist setting, it is then argued, the rise of populism speaks to the rise of a populism industry from which a set of interpreters profit, just as new diagnoses stimulate new medical industries.
There is a lot of truth to this accusation. Populism scholars have indeed played a significant role in stimulating the adoption of the word across the spectrum. But such Bourdieusian gambits are hardly sufficient as an explanation. Only in conspiratorial narratives can academia’s role be this overwhelming, and many intervening factors come into play here. The current populism craze cannot be explained as an elaborate academic conspiracy. This would require an almost heroic effort of persuasion on behalf of a small generation of academics who supposedly smuggled the term into public discourse. Yet there is a reason why public discourse reacts so sensitively to the word and why it has met with such resounding success: for better or worse, populism captures a central dimension of the crisis of representation currently gripping European politics. It thus needs to be understood beyond academic market performance. Rather, the rise of the term as a signifier correlates closely with deep-rooted changes in European societies since the late 1970s and a radical realignment in voting patterns. Historically, this popularity thus needs to be situated in a (i) macro, (ii) meso, and (iii) micro setting, each with its own distinctive causal timelines.
The first macro factor is the long-term decline of party democracy in European countries since roughly 1973. To be sure, party democracy was never a stable formation. As a system, it has proven agonizingly difficult to conceptualize given the variety of organizations and models grouped under the rubric. Yet there is room for generalization here. The postwar corporatist structures that first institutionalized party competition after the fascist experience took many forms dependent on democratic models. In the Low Countries, “pillarization” referred to the construction of separate civil spheres for socialist, liberal, and Christian-democratic parties, expressed in their own newspapers, hospitals, and even youth clubs. In Britain, both Labour and Conservatives relied on a large substructure of clubs and unions to mobilize their voting blocs. Although delayed democratization saw Spain, Greece, and Portugal building corporatist structures only later, they nonetheless operated with the same model. In Eastern Europe, in turn, Soviet satellite states maintained a one-party system but sponsored civil society initiatives that laid the claim for a dissident movement in the 1970s. From the left, the Hungarian writer G. M. Tamás has aptly described this “ordered modernity” as a world that saw
the creation of a counter-power of working-class trade unions and parties, with their own savings banks, health and pension funds, newspapers, extramural popular academies, workingmen’s clubs, libraries, choirs, brass bands, engagé intellectuals, songs, novels, philosophical treatises, learned journals, pamphlets, well-entrenched local governments, temperance societies — all with their own mores, manners and style.2
This civil society comes with its own cultural esprit de corps. In such a setting, Chris Bickerton claims, “a strong leader is of secondary importance, since the rank-and-file remains at the center of the party.”3
In the last thirty years, these pillars of party democracy have undergone a gradual erosion. Two phenomena are particularly exemplary for this trend. The first is falling membership rates for parties across the board, coupled with the increased seniority of their members. The German SPD went from 1 million members in 1986 to 660,000 in 2003; the Dutch Socialists from 90,000 to 57,000. The French Communist Party (PCF) tumbled from 632,000 in 1978 to 210,000 in 1998; its Italian sister party went from 1,753,323 to 621,670 in 1998, only to disappear in the Democratic Party after that. The UK Labour Party gathered 675,906 members in 1978, down to 200,000 in 2005 (it rebounded in 2016 under Corbyn, now stabilizing around 400,000). Although this trend has been more marked for socialist parties — who have always relied on mass rather than cadre models — it is no less striking for the Right. Parties such as the Flemish CD&V are now polling under 10 percent, the German Christian Democrats are hemorrhaging members, and the British Tories — the first mass party in European history — receive more donations from dead than living members. The second symptom of this “disintermediation” is a marked decline in participation rates. Across all European democracies, citizens vote less and attend fewer referenda than their predecessors. Although this has been offset by the supposed democratization of digital media, demobilization remains an abiding fact in developed capitalist democracies.
The results of this hollowing out of European party politics has aptly been described by the Irish political scientist Peter Mair as “ruling the void.” An empty space now gapes between citizens and their states. This severely reconfigures how politicians relate to their voting publics. European politicians now have so little idea of what is at play in their populations that they have to speculate on what might constitute a successful program. Since parties themselves can no longer garner such information, other channels must be tapped, most of them situated in the growing PR industry. Hence the increasing “mediatization” of politics: instead of listening to a base or obeying their party machines, politicians become ever more ensnared by an army of spin doctors. These provide periodic reports on the state of public opinion — a tactic pioneered by media gurus such as Peter Mandelson and Lynton Crosby in the 1980s.
There is a deeper, institutional side to this story. Since the 1990s, Western societies have experienced a rupture between two activities that were classically conjoined in the postwar era: politics and policy. We can think of the latter as the methods by which states order their societies and intervene in their economies, exemplified by the picking of winners and losers in industrial policy. The former comprises the process of what political theorists call “will-formation”: competition between parties, campaign building, and the crafting of coalitions. The 1990s saw a drastic change in the way those two moments interacted. Policy became the domain of “unelected power” — organs like the Eurogroup, the European Commission, and the Bank of England. Politics, in turn, was relegated to a media sphere eternally addicted to novelty. Intellectually, both were cast as the emanation of the emancipated civil society of the 1990s, after the bloodless revolutions in Eastern Europe. Things turned out depressingly different, of course. Rather than creating more space, the destruction of collective institutions in the 1980s — Margaret Thatcher’s crushing of the British union movement, Socialist president François Mitterrand’s shelling of the French Communist Party, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, but also the aging memberships of conservative parties — laid the basis for more elusive forms of collectivity. While politicians were becoming trapped in technocratic management and ever more alienated from citizens, a new form of media seemed to offer a shortcut to popularity.
This hollowing-out process can be tracked into two earlier phases. The first comprises the rise of what German political scientist Otto Kirchheimer named “catch-all parties” in the 1960s. These shunned the emphasis on narrow interests that characterized mass parties before and operated in the name of a more diffuse general interest. Examples were the German CDU and the rise of new “citizen parties” in the Netherlands. The second phase is often bookmarked as “cartelization.” This started in the 1980s and 1990s and was fortified by the rise of the European Union. European parties now increasingly began plucking their personnel from a smaller pool of specialists and outsourced governance to technocratic bodies. In the meantime, they cut their ties with unions and other civil society organizations, preferring open primaries, focus groups, or polling data to mass membership. The Hungarian theorist Péter Csigó has aptly described this phase as leading to a “neo-popular bubble,” in which the speculative feedback loops of the new financial economy were transferred to the field of political marketing. This has allowed parties to staff governments from a narrower pool of members, leading to a so-called diploma democracy in which union leaders were sidelined for bankers and university professors.
This disintermediation, of course, had deeper economic drivers. Since the slowdown of economic growth in the early 1970s as, European economies steadily drove toward overcapacity while their states acquired ever large public debt. The responses to this crisis were not uniform, and each was determined by local constellations of forces. Broadly speaking, however, states had two distinct options to deal with the crisis: tempering the demands of its waged classes to the benefit of capital or tempering the demands of capital to the benefit of its waged class. In the latter case, a problem of public management became apparent. Given the democratization of European states in the postwar period, parties usually relied on state funds to maintain their base. This created a strong inflationary impulse. In the 1970s, most parties kept up expectations by increased public borrowing. This situation provoked a fierce response on behalf of bond-holding capitalists still looking for higher profit margins, who worried about states’ capacity to honor their credit obligations. The remedy was to uncouple parties from their base, who were said to hamper a return to economic normalcy. As James Heartfield describes this macro precondition,
To defeat the working class challenge of the seventies, the elite tore up the old institutions that bound the masses to the state. Class conflict was institutionalized under the old system, which not only contained working class opposition but also helped the ruling class to formulate a common outlook. What started as an offensive against working class solidarity in the eighties undermined the institutions that bound society together. Not just trade unions and socialist parties were undermined, but so too were right-wing political parties and their traditional support bases amongst church and farmers’ groups. Middle class professional groups lost their privileged position.
Middle-Range and Immediate Factors
Although this crisis of party democracy is a necessary precondition for populist interventions, it is hardly sufficient. A whole swath of intervening factors come into play here, from party systems, political traditions, the intensity of austerity programs, the makeup of the national welfare state, and potential exogenous shocks. A first midrange factor was the political fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. All new European populist movements arose in countries whose system of governance was severely reconfigured as a response to this debt crisis, from Spain to Italy. When financial capital appealed for liquidity injections from governments, they insisted on downsizing countries’ public sectors to stimulate profitability. This downsizing increased the unemployment rate and hence put a downward pressure on wages. A further erosion of public goods followed, blurring the differences between traditional political families and deepening the representative void. In Southern Europe, this led to a search for other representative channels when citizens looked for avenues to voice their discontent.
Midrange factors are insufficient to grasp the particularity of every national, populist moment, however. First, party systems and their respective diversity play an equally important role. Majoritarian systems without firmly entrenched parties, for instance, make an open populist hijack more likely and render pivoting on the margins unnecessary; those without embedded parties usually force their populists into stealth mode, as was the case with UKIP. Consociational systems such as the Netherlands and Belgium, in turn, leave more space for smaller parties to grow and influence larger parties. In some cases, they could force a consensual ethic on contenders and temper their demands. The second issue concerns the different ordering of various European welfare states. As Philip Manow has noted, these can be divided into open and closed models, depending on the degree of access they grant to citizens and outsiders. The latter — exemplified by countries such as Spain, Portugal, and Italy — tend to produce left-wing populist responses, while the former show a higher likelihood for right-wing populist contenders.
A full etiology of populism operates on all three of these levels and combine both macro-, meso-, and microfactors. Although the decline of party democracy is a universal tendency for European democracies, its intensity is not equal. Southern Belgium, for instance, still has a large mass party in the Parti Socialiste, which maintains its dominance through classical systems of clientelism. Northern and Eastern Europe, in turn, have seen a much more rapid decline of classical party mediation, with accompanying right-populist symptoms. Bringing together these factors allows for a fuller populist story.
The past decade has been kind to populist parties. The Five Star Movement became Italy’s third political force in 2013, receiving a quarter of the vote for both houses of parliament — and thereby reaching the best first-time results in a national election for any party in Europe since 1945. Five years later, it would become Italy’s leading political force and form the national government in coalition with the Northern League. Syriza was founded in 2004 and became a crucial party in the context of the Greek economic crisis, winning a quarter of the popular vote in 2012 and conquering the executive power in 2015 with 35 percent of the vote. Podemos, in Spain, first obtained encouraging results in the EU elections in 2014 (8 percent of the vote, five MEPs). It then grew in the subsequent local, regional, and national electoral contests and peaked in the 2016 legislative elections with seventy-one deputies (together with other forces), nearly surpassing the socialist party (PSOE). From then on, Podemos experienced a relative but steady electoral decline and stabilized itself as Spain’s fourth political force. Already existing parties have had equally impressive tallies: La France Insoumise in the French presidential elections of 2017, the Front National (now National Rally) since 2008, or the Northern League (now simply Lega) under Matteo Salvini.
These successes have been correctly attributed to a new zeitgeist.4 As mentioned, populism as a specific political form — regardless of its ideological and programmatic content — thrives in the contemporary political context of disintermediation, aiming to fill a gap that has been widening throughout almost all Western democracies over the past forty years. The hollowing out of party democracy has progressively eroded the mechanisms of representation characteristic of the postwar model: political parties, trade unions, churches, associations, and clubs progressively lost their role as mediating agents between citizens and the state.5 From agents representing a social constituency, they became agents of the state, as their own interests were increasingly merged with those of public institutions.6 This absorption into the state, accentuated by European integration, progressively created a void between the representatives and the represented.7 This dynamic has been further catalyzed by the Great Recession and its management, which has only worsened European social democracy’s decline
Populism’s post-intermediary brand of politics cannot but blossom in this environment. First, their strategic, communicational, and organizational features make them particularly agile at adapting to these conditions, which often appear prohibitive to traditional class-based movements. Their ideological malleability enables them to have a particularly transversal electoral appeal. They go beyond the traditional boundaries of left and right constituencies, allowing them to be (at least potentially) catch-all political formations. Second, the strong emphasis put on the leader as a unifying figure for the movement — something that Laclau himself has theorized explicitly — matches the personalization of contemporary politics (itself related to the structure of television and social media) and allows these movements to bypass the costly construction of intermediary structures. Third, they are able to largely do without traditional communication channels and create the fiction of direct exchange with their supporters. Most of this is due to their remarkably innovative communication strategies (think of the Five Star Movement’s meetups, the development of La Tuerka by Podemos, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s use of hologram technology during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s Twitter use, and Salvini’s Facebook strategy). Finally, they have managed to use their (real or fake) anti-establishment status to rearticulate demands frustrated by the economic crisis and the congestion of traditional parties.
Unlike the old mass party, however, this new left populism found itself spread out among a complicated 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 ceased voting or been lured to new nationalist formations such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the National Rally, Vlaams Belang, and the new Lega (formerly 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 tended to take the lead here. Laclau’s collaborator Chantal Mouffe, for instance, 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 would not win.
Such a message was not always easy to sell. The primary skeptics were the other group of left-populist voters: younger professionals. Highly educated, networked, and web-savvy, most of them graduated straight from the university into the tight labor market of the 2010s. The majority ended up in service jobs. Combined with a new internet-enabled public sphere freed of its “old media” shackles, most of them were ready for radicalization. When Alexis 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 dissolved 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 [and] cousins.” 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 shortly managed to attain some kind of political viability have often done so within traditional Left parties or by hitching themselves to them. 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 representative of working-class union politics in the country.
Left populists also made clear that they could never function as a panacea here. Syriza and Podemos were 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). Still, a left populist presence has reshuffled the cards in their respective national contexts in a surprisingly short period of time. The extent to which they have been able to reorganize their party landscapes, however, varies from case to case — and needs to be carefully framed.
Shades of Success
Left populism’s main achievement is to have electorally revived a moribund radical left, while swapping old leftist folklore for a new set of symbols. This has enabled those populists to seduce a new and heterogeneous electorate, composed of many different segments of the population, by speaking to the vulnerable sectors of the middle classes suddenly impoverished by the crisis who would have not opted for more radical options. In many cases, this has amounted to attracting a significant part of the social-democratic electorate, disappointed by the center left’s involvement in austerity programs. Left-populist contenders have been popular in countries where social-democratic parties have suffered from their complicity in the imposition of austerity — having almost disappeared, as in Greece and France, or being in danger of doing so, as in the Spanish case. They have also performed well in regions with sizable ethnic minorities, as demonstrated by Mélenchon’s garnering 37 percent of the Muslim vote at the 2017 presidential election.8 Last but not least, left populism has politicized a new generation of young voters who would have otherwise remained politically apathetic: a generation involved in the 15-M movement, the Aganaktismenoi, and Nuit debout but barely inclined to participate in conventional left organizations. A quick look at Podemos’s ranks, for instance, is revealing in that regard: alongside former sympathizers of the Communist Party who suddenly became politically active thanks to the Morada formation, one finds a lot of young people (between twenty-five and thirty-five years old) who had their first political experience as Indignados and now occupy posts within the party.
This process has seen left populism infuse new content into old categories. For one, it has reframed the matter of social justice — long neglected in social democracy’s march to the center. Rather than focusing on workers vs. capital owners — an opposition that left populists deemed out of date for the new, complex economy — left populists have relied instead on a sense of economic injustice by appealing to cross-class categories such as “the 99 percent,” “the many,” and “la gente común.” This had the merit of performing the unity of extremely heterogeneous segments of the population — including classic blue-collar workers, members of the public sector, medium and small entrepreneurs, autonomous workers, and parts of the petty bourgeoisie — by drawing the attention to an increasingly tiny group benefiting from skyrocketing inequalities. Its sociological accuracy can be doubted, however, and left populists have often found it difficult to rhetorically reconcile conflicts of interest in its own camp.
One can lament that such slogans lack a systematic analysis of capitalist accumulation. Indeed, left populism’s appeal rests mainly on a moral conception of the economy — pitting producers against parasites — rather than on a radical repudiation of capitalism itself. But it has nonetheless served as a valuable starting point to challenge neoliberal hegemony. It is more able than radicalism to seduce the moderate sectors of the population that neoliberalism has been striving (but ultimately failing) to co-opt as happy, free self-entrepreneurs — even more so as left populists have generally been successful at articulating those economic and environmental claims with new issues, such as feminism, into a cohesive new common sense (rather than merely summarizing them).
In some cases, this inclusionary drive went hand in hand with support for new civil society initiatives. Corbynism encouraged people to build unions in sectors of the “new economy” (such as Deliveroo) that remained rather disorganized until then.9 By the same token, renters in Barcelona organized into tenants’ unions under the benevolent eye of Ada Colau, then mayor of the city. More often, however, left populists gravely underestimated the importance of civil society revival. Across Europe, organizations that classically straightened the backbones of left-wing parties had atrophied or retreated into corporatist shelters. Left populists tried to leap over this pre-political stage and sought out a Gramscian “war of movement” that was understood almost exclusively in electoral terms. This stemmed from a peculiarly European reading of Laclau’s oeuvre, which saw the construction of a “chain of equivalences” as an operation that pertained almost exclusively to electoral context — and it diverted valuable resources away from the intermediary bodies crucial to populism’s counter-hegemonic strategy in the long run. Although it struck roots in some tenants’ unions and new unions, Podemos’s main focus was on digital outreach, allowing members to determine party policy, while Syriza focused heavily on electoral mobilization at the expense of class power.
Other populists have proven more agile at navigating this new terrain, which can be traced back to a mix of class strategy, culture war, and online confrontation. First, right populists have been able to garner voters from both old center-right and left parties by departing from their former ultranationalist and neoliberal positions. These often confined them to minority sectors of the upper business class — as was the case for the National Front (FN) in the 1980s — and lessened their outreach with industrial workers. While Jean-Marie Le Pen celebrated the Thatcher and Reagan Revolution in the 1980s, the party began to reorient itself around a “right-Gramscian” core in the late 1990s and openly embraced welfarist themes. A similar welfare chauvinism was initiated by Geert Wilders, who started out as a Dutch Liberal Party politician but later moved on to found his own nonparty outfit. These ventures broadened right-wing populism’s appeal by slightly tempering their positions on cultural issues (thus seducing conservative electorates) and by finessing their welfare chauvinist approach, rallying workers in deindustrialized areas.
Second, right-wing populists have reanchored debates. This holds acutely for immigration, which has acquired a centrality rivaled by few other themes in Europe. There is no need to be discursively determinist about this shift. Although European media played an evident role in putting the issue on the agenda, immigration has acquired saliency mainly due to its sensitive interaction with labor markets and urban geographies. For this, little discursive mediation was required. States have ceded many of their interventionist capacities and cater to capital to an irrational degree, so that the management of a labor supply now appears to be the only viable substitute for wage bargaining. But this hardly explains immigration’s centrality today. The populist right has waged a patient “culture war” that has put pressure on competitors to the right and beyond. One can think here, for example, of Laurent Fabius’s recognition of FN’s ability to identify the “real problems” of French citizens and the rise of openly racist rhetoric on the French right. Dutch debates, in turn, offer a particularly stark example of right populists reorienting every issue around a pro- or anti-Islam axis. Even in countries where postwar bargaining structures have survived intact into the neoliberal era — such as France, Belgium, and parts of German industry — immigration has become a powerful prism through which citizens conceive of a variety of social problems: housing, wages, cultural anomie. In the face of this, the old right has taken part in a race lost in advance. Most of them have tried to catch up with the far right’s positions on immigration while only offering a pale copy of the original. While the CDU, Forza Italia, and Les Républicains hardened on immigration, they actively abetted and encouraged the growth of the Alternative für Deutschland, Lega, and the FN. Far-right challengers have also strongly benefited from the shift from austerity policies to the “migration crisis” as the main political issue of the European continent.
A final factor is digitalization. More than any other family of parties, populist parties have leaned on new communication strategies and lay claim to a high online presence (Trump’s strategies neatly mirror those of Salvini’s Facebook use). This tactic has had a double effect. First, it has allowed them to neutralize opposition within their camp by establishing a seemingly direct communication line with their supporters. But it also shielded the party from outside forces, rewiring politics around a digital arena rather than a classical public sphere. In the last Belgian election, Vlaams Belang outspent all other Flemish parties on digital campaigning, while the online followers of the Front and Lega far outnumber equivalents on the Left. They have thus combined the best of both worlds: drawing in loyal voters via a trained cadre and broadening their electoral prospects, combining resilience with ambition.
More nonpartisan populisms (such as the Italian Five Star Movement and the Dutch Democrats 66) share the same strengths, but for a rather different set of reasons. Most of them have registered an undetermined form of opposition to a party establishment; as a consequence, they can easily extend their electoral appeal to given social groups. Nonpartisan populists are thus the most catch-all of all contemporary political species, untainted by any clear sociological bias or clientelist loyalty. The Five Star Movement (M5S), for instance, has avoided discussion on divisive subjects in its own ranks (immigration, most of all, which could provoke splits between right-wing and left-wing members) and focused exclusively on “transversal” issues. Of the latter, the so-called moral question stands out. More than any other party, M5S has emphasized Italian political elites’ corruption, incompetence, and collusion with specialists. In doing so, M5S has propelled a new axis of competition around an opposition between “ordinary citizens” on one hand and national political elites on the other. The success of this tactic has been evident. In a context already marked by the decline of traditional cleavages (particularly in Italy, given the political implosions of the early 1990s), M5S has steadily established the elite-ordinary axis as the main dividing line in society.
A final distinction with right populists concerns mobilization tactics. As mentioned, the populist radical right has always combined new media with more traditional organizational forms. Nonpartisan populists, in turn, have concentrated their energies almost exclusively on the digital. This, in turn, has helped them to create fresh spaces of political participation, such as M5S and its online referenda on the Rousseau platform. These digital instruments operate as both a sword and a shield. On the one hand, it has enabled nonpartisan populists to propose alternative tools and practices to those of (delegitimized) traditional parties. On the other, the seemingly “horizontal” nature of those parties allows for an extremely tight internal control and decision structure, foreclosing the rise of intermediary layers. The Rousseau platform, for instance — a piece of software launched by an engineer — is now widely seen as open to manipulation, while the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage decided to push through a decision not to run in marginal Tory seats without consulting members. Hence the abiding paradox of the Five Star Movement: it is able to benefit both from the effects of online deliberation and consultation and from an extremely vertical structure within which the ultimate decision power lies in a few hands.
Paradoxes of the Void
The balance sheet of ten years of populism is admittedly impressive. Over the span of a single decade, it has radically redrawn the electoral map of several European countries and ended the dominance of classical party families, who barely went beyond an added 50 percent in the last European parliamentary elections. Despite this, however, many left and nonpartisan populist parties have run into a set of similar challenges — of an endogenous and exogenous nature, relating to pressures outside and inside their parties.
A careful examination of these challenges reveals an interesting paradox at the heart of the populist explosion. In short, populists both suffer and profit from disintermediation; or, what Peter Mair termed his “void” is either too empty or not empty enough for populists. For the first, an extremely volatile political context makes it difficult (and, in some cases, impossible) for populist actors to stabilize their voting bases and program. In the second, too much breathing space is left for traditional actors, reducing the leeway available to populist challengers. Between these two poles, new parties struggle to strike the correct (i) ideological or (ii) organizational balance.
Populists are thus torn between two desiderata. The first is the freedom to move through the void, while the second is protection from a black hole. Populists have taken note of the resilience of traditional cleavages and decided to relocate themselves more clearly. By doing so, however, they run the risk of being perceived as too partisan and losing their transversal appeal. If, on the other hand, they decide to downplay the importance of traditional cleavages, they become tempted to abandon any specific ideological or sociological bias, thereby missing out on electoral loyalty — the only guarantor of stability in an increasingly volatile context. Populists face a similar second dilemma at the organizational level. Either they “go vertical,” gaining in short-term efficiency but bypassing the careful construction of intermediary structures so vital to long-term stability — or they “normalize” and simply adopt the bureaucratic cartel structures of old parties, thus gaining in organizational strength but shedding their freedom to move freely in the void.
These dilemmas appear differently to each populist variant. To start, left populist parties can either be too left or too populist. In the first scenario, they remain unable to fully profit from the breakdown of the traditional social democracy and pluck the fruits of a catch-all approach. This means they retain an association with older social-democratic (or Marxist) approaches and have to tie themselves to existing civil society organizations (mostly unions and cooperatives) or smaller left outfits. Some movements combined both, such as the Belgian Workers’ Party, which started out as a general anti-elite outfit and has now anchored itself in the country’s remaining union sector. But this comes with inevitable costs. Parties such as M5S, for instance, were happy to leave behind references to a left-right cleavage and embrace an openly catch-all approach. This gave them considerable electoral clout. In contrast, Podemos, the Belgian Workers’ Party, and Syriza constantly found themselves drawn back to their far-left background and castigated as “communist” by their opponents. And while Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise shed its old left label in the Left Front alliance, it nonetheless harked back to an older Jacobin tradition and played on popular-front memories.
Although left populists can draw on these older traditions, it usually requires shedding their sense of exteriority to the existing party system. Such a strategy might well be useful to rebuild a loyal electorate on the Left and guarantee an electoral floor. But it also hampers any attempt at convincing new voters and ushers in the double dangers of sectarianism and clientelism. Podemos remains an acute example of this development. In a world of older cleavages (the left-right axis and Spain’s regional question), the party has repositioned itself on the Left in alliance with Izquierda Unida. While this has enabled Podemos to strengthen territorial roots and even brought it into government, it has severely eroded its status as an outsider. As of 2019, its electoral appeal was confined to downwardly mobile professionals in large urban cities. These were the first arrivals in their coalition, only later joined by some less-educated workers. After 2015, however, many working-class voters returned to the PSOE. A retake of Podemos’s high in December 2015 — in which it reached nearly a quarter of the vote — appears nigh impossible. Consequently, it has given up the last ambitions of becoming a majoritarian force and now operates as a pressure group left of the PSOE, shepherding them into a coalition government in 2020.
A second scenario sees left populism becoming too populist. In this case, leftists try to broaden their electoral appeal by thinning out their commitments to an older, supposedly compromised left-wing tradition and skipping over some key organizational questions. La France Insoumise, for instance, willfully cut ties with French unions and abjured classical membership models, instead focusing on mainly digital outreach. This led Mélenchon to boast that “no internal disagreement” occurred in the party due to its “heterodox setup.” Podemos similarly focused on building a ruthless “electoral war machine” that could outflank the ailing PSOE. While this strategy brought clear short-term dividends, it quickly showed external and internal limits. Podemos peaked in 2015 but underwent a steady decline afterward, splitting into two separate parties in 2015. They admitted underestimating the inertia of European party systems and, conversely, overestimated the “latinamericanization” of Europe — a continent to which left populists had long looked for inspiration. In short, most left-wing voters have not been completely dissuaded from their old voting blocs, as the persistence of the PSOE vote shows, nor has the Right lost all of its loyalists.
A second, internal limit concerns matters of rhetorical strategy. Podemos was not alone among left populists in consciously seeking to reclaim signifiers traditionally monopolized by the Right (such as “nation,” “motherland,” and “security”). This was mirrored by Syriza’s and Mélenchon’s attempts to craft an “inclusive” nationalism against the Right’s increasing postindustrial base. Left populists, however, usually overstated the floating nature of those signifiers. Usage of tropes such as “nation” and “homeland” were seen more as PR maneuvers than concrete ideological commitments. Given Spain’s regionalist legacy, a nationalist position was also difficult to maintain. Instead, Iglesias chose to emphasize Spain’s “plurinational” setup — a Spanish nation made up of several sub-units — and hoped that this would calm his bases from Barcelona to Madrid. Rather than defusing tension, however, Podemos’s participation in nationalist name-calling allowed for the emergence of a series of national questions. The most glaring of these was the Catalan independence movement, which drove a wedge into one of its main bases in Barcelona. Later, Podemos’s acquiescence created space for the reemergence of the far-right party Vox, which forced PSOE into their current coalition.
Both these limits can be traced back to Laclau’s original theory of populism, which focused heavily on electioneering, leaders, and rhetoric. First, left-populist actors have focused almost exclusively on the conquest of executive power. They have thereby neglected to initiate the long-term “war of position” (construction of its own organizations, development of a counter-society) that any successful class strategy requires. Second, an obsessional focus on short-term electoral gains encouraged the “verticalization” of these movements. Podemos and Syriza were both characterized by a dependence on leaders that hampered any patient organizational work. Last but not least, the movements suffered from an excessive formalism. They have almost exclusively seen their political project as a new form of constructing political identities, similar to the project of carving out a new electoral brand. This was compatible with the heightened importance of PR across the political spectrum since the 1990s, which has seen classical parties turn to spin doctors en masse. For left populists, however, this came to the detriment of normative and programmatic questions, which they usually borrowed from older traditions (ecologist, Keynesian, feminist, etc.) and then smuggled into their programs. Added to this are the brittle building blocks of the left-populist coalition, which straddles the overeducated children of professionals, younger students, and middle-aged care workers, some with assets. Corbynism stands as an ominous precedent here. Corbynists managed to infiltrate an already existing party and colonize it for their own purposes — but this colonization was never complete, and Blairite elements survived. It also failed to control its insistent pro-EU faction, mainly drawn from London professional circles. These entered into an alliance with older parliamentarians and pressured the party into a Remain position, thereby severely impacting its electoral chances in the North.
Right populism encounters a similar dilemma, remaining either too right or too populist. In the first case, it retains too strong an association with certain fascist or classical conservative tendencies and faces an electoral ceiling. Marine Le Pen’s expulsion of her father from the party, for instance, should be seen in this light, while other parties have faced a similar dilemma on their naming (from Front National to National Rally, from Vlaams Blok to Vlaams Belang, and from Lega Nord to Lega).
In the second, less recurrent case, the party turns too populist and gives up on its ideological commitments. In doing so, it risks losing out on the potential of a solid base, particularly in the presence of a strong challenger on the right side of the political spectrum. The ideal solution for those parties is probably a hybrid party structure, situated somewhere between digital and cadre. Salvini’s Lega remains the ideal type here, which was able to combine a solid and stable organizational model in the north of Italy (with a strong regionalist base) with an updated communication strategy based on a supposedly direct exchange between leader and citizen. As a result, Salvini now stands out as one of the most powerful politicians in Europe from a party that was always considered secondary. His move of genius was to combine a classical regionalist party structure built in the 1990s with a new digital battleship constructed in the 2000s.
Salvini’s “digital party” is an impressive work of political engineering, and “Matteo” is an omnipresent Facebook personality. Much like Corbynism, Salvini hijacked an existing party structure and hitched it to his crusade rather than conjuring up a party out of thin air. The payoff for this tactic was considerable. It has allowed Salvini to rally core voters through mass mobilization as well as draw in a new, algorithmic set of “followers” in the formerly unattainable South. With a new unlikely PD-M5S government sworn in in Rome, Salvini retains his status as a tribune of popular resistance. He might have lost a battle last summer, but he has certainly not lost the war, as current Italian surveys indicate that Lega is now uncontestably Italy’s first party, hovering more than ten points above members of the government.
Nonpartisan populists are in a league of their own. Probably the purest example of Laclau’s populist logic — free of any specific content and able to extend its chain of equivalences ad infinitum — their gamble is also the riskiest. Age aside, the M5S perfectly epitomizes the difficult tradeoff between short-term gains and long-term solidity. For one, the organizational fluidity of the movement is an asset when building a majority political force. M5S quickly gathered steam online and monopolized public debate. However, this fluidity soon became the main obstacle to fastening the movement long-term. At the level of organization, M5S’s “movementist” nature was a cumbersome feature. While practically none of the current Italian parties have the broad base of postwar mass parties, they have nonetheless built up relatively stable voting clienteles. M5S, however, has never had a faithful electoral base. This base is indispensable in times of setback, granting resilience to the movement at a regional, local, or national level. From that point of view, M5S displays a stark difference with the hybrid model of Salvini’s Lega, which combined core voters, Northern activists, and new “algorithmic” followers in the South.
The movement’s ideological flippancy also acted as a double-edged sword. Faced with Salvini’s rhetoric, M5S now found itself forced to take sides, abandoning its image as a pure outsider to the system. What were its compromises; what were its red lines? While the left-right logic has less of a grip on Italy than before, it still persists, and most political actors and policies continue to bear traces of this logic. The claim of M5S to be “neither right nor left” conflicts with its first concrete experience in power. Allying itself with the far right (Lega), the extreme center (the PD), or a tiny radical-left group (Potere al Popolo), and voting on tax reform or on a security and immigration bill, are not neutral maneuvers. Any contentious choice is likely to fracture the solidarity of the movement, after which part of the electorate defects and internal dissenters appear. On Salvini’s immigration gambit, M5S’s activists and voters are notoriously divided. Unsure of its identity, territory, and social base, M5S was unable to strike back in the area where its coalition partner was weakest: the regional question. This is now the object of an extremely fragile compromise between local bosses — guarantors of the regionalist identity of the League — and Salvini, who has opted for an openly national strategy.
The lessons of this are tentative. The M5S approach was particularly well suited to a rapid conquest of executive power via the ballot box after profound economic and political crisis. But it cruelly lacked consistency to promote a project capable of challenging neoliberal dogma. Increased volatility makes it difficult to establish a lasting strategy that could alter the terms of the new political deal without falling into an empty “politics of marketing” divorced from any stable party structure and ideological tradition. To avoid this pitfall, M5S would have had to patiently re-create a truly popular counterculture. This would include infrastructure, networks, and intellectual resources, on a terrain dramatically emptied by the decline of left organizations.
Instead, M5S did exactly the opposite and, in doing so, it contributed to the sharpening of a trend intrinsic to contemporary democracy: atomization of the electorate, disaffiliation from parties, decline of intermediary institutions, and a general personalization of politics. The party probably best epitomizes the paradox of Mair’s void: the contemporary populist challengers can hardly be at the same time a symptom of degeneration and a necessary cure.
Rifts on the Right
Like the previous two populisms, right-wing populism both benefits and suffers from the structural evolutions outlined above. But they also display important programmatic and organizational limits. First, they are not anti-systemic at all, and might thus rapidly lose their aura of radical outsiders. Their main policy issues — anti-immigration, welfare chauvinism, anti-EU, and security — require little but cosmetic fixes to European debt ceilings and occasional cultural posturing on “Western values.” When it comes to migration, Angela Merkel and Matteo Salvini, or Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, have little to disagree on except how to distribute its financial load. Even the alleged Euroscepticism of those parties is far less radical than it might seem. As soon as they enter into positions of power (like Salvini) or move closer to it (like Le Pen), they downplay their opposition to EU institutions in order to play up their acceptability. Left populists wanted much more than that. Podemos’s and Syriza’s plans implied a far-reaching overhaul of the Eurozone, a departure from austerity programs, and an ambitious expansion of social provision. To some, this required the perfectly timed rise of several left-populist movements in a domino-like act of coordination. Right-wing populists, by contrast, do not require cooperation in a transnational setting. This is not simply due to the notoriously paradoxical and difficult coordination at the EU level for anti-EU parties; it mostly stems from the modest nature of their political program, which can be implemented without disrupting existing institutional settings. While this incontestably proves a strength in the short term — compared to left populism, it is easier to keep promises — it can become a weakness in the long run.
The far right’s second limit is organizational. Most of all, its tactics remain highly dependent on volatility and stick to digital outreach, which, in turn, means its voting clientele is bound to remain ephemeral. In contrast to historical fascism, for example, right populists do not build right-wing unions or cooperatives, let alone paramilitary formations. Countries with a well-organized civil society (Belgium’s Wallonia, for instance, where the unionization rate is around 55 percent), the far right has underperformed. Where left civil society is moribund, however (French workers have a unionization rate of 7 percent, despite their strategic location in the economy), the far right finds its easier to penetrate industrial constituencies, but often without nesting themselves in it. Even in the case of the gilets jaunes, far-right efforts to capture the movement failed, driven mainly by its refusal of representation. The left-populist takeaway is that a twofold effort of cultivating existing civil society institutions and carefully politicizing new social movements (without engaging in coarse incorporation) offers the best strategy to deprive the far right from developing deeper roots.
Overall, however, the populist left faces two unsatisfying options against a growing radical right: recuperation and opposition. In the first, leftists openly embrace right-wing rhetoric and strategy, especially its nationalist leanings. The potential benefits of this would be to reclaim lost “national” working-class voters instead of becoming the front of minorities and professionals. This might invert the trend provoked by the “terra nova” approach, which builds bridges between internationally minded classes in cities in an inter-classist fashion. This has created a so-called Brahmin Left, as Thomas Piketty termed it, disconnected from the country’s popular sectors. The danger in these tactics, as always, is plagiarism: voters will prefer the original over the copy and see through the antics. Until now, there has been no convincing evidence that this strategy has enabled La France Insoumise, Die Linke, or Podemos to win back voters from the far right — at least not in a substantial proportion.
In the second scenario, left populists accept a coalition with liberals and join a broad anti-populist front in the name of a cordon sanitaire. Evidence shows this to be more deleterious than outflanking from the right, however. While it can halt slides into authoritarianism, this tactic usually renders left populists complicit in liberal denial, acting on symptoms while delaying structural reforms. Such a strategy offers no guarantee of actually halting authoritarian and xenophobic backsliding, especially in the many contexts where the center itself is already complicit (such as Merkel on immigration, or Macron’s repressive anti-labor policies).
A careful look at the programmatic and organizational limits of the far right also points in a different direction. This would imply working on the pre-political terrain by facilitating new forms of association made impossible by neoliberalism. A disorganized society (the precondition for the reduction of oppositions to the populism-versus-technocracy dichotomy) might simply need an organizational stir from above. Before its election defeat in December, the British Labour Party had consistently hinted in this direction. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell made clear that their primary goals are to make possible forms of organizing rendered inane by thirty years of neoliberal onslaught. Rather than falling into the traps of electioneering, verticalism, and formalism, left populists should concentrate their efforts on rebuilding the forms of social life to which the far right is fundamentally alien. This would make possible the reconstitution of a working-class public sphere now sidelined by online quarrels and media bubbles. It also appears as the only credible option for a return to mass politics, preventing populism and technocracy from becoming the only games in town.