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What Chantal Mouffe gets wrong

The Belgian philosopher’s influence on today’s left is unquestionable, but the transformative potential of her ideas is held back by conservatism.

By Oliver Eagleton

In January 1985, as Margaret Thatcher intensified her war on organised labour and Ronald Reagan returned to the White House for a second term, the foundational text of “post-Marxism” was published. Its co-authors were both immigrants in Britain who, having witnessed the death of Labourist social democracy, sought to recalibrate left strategy at the outset of the neoliberal era. Ernesto Laclau was born in Argentina in 1935, studied history in Buenos Aires and assumed a leading role in the country’s Socialist Party of the National Left, before moving to Oxford to work with Eric Hobsbawm. Chantal Mouffe was born in Belgium in 1943, read philosophy in Leuven and Paris, became active in the women’s movement and completed her doctorate at Essex. The pair met in 1973 and began to collaborate on a reinterpretation of Antonio Gramsci’s writing, viewed as an antidote to the rigidities of classical Marxism.

The result was Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, a landmark intervention that argued that shibboleths like “class solidarity” and “proletarian revolution” were impotent before the transatlantic New Right. Workers, it claimed, had no privileged position as agents of social change, nor any natural tendency to develop radical consciousness. Ideology was an autonomous sphere, detached from so-called material interests, and politics was essentially a series of language games – with different coalitions forged out of the erratic and contingent realm of “discourse”. The primary task of the left was therefore to wage an ideological struggle capable of uniting disparate classes and communities. For Laclau and Mouffe, it was no longer the exploited vs the exploiters, but “the people” vs “the elites”.

“The people”, they wrote, were not striving towards the ultimate goal of socialism. Their ambition was rather to realise a “radical and plural democracy”. Demands for economic justice were merely a stepping stone on this trajectory: “a moment internal to the democratic revolution” which had been under way since Louis XVI was toppled in 1792. The defeat of the ancien régimes and the rise of “democratic culture” during the long 19th century had already enabled a growing number of groups to challenge their subordination, with both workers and women fighting to achieve legal equality. Now, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy enjoined the left to extend this project by bringing together the social movements of the early 1980s: queer, feminist, anti-racist, environmentalist. It was not necessary to abolish and replace the institutions of representative democracy, as most Marxists assumed. They could instead be captured and reformed.

This theory was immediately assailed as a capitulation to the Thatcherite settlement. Writing in New Left Review, the political theorist Norman Geras described it as “a product of the very advanced stage of an intellectual malady”, which encapsulated “virtually all the key positions of a sector of the European left moving rightwards”. The historian Ellen Meiksins Wood deemed it an expression of the retreat from socialist principles that characterised the decade. The criticisms of Laclau and Mouffe were obvious: they railed against a crude caricature of Marxism that bore little resemblance to the reality; their rejection of “class reductionism” had broken with class analysis tout court; their avowal that ideology had no mooring in material conditions marked an absurd relativisation of politics; and their downgrading of socialism in favour of democracy signalled accommodation with the regnant liberal order.

Yet if Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was born out of the despondency of its era, it was also a roadmap for sustaining oppositional politics in the absence of a militant and cohesive working class. As a prescription for a multiform popular struggle to supplant traditional socialist organising, it was clearly based on tendentious readings of the Marxist canon. But as a description of the new left activism that emerged after the Thatcher-Reagan onslaught, it proved remarkably accurate. Though they were accused of succumbing to what would later be called capitalist realism, Laclau and Mouffe’s ecumenical politics allowed them to keep hope alive while more orthodox thinkers lost it entirely. (Geras, having excoriated them as turncoats, himself became an advocate of successive US military interventions, starting with the Gulf War. In response, Laclau turned up unannounced at the NLR offices and asked sardonically, “Where is my detractor? He hasn’t gone over to the other side, has he?”)

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These paradoxes of post-Marxism – a product of its time, yet strangely prophetic; politically soft, yet surprisingly durable – appeared throughout Laclau and Mouffe’s respective oeuvres. Following the success of their debut, Laclau spent the 1990s elaborating the theoretical foundations of radical democracy through engagements with Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida among others. Mouffe, meanwhile, was more attuned to changes in the contemporary political landscape – carving out a role for the left at the end of the millennium.

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In The Return of the Political (1993), she drew on the Nazi legal scholar Carl Schmitt to challenge the notion that consensual politics would emerge triumphant from the collapse of the Soviet Union. For Mouffe, this harmonious vision was an ontological impossibility. She argued that we invariably form our collective identities in opposition to an “other” or “constitutive outside”. When this other is seen to threaten our existence, they become an “enemy”, in Schmitt’s terms, whom we seek to eradicate in a zero-sum conflict. Previously, the friend/enemy distinction could be mapped on to the Cold War, pitting democrats against totalitarians. But without a communist threat, such divisions had become internal to Western democracy – which could have damaging effects on social cohesion. New enemies were needed to sustain our collective self-image. And the most obvious targets were immigrants, who were already coming under attack from a growing far right.

[See also: Fascism’s liberal admirers]

Faced with the persistence of societal conflict, liberal democracy had two choices. It could redouble its efforts to forge a rational consensus, thereby fuelling further reaction, or it could learn how to manage such tensions by deepening the democratic revolution. Mouffe described the latter option as replacing antagonism with agonism, or violence with voting. Schmitt had shown why the dream of abolishing division was misguided, but he failed to see that an “agonistic pluralism” could “shape the element of hostility in a way that defuses its potential”. Anti-liberal thought was thus used to rescue liberal institutions from the false promises of Clinton and Blair. The jurist of the Third Reich, Schmitt, became an unlikely ally in the fight against neofascism.

These positions were reiterated in The Democratic Paradox (2000), in which Mouffe again deployed Schmitt’s critique of liberal democracy to mount a counterintuitive defence of it. Schmitt saw it as a “non-viable regime” constituted by two contradictory logics: liberal individualism, human rights and the rule of law on the one hand; democratic equality and popular sovereignty on the other. Though philosophers like Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls tried to reconcile these separate strands of thought, one invariably negated or overwhelmed the other. Yet this did not mean that liberalism should be superseded by socialism. For just as managerial politicians tried to abolish agonism, socialists could also be accused of peddling the fantasy of a post-conflictual society. In Mouffe’s assessment, there was no hope of either a technocratic compromise or a communist utopia; there was only the “‘agonistic confrontation’ between conflicting interpretations of the constitutive liberal-democratic values”. The left’s responsibility was to ensure that its interpretations were more potent than the right’s.

With these claims, Mouffe established herself as a thinker both for and against the End of History. She had foregone Marxian grand narratives, relegated the role of class and refused to countenance a break with liberal institutions; yet she had also stressed the ineluctability of conflict, warned against managerialism and insisted on the continued relevance of the left/right binary. Was this a form of progressive Fukuyamism? Perhaps in the sense that it narrowed the left’s horizons and blunted its ambitions. But Mouffe’s prediction that the Third Way would be contested by dissenting forces nonetheless foreshadowed the historic upheavals triggered by the 2008 financial crash. Over the following decade, the emergence of popular movements – opposing austerity within the confines of electoral democracy – made Laclau and Mouffe’s theoretical system seem uniquely prescient. Reflecting on this explosion of discontent, Perry Anderson wrote that Hegemony and Socialist Strategy had anticipated developments in Europe 30 years later, when deindustrialisation had shrunk and divided the working class, leaving a much more fragmented social landscape, and a multiplication of movements, left and right, contesting the established order in the name of the people – “populism” becoming the bugbear of elites across the EU.

Accordingly, Mouffe became one of the chief advocates and interpreters of left populism, working behind the scenes with senior figures in Podemos in Spain and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, who looked to her as an intellectual guru. She surveyed these insurgencies in For a Left Populism (2018), which tried to sketch their principal coordinates: the creation of a political frontier dividing society into two polarised camps, the use of a “hegemonic signifier” (such as a charismatic leader or rousing slogan), and the establishment of a “chain of equivalence” to translate multiple demands into a singular collective will. These formal features were prevalent across the left oppositions of the 2010s, both in western Europe and the Americas. While the content of their programmes often evoked traditional social democracy, their messaging largely conformed to the Laclau-Mouffe model.

It seemed plausible that, as Mouffe proclaimed, we were living through a “populist moment” in which the crisis of neoliberalism had spawned the potential for a democratic breakthrough. Marxists may have seen the limitations of this politics, which lacked a firm class basis or a coherent vision of socialism, yet it was impossible not to be heartened by the emergence of a genuine alternative after so many years of market rule. Slavoj Žižek conceded that, even if left populism was not good enough in theory, it may be good enough in practice.

But this was wishful thinking. The left of the 2010s was mostly crushed or paralysed. In its wake, many concluded that these parties had tried to substitute savvy political communications for the slow and strenuous work of rebuilding a working-class public sphere. The American political scientist Thea Riofrancos wrote that Mouffe had produced little more than “a how-to guide for an aspiring candidate looking to put their finger on the pulse of politics”. Conspicuously absent from this perspective was the people themselves: their life-worlds, civil society institutions and conditions under capitalism. In the end, left populism rendered politics a shallow public relations exercise that often hinged on the pronouncements of a single leader.

Yet Mouffe is unrepentant. Her new book, Towards a Green Democratic Revolution (Verso), maintains that left populism is more relevant than ever in light of climate breakdown and the Covid pandemic. The assertion sounds defensive given the recent record of this political strategy; and Mouffe’s penchant for self-citation – filling the footnotes with her previous books – makes it seem like she is applying a preformulated theory to current events. Nonetheless, her argument is a serious attempt to solve the impasse of the left without pinning one’s hopes on a mass movement of workers which is still nowhere to be seen.

Mouffe writes that the present conjuncture has heightened the danger of “solutionism”: a philosophy of top-down fixes that manifests in both the reconsolidation of the liberal centre – which pledges to find technological solutions to political problems – and the rise of the far right. Although these two blocs are usually seen as antinomies, their shared project is to preserve capitalism amid weak accumulation and planetary catastrophe by insulating it from democratic influences. Together, they threaten to give rise to what she calls “a new authoritarian form of neoliberalism”.

Solutionism has a strong attraction because it speaks to the desire for “security and protection” generated by globalisation and compounded by ecological and health crises. The basic contention of Towards a Green Democratic Revolution is that the left should meet these same demands with an alternative agenda. But here the development of policies and programmes will only play a minor role. The principal task is to imbue them with an affective force capable of dislodging the Hobbesian association between “security” and anti-democratic politics. Socialists have so far failed in this endeavour, either by using arcane language with little contemporary resonance, or by appealing to voters’ rational self-interest over their passions.   

For Mouffe, only the discourse of “democracy” could rectify this failure. Its centrality in our socio-political imaginary gives it an emotional charge that could counter the rhetoric of the right. Her “green democratic revolution” would guarantee collective security by radically devolving sovereignty – giving marginalised groups control over ecological planning – rather than outsourcing it to experts or strongmen. And this, in turn, would reassemble the left’s sundered constituency: promising protection to ageing voters in post-industrial peripheries as well as younger ones in urban centres. That will allow “the people” to re-emerge as a transformative agent, capable of ousting the oligarchy. Yet Mouffe warns that they must build a social majority on their own terms. The worst possible strategy would be to join a new Popular Front that, in trying to lock nationalists and nativists out of power, would place the left in the “elite” camp and cede the populist energy to its opponents.

[See also: Sophie Lewis: Red love, for all]

There is much to be said for this schema: its perceptive account of the continuities between neoliberalism and neofascism, its observation that left policy wonks won’t save us from apocalypse, its refusal to demonise those seduced by right populism, and its plausible tactics for changing their outlook. It is easy to imagine that “green democracy” will become the rallying cry of the left in the 2020s and Mouffe’s foresight will be further validated. But it is also reasonable to ask whether its endpoint will be another historic defeat.

The clearest contradiction in Towards a Green Democratic Revolution is its insistence on the simultaneous popularity of two conflicting ideologies: authoritarianism and liberal democracy. In hoping to vanquish the first with the second, Mouffe ignores the extent to which the allure of one is based on the inadequacy of the other. Today’s right-wing resurgence is a product of mass disenchantment with our current democratic structures, as documented in Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void (2013). But whereas Mair traces the genealogy of this disengagement – the mutation of political parties from representative bodies into governing ones – Mouffe pays little attention to the institutional history of Western democracy. As such, she does not reflect on the deficiencies of these decision-making assemblies or why they might impede her ecological agenda. There is no account of how a bottom-up green transition could take place within the strictures of the neoliberal state, captive to financial markets and multilateral organisations. Without this, Mouffe’s plea to defend “democratic values” sounds just as hollow as the Third Way pieties she rejects. It reduces democracy to a buzzword – which, contrary to her intentions, seems likely to enhance the appeal of would-be dictators.  

Ultimately, Mouffe cannot set out a more ambitious democratic programme because of the fundamental conservatism of her framework. If a “people” is constructed by tapping into the existing range of collective affects, this implies that the left must work within society’s existing emotional register rather than striving to change it. Mouffe herself acknowledged in The Return of the Political that “radical democracy paradoxically runs across some of the main currents of conservative thinking” in its emphasis on how affects (or “intimations”) are formed by tradition. “If one considers the liberal democratic tradition to be the main tradition of behaviour in our societies,” she writes, “one can understand the extension of the democratic revolution… as being the pursuit of these ‘intimations’ present in liberal democratic discourse.” In other words, the potential for imagining new worlds is nil. There can only be new iterations of the affects generated by liberal ideology. This is the postmodern pessimism at the heart of Mouffe’s theory. If it has proved consistently relevant since the mid-1980s, that is perhaps because the times have been equally bleak.

By contrast, a more hopeful 21st-century politics would start from the premise that disillusionment with “liberal democratic discourse” – the waning of its intimations – allows the left to break with liberalism and reassert the separateness of socialism. This would mean substantiating the call for “green democracy” with proposals for entirely new institutions: popular assemblies, workers’ councils, local communes, mechanisms to hold polluting companies accountable. Experiments along these lines have enjoyed the most success in Latin America, where constitutional reform and grassroots democracy headlined the “pink tide” agenda in the 2000s. Yet Mouffe is strangely silent about these advances, perhaps because they are not fully compatible with her theoretical blueprint.

Inevitably, this overhaul of the state rests on the prior democratisation of civil society. A political party promising sweeping constitutional reform will only succeed if such changes are somehow prefigured in people’s everyday lives – which is why the left’s immediate priority should be strengthening member-led trade unions and assisting community-organising initiatives. Yet this work involves a fine-grained analysis of class forces: assessing the industrial sectors in which militancy could be cultivated, the demands most likely to foster solidarity, the possibility of cross-class alliances and the fissures in the ruling bloc – none of which is possible within the idealist straitjacket of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Its conception of society as a set of linguistic constructions nullifies the basic work of political economy, leaving Mouffe unable to map the social terrain or identify sites where a viable coalition could be built.

As long as class consciousness is low, opposition movements that could be called “populist” will proliferate. Antagonisms will be expressed in terms that reduce the complex lattice of social positions to Mouffe’s simplified dichotomy. As the American historian Michael Denning observes, populism essentially describes the struggle against non-wage-based forms of exploitation: the resistance to rising public transport fares, higher food prices, soaring rents and so on. Since diverse groups are affected by these pressures, they often find themselves bound together in an imaginary unity: “the people”. This coalition is inherently unstable, and liable to come apart when the divergent interests of its components reassert themselves. Yet, despite its fragility, the impressive gains made by Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Pablo Iglesias proved that it can pose a serious challenge to consensus politics. Mouffe has given us a number of effective tools to aid these imperfect movements and prevent them from unravelling. But her strategic insights would be more useful were she to abandon her dogmas: the dismissal of material conditions and the attachment to political liberalism. Without these blind spots, left populism could see better the world that produced it, and the world it hopes to produce.

Towards a Green Democratic Revolution: Left Populism and the Power of Affects
Chantal Mouffe
Verso, 96pp, £10.99

[See also: The sovereign individual in Downing Street