On Chantal Mouffe’s Towards a Green Democratic Revolution
17 May 2023
In her 2018 For a Left Populism the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe gave an influential theorization of left populism, arguing that it was a part of the “populist moment” that followed the 2008 crisis and an expression of resistance to the longer-term economic and political transformations of neoliberalism. Mouffe saw left populism as expressed in projects across Europe including Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, Syriza, Podemos, Die Linke in Germany, and the Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal. Prior to her 2018 book, Mouffe was probably best known as the co-author (with the Argentinian theorist Ernesto Laclau) of one of the key texts of post-Marxism, the Gramsci-influenced Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985). Both texts advocate a political strategy of creating alliances and cleavages beyond older, narrowly class-centric conceptions of political agency.
A left populist strategy is one that, as Mouffe puts it, aims to constitute a “people” through positing a “chain of equivalence” among diverse groups struggling with exploitation, domination, and discrimination – as opposed to an exclusive focus on class and exploitation alone. In the British context, as I argue along with my co-authors Philip Cunliffe, Lee Jones, and Peter Ramsay in our forthcoming book Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit, left populism emerged in the Brexit period as the contemporary instantiation of the socialist tradition in British politics. The concerns, language, and strategic orientation of left populism came to dominate the approach of Corbynite socialism to a whole range of political questions. Above all, though, it was the left populist approach to Brexit that would define Corbyn’s political project and most clearly illustrate the contradictions and class orientation of contemporary British socialism. Mouffe’s revisiting of many of her themes from her 2018 in Towards a Green Democratic Revolution therefore presents an opportunity to assess the fortunes of left populism in the Brexit crisis years since 2018, as well as its likely future trajectory.
Towards a Green Revolution also reflects on changes in wider society and in the fortunes of left populism since 2018. Mouffe notes that several of the left populist movements she theorized in 2018 have suffered electoral setbacks, though she conveniently (and mistakenly) attributes these to a shift away from left populist strategies (as she describes, for example, Labour’s shift from 2017 to 2019), concluding that “they do badly when they abandon their previous left populist strategy” (4). Perhaps a more epochal shift, though, has come with the advent of the Covid pandemic and its subsequent reorientation of politics. Here, refreshingly, Mouffe goes against the grain of most existing left analyses, noting that lockdowns and other Covid-related controls had the effect of demobilizing the populace and cooling the “hot” populist moment of high politicization: “In the name of impeding the propagation of the coronavirus, increasingly authoritarian measures were put into place. It is not a particularly propitious moment for organizing popular resistance” (5). She notes that neoliberals promoted “a techno-security response to the sanitary crisis” (15), and concludes that the imperative now for neoliberals embracing a politics of vulnerability is to “impede the return of political antagonism after the “pause” of the pandemic” (16). While she does not go so far as to say that this was a moment of restoration of the forces of the status quo, she does rightly see the authoritarianism that arose during the pandemic as a danger to democracy. Mouffe reads the lasting impact of the pandemic as “a desire for security and protection” that she fears will be “a key moment in the evolution towards a digital capitalism that fosters post-democratic forms of techno-authoritarianism that remain immune from democratic control” (16).
For Mouffe, then, the new political situation of 2022 is defined by the electoral setbacks of left populist projects, on the one hand, and a new authoritarian form of neoliberalism, on the other. Accordingly, Mouffe updates her left populist strategy by emphasizing two elements: a focus on political “affect” (i.e. feelings and emotion - the importance of which she had already stressed in 2018), and the centrality of environmental concerns as a mobilizing tactic.
In laying out the importance of political affects, Mouffe emphasizes the importance of popular allegiance to democratic institutions and a widespread passion for democracy. Again, this is refreshing given that most contemporary leftists seem to see the people - especially working-class citizens who do not vote the “right” way - as angry hordes hostile to democracy. Mouffe critiques the liberal tradition for the thinness of its ideal of personhood, contending that liberalism cannot understand – and therefore dismisses – the collective nature of political identities and their basis in emotions. Left populist strategy, in this context, becomes the attempt to draw an us-versus-them opposition in a way that generates affects for social justice, rather than creating feelings of resentment (as the latter, she claims, can lead to neo-fascist sympathies).
In her advocacy for a green democratic revolution, Mouffe’s position is similar to that articulated by James Schneider, Corbyn’s former Head of Communications, in his Our Bloc: How We Win. In both cases, the green banner is seen as a powerful mobilizing one, since it can ostensibly generate support from all layers of society (except perhaps the very richest) by positioning the predicted climate catastrophe as a threat to all. The key conflict for Mouffe is between authoritarian forms of security emerging from techno-security responses to the pandemic, on the one side, and environmental ones centring on a Green Democratic Revolution, on the other. As she sees it, the Green Democratic Revolution could “provide the strategy that the left needs to successfully thwart the attempts to harness the sense of vulnerability produced by the social, economic, and climatic crises, and the affects it has generated, to promote authoritarian forms of security and protection” (66).
Mouffe’s short account is – like Schneider’s – a useful indicator of where left populism is heading. The focus on affect is tied to an undermining of what Mouffe sees as “one of the key tenets of rationalist philosophy”, specifically “the subject as a rational, transparent entity able to confer a homogeneous meaning on the totality of their conduct” (37). Brexit – which is only dealt with in passing by Mouffe, despite being one of the defining political crises in European politics of the period between the publication of For a Left Populism and Towards a Green Democratic Revolution – is downplayed as a “hegemonic signifier” that, used by the Tories, “generated strong affects which were able to mobilize a wide range of people” (48). The left populist strategy therefore shifts to activating alternative passions that could bring about a redefinition of liberty and equality - which are “redefined and extended to new domains, including humans and non-humans” (67). This means playing on the fears produced by climate change. Mouffe argues: “With the new climatic regime, we have entered a phase in which the struggle for social justice requires questioning the productivist and extractivist models. Growth has ceased being considered a source of protection and has become a danger for the material conditions of social reproduction. It is no longer possible to envisage radicalizing democracy without including the end of the model of growth that endangers the existence of society and whose destructive effects are particularly felt by the more vulnerable groups” (61).
Ultimately, the affects that Mouffe’s model of left populism relies upon are vulnerability and insecurity; her politics are a leftist politics of fear. The “climate emergency” is an increasingly common mobilization tactic, and the theoretical centrality of vulnerability is one that emphasizes our collective weakness and the fragility of our environment. The political conflict that Mouffe’s model puts at its center is that between different authoritarian responses to vulnerability: nostalgic cultural forms of security or techno-security responses to crisis on the right, versus an anti-growth intersectionality on the left. What has changed between 2018’s For a Left Populism and 2022’s Towards a Green Democratic Revolution is not the focus on affect as such, but the reorientation of affect from a wide political mobilization tactic that the Left could draw upon - and could even include the feeling of national belonging - to a much narrower focus on affects related exclusively to fear, protection, and vulnerability. The right and left’s shared starting point in vulnerability, as Peter Ramsay has shown, betrays a shared commitment to avoiding any real challenge to the political and economic status quo. In Taking Control, we contend that any democratic politics that can emerge from the contradictions of the British state in the aftermath of European Union membership must instead begin by recognizing citizens” desire for collective self-rule, and begin to establish a case for sovereignty on that basis. The traditions of conservatism, socialism, and liberalism that have defined post-war British politics are all now exhausted, their contradictions laid bare by the Brexit crisis, and the populist challenger revealed to be an empty vehicle incapable of doing anything other than reproducing the conditions that birthed it.
If a greater centrality of vulnerability and insecurity is the direction of travel of left populism – and the centrality of Mouffe as a theorist to the movement gives us good reason to think it is – then it is increasingly clear that in order to achieve democracy we will have to reject the politics of vulnerability and fear, of both the Left and the Right.