The New Pretender – An Introduction to Populism: Interview with Yannis Stavrakakis

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Populism has come to mean everything that politically questions the neo-liberal status quo – be it from the left or right. Although the article appears a bit academic at the beginning, it picks up and makes for good reading. Dr Yannis Stavrakakis, from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Greece), told us about his approach to the concept of populism —both in its right-wing and left-wing varieties. He goes on to introduce his own research before describing the history of populism as a concept. In the final part of the interview, Stavrakakis’s assesses the British situation and the Corbyn phenomenon in light of his ideas.


Cross-posted from our cooperation partner The New Pretender


Mary Economidou: Could you give us an overview of what the Essex School of Discourse Analysis defines as “populism” and what it takes for a discourse to be characterized as “populist”? Can you mention some contemporary examples?

Yannis Stavrakakis: During the last twenty years, populism research has increasingly turned from normative/essentialist perspectives to more formal approaches, stressing the structural characteristics and focusing on the discursive architectonics of populist discourses; highlighting not so much their content, but their form. This shift permits a more rigorous conceptualization of populism, it facilitates the development of clear differential criteria for its identification, and allows the avoidance of a crippling eurocentrism that often reduces populism to the radical right. Hence, a more nuanced registering of the multiplicity and different ideological associations (both left-wing and right-wing) of populist political platforms developed globally starts to emerge. The Essex School of discourse analysis and the groundbreaking work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe has led this trend, which has been also followed by other important researchers, like Margaret Canovan, Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser – whether this is acknowledged or not, whether it happens directly or indirectly, through the creation of a broader field of inter-textuality influencing new research, is rather unimportant and will occupy future intellectual historians.

“Eurocentrism often reduces populism to the radical right” 

The main criteria put forward by the Essex School for the identification of populist discourses, leaders, movements and parties are, in a nutshell: (1) People-centrism: a central reference to the nodal point “the people”, which becomes the central point of reference of a given discourse and its agents, the privileged political subject represented by this discourse; (2) Anti-elitism: that is to say, the representation of the social and political space as divided and cross-cut by an axial antagonism: “Us”, “the people”, the excluded, the non-privileged, the 99%, against “Them”, the establishment, the ruling elite, the 1%.

However, the emergence of a populist discourse and the discursive production of “the people” as a potent political subject, is not a static but a predominantly dynamic and performative process. It presupposes a certain crisis of hegemony, the inability of an established system to respond effectively to social grievances and political demands. When this happens, these demands tend to create links with each other on the basis of their shared opposition to the common enemy that is seen as frustrating their satisfaction: the hegemonic power bloc. This is how a populist chain of equivalences is produced, which then can be formalized and shaped as a populist discourse representing this emerging chain in the antagonistic way we have already specified, contesting the current order and putting forward an alternative political orientation. This is, for example, a choreography one can observe in many examples, including, very recently, in the political trajectory of SYRIZA and PODEMOS, in the crisis-ridden European South.

“The emergence of populist discourse presupposes a certain crisis of hegemony, the inability of an established system to respond effectively to social grievances and political demands”

M.E: What is the approach you use to “measure” and explain populism in the POPULISMUS Observatory of populist discourse?

Y.S: The aforementioned perspective and the minimal criteria associated with it have guided our research within the scope of the POPULISMUS project (2014-5), which has involved comparative fieldwork in a series of different countries and geographical areas (Argentina, Venezuela, France, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands, and the US) together with an opening towards other methods that could be combined with a discursive perspective to broaden its impact and to facilitate a much-needed dialogue with more mainstream methodological orientations. Two areas of such triangulation can be highlighted here: our attempt to carefully create synergies with sophisticated survey methods and with computerized corpus linguistics, which through the use of computer software allows the analysis of large-scale discursive material (corpora). The results have been quite encouraging and some of them (including our research reports, a virtual map of global populism(s), many videos and access to our working papers series) can be found in our web-site and the interactive POPULISMUS Observatory:

“Populist discourses are always antagonized by mainstream, systemic discourses […] there is a huge need to study anti-populism […] Is there really populism without anti-populism?”

On the other hand, as far as our thematic focus is concerned, I must also stress that much energy and work within the context of POPULISMUS has been directed to highlighting two research areas that merit more attention in populism scholarship: (1) the role played by “crisis” in facilitating populist mobilizations and the ways in which such crises are represented and narrated by populist discourses; (2) now, obviously populist discourses are never the only ones that create such representations; they are always antagonized by mainstream, systemic discourses that articulate their own crisis narratives, pointing to particular causes and solutions. In this sense, and given that very few political forces, if any, self-identify as “populist”, there is a huge need to study anti-populism and incorporate this inquiry into the study of populism proper: very often “populism”, especially when the term is used in a pejorative sense, is just something one attributes to a political opponent to discredit and marginalize them. Is there really populism without anti-populism?

“Very few political forces, if any, self-identify as ‘populist’”

M.E: In the Greek context, how can one identify different populist phenomena, especially if one takes into consideration that populism still “sounds” like a wholly negative phenomenon?

Y.S: Largely following international, especially European, trends, the Greek public sphere and most of recent Greek academic production in this area has adopted a negative, pejorative, even demonizing conceptualization of “populism”. Mind you, this has not been always the case in international academia. One of the first populist movements in modern history, the American People’s party or Populist party of the 1890s, self-identified as “populist” in the positive sense of the word; in addition, its academic assessment up until the 1950s had been generally positive: it was seen as a radical oppositional force representing impoverished farmers and workers in an era of violent capitalist modernization, indebtedness and corruption.

It was only during the 1950s and mainly through the critique of Richard Hofstadter that a pejorative understanding of populism emerges and starts colonizing the pubic sphere: populism is presented as backward-looking, irrational, irresponsible, even as paranoid and anti-semitic; at any rate as something that, by contesting a uni-directional, capitalist modernization (a clear precursor of the TINA dogma), puts in danger the smooth reproduction of the system and its global hegemonic appeal. Although an avalanche of meticulous scholarship has since then discredited Hofstadter’s arguments (something that he was himself eventually led to acknowledge), many of these stereotypes still dominate public debate and academic reasoning. This is especially the case in the global semi-periphery (Latin America, Southern Europe, the Balkans, etc.).

Yet “one of the first populist movements in modern history, the American People’s party or Populist party of the 1890s, self-identified as “populist” in the positive sense of the word”

To focus on the Greek context, the discredited and biased schema introduced by Hofstadter, which, by the way, animated US foreign policy in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in Vietnam and other catastrophes, can still be visible today in the main framework through which modern Greek history and politics is usually analyzed. I am referring to the so-called ‘cultural dualism’ thesis put forward by Nikiforos Diamandouros, who was heavily influenced by some of Hofstadter’s fellow-travellers (American pluralism). The latter framework posits the existence of two distinct cultural and political camps that antagonize each other, producing a choreography that provides the key to understanding Greek history, culture and politics to this date. The first camp is “modernizing”, rational, pro-European, forward-looking and generally painted in very nice, rosy colors. The second one, what Diamandouros describes as the “underdog culture” is, by contrast, traditionalist, backward-looking, suspicious of modernization, and, of course, “populist”. It is obvious that such simplistic schemata remain indebted and trapped within an unreflexive, uni-directional understanding of modernization; they also seem to accept a rather banal and misleading take on subjectivity, individual and political (unable to account rigorously for paradoxical phenomena like the fact that, in Greece, following the recent demonstrations on the FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) issue, supposedly liberal politicians seem eager to embrace extreme nationalist calls and most of Church hierarchy, a “traditionalist” institution, supported a pro-European, “modernizing” stance in the 2015 referendum). At any rate a more nuanced and complex theorization of identity and political identifications would be able to provide a more complex and accurate account of Greek history, politics, and, of course, of populism.

M.E: What do you see as a limitation of hegemony theory, as elaborated by Ernesto Laclau in the last two decades, specifically on the problem of “degreeism” that you critiqued some time ago?

Y.S: With Ernesto, our dialogue was continuous and has benefited enormously from his intellectual alertness and generosity. It mainly revolved around two issues. The first one had to do with a mainly theoretical matter: the position of passion, affect, libido and jouissance within discourse theory. It involved the relevance of psychoanalysis and (1) it eventually increased the gravity of psychoanalytic concepts and intuitions as his work progressed; and (2) made him highlight the fact that discourse theory, the Essex School, is very much interested in both the “form”, the architectonics, the discursive articulation of a given discursive-ideological ensemble, as well as in the “force” it acquires through processes of affective investment manipulating a certain jouissance.

Does “populism equal politics?”

The second one had to do with an issue of applied political analysis, that of “populism’: in particular, it involved Ernesto’s claim that populism equals politics. The point is understandable in a post-democratic world in which politics – often replaced by “governance” – has been stripped of its antagonistic and participatory component and usually refers to some sort of technocratic process serving oligarchic aims. In this sense, the only real politics can be one that attempts to reverse this trend, and this is arguably what populism does. However, this exclusive identification threatens the conceptual integrity of “populism” and its applicability in empirical analyses; in short, it suffers from what Giovanni Sartori has called “degreeism”. All real politics must be populist, and any differences can only be differences of degree. I have argued against this conflation and so have many others; but I don’t see this as a central component of Laclau’s theory of populism, which perfectly stands even if this element is dropped.

M.E: You are probably expecting such a question, but what do you think about Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the UK Labour party? Do you think he has the capacity to antagonize the ‘few’ and to construct the ‘many’ as an active political force? Would you ever compare the Greek case with Tsipra’s SYRIZA to the UK case with Corbyn’s Labour party? Could the latter follow the former or is there no space for such comparisons?

Y.S: Corbyn has managed eventually to break the “bad press” monopoly, put forward an appealing message and radicalize the terms of public debate in the UK, attracting ordinary people back to politics. This is a major accomplishment in a party that, in the New Labour era, seemed to have wholly accepted neoliberalism. From this point of view there are rhetorical similarities between the “inclusionary” but anti-establishment orientation of SYRIZA and the basic left-wing populist slogan of Corbyn, pitting “the many” against “the few”. This goes to show that post-democracy, neoliberal globalization and increasing inequality produce populist mobilizations everywhere: in the periphery, in the semi-periphery (like Greece) and in the old colonial powers, where the capitalist centres are mainly located (like the UK).

“Corbyn has achieved a major accomplishment in a party that, in the New Labour era, seemed to have wholly accepted neoliberalism” 

To what extent these trends will be reversed by inclusionary, left-wing political projects (like Corbyn’s Labour party and SYRIZA) or whether the latter will be crushed by systemic forces, leaving the radical right as the only (dangerous) outlet of popular grievances and frustrated demands is the foremost political question of the next few years. At any rate, however, the UK is not Greece: it has never adopted the Euro, it has an economy of much more substantial size and output, and has never been trapped in a crypto-colonial relationship with the European gaze…

Unlike Greece, the UK (and Corbyn) are not trapped in a crypto-colonial relationship with the European gaze” 

M.E: Are you working on something new at the moment?

Y.S: My current work is divided into two main areas. On the one hand, we are developing further our more nuanced orientation on populism research; hence, since you give me this opportunity, I would like to highlight, out of our recent publishing production, a special dossier of European Political Science, entitled “Populist Discourses and Political Communication in Southern Europe” that comprises relevant articles on populism (in politics and in the media) in contemporary Southern Europe. A whole book, The Populist Scandal, is bound to follow, both in Greek and in English, showcasing this whole approach and its many productive applications.

On the other hand, my main research interest remains to explore the relevance of psychoanalysis (mainly Freud and Lacan) for contemporary political theory. I am, thus, really honored that Routledge has entrusted me with editing the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Psychoanalytic Political Theory, a major project registering for the first time so clearly the distinct presence and promise of this field, which will be published shortly.

Yannis Stavrakakis studied political science at Panteion University (Athens) and received his MA degree from the Ideology and Discourse Analysis Programme at the University of Essex, where he also completed his PhD. He has worked at the Universities of Essex and Nottingham before taking up his position at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in 2006. His research primarily focuses on contemporary political theory (with emphasis on psychoanalytic and poststructuralist approaches) and on the analysis of ideology and discourse in late modern societies (with emphasis on populism, environmentalism, nationalism and postdemocracy). He is the author of Lacan and the Political (Routledge, London & New York 1999) and The Lacanian Left (Edinburgh University Press/ SUNY Press, Edinburgh and Albany 2007) and coeditor of Discourse Theory and Political Analysis (Manchester University Press, Manchester 2000), Lacan & Science (Karnac, London 2002), Aspects of Censorship in Greece (Nefeli, Athens 2008) and The Political in Contemporary Art (Ekkremes, Athens 2008). He has co-authored with Nikolas Sevastakis, Populism, anti-populism and crisis (Nefeli, Athens 2012). He is vice-president of the Hellenic Political Science Association and co-convener of the Populism Specialist Group of the British Political Studies Association. During the period 2014-15 he headed the research programme: POPULISMUS: Populist Discourse and Democracy.

Yannis Stavrakakis ©

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