The appeal to a community unified by a strong collective identity and a menacing notion of the outside “other” has become a driving force in the resurgence of right-wing populism. While populism lacks a coherent ideological core, the reference to a community of a virtuous people pitted against the elite is a defining feature of its mobilizing efforts.Footnote 1 The mass rallies of right-wing populists provide a tangible sense of how the image of a homogenous community frames political grievances and fuels anger. The affective and immediate appeal to the community of ordinary people has been instrumental in challenging the procedural practice of liberal democracy.
The populist appropriation of community as a foundational element of this actor’s political identity raises questions about the conceptual link between community and democracy. Is populism’s reliance on mobilizing a communal identity simply a reiteration of the regressive nationalist ideology, or does it bring to the fore legitimate questions about the current state of democracy? Does the plea for renewing democratic practices in the public sphere need to develop a more robust understanding of how the infrastructure and resources of the community facilitate civic engagement? In other words, does the effective evocation of community by populists provide lessons when considering the future of democracy in an emancipatory key?
Against the background of the populist surge in Western democracies, this chapter has two objectives. First, it will explore the link between democracy and community from a theoretical perspective, arguing that a vibrant democratic practice that is appropriate for the challenges of the twenty-first century is indeed reliant on a substantial, functionally and procedurally pertinent sense of communal existence and shared collective identity. In this respect, the chapter alludes to how the growing emphasis on individual rights and cosmopolitan values has overshadowed the constitutive role of the community in which citizens interact as a zoon politikon (political animal). Second, the chapter describes how the center-left has gradually abandoned its underlying sense of a collective identity rooted in community-based political ideas and social practices. In this regard, I interpret the resurgence of right-wing populism also as a reaction to the advancing disintegration of those community practices and resources that have provided an important dimension of the social infrastructure on which a thriving democracy rests.
First, I explore the strategic use that right-wing populists make of community as a vehicle for promising democratic empowerment understood in terms of a revitalized notion of popular sovereignty. In this context, I discuss how the center-left has largely neglected the pivotal role of community in promoting democratic processes, not least with a view to a common good beyond the neoliberal market model. Second, this chapter provides an inquiry into the link between democracy and community, drawing on the empirical example of a study on Neighbourhood Houses (NHs) in Metro Vancouver. The central hypothesis that I intend to advance based on these theoretically grounded and empirically illustrated arguments is that community-based practices and values could play an essential role in fostering (radical) democracy beyond its current anemic stage.
The Powerful Populist Reference to Community: The Promise of Empowerment
The invocation of a resilient and continuously reaffirmed sense of the “people” is constitutive for populism. At its core is the claim to represent the vox populi, the “voice of the people” defined by a dramatized contrast to the political elite or establishment.Footnote 2 Populism’s ideological ambiguityFootnote 3 and popular appeal make this an intellectually fascinating – albeit theoretically challenging – subject of study. The conceptual uncertainty is rooted in the versatility of the claim to represent the interests of ordinary people in a direct and authentic manner. Cas Mudde and Ben Stanley call populism a “thin-centred ideology”Footnote 4 that is qualitatively different from other core political ideas.Footnote 5 Populism is a mode of engaging in politics that is not exclusive to a particular ideological position or type of political actor. The form of political engagement – its reliance on direct political action, a strong mobilizing collective identity, and charismatic leadership – is the constitutive mark of populism.Footnote 6
If indeed populism can best be conceptualized as a mode of political mobilization, it is critical to shift the analytical focus on the claims constituting its popular appeal in the current political climate: At the core of right-wing populist political strategy is the reference to the “people” as a collective that is depicted as deprived by the elite with a view to its shared identity and socioeconomic interests.Footnote 7 The charismatic leader regularly claims to articulate the direct “voice of the people,” untamed by procedural rules associated with liberal, rules-based democracy. Given the centrality of the “people” in justifying the populist cause and the mode of conducting politics, populism needs a tangible and emotionally charged sense of the community on which it claims to rely as its raison d’être. The rallies and manifestations of populist actors are no coincidental manifestation; they speak directly to the significance attributed to the dramatized depiction of the community of regular people. Populists draw on the sense of unity and cohesion staged at mass gatherings. It is here where the “imagined community” gains a fleeting manifestation; the demos takes on a theatrical existence sanctioning the people and, by virtue of the latter, its populist leader.
It is in this respect that the affinity between right-wing populism and nationalism becomes apparent. The discourses of both revolve around the notion of the sovereignty of “the people.” In the scholarly discussion on comparing the discourses of both, populists are depicted as operating based on a vertical axis pitching ordinary citizens against unresponsive elites, while nationalists are portrayed as promoting a horizontal sense of the people as a politically or culturally bounded community.Footnote 8 Yet, as Brubaker has argued convincingly, these dimensions of invoking the “people” normally intersect in the practice of both political movements.Footnote 9 In populist political narratives, the politically potent reference to the “people” points to people as those who have been deprived of their legitimate rights and people as a bounded community whose identity and interests need to be protected and nurtured.Footnote 10
For instance, the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric and insistence on (national) borders as the ultimate defense of the sovereign rights of the people regularly shapes the political discourse of nationalists and populists. In this regard, I consider Brubaker’s claim persuasive that “this strict conceptual separation cannot capture the productive ambiguity of populist appeals to ‘the people’, evoking at once plebs, sovereign demos and bounded community.”Footnote 11 Populists employ the nationalist allure of portraying people united as equals by cultural traits and a shared collective decision-making process. Yet, in the discourse of right-wing populism, the issues of inequality and deprivation are regularly fused with an (often belligerent) notion of the community’s identity and borders.Footnote 12
This collective identity is instrumental in turning the perceived social and cultural marginalization into a vehicle of political protest. Borrowing from nationalist ideologies, yet being far more versatile in staging the defining characteristics of the “people,” populists articulate a yearning for belonging and a romanticized past when this identity was supposed to be pure and untainted. In populist rhetoric, the invoked notion of the people as community is – far from being a territorially, linguistically, or ethnically defined nation – a chiffre to direct political anger and frustration. The “Make America Great Again” slogan allows ambiguity in defining a nation’s interests and identity.Footnote 13 Its primary purpose is to fuel a form of agonistic politics whose driving force is the contestation of the status quo.Footnote 14
It is worth noting that the versatility and multiplicity with which populists reify the community is instrumental for their political mobilization. What constitutes the community is deliberately left ambiguous, thus allowing the building of broad political coalitions. Using this extensive communal appeal, Donald Trump was able to unite evangelicals, farmers, union representatives, and white voters from the American suburbs. He created a support base wherein the extremely wealthy claim to guard the interests of those who feel disempowered by politics and threatened by socioeconomic change (the latter process significantly driven by the very billionaires who assert to be the champions of the ordinary people’s cause). To build this coalition, the staged community is deliberately left void of a clear notion of shared interests or political objectives. A general and unifying sense of deprivation and loss of control provides the rationale for claiming to transcend the traditional left–right divide. The notion of community staged by right-wing populists is at the same time horizontally defined by nationality or ethnicity and vertically defined by anti-elitist sentiments. The glue between these two dimensions is regularly provided by the representation of the threatening “other.” This role can be assigned to the external “other” (the immigrant, the refugee) or the domestic “enemy,” the socioeconomic or political elite (the “deep state,” etc.). Both images of the “other” often merge in the anti-Semitic trope of the global Jewish elite as the menacing risk to the well-being of the people.
The German context and the rise of the so-called Alternative for Germany (AfD) party provides a vivid illustration of how nativist rhetorical elements are fused with the anti-elitist political trait: The collective identity based on a clear sense of “Us” (the locals, the Germans) and “Them” (the foreigners, the EU) is critical for the mobilizing efforts of the AfD. This strong collective identity promises to provide a remedy against the experience of social decline or marginalization: pride in the national community and the promise of solidarity based on a nativist identity. Salmela and von Scheve describe how, from a social-psychological perspective, right-wing populists offer a politically effectual strategy to address the fear of social decline and status inconsistency.Footnote 15 Their underlying collective identity provides an ideational avenue to transform uncertainty and fear into resentment and hatred toward the perceived enemy of the people.Footnote 16 Using the ethnic or cultural “other” as a scapegoat for social ills is as emotionally exhilarating as it is politically shrewd. This reliance on a strong, predominantly ethnocentric Us-versus-Them binary is at the core of many right-wing populist parties. With respect to the German AfD, Rensmann’s diagnosis that the political radicalization of the party is not detrimental to its popular appeal points to how central discourses of othering and exclusionary nationalism are to the recent electoral successes of this party.Footnote 17
The agonistic politics displayed in this latter sense promises a democratic empowerment of those depicted as deprived and disenfranchised. The rhetoric of winning back the sovereign rights of the people (in the Germany, the right-wing AfD has appropriated the slogan of the opposition against the GDR regime: “We are the people”) links the plea for radical political change, an agonistic critique of consensus-focused liberalism, with the notion of a cohesive, homogenous community. This chapter does not intend to engage in a discussion about if and in what form this democratic promise of strengthening the sovereign rights of the people is actually kept or betrayed in practice. There have been compelling accounts of how right-wing populism mobilizes and strengthens authoritarian, antipluralistic impulses.Footnote 18 In the next section, I will examine why the evocation of a community has played such an important role also in the political mobilization of right-wing populism and how leftist, progressive forces have tended to underestimate this instrumental role of communal ties in promoting radical-democratic reforms.
The Center-Left’s Lost Sense of Community: Abandoning a Notion of the Common Good?
The left has a historically well-founded aversion to affective notions of community and its intrinsic reactionary, authoritarian political tendencies. As is evident in the current global resurgence of right-wing populism, the emphasis on the qualities and boundedness of the community tends to promote a form of identity politics wherein rules-based democracy and standards of universal rights are easily compromised or even systematically undermined by nativist ideas. With good reason, commentators have alluded to the “democratic pathology” of populist movements and how it challenges critical elements of liberal democracy.Footnote 19However, it is important to acknowledge how – under the auspices of the New Labour transformation of social democracy – the center-left has undervalued the power the reference to a community can have in terms of nurturing a sense of both the common good and a lived solidarity. Over recent decades the established left has shifted toward a form of politics that is firmly rooted in individual rights and entitlements. In his recent book The Tyranny of Merit,Footnote 20 Michael Sandel presents a scathing critique of what he frames as the meritocratic ideal. Further, it is this ideal that has become the dominant framework on which also the center-left has formulated its responses to the challenges of globalization and rising levels of social inequality.Footnote 21 Sandel focuses on what he describes as a corrosive left-wing individualism:
The solution to problems of globalisation and inequality – and we heard this on both sides of the Atlantic – was that those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their effort and talents will take them. This is what I call in the book the “rhetoric of rising.” It became an article of faith, a seemingly uncontroversial trope. We will make a truly level playing field, it was said by the centre-left, so that everyone has an equal chance. And if we do, and so far as we do, then those who rise by dint of effort, talent, hard work will deserve their place, will have earned it.Footnote 22
At the core of Sandel’s book is the claim that meritocracy is corrosive of the common good. Assigning the responsibility and blame for growing social inequality to individuals’ virtues and resources deepens, in his interpretation, the political divide between “winners and losers.” Those who lose out economically or culturally are subjected to a socially sanctioned humiliation as “not trying hard enough.” These animosities in turn fuel the populist anger with established elites. Sandel underlines the significance of the dignity of work and our social understanding of success as ways to reanimate civic life.
One can also interpret his insights with a view to the role of community under consideration here. Under neoliberal guises, the reliance on individual merit has eroded a substantial notion of how citizens are social beings whose well-being is fundamentally shaped by the community of which they are a part. Our political approaches to address deepening forms of social inequality – arguably one of the pivotal drivers of the populist resurgence – are based on ideologies justifying or questioning the legitimacy of these inequalities and injustices. Yet, at the same time, it is a strong notion of community that provides the ideational and social basis for considering the common good and the way individuals should participate in it. The demand for social inclusion presupposes a form of social contract or a notion of the common good that would be difficult to achieve based on individual merit alone.
Patriotism has become tainted by the demand of the populist-nationalist right; its ideological affinity to nativist ideas has made the left shun any of the conceptions and emotions attached to them. Yet, without a substantiated form of fellowship and community, without the experience of practiced solidarity in communal settings, individuals are largely left with the logic of a competitive, market-based meritocracy. Under these circumstances, the value of social equality becomes reduced to a market competition in which individuals ultimately become responsible for their own social status. In contrast, the working-class movement had a strong mobilizing notion of community-based identity and solidarity. The values and practices attached to the common good represented in this community were instrumental in spurring its political fight and challenging the logic of capitalist socialization. Without this narrative and communal network, the social-democratic left has gradually lost the ability to provide a voice to those who feel threatened by the global economy and the social changes it has triggered.Footnote 23In a similar vein, Wendy Brown, in her book Undoing the Demos, has pointed to the political implications of the neoliberal age.Footnote 24 Brown demonstrates how the neoliberal logic of economic metrics has subjected all domains of social life to market-based standards, thereby eroding the basis for democratic citizenship. In her interpretation, organizing social life exclusively in a market-based logic corrodes the political imaginary and social-institutional framework that makes democracy work. She establishes the direct link between the dominance of neoliberalism, the erosion of democratic citizenship, and the strengthening of the toxic political debate on which right-wing populism thrives:
As neoliberalism wages war on public goods and the very idea of a public, including citizenship beyond membership, it dramatically thins public life without killing politics. Struggles remain over power, hegemonic values, resources, and future trajectories. This persistence of politics amid the destruction of public life and especially educated public life, combined with the marketization of the political sphere, is part of what makes contemporary politics peculiarly unappealing and toxic – full of ranting and posturing, emptied of intellectual seriousness, pandering to an uneducated and manipulable electorate and a celebrity-and-scandal-hungry corporate media.Footnote 25
Without community-based standards of justice and entitlements, all that is left is the deepening animosity between social groups. Depriving people of the dignity of work and the recognition that they contribute to the common good paves, in Brown’s and Sandel’s interpretation, the road toward a society that is deeply divided, both socially and politically. It is worth considering how the impact of COVID-19 has drawn public awareness to the way in which individuals are integrated into and dependent on a net of social relations in the public sphere. For instance, frontline workers in the service industry and the healthcare system have recently been recognized as indispensable for the functioning of our social fabric (including a growing awareness of the vulnerability of this workforce that is constituted in large part by women, migrants, and racialized peopleFootnote 26). Around the world, the effectiveness of the response to the global pandemic has been critically shaped by how robust the communal response to the crisis was and how much trust there has been in the sense of mutual commitment in this community. In essence, the global pandemic underlines how strongly the vitality of a community and forms of civic engagement are coconstitutive.
The Enabling Social Infrastructure of Local Communities: Civic Engagement
One of the central deficits of liberal democracy is the detachment between the collective decision-making process in the parliamentary system and the democratic engagement of individual citizens. Populists thrive on frustration with the established functioning of democratic institutions and challenge the status quo with the notion of a popular sovereignty that could be restored to the “people.” Yet, at the same time, populists regularly fall short in providing avenues toward a meaningful and substantiated form of civic engagement.Footnote 27 One significant element in populists’ attempt to promote what it means to reinstall genuine popular sovereignty is the reliance on mass rallies and the turn away from the practices of place-based communities. The appeal for a populist response to the crisis of democracy reflects the loss of trust that many citizens feel toward their ability to govern their communities in a democratic fashion.Footnote 28
In this section, I focus on the features of social life – networks, norms, and trust – that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives. The sociology of (urban) public space and community organizations offers us multifaceted findings on the vital resources that such spaces provide for creating communities rooted in shared civic practices.Footnote 29 In his recent book Palaces for the People, Klinenberg underlines the centrality of a “social infrastructure” as a physical environment that enables the interactions of people in a community.Footnote 30 As Klinenberg suggests, a robust social infrastructure “fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbours.”Footnote 31 The encounters in public spaces and webs of social interactions that these create in the community are foundational resources also for cultivating civic engagement and democratic practices on the ground. These recurrent, institutionally sanctioned forms of social interaction play a formative role in creating trust, solidarity, and mutual commitment in the community. The community-rooted social infrastructure facilitates shared experiences and activities (from public squares to community gardens and child care facilities) based on which citizens develop common interests and the collective capacity in governing the commons.
A recent multi-year study that colleagues and I conducted on NHsFootnote 32 in Metro Vancouver provides a brief illustration of the central role this community-based social infrastructure is able to provide for democratic practice.Footnote 33 The services and programs that NHs offer often open the door to meaningful interaction and engagement. In the fundamental way that Putnam described social capital as providing the infrastructure for making democracy work, NHs are a key player in nurturing a sense of trust and reciprocity in community life. They are also advocates for their communities as they have a profound effect on the network of interactions and encounters that make up a community. They sustain the capacity to find a voice in the community, both individually and collectively.
Thus, the seemingly mundane practice of interacting at NHs and participating in community-based activities can enable the learning and practice of important civic and political skills. The effect on the skills and confidence of the respondents is particularly pronounced for those born outside Canada. The local community at a NH validates and recognizes a person’s contributions. These civic skills learned through involvement and relating to others are a pivotal resource that contributes to overcoming social isolation and encouraging engagement in the wider community. Sean Lauer reports that more than 60 percent of respondents stated that they made at least one close friend through the NHs, and he finds a significant increase in civic and community engagement directly related to being involved in NHs. Similarly, qualitative interviews with this group underlined the fact that social isolation is a major concern, and one that can be addressed effectively by NHs.
One critical reason why immigrants and minorities in particular find themselves isolated and unable to contribute to public debates is the absence of low-threshold opportunities for engagement. NHs offer precisely this entry into communal engagement in a nonthreatening, service-based environment. The project conducted oral histories with participants about their personal experiences of NHs. One recurrent theme in these interviews is how the use of services gradually built trust and turned NHs into “safe places.” Instrumental in this respect is the reliance of NHs on volunteers: in 2012–13, more than 3,670 people registered as volunteers in NHs in Metro Vancouver. In the same vein, NHs have become socializing agencies that regularly allow immigrants to become leaders in their community and take on prominent roles in public life. In 2013, more than 60 percent of staff members at NHs were either current or former resident service users. As an active part of the NGO community at the urban level, NHs pave the path of immigrants toward professional careers with third-sector organizations, community engagement, and leadership.
At the collective level, NHs facilitate residents working together to achieve collective goals. They provide a physical and social framework for social networks, dialogue, and collective-communal empowerment. The skills that community members acquire in taking part in or organizing events can easily be transferred to other forms of active engagement. Through low-cost, family-friendly services and social events, NHs offer tangible incentives to overcome alienation from communal life, particularly for those who have a more precarious social status (low-income people, seniors, immigrants, and minorities). These self-governing community associations can be interpreted as entry points and networks that facilitate democratic participation in a basic yet essential way. As Yan puts it, “motives of democratic participation, sharing, and reciprocity are actualized through services”Footnote 34 offered at NHs.Footnote 35
Social capital researchers have suggested that bridging ties is important for political participation. Our research suggests that NHs play such a bridging role in connecting citizens to communal affairs and opening the door for modes of participation.Footnote 36 Building on the insight from social capital frameworks, one can argue that NHs bring people together, contribute to overcoming social isolation, convey information about issues in the community, and provide low-threshold forms of participation in grassroots initiatives (see the findings of the survey documented in Table 4.1).
|Change in social skills||Total (%)||Place of birth|
|Inside Canada||Outside Canada|
|Increased a little||Increased a lot||Increased a little||Increased a lot||Increased a little||Increased a lot|
|Has your ability to work with people from different backgrounds changed?||42||34||34||29||46|
|Have your decision-making abilities changed?||42||26||30||19||48||29|
|Have your skills in organizing or managing events and programs changed?||36||21||24||17||42||23|
|Have your skills in speaking in front of other people changed?||35||27||22||19||42||32|
Considering the nature of program activities at NHs in Metro Vancouver, it is evident that the most important type of program consists of direct services to the community (e.g. daycare, services for families and seniors), which also cover a main part of the NHs’ funding scheme. Yet, it is striking to see that a considerable number of those activities are also directly related to community- and advocacy-oriented initiatives. Some of these activities are explicitly designed to serve this purpose; others might start with a local issue and morph into a broader concern for the well-being of the community. Food-related activities are an example. As evidence from multiple NHs suggests, work on a local communal garden project can be a rewarding socializing experience, sensitizing NHs participants to and involving them in issues related to food security, urban planning, and healthy living.
The results of the survey provide us with an interpretative lens through which to view the broader sociopolitical functions that such civil society associations can take on in giving a voice to newcomers and minorities. By investigating the role that NHs play in municipal and provincial policy-making, our research found consistent evidence of how these self-governing associations in Metro Vancouver establish an institutional infrastructure for building and strengthening urban communities and nurturing their collective capacity. The case study of NHs emphasizes the importance of bridging social capital – establishing vertical social networks between socially diverse groups or organizations. The experience of these organizations in the urban context is that, when previously unrelated or dissimilar community organizations and groups connect with one another, the created ties strengthen the overall social fabric.Footnote 37
The case of NHs sheds light on how the social infrastructure of the local-urban context can facilitate democratic processes in a fundamental sense: First, nongovernment actors such as NHs provide an institutional infrastructure for building and strengthening urban communities and nurturing their collective capacity. Second, they build social capital as a key component of democratic and socially sustainable civic communities, thus delivering a response to the growing social inequality and alienation in urban communities. Third, place-based organizations are a critical part of addressing the increasingly complex challenges of urban communities (joint government–civil society problem-solving) through horizontal and vertical coordination as key to effective policy-making.
Multi-Scalar Communities: Reimagining Political Community
The example of the NHs in Metro Vancouver speaks to our established understanding of communities as local associations. And indeed, my argument is that these place-based communities where people interact, debate, and become politically engaged will be a cornerstone of a revitalized democratic public sphere.Footnote 38 Contrasting the local context, with its rich opportunities of generating a sense of community shaped by a dense network of face-to-face social interactions on the one hand and the imagined, more abstract national community on the other, has been a long-standing issue in democratic theorizing.Footnote 39 However, it is doubtful whether a strengthening of governance practices in local communities by itself will be able to provide a sufficiently robust response to the declining trust in democratic institutions and practices more broadly. Indeed, cynics would argue that democratic engagement and participation in local communities could also be instrumental in sheltering power structures from democratic oversight.
The widespread frustration with democracy and the associated populist response are vitally rooted in the growing incongruity between sites of economic and political power, on the one hand, and the institutional reach of principles of democratic accountability and citizens’ involvement in the political decision-making process, on the other. While causally attributing the rise of right-wing populism simply to the frustration of the “losers of globalization” is misleading, it points to an important enabling factor of this political actor: Politics in the age of globalization is characterized by a heightened sense of losing control – sentiments populists capitalize on ardently. In this respect, the populist challenge to liberal democracy is at its core also indicative of how our traditional sense of the democratic community is being transformed and challenged. Historically, democracy has been tied to the nation-state as the sole (territorially defined) mode of political community in which citizens are bestowed with rights and the democratic decision-making process unfolds. Yet, given the internationalizing realities of the twenty-first century, community-driven processes of democratic reform would need to be recalibrated in response to multiple, overlapping sites of power and governance structures.Footnote 40 In this regard, populism raises legitimate questions about fundamental challenges of contemporary liberal democracy: What defines a people as a bounded political community (demos), and how do we establish effective forms of self-government by providing citizens with the opportunity to participate in decisions that affect their lives?Footnote 41
Europe provides a straightforward example of reconsidering the politics of scale when it comes to revitalizing community and citizenship practices: The internationalization of European societies in particular, both with respect to the integration of national economies into bigger supranational regional blocks and the transferral of political authority from the national to the European level, has caused a level of anxiety and uncertainty that has demonstrated to be exploitable by simplistic and populist forms of protest.Footnote 42 In relinquishing considerable power to supranational institutions, vital questions are raised about the range and meaning of democratic rule.Footnote 43 At the core of these questions lies the conundrum of how we should define the demos as a bounded political community that provides the social framework for democratic deliberation and decision-making.
Considering multiple and overlapping levels of scale when it comes to the forces shaping our lives, the institutional arrangement of democratic intervention is of central importance. With a view to effective democratic practices, how can we match the nature of the sociopolitical, economic, and environmental challenges – also sites of power – to modes of engaged citizenship and democratic decision-making? Could a notion of the community and the common good still exclusively rely on the nation-state as the sole territorial marker of the political community? How can we adjust democratic practices to a changing social and economic reality in terms of cogenerating spaces and mechanisms for citizen engagement that allow us to address these challenges effectively?
Addressing these questions clearly is beyond the scope of this chapter, but it is worth pointing to how the potential of place-based, local communities for democratic reform could be a fruitful starting point in addressing the transformation of the political ordering of space.Footnote 44 Political practices of social movements have already adapted to the spatial reach of democratic actions. For instance, Della Porta has empirically and conceptually demonstrated how transnational social movements have developed effective modes of civic engagement that are commensurable with the nature and scope of their political claims (the environmental crisis, social inequality, racial exclusion, etc.).Footnote 45 Della Porta calls this practice a form of “local contention, global framing” articulated in transnational global activism.Footnote 46 New communication technologies combined with the political imagination of activists on the ground have opened up new avenues for redefining and expanding political communities.Footnote 47
The relative strength of populist parties across Western democracy is centrally based on the claim of empowering the “people”; Koppetsch speaks in this context of the populist promise of being “collectively re-sovereignized.”Footnote 48 The plea to represent ordinary people in their relationship to an unresponsive elite is discursively couched in strong images of community, a people joined by a shared collective identity. The emotionally charged sense of a community nourished and staged by nationalist populists has become one of the central political weapons to challenge what they perceive to be the technocratic modus operandi of liberal democracies. With their focus on national identity, populists have been able to offer a captivating and politically instrumental sense of community. In the case of right-wing populism, this invocation of a unified people in whose name their charismatic leaders claim to speak has had substantial undemocratic implications, both with respect to the contempt for procedural rules in the parliamentary system, if not openly authoritarian aspirations, and with a view to the exclusionary impetus with which the community is mobilized against alleged outsiders and “enemies of the people.”
This chapter makes the argument that progressive forces considering the future of democracy should not simply dismiss the idea of community as integral to attempts to deepen democratic practices. Taking into account place-based communities and their modes of democratic empowerment is more than a nostalgic imagination of small-scale practices of self-governance. Exploring the conceptual link between community and democracy, I argue that the center-left has erroneously abandoned the reliance on a community defined by shared values and practices. Having bought into the neoliberal creed, the social-democratic left has not been able to find an effective counternarrative to the populist right’s exclusionary nationalism.
While the promise of democratic empowerment of the “sovereign people” is regularly betrayed in the practice of right-wing populists, the affective reference to the community is powerful in its ability to challenge the political status quo in liberal democracy. Without such a mobilizing sense of community it will be difficult for those forces on the left, determined to deepen democratic practices and civic engagement, to respond to the populist resurgence from the right. Historically, the working-class left could rely on a strong notion of community. Its strong collective identity, continuously reproduced through a network of civil society organizations, formed the cultural resources needed for the political fight. Without such a vibrant idea of what brings individuals together in a joined political cause, of what generates recognition, solidarity, and mutual commitment, the political identity of the left would remain pale and anemic compared to the dramatized narrative of the people and its elitist enemies on the right.
Similarly important for the future of democracy is the recognition that communities can produce a social infrastructure whose practices are essential for a revitalized engaged citizenship. Local communities can be powerful vectors of sustaining a social infrastructure that ties citizens into a collective decision-making process and provides them with the tools to become citoyens in the radical, Republican tradition. For the future of democracy it will be essential that citizens perceive modes of democratic engagement as meaningful and commensurable to the fundamental challenges that the current political and socio-environmental crisis poses. Transnational social movements are a promising approach to reimagining political communities and modes of civic engagement in multiple spatial contexts. Community and civic engagement sustain and nurture each other. If citizens are deprived of these avenues of exercising their democratic, participatory rights in a meaningful fashion, populism’s simplistic political answers informed by narratives of exclusionary nationalism will continue to gain in appeal.
Introduction: Four Antidemocratic Components Within Democracies
We have long been accustomed to the idea that political regimes are divided into two major types: democracy and dictatorship. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, (liberal) democracy came to be almost universally regarded as the sole legitimate political system. Notwithstanding their internal diversity, the two types are basically contradictory in nature. They cannot coexist in the same society, and opting for one or the other always spells political struggle, which in turn entails some kind of rupture with the existing legal order. During the last century there was a growing belief that democracies could only collapse through an abrupt and almost invariably violent interruption of constitutional legality, carried out by a military or civilian coup aimed at imposing a dictatorship. This narrative used to be largely accurate, but not any more. Violent disruptions and coups d’état are still possible, but it has become increasingly obvious that the dangers that now beset democracy are of a different kind, and that they originate, paradoxically, in the normal functioning of democratic institutions. Antidemocratic political forces infiltrate the democratic system and then set about hijacking and decharacterizing it in a more or less stealthy and steady fashion, through legal means and no constitutional changes. Then there is a moment when the existing political system, without having formally ceased to be a democracy, appears as completely devoid of democratic content as regards the lives of both people and political organizations, until finally individuals and organizations alike begin to behave as if they were living under a dictatorship. The following is a description of the four main components of that process.
From the USA to the Philippines, to Turkey, Russia, Hungary, India, Poland and Brazil, we have witnessed the democratic election of authoritarian politicians who, while being the product of the political and economic establishment, present themselves as antisystem and antipolitics and insult their opponents, whom they view as corrupt and as enemies to be brought down. They reject the rules of democracy, make intimidating appeals for the violent resolution of social problems, flaunt their contempt for freedom of the press and pledge to repeal the laws that guarantee the social rights of workers and of those who are discriminated against on ethnoracial, sexual or religious grounds. In short, they stand for election on the basis of an antidemocratic ideology and still manage to secure a majority of votes. Autocratic politicians have always been around. What is new is how often they manage to rise to power these days, and apparently by democratic means.
The Plutocratic Virus
Money has decharacterized electoral processes and democratic deliberations at an alarming rate. One should even question whether, in many instances, elections are truly free and fair, and whether political decision-makers are ultimately driven by conviction or by the money paid to them. Liberal democracy rests on the notion that citizens have the means to access an informed public opinion and use it as a basis on which to freely elect their rulers and assess their rulers’ performance. For this to be possible at all, the market of political ideas (i.e. of the values that are priceless, because they are deeply held beliefs) has to be totally separated from the market of economic goods (i.e. of the values that have a price and get to be bought and sold on that basis). In recent times, these two markets have been merging under the aegis of the economic market, so that nowadays everything is bought and sold in the realm of politics. Corruption has become endemic. In today’s world, the financing of parties and candidates in election campaigns and the lobbying actions directed at parliaments and governments have gained central importance in the political life of many countries. In its 2010 decision Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission, the US Supreme Court struck a fatal blow to US democracy when it allowed unlimited and private funding of elections and political decisions by large corporations and the super-wealthy. Hence the emergence of so-called “Dark Money,” which is nothing other than legalized corruption. This “dark money” is what helps explain the preponderance of the bullet (firearms industry), bible (conservative evangelism) and bovine (industrial agriculture and cattle raising) benches – that cruel caricature of Brazilian society – in Brazil’s Congress.
Fake News and Algorithms
For a time, both the internet and the social networks made possible by it were seen as capable of enabling an unprecedented expansion of citizen participation in democracy. After Brexit and in light of what is currently happening in the USA and Brazil, we can say that unless they are properly regulated, they will end up being the gravediggers of democracy. I allude here to two specific tools. Fake news has always existed in societies marked by deep divisions, especially in times of political rivalry. However, nowadays its destructive potential through disinformation and the dissemination of lies is alarming. This is particularly grave in countries such as India and Brazil, where social networks, notably WhatsApp (whose content is the least controllable of all, by reason of its being encrypted), are widely used, to the point of being the major, if not the sole, source of citizen information (Brazil has 120 million WhatsApp users). According to a denunciation by Brazilian research groups published in The New York Times (October 17, 2018), of the fifty most widely shared (viral) images generated by the 347 WhatsApp public groups supporting presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, only four were truthful.Footnote 1 One of those fake photos was that of Dilma Rousseff, the impeached President in 2016 and at the time a candidate for the Senate, seen with Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution. This was actually a montage based on a 1959 piece by John Duprey for the New York Daily News.Footnote 2 Dilma Rousseff was an 11-year-old child at the time. Supported by large international corporations and national and foreign military counterintelligence services, Bolsonaro’s campaign, which led to his election, was a monstrous montage of lies Brazilian democracy will find it most difficult to survive.
The destructive effects are maximized by another tool: algorithms. This word of Arab origin denotes the mathematical calculation for defining priorities and making rapid decisions based on big data and a number of variables, with a view to obtaining certain results (namely, success in a corporation or in an election). Despite their neutral and objective appearance, algorithms contain subjective opinions (What does being successful mean? How do you define best candidate?) that lie hidden in the calculations. When pressed to disclose their criteria, companies invoke business secrecy. In the domain of politics, algorithms make it possible to feedback on and amplify the topics that are widely disseminated via social networking and that are considered relevant by the algorithms for the very reason that they are popular. It thus happens that what is being widely disseminated may be the result of large-scale disinformation efforts performed by robot networks and automated accounts that send millions of people fake news and comments in favor of or against a given candidate, making the topic artificially popular and ultimately even more prominent thanks to the algorithm. An algorithm cannot tell true from false, and the effect of that is all the more destructive where people are especially vulnerable to lies. That is how, in recent times, electoral preferences have been manipulated in seventeen countries, including the United States (in favor of Donald Trump) and Brazil (in favor of Jair Bolsonaro), on a scale that could prove fatal to democracy. Will public opinion survive such levels of toxic information? Does real news stand a chance of resisting this avalanche of fake news? It is my contention that what people need most during flood situations is drinking water. Out of a similar concern regarding the rise of the computer-driven manipulation of our opinions, tastes and decisions, computer scientist Cathy O’Neil has termed big data and algorithms “weapons of math destruction.”Footnote 3
The Hijacking of Institutions
The impact that authoritarian and antidemocratic practices have on institutions tends to be gradual and steady. The presidents and parliaments elected by the new type of fraud I’ve just described (fraud 2.0) are given free rein to instrumentalize democratic institutions, and they are free to do so supposedly within the boundaries of the law, no matter how blatant the abuses or how skewed the interpretations of the law or the Constitution. In recent times, Brazil has turned into an immense laboratory for the authoritarian manipulation of legality or lawfare. This hijacking was what made it possible for a neofascist presidential candidate, such as Jair Bolsonaro, to make it to the second round of the elections and get elected on October 28, 2018. As has been the case with other countries, the first institution to be hijacked is the judicial system. The reason for this is twofold: because it is the institution whose political power is most removed from electoral politics, and because, in constitutional terms, this sovereign body is viewed as a “neutral arbiter.” I shall analyze this hijacking process later in this chapter. What will Brazilian democracy be like if such hijacking comes to pass, followed by the hijackings it will render possible? Will it still be a democracy?
Democracy and Juridical Systems
When, almost thirty years ago, I began studying the judicial system of various countries, the administration of justice had the least public visibility among the state’s institutional dimensions.Footnote 4 The big exception was the United States, because of the central role played by the Supreme Court in defining the truly decisive public policies. Being part of the sole nonelected sovereign body and given their reactive nature (for as a rule they cannot be mobilized of their own initiative) as well as the fact that they depend on other state institutions (correctional services, public administration) to have their decisions enforced, the courts tended to play a relatively modest role within the organic life of the separation of powers introduced by modern political liberalism, so much so that the judicial function was credibly viewed by liberal political philosophy as apolitical. The reason for that had also to do with the fact that the courts dealt exclusively with individual rather than collective disputes and were designed not to interfere with the ruling classes and elites, which were protected by immunity and other privileges. Little was known about how the judicial system worked, the citizens who typically used it and their purpose in doing so.
Since then, everything has changed. This was caused by, among other things, the crisis of political representation that hit elected sovereign bodies, the citizens’ growing awareness of their rights, and the fact that, when faced with political deadlocks in the midst of controversial issues, the political elites began to regard the selective use of the courts as a way of lifting the political weight off certain decisions. Equally important was the fact that the neoconstitutionalism that came out of the Second World War assigned a considerable weight to the control of constitutionality by constitutional courts. This novel development lent itself to two opposite readings. According to one reading, ordinary legislation had to be subjected to control in order to prevent it from being instrumentalized by political forces bent on scrapping all constitutional requirements – as had been the case, in the most extreme fashion, with the Nazi and fascist dictatorships. According to the other interpretation, the control of constitutionality was the tool used by the ruling political classes to defend themselves against potential threats to their interests as a result of the vicissitudes of democratic politics and of “majority tyranny.” Be that as it may, these developments all led to a new kind of judicial activism that came to be known as the judicialization of politics and inevitably led to the politicization of justice.
The high public visibility of the courts over the last decades was largely caused by court cases involving members of the political and economic elites. The major watershed was the series of criminal proceedings known as Operation Clean Hands (Mani Pulite), which struck virtually all of Italy’s political class and much of its economic elite. Starting in Milan in April 1992, the operation comprised the investigation and arrest of cabinet ministers, party leaders, members of parliament (with about one-third of all members being investigated at one point), businessmen, civil servants, journalists and members of the secret services, variously accused of such crimes as bribery, corruption, abuse of power, fraud, fraudulent bankruptcy, false accounting and illegal political funding. Two years later, 633 people had been arrested in Naples, 623 in Milan and 444 in Rome. As a result of its having hit the entire political class under whose leadership the country had been governed in the recent past, the Clean Hands investigation shook the foundations of the Italian political system and led to the emergence, years later, of the Berlusconi “phenomenon.” Given these and other reasons, the courts of many countries have gained much public notoriety ever since. The most recent, and perhaps the most dramatic of all, to my knowledge, is Brazil’s Operation Lava Jato (“Car Wash” – or rather, and literally, “speed laundering”).
This anticorruption operation mounted by the judiciary and the police was first launched in March 2014. Targeting more than a hundred politicians, businessmen and managers, it gradually came to occupy center stage in Brazil’s political life. In view of the criminal charges brought against former President Lula da Silva, and the way this was effected, it generated a political crisis similar to that which led to the 1964 coup whereby a vile military dictatorship was established that was to last until 1985. The judicial system – supposedly the ultimate guarantor of the legal order – has become a dangerous source of legal disorder. Blatantly illegal and unconstitutional judicial measures, a crassly selective persecutory zeal, an aberrant promiscuity in which media outlets were at the service of the conservative political elites and a seemingly anarchic judicial hyper-activism – resulting, for instance, in twenty-seven injunctions relating to a single political act (President Dilma Rousseff’s invitation to Lula da Silva to join the government) – all these bespeak a situation of legal chaos that tended to foster uncertainty, deepen social and political polarization and push Brazilian democracy to the edge of chaos. With legal order thus turned into legal disorder and democracy being hijacked by the nonelected sovereign body, political and social life became a potential field of spoils at the mercy of political adventurers and vultures.
Mainly due this grotesque lawfare experiment, Jair Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil in 2018. Proudly claiming that he knew nothing about economics, Bolsonaro chose Paulo Guedes to head the ministry of finance – an extreme neoliberal economist who trained at the Chicago School of Economics. Having collaborated with the Pinochet regime, Guedes proposed dismantling whatever remained of the (always weak) welfare state and to bring about a sweeping process of privatization. The newly elected president combined this war against the popular classes (those most dependent on public social policies) with an extreme-right ideological outlook that included praising the military dictatorship that ran the country between 1964 and 1985 and, more specifically, the torture practiced by the dictators against political dissidents (including the former president Dilma Rousseff); nominating generals for key ministerial positions (besides having chosen a general as his vice-president); assuming a racist and sexist disposition to eliminate antidiscrimination, affirmative action and women´s reproductive rights; deregulating the acquisition of weapons by civilians as the best policy to fight rampant crime rates; refusing to grant new territories to Indigenous peoples that he considered to be an obstacle to development; expanding industrial agriculture even at the cost of the final destruction of the Amazonian rain forest; condoning and even promoting an extreme politicization of the judicial system by choosing Sérgio Moro, the truculent and procedurally reckless coordinator of the Car Wash operation, to head the ministry of justice (with new national security functions); threatening to send to prison or into exile all the main leaders of the different left parties; banning thousands of Cuban doctors that provided primary health care to the impoverished communities of the vast hinterland, a highly ideological gesture; assuming an anti-immigrant politics (in a country of immigrants and slavery); and defending a mindless and belligerent alignment with the most reactionary imperialist policies of US President Trump, be it possible military intervention against Venezuela, denial of global warming or moving the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem, against all the UN resolutions.
The Covid-19 pandemic exposed and intensified most dramatically the necropolitics that has characterized Bolsonaro’s presidency all along. At the time of writing (early September 2020) the total deaths are coming close to 131,000, second only to the USA. More than grossly neglecting to protect the lives of Brazilian citizens, the government seems to be engaged in a sinister contempt for life (negationism combined with measures that willfully endanger lives) – so much so that several criminal complaints have been filed against Bolsonaro in the International Criminal Court: he is accused of crimes against humanity and of genocide against the Indigenous peoples.
At this point, several questions have to be addressed. How did it come to this? Who benefits from the present situation? What should be done to save Brazilian democracy and the institutions on which it stands, including its courts? How is one to attack this many-headed hydra, so that new heads do not grow for each severed head? I suggest a few answers in the following sections.
How Did It Come to This?
Why has Operation Lava Jato gone well beyond the limits of the controversies that habitually arise in the wake of any prominent case of judicial activism? The similarity with Italy’s Clean Hands probe was often invoked to justify the public display and the public unrest caused by this judicial activism. But the similarities were more apparent than real and there were indeed two very definite differences between the two investigations. On the one hand, the Italian magistrates always kept a scrupulous respect for the criminal proceedings and, at most, did nothing but apply rules that had been strategically ignored by a judicial system that was not only conformist but also complicit with the privileges of the ruling political elites in Italy’s postwar politics. On the other hand, they sought to apply the same unvarying zeal in investigating the crimes committed by the leaders of the various governing political parties. They assumed a politically neutral position precisely to defend the judicial system from the attacks it would surely be subjected to by those targeted by their investigations and prosecutions. This is the very antithesis of the sad spectacle offered to the world by a sector of the Brazilian judicial system. The impact caused by the activism of Italy’s magistrates came to be called the Republic of Judges. In the case of the activism displayed by the sector associated with Lava Jato, it would perhaps be more accurate to speak of a judicial Banana Republic.
Indeed, an external push clearly lay behind this particular instance of Brazilian judicial activism, one which was largely absent in the Italian case: the illegal interference of the FBI and the US Department of Justice under the umbrella of the so-called war against corruption. That push dictated the glaring selectivity of the investigative and accusatory zeal toward implicating the leaders of the progressive social-democratic party, PT (the Workers’ Party), with the unmistakable purpose of bringing about the political assassination of former Presidents Dilma Rousseff and Lula da Silva, thus clearing the ground for the election of Bolsonaro. In view of the selective nature of the legal action it generated, Operation Lava Jato shared more similarities with another judicial investigation: that which took place in the Weimar Republic after the failure of the German revolution of 1918. Starting that year, and in a context of political violence originating both in the extreme left and the extreme right, Germany’s courts showed a shocking display of double standards, punishing with severity the kind of violence committed by the far left and showing great leniency toward the violence of the far right – the same right that within only a few years was to bring Hitler to power. In Brazil, the US imperialistic interference came to the rescue of the national and global economic elites which, in the midst of the current global crisis of capital accumulation, felt seriously threatened by the prospect of another four years with no control over that government-dependent portion of the country’s resources on which their power had always rested. The height of that threat was reached when Lula da Silva – viewed as the best Brazilian president since 1988, with an 80 percent approval rating at the end of his term – began being regarded as a potential presidential candidate for 2018.
At that moment Brazilian democracy ceased to be functional for this conservative political bloc, and political destabilization ensued. The most obvious sign of the antidemocratic drive was the movement to impeach President Dilma Rousseff within a few months of her inauguration – a fact that was, if not totally unheard of, at least highly unusual in the democratic history of the last three decades. Realizing that their struggle for power was blocked by democracy’s majority rule (“majority tyranny”), they sought to make use of the sovereign organ, the judicial system, least dependent on the rules of democracy and specifically designed to protect minorities, namely the courts. Operation Lava Jato – in theory, a highly worthy investigation – was the tool to which they resorted. Backed by the conservative legal culture that is widely predominant in Brazil’s judicial system, its law schools and the country at large, as well as by a full arsenal of high-powered, high-precision media weapons, the conservative bloc did everything it could to distort Operation Lava Jato. It thus diverted it from its judicial goals, which in themselves were crucial for the consolidation of democracy, and turned it into an operation of political extermination. The distortion consisted in keeping the institutional façade of Operation Lava Jato while profoundly changing its underlying functional structure, which was accomplished by ensuring that the political took precedence over the judicial. Whereas judicial logic is based on the fit between means and ends, as dictated by procedural rules and constitutional guarantees, political logic, if propelled by the antidemocratic drive, subordinates ends to means and defines its own efficacy according to the degree of that subordination.
In this process, the intentions of the conservative bloc had three major factors in their favor. The first was the dramatic change in character undergone by the PT as a democratic party of the left. Once in power, the PT decided to rule according to the “old (i.e. oligarchic) style” to attain its new, innovative goals. Ignorant of the Weimar lesson, it believed that any “irregularities” it might commit would be met with the same leniency traditionally reserved for irregularities committed by the elites and the conservative political classes that had ruled the country since its independence. Ignorant of the Marxist lesson it claimed to have absorbed, it failed to see that capital will allow no one to govern it but its own people and is never grateful to any outsiders who happen to do it favors. Taking advantage of an international context in which, as a consequence of China’s development, the value of primary products saw an exceptional increase, the PT government encouraged the rich to get richer. This was seen as a precondition for raising the resources it needed to carry out the extraordinary measures of social redistribution that made Brazil a substantially less unjust country, thanks to which more than 45 million Brazilians were freed from the yoke of endemic poverty. When the international context was no longer favorable, nothing short of a “new style” of politics would do to ensure social redistribution. In other words, a new policy was required that, among other things, might use political reform to end the promiscuous relationship between political and economic power, tax reform to tax the rich as a way of financing social redistribution in the post-commodity boom period and, finally, media reform, not to impose censorship, but rather to ensure diversity in published opinion. As it turned out, however, it was too late for all those things, which should have been done in their own time and not in a context of crisis.
The second factor is linked to the first: It is the global economic crisis and the iron grip in which it is held by finance capital and its relentless self-destructiveness, which destroys wealth under the pretext of creating wealth and turns money from a medium of exchange into a prime commodity of financial speculation. The hypertrophy of financial markets calls for austerity policies under which the poor are invested with the duty of helping the rich to stay rich and, if possible, to get richer. Under these conditions, the frail middle classes created in the previous period found themselves on the brink of sudden poverty. With their minds poisoned by the conservative media and fake news, they were quick to hold responsible for what might befall them in the future the very governments that turned them into new middle classes. This was all the more likely to happen since people were promoted as consumers (access to consumer society) rather than as citizens (political activism). This was the fare they paid to travel from the slave quarters to the Manor’s outside patios.
The third factor working in favor of the conservative bloc was the fact that, after its fatal adventures in the Middle East, US imperialism returned to the Latin American sub-continent. Fifty years ago, imperialism knew no means other than military dictatorship to submit the countries of the continent to its own interests. Today, imperialist interests have other means at their disposal, namely sectors of the judicial system and US-financed local development projects run by nongovernmental organizations whose gestures in defense of democracy are just a front for covert, aggressive attacks and provocations directed at progressive democratic governments (“down with communism,” “down with Marxism,” “down with Paulo Freire,” “we are not Venezuela,” etc.). In such times as these, when the establishment of dictatorships can be avoided by low-intensity democracy and when the military, still traumatized by past experiences, seems unwilling to embark on new authoritarian adventures, these forms of destabilization are viewed as more effective in that they allow replacing progressive governments with conservative governments while maintaining the democratic façade. All the financing currently abounding in Brazil comes from a wide variety of funds (the novel nature of a more pervasive imperialism), from the proverbial CIA-related organizations to the Koch brothers – who fund the most conservative policies in the USA, their money coming mainly from the oil sector – and North American evangelical organizations.
How Can Brazilian Democracy Be Saved?
The first and most pressing task is to save the Brazilian judiciary from the abyss into which it is sinking. In order to achieve that, its wholesome sector – surely the majority of the judicial system – must take upon itself the task of re-establishing order, serenity and restraint among its members. The guiding principle is simple enough to state: the independence of the courts under the rule of law is intended to allow them to fulfill their share of responsibility in consolidating democratic order and democratic coexistence. For that to happen, they are barred from putting their own independence at the service of any corporate or sectorial political interests, no matter how powerful. Although easy to state, the principle is very difficult to enforce. The top responsibility for enforcing it, at this point, lies with two different bodies. The STF (Federal Supreme Court) must assume its role as the ultimate guarantor of the legal order and put an end to the spreading legal anarchy. The STF will be faced with many important decisions in the near future, which must be obeyed by all, irrespective of what it decides. At present, the Supreme Court is the only institution capable of halting the plunge toward the state of emergency. As to the CNJ (National Council of Justice), which has disciplinary power over the magistrates, it should initiate immediate disciplinary proceedings by reason of reiterated prevarication and procedural abuse, not only against judge Sérgio Moro, who directed the investigation in a blatantly biased manner, but against all those who conducted themselves in similar fashion. If no exemplary disciplinary action is taken, the Brazilian judiciary runs the risk of squandering the institutional sway it has earned in recent decades, which, as we know, has not been used to benefit left-wing forces or policies. It was earned simply by ensuring sustained consistency and the right balance between means and ends. There are some signs that the judicial system is trying to recover its credibility. The Lava Jato Operation is now being discredited and may be dismantled. Unfortunately, this may be the result of yet another spell of politicization of the judiciary, rather than of the renewed strength of the rule of law.
The second task is even more complex, because Brazilian democracy now has to be defended both in the country’s institutions and in the streets (more difficult in conditions of pandemic crisis). And since policy-making is not conducted in the streets, institutions will be given due priority even in these times of authoritarian drive and antidemocratic emergency. Popular organizations and movements, as well as peaceful demonstrations, will be infiltrated by provocateurs. Constant watchfulness is in order, as this type of provocation is currently being used in many contexts to criminalize social protest, reinforce state repression and declare states of emergency, albeit behind a façade of democratic normalcy.
You have written extensively about how one can think about politics and the political. Could you say something about how to weave poststructuralist thought with the thinking of Antonio Gramsci?
Theoretical and political reflection on a given political conjuncture and how one can intervene within it has been an essential and recurrent aspect of my work since Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985).Footnote 1 I often refer to Louis Althusser’s reading of Niccolò Machiavelli’s work as thinking within the conjuncture and not about the conjuncture. This is something with which I identify. My point of departure is always a specific conjuncture and then I develop the theoretical elements that help me think through it. I find of paramount importance that we grasp the fact that there are certain ways of understanding politics that blind us from understanding particular conjunctures. Gilles Deleuze argues that certain images of thought prevent us from thinking. I would paraphrase him by saying that there are images of politics that prevent us from thinking politically. Unfortunately, I think that the left has an image of politics that prevents thinking politically. It also prevents an understanding of the specificity of problems being raised in a particular conjuncture.
Ernesto Laclau and I wrote Hegemony and Socialist Strategy at a time during which what was then referred to as new social movements began to mobilize boldly. This was after ’68; the feminist, antiracist, gay rights and environmental movements were making demands. Yet, we were concerned about the fact that neither the Marxist nor the social-democratic left were capable of understanding the importance of these new demands. The book came out in 1985, but we began writing it at the end of the ’70s. At the time, Marxist perspectives were still very important and those within the Marxist and social-democratic left continued to defend a socialist project centered on working-class interests. In doing so, they viewed these other demands as petit-bourgeois or subsidiary. We, on the other hand, were convinced of the importance of rethinking and re-formulating the socialist project to include these demands in order to weave them together with the demands of the working class. We began to think about the problem, and soon realized that it was a particular theory that we referred to as class essentialism that prevented these parties from seeing the importance of these new demands. This class essentialism consisted in thinking that the subjectivity of social agents was determined by their position in the relations of production. Therefore, demands that were not identified as working-class demands were not considered important.
In thinking about this problem, we reached the conclusion that there was a need for a theory that would break with this class essentialism and could conceive of society in a completely different manner. Two key theoretical sources were instrumental in the shaping of these ideas. First, we drew from what was referred to as poststructuralist thinking and its conception of society as a discursive space; within this strand, we found the work of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan very important. Second, contributing to the specificity of our approach, we combined poststructuralist theories with the thinking of Antonio Gramsci. Since at the time I was in the feminist movement and was part of a magazine influenced by Foucault, I began to understand the specificity of different demands and the importance of the demands being made by feminists. What those within the movement insisted on was the fact that there existed many specific struggles and that all these fronts needed to be fought separately. Ernesto and I disagreed with this perspective because we thought that in order to act politically there was a need to create an ‘us’.
This is where Gramsci’s idea of hegemony was important for us. Articulating poststructuralist ideas with Gramsci’s thought constituted the specificity of what we called an anti-essentialist approach. This was the principle theme in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, and from this perspective we posited that in order to think about the political there are two central concepts: the concept of ‘antagonism’ and the concept of ‘hegemony’. When speaking about the concept of antagonism we referenced a theoretical perspective that insisted on what one can refer to as ‘radical negativity’. This perspective understands that there are certain forms of negativity that cannot be overcome through a dialectical process. Whereas in both Marx and Hegel antagonism can be overcome through a dialectical process, from poststructuralist thought, this radical negativity cannot be overcome. Lacan’s thinking around this issue is particularly important, but so is Derrida’s challenging of the idea of totalization. From a poststructuralist position totalization is challenged; there can never be a totality. This is one specificity of poststructuralism. Whereas the traditional structuralism of Lévi-Strauss and Ferdinand de Saussure presents a kind of totalization, poststructuralism challenges this idea. In this radical negativity that cannot be overcome poststructuralism presents what we really refer to as antagonism. There are conflicts in society in which, in some sense, society is always necessarily divided. This evidently implies a conception of the political that is very different from other conceptions. According to the associative conception, the political is the field of joint action, acting in common, freedom and consensus. This is the dominant conception in most liberal political philosophy. When I say liberal, I mean liberal in a philosophical sense, and both Rawls and Jürgen Habermas are part of this associative conception of the political. In addition, within this conception, one finds more heterodox people like Hannah Arendt. Within their conception of politics, the negation that exists cannot accept the presence of a radical negativity. Therefore, antagonism, the idea that there are conflicts that can never be rationally resolved, is always excluded.
A different conception of the political, one that is dissociative, accepts radical negativity and the fact that society is divided. This conception can be found in Thucydides, Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Carl Schmitt and Max Weber. One of the theses that Ernesto and I have defended is that if there is politics it is because there are conflicts that cannot be overcome rationally because of the existence of antagonism.
Can you elaborate on your understanding of the concepts of antagonism, contingency and hegemony, and clarify what it means to think of politics from a postfoundationalist and anti-essentialist perspective?
The concept of hegemony is important when thinking about politics from our perspective. This is tied to antagonism because if there is antagonism, it means that all existing order is an order that corresponds to a specific position that excludes another possibility. This is tied to two ideas that are also important in our conception of the political and are clearly drawn from poststructuralism. The first idea is what can be described as post-foundationalism; if there is antagonism there is no ultimate foundation. Every order is a contingent order that is precarious; there will never be an order that is absolutely rational. I think this is important as it means that all order is a result of hegemonic practices trying to establish order in a field traversed by antagonism. This is why orders are precarious, because all orders presuppose the existence of something that has been excluded and that could also be reactivated. That is hegemony: there is no ultimate foundation. This, however, does not imply a relativist position. There are orders and the objective of politics is always to establish an order. Nevertheless, this order is always precarious and contingent. Contingency is the second important idea in our conception of the political. From an anti-essentialist position, society is understood as a discursive space. What we refer to as discourse is an articulation of linguistic elements but also of material elements. It is similar to what Ludwig Wittgenstein describes as a language-game; speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life. It is something materialistic, and not idealistic, as many of our critics have suggested.
We make a clear distinction between the political and politics. We speak of the political at an ontological level, whereas politics is always ontic. Speaking of politics refers to the practices of organization of society. There is nothing too original about this, but what is important is seeing that these practices take place in an antagonistic space. This is why orders are always contingent and precarious. Hegemony implies that in every situation there has always been a path that has not been taken, therefore there is always an alternative. This is especially important when one is going to think about how we can think politics from this view point. If we think it from the perspective of hegemony, we are automatically in a position to critique the neoliberal thesis. We can challenge Thatcher’s famous phrase: “there is no alternative.” There is always an alternative from a hegemonic conception of politics. This seems very abstract, but it impacts politics directly.
Another element of our anti-essentialist approach is how we think about political subjects. From our perspective, political subjects are always collective subjects. This is an important thesis of ours, which evidently opposes liberal individualism. Of course, when you act politically you act as a person but as part of an ‘us’. Here one can see the distinction between a political language game and a moral language game. Moral issues are dealt with from an individual perspective, yet politics is always carried out as a citizen, otherwise it is not a political position.
Another important element that I should have mentioned is the fact that from a dissociative conception, politics always has to do with the construction of an ‘us’ and this always requires a ‘them’. Politics always has to do with collective subjects that are going to enter into partisan relations. This is why from a dissociative-perspective of politics ‘us’ and ‘them’ are understood as discursive constructs. This is an important point in order to understand populism. The anti-essentialist perspective helps us to grasp the fact that ‘the people’ is not simply the population but a discursive construction.
Following from this, if politics requires the construction of an us, how are collective subjects constructed?
In relation to the construction of collective subjects, one should speak first of the subject before speaking of collective subjects. Here is where the influence of psychoanalysis is very important for our perspective. There are no predetermined identities. As Freud said, all identities are a form of identification. Using language that is not Freud’s, identities are discursive constructions that are transformed through practices in which the subject is inscribed. This is important because it reveals the importance of political practice. What would politics be if identities were already a given? Politics would only represent identities and this leads us to the question of representation, which, from an anti-essentialist viewpoint, is articulated differently. From this perspective identities are not a given, they are always constructed discursively. This is heavily influenced by de Saussure’s idea that all identities are relational; this is key in the anti-essentialist thesis. The creation of an identity implies the establishment of a difference. For example, de Saussure insists that the concept ‘mother’ has no meaning per se: it has meaning in relation to other concepts like ‘father’ or ‘daughter’. Without these other positions, we could not understand the meaning of ‘mother’. Therefore, all identities are relational. This means that in regards to political identities, which are collective identities, the construction of an ‘us’ implies that there is a ‘them’. There can never be an ‘us’ without a corresponding ‘them’. In addition, another important element is the fact that in the construction of subjects there is always an affective element that is important. This also comes from psychoanalysis; affects are always involved in forms of identification. Identification is not a rational issue; this is why I prefer to talk about affective-discursive constructions. Affects are important in discursive constructions and this is very important for politics.
Therefore, the question one can ask is as follows: If politics always has to do with an us/them relationship, how can we imagine the necessary conditions for a pluralist democracy? Here is where I often reference Carl Schmitt, and this needs some clarification. The importance that we give to antagonism in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy has led some people to say that our perspective is influenced by Schmitt. It is important to say that when we wrote the book neither Ernesto nor I had read Schmitt. It was following the publication of the book that a Greek friend asked me if I knew Schmitt’s work. I responded that I did not and he told me that in Schmitt I was going to find a lot of affinity with my work regarding the political. At that point, I began to be interested in Schmitt. I found him helpful as I reflected on how to criticize liberalism.
What has your work over the years taught you regarding alternative models of democracy and how to imagine a pluralist democracy?
First, I looked at existing models of democracy. On the one hand, there is an aggregative conception of democracy, which, for example, we find in Joseph Schumpeter. This is the dominant or most common conception one finds in political science departments today. Its argument is that democracy has to do with the aggregation of interests. On the other hand, there is a different conception of democracy, referred to as deliberative democracy, that has developed primarily from Rawls’ critique of the aggregative conception. From this conception, the field of democracy has to do more with moral considerations or types of justice than simple interests.
Without a doubt, I am more sympathetic toward the deliberative conception of democracy. I agree with its critique of the aggregative model. I find the aggregative model very restrictive. Nevertheless, I also find many missing elements in the deliberative conception, as it fails to give space for thinking through antagonism. This is clear in Habermas’ ideal speech situation. Although he is conceiving it as a regulative idea, the end goal is to reach a rational consensus. Ultimately, the deliberative model attempts to establish the procedures that can lead to a rational agreement. There are many deliberative models and they all propose different processes. Nevertheless, for all of them the ultimate aim is to figure out how to establish a rational consensus. This, in essence, means that there is a negation of antagonism. This I say because antagonism means to accept that there are conflicts that cannot be resolved rationally. In addition, the deliberative perspective does not allow for an imagining of hegemony in a postfoundationalist key. Ultimately, this model presumes that there is always a point at which everyone can come to an agreement on what it means to be rational: an inclusive consensus from which there is an ‘us’ without a ‘them’.
Could you say a little more about the relationship between your work and that of Schmitt?
It was in thinking about pluralist democracy from a dissociative and anti-essentialist conception that I found Schmitt’s critique of liberalism interesting. In the 1920s, Schmitt argued that the problem of liberalism was that it needed to negate politics. Here he understood politics as the friend/enemy relationship. When Ernesto and I speak of antagonism, Schmitt speaks of the criteria of the political as friend/enemy. Nevertheless, we are ultimately speaking about the same thing. Of liberalism, Schmitt says that when it attempts to speak of politics it does so from a model either borrowed from the economy or from morality, but it cannot speak of antagonism, which is what is specific to politics. This moral model is what corresponds to the deliberative model. Schmitt was helpful at the time, as I was developing my own critique of a certain type of liberalism. What I was really critiquing was the rationalism and individualism of liberalism. Schmitt was evidently also critiquing political liberalism (pluralism) but I was not interested in following him along that path. In fact, my goal was to reformulate political liberalism in order for it to incorporate the dimensions of antagonism and hegemony. This, for Schmitt, was impossible. If one accepts that the us/them relationship is partisan and that there is antagonism, it is impossible to imagine a pluralist society in which there is the possibility of legitimate dissensus. This is why Schmitt ends up defending an authoritarian model of democracy.
Interestingly, it is worth noting that Schmitt and Habermas are in agreement on one point: that one cannot have pluralism and antagonism together. Schmitt asserts that antagonism is ineradicable and that the idea of a pluralist democracy is impossible, while Habermas holds the opposite position. Habermas wants to defend pluralist democracy; therefore, he has to negate antagonism. Nevertheless, both are in agreement about the fact that you cannot at the same time have an acknowledgment of antagonism and a pluralist democracy. Hence, my challenge to demonstrate through my agonistic conception that this was actually possible. This is how I developed what I call an agonistic model of democracy. It consisted in pointing out that Schmitt did not envisage that antagonism can manifest in different ways. Of course, from the Schmittean friend/enemy conception in which the enemy needs to be eradicated, the legitimacy of the demands of the enemy cannot be recognized and it is impossible to think pluralist democracy because that would lead to civil war. Nevertheless, one can understand that there is another form of ‘antagonism’ that I call ‘agonism’. Opponents understand that the objective is not to find the procedures that will lead to consensus because there is an antagonism between the positions they defend, but they do not treat each other as enemies. Instead, they treat each other as adversaries.
That is, agonism involves recognizing opponents’ rights to defend their own point of view; they abide by certain mutually accepted principles that shape the struggle. They do so according to procedures that they themselves have mutually recognized. This is why I speak of conflictual consensus, which requires a kind of consensus about what, following Montesquieu, I refer to as the ethico-political principles of the regime. In the case of a liberal pluralist democracy, the principles that are going to shape our coexistence are freedom and equality for all. We must be in agreement on those principles, but evidently there is going to be disagreement in the way they are interpreted: What is ‘freedom’? What is ‘equality’? Who are we referring to when we say ‘all’? There is obviously no possibility for a rational consensus. The point is not to put people together to deliberate and argue until they reach consensus. There is always going to be disagreement.
Political theory speaks of concepts like freedom and equality as essentially contested concepts. There is no way of saying that a particular definition is the true definition of equality. The same happens with freedom. Therefore, I think that in a democracy it is important for an agonistic struggle to be able to exist between different interpretations of what it means to be democratic. This is the essence of a pluralist democracy, and from a perspective of dissociative democracy it is perfectly possible to understand its existence. Of course, this requires institutions that facilitate the articulation of the conflict in an agonistic and not antagonistic manner. In order to understand this, one has to situate oneself within an anti-essentialist perspective. It is not about positions that are already defined, but about something that is constructed in different ways. Politics consists, in this sense, in seeing how one can transform antagonism into agonism; creating the conditions so that when a conflict arises it does not adopt an antagonist shape but an agonistic one.
Let me emphasize that in no way do I pretend to say that this conception of politics is the truth about politics. I will never say I have the true conception, and Habermas, for example, does not. In the conception of politics that I defend there is no conception of truth. Of course, I would attempt to defend my conception of politics with respect to Habermas’. Nevertheless, I would do so in a pragmatic manner. I would argue that starting off from such a conception helps us to understand many more political phenomena than beginning from the other. For example, one cannot understand the dissolution of Yugoslavia from a liberal perspective. It was very interesting to see how liberal thought responded to these events. Think of Francis Fukuyama who came out with his The End of History and the Last Man, in which liberal democracy was the only possible model.Footnote 2 Yet, this lasted very little time because the end of antagonism was followed by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. What was interesting about this event was seeing how liberal theorists attempted to justify the contradiction between what was happening and their theories. They spoke of remnants of communism or specifically of the Balkans; theorists were unable to comprehend that in politics the possibility of antagonism can never be eliminated.
Could you speak about the different conjunctures on which your work over the years has focused?
In On the Political (2005), I examine the Third Way of Tony Blair and Anthony Giddens.Footnote 3 The book is a critique of their idea that we are no longer in the first modernity but in a second one in which the adversarial model of the political has been overcome.
At that time, I had many arguments with people who celebrated this model as an advance for democracy. They claimed that we were living in a more mature democracy and I responded that this was an antipolitical, or postpolitical (as I called it at the time) position. For me this model was a danger to democracy. I argued that it would create the conditions for right-wing populism to grow. There was not much right-wing populism in Europe at the time. There was Jean-Marie LePen in France, there was a right-wing populist party in Austria with Jörg Haider, and there was the Vlaams Blok in Belgium. I considered it a mistake, pretending that there was no more antagonism and that the idea of left and right had been overcome. Conflicts were not going to disappear but would take on a different form. This would create the possibility for opposition to be formulated in ethnic terms, which is exactly the field of right populism. Now we see that this is exactly what has happened as a consequence of the abandonment of leftist values by the social-democratic project. This has created the conditions for the growing success of right populism.
Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (2013) was a reflection on the occupation of the squares movements.Footnote 4 It was a critique of the limits of movements like the Indignados and Occupy Wall Street. In essence, it was a critique of pure horizontalism. For example, I think that especially the Indignados avoided defining an adversary. They shouted democracia real ya! (“real democracy now!”), and there was a hope of creating a completely inclusive ‘us’. What caught my attention was the fact that they were against voting in assemblies because they said that if they voted they would become divided. Granted, Occupy Wall Street was better than the Indignados and at least acknowledged that there was an adversary that was the 1 percent. Having said this, I think the Indignados and Occupy had commonalities in their rejection of institutions, political parties and trade unions. Theirs was a purely horizontalist perspective and I think it missed the fact that building hegemony must necessarily pass through the state. I am not defending in any way that politics is limited to the parliamentary sphere. The horizontal dimension is very important, but to have a real impact and transform things a vertical element needs to be articulated. Its objective being one of ‘becoming state’ (Gramsci) rather than one of seizing state power.
Up to today, I am yet to see a purely horizontal movement that can transform our societies in a meaningful manner. In the case of the Indignados, Spain was lucky that Podemos did not allow the impulse of the 15M to disappear and worked toward structuring it. In the case of Occupy Wall Street this did not happen and therefore it disappeared. The same thing happened with Nuit Debout in France and I think this is the risk that the Gilets Jaunes are facing.
I think that at this point we have enough examples demonstrating that unless there is a vertical articulation aimed at reaching the power of state institutions, it is unlikely that true transformation can take place. The key is to build a new hegemony and this passes also through the apparatuses of the state.
In my latest book, For a Left Populism (2018), my particular interest is with the current conjuncture in Western Europe.Footnote 5 The conditions in Eastern Europe are completely different and the reasons for the emergence of right populism there are also different. This is why I always insist on reflecting on a specific conjuncture. Obviously, the studying of a particular state of affairs can provide insight for other cases but the reflection must be of a particular conjuncture. What is specific to the current conjuncture is that we are living through a crisis of neoliberalism. The failures of the model began to show with the crisis of 2008. Before this, the hegemony of neoliberalism was almost uncontested. Now things look different. We see a series of resistances against what I refer to as the postdemocracy that is the consequence of thirty years of neoliberal hegemony.
Can you clarify what you mean by postdemocracy?
When I speak of a situation of postdemocracy I do so in reference to two primary phenomena happening at both the political and the economic levels. At the political level, I am thinking of what I have been studying as postpolitics: consensus to the center so that eventually there are no fundamental differences between left and right when citizens go to the polls. As the Indignados would say, “we have a vote but we have no voice.” Ultimately, there is no possibility for citizens to choose between different political projects. The element of popular sovereignty, which I consider one of the central ideas of democracy, has been eliminated. I use this term in a very specific and simple manner. For me popular sovereignty refers to the fact that citizens have a voice. That they have a genuine capacity to choose. If they do not have such a capacity, this is what I call postpolitics.
The second element has to do with economic transformations. I speak of a process of oligarchization of our societies. We are living through the broadening of the gap between a shrinking group of ever richer people and the remaining population that is undergoing a process of impoverishment and precaritization. This is a consequence of financial capitalism. One of the main features of the neoliberal model is that it gives primacy to financial capitalism and this has led to a situation of oligarchization.
What we are seeing now is that many citizens have stopped accepting this postdemocratic situation and there is a growing rebellion. We are witnessing the birth of antisystem movements saying that they no longer want this model. This is what I call the populist moment. I use the term “populism” in the way that Ernesto Laclau defines it. In On Populist Reason he says that populism is a strategy of construction of political frontiers between those from below and those from above.Footnote 6 Evidently, in order to understand this one has to situate oneself in a dissociative conception of politics as it is this conception that describes politics as the drawing of a frontier between us and them. I think that the reason there is so much hostility toward populism coming from liberal thinkers, including the most progressive, is that they situate themselves within an associative conception of politics for which there are no frontiers. On the contrary, they argue that in democracy there is no us and them. When you begin from such a conception you are going to see populism as a pathology of democracy, as a perversion of democracy. Yet, what I think we are seeing with the rise of populism is a return of the political: a challenging of the consensual model and the re-establishment of what politics is. We begin to see again the re-establishment of the partisan character of politics. Obviously, the re-establishment of a frontier does not necessarily lead to more democratic or progressive decisions. This depends on the manner in which the us and them is constructed and this is where the difference between left and right populism lies.
In both cases a frontier is drawn but the way in which it is drawn differs. Generally, right populism constructs its frontier in an ethno-nationalist key. It limits the us to a certain category of citizen. It includes nationals and excludes immigrants. From this conception immigrants are constructed as the them. Left populism, on the other hand, constructs the us and them in a completely different manner. A left populist conception constructs a much more inclusive us. In my conception of left populism, the us being drawn includes numerous democratic demands that are not only socioeconomic; they have to do with other forms of domination and discrimination. When, for example, we incorporate LGBT demands, the us we are constructing is different, and the them becomes the forces maintaining the neoliberal order at the core of all forms of oppression.
As I explain in For a Left Populism, the political challenge that we face is both a great opportunity and a great danger. This is why at the beginning of the book I make clear that I write it as a political intervention. I feel a real urgency because we are in a key moment. We are facing the crisis of neoliberal hegemony and this can open the way for more authoritarian regimes or can lead to a process of radicalization of democracy. It can allow for the creation of a different hegemony, but what kind of hegemony is constructed will depend on which forces are going to win. This is why I insist on the importance for the left to understand the nature of the conjuncture. Realizing that this is an important moment for them to intervene in a manner that allows for a progressive exit out of the crisis.
Currently, we see a lot of references to the fact that we are returning to the 1930s. Many intellectuals see the return of fascism. We start hearing people talking about it rearing its ugly head. Personally, I think this is the worse way to react. Demonizing right populist parties as the expression of the return of that malignant force of fascism is a mistake. Doing this, we stop trying to figure out the reasons, the origins, of the rise of right populism. From this position, which treats it as a sort of meteorological phenomenon that returns, one is not going to understand how to struggle against it. In order to understand how to struggle against it in an efficient manner one has to grasp what exactly is going on. This is a new phenomenon and one cannot think about it through traditional concepts like fascism and extreme right. This is something very specific to the current conjuncture. In addition, as I keep emphasizing, I think social-democratic parties are in great measure responsible for the success of right populist parties, as they have converted to neoliberalism and to the idea that there is no other alternative. They have abandoned the popular classes.
In all countries, social-democratic parties have taken the side of the winning sectors of neoliberal globalization and have been unable to present a defense for its losers. Without such a defense, the field has been left completely open for right populist parties to speak to those that feel excluded. The origin of right populism is not immigration but the fact that social-democratic parties have forgotten to defend the losers of neoliberal globalization. Therefore, instead of demonizing the voters of these parties, as many on the left do, we must engage them. Most of these people are not fundamentally and intrinsically racist or homophobic. Of course, some are, but Didier Eribon’s book Retour a Reims clearly reveals the point I am trying to make.Footnote 7 Eribon came from a poor working-class family that had always voted for the communist party. Due to the fact that he was gay and not accepted in his community he left Reims for thirty years. When he returned, he found that all his family was voting National Front (now known as National Rally). Eribon reflects on this and concludes that their community has been abandoned by the Left, that the only party that actually engages with them and claims to be there to give them a voice is the National Front.
Is the rise of right populism and the need to respond to it with left populist options an indication of the crisis of representative democracy?
Evidently, we are living through a crisis of the representative model. Nevertheless, I think this has been wrongly interpreted by a certain part of the left. Some theorists say that the problem is with representative democracy per se. Following from this, they suggest that the solution to the current crisis is the elaboration of models of direct democracy. I see it differently, I think that the problem of our crisis of representation is that our societies are not representative enough; there are numerous sectors of society that do not have a voice. This is, I think, a consequence of our democracies no longer being agonistic. When people think there is no left and right anymore, then there are no alternatives. Therefore, what we need to do in this conjuncture is to re-establish partisanship. This is what the populist moment offers and, therefore, it is a return of the political. The key during this moment is not to accuse the others of being fascists, because by doing this you will not have an agonistic relationship with them. All constructs of politics on moralizing grounds should be avoided. If one sees their opponents as evil, then instead of their right to their own point of view being recognized they are seen as needing to be eradicated. Under such conditions there is no room for an agonistic relationship.
Can you clarify how an anti-essentialist conception can help us understand the risks and opportunities of the populist moment as you conceive it?
The anti-essentialist conception is very important here. Many of the critiques coming from the left of people that vote for right populist parties is that they are intrinsically racist and/or homophobic. This is an essentialist conception; it assumes that this is the essence of these people and that they cannot be transformed. Following from this, the response to these people from many on the left is to stigmatize them. I think this is a mistake. If we want to understand how to fight against this phenomenon of right populism, what we need to do is to acknowledge that in the origin of many of the demands being made by these voters there is a genuinely democratic nucleus. These demands are resistances against what I call postdemocracy. There is a request for democracy; people are saying that they want a voice. Politics is about how one responds to these demands, how one is going to articulate them. I think on this front La France Insoumise has made great advances. In the elections of 2017, they managed to win in various parts of France that were strongholds of the Front National. This was the case because La France Insoumise took the time to speak with these people. It helped them understand that their problems were not caused by immigrants but by neoliberalism. It was interesting to see how a kind of very traditional extreme left was completely against this move and critiqued La France Insoumise for going to speak to ‘fascists’. Refusing to speak to these people because they are seen as intrinsically fascists is the worse strategy possible. We must attempt to transform and give a progressive response to these demands. One can only understand this from an anti-essentialist conception of politics. Identities are not a given but are always constructed through political discourse. Hence, they can be constructed in the manner of left populism or in the way of right populism. This I see as a big challenge for the left in the current conjuncture.
You have described your work as post-Marxist. Could you clarify what you mean by this?
In order to think about the work that Ernesto and I have done, post-Marxism is an important term. We did not present ourselves as post-Marxist. Nevertheless, right before the publication of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, the traditional Marxist left was already labeling us in this manner because of a series of articles that we had published. In calling us post-Marxists they claimed that we had abandoned Marxism. Following from this, when we published the book we accepted the “post-Marxist” label with the condition that it was post but also Marxist. We were not rejecting Marxism. We acknowledged the important elements in Marx’s work that help us understand capitalism, while refusing to read Marx like one would read the Koran. We do the same with Gramsci. We borrow from different people in order to develop our own theories. Otherwise, it would be like saying that physics is limited to Newton. Without a doubt, Marxism is an important element in our biography. But Marxism is just one of the elements in our thinking on the political.
There is an aspect of our book that has been misunderstood. I am afraid that Ernesto did not help with this because of certain statements that he made. As an example, he once said that the class struggle did not exist. What he was criticizing was the idea of class struggle as theorized by Marxism. Personally, I think that the idea of the class struggle understood as the motor force of history has to be completely abandoned. Having said this, we must not abandon the idea that there are what could be referred to as class antagonisms. In a metaphorical sense, this references certain antagonisms at the socioeconomic level. Ernesto and I do not reject the idea that there is antagonism at this level; what we are saying is that this is just one kind of antagonism amidst a multiplicity of different forms of antagonism and that it does not have an a priori privilege. Moreover, anticapitalist struggles are not limited to issues of class. For example, a lot of feminist struggles have an anticapitalist dimension. In some way or another, the impact of the neoliberal system and financial capitalism manifests itself in the lives of everyone. Traditional Marxism sees the proletariat as having an ontological privilege in the struggle against capitalism, and from that a metaphysics of the evolution of history is constructed. Yet, today it is not only the working class, the proletariat, the factory workers that are exploited and affected by the neoliberal regime. We are all affected by austerity politics. Therefore, many struggles have an anticapitalist dimension. The anticapitalist struggle is not the prerogative of the working class.
This is why in left populism we speak of a construction in terms of the ‘people’ versus the ‘oligarchy’. Liberal thought negates the existence of frontiers, Marxism does not. Marxism constructs frontiers but it does so by creating a distinction between capital and labor, proletariat and bourgeoisie. According to left populism the frontier is between the people defined as an articulation of democratic demands against diverse forms of domination and a them, which includes all that are at the core of these forms of domination. We are not taking an anti-Marxist position. We do not reject Marxism but present instead a post-Marxist conception that broadens the struggle and shows that it cannot be limited to a mythical class struggle. We do show our disagreement with the Marxist conception of a law of history that will necessarily lead to the realization of socialism. From a post-foundationalist conception everything is contingent; there is no direction of history.
Could you elaborate on your understanding of representation and representative democracy?
In the traditional conception of representation there is something that is a given before representation. It is an essentialist conception; there are always interests that are first given and then are represented. From an anti-essentialist perspective, however, there are no identities or demands that are a given. There are no objective interests that need to be represented (or not). All interests are constructed and this construction is a form of representation. Therefore, there are no collective identities that are not the product of representation, because of the fact that they are not a given in an essentialist sense. Following from this, the idea that there can be a democracy that is not representative is impossible. This would imply a democracy without a subject of democracy. If democratic subjects are always the result of a discursive construction then representation is inscribed into the very construction of the identity. All ideas of direct democracy or the critique of representative democracy imply what Derrida calls a metaphysics of presence. Interests are not a given but are constructed; thus, representation is inscribed in the very heart of the construction of identity.
Another important aspect is the fact that to put into practice a pluralist democracy one needs representative institutions to give an institutional form to pluralism. This is why I think political parties are key if we want to have an agonistic democracy. One cannot think agonistic democracy without parties that represent different interests. This does not mean that existing parties are the best form of representation. Evidently not, since, lacking any fundamental difference, they do not allow for an agonistic struggle to materialize. Having said this, the point is not to say that all this has to be replaced with a kind of direct expression of the will of the people; this would not allow for pluralism to be represented. A pluralist conception of democracy implies the existence of institutions and parties that are going to permit the expression of this pluralism. Everyone that defends direct democracy does so, ultimately, from a consensualist position. They are ultimately defending the idea that there is one people and what is needed is the articulation of a sole voice for it. Contrary to this, if one departs from a position in which society is understood as divided, then this implies that there is a need to represent this division and this implies the existence of political parties or whatever one choses to call them.
As a final question and thinking about the current conjuncture, could you share your thoughts on Brexit?
I think that the anti-essentialist perspective helps us to understand better a phenomenon like Brexit and the strategy of right populists in the United Kingdom. The success of the “leave” vote in the referendum came from the capacity of those defending leaving the EU to articulate a whole series of demands that were in some sense heterogeneous. Tony Blair’s politics has largely been responsible for Brexit. He implemented a program that benefited the middle classes of the south of England, while completely abandoning the more industrial northern regions. Neoliberal globalization has truly devastated these sectors and the leave camp in the Brexit referendum has managed to present the European Union as the origin of all the problems that these communities are experiencing. Brexit has become the hegemonic signifier that has crystalized a whole series of demands. Initially, these sectors were worried about the conditions they were facing but they did not identify the EU as the cause of their problems. The leave campaign crystalized this and discursively constructed all these demands around the signifier ‘take back control’. In the construction of a people, heterogeneous demands are always articulated. This requires a hegemonic signifier that becomes the symbol that represents these demands; it is around this symbol that a people crystalizes. The people of the leave campaign crystalized around the signifier Brexit that symbolized all those heterogeneous struggles that were in fact resistances against the postdemocratic conditions created by neoliberal hegemony. Those running the Leave campaign managed to express these not as effects of neoliberal hegemony but of being a part of Europe. Following from this, the solution was to take back control and leave the EU. This has become the cement that has crystalized a collective will. This collective will is not the expression of existing demands; there were no such existing demands against Europe. These demands have been constructed discursively by the Leave campaign.
Many of the Remainers have said that the Leave campaign is the expression of racism and xenophobia. I do not think this is the case. The demands have been constructed in this manner, but one must acknowledge that at the origin of that vote there exists a series of democratic demands. If one is going to struggle against this construction of a people then one must articulate demands around a different signifier and construct a different people. I am convinced that a Green New Deal could be the hegemonic signifier that will allow for the crystallization of a whole series of demands. The Green New Deal is the articulation of ecological objectives with demands concerning different forms of inequality. Following from this, I think it has the necessary strength to appeal to many different sectors of the population. For example, many of the feminist demands and different democratic demands about equality and racial justice can find a space in a project like the Green New Deal.
What I think is key for a left populist project is to be able to offer a vision of a society with which people can identify, a vision which offers hope of something different. The way a left populist project can struggle against a populist right movement is by identifying what are the demands being articulated and how are they crystalizing. Once these have been identified, one can determine which of these demands could be articulated in a different and progressive manner and what type of society needs to be defended and/or proposed. This requires recognizing the affective element of the mobilization of passions. I say this because I remember that the week before the referendum in the United Kingdom everyone seemed convinced that there would be no problem and that the Remain vote would win. At the time, I remember thinking that they were completely wrong, that they were going to lose. I could see all the passion being mobilized around Brexit. On the Remain side, the arguments were mainly economic; the discussion was about what people were going to lose. There was no passion being mobilized. Whereas in the Leave side people really identified with a project and passions were being mobilized. In the Remain side people simply insisted on the negative effects of abandoning the EU. Brexit serves as an example of the importance of creating new forms of collective identity through the mobilization of affects. Critiquing rationally and saying what the opponent is saying is false is not enough for a progressive left option to succeed. The question for the left today is whether the key is to show the mistakes of the opponent or to propose something different that can give people hope.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the white nationalist movement it has engendered, the Brexit vote, the rise of anti-immigrant movements throughout Europe, and the collapse of so many social welfare institutions in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic have led to considerable handwringing among some political theorists about the future of democracy. This has prompted a surge of interest in the politics of populism and identity. For liberals such as Rogers Smith and Michael Walzer, this means both puzzling through the “stories we tell ourselves” about “who we are” and recommitting “ourselves” to what liberalism means “for us” in the context of a country in which 40 percent of Americans clearly prefer the leadership of a racist autocrat.Footnote 1 For left Schmittians such as Chantal Mouffe, this rightward shift demands a left populist reimagination of “the people,” sharply contrasted with a reactionary enemy.Footnote 2 And yet, both of these reactions to the rise of xenophobia and the decline of liberal democracy in the Global North fail to adequately grapple with the way the very construction of “the people” in the Global North – the demos upon whose shoulders settles the weight of the liberal state – has been linked historically to practices of imperialism, settler colonialism, and the antidemocratic processes of resource extraction, dispossession, slavery, and military expansionism.
To begin with the conceit that the liberal, state-bounded peoples of the Global North are coherent units, in and of themselves, is to deny the co–constitutive history of European imperialism and “Western” liberal democratic states. Such a move erases the structural relationship between practices of colonial resource extraction and land dispossession and the emergence of those liberal welfare states whose citizens are now explicitly rejecting both immigrants and democracy. Political responses that ignore these constitutive relationships and privilege notions of “the people” also inadvertently give succor to precisely the mode of rhetorical deflection that has sustained liberal imperialism for hundreds of years, a phenomenon embodied today in the ideological justifications of liberal internationalists like John Ikenberry who lean on “such Western values as openness, the rule of law, human rights, and liberal democracy” to justify American military and political hegemony.Footnote 3 Finally, the indwelling fixation with peoplehood makes it more difficult to identify potential sites of human coexistence and democratic futures that emanate from beyond the blessed circle of those Anglo-European, liberal democracies, now in crisis and yet as self-contained in memory as ever.
This chapter thus begins with a provocation: how would the kinds of questions scholars of politics ask about our political moment change if we thought in more historically capacious ways about the relationship between “the people” as a bounded site of political action and the history and ongoing politics of imperialism? What would happen if political theorists in the Global North who are interested in the future of democracy – both global and domestic – began their theorizing from an unsettled position of radical reflection and humility about what went into the creation of both modern, liberal democratic states and their own conceptions of “the political”? I first explore what such an orientation might look like by engaging Edward Said’s approach to living, being, thinking, and writing in exile. I then compare this approach to the closed notions of “the political” that still dominate political theory as well as to that mode of political thought that has traditionally been most committed to the concerns of the world outside of the nation-state: cosmopolitan, global justice theory. I conclude with some thoughts about the conceptual reorientation toward politics and the democratic humanism that a reflective mode of exilic inquiry enables.
Edward Said and Exilic Criticism
Edward Said, who died of leukemia in 2003, was one of the most productive scholars and influential public intellectuals of the late twentieth century. His groundbreaking 1978 book Orientalism, and the similarly powerful Culture and Imperialism, transformed the academic study of imperialism from historical engagement with a known historical object whose policies, theories, and cultural practices run solely in one direction – from Western metropoles to Asian/African/Latin American sites of occupation – into engagement with the “constantly expanding,” “inexorably integrative” ideological formation that buttressed domination in the past and rationalizes imperial politics in the present.Footnote 4 Said’s work explored the way active traces of the imperial past on the present (including the grotesque inequality of resources between the Global North and South) continue to appear sui generis, untethered from a history of imperialism, slavery, settler colonialism, dispossession, and resource extraction – the natural order of things. In addition, his work stressed the increasing urgency with which he believed it necessary to pair interrogations of imperial culture’s constitutive, disciplinary power with genealogical investigations of anticolonial resistance. Finally, the corpus of Said’s work stresses the need to cultivate a contrapuntal orientation toward history, culture, and politics that “sees Western and non-Western experiences as belonging together because they are connected by imperialism.”Footnote 5 Indeed, for Said, the “great imperial experience of the past two hundred years is global and universal,” implicating all of us, “the colonizer and the colonized together.”Footnote 6Throughout his work, Said repeatedly tied his orientation toward imperialism to his own experience as a Palestinian living in exile and to the more generally productive qualities of an “exilic” perspective that resists domination and upends univocal accounts of identity and history.Footnote 7 As he put it in a 1994 interview:
If you’re an exile … you always bear within yourself a recollection of what you’ve left behind and what you can remember, and you play it against the current experience. So there’s necessarily that sense of counterpoint. And by counterpoint, I mean things that can’t be reduced to homophony … And so, multiple identity, the polyphony of many voices playing off against each other, without, as I say, the need to reconcile them, just to hold them together, is what my work is all about. More than one culture, more than one awareness, both in its negative and its positive modes.Footnote 8
Exile, critique, and counterpoint thus sit at the very core of Said’s approach to politics, history, and text, generating a mode of analysis which is itself always “out of place.” Throughout his work, the friction created by exile – by the strange juxtaposition of a home lost, a home remembered, and a contemporary moment lived otherwise – gives rise to an unreconciled, “unhoused and rootless” disposition toward text and the world which is, by its nature, irresolvable, contradictory, and paradoxical.Footnote 9
The unfixedness of exile is precisely what makes it, in Said’s words, “strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience.”Footnote 10 This tension between concept and experience is particularly true, he argued, in our era. Whereas the romantic idea of exile in western literature and philosophy often focuses on isolated intellectuals forced from home – Cicero’s time in Thessalonica, James Joyce’s years of alienation abroad – exile today is primarily a mass phenomenon. For this reason, Said argues, any analysis of exile must begin by “setting aside” exiles by choice (e.g. Joyce) and then purposefully turning our minds to “the uncountable masses for whom UN agencies have been created.”Footnote 11 The disruptions created by settler colonialism, imperialism, violent nationalism, mass warfare, and covert intervention since the nineteenth century have led to waves of mass migration, floods of refugees, and a constantly expanding global population of displaced persons. Thus, contemporary exiles may sometimes look like Said himself – a Columbia professor living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan – but they are far more likely to look like traumatized Central American children trudging hundreds of miles with their parents through Mexico, Syrians caught in the no-mans-land of Greek refugee camps, Rohingyas trapped in temporary settlements in Bangladesh, or the third generation of Palestinians to grow up in the Shantila refugee camp in Beirut. The fact that, throughout his work, Said looked straight into the desperate and disparate faces of exiles, saw the experience for what it was, and still insisted that the perspective it provided offered the world a powerful, even necessary, way of seeing, is a testament to how strongly he believed in its illuminative power.
For Said, exiles bear within themselves recollections of what has been left behind, which they then play against the current experience. This ebbless loss, this constant friction between past and the present, home and displacement, becomes the exile’s “permanent state.” That state is characterized, above all, by contradictions within and between experiences; between state violence on a grand scale and the profundity of individual suffering, between mass migration and the longings of the lonely poetic soul, between political violence and political art. This “agonizing distance” remains unsutured for the exile, like an irritating open wound whose healing is relentlessly stymied by the reality of “terminal loss.”Footnote 12 Loss, therefore, is the pebble in the exile’s shoe that pains with every step and, in that pain, brings insight.
Said does not argue that the experience of exile necessarily leads to reflection and, in fact, notes that it is often “a jealous state.” Exiles, he argues, often “look at non exiles with resentment,” which can lead to an “exaggerated sense of group solidarity” and a stubborn “hostility to outsiders, even those who may in fact be in the same predicament as you,” a feeling that sometimes resembles the “bloody minded affirmations” of nationalism.Footnote 13 But what differentiates the experience of exile from nationalism, Said argues, is the permanence of loss.Footnote 14 Exile, he notes, “unlike nationalism, is fundamentally a discontinuous state of being” wherein subjects are constantly drawn up hard against the jagged edge of today’s reality and forced to occupy an indeterminate space endlessly mediated not just by distance but also time and the fundamental uncertainties of memory. If the exile can resist the impulse to sit “on the sidelines nursing a wound,” he argues, they can transform this unsettledness into a particularly revealing mode of subjective reflection.Footnote 15
Thus, Said maintained, because their sense of natality – their supposedly natural connection to a place and a culture-in-place – has been severed, exiles are often in a position to observe the way all connections between culture and place are essentially unnatural. In other words, seeing the world through exile is to see the guts and sinews of culture itself revealed, to catch a glimpse of the braided relationship between what Said referred to as filiative and affiliative forms of cultural connections.Footnote 16 For Said, filiative understandings of culture are commonsensical, in Gramsci’s sense of the term: they appear to reflect the “mere natural continuity between one generation and the next.”Footnote 17 For instance, scholars who are interested in tracing the coherence of western civilization over time often present that coherence in filiative terms as an inheritance linked directly to particular populations through genealogical descent. Affiliative connections, by contrast, are both consciously made and compensatory, often replacing the perceived loss of filiative relations. Looking at the relationship between “the west” and its culture through affiliative lenses implies taking a denaturalizing attitude toward the relationship between culture and population, one which interprets these links ideologically as rhetorical lines of descent forged through the active and creative fusing of particular ideas with particular peoples rather than the simple gift of one generation to the next. It thus means interrogating the way culture is sustained and re-instantiated by the intellectual work of human beings who are themselves situated within a complex web of cultural/political/material connections they participate in weaving.
Exile, Said argued, wrenches the critic out of their situated perspective and compels reflection on the relationship between place and people, self and home, thus illuminating the constructed/affiliative realm of culture more generally. Fundamentally, this orientation toward culture, history, and politics entails, as Said noted in Representation of the Intellectual, seeing things “not simply as they are, but as they have come to be that way.”Footnote 18 Such a denaturalizing orientation – one that disrupts filliative associations between “the people,” place, and culture – is particularly useful for analyzing inherently global political phenomena such as imperialism. Thus, because it is always unstable, always balanced on the interstitial lip of identity and place, the exilic disposition illuminates how the ideology of imperialism works to disassociate Western culture from the “institutions, agencies, classes, and amorphous social forces” that constitute its relationship to (and dependence on) imperial rule.Footnote 19 As a discursive apparatus, Said argued, imperialism works to “make invisible and even ‘impossible’ the actual affiliations that exist between the world of ideas and scholarship, on the one hand, and the world of brute politics, corporate and state power, and military force on the other.”Footnote 20 The distance between the exile and her natal culture opens the door on a vista of critical reflection that renders those ongoing affiliations – between ideas and power, culture and domination, history and contemporary practice – more visible. Moreover, Said argues, the very unsettledness of life in exile means that exiles tend to approach their lived attachments “as if they were about to disappear.” This gives rise to a mode that constantly queries these experiences themselves: “What would you save of them,” Said asks, “what would you give up, what would you recover?”Footnote 21
Two further aspects of Said’s approach to exile differentiate it from other approaches to critique similarly oriented toward exposing the multiple, overlapping, disciplinary modes of power at work in culture (e.g. Foucaultian genealogy and poststructuralist criticism). The first is that, beyond its critical, illuminative capacity, exile in a Saidian sense is also a deeply compassionate mode of seeing. Because living in exile is, in Said’s words, “a median state, neither completely at one with the new setting nor fully disencumbered of the old,” the exile’s feelings are never entirely detached from home but are, rather, “predicated on the existence of, love for, and a real bond with, one’s native place.”Footnote 22 What is thus true of all exile, he insisted, “is not that home and love of home are lost, but that loss is inherent in the very existence of both.”Footnote 23 Therefore, analyzing politics through the lens of exilic loss doesn’t mean abandoning sympathy for critique, nor does it mean dismissing all notions of belonging – national, local, regional – as affiliative fictions. Rather, it means combining sympathy with a baseline discomfort for easy, commonsense explanations about who belongs and who does not belong to a given community.
Second, and perhaps most controversially, Said sometimes wrote about exile as a tangible, clawing thing into which one is born or forced. But he also claimed that an exilic perspective can be voluntarily adopted by intellectuals willing to unsettle their view of the world. In his words, while exile “is an actual condition,” it is also “for my purposes a metaphorical condition,” an act of will that committed intellectuals can perform in order to stand outside the familiar, a disposition likely “to be a source not of acculturation and adjustment, but rather of volatility and instability.”Footnote 24 But there is nothing flip or easy about adopting a metaphorical exilic position. Rather, for Said, being an exilic intellectual is a vocation, a way of being and seeing that is deeply transformative. Occupying the perspective of exilic loss is thus different from assuming, for instance, a Rawlsian “original position”: that is, a methodological perspective one can move in and out of in order to clarify the basic foundations of justice for a given “people.” Instead, the exilic critic is resigned to remaining permanently unsettled. “You cannot go back to some earlier and perhaps more stable condition of being at home,” Said notes, and thus “you can never fully arrive, be at one with your new home or situation.”
On a fundamental level, the exilic critic alters their relationship to their homeland in a way which makes them perennially uncomfortable with assumed, commonsense notions of peoplehood and closure, modes of inclusion and exclusion built into the very collective pronouns that structure politics. For instance, Said argues, an American reporter writing about the Vietnam War who uses “the words ‘us’ and ‘our’” has “appropriated neutral pronouns and affiliated them consciously either with that criminal invasion of a distant Southeast Asian nation” or “with those lonely voices of dissent for whom the American war was both unwise and unjust.”Footnote 25 The impulse of the exilic critic, by contrast, is to interrogate what makes the national “we” a “we” in the first place. Embracing the alienation of exile means remaining hyper-attentive to the way the subtleties of language mask some identities while constructing others, hide some histories while highlighting others. Ultimately, unsettling the “we” voice and reconnecting it to histories of conquest, resistance, and connection is perhaps the most productively disruptive quality of the exilic disposition, particularly for those of us doing critical work that links the history of imperialism to the present.
Turning In and Closing Down
Surprisingly, given the number of major figures in political theory who were exiles and who theorized the experience, political theorists have remained astonishingly uninterested in Said’s interpretive approach. While most fields in the humanities – from history and comparative literature to anthropology and cultural studies – were fundamentally (if not completely) transformed by the publication of Orientalism and the postcolonial revolution to which it gave rise, political theory as a subdiscipline has remained resolutely unaffected by that work.Footnote 26 Aside from the work of James Tully, when political theorists do mention Said it is usually briefly and only in regard to orientalism as a concept or Orientalism as a totemic reminder of the postcolonial turn.Footnote 27 On those rare occasions when scholars of political theory have expressed interest in Said’s other works, it is usually gestural or, worse, without attribution.Footnote 28 Stranger still, political theorists and scholars of politics who are part of the discipline’s “turn to empire” since the late 1990s still largely fail to engage Said’s work.Footnote 29
Why has it been so hard for political theorists just to see Said – this man whose scholarship and politics sat at the fulcrum of a transformative intellectual movement elsewhere – for so long? There are a variety of responses to this question, but the most illuminative set of explanations cluster around that same phenomenon that helps explain why, in Jennifer Pitts’ words, the discipline of political theory came so “slowly and late to the study of empire relative to other disciplines”: our disciplinary attachment to Political Science and Political Science’s attachment to state sovereignty.Footnote 30 Thus, following World War Two, Political Science in North America began to organize itself around its current four subdisciplines, an act of professional hiving off that led to the confinement of almost all scholarship concerned with politics on a global scale within the emerging field of International Relations (IR).Footnote 31 Moreover, during this early postwar period, founding thinkers within IR began associating their work explicitly and exclusively with the relationships between sovereign states, an assumption that remains foundational to this day. As a field, IR continues to read the contested landscape of world history through the lenses of sovereign statehood, often by re-inserting the “security dilemma” into the writings of a selected canon of Western political philosophers such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes.Footnote 32
Political theorists reflect the state-orientation of the discipline by containing their thinking about democracy and its possibilities to bounded notions of “the people” structured by a foundational notion of nation-statehood which usually functions as deep background for theorizing. Rawlsians, for instance, “work up” their theories about the basic structure of society, justice, distribution, etc., by assuming a historically grounded social grouping attached to a particular kind of (liberal democratic) state with a particular economic form.Footnote 33 Critical theorists such as Nancy Fraser may challenge some of the baseline assumptions of liberalism by critically analyzing the development of liberalism in the context of capitalism and the welfare state, but these analyses circle around Eurocentric conceptions that fail to account for the constitutive role played by extra-state practices of imperial extraction, slavery, settler violence, and land dispossession in the emergence of capitalism itself.Footnote 34 Likewise, critical acolytes of Carl Schmitt, like Mouffe, argue for democratic, pluralist, and populist responses to reactionary politics by consistently reasserting the necessity of a “people” bound by a “moment of closure.”Footnote 35 Even when Mouffe is most strenuously insisting, as she does in Left Populism, that “the people” is itself the product of democratic contestation rather than state, nation, or ethnicity, she simply fails to account for the fact that “the people” just happens to cohere to the nation-state and fails to consider the limitations baked into that formative “closure.”Footnote 36
The obsession of political scientists and political theorists with bounded notions of political identity and community runs counter to the way political identity and community has actually been experienced historically. As David Armitage reminds us, the vast majority of human beings “for most of history lived not in nation-states but in empires,” a reality that persisted well into the 1960s.Footnote 37 A fixation with sovereignty and boundaries as the only historically identifiable forms of political association not only fails to account for the contrapuntal richness of this history, it also fails to appreciate the extent to which today’s liberal democratic states – often the background political communities assumed by political theorists – were themselves forged through imperialist practices: explosions of settler violence, prolonged resource extraction, predatory taxation. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, this mode of unseeing also fails to account for the “continuing colonial presence” of the USA and its European/Great Power allies throughout the world today.Footnote 38 As Gurminder Bhambra argues, today’s European welfare states are the products of long-standing historical patterns of racialized immigration policies that were normalized within their imperial ambit, while today’s white settler nations would not exist if not for the near genocide of first nation peoples. These same states developed labor markets grounded in racial forms of domination and exclusion. In postwar Britain, for instance, the “apparently domestically inclusive welfare state regime” depended upon a political economy “of Imperial and (subsequently) Commonwealth preferences which was designed to enrich the British state while restricting the rights extended to subjects throughout its territories.”Footnote 39
Given the tendency of political theorists to attach their thinking about “the people” to enclosed sovereign units untouched by imperialism, it is hardly surprising that Said’s kaleidoscopic perspective on politics – his cross- and trans- and sub- and antinational way of reading culture and imperialism in history – make him almost indecipherable to so many. This also means that those few theorists who have looked at his work often emerge confused or unsatisfied. Both Frederick Dallmayr and Joan Cocks, for instance, are similarly attracted by much of what they see in Said’s work but are, at the end of the day, deeply dissatisfied with his unfixed, exilic perspective. Cocks believes that his conception of exile fails to “map out and fight for clear political alternatives to the nation-state” while Dallmayr is critical of Said’s unwillingness to abandon disruptive tensions for the hope of reconciliation provided by a Hegelian notion of Sittlichkeit.Footnote 40 And yet, I think it is fair to say that both of these critiques miss the point. Said’s is not a theory of political/epistemological closure, nor does it provide theorists with an alternative theory of politics. Rather, Said’s approach to exile provides us with a critical disposition, a mode of humble reflection and opening up, that begins from an uncomfortable sense of being out of place, which then fundamentally disrupts the way “we” – as political theorists – approach questions of justice, democracy, power, and domination that are our bread and butter.
Imagine, for instance, how occupying such an unstable position might alter the way political theorists approach an issue as fundamentally transnational as global justice. As it stands, since the 1980s the debate about global justice engaged in by major figures in political theory, such as David Held, Thomas Pogge, David Miller, Martha Nussbaum, and Will Kymlicka, has circled around a clash between what Fraser calls “the right” and “the good.”Footnote 41 Thus, cosmopolitan thinkers argue that, in Nussbaum’s words, “reason rather than patriotism or group sentiment” ought to guide moral action when it comes to theorizing solutions to the vast inequality of resources between peoples in the first and third worlds.Footnote 42 Regardless of the particularities of their approaches, cosmopolitan theorists today generally agree that human beings within nation-states have obligations to human beings in other parts of the world and that a right understanding of these obligations can be determined through (some form) of Kantian or Stoic reason. Cosmopolitans thus ask questions such as: What obligations do citizens in the first world owe to citizens in the third? To what extent are first-world citizens responsible for rectifying poverty in these countries? What responsibilities do developed countries have to mitigating the effects of climate change? All of these questions boil down to some version of: What do “we” owe to the global poor?Footnote 43
Over the years, debates between cosmopolitans and their critics have tended to focus on the role of local or national communities in the formation of moral obligations, and they almost always revolve around questions of identification. That is, whether citizens within nation-states can really sustain a robust sense of moral and political connection to others with whom they do not identify as fellow nationals. For cosmopolitans, cultural and political identification with “the other” isn’t necessary since people are capable of understanding moral obligation through reason. But for a communitarian like Alasdair Macintyre, this faith in reason ignores the role that identification with one’s community plays in the development of moral consciousness.Footnote 44 Conservative scholars such as Jack Goldsmith similarly argue that individuals first learn lessons of morality from “members of their community … with whom they identify,” and Will Kymlicka frames his critique of David Held’s “communities of fate” in terms of the “sorts of collectivities” with whom people also identify.Footnote 45
From a Saidian-inspired, exilic perspective, cosmopolitan theorists and their critics share an untroubled surety about the fixedness of the position from which they validate or minimize identity. This argument is similar to, but distinct from, those posed by postcolonial critics of cosmopolitanism, many of whom have already exposed the Eurocentrism of Enlightenment universalism, in part by “provincializing it,” by linking it to the “cultural discourses” that sustain imperialism.Footnote 46 My argument, by contrast, is meant to demonstrate the way both champions of universal reason (cosmopolitan global justice scholars) and critics of that universal reason (communitarians, etc.) actually share certain subjective assumptions which then impose epistemological limits on political thinking. Thus, cosmopolitans consistently ask questions about “our” ethical obligations toward “others”: impoverished nonnationals, climate refugees, potential victims of genocide, etc. In response, communitarian and conservative critics then raise concerns about the extent to which human beings within communities can identify with that broader conception of humanity. But whether they take identification as key to morality or not, neither Nussbaum and Beitz on the one hand, nor Macintyre, Goldsmith, and Kymlicka on the other, question their own identity.
In other words, none of these scholars ever wonders whether the ground upon which they stand – as theorists writing about the promises or problems of cosmopolitanism – is solid. Nor do they consider what questioning the solidity of that ground might do for their theorizing. Whether they think of themselves as citizens of the world, assume themselves to be linked in a thin, liberal fashion to their natal communities or communities of choice, or personally experience the ethical impact of their “little platoons” as vitally important to their identity, they know that when and if they leave, they can come “home” again. By contrast, Said’s exilic subject begins their analysis of the world from the perspective that return is impossible and from the position that the ground upon which they stand, from which they critique and theorize, is not the home with which they identify fully. Indeed, sometimes even that tenuous connection is uncertain. Because exilic critics begin from a place of instability rather than closure, Said maintains, they are less likely “to derive satisfaction” from assumed connections and foundations. They are thus more likely to ask questions about the world that differ significantly from the core question asked by cosmopolitans or their critics: “What do we owe to others and what enables or prohibits us from identifying with them?” Rather, the exilic intellectual who begins from the unstable ground of wondering “Do we exist? What proof do we have?” asks questions about the filiative appearance of the “we” itself and about the affiliative relations that naturalize the categories of “us” and “them.”
When oriented, for instance, toward those same problems of global injustice that preoccupy cosmopolitans, an exilic perspective is more likely to query affiliative connections between culture, politics, domination, forgetting, and collusion that, when woven together, set the stage for the current international environment. Rather than “what do we owe others?,” the exilic theorist asks “How, in a global historical context framed by movement, violence, dispossession, extraction, domination, and connection, did we come to be us in the first place?” That then leads to a whole series of other questions: What is the relationship of today’s global resource distribution to the history of imperial extraction that has allowed “us” to maintain “our” welfare state which we now argue is in crisis? How might the relationships between entities we call “liberal states” and entities we call “non liberal states” reflect that complicated history of imperial governance and extraction? What theoretical (moral, ethical, critical) resources for theorizing might be available to “us” were we to take the contrapuntal, interconnected histories of “the west and the non-west” seriously?
An exilic orientation pushes the question of identification – and all the subsequent questions of distribution, justice, reparations, obligation, and intervention that flow from it – inward, backward, outward, toward an investigation of those affiliative connections that structure the current global order today. An exilic inclination reorients the object of theoretical concern away from the shivering, starving, bomb-throwing masses (“them”) toward an interrogation of how they came to be “them” and we became “us” in the first place. It thus recasts the terrain of global justice as, in Said’s words, “a series of reflections rather than a string of assertions and affirmations.”Footnote 47
Because liberal democracy has increasingly come under attack by forces on the right, many scholars of politics have correctly responded with a sense of urgency. Unfortunately, that urgency is often misplaced, reactionary, or even nostalgic. Jeffrey Isaacs warns darkly about the “danger” lurking behind this move away from liberal norms, while William Connolly has stressed the resemblance between our moment and the fascist aesthetic of the 1930s.Footnote 48 Supporters of “the American-led liberal world order,” like Ikenberry, clutch their pearls in horror that the “hostile revisionist power” who now intends to destroy liberal democracy sits in the Oval Office scheming against “trade, alliances, international law, multilateralism, environmental protection, torture, and human rights.”Footnote 49 Both responses seek to counteract the attenuation of democracy on the level of the nation-state by burrowing into narratives about the exceptionalism of Trump and his resemblance to fascists of old rather than to “us.” They then combine these narratives with nostalgic accounts of “our” essential goodness as a liberal democratic people overcome by reactionary, “revisionist” forces.
By contrast, adopting an exilic orientation toward the affiliative relationships between imperialism, identity, and history has the potential to pry open political theory to new ways of theorizing the demos that ask questions about what is being occluded by the “we” that inhabits the shape of democracy. Rather than mourn the loss of liberal democracy, adopting Said’s exilic disposition prompts us to look at the world and our own theoretical perspectives contrapuntally and to ask: “What would we save of them, what would we give up, what would we recover?” Such an approach is, by design, unsettling and can feel like a willful act of throwing the baby out with the bathwater precisely at a historical moment when the world appears to crave not deconstruction and problematization but solutions. What could feel worse in this moment of crisis than looking down and seeing your foundations of belonging shift beneath your feet? At the same time, Said’s work presses us to consider whether the security of that foundation is worth sacrificing the clarity of insight that comes from exile, from an interrogation of the liberal democratic state’s imbrications with the ongoing politics of imperialism. After all, according to Said, it is “only in the precarious exilic realm [that] can one first truly grasp the difficulty of what cannot be grasped and then go forth to try anyway.”Footnote 50
At the same time, a Saidian perspective that works to destabilize the assumed foundations of peoplehood lurking in the background of so much democratic theorizing also aims to open up our conceptual horizons to new forms of human comity and global solidarity. At the end of the day, for Said there is no escaping the fact that the long history of global imperialism was grounded in both the “enabling rift between black and white, between imperial authority and natives” and in the historical interdependence between the Global South and the Global North, connections and affiliations sewn over time which now assure that “No one today is purely one thing.”Footnote 51 Drawing on the work of anticolonial scholars Aimé Césaire, C. L. R. James, and Franz Fanon, Said argued that a critique of colonialism couched from within the disruptive register of exile ultimately encourages a rejection of both nationalism and imperialism and an acceptance of what Césaire called “true humanism – a humanism made to the measure of the world.”Footnote 52 Said’s contrapuntal reading provide us with a glimpse into, as he saw it, “a more integrative view of human community and human liberation” untethered from both the rigidity of states and the exploitation of empires.Footnote 53 This is a vision of democratic humanism framed not in terms of “some tiny, defensively constituted corner of the world” but rather – from the beginning and always – in light of “the large, many-windowed house of human culture as a whole.”Footnote 54