The Future of Socialist Strategies: For a Left Populism, by Chantal Mouffe (Book Review)

Mouffe is a socialist, and so might shock some readers as to my reviewing her book. Her previous works include such titles as Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (with Ernesto Laclau, 1985), The Democratic Paradox (2009) and Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (2013), in all of which she argues for a radicalisation of democracy and a fundamental restructuring of the polity. However, Mouffe is a very important writer, and her opinions on populism cannot be ignored: that is why, when I saw that For a Left Populism was to be published, I bought it instantly, and devoured it.

My first thought was the inherent assumption in the title: I do not believe populism to be either of the right or of the left, but simply a political phenomenon with its own logics. So, when I saw the title, my eyebrows raised; turns out, Mouffe thinks very much the same. Indeed, Mouffe argues that, since 2008 the “neoliberal hegemonic project” that has taken hold of the world since the 1980s has been shaken, and the sharpening of the contradictions – both material and social – has shaken the foundations of this hegemonic project.

Mouffe looks back to Thatcherism as the last project to have been undertaken in a moment of hegemonic collapse; indeed, Thatcher took power at a time when the hegemonic situation of the post-war consensus (the Keynesian welfare state) and rebuilt the British polity in light of new principles. I believe Mouffe’s diagnosis is correct, and offers a suitable method of understanding why we find ourselves in something of a crisis of stagnating politics, and why so many people feel disenfranchised by the neoliberal globalism embodied by the European Union.

Furthermore, Mouffe does a good job of recognising that the “populist moment” we find ourselves in is generating a politics of antagonism and dissent, and that it is a movement that will be led by (in her mind) a democratic, and therefore leftist, leader, or an authoritarian, and therefore rightist, leader. I disagree with her solution, but the diagnosis is correct; a movement is stirring that is populist in its anti-establishment sentiment, but I do not think right-wing leaders will inevitably be more authoritarian.

In this circumstance, I recommend reading this book for several reasons: one, conservatives will find in this book a good reason as to why we faltered in 2017, and how we can overcome it; two, the argument Mouffe puts forward regarding right-wing leaders as authoritarian is convincing, if based on false premises, and therefore will capture the imagination of any persuadable readers easily; three, Mouffe has done very well to provide a panoramic sweep of Western Europe’s populist stirrings, and has a good degree of factual presentation before moving onto subjective interpretation that offers the reader space for his own opinion; and four, by knowing where leftist strategy might go in future, conservatives can counter this strategy and provide a suitable and convincing alternative.

In summary, Mouffe writes elegantly and succinctly, summarising extremely complex theorems (hegemony is no longer a footnote in Marxist thought) in such a way that even political scientists(!) might understand them. She makes some errors – conflating a conservative conception of citizenship with economic rationality, thus aligning conservatism irrevocably with neoliberalism, is my major objection – but her logic is consistent and convincing. For this reason, we must be ready to provide an equally convincing, counter-argument.

Photo owned by the Mallard.

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