Us and Them

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s strong result in the first round of this year’s French presidential elections showed that left populism is not a short ‘parenthesis’ to be followed by a return to a more traditional form of class politics. Of course, the ‘hot’ populist moment we witnessed in the last decade in Western Europe has now passed, and several of its standard-bearers – Syriza, Podemos, Corbyn’s Labour – have suffered setbacks. But that does not mean left populism has become obsolete. It would be wrong to dismiss a political strategy solely because some of its adherents did not achieve their objectives on the first attempt. Politics, as Max Weber reminds us, is a ‘strong and slow boring of hard boards’.

To be sure, Mélenchon was defeated in the presidential elections of 10 April, but he improved on his 2017 result, winning 21.95% against Marine Le Pen’s 23.15%, and missed qualifying for the final round by only 420,000 votes. If the Parti communiste français had not insisted in running its own candidate, Mélenchon may well have closed this narrow gap. It could of course be argued that Mélenchon achieved this vote share because he relinquished his previous populist strategy in favour of the classical one of left unity. From this perspective, the creation of the Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale (NUPES), the electoral alliance which brought together Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (LFI), the Socialists (PS), the Greens (EELV) and the Communists (PCF), could be seen as proof that he is no longer pursuing a populist rupture.

To assess the validity of this claim, it is necessary to clarify the meaning of ‘left populism’. We could start with the formal approach developed by Ernesto Laclau in On Populist Reason (2005). Populism, he writes, is a strategy of constructing a political frontier that divides society into two camps, ‘us’ and ‘them’, and calling for the mobilization of the ‘underdog’ against the ‘powerful’. The ideological and institutional content of this struggle is highly contingent. It depends on how the frontier is established, as well as the socio-economic structures and historical-geographical contexts in which it is inscribed. There is no simple opposition between a righteous ‘people’ and a corrupt layer of ‘elites’, conceived as pre-existing empirical entities. Rather, this binary can be constructed in a variety of ways – which is what generates the myriad distinctions between left- and right-wing populism.

A left-populist strategy recognizes that society is inherently divided and insists on the partisan nature of politics. In this sense it accords with the Marxian approach, but it differs in the way the frontier is constructed. According to orthodox Marxism, this frontier is based on the relations of production, and pits the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. For left populism, however, the social agent is seen as the locus of multiple ‘subject positions’ that correspond to the different social relations in which he or she is inserted, and there is no reason to attribute a priori a privilege to the class position. This is why, although it has a class dimension, the populist frontier is not constructed on a class basis.

The constitution of the underdog, the ‘people’, relies on establishing a ‘chain of equivalence’ which articulates a variety of struggles against domination, exploitation and discrimination. This articulation is secured by a ‘hegemonic signifier’ – for instance, a charismatic leader or collective movement around whom common affects can crystallize. Because social agents have multiple subject positions, an ‘us’ or ‘collective will’ can only arise through such a chain of equivalence, which allows unity to emerge from difference. It is not a question of homogenizing diverse political demands, but of making them ‘equivalent’ thanks to their opposition to a common adversary and joint inscription in a collective project. Moreover, a left populist strategy does not call for a radical break with the political institutions of pluralist liberal democracy and the foundation of a totally new political order. It engages with the existing political institutions to profoundly transform them through democratic procedures. It is a strategy of ‘radical reformism’ that differs both from the strategies of the revolutionary left and the sterile reformism of social liberals.

Given this general framework, can LFI’s strategy in the last election be defined as ‘left populist’? Did it involve the construction of a chain of equivalence? Let’s consider the different aspects of the 2022 campaign. As far as the crucial move is concerned, the drawing of a political frontier dividing ‘us’ from ‘them’, there was no ambiguity. The radically divisive character of the LFI project was openly affirmed, and its main adversary clearly designated: the neoliberal system and the bloc of Macronist forces associated with it. As for the construction of the ‘us’, LFI, by presenting itself under the banner of Union Populaire, indicated that its objective was to create a ‘people’ beyond traditional left political forces. The aim of the Parlement, presided over by Aurélie Trouvé, was to connect the party with social movements existing in various spheres of society. To this end, Mélenchon’s programme L’avenir en commun addressed not only socio-economic relations of exploitation but also antagonisms in the fields of gender, race, and other forms of discrimination. It was particularly strong with respect to ecological issues, advocating a radical decarbonization programme as well as an ambitious state-led green transition. While demanding the democratization of the French political institutions and the inauguration of a Sixth Republic, LFI’s programme did not jettison the republican institutional framework. On this level, mainstream depictions of LFI as ‘extreme left’ were entirely disingenuous.

If we add to those considerations the fact that Mélenchon’s campaigns have always been characterised by a strong emphasis on the role of affects and the importance of mobilizing them to create a collective will, we can confidently assert that the strategy that LFI deployed in the French elections was an iteration of left populism. Further, the supposition that NUPES is simply a social democratic coalition, in which each participant retains its own specific programme, can be easily rebutted. In fact, NUPES presented an electoral platform organized under the hegemony of LFI, which was able to secure agreement on the main pillars of its agenda: the minimum wage, the retirement age, environmental planning and a wealth tax. The PS and EELV were even forced to accept the possibility of disobeying European treatises which may have hindered the realization of such measures. An alliance established in this manner does not signal a fundamental change of objective. It rather indicates an attempt to bolster the chances of obtaining an electoral majority by ensuring that the progressive vote was not split.

Alas, it did not work out. But it was nonetheless thanks to the existence of the NUPES and the energy of its activists that Macron was denied an absolute majority in the National Assembly. NUPES became the second-largest grouping, with 151 seats to Ensemble’s 245. LFI picked up votes from disenchanted Macron supporters in urban areas, as well as immigrant communities and overseas territories, increasing its representation from 17 to 75 deputies; an excellent result, even though it was eclipsed by an unexpected breakthrough for Le Pen, whose Rassemblement National won 89 seats, making inroads into former Communist strongholds. The election outcome sparked a debate within LFI about ‘those who are missing’ from the left bloc. As Mélenchon’s campaign manager Manuel Bompard acknowledged, the results could have conveyed the false impression that LFI had adopted the strategy of Terra Nova: a think-tank close to the Socialist Party, which in 2011 recommended focussing the left’s energies on winning over the educated, the young and ethnic minorities while abandoning the white working classes to the Front National. Surveying the results, LFI deputy Francois Ruffin voiced his concern that, while the party had made gains among the young, the middle classes and the working-class sectors of the suburbs, they had failed to make any headway in la France périphérique: small towns, rural municipalities and declining former industrial belts, the ‘France of the Gilets Jaunes’.

This is where Le Pen consistently received her best scores, precisely because she offered a discourse that resonated with the demands for security and protection found in parts of France that have most suffered from the consequences of market-led globalization. Having accepted the mantra of There Is No Alternative, the forces of ‘progressive neoliberalism’ have been signally unable to speak to these demands, instead viewing them as obstacles to modernization. This laid the terrain for the Front National to frame them in nationalist-xenophobic terms, and present itself as the ‘voice of the people’. To recover these popular sectors – who feel that Le Pen’s party is the only one that cares for them – the left must realize that many of the demands that are currently expressed in a nationalist discourse have a democratic nucleus that could be retrieved. Such demands do not imply adopting a view of sovereignty based on exclusionary nationalism. By drawing the frontier of us/them in a manner that does not oppose ‘true nationals’ to migrants, these demands might be addressed in an egalitarian manner that aims to protect people from the destructive reign of capital.

Lamentably, there is a tendency among some on the left to adopt a posture of superiority towards those who vote for Le Pen. Instead of trying to apprehend the complex reasons for their attachment to her party, their attitude is one of outright rejection and moral condemnation. They accuse RN voters of being inherently racist, sexist, homophobic, and as representing the ‘return of fascism’. However, it would be entirely counterproductive to react to the election results by calling for the creation of anti-fascist front. This would have the disastrous consequence of establishing the political frontier in a way that puts LFI in the same camp as Macron and the neoliberal bloc, arrayed against Le Pen’s so-called forces of fascism. Such a strategy would foreclose any possibility of recovering those decisive sectors of the working class. The challenge for LFI is rather to build a ‘people’ that is the expression of a genuine popular bloc, capable of forming a social majority. This requires consolidating and expanding the support that it has already established, as well as reaching those who have lost faith in political action and taken refuge in abstention. It is also imperative not to neglect the popular sectors ‘who are missing’ or dismiss them as ‘unreachable’.

In the present conjuncture of climate emergency, it is also crucial for left-populist strategy to address the question of the survival and habitability of the planet. The ecological bifurcation advocated by LFI could act as the hegemonic principle necessary for articulating social struggles alongside environmental ones. However, to play that role, the ecological project cannot be conceived as simply a set of policies. For ideas or policies to have force, they must mobilize affects that connect with the dominant social imaginary. Policies alone do not have the capacity to generate the collective will necessary for the implementation of a green transition. Which is why, in my forthcoming book, I propose giving the ecological bifurcation affective force by envisaging it in terms of a ‘Green Democratic Revolution’: that is, as a new front in the radicalization of democracy. By activating the democratic imaginary, a green programme could carry affects that are more powerful than competing liberal discourses. It would play the role of a ‘myth’ in Sorel’s sense: an idea whose power to anticipate the future confers new meaning on the present.

A Green Democratic Revolution would defend society and its conditions of existence in a way that empowers people, instead of encouraging them to retreat into defensive nationalism or passive acceptance of algorithmic forms of governmentality. With neoliberals trying to exploit socio-economic and climatic crises to impose authoritarian technological solutions, such a vision could resonate with a wide range of democratic demands and enhance the attraction of LFI’s programme.

Marco D’Eramo, ‘Populism and the New Oligarchy’, NLR 82.