Learning Nothing from Thatcherism

In 'For a Left Populism', Chantal Mouffe talks of radicalising democracy and partisan interventions. But what she actually offers is not especially bold.

“Left-wing thought today stands at a crossroads.” This was the first line of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s often maligned, frequently misunderstood, and perennially controversial 1985 work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. As an opening it hints towards a lot of what is about to come in the book, not least the centrality of a certain Gramscian notion of the conjunctural movement of history, a need to understand the “avalanche of historical mutations” which had produced this moment they were writing in.1 But it also indicates the extent to which Laclau and Mouffe’s concern was largely meta-theoretical. While all theory reflects on itself to some degree, whether consciously or not, few focused so predominantly on interrogating the practice of left-wing theorising itself. The story Hegemony and Socialist Strategy sets out to tell, through a selective genealogy of twentieth century Marxism, is one in which a succession of illustrious thinkers—Lenin, Luxemburg, Sorel, etc., and finally Gramsci—get ever closer to grasping something fundamental about the nature of politics, something that not only had Marxism until then failed to comprehend, but which ultimately appeared incompatible with some of its central ideas. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy narrated a breach in the Marxian doctrine of historical necessity, and a widening of the space of political intervention and contingency in the movement of history. With Gramsci, this had seemingly reached its highest level of theoretical sophistication, yet the Sardinian always retained elements of what Laclau and Mouffe considered to be a reductionist conception of class, which held back the explanatory potential of the theory of hegemony. Writing at a time when Gramsci’s work was enjoying a period of great prestige in the English speaking world, and when the so-called ‘new social movements’ appeared at the forefront of radical politics, these opening lines signalled that the time had come for the left to make what looked to be an uncomfortable decision, and to think about what class means for the left in an entirely different way.

A less generous reading of these opening lines is possible, however. To some of their contemporaries—and many others since—Laclau and Mouffe’s book appeared to be a fairly cynical embrace of newly fashionable ideas coming mostly from France, at a time when Marxism, and the left more generally, were in retreat. In its often infuriatingly dense poststructuralist language and openly heretical sentiments towards Marxism, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was viewed by critics at the time, such as Ellen Mieksins Wood and Norman Geras, as a basically opportunistic book, its unapologetic post-Marxism little more than a theoretical gloss on the authors abandoning what looked to be a sinking ship.2 If left-wing thought stood at a crossroads in the early 1980s, the path Laclau and Mouffe advocated taking seemed to some to be one which simply meant turning away from its most fundamental principles.

This is not the place to try to settle these matters, but it is useful to remember that what might look from one perspective to be a commitment to understanding “the specificity of a historical conjuncture”, as Stuart Hall once put it in a classic essay on Gramsci, can so easily from another appear little more than a cynical following academic fashion.3 This is a dynamic which came to my mind whilst reading Mouffe’s latest book, For a Left Populism. On one hand, over the years Mouffe has been, if not at the forefront, then at least a fellow traveller in a number of academic trends which might appear faddish, from the republican revival in political thought in the 1990s, through the emergence of ‘agonistic’ theories of democracy, to the at best tiresome promotion of the German legal scholar Carl Schmitt as someone with something meaningful to say to the left. Yet there are similarities here in the way the book presents itself as speaking to a moment of urgent decision, and it would be impossible to try to dismiss the immediacy of what we might call the populist question in contemporary politics. Echoing the opening lines of Hegemony more than thirty years later, Mouffe begins this latest book by stating her conviction that “it is urgent for the left to grasp the nature of the current conjuncture and the challenge represented by the ‘populist moment’.”4

But this notion of a ‘populist moment’ inevitably raises a question which For a Left Populism, somewhat frustratingly, does not try to answer—namely, to what extent is this ‘populist moment’ itself something conjunctural, or something more like a trend? While it seems fairly obvious that ‘populism’ has appeared (or perhaps re-appeared) in Europe in recent years, there are two very different senses in which appearance can be understood. Put differently, we might ask if we are in fact living through a historical moment in which the functioning of democratic politics has shifted qualitatively towards something we might call populism; or whether this ‘populist moment’ exists more in its own observation, an epistemological shift driven by wider cultural or social developments which might themselves be more vital for the left to understand. The sheer scale of intellectual production on the topic of populism in recent years could easily be held up as evidence for either conclusion, but the question to me still seems largely unresolved—are we seeing an explosion of populism, or simply an explosion of people convinced that this is the way politics is now going?

Mouffe, for her part, is keen to declare “at the outset” that her “aim is not to add another contribution to the already plethoric field of ‘populism studies’”, and that she has “no intention to enter the sterile academic debate about the ‘true nature’ of populism.” Given the tediousness of much of the current work on populism this might seem fair enough, but is in any case unlikely to be particularly surprising to those familiar with her work. Mouffe’s distinct vision of radical democracy has long taken such questions to largely miss the point, to focus overly on the ‘ontic’ world of everyday politics at the expense of the deeper, ontological questions regarding what she calls the political, the more fundamental play of antagonisms which structure our social worlds. Yet it is precisely such a marking of a distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’ which has allowed her own work, starting with 1992’s The Return of the Political, to leave the more peripheral worlds of Marxist and post-Marxist theory and engage increasingly, at times close to exclusively, with mainstream liberal and conservative political thought—and this has come at the expense of both the more normative and the more identifiably left-wing aspects of her project.

Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was, despite the ‘and’ in its title, heavy on the former and rather light on the latter. And while some have claimed that the more politically minded final chapter of the book was predominantly Mouffe’s contribution, her own work in the years since its publication has seemed to gradually lose not only much of what radicalism there was in this earlier work, but increasingly even its faith in the practice of politics as such. Already by 2000’s The Democratic Paradox, earlier notions of deepening and extending the democratic revolution were beginning to look more like a fairly straightforward defence, albeit an impassioned one, of liberal democracy in-and-of-itself. By 2005, when in On the Political Mouffe took a wider look at questions of global politics, an even deeper pessimism began to appear. In stark contrast to the vision of an emerging global multitude put forward in the influential work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Mouffe had begun to seem almost ready to abandon the idea of democracy itself, presenting instead a starkly realist vision of a multipolar global balance of power as the only conceivable alternative to US-dominated global capitalism.6 By 2013’s Agonistics, her most recent book before For a Left Populism, Mouffe held up the art world as a potential site for counter hegemonic struggle against neoliberalism, something which, despite her insistence otherwise, seemed unavoidably to say that the optimism Hegemony placed in the transformative potential of the new social movements had long since passed.

What makes For a Left Populism particularly striking, then, is how it quite forcefully reverses this trend. Again near the very beginning Mouffe states that her book “is meant to be a political intervention and it openly acknowledges its partisan nature.”7 This return to an putatively radically democratic sense of purpose is, on the face of it, a welcome development. But viewed in the context of her writing over the years, it only raises further questions. The text itself straightforwardly argues that we find ourselves in a moment in which the current hegemonic order is undergoing a period of crisis which offers opportunities for the left, and from this it seems easy enough to conclude that for Mouffe a return to partisanship simply reflects the fact that conditions exist in the present for left-wing political advance which were absent for much of the past few decades. But what’s missing in the book is any real sense of what is in fact constituting the historically distinct and self-evident crisis of neoliberalism which “offers the possibility of intervening to establish a different order.”8 A danger here lies in producing a certain kind of Gramsci-esque fidelity to The Conjuncture, in which we might say that “a crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades” but what is actually causing this crisis to occur is not really explored.9 This seems to me an especially important thing to consider when we think about contemporary populism. If it looks like the ‘post-political’ neoliberal consensus is giving way and populists of an overwhelmingly right-wing stripe are making headway, understanding what precisely is going on in broader cultural, social and economic terms has to be a necessary first step before any attempt from the left to get in on the action, as it would be incredibly perilous to assume that the populist right doing well under certain conditions and using certain strategies would mean that a populist left would do too.

This is ultimately the point at which the book’s eschewing of the “sterile debate” over the nature of populism becomes something more troubling. Mouffe’s definition of populism draws heavily on Laclau’s 2005 book On Populist Reason. Like Laclau, she emphasises that populism is not a distinct ideology, but rather “a way of doing politics” which organises a new collective subject called ‘the people’ in opposition to ‘the establishment’, or ‘the elite’, or so on.10 Yet Laclau went a step further, arguing, in effect, that ‘populism’ and ‘the political’ are basically synonymous, that the logics of antagonism which structure the genuinely political constitution of new subjects—political “as opposed to pure administration within a stable institutional framework”—have the same defining features as the logic of populism.11 There are some interesting and quite useful ideas that can be drawn out from this, such as the notion that what is behind a lot of mainstream anti-populism is in fact a defence of a depoliticised centrist status quo.12 But this still raises another question: if ‘populism’ and ‘the political’ are basically synonyms, shouldn’t we simply abandon the former as a redundant term?

One effect of this conflation, intended or not, is that it allows certain contingent features of actually-existing populisms to work their way in to a conception of the political figured at an ontological level, something which might ultimately naturalise certain political strategies, particularly around leadership and nationalism, as things fundamental to politics itself. In Laclau’s book, something like this was certainly visible in some less convincing sections which, leaning heavily on Freud, insisted on the necessity of a charismatic leader in the formation of a collective political community. But there has also long been something of an unspoken nationalist imaginary to both Laclau and Mouffe’s political geography more generally, which to me sits uneasily with any attempt to advocate for populism as a general political strategy outside of any specific context. In For a Left Populism, what might have earlier been read between the lines of a vision of the political as always involving a ‘we’ and a ‘they’ is finally made explicit. Mouffe asserts that it is “at the national level that the question of radicalizing democracy must first be posed” for we “cannot ignore the strong libidinal investment at work in national – or regional ¬– forms of identification and it would be very risky to abandon this terrain to right-wing populism.” In a now depressingly familiar refrain, Mouffe assures us this does not mean “promoting closed and defensive forms of nationalism” but rather a strategy fostering “a patriotic identification with the best and more egalitarian aspects of the national tradition.”13

These lines highlight two significant issues with Mouffe’s theoretical project. Firstly, for all the talk of radicalising democracy and partisan interventions, what is actually offered is not especially bold. Along with a fairly lukewarm ‘progressive patriotism’ we are given some extremely vague and thin gestures towards economic reform. Mouffe states that a left-populism “will no doubt include moments of rupture and a confrontation with the dominant economic interests” and that “the politics of radical reformism that I advocate is not thereby prevented in challenging the capitalist relations of production”, but there is nothing particularly anti-capitalist, or even particularly redistributive on offer in the text.14 In one particularly striking passage, Mouffe suggests that “an ambitious and well-designed ecological project could offer an attractive vision of a future democratic society that might entice some sectors currently within the neoliberal hegemonic bloc”, who would supposedly be won over to a left-populist position were they to become “aware of the grave dangers that [neoliberalism] conveys for the environment”.15 Beyond the palpable lack of political ambition, this naming of ‘neoliberalism’ specifically suggests the possibility of a more responsible capitalism, wherein profit-making and the environment might co-exist harmoniously. Radical, or even left-wing, are not words which spring to mind here.

Secondly though, and more substantively, this appeal to nationalism points to deeper problems with Mouffe’s general method. In a footnote to a discussion of resurgent far-right political movements in her earlier book On the Political, Mouffe makes a frankly astonishing statement that “[it] is obviously impossible to attribute the growing success of right-wing populist parties in Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy and France […] to the absence in those countries of a critical relationship with their past”.16 The idea that in any on these countries (though we might wish to underline Belgium and France in particular) something like an uncritical imperial nostalgia or a lack of public discussion of the realities of colonialism would have nothing to do with the gains of right-wing populists seems completely absurd. But for Mouffe, thinking about these types of historical contexts has always been secondary to considerations regarding ‘the political’ as she understands it. For Mouffe, the political is necessarily antagonistic, and in our depoliticised neoliberal democracies the reason far-right populists have gained ground is that they have been the only ones willing to express and acknowledge the ontologically necessary social division of ‘us’ and ‘them’ which liberals and ‘third way’ socialists have declared no longer exists.

This is a perfect example of how political ontology can lead to a particularly unhelpful kind of dehistoricisation, wherein contingent, complex phenomena like nationalisms become partly naturalised as expressions of more fundamental libidinal and logical aspects of the political itself. Much has been written on the naivety of attempts to harness patriotism and nostalgic visions of the nation for left-wing aims, and there is no need to revisit them all here.17 But it is still deeply disappointing for a book which argues for the necessity of grasping “the nature of the current conjuncture” to advocate for a form of ‘left-wing’ patriotic politics with so little consideration of the actual histories which are inevitably intertwined with any contemporary appeal to the nation. The primacy of the political in Mouffe’s work means that history as such either loses much of its capacity to explain things, or is else simply reduced to something which occasionally reveals the political in its ontological nature.18 Thus here we have a commitment to conjunctural fidelity in the sense in which we are urged to grasp that a hegemonic crisis has seemingly allowed a populist logic to operate, but the kinds of historical thinking which would perhaps tell us a bit more about why this is happening now—or, no less importantly, why advocating for a ‘left’ patriotism might be a bad idea strategically and morally—simply don’t figure.

The issues here can be seen quite clearly in the book’s provocatively titled chapter “Learning from Thatcherism”. The argument—that Thatcher was able to recognise the extent of the crisis of the post-war consensus and construct a new hegemony, while the left weren’t—will likely be recognisable to anyone familiar with the analysis of Thatcherism developed by Stuart Hall and others, initially in the pages of Marxism Today in the 1980s.19 But this is precisely where a bit more historical reflection would have been welcome. Laclau and Mouffe have always been fairly oblique about their own relationship with this particular historical milieu, so it is notable that in For a Left Populism Mouffe states explicitly that Hegemony was being written in London at the time Thatcher had just won her first election. Yet while Mouffe points to Blair as evidence of the success of the Thatcherite project, what she does not acknowledge is how this analysis which saw Thatcherism as a complete hegemonic rearticulation that the left failed at the time to recognise contributed to the development of the kind of thinking about the need for a Thatcherism ‘of the left’ which so influenced New Labour. There is a complex intellectual and political history here, to be sure.20 But when we think about the ‘populist moment’ today, the one lesson we should probably take from Thatcherism is that the left would do well to avoid becoming too enamoured with the ways in which the right is currently winning.

As someone who has read and admired Mouffe’s work for years, my biggest disappointment reading For a Left Populism is how little it develops her theoretical project from her earlier works. This is something of an unfair assessment; For a Left Populism is a very short book—only 88 pages—and was clearly written to be a call to arms, not a theoretical treatise. But the book does not really deliver on this either. Much of the text is, by necessity, taken up going over a philosophical argument which has never been particularly easy to grasp, and what is left to say about politics as such either feels unimaginative, or already out of date. The book’s vision of a patriotic left populism will undoubtedly find sympathetic readers, especially in Britain. But as reaction to the Labour Party’s recent attempts to find appeal on more socially conservative, patriotic-nostalgic grounds have shown, there are very real contradictions within both Corbyn’s existing support, and the electoral base he needs going forward, which elude any easy formulations about building a ‘people’.

Chantal Mouffe’s For a Left Populism is published by Verso Books.

  1. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 2nd edition (London: Verso, 2001), p. 1. 

  2. Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism (London: Verso, 1998); Norman Geras, ‘Post-Marxism?’, New Left Review 1, no. 163 (June 1987): pp. 40–82; Norman Geras, ‘Ex-Marxism Without Substance: Being A Real Reply to Laclau and Mouffe’, New Left Review 1, no. 169 (June 1988): pp. 34–61. 

  3. Stuart Hall, ‘Gramsci and Us’, Marxism Today, no. June 1987 (1987): p. 16. 

  4. Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (London: Verso, 2018), p. 1. 

  5. Mouffe, p. 9. 

  6. Chantal Mouffe, On the Political (London: Taylor & Francis, 2005), p. 107–18. 

  7. Mouffe, For a Left Populism, p. 9. 

  8. Mouffe, p. 35. 

  9. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), p. 178. 

  10. Mouffe, For a Left Populism, p. 11. 

  11. Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2007), p. 154. 

  12. On this, see Marco D’Eramo, ‘Populism and the New Oligarchy’, New Left Review 82 (August 2013). 

  13. Mouffe, For a Left Populism, 71. 

  14. Mouffe, p. 45, 49. Emphasis added. 

  15. Mouffe, p. 61. 

  16. Mouffe, On the Political, p. 65. 

  17. Owen Hatherley’s The Ministry of Nostalgia (London: Verso, 2016) and Joe Kennedy’s Authentocrats (London: Repeater, 2018) are good places to start, however. 

  18. I owe this point to Paul Rekret’s essay ‘Generalised Antagonism and Political Ontology in Laclau and Negri’, in Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today: The Biopolitics of the Multitude versus the Hegemony of the People, ed. Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Gorgios Katsambekis (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014). 

  19. Most of which are reproduced in Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, eds., The Politics of Thatcherism (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1983). A digital archive of Marxism Today is available at www.unz.com/print/MarxismToday 

  20. Andrew Pearmain, The Politics of New Labour: A Gramscian Analysis (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2011); Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism, 1964-1991 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2004).