The difference between populist discourse and classic liberal discourse is based in that, for the former, the “people” is something that should be constructed, while for liberals the “people” is something already given. In this first case, the construction of the people implies the construction of a new representation. In the second case, the representation is only made to consider a society that precedes it, the pre-existent, is already formed.
In populism, the history of the construction of a people occurs through the division between “us” and “them.”
Populism denounces the false universal of the existing representative order, which does not represent us anymore, in order to directly demand a new universal. During the bourgeois revolutions this was the struggle against theancien regime according to which it was possible to liberate from the parasitic aristocracy in order to form the nation and bourgeois citizen, now considered a universal category. During the anticolonial struggles, this was the struggle against the metropole and imperialism in the name of unity, for national liberation. According to Antonio Gramsci, the construction of the people, the folk, unites intellectuals, workers, and peasants through the national-popular collective consciousness in order to liberate themselves from the bourgeois.
The Construction of the National-Popular
In Brazil, ideas of the national-popular were present in developmentalist versions, where national modernization combined with popular emancipation by means of mobilizing, pedagogical, and organizing actions. The conquest of power would not take place simply as the capture of the State, but would happen through the laborious cultural and ideological dissemination of national formation from the bases. The task of underdeveloped intellectuals in this project consists in leading the process of illumination of the masses, in agreement with an emancipatory program. Thus, whereby, sufficiently industrializing the country to form a conscious proletariat would overt falling into some form of economic determinism. Without the militant work of popular emancipation, modernization, invariably, will produce further class domination.
The political theory closest to this national-popular promise, although elaborated in the context of industrialized societies of the economic center, is Gramscian theory. According to Gramsci, who wrote in the first half of the past century, the exercise of power in capitalism is not sustained only through coercion and fear. It has to produce, above all, a diffuse legitimacy that, through innumerable collective cultural institutions, continually captures the consent of the majority. The representative field in its ensemble, composed of governments, parties, and unions can, in this way, operate as if representing the “general interest,” closing fissures and stopping deviations.
Ideology, then, does not appear as a system of systematic mystification. As if ideology were a veil opposite to reality, a mystical curtain that separates the people from the truth about the real relations of power. Further, ideology has a material character: that determines behavior and penetrates habits. Capitalism, in essence, does not fool anyone. Perspectives that capitalism can lose strength by means of denouncing its mystifications are naïve. Individuals already know that capitalism is a complex of exploitation that generates, at one extreme, luxury and waste and, at the other, misery and violence.
Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony
This is what Gramsci named hegemony: the normal form of politics in developed and complex societies, in which representative democracies prevail. Hegemony is a cultural operation on a large scale, which precedes a unity forced by the state, determining the existence of a hegemonic group that emerges as the bearer of “general interest.” In terms of hegemony, the crux of the question is not to question how capitalism functions, but rather, how we, ourselves, make it function. Capitalism possesses an evidence and emotion, permeated, in which we are involved in elaborating in our daily lives, our plans and ourselves.
Therefore, counter-hegemonic confrontation also passes through a confrontation in the cultural and ideological terrain, with gradual infiltration in the system and occupation of key positions –what the Marxist theorist calledwar of position. The effort is to reorganize political identities that break hegemony and affirm two antagonistic positions: us (the people) in front of them (the bourgeois). When successful, this means the construction of the people in other terms, in agreement with national-popular consciousness marked by the identity of the working class and the peasantry, in correspondence to socialist representation.
Laclau and the Empty Signifier
Ernesto Laclau, Argentine post-Marxist, distanced himself from Gramsci to move away from the idea that counter-hegemony configures a class struggle. Writing at the end of the 20th century, according to Laclau we live in a post-ideological reality, in which society can no longer be interpreted under a dualistic schema of classes. Class struggle is only an aspect of other struggles. Counter-hegemonic struggle shifts, in this way, between new movements that articulate varied political identities, also implying struggles of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and immigrants.
In moments of crisis of representation, the actual structure of meaning loses consistency. A gap, if opened owing to instability in the hegemonic bloc, is what Laclau calls an empty signifier. It is a structural place, in which meaning floats adrift at the mercy of multiple frictions provoked by counter-hegemony. Struggle culminates with filling in the cracks, through a social and state reform that recuperates demands, coopts intellectuals, and restores the existing order (in the terms of Grasmci, passive revolution). This struggle is waged over the occupation of the empty signifier by a group capable of affirming a new universality, a new order of discourse traversed by a social totality until then underrepresented.
As certainly noted by the reader, Laclau locates discourse at the center of political activity. Laclau’s counter-hegemony implies a discursive redefinition of universality. The autonomy of politics is produced in a confrontation that, in the last instance, resolves itself in terms of language. Power can only consolidate by rearticulating the collective will in a global social sense. This crystallization of political identities, until this moment underrepresented, determines the new historical bloc, in a unity simultaneously cultural and political.
The Populism 2.0 of Podemos
Iñigo Errejón, Spanish intellectual of the new party Podemos, took Laclau as reference in his thesis of 650 pages that deals with the arrival to power of Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) in Bolivia. The author explains how, after the insurgent cycle between 2000 and 2005, that included the water war and gas war, Evo and MAS managed to reconstruct hegemony from the integration of the struggles of unions/cocaleros, indigenous/peasants, and anti-neoliberal leftists. The historical result was the suture of a new discursive totality that, exceeding the segments, could occupy the empty signifier opened by the Bolivian crisis of representation at the beginning of the 21st century. Bypassing movementist tendencies, mystifications of indigenism and without turning the indigenous paradigm of Pachamama and buen vivir [to live well] into an oracle; Errejón concludes that the social change implied, necessarily the reform of the State and the reconstruction of institutions in other terms, recognizing other political identities as active subjects of the process.
The blueprint strategy of Podemos, today the major projected electoral force in Spain, is fully based in this concept of hegemony, which comes from Gramsci, Laclau, and Errejón. The interpretation is that the days of the Movement of May 15th (M15) in 2011 broke the horizon of sense of the Monarchal regime of 1978, and the bipartisan alternation of PSOE [Socialist Party] and PP [People’s Party]. As such, the M15 opened an empty signifier that entered into dispute. However, no organized force was able to occupy it in order to confer a new global social sense. This incapacity led to its spread to the old regime, despite the crisis dismissal, including initiating restorative molds of passive revolution.
The overwhelming emergence of Podemos can be explained, as such, by being in the right place at the right time, assuming the task of taking on the empty signifier of M15. This implies taking on a discourse capable of uniting a social majority that attracts the segments of a fluctuating society. From here comes the idea, so present in the discourse of Pablo Iglesias, of taking the “center of the board.” That is to say, to affirm a new universality that composes the totality of society post-M15. This means an expansive and transversal synthesis that, similar to MAS in Bolivia, can consolidate the insurgent cycle in a new institutional cycle, bringing the reform of the state and the representation of new movements as active subjects. The counter-hegemonic onslaught, according to the designs of its leaders, is not frontist [of the popular front] –what would be the mere quantitative and tactical unification of the forces of the opposition- key to vanguardist imposition- an attempt to capture the disassociated power of the social forces not represented. Rather, they mean a qualitative and durable change in the horizon of significance, integrating diverse political demands, desires, and subjects in a new concrete universality.
Critique of Populism
The first critique of theories of hegemony, from Gramsci to Iglesias, is that they place too much importance on the intellectuals. Of course, the intellectual, here, should not be confused with the academic. In Gramscian terms, the intellectual is whoever produces discourse. In the societies of late capitalism, this means the leaders of the production of the means of communication in general: culture, music, celebrities, television presenters, etcetera. In post-Gramscian theories, communication assumes great importance.
In Brazil, this tendency can be clearly documented in the abundance of analysis that puts overemphasis on role of “big media” in the articulation of collective will. It is not surprising that, in accordance with this diagnostic of the hegemonic line, one of the major obstacles for counter-hegemony consists in the impenetrability of radio and TV for subaltern political identities. The “empty signifier” remains blocked.
For Gramsci, intellectuals aligned with historically emergent forces should immerse themselves in daily militant activity, in organic participation, in practical life as constructor, organizer, and persuader. Beyond merging with the people, the intellectual should be working, as such, to construct the national-popular consciousness to which they aspire to transform the people.
In the 20th century Brazil, there multiplied intellectuals, generally formed in the middle class, who claimed the historical mission to raise the consciousness of (and, at least in principle, lead) the proletariat. We find it in the pedagogy of the oppressed of Paulo Freire or the theater of the oppressed of Augusto Boal, dedicated to activating the class from within, to the leaders of social movements, like Guilherme Boulos, of the MTST [Homeless´ Workers’ Movement].
In the “Populism 2.0” of Podemos, the interpretation is different. They have changed the composition of the class over the base of the movement, as it does not make sense to organize in the dialectic of leadership/base. The idea of “working with the base” has converted into an anachronism in terms of the social majority. The diversification of social spaces, the mobility of individuals among others and the velocity of communication imposes other means to open cracks in the hegemonic bloc. Hence the concentration on both a proactive intellectual capacity, of seduction and synthesis, and the transversal vocalization of broadly diverse and autonomous sectors in their own right. The figure of the organic intellectual together with the masses disappears in the Gramscian sense: Iglesias emerges in the media panorama as a post-organic intellectual, or better inorganic.
Multitude X Hegemony
The difference between populism and the theory of the multitude, of Negri and Hardt, consists in that, for the later, power does not reside in the construction of a people. The people are not in the multitude, because the multitude is composed of singular forces that do not accept any type of unification. The “empty signifier” in this way, does not advance as more than a structuralist abstraction that loses sight of the fact that the empty gap is the product of an exodus and not a structural change. The exodus goes to the desert because it is pregnant with the world and does not need signifiers.
The crisis is generated by the convergence of plenitudes constituted by singularities, more than some open breach between identities and totality. Changing the perspective, M15 in this sense, is more than anything an experience of living the “if,” a lesson in cooperation, the creation of networks and the love of common strength, and not merely a change in sense. The work of the multitude does not consist in the consolidation of a “concrete universality” by means of the suture of meaning, but rather the multiplication of points of friction through a variety of tactics, destined to deepen the conquest.
For Negri and Hardt, the construction of the national-popular is not morally wrong because it tries to unify the unrepresented diversity of political identities, to end in another project of power (“national-popular” or not). Rather, in the first place, such “identities” cannot be represented, because they are singularities in permanent transition. And in the second place, because the attempt at unification removes the strength of difference that they express. The theory coincides with the base of Marxist theory, given, that the multitude is a concept of class and who makes revolution is the class struggle. The essence of multitude is its own power, in the sense that its singular forces are immediately productive- the forms of life, active affects, living rights, and creative capacities of the city.
Laclau and Negri differ in the coordinates of struggle under current conditions. Laclau lays out a post-ideological era, in which the class struggle yields to the diversity of identities trying to impose themselves. Negri marks the mutation of determined capitalism by a new form of social life, based in the autonomy of subjects, in transversal cooperation and, in the style of Deleuze and Guattari, in the amalgamation between human and non-human, on the machinic level. It is not that class has dissolved into a diversity of “new movements,” as according to Laclau. In reality, class has been reorganized under the present conditions of social organization of capitalism today, and it is over this terrain that the multitude can emerge- always through antagonism and creative action.
Critique of Populism 2.0
With the theoretical focus on discourse, “Populism 2.0”(Errejón) totally loses sight of the substrata through which capitalism functions. With the mutations that Negri and Hardt talk about, the possible division disappears between the material terrain of struggle that subjects construct themselves in and the cultural and ideological terrain through which they articulate collective will. It is not so much that culture and ideology are superstructures of economic relations -what would be vulgar Marxism- although they are traversed, immediately, by the pre-discursive or pre-linguistic, the machinic level of desire.
The experiences of struggle of new movements and insurgent cycles –in Bolivia or Spain- produce transformations at the level of feeling, a new way to feel democracy and collective action. The affects generated by good encounters crystallize in habits, mixing with more “naturalized” behaviors. If capitalism has it own evidence and affect, such political-affective constructions have the power to produce other evidence and other affects.
Real change cannot arise from a global ideology that substitutes the old order and does not proceed in this manner, remaining at the linguistic level. With ontological priority, true change should be metabolized by the very minority movements themselves, through the construction of new habits, machine agencies. This does not mean privileging some romanticized localist politics, but rather expansive movements with propagating capacity of high intensity, traversing defined borders, identities, and spaces. After all, minorities are the entire world.
Many transformations, from the second half of the 20th century onwards, in this way, did not pass through reforms of representations, nor through the occupation of some empty signifier, which is furthermore an equally empty ahistorical schema. Look, for example, at the sexual and drug revolution of the 60s, or a series of mutations of feeling that, sometimes, inappropriately, are interpreted as “social developments,” but, fundamentally mean the production of concrete practices, crystallized affects, and habits. The level of language does not capture the world of operative fluxes and redirections between non-human bodies, machines, and its molecular dimension.
Basically, the struggle of the multitude is more potent than the discursive construction of the people, as it already operates on the same unconscious foundation of ordinary life as colonial and exploitative capitalism. This also applies to the question of the means of communication, demonstrating the obsession of those so opposed to the Leviathan of the “big media.” No agency of communication has the faculties to emit declarations that, once received, pass directly into circulation across the social fabric. The most they can do is to connect and conjugate with the pre-existent networks of desirous affects and flux, acquiring a certain consistency. One only has to look at how the force of a newsman of a large broadcasting station is connected, through the circuits of desire, to the mechanisms of soap operas and football.
Obviously, this perception should not bring us to underestimate the “media power,” but should make us understand better the manner in which we make it function.
Podemos on the bench?
All of this said, we should not fall into hasty simplifications, as if the description of MAS from Laclau’s hegemony, or the self-elaboration of Podemos from its professor-ideologues, were crucial to understand the historical and material sense of such. It is important to pay attention to the difference between what is said about an experience (including those who participate in it), and what this experience interpellates of us.
Podemos’ search for social majority has already been criticized as the capture of the origins of M15, its vague syncretic populism, elastic collusion, the personalism of Iglesias, or in the words of anthropologist Salvador Schavelzon, the poor political-cultural translation (opportunist?) of experiments in South America. Podemos brings to Spain not the best of what was produced in South America, but rather exactly the most problematic part that has led the governments to close themselves off as constituent processes. Podemos will only be a socialist, national-popular, and hegemonic struggle, and not anti-postcolonial, multinational, and cosmopolitan.
The point is that, on the contrary, as in Bolivia, Spain, they say that Podemos will suffocate the absent people; that is, the multitude? In Bolivia, the progressive ends of the government of Evo and MAS brought to the opening new fronts of conflict and friction, which joined with the previous without resolution, what the Bolivian Marxist (and Vicepresident) Alvaro Garcia Linera termed catastrophic tie. The multitude continued acting with Evo, in spite of Evo, and against Evo –simultaneously, and in accordance with a variety of tactics.
In the same way, if the “power of Podemos” consists in traversing the multitude, would a Podemos government not be hostage to dispersed forces, that now seem to bet on it as an electoral tactic? If power is in the multitude, why fear a hegemonic alternative whose strength depends on it in the first place?
Would not the error be, perhaps, to consider Podemos, in Laclau’s Gramscian molds, as a strategy to create the people – in the place once again of a tactics of the multitude, a means to link together power and potency (protestas et potentia)? Is not foretelling a destiny for an organizational experience from the point of view of its assumed ideology, exactly, to confirm through via negativa the validation of such ideology as it attempts to describe and prescribe the experience itself?
From where I see it, this is an open question.
Bruno Cava researches urban struggles for the last 10 years, he has a master degree on philosophy of law, blogs at quadradodosloucos.com.br, and wrote a book on the 2013 huge protests in Brazil.
Devin Beaulieu is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of California, San Diego.
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