Interview. The word populism has been used to describe a spectrum of emerging political movements claiming to give power back to the people. But two French philosophers argue that many of these politicians truly want just the opposite.

Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval: ‘Populism is the enemy’s word’

Populism is an emerging theoretical device in neoliberal society to respond to the crisis of capitalism and the resulting geo-political and geo-economic changes taking place, according to a new analysis by Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval. Working together, the pair of French philosophers have written a new book on the populist moment in contemporary politics. The meeting took place in Rome where they took part in the conference on communism.

Their analysis identifies three types of populism: media-based, nationalist and theoretical. It starts from one thesis: “Populism is the enemy’s word,” says Pierre Dardot. “We are in favor of the use of the category ‘people,’ but we refuse populism.”


Laval: Populism is a category that synthesizes different phenomena. Since the mainstream media seized it, they have put them all in the same bucket. The media-based populism puts together Le Pen, Trump, Farage, Corbyn, Grillo or Podemos. In this way, any possible opposition to the system is neutralized.

Populists want to restore the sovereignty of the people. Aren’t they talking about ‘the people’?

Dardot: They deliberately confuse between the sovereignty of the people and the sovereignty of the nation-state. In France, Marine Le Pen beseeches the people because she wants to strengthen the nation-state’s prerogatives. Her idea of sovereignty is to strengthen the power over people. She wants to strengthen the power of the state in an authoritarian way to the detriment of her own people, taking away the ability of everyone to participate in political life and in public affairs. Conversely, popular sovereignty, the power of the people, is the direct exercise of power by the people.

Can a capitalist like Trump care for the interests of the people in the White House?

Laval: Trump is an example of how a part of the ruling class has played the card of popular anger against capitalism and the system. He captured this anger and redirected it to strengthening the system. It is a demonstration of the flexibility of the ruling classes to be able to recover the opposition. The first guidelines of his government are a clear indication of it. The elite billionaires who are part of the government decided to dispose of Obama’s timid health care reform, deregulate finance and re-arm the U.S. economy against the German one.

Can populism become a criticism of capitalism?

Laval: On the contrary, it is a neoliberal response to the crisis of capitalism. It accentuates the trade war between the states: financial and fiscal war in the context of a general competition. The different forms of populism, from Trump to Brexit, are the expression of a seemingly anti-system policy that actually strengthens the system.

Meanwhile, the number of those who believe in the possibility of a “left-wing populism” grows. How do you explain that?

Dardot: That is the position of theoretical populism inspired by the Argentinian philosopher Ernesto Laclau. It takes the populism condemned by the media and by the ruling classes, and flips it into a positive category. We totally disagree with this application because populism is understood as the constitutive moment of politics as such, not a specific experience like the Peronist movement analyzed by Laclau. Another problem is the valuation of the leader’s role. Laclau argues that it is one of the factors constituting the identity of the people. This thesis questions the very principle of democracy because it establishes a plebiscite and paternalistic relationship between the leader and the people. An accurate analysis should be made to distinguish democracy from populism. Otherwise, we will end up in a situation where one looks like the other.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the presidential candidate of the French Socialist Party, to the left of the socialist party, calls himself a “populist.” Why?

Dardot: Melenchon vindicates Laclau’s theoretical populism and is inspired by Chantal Mouffe. He flies over the most questionable aspects of Chavismo, the cult of personality of the leader. His movement is called La France Insoumise (“The Rebellious France”). It is not an appeal to inspire people to rebel against the state, but for the country to rebel against external powers affecting its sovereignty. The nationalist component is present from the name this movement adopted. It refers to the appeal of the French Revolution, when the nation claimed to embody the universe. This is Robespierre’s model.

The far-right Marine Le Pen also intends to re-arm the nation against globalization. How do you explain this converged disagreement?

Laval: This speech is derived from the neo-fascist current of the National Front. In the French extreme right, the blending with a socialist discourse is not new. Maurice Barres at the end of the 19th century had described his movement as a “National Socialist” movement. If Le Pen’s father had a pure neoliberal, Reagan-style orientation, Le Pen’s daughter has rediscovered “sovereignism” and protectionism and mixed them with some theses of Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s sovereignist and Gaullist socialism. It is an ambiguous policy that calls for state protection against deregulation. This will attract people from the left to vote for the National Front in the presidential elections. In general, there is a nationalistic orientation between those who argue that the next president should go to Brussels to refocus European policy in favor of French interests. France considers itself a northern European country, the dominant part of Europe. No one raises the issue of cooperation with the southern countries, the victims of the asymmetry that today rewards Germany.

Why is the exit from the euro such a rallying point?

Dardot: If the sovereign power of the state wants to be restored: Get your own currency. The leftists are mesmerized by the euro exit and incur into the confusion of the right, which does not distinguish between popular sovereignty and the nation-state’s sovereignty. It is an illusion because the nation-state is a form through which power is exercised by oligarchies today. Their power is not synonymous with the nation-state sovereignty, but of transnational powers with interests different from the people they intend to govern. Not to mention that for more than a generation, nation-states have been privatizing some sovereignty functions like the military, for example. Since the first Gulf War onward, there has been a trend to hire private agencies.

You have proposed an international federation of democratic coalitions. What is that?

Laval: We support the resumption of the inspiration that gave rise to the first international federation in the 19th century. We’re not talking about an organization of parties following the model of other international coalitions that developed their actions at a national level. Rather, we’re referring to a federation of associations, trade unions, cooperatives and even political parties.

How is it different from the alter-globalization of the social forum?

Laval: Those were places of discussion, not action against the global neoliberal system. The model is that of the workers’ associations, whose statutes allowed for direct affiliation to the international association, skipping intermediate levels. No organization can mediate the will of the individual, and the individuals can participate directly, regardless of nationality. This solution would protect migrants from the discretionary power of the states, for example.

By federation, do you also mean a political institution?

Dardot: The European Union, as it is, is detestable. The federation is an alternative political model that could inspire an international open organization in order to federate the peoples of Europe under a co-participation in public affairs. Europe needs an international perspective to re-establish democracy in Europe on a different basis than the neoliberal angle, not to fight for the nation-state’s sovereignty.

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