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.