Etienne Balibar: Populism in the American Mirror

This essay first appeared in Libération. Translated by David Broder.  

The new and substantially updated edition of Balibar's now classic introductory text The Philosophy of Marx is currently 40%, alongside all the other books on our Marx primer reading list.

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The question that came to my American friends’ lips after Trump’s election was always the same: "Who’s next? Do you think that Le Pen will win the French elections?" They foresaw either a sort of domino effect or the onset of contagion, grounded in the devastation of the redistributive policies that have been torn apart by neoliberalism. They saw Brexit as a warning, a forerunner. The fall of Renzi as well as Hollande’s announcement that he will not stand for re-election echoed Clinton’s defeat. The question of whether Merkel would "hold on" in the face of the German far Right became a strategic variable.

Now I discover that the same questions are agitating the European press and European public opinion. And on both sides of the Atlantic, "populism" is the category that continues to polarize analysis and speculation. It is true that the European Union and the United States hold up a revealing mirror to one another. Even properly taking all the relevant differences into account, the interaction of the two situations and the light that each sheds on the other should allow us to understand that what is developing on both sides of the Atlantic is a crisis of political institutions. And we can say that while avoiding either empty generalities or a narrow provincialism.

This is particularly true insofar as the decisive terrain in Europe is the continental level itself: the paralysis that is gradually taking over systems of representation and exposing them to the demagogic recipes of nationalism and protectionism is just the other side of the decomposition of the European project as a political and cultural project. And similarly, in the American case the decline of imperial hegemony is beginning to make its effects felt not only on the "social contract" — of which it constituted one of the material bases — but also on the constitutional edifice, even though it is one of the oldest and best-"regulated" in the world.

The American episode has at least three lessons for us Europeans, which we have to adapt to our own history and practices.

Firstly — and this is what Hillary Clinton’s defeat tells us — it is useless to try and neutralise politics (and thus indefinitely prolong the status quo of post-democratic governance), denying the depth of the divisions that neoliberal capitalism has produced or reactivated. This include class divisions (which are simultaneously territorial, economic and cultural divisions), ethno-racial ones (often redoubled by religious discrimination) and moral ones (intensifying conflicts over sexual and family values). And that is not to forget the institutional camouflage for the multiple forms of structural violence that Trump has appropriated in the name of "anger."

But secondly — and this is the lesson of the comparison between the Trump and Sanders movements — we have to give up once and for all on the category "populism," amalgamating discourses of both Left and Right. The crisis of the "system," a crisis of legitimacy as well as of representativity, is an objective political fact and not a doctrine. Yet even so far as they do allow for amalgams, the conclusions that we draw from this fact — either in the sense of a xenophobic nationalism, or in the search for the "missing people," which means a new synthesis of democratic aspirations and resistances — push in opposite directions.

Thirdly, the divergent institutional models rooted in history doubtless offer different conditions for politics. But they cannot mask the emergence of a general constitutional problem in these two regions of the world (the same ones that invented the democratic model of the bourgeois era, then adapted it to the liberation movements and social struggles of the twentieth century). At stake, here, is the competition between irreversible de-democratisation and a "democratisation of democracy." To democratise democracy is to make space for the formidable demand for popular participation, even at the risk of clashes between sides and parties (or conceptions of the world). It is to reinvent an active citizenship, a "civil conflict." It is to check or counterbalance the power of money, of technocracy and of inheritance (whether of culture or of assets).

The choices presented to us — social choices, choices of values — in both continents are of powerful consequence not only "worldwide" but "globally." Globally, in the sense that they will gradually contaminate everything else and sometimes seem to form a kind of condition of impossibility for any rational assessment of their own assumptions. Such is the case with the acceleration of global warming, at levels that threaten the living conditions of whole populations. This is also true of the deregulation of financial capitalism, the scramble for liquidity, the other side of which is the explosion in social precarity. And it is also true of the "clash of civilisations," a self-fulfilling fantasy with a real basis in the new regime of cultural mixing and migration. Extreme violence is present in-potential at each point of intersection. And sometimes it is openly unleashed, having been stirred up by imperial nostalgia, pretentions to secular or religious universalism, the interests of the arms trade, and securitarian fear.

Day after day we see that the state structures we call "sovereign" are impotent faced with these challenges. And this "impotence of the all-powerful" engenders collective panics, which can become uncontrollable. Conversely, the spontaneous assemblies that revive the idea of the people deliberating and acting (Occupy Wall Street, Syntagma Square, Gezi Park, Nuit debout…) testify to the energies that do exist for a renewal of democracy. Yet they are disarmed, faced with the accumulation and concentration of powers monopolised by the oligarchy.

We need something more. Nationalist populism has no answer either at the level of protection and regulation or that of participation and representation. For it poses in unreal and discriminatory terms the question of place; that is, the question of the spaces in which we live, work, meet and struggle. A globalised world must provide these spaces for each person, starting with those who support other people’s lives and take care of them. What I have hazarded to call a transnational "counter-populism" (as I did at the moment that the Greek crisis broke out) does not constitute any kind of solution, or even a plan. However, I think that it is the appropriate name, if we want to bring forces together and identify the different elements of the problem. Its stakes? The renaissance of politics made by the people and for the people.

Étienne Balibar’s most recent book is Des universels (Éditions Galilée).

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