Don’t be afraid of populism

Panic over the return of populism in Europe is a sign that something has stopped working among traditional parties.

Rock musician, Bob Geldof sails with ''Remain'' supporters in a counter protest next to a flotilla of fishing trawlers, organised by Nigel Farage in London Britain [EPA]
Rock musician, Bob Geldof sails with 'Remain' supporters in a counter a protest organised by Nigel Farage in London [EPA]

There are two important electoral events in Britain and Spain in the coming weeks that show how afraid we are of “populism”.

While these elections concern very different matters – the British are voting on whether to stay in the European Union and the Spaniards for the national elections – the accusations of populism are common to both. Conservatives, socialists, and liberals in both countries accuse Nigel Farage, of UKIP, and Pablo Iglesias, of Podemos, of being dangerous demagogues appealing to popular sentiments instead of rational arguments.

The problem for the political establishment is not that the former is a racist nationalist politician or the latter a leftist progressive leader, but rather that both will probably do well at the polls.

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This ongoing panic over the so-called return of populism in Europe is an indication not only that something has ceased to work among traditional parties but also that their strategy is to generalise a political phenomenon that spans different stances.

What we should fear most today is not populism but rather this drive towards generalisation, which harms the very essence of democracy.

Union run by technocrats 

There is an overall consensus among Europeans that we are now framed within a union run by technocrats who are indifferent to our needs. Europeans, as Pepe Escobar recently explained, “are increasingly keen on ditching the political EU, whose only functioning trait remains its status as a giant market”.

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This failure is particularly evident in Britain and Spain, where the EU is seen either as a threat to the national interest or the source of the technocratic imposition of austerity measures.

The centre-right and centre-left parties have intensified the neoliberal policies of the EU, leaving its citizens without a real alternative.

These measures, together with a number of trade-liberalisation policies enacted since the economic crisis began in 2007, have not only ruined domestic manufacturing bases by sending low-skilled jobs to the developing world but also lowered Europeans standards of living.

These standards are again seen as threatened by the ongoing refugee crisis, which the EU is unable to confront.

But the traditional parties in Britain (Conservative Party and Labor Party) and in Spain (Popular Party and Socialist Party) have all proved incapable of tackling the economic, social, and political concerns of their voters.

But democracy depends on political leaders’ understanding that these concerns are vital, interpreted carefully to regenerate the collective will when necessary.

Populism’s negative reputation

Instead, the centre-right and centre-left parties have intensified the neoliberal policies of the EU, leaving its citizens without a real alternative.

Unidos Podemos party leader and top candidate Pablo Iglesias [EPA]Unidos Podemos party leader and top candidate Pablo Iglesias [EPA]

Only the so-called populist leaders offer anything that sounds different, but this perilous moment offers an opportunity not only for those searching for political change but also for democracy itself.

According to the political philosophers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who dedicated a number of significant studies to populism’s negative reputation, if democracy wants to preserve its superiority to other political systems it must always remain close to the people.

And this is what populism does. It brings together different demands in opposition to a common enemy.

Laclau and Mouffe do not consider populism an ideology but a political form that is able to articulate popular identities. Populism, in Laclau’s words is “a way of constructing the political on the basis of interpellating the underdog to mobilise against the existing status quo”.

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If populism is now the only available political form able to deepen the central value of equality that governs modern democratic societies, we must remember that there is a substantial difference between right-wing and left-wing populism in Europe.

We must remember that there is a substantial difference between right-wing and left-wing populism in Europe.

The rhetoric of the former seeks to secure power for the politicians who espouse it by demanding that the definition of a national people be restricted to a certain category, from which immigrants are always excluded. The left-wing populist parties include both immigrants and general workers.

As Mouffe explains, the “adversaries of the people for the left are not the immigrants, but the big transnational corporations and all the forces of neoliberal globalisation”.

Xenophobic discourse

This is evident in the announced platforms of Farage and Iglesias: Farage’s enemies are the EU and immigrants; Iglesias opposes the establishment “elites” and corporations.

These differences, evident in the discourse of not only Farage and Iglesias but also other populist politicians, such as Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders in the United States, cannot be ignored; they speak directly to the correct functioning of democratic global societies.


The xenophobic discourse of Farage and Trump, which rejects refugees, Mexicans, Muslims, and any other of convenience, is not compatible with a pluralist conception of democracy in the 21st century.

Their use of fear to mobilise their voters instead stimulates hate and increases inequality as it tacitly rejects any alternative to neoliberal globalisation.

Iglesias and Sanders, whose notion of a “people” includes foreigners, instead hope for an alternative to neoliberalism through the improvement of the welfare state.

When these differences are generalised, as the political scientist Takis Pappas says, populism becomes “a big basket to throw into things we don’t like”.

And this rhetoric, to which the traditional political parties and the media outlets that have grown rich covering them are the main contributors, leads to more and more things being thrown into the basket, more mobilisation by rejection, a stance that harms democracy and cripples the possibility of change.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA research professor of philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


Leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage poses during a media launch for an EU referendum poster in London

The future of the UK is tied, for better or worse, to the rest of Europe if only for reasons of proximity.

opinion by Emmanuel Karagiannis
Published On 14 Jun 2016
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