28 jan 2013

The Left is Right

A reply to Katsambekis

In reply to Katsambekis' article Pels writes: 'Political history of the past century has proven a bloody graveyard for all claims to act as 'true representatives of the people'. Liberal democrats should remain aware of the dangers lurking in the habit of taking democracy literally, as direct 'rule of the people'.' 

A serious challenge

In our book Populism in Europe we argue two things. First, that the new post-war populism is not the rehearsal of 'old school' fascism or national socialism, but represents a novel political phenomenon. Secondly, that it is not an unfortunate political incident or historical accident but a stable addition to the European political landscape. Indeed, as a pan-European phenomenon, it represents the severest internal challenge to and test for the viability of the European project that has emerged since the start of European integration.

As such, right-wing populism offers a much more serious challenge to the theory and practice of liberal democracies than is often acknowledged. Instead of being alien to our political traditions, it comes much closer than expected, forcing towards a reinvention of our conceptions of liberty, democracy, identity and tolerance. It offers a special challenge to us greens, because the green and the populist movements are interconnected in unexpected ways, representing adversarial sides of the cultural politics which (at least in the West) has emerged in the wake of the educational and meritocratic revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.


Katsambekis is concerned that we and other greens view populism as a political virus which undermines existing democracy, and tend to wield the label 'populist' as a stigma against political adversaries. The subtitle of Cohn-Bendit´s and Gaudot´s contribution ('Why Populism Poses a Danger to Europe') may indeed suggest such a simplified view of populism as political irrationality and evil (their main title, by the way, is 'The Temptation to Over-Simplify'). Such notions admittedly exist more broadly within the green movement, as evidenced by recent brochures such as Strategien gegen Rechtsextremismus and Europa Rechtsaussen, edited by Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht. 

However, our book is precisely conceived to counteract this simplified negativism (in his chapter Pels explicitly argues against the 'virus' view), and the bulk of the articles substantiates a much more nuanced interpretation. We explicitly recognize, for example, that populism features a strong left-wing tradition which has also historically shaped our own movements and parties ('power to the people!'). The reason not to write about the populist left was purely instrumental, and the German title Rechtspopulismus in Europa does better service in this regard.

Left and right

Katsambekis laudably wishes to avoid simple good/bad or democratic/antidemocratic dichotomies, in order to calmly understand the populist political logic and acknowledge the sheer diversity of populist movements and ideas. But he also appears driven by ulterior, more political motives. Next to highlighting populism's democratic side (its legitimate resistance against the social fallout of harsh austerity measures, its critique of elitist 'de-democratization'), he clearly comes out in support of left-wing populism: first of all that of Tsipras and Syriza in Greece, but also that of Mélenchon's Front de Gauche in France, Latin American socialist leaders and the global Occupy movement.

Going still further, he denies the label of populism to a neofascist party such as Golden Dawn since, he claims, it does not directly attack the elite but focuses on discriminating against immigrants. The fundamental distinction between left and right, in his view, is that the left constructs the people as inclusive and democratic, as an active subject geared towards self-emancipation, whereas the right constructs it as exclusive and absolutist, as a passive object which must be saved by an elite or a charismatic leader.

People for the people

However, there exist closer affinities between radical left and radical right than Katsambekis is comfortable with. His argument (taken from Stavrakakis) that the role of the people in the Golden Dawn discourse is secondary if not opportunistic since it focuses on nation and race, simply appropriates the positive term 'people' for the left while denying it to the right. But this definitional splitting obfuscates that both left and right populism attempt to mobilize the sovereignty of the (Greek) people against national and European elites.

'We stand with the Greek people who have been driven to poverty and despair by the imposition of the genocidal IMF and EU austerity policies that are decimating the population and turning Greece into a slave state'. Could this statement, recently published on the website of the New York branch of Golden Dawn, also not occur on that of Syriza? 'Golden Dawn is the only political party in Greece that unapologetically stands for the sovereignty, security, and dignity of the Greek people.' But of course, Golden Dawn's defence of sovereignty is at once translated into the slogan 'Greece for the Greeks', the rejection of 'genocidal multiculturalism' and the uncompromising struggle against 'decades of unlimited third world immigration which has brought crime, unemployment, disease and possibly terrorism to the once peaceful Greek cities'.


In an interview with Al-Jazeera, political scientist Stella Lodi of the Panteion University of Athens describes Golden Dawn as casting itself 'as a political group of "people for the people"', wanting 'to create a country that is going to take care of the people'. In her estimate, the Golden Dawn vote is in large degree a protest vote, coming from 'those feeling against the political establishment', which has pushed the austerity measures too far. Blaming immigrants of course plays into that, but immigration may not have been the key reason for voting for the party: 'Rather, it was because their stance was nationalistic. Their focus was on Greece... Voting [for GD] was not just a reaction to immigration or illegal immigration but a reaction to the political status quo.'

This may play down the danger, since Golden Dawn leader Michaloliakos has in the past openly praised Hitler, embraced national socialism, anti-Semitism and white supremacy, and operates from a virulent anti-immigration platform ('we are racist and nationalist and we are not hiding that'). Katsambekis is right in emphasizing that Syriza's 'interpellation' of the Greek people is crucially different. But by defining the austerity measures as an offensive of the 'dominant classes against the Greek working people', and rallying the people against the international troika and the national elite of political 'technocrats', Syriza plays in a similar anti-establishment populist register.

In a recent brochure issued by the British thinktank Counterpoint, Aristos Doxiadis and Manos Matsaganis argue that Golden Dawn should not be seen as an embarrassing ´outlier´, but in many ways represents an (albeit violent and extreme) manifestation of a deep-seated national consensus. ´National exceptionalism´, or the conviction that Greece is radically different from (read: superior to) all other nations is more or less the default view of most Greeks. Leftwing national populism was also the birthmark of PASOK, which long cultivated an anti-western, anti-imperialist and anti-EU stance, carrying the same slogan ´Greece for the Greeks´ which is now used by the radical right. Since PASOK´s pro-European turn, old-style social nationalism of the left is still represented by the Greek Communist Party (KKE) - which veers uncomfortably close to Golden Dawn´s national socialism. Syriza, in its effort to mobilize a broad anti-Memorandum front representing the ´Greek people´, represents a more modern ´new left´ version. According to its leader Tsipras, politicians implementing the Memorandum should be seen as ´less Greek´ than the rest of us. 

The left is right

In sum, while the radical right frames the people in nationalistic and racial terms (ethnic Greeks of all classes vs. alien immigrants, the left-wing elite and Europe), the radical left tends to frame it in social class terms (Greek workers and middle class against the right-wing elite and Europe). The distinction is indeed crucial, and our sympathies must clearly lie with the left. But this should not blur the risks which reside in any usage of the discourse of popular sovereignty and the popular will, left or right, and its well-proven blindness to the logic of political representation and the necessity of political elites. Political history of the past century has proven a bloody graveyard for all claims to act as 'true representatives of the people'. Liberal democrats should remain aware of the dangers lurking in the habit of taking democracy literally, in the 'Athenian way', as direct 'rule of the people'.

In the end, Katsambekis' contrast between the good people of the left and the bad people of the right boils down to the unhelpful statement: the left is right. That is not much better than the tautology for he reproaches us in the first place: that populism is bad because it is bad... 

Socioloog en voormalig directeur van Bureau de Helling.
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