Interview with Chantal Mouffe – Part 1: Crisis of Democracy?

Prof. Mouffe talks about the ascent of right wing populism in Europe, Jörg Haider and the connections to incapacities of the centre-left as well as the left.

Shabka: The recent elections in Austria showed a significant rise of right-wing populist parties. This development seems to be a European phenomenon as well. Some experts connect that with a decline of the welfare-state. Would you agree with that?

Chantal Mouffe: I’ve been working on populist parties even before they were spreading all over Europe. In fact, my main research has been done in Austria about the development of the FPÖ and Jörg Haider. I was very unsatisfied with the view that was developed by Anthony Giddens in Britain but also by Ulrich Beck in Germany about the Third Way or the Radical Center. They were arguing that it was important to have some consensus at the centre between left and right, out of what centre-left and centre-right emerged because there seemed to be no alternative. They presented that as a progress for democracy; that it was becoming more mature. In fact I argued that this is not a progress for democracy. There was no possibility through the traditional representative democracy to offer alternatives to the existing order. I wanted to show that the consequence of that was the development of right wing populism. Another aspect of my critique was, that in a deliberative democracy in the sense of Habermas where people should deliberate towards reaching a rational consensus, has to do with passion.

Shabka: What do you mean by passion?

Chantal Mouffe: I was trying to show that the success of right-wing populism was precisely due to the fact that they were recognising this dimension of passion. I want to acknowledge that by passion I understand something very specific. There is much discussion about emotion, some people talk about an emotive term in politics. Passion is different from emotion; emotion fits in an individual perspective while passion has something to do with the formation of collective identity. It has something to do with an affective dimension in the creation of collective identities – in the formation of the „we“. Nationalism is a good example for that, where passion is created around a „we“. It is absolutely impossible to understand the development of nationalism if you leave aside the aspect of passion.

Shabka: Do right-wing parties use this aspect of passion more effectively?

Chantal Mouffe: The terrain was opened for parties outside the traditional establishment of centre-left and –right parties. They said: „Yes, there are alternatives and we are going to give the people an alternative.“ This is the rhetoric they have been using. Here I do not understand rhetoric as something negative – rhetoric is something very important in politics. The type of rhetoric lets us differentiate between right- and left-wing populism.

Shabka: Why did you focus on Jörg Haider and the FPÖ?

Chantal Mouffe: I took the example of Jörg Haider, for me it was an excellent example. In fact I showed that the development of right-wing populism took place much earlier here in Austria. When I began to study, the other important right-wing populist party was the Vlaams Block in Belgium, which is now called the Vlaams Belang. Those were the main two parties. I showed that the success of the development of the FPÖ was in fact due to the grand coalition in Austria as it has been since World War Two; there were two “Lager” since then everything had to pass through either the ÖVP or the SPÖ. To get a post at the national broadcasting station ORF you had to be a member of one of the parties. This created a lot of frustration. In fact my argument was that the FPÖ was an expression of democratic demands. People wanted to have more democracy but these demands were expressed by and articulated through right-wing rhetoric. People said that the FPÖ were Neo-Nazis but it was completely absurd to present the FPÖ under Haider as Neo-Nazis. I was interested to show that quite an important sector of the people voting for the FPÖ were coming from the SPÖ. The main answer until today is that in comparison to traditional parties these parties used moral condemnation. Like if it was written on wrong play – like it was a disease.

Shabka: Why didn’t left wing parties use the same strategy?

Chantal Mouffe: Traditional left-wing parties never tried to understand that, because it would force left-wing parties to auto-critique. So it is not easy to condemn in general. That was the kind of argument I was making in my book On the Political. Since then it is quite ironical because at the moment when the FPÖ and the BZÖ divided, I thought that there would be be a decline of right-wing populism. But in fact this is certainly not what has been happening – even all over Europe. The emergence of right-wing populist parties in many countries – in Scandinavia for example – can explained in terms of the incapacity of socialist parties, which define themselves as centre-left to adjust to demands. That is also due to the fact that these parties have directed themselves to the middle classes. The traditional working classes for them create a problem because they don’t see a space for those people in the process of neoliberal modernisation. Since they really define their programme around modernisation – which means to adapt oneself to neoliberal modernisation – they threaten this sector of the population for which the socialist parties cannot have a discourse anymore; they don’t fit in their view. So this sectors are very good terrain for the right-wing populist parties to show that they provide an alternative.

Shabka: Why does the current situation favour right-wing populist parties? 

Chantal Mouffe: It is true that there is no a priori reason why these could not be articulated by the left but during many years the situation changes. The left was so much dominated by this rationalist view that passion seemed something bad. First they were convinced that there was no alternative to neoliberalism. For me it is very much linked to the hegemony of neoliberalism. So they could not really visualise a political alternative to that, but on a different level they also believed that they need to have a rationalist discourse and that mobilising passion was something that only the right could do. In that sense I have been arguing that the impact of political theory has been really negative because this has led to the idea – after it was taken by certain political leaders – that they have to leave aside any kind of real popular mobilisation and use deliberation instead. The specificity of the left was to only use rational arguments – influences like Habermas for example were very negative from that point of view. I understand that Habermas, coming from Germany and having lived through fascism was afraid of this and could in a sense only see popular mobilisation from what it derived, but I think it is wrong to believe that only the right can use passion. The passion for justice for example is something that can mobilise the affective dimension in a left perspective. The dominance of neoliberalism on the one side as well as the suspicion of the role of the affective dimension on the other has been a hindrance for left parties to really offer an alternative to right-wing populism. My proposal in this regard is the development of left-wing populism.

Shabka: What do you understand by left-wing populism?

Chantal Mouffe: As I said this is changing; we see Mélenchon in France or DIE LINKE in Germany – DIE LINKE has been accused of being populist. Here we need to look at another aspect: For me, one argument that I’ve been making in The democratic paradox, is that our model of democracy, the Western model of democracy, is an articulation between two different traditions; the liberal tradition (insisting of the value of liberty) and the democratic tradition (insisting of the value of equality), it is putting together the “Reichstaat”, the defence of individual rights and the idea of popular sovereignty. So it is some kind of complicated articulation and there is an immense amount of political theory on that. Some people like Habermas for example say that those two principles are co-original, Carl Schmitt says they are in contradiction. My idea has been that there is a tension between – it can be perfectly reconciled – liberty and equality. You cannot have a society when you have perfect liberty and perfect equality – it is impossible because there would always be one element that is more important. In the development of liberal democracy we have a moment that is a liberal tradition and we have a moment that is democratic tradition but there is always a struggle for hegemony of one tradition over the other. Now with neoliberalism it is clearly the liberal tradition that has become absolutely dominant and that’s why we propose democracy. The idea of popular sovereignty , the importance of the people to decide is what we propose.

Chantal Mouffe is a Belgian political theorist. She currently holds a professorship at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster in the United Kingdom, where she directs the Center for the Study of Democracy.

The interview has been conducted on October 4th, 2013 at the Austrian Study Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution in SchlainingThe second part of the interview “Democracy outside the box” will be published in the upcoming days.

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