Interview with Chantal Mouffe Part 2: Democracy Outside the Box

While Prof. Mouffe talked 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 in the first part of the interview, in the second part she talks about lessons from Latin America, the interaction between social movements and political parties, and the need of a democratisation of democracy.

Shabka: How can one achieve a restructuring of the neoliberal paradigma?

Chantal Mouffe: There is a tendency towards the development of governments of experts and to leave aside elections – the element of democracy did not become completely eliminated but almost. Here I want to make a reference to what we were saying about South America. What is interesting with this progressive development in South America, is that there has been a recalibration of the two components – equality and liberty – and the other thing is that they have been cutting on the neoliberal project. They do not want to have anything to do with the IMF, they did not accept the Washington Consensus, they have put the democratic element in charge – they revert. That is the reason why I think there is so much in comprehension in Europe with respect to those parties. Certainly in France the left-wing journal, or centre left journal, they are extremely critical of Venezuela, of Argentina, of all those examples. But this is no democracy, this is populism because they consider that a liberal democratic regime. No country there has been putting liberal democracy in question. Venezuela is still a democratic country in which the dominant element is democracy while liberalism is subordinated to that. Since in Western Europe we become so much accustomed to accepting this post-democracy when we see countries where the democratic element is put to the fore, we say this is populism. And I think that it is in that sense that we here in Europe have something to learn from these experiences because we see that it is possible and important to follow the same line and – for the left – to break with neoliberalism.

Shabka: Breaking with neoliberalism – is this the “aim” of left-wing populism?

Chantal Mouffe: For me this is what left-wing populism should be about. Of course it will take many different forms and if I speak of left-wing populism it is not just one model. The situation in Argentina is very different from Ecuador, from Bolivia but all those governments can be seen. What is at stake here is the creation of a collective will; you are going to create a collective will which is going to be the result of articulation of different sectors of the population. It is more a kind of popular project for different social factions and where different sectors of the population can identify themselves and then create what I call a chain of equivalent of democratic demands and transformation, of radicalisation of democratic institutions. That’s why I insist very much on the fact that this should not be seen as a rejection of democracy but there is indeed a need to democratise democracy, these countries are not representative enough, there are many sectors with are not represented – e.g. the young people, they are unemployed and they do not see that the parties are working for them. This creates some kind of movement which will be very different in the different countries but around a common project that requires to put into question if there is no alternative to neoliberal globalisation, to imagine what would be another model and that would be not center around one sector; that’s is the primary difference to prior left-wing politics instead of thinking the working class is the centre, they can’t have a privileged role today. It is very complicated to decide f. e. concerning the precariat. It needs new categories to think about that.

Shabka: For the future of the European left, how do you think that movements translate their demands in political contexts? How is the fragmentation of traditional partiesconnected with the demands of movements?

Chantal Mouffe: I mean the question is in what contexts that takes place – there is no general answer to that. But I think that requires certainly transformation on both, one the side of the political parties and on the side of the movements because one of the problems with many of the movements is that they are absolutely anti-institutional: don’t want to work with a party, they don’t want to work with a trade union and one can understand why they act like that because they often have been put under dominance. It is important for parties to recognise that.

Shabka: For instance in Southern Europe? What about DIE LINKE in Germany?

Chantal Mouffe: One example is the case of Mélenchon. It is also interesting to see that those movements under both SYRIZA in Greece and the Front de Gauche in France are not one party, it is already a putting together of different groups, it is already some kind of alliance. They consider themselves as a movement. It is the same with SYRIZA. I think I know a little bit about DIE LINKE and I know for instance – well DIE LINKE is complicated because they have a different orientation – Katja Kippling, I’ve known her for ten years. Since the beginning she has been working with the Journal „Prager Frühling“. They have insisted that the party should be working with the movement. For instance they were very active in Heiligendamm a few years ago and the people from DIE LINKE were very active. They want to have a different kind of party. I think it is one of the important tasks to make the movement aware of the importance of working with parties. I honestly don’t believe that the traditional social-democratic parties could ever be transformed. The case of DIE LINKE and the case of the Front de Gauche are quite similar. Like Lafontaine, Mélenchon was in a socialist party before and he left and he created the Parti de Gauche, like DIE LINKE, exactly the same. In fact he is a good friend of Lafontaine and he was inspired by that experience. Just For me this is really the way forward to create parties on the left, parties that really want to work within the institutions in order to transform them; this is the war of position. The state can be transformed; it is not something that needs to be destroyed. That is the big difference in France: there is the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste which is in fact a transformation of a Trotskyite party, which is also on the left but it is a party that is presented as a revolutionary party. This kind of anti-capitalist rhetoric does not lead very far: „We need the revolution! We need to destroy capitalism! “But how? With whom?”

Shabka: SYRIZA and DIE LINKE seek to challenge structures from within?

Chantal Mouffe: SYRIZA or DIE LINKE, they want to come to power thorough elections and then once in power transform the state’s institutions. This is what I call the radicalisation of democracy. Not the destruction of the existing system; we also need to learn from the tragic experience of real existing socialism. It is not possible to make tabula rasa, to destroy one system and establish a new one – that would be disastrous. You need a process, what I call a war of positions or radical reformism instead of revolution. Reform with the aim to establish a new hegemony not simply to make the present hegemonic system better but reforms though critical work in the institutions. For me that should be the strategy of left-wing populism.

Shabka: This might be something we can learn from some Latin American governments because they did so-called “radical reforms”…

Chantal Mouffe: This is precisely why I think we need to learn from these experiences. Also they do show that the interaction between the state and social movements can be very productive. In Argentina many of the social movements have not worked with the government before. Now they push the government, it is not always easy and sometimes it is conflictual, obviously. Or Brazil: the relation between the Movimentos sem-terra and the Lula-government has always been very difficult but they went on supporting, they voted for Lula and then for Dilma and they said: “For us the big difference is to have a government that instead of treating us like terrorists like before, it treats us like partners.” This is why I am really preoccupied by anti-state rhetoric that one can find in certain social movements, particularly the way by which they are influenced by certain ultra-left ideologies that the state needs to be destroyed. That doesn’t lead anywhere, honestly.

Shabka: Would you say that by building an alliance between a leftist party and a movement, the movement needs to develop a critical programme?

Chantal Mouffe: I don’t think that the social movement should do that alone; they should do that together with the party. I think the principal role should be that of the party. It should be a joint project between party and social movement. A left-wing populist party of course needs a programme that is elaborated by the party. Occupy in fact has been very much criticised by some people because they did not have any demands. I think it is important to have demands, but Occupy cannot say what “needs” to be done. That is absurd because it is not the role of the social movement to establish a strategy. The role of the social movement is to make demands, to bring to the fore what is problematic. But it is not the role of the social movement to provide measures, they should not say: “This is our demand and that is what we should do.” It is the role of the party to provide that global view but always by working with the social movement. The social movement proposes things, questions, and demands and then the party should establish strategies on the basis of that; bring questions and demands to the parliament, propose laws and so on – that’s why I think the role of the party is really necessary.

Shabka: How about a global orientation?

Chantal Mouffe: I think it is very important to work locally and globally. In the long run, only a global orientation makes sense. I have been involved in the beginning of the London Social Forum and when we began there were many critics. They said “Oh, that’s localism!” They were even against organising a national Forum and they said that we could only organise on a world level. There is this tendency among certain social movements to follow the concept of de-territorialisation; so that there should not be a nation, there should be only the world. I think that is absolutely problematic. Otherwise it is also true that on the side of the party, there is a need to think globally. In Europe for instance that means to think on the European level.  With respect to that – and that is very important for me – there needs to be a critique of free trade. I have been able to see the effect of free trade – in Africa for example. I know a little bit about Senegal: the country used to have a striving onion production. Now it is completely destroyed because they import frozen onions from Holland. This is just one example; a lot of local industries are destroyed in those countries because of imports and this is a completely vicious circle. In Africa particularly – and in sub-Saharan Africa especially – young people can’t live there anymore because the basis of their subsistence is destroyed. So they are desperate and try to come to Europe where they say: “No, we don’t want you.” We do not realise that we are responsible for this migration. If people have to immigrate they are desperate and we destroyed their existence. I think for me that is something that is really very important for left-wing populism to put into question.

Shabka: Free trade is always a great thing for a minority of people but at the cost of the majority. Anyway, left-wing populism has a chance to raise global awareness. While the globalisation process has been happening mostly along economical lines, it completely ignores the consequences this brings on the social level. This could definitely be an entry point for left-wing populism with the goal to not only focus on global problems but rather to bring the global challenges onto a local level in order to raise awareness. In particular, this is what our project aims to do.

Cantal Mouffe: And also, I am very much in favour of food sovereignty – it is one thing that is absolutely crucial. It is incredible that countries are exporting food while their people are starving. I think that it is very important to be against free trade and for food sovereignty and also to make people here aware – that is maybe the most difficult part because we can’t go on living here in Europe as we have been. We have been living on the cost of others. People always want cheaper things. Clothes need to be cheaper, food needs to be cheaper. Then of course, the people who export all that are super-exploited. Just think about the fire in Bangladesh. All those things which are so cheap are only cheap because people produce them in those countries and are super-exploited. We need to become aware of that. We need to change our costumes’. For instance I like the concept of slow food very much – why do we need strawberries in December? On top of that they do not taste like anything anyway. I think we need to recover a little bit that there are seasons and there are some fruits specific to the season. One big obstacle – one big enemy we could say – is the agri-business. It is clear that if we talk about the European level, the small producers are not favoured at all. It is the big agri- business who receives those subsidies in order to produce. That is really something that needs to be put into question. I personally favour what some people call European protectionism. We must understand that it is not something that is egoistic. Yes, it is something that defends but it also defends the industries in other countries. For example in South America – here I am pointing to Argentina – they have developed a form of protectionism. I think they are becoming aware. It is very important that these things should be implemented on a regional level. In South America they have been creating a series of regional institutions in order to create solidarity among the different countries – that is a first step and then you can establish solidarity with other regions. It needs to start local and then elevate to a global level.

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 Schlaining

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