|It is a radical vision that we share as members of URPE: the creation of an economy dedicated to meeting the needs of people and planet. We are far from consensus, however, as to how to structure that new economy or, for that matter, how the transition to that economy could occur. The theory of radical democracy, introduced by Laclau and Mouffe in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) and most recently elaborated by Mouffe in For a Left Populism (2018), has much to contribute to our debates.Consider the question of our economic and political goals. The Great Transition Initiative aims to create “a socially equitable, culturally enriched, and ecologically resilient planetary civilization”. Well, that sounds terrific, but I expect that most of us would agree that such an achievement does not seem within the grasp of today’s mortals. On the other hand, what exactly can be achieved within the next 25 years?
I suggest that radical democracy is a feasible, yet highly ambitious, goal and one necessary for progress. Theorists of radical democracy are highly influential in both academic and activist circles. The growth of several left populist parties in Europe can be linked to this school of thought. The New School just held its 7th annual conference on the subject.
While there are differing perspectives on the meaning of radical democracy, there is agreement that its establishment would mark a major step towards a more equitable and sustainable way of life. By definition, it would mean a changed hegemony — one that would enable free and substantive debate of radical demands, such as demands for sustainability or for economic security. Radical demands are defined as demands that cannot be met under today’s prevailing hegemony. They drive the movement towards radical democracy. Principles of the sort that motivate progressive social movements would guide the practices, laws and institutions of this new kind of democracy. These principles can be variously described but include equality, liberty, justice and love of neighbor.
The political power of moneyed interests in this transformed society would have been eclipsed by the power of the political parties based on principles of radical democracy. Political debate would be intended to result in transformative change. Conflicts over how to meet social goals would be addressed, not antagonistically, but agonistically. That is, there would be forums for partisan debate in which opponents would be treated as adversaries, but not as enemies.
It should be emphasized that this free and productive debate can happen only after the terms of debate [the discursive practices] have been agreed upon by all parties. This is in contrast to the situation today – those dominating our national political forums at present impose constraints that prevent the free articulation and analysis of radical demands.
Also, note that the political is by its very nature conflictual, and political contention will always be part of democracy, even radical democracy: there will never be an equilibrium, a point in time in which the demands of each self-identified group are met. Decision by consensus will not always be possible.
The radical transformation of state hegemony will not emerge gradually and smoothly from the spread of good things like cooperatives or progressive online networking. Rather, capitalist oligarchs will mount strong opposition to any effort to end their hegemony. The growth of a left populism that unites the major social movements in political parties will be the necessary precursor to the political battles that can result in radical democracy.
From Here to There The rise of Trump and the growth of right-wing extremists here, as elsewhere, is linked to the fact that people have unmet needs/radical demands and are looking for political leaders who articulate their frustrations and anger — and offer an alternative. In countries such as the UK, Spain and Greece, progressive politicians have been able to win broad support for radical party platforms built on justice and equality. This growth of left populist movements bodes well for the forging of a collective will to confront the ruling elite.
There was little mention of radical democracy, per se, at URPE’s 50th anniversary conference. However, much of the substance of the thinking on radical democracy and left populism came up time and again in the discussions of what direction URPE, and the left more generally, should take.
Mouffe in For a Left Populism (2018) argues that the growth and consolidation of left populism is the political imperative of our time, an indispensable forerunner to radical democracy and the transformation of capitalist hegemony. She points out weaknesses in many left analyses.
* Mouffe and Laclau (d. 2014) build on Gramsci’s work on hegemony in their discussion of the importance of affect in political identification and commitment. They reject the essentialist notion that a worker’s political identification and interests are determined by the role he or she plays in the mode of production. They stress that the affective bonds developed within a group are basic to a collective sense of identity and to political commitment and action. Political parties are necessary for the articulation of broad political identities and for people to locate themselves politically. The arts, narratives, and common projects are integral to the process of building identity.
* The movements that can succeed in changing prevailing ideology and practices cannot be confined to the horizontal —- to actions don’t engage with established political parties and institutions. They must also be vertical, entering the mainstream political fray.
“The lack of understanding of the affective dimension in the processes of identification is, in my view, one of the main reasons for which the left, locked in a rationalist framework, is unable to grasp the dynamics of politics…..(There are) no essential identities but only forms of identification…” Mouffe (2018) p. 72
* Mouffe and Laclau also reject the notion that the institutions of democracy such as political parties, elections and a free press are exclusively capitalist institutions.
* A broad-based radical populism cannot be built by a movement that limits itself a priori to addressing only a few select democratic demands, e.g. only work-related demands and human rights, as is the case with some socialist groups.
In URPE, there seems to be broad agreement with Mouffe on the above points. URPE members have welcomed the rise of left populist parties in Greece (Syriza), the UK (the Labour Party), and Spain (Podemos), all of which have been influenced by the ideas of radical democracy.
Seizing the Moment for Left Populism The transformation of politics under radical democracy results neither from reforms within the system nor from revolution that occurs outside of democratic processes. It depends upon a new party or coalition of parties coming into power. Since capitalism is unlikely to disappear all at once, radical democracy in the US might begin with a turn towards Scandinavian models in social, political and environmental practices. Reforms will, of course, be unique to each country.
In the left populist parties in the UK, Greece and Spain, political agendas always address the economy. While specifics vary by country, nationalization of key sectors, increased governmental oversight of business, and employee representation on boards have been among platform planks. But changes that aim at equality, sustainability, social welfare and community have also been part of these platforms. Which demands rise to top priority are decided organically within the parties. The demands of the labor movement do not hold a privileged position.
The creation of a collective “we”, united in opposition to the “they” that dominate the country, is basic to left populism. As Mouffe explains, this shared recognition of the adversary is necessary to unite a collective opposition. It can originate from any of several radical, democratic demands. The labor, environmental, feminist and other social movements each have demands that cannot be met under today’s capitalist society. The leaders of these movements may not immediately recognize the need for a transformed state and new governing principles, but over time the radical nature of their demands becomes clear.
As a Presidential candidate, Barack Obama was able to build the sense of a collective ‘we’, although his message was not radical. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, identified the oligarchy as adversary, but failed to create a broadly encompassing ‘we’, notes Mouffe. (It should be acknowledged that he was working under constraints that severely limited his ability to reach the electorate with a detailed political analysis.)
It is worth noting that the struggle for radical democracy will necessarily be at the national level, although activists will explicitly link their work to international issues. The personal experiences and discursive practices that bring people into a common political bond occur largely at the local or national level. This affects the agendas of the various populist parties, the demographics of their base, and more.
Concluding Remarks Our role as economists is not simply to come up with economic programs that would improve people’s lives. We need to tailor our suggestions to the political situation we are facing. This means supporting the emergence of an enlightened left populism and radical democracy.
Our policy agendas should reflect the broader political context in which we operate. Collaboration with other disciplines and with grassroots leadership is called for. This will expand and energize policy debates. It will also foster community (affective bonds) among all those working for progressive change and so strengthen the collective ‘we’ working to end the domination of the country by an elite few. In this way, we will come closer to creating a radical democracy capable of transformative change.
“The fostering of a collective will aiming at the radicalization of democracy requires mobilizing affective energy through inscription in discursive practices that beget identification with a democratic egalitarian vision” Mouffe (2018) p.73