Workers of the World Unite (At Last)

Professor Ronaldo Munck

Rising developments within labor challenge the conventional progressive wisdom that neoliberal globalization has been an unprecedented disaster for workers, trade unions, and the labor movement. The obstacles to labor organizing, of course, do pose serious challenges. Increased mobility of capital has led to a sharp increase in relocation, outsourcing, and offshoring. Multinational corporations can wield the threat of plant closures against workers’ requests for better wages or states’ efforts to raise taxes. Executives at multinational corporations can even pit their own plants against each other, going back and forth between them to get local managers and workers to underbid each other in a race to the bottom. At the same time, the increased mobility of labor has led to increased migration, which can be seen as a threat to wages and working conditions if migrant workers are introduced into a settled labor force. Corporations can then stoke divisions among their workers across racial, ethnic, and linguistic lines to undermine the foundation of solidarity necessary to organize.

Labor faces these and myriad other obstacles in our rapidly changing, interconnected world. However, fixating on obstacles creates a facile pessimism. Globalization may have opened as many doors as it closed. At the most basic level, the globalization of communication has countered one of the most formidable barriers to global action. With email, social media, and other online platforms, workers enjoy better tools to organize across countries—imagine trying to organize a transnational strike a century ago. Moreover, globalized communication fosters solidarity as workers are able to see, hear, and share each other’s stories.[1] Looking ahead, improvements in translation software could help bridge the language divide, thereby opening new paths to transcultural dialogue. Globalized capitalism may have created the basis for a new global working class, not only in material conditions but also in consciousness.

Transnational unionism can take many forms. It can operate among union executives or on a grassroots level, while organizing can be workplace-oriented or based on collaboration with NGOs on issue campaigns. Successful transnational unionism has the capacity to navigate complexity and operate on multiple levels. In particular, transnationally oriented unions have used globalization to their benefit by organizing transnational labor actions, forming new transnational structures, and fostering solidarity with migrant workers at home.

When a transnational corporation spreads production nodes across countries, thus distributing the workforce, the geographic expansion also increases the possible leverage points for organizing against the corporation. The workers of Irish budget airline Ryanair understand this well. Since Ryanair’s foundation in 1984, CEO Michael O’Leary had been a vocal opponent of union organizing, but workers chose not to listen. In mid-2018, they went on strike—starting in Ireland before spreading across the continent—for pay increases, direct employment, and collective labor agreements that comply with national labor laws. Management, which had used its transnational status to play workers against each other, was confronted by a united cross-national organized labor force.

Labor has also showed strength by partnering with allies at different points along the globally dispersed production chain. A campaign against sweatshops in the apparel industry showed how direct action by students in the US can support organizing by workers in Honduras. Garment workers in global production chains are usually considered weak compared to hypermobile, high-profit companies like Nike.[2] But such corporations are vulnerable to boycotts. Transnational union resources focused on a particular industry or country have considerable power to deny market share and thereby bolster demands at the point of production.

Besides enabling specific actions, the new economic landscape has given rise to new organizing structures, as labor unions realize that old methods of operating can no longer suffice. In the 1960s, the International Trade Secretariats (today known as Global Union Federations, or GUFs) began to respond to the expansion of multinational corporations (MNCs) through the formation of World Company Councils. First established by the United Auto Workers and the International Metalworkers’ Foundation, the World Company Councils coordinated the activities of the various national trade unions across a multinational corporation’s operations. However, they proved unable to create the stability and continuity needed to achieve the transnational collective bargaining power the unions hoped to develop.[3]

By the 1990s, the international union strategy had shifted from the promotion of voluntary “codes of conduct” with MNCs and the introduction of “social clauses” (including labor rights) into trade agreements, to the more ambitious and comprehensive Global Framework Agreements (GFAs). An expression of transnational labor solidarity, GFAs bind a company’s global operations to the labor standards of the headquarters, usually based in Europe. Thus, gains won where labor is stronger can spread to where it is weaker. By 2015, 156 Global Framework Agreements had been signed around the world, focused mainly on core workplace conditions and the right to collective bargaining.[4]

Developments like GFAs grew from the realization that relying on old national-level collective bargaining had turned into a dead end. Labor needed new strategies, tactics, and organizational modalities. With “business as usual” organizing modes no longer adequate, many trade union leaders began calling for global solidarity. They called into question labor’s “special status” alongside the state and employers—the famous tripartite modality of the International Labor Organization. If capital now organized itself predominantly as a transnational player, so, too, would the international trade unions need to “go global.”

A significant manifestation of this shift is the emergence of global unions. In 2008, the workers of the United Steelworkers in the US merged with Unite the Union, the largest labor organization in Britain and Ireland. The new union, Workers Uniting, represented almost 3 million workers at its founding in the steel, paper, oil, health care, and transportation industries. Oil conglomerate BP and steel behemoth ArcelorMittal are both transnational; now, their workers are transnational too, refusing to be pitted against each other in negotiations. Maritime workers, who have a built-in internationalism, have taken similar steps. In 2006, in response to the globalization of the shipping industry, the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers in the UK developed a formal partnership with the Dutch maritime workers’ union Federatie van Werknemers in de Zeevaart, renaming themselves Nautilus UK and Nautilus NL respectively. Two years later, workers took the partnership a step further, voting to create a single transnational union: Nautilus International. In 2015, the United Auto Workers in the US and IG Metall in Germany joined forces to create the Transatlantic Labor Institute focusing on auto worker representation issues at the US plants of German auto manufacturers.[5] In a decade’s span, transnationalism has entered the trade union mainstream as leadership catches up with the objective possibilities opened up by globalization.

Notably, the smartest unions are treating migrant workers not as a threat but as an opportunity. By making common cause with migrant workers, trade unions have deepened their democratic role by integrating migrant workers into unions and combatting divisive and racist political forces. In Singapore and Hong Kong, state-sponsored unions have recruited migrant workers, to mutual benefit. In Malaysia, Building and Woodworkers International, a GUF, recruits temporary migrant workers to work alongside “regular” members of the union. Through such positive, proactive outreach, unions can counter the divide-and-conquer strategy on which anti-union management thrives.

Despite such bright spots, many contradictions and pitfalls impede the forward march of transnational labor organizing. The mismatch between the unlimited scale and complexity of the challenge and the limited resources available remains a chronic problem. Also, successfully organizing new layers of workers may reduce the capacity of unions to take action due to the difficulties of mobilizing an informal or precarious global labor force. These problems are not insurmountable for a nimble and strategic labor movement, but they must be addressed head on.  

In the formative stages of the labor movement, unions engaged actively with the broader political issues of the day, in particular, the call for universal suffrage. There is no reason why such larger concerns cannot again move to the center of labor’s agenda, and a very good reason—the interpenetration of a host of economic, social, and environmental reasons—why they should form its backbone. In contrast to the later tradition of craft unionism, the early labor organizers did not recognize divisions based on skill or race. This tradition of labor organizing known variously as community unionism, “deep organizing,” or “social movement unionism” has been making a comeback.[6] Its spread could open a new chapter in labor’s ongoing struggle against capitalism.

This excerpt was originally published as part of the essay “Workers of the World Unite (At Last) on https://greattransition.org .


[1] Peter Evans, “Is it Labor’s Turn to Globalize?: Twenty-First Century Opportunities and Strategic Responses,” working paper, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, Berkeley, CA, 2010, http://irle.berkeley.edu/files/2010/Is-it-Labors-Turn-to-Globalize.pdf.

[2] Steven Greenhouse, “Pressured, Nike to Help Workers in Honduras,” New York Times, July 26, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/27/business/global/27nike.html.

[3] Reynald Bourque, “Transnational Trade Unionism and Social Regulation of Globalization,” in Social Innovation, the Social Economy and World Economic Development, eds. Dennis Harrison, György Széll, and Reynald Bourque (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 123–138.

[4] Michelle Ford and Michael Gillan, “The Global Union Federations in International Industrial Relations: A Critical Review,” Journal of Industrial Relations 57, no. 3 (2015): 456–475; Peter Evans, “National Labor Movements and Transnational Connections: Global Labor’s Evolving Architecture under Neoliberalism,” working paper, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, Berkeley, CA, 2014, http://irle.berkeley.edu/files/2014/National-Labor-Movements-and-Transnational-Connections.pdf; Mariangela Zito, Michela Cirioni, and Claudio Stanzani, Implementation of International Framework Agreements in Multinational Companies (Rome: SindNova, 2015), http://www.1mayo.ccoo.es/24721dffea9bcf38971c14e6f5b83128000001.pdf.

[5] Steven Greenhouse, “Steelworkers Merge with British Union,” New York Times, July 3, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/03/us/03union.html; “Nautilus Podcast Sheds Light on Union Organising beyond Borders,” press release, Nautilus International, August 29, 2018, https://www.nautilusint.org/en/news-insight/news/nautilus-podcast-sheds-light-on-union-organising-beyond-borders/; “UAW, German Auto Worker Union to Announce Joint Efforts,” Automotive News, November 18, 2015, https://www.autonews.com/article/20151118/OEM01/151119812/uaw-german-auto-worker-union-to-announce-joint-efforts.

[6] Jane McAlevey, No Shortcut: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (London: Verso, 2018).

Radical Democracy in the C21st: Requiem or Renaissance?

Dr Russell Foster, KCL

When Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau published Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in 1985, a foundational text of post-Marxism was established. While Mouffe and Laclau were not the first scholars who we should consider “post-Marxists” and the essential elements can be identified in Baudrillard (1972) and Barthes (1957), their influence in navigating Marxist analysis away from the rigid orthodoxy of classes, unions, and exchange mechanisms and towards the discourses, subjects, and identities which are equally vital (but then-understudied) aspects of society, cannot be understated. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s disintegration this trend gained even greater academic credibility and, the criticisms of Norman Geras notwithstanding, promised new approaches for a new millennium, offering the tools and mechanisms for understanding, and potentially reshaping, a society which exists as an imperfect combination of the sovereign, self-present subject and collective class agents.

From Syriza’s dismal failures in Greece, to Bernie Sanders’ unremarkable flash-in-the-pan, to Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to bring down the most unpopular Conservative government since the Duke of Wellington’s hated “Ultra-Tories” in 1832, the Left appears to be in retreat or stagnant.

Thirty-three years later, does Post-Marxism retain this promise? The world which was changed by the collapse of the Soviet behemoth has been changed in ways that are more recent and, arguably, more significant. Neoliberalism not only resulted in the Global Financial Crisis, but, in a manner which Herbert Marcuse would have predicted, has not only survived but thrived in the aftermath of its own existential crisis. Weary of the Global War on Terror and the austere legacies of the Crash, populations are turning towards the New Right. This shift, which Cas Mudde calls ‘verrechtssing’ or ‘Right Turn’, takes many forms but shares similar root causes, and manifests not only in events such as Brexit or the appeal of ethnic nationalists and strongmen authoritarians, but in a growing rejection, at a personal level, of the discourses of the centre and the Left. This is itself understandable as the consequence of a Left which has lost its way, moving from staid analyses of economic redistribution to a preoccupation with identity politics – a legacy of Post-Marxism itself, perhaps?

Evidence of this is ample, on public and personal levels. From Syriza’s dismal failures in Greece, to Bernie Sanders’ unremarkable flash-in-the-pan, to Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to bring down the most unpopular Conservative government since the Duke of Wellington’s hated “Ultra-Tories” in 1832, the Left appears to be in retreat or stagnant. At the very least, the Left has lost momentum. At a personal level the Left holds diminishing appeal to voters whose frustration and despair at neoliberalism and globalisation is not enough to push them into the arms of what many see as a Left riddled with anti-Semitism, obsessed with trivial identity discourses, and which is widely accused of trading the progressivism of the twentieth century for the regressivism of no-platforming, censorship, and a culture of victimhood. In a political climate which fuels the rise of the ethnic Right, while the once broad church of the Left degrades into a narrow social-media inquisition excommunicating heretics and apostates, is there a policy dimension left for Post-Marxists?

Classical Marxism is not dead, but it is hibernating.

At first glance it would be tempting to liken Post-Marxism to the scholars of Lagado’s Academy of Projectors in Gulliver’s Travels (1726); savants who waste their time pursuing pointless, narcissistic intellectual fantasies while the people outside the academy’s walls starve. But this would be grossly unfair. The current weaknesses of the contemporary Left are simultaneously its future strengths, and it is in the intellectual contributions of Post-Marxism that the Left’s policymaking future lies.

Post-Marxism emerged in the late twentieth century, clashing with the Old Guard of orthodox Marxism whose fighting retreat denounced focusing on discourses and individuals. Yet it is that same discursive and individualistic approach which renders Post-Marxism valuable for the future. President Trump, Vote Leave, Marie Le Pen and Generation Identity reveal that the Western public is weary of experts, tired of bean-counting economic arguments, and are just as tired of the rigid and exclusive orthodoxies of conservatism as they are of the dusty class-based analyses of Marxism. The rise of the New Right demonstrates that traditional theories and claims of collective class agencies are unpopular; while discourses, identities, and subjects are the new focus of politics. The New Right is capitalising on this, appealing to peoples’ anxieties of cultural erosion, changing group identities, and fears of personal powerlessness in the face of a global establishment which is at best indifferent, at worst contemptuous.

This is not exclusive to the New Right – the Left can, and must, capitalise on this as well. Classical Marxism is not dead, but it is hibernating. In a new Western public sphere which is dominated by fears of exploitation, Post-Marxism offers the tools to not only analyse society, but help reform it. In the new ‘Age of Anger’ the policy implications of Post-Marxism are more relevant, now, than during its Cold War infancy. Like all intellectual traditions, the thoughts inherent to Post-Marxism need to evolve in order to realise the philosophy’s urgently-needed potential. This special edition offers some of those first thoughts.

Re-Approaching the study of political Islam in a Context of Change.

Dr Lucia Ardovini, Swedish Institute of International Affairs

Just over 8 years after the outbreak of the so-called Arab uprisings, we seem to be unable to stop talking about it. The popular protests that led to the fall of authoritarian dictators and briefly reshuffled the status quo in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are still being used as a reference point in most of the scholarship on states and peoples in the area, be it to argue in favour of democratic practices or condemn regime-sponsored violence and authoritarianism. The recent wave of popular protests in Sudan and Algeria suggests that the momentum might still be there, bubbling under the surface.


The unmistaken protagonist of the 2011 uprisings was political Islam.

The unmistaken protagonist of the 2011 uprisings was political Islam. In the political vacuum that followed the toppling of dictators, Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt and the Ennahda in Tunisia – among others— quickly rose to power through democratic processes. This is itself is not particularly surprising, as decades-old social movements with an impressive popular base, a history of oppositional politics and a steady access to funding were immediately better placed to compete politically than the secular and revolutionary parties that formed during the protests. Yet, the election of MB’s Mohammed Morsi as president in Egypt and Ennahda’s parliamentary role were deeply symbolic moments, not just for these specific movements, but for Islamists across the region more widely. Their rise to power through the ballot box signified the end of decades of illegality, and celebrated the fact that the Islamist project finally seemed to be within reach. However, the phenomenon that many observers labelled as the “Islamist Wave” was set to be remarkably short-lived, as many of these groups were soon confronted by the harsh challenges of transitional politics, and by deep states that were only briefly overshadowed by the results of the popular protests.

In the case of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi was removed by a military coup d’etat led by current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi just over one year after being instated. The events of July 2013 were followed by the re-establishment of a military regime and by a wave of repression so brutal that its extent is unprecedented even in the MB’s troubled history. More importantly, the MB’s destitution was also taken as a greatly symbolic moment by those arguing that it represented the expression of a broader, existential crisis, encapsulating the end of political Islam at large. Statements like “Islamism is no longer the answer” and “the fall of the MB was accompanied by the fall of Islamism” seemed to give credit to advocates of post-Islamism, who had long argued that political Islam had failed to pass the test of power. However, political Islam does not begin and end with its most well-known exponents, nor should its success be measured in terms of some groups’ direct participation in the political process.


Statements like “Islamism is no longer the answer” and “the fall of the MB was accompanied by the fall of Islamism” seemed to give credit to advocates of post-Islamism, who had long argued that political Islam had failed to pass the test of power.

If anything, the events of July 2013 have shown that much has changed in the field of political Islam following the Arab uprisings. Several Islamist movements have gone from opposition, to power, to repression, to a new identity quest over a very short period of time, meaning that the adjustment process is still very much in flux. At the same time, the international focus on the political performances of certain Islamist movements fails to shine a light on the plethora of other practices that are associated to the ideology, and that were not extirpated by the events of July 2013 but rather spurred by it. Here I am referring to the pluralization Islamist political players, such as the formation of Salafi parties, and to the new forms of activism, resistance, and cross-ideological alliances that are emerging despite the harsh repression that most of these groups face. The unprecedented circumstances that movements like the MB find themselves in have invalidated their historical experiences, and are forcing these groups to develop new tools of resistance and to rethink their role in both politics and society. Rather than having failed, it seems like political Islam is undergoing yet another phase of transformation. Hence, there is a lot to learn from examining how these groups are reacting to their experiences. Just how Islamist groups are navigating deeply unfamiliar waters, the scholarship concerned with their study also need to acknowledge these changes and develop new tools to analyse them accordingly.

In line with what is argued by Jillian Schwelder, Stacey Philbrick Yadav notes that a lot has also changed from the perspective of the researcher, as approaching the study of political Islam today is drastically different from what it was 10 years ago. Before the Arab uprisings we, as scholars and researchers, had largely become accustomed to studying these movements focusing on the civil society activities, electoral strategies, and alliances of semi-tolerated Islamist opposition parties. This landscape has now vastly changed, and while a decade ago Islamist groups were mostly constrained by domestic policies and highly organized, nowadays their functions have considerably diversified and are greatly influenced by transnational actors. In turn, this makes it considerably harder to analyse the ever-evolving relationship between Islamists and the state. Therefore, in the aftermath of 2011 this particular scholarship also needs to undergo some transformations. An excellent contribution to this emerging field has been made by the edited volume by Hendrik Kraetzschmar and Paola Rivetti, who have initiated a much-needed conversation about the need to move away from “Islamic Exceptionalism” and to think about these groups like socio-political organizations in a context of change.

As of the first few months of 2019, the whole region is still very much in flux, characterized by unstable national environments, rising authoritarianism and shrinking political space. In such a context, the questions that we should be asking concern the way in which Islamist movements have been affected by the long-term consequences of the Arab uprisings, how they are reacting to these new challenges, and what that would mean for the socio-political environments they operate within moving forward.

The strategic turn in post-Marxist Discourse Theory

Thomas Jacobs, PhD Researcher at Ghent University

Alan Williams tweeted a few years ago that for having a book entitled Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (HSS) as magnum opus, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe had remarkably little to say about political strategy. Indeed, while the concept of strategy features regularly in HSS, it is not crucial to understanding the book’s central argument. It remains equally low-key in their later work, and is all but absent in most of the secondary literature in post-Marxist Discourse Theory published in the quarter-century post-HSS.

Yet recently, something resembling a strategic turn can be discerned within Discourse Theory (DT). In Germany, Martin Nonhoff started working on a rigorous theorization of strategy that fits within DT’s ontology. Eva Herschinger reappraised the notion for the first-time for an Anglophone audience. The hugely influential Inventing the Future by Srnicek and Williams placed strategic reflection about how progressives win at politics in the 21st century at the centre of its argument. And to make the circle full, Chantal Mouffe’s most recent work, For a Left-Wing Populism, wonders what kind of political strategy the Left needs to pursue in order to successfully implement its progressive projects.

The roots of this emerging strategic turn in post-Marxist Discourse Theory lie at least partially beyond academia, with radical political parties like Podemos and Syriza that drew inspiration from Laclau and Mouffe. The realization that their abstract insights and theories about the Political could be successfully mobilized for small-p parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics, undoubtedly motivated discourse-theorists to take a closer look at how they could study, analyse, and understand tangible political strategies.

But more academic developments certainly played a role too in the triggering of this strategic turn. About fifteen years ago, thinkers like Lash, Beasley-Murray, Arditi started to challenge the poststructuralist interpretation of hegemony in a rigorous fashion. The ensuing intellectual debate was far more sophisticated than the rather virulent spat between the post-Marxists and Marxists like Geras, Wood, and Mouzelis in the early nineties. Favouring a paradigm they called ‘posthegemony’, Beasley-Murray and his companions argued that the post-Marxist take on hegemony does not suffice to salvage the concept, and wager it is time for the contemporary Left to develop non-hegemonic strategies by embracing networked, viral, rhizomatic, and exodus politics.

The posthegemonic critique of Laclau and Mouffe definitely has flaws, but it also offers one of the clearest and most incisive formulations of a crucial problem plaguing post-Marxist Discourse Theory: it is ambivalent about whether hegemony is an ontic or an ontological category.


‘…a progressive project that promotes hegemonic politics must also promote the liberal-democratic heritage, and engage in the furthering, and deepening of its core values – liberté, égalité, fraternité.’

Laclau and Mouffe see hegemony on the one hand as a historically specific form of doing politics, that arose from the ‘Democratic Revolution of Modernity’ at the end of the 18th century. The possibility for hegemonic politics came into being together with modern liberal democracy, and the two are closely intertwined. As such, a progressive project that promotes hegemonic politics must also promote the liberal-democratic heritage, and engage in the furthering, and deepening of its core values – liberté, égalité, fraternité. Laclau and Mouffe call this project ‘radical democracy’. Yet contrary to this ontic interpretation of hegemony, Laclau has also presented hegemony as an ontological category. He claims that every social practice has a hegemonic dimension and that all meaning is ultimately hegemonically constructed, and that all politics is therefore hegemonic. This formulation presents hegemony as a timeless, space-less, universal category – hegemony encompasses the Political.

Posthegemony theorists have for definitively confirmed the lingering sentiment that these two accounts are fundamentally incompatible. Yet they usually proceed by reducing DT to the ontic dimension. If hegemonic politics is merely one form of politics, it can be argued that it was never or is no longer a viable approach, and that an alternative posthegemonic politics through networks, autonomous zones, and exodus, constitutes the future of the left. However, a different reaction to this internal contradiction in DT, could be to embrace the ontological dimension of hegemony. This implies abandoning the idea of an innate link between democracy and hegemony, and instead framing DT as a metalanguage for understanding politics as such. In this vein, the result of the poststructuralist turn in hegemony theory is not a normative project like radical democracy, but instead a framework for describing and explaining the effects of political interventions. Obviously, in such an interpretation, strategy all of a sudden becomes a key concept.


If hegemonic politics is merely one form of politics, it can be argued that it was never or is no longer a viable approach, and that an alternative posthegemonic politics through networks, autonomous zones, and exodus, constitutes the future of the left.

Some of the first scholars to recognize DT’s potential for strategic analysis were oddly enough rather critical of Laclau and Mouffe. Boucher and Critchley for instance, both pointed out that an internally fully coherent elaboration of DT’s main principles results in a rather Machiavellistic theory about how power is contested and maintained, devoid of any normative or ethical considerations. The growing number of far-right groups bastardizing Gramsci’s ideas, lends credence to this hypothesis. Yet whereas Boucher and Critchley perceived this normative deficit negatively, the strategic turn in DT embraces the potential of hegemony as an ontological category and seizes it to analyse the outcomes and results of political projects, regardless of their goals.

A discourse-theoretical perspective thus alerts us to the ideological dimensions of strategy. It reveals that political strategy is not just about the schemes of spin doctors, politicians, and movement leaders, but that it also involves a structural and intersubjective component. A political strategy always constitutes an articulation into an order of discourse, and hence, its effects, its chances of success, and its political consequences can be discursively analysed. Every articulation, no matter whether it is inspired by the idea of a posthegemonic exodus, an explicitly counterhegemonic move, or just an isolated demand, affects the balance of forces at the hegemonic level, and DT equips us to study precisely how it will do so.


‘…political strategy is not just about the schemes of spin doctors, politicians, and movement leaders, but that it also involves a structural and intersubjective component.’

This strategic turn pushes DT into a completely new and unexplored corner of the pantheon of critical theory. Questioning when and why particular political moves (fail to) work, and thinking through the “adaptability” of the left-wing project so that it may actually be implemented, constitutes an entirely novel form of critique. Some might argue that it in fact does not constitute critique anymore at all, since this guise of DT has abandoned the normative ground from which it can be claimed something is bad or wrong. Yet if studying how progressive social change can be effected is a valuable and worthwhile endeavour in its own right, this relinquishing of normative ground does not mean DT has to lose its critical edge. Instead, such a move creates a clear division of labour between critical theories explaining the roots and oppressive effects of power, and DT as concerned with the ideological dynamics of the exercise of power.

About the author

Thomas Jacobs is a PhD candidate at the Centre for EU Studies, Ghent University. His main research interests include EU trade policy, international political economy, and political communication. Most of Thomas’ work focuses on discourse, meaning-making, signification, and strategy in political praxis, departing from a poststructuralist perspective, more specifically the discourse-theoretical tradition of Laclau and Mouffe. Prior to entering academia, he worked as a consultant at a Brussels-based communications and public affairs firm.

Populism: What’s in a name?

In 2018 the most used and abused term was undoubtedly that of ‘populism’.

Professor Ronaldo Munck

Rarely has a term been so over-inflated and so over-extended that it has become practically meaningless, while at the same time achieving iconic status. I propose here to carry out a (very) brief deconstruction of the term populism and the presentation of an alternative reading based on the work of the late Ernesto Laclau (On Populist Reason) and my own Latin American in Europe hybrid viewpoint.

When the liberal newspaper The Guardian ran a long feature on populism (https://www.theguardian.com/world/series/the-new-populism  ) we knew it had arrived as it were. The general gist of the project was that ‘populism’ was a major political foe in the global North for all left-liberal folk. It introduced authoritarianism and irrationality into good old centrist politics. These so-called centrists included Tony Blair and Hilary Clinton who were given a platform for their views that included for the latter a call for the liberal centre in Europe to lead on keeping migrants out so that migration would not become an issue of the populist right. The mind boggles is all I can say ( https://blog.oup.com/2016/01/migration-global-trade-unions/ ).


Rarely has a term been so over-inflated and so over-extended that it has become practically meaningless, while at the same time achieving iconic status.

The new Northern orthodoxy on populism emerged in the mid 2000’s as a way to categorise such diverse emerging political figures such as Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Wieder and  Urban, along with their Suthern cousins such as Chávez, Morales and the Kirchners. Populism was defined as an anti-elite politics, also anti-pluralist and usually based on some type of identity politics (Jan-Werner Müller What is Populism).

The purpose of defining populism we are told is to help in defeating it as it is a threat to liberal democracy, whether it comes from the far right or the far left. The current crisis has, apparently nothing to do with neo-liberalism and its paroxysm in 2008-09, the austerity politics which followed or the popular reactions against both. By focusing on this version of ‘populism’ as the cause of democratic decline this liberal onslaught has itself undermined democratic institutions and the very meaning of democratic citizenship. It has allowed the liberal political classes to evade responsibility for the authoritarian trend in the North Atlantic (eg Trump, Brexit, Le Pen) while scapegoating those resisting it (eg Sanders, Corbyn, Melenchon) and demonising those in the global South who have combatted neo-liberalism such as the progressive regimes of Latin America dubbed ‘bad’ because populist lefts.

Central to the development of a national-popular will in Latin America was the concept of the people (pueblo). For Ernesto Laclau it is only by developing and extending Gramsci’s work in this area that we can overcomethe exclusion/opposition between particularity and universality in the construction of the people. “For him there is a particularity a plebs—which claims hegemonically to constitute a populus while the populus (the abstract universality) can exist only as embodied in a plebs. When we reach that point, we are close to the ‘people’ of populism” (Laclau 2005, p. 107). The development of populism is probably the main difference between Latin American political development and that of other regions. To this day, in international commentary on the “left populism” of Chávez et al. we find quite an ethnocentric emphasis on the irrationality of populism and a constant tendency to see it as the enemy of “normal” political development toward class patterns and progressive social transformation. For Laclau , on the contrary, “populism presents itself both as subversive of the existing state of things and as the starting point for a more or less radical reconstruction of a new world order wherever the previous one has been shaken” (Laclau 2005, p. 177). The old order was changed utterly by the emergence of this nation-popular ideology and worldview. It could also become radicalized at key conjunctures when the “people-oligarchy” opposition became the dominant divide in society.


The old order was changed utterly by the emergence of this nation-popular ideology and worldview. It could also become radicalized at key conjunctures when the “people-oligarchy” opposition became the dominant divide in society.

In Western Europe, on the other hand, the term ‘populism’ is used mainly in a pejorative way to refer to the rise of a new right and its demagogic leaders. The different trajectory of the term in Latin America should warn us against any claims to universality of this discourse. Yet we may also learn from Latin America where the left ‘populism’ of the post 2000 left governments was also the result of the flawed and biased system of representative democracy that preceded them. Maybe the ‘crisis of representation’ referred to in the Latin American debates may also be a factor in the rise of the ‘new populisms’ of the North Atlantic. Following Laclau we can understand how populism is best understood as a political logic or discourse that belongs neither to the left or the right (this does not mean it is beyond left and right but that is another issue). This populism creates a ‘logic of difference’ between power and those challenging it. The construction of a people – populism?- is not therefore a degradation of democracy. Indeed, all successful socialist movements in the past have been ‘populist’ in this sense. It emerges this as subversive of the political order, the existing state of affairs and offers a starting point for a more or less radical reconstruction of society.

The construction of a people – populism?- is not therefore a degradation of democracy. Indeed, all successful socialist movements in the past have been ‘populist’ in this sense.

The Latin American debate on populism could maybe be brought to bear in Western Europe to provide a different vantage point to what has become a rather debilitating polarisation between ‘populism’ and centrist liberalism. It could add some nuance and complexity to the debate especially from a progressive perspective. That has already happened through the  engagement of Ernesto Laclau and in particular Chantal Mouffe with Podemos in Spain (see  https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/book/podemos-in-name-of-people   ). But there is far less sign of a broader perspective in the Anglo sphere. It would allow us to move beyond the notion that liberal democracy was an unambiguous human good and populism an obvious bad.

The cause of radical democracy is ill-served by a demonization of populism and an uncritical embrace of liberalism. We would do well to recall now- in the midst of the complex Brexit crisis- what Laclau said in relation to what ‘creates the conditions leading to a populist rupture’ which we saw as a ‘situation in which a plurality of unsatisfied demands and increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them differentially exist’