Transforming political consciousness
Today voters can only choose between Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola. This in turn leads to the depolitisation of people and a lack of interest in what is going on in our societies. If a Green party cannot present an alternative to the current neoliberal system it won’t be able to connect the struggles, argues Philosopher Chantal Mouffe in an interview with the Green European Journal.
GEJ: Is it possible to connect the many different struggles we see now in the world?
The first question is not whether it is possible to connect the struggles, the first question is “what’s the objective?” For a political project, the aim should be the radicalisation of democracy (creating the kind of democracy that not only accepts difference, but depends on it). This can only be done if one puts into question the currently dominant neoliberal model.
Our societies are sometimes called post-democratic societies: we still have all the institutions, but they have lost their meanings. In a representative democracy people need to have a chance to vote and to choose between different alternatives. Today, there is no fundamental difference between centre-right and centre-left: they are managing the same neoliberal globalisation, even if one might do it more humanely than the other.
I think that this is not a situation in which I would say democracy has a meaning. For me democracy only has meaning when you have an agonistic struggle in which you have alternatives, and I think that Green parties would also need to situate themselves in respect to that. There are, for example, some Green parties who are not offering anything that could be seen as an alternative to neoliberal globalisation, some of them are even willing to make alliances with the centre-right and the centre-left. Thus, it is not always very clear where the Green parties stand, whether they are left or right.
I think, if a Green party cannot present an alternative to the current neoliberal system, I’m not sure it will be able to connect the struggles or create what we call a “chain of equivalence” between all the democratic struggles. A common adversary makes a lot of sense when creating convergence, and in this situation the common adversary would be neoliberalism, and the actual form of financial capitalism.
The struggles we witness all over the world are democratic struggles, in the sense that they are struggles against a form of subordination. But it’s a mistake to believe that they necessarily converge. The unity is something that needs to be constructed politically. For me this is something that is central for the radicalisation of democracy. But this can only happen once we know what the objective of the movements is. Do they simply want to contribute to the humanisation of financial capitalism and neoliberalism or are they movements that want to offer an alternative to the current hegemony?
GEJ: But if the enemy is neoliberalism that means that you can only unite groups with a social or economic agenda, but not groups that seek recognition, like LGBT groups, for example.
Today there is a big discussion about what is more important: the struggle for recognition or the struggle for redistribution. My position is that a project of radicalisation of democracy needs to link both. I find it very disturbing that some left-wing and Green parties only advocate LGBT rights and liberties, and they don’t care at all about the questions that concern the working class.
This is why we see the emergence of right-wing populist movements in so many countries of Europe. Look at the example of France: the majority of the working class votes for Marine Le Pen’s Front National. And they vote for that party because that’s the only party that pretends to take care of their interests. This is extremely dangerous.
The left-wing parties can’t abandon the working class and act as if those people were already lost for progressive policies. The really important struggle for me is to find a way to link those struggles, to link the struggles for equality in the economy and equality in terms of gender and in terms of race. This is not something that is already given; you need to construct this link if you want to establish some kind of alliance between LGBT movements and the working class. And for that you need to transform the political consciousness, so that the demands of the LGBT people can be articulated together with the demands of immigrants, the working class, and so on.
This of course means that a new adversary needs to be constructed. And for that we also need to be aware that many of the new demands that exist today are based on problems that are in fact caused by inequalities. And I am not only thinking in terms of inequalities in salaries: capitalism is destroying the environment and with it the livelihoods of many people; and in this situation even middle class people – who are not particularly affected by economic issues – tend to suffer under the effects of neoliberalism.
GEJ: We have seen in recent years that movements don’t really trust political parties. What do you think a Green party can do if it wants to approach movements and become part of the struggles?
That of course is a problem for all left-wing parties who want to look for an alternative to neoliberal globalisation. The creation of the collective popular will cannot be done strictly through the vertical order inside the party. You need to have some kind of association between the horizontal forms (everything that has to do with the social movements) and the party itself.
At the moment, what I find really worrying is for example the issue of the Occupy movement and some other groups who were able to organise socially but did not want to have anything to do with the more traditional forms of politics. This attitude is not going to lead to any serious transformation. Those movements are important, because they transform the common sense, they bring to the fore a serious issue, but on their own they are not going to be able to transform the relation of power that structures society, nor to get rid of the neoliberal hegemony.
I think it is very important to participate in elections and to try to come to power. I think a good example of linking social movements to more traditional parties is the example of Syriza in Greece. But this is also what Podemos are doing in Spain, and I think this is how real progressive politics should work. Green parties used to insist on this kind of alliance before, they didn’t want to be like the traditional parties, but unfortunately they have become too institutionalised. That’s the big problem in politics: a lack of institutionalisation leads to impotence, too much of it cuts the parties from their base. Therefore I think it is important for Green parties to recover this relationship with social movements.
There is also a very interesting debate now in France, inside Europe Écologie – Les Verts. There are some people who want to go back to government with the socialists, and there is another group, led by Cécile Duflot, the former Minister of Territorial Equality and Housing, which is trying to establish links with the Left Front and left-wing populist movements. I think the future of left-wing politics in Europe should be on the basis of what I call left-wing populism. This means creating a transversal alliance between different groups by defining their common adversary: neoliberal globalisation. I think the Greens should be part of this alliance.
GEJ: You advocate left-wing populism. But people on the left like to think of themselves as intellectuals, as critical thinkers. How is their rather complex worldview compatible with left-wing populism?
If you want to be critical about everything, you shouldn’t do politics. For me politics means choosing a side. Of course, many of us expect the intellectuals to look at things from the outside, but I tend to disagree with this view. I am on the side of Antonio Gramsci who advocates for the role of the organic intellectual, the kind of intellectual who is active in politics: in Gramsci’s view all of us can be intellectuals, not only the academics in their ivory towers, but also teachers or syndicalists, all the people who are involved in organising social relations. I would go even further and say, in my view these people are the real intellectuals, and not the ones who sit in their ivory towers without taking a stance, so that they remain pure and their hands don’t get dirty. Left-wing populism means that intellectuals are going to act as organic intellectuals in those movements.
GEJ: And what about those whose voices are marginalised? As sociologist Ágnes Gagyi puts it in this issue of the journal: “There are countless other ways to express personal or massive dissatisfaction, from slipping into alcoholism to joining sects to committing suicide (…) it is the existing unequal distribution of social resources that defines who is in the position to launch movements in the first place.”
I think that many of the people who remain outside of the movements, do so because they can’t identify with any of the projects. One of the specifics of the neoliberal hegemony is that it makes people believe that there is no alternative to the existing neoliberal order. Today, if you go to vote you basically have to choose between Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola. Also, nowadays all political issues are considered technical, and of course technical issues are better dealt with by experts. So in fact the citizens don’t have a role to play anymore, they don’t have a say, and this in turn leads to the depolitisation of people and a lack of interest in what is going on in our societies. This is manifested in the fact that there are more and more abstentions. People get completely disillusioned, instead of getting involved they stay at home and drink. This is something that is very worrisome for democracy, because it leads to the earlier mentioned development of right-wing populism.
The only way to fight against this is to reestablish an agonistic debate. We shouldn’t let it look like there is no alternative to neoliberalism. In fact, there are always alternatives.