Rearticulating Contemporary Populism

Class, State, and Neoliberal Society

in Historical Materialism
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Oriented, descriptively, by recent liberal definitions of populism, this essay pursues a historical-materialist definition that grounds populist antagonisms in class struggles as ‘crystallised’ in the capitalist state. A critical assessment of Laclau’s early equation of populism and socialism inaugurates the reading of Poulantzas’s relational account of class and state as a nascent framework for a theory of populism, centred on the state and its ideological crystallisation of individualisation, the mental/manual-labour division and the ‘people-nation’. This framework is then expanded to articulate the political-economic core of populist antagonisms, the specific character of ‘neoliberal populism’ today, and the potential, in relation to theories of ‘popular politics’ and a ‘communist people’, that left-wing populism might hold as a process of new political productions of class. This reading provides for a more expansive account of such movements’ potentials, beyond a threat to or correction of pre-determined democratic or Marxist schemas.

Rearticulating Contemporary Populism

Class, State, and Neoliberal Society

in Historical Materialism



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Motta 2011.


Weyland 2001pp. 11 14.


Taggart 2000.


Canovan 1999 and 2002.


Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2012p. 8. This definition was first formulated in Mudde 2004.


Laclau 1977pp. 143–98.


Laclau 1977pp. 196–7.


Raby 2006; Cammack 2000.


Laclau 1977p. 159.


Germani 1978; Di Tella 1965.


Laclau 1977pp. 150–1.


Laclau 1977p. 161.


Laclau 1977pp. 172–3.


Laclau 1977p. 165.


Laclau 1977p. 108.


Laclau 1977pp. 104–5.


Laclau 1977p. 107.


Laclau 1977p. 106.


Mouzelis 1978p. 57.


Laclau 1977p. 167. See also Laclau 1977 p. 196: ‘the resolution of “the people”/power bloc contradiction can only consist in the suppression of the State as an antagonistic force with respect to the people.’


Laclau 1977p. 171.


Laclau 1977p. 69.


Poulantzas 1975p. 21. I follow Bob Jessop here in emphasising ‘strategic-relational’ elements as the most fruitful if still provisional aspects of Poulantzas’s work. See Jessop 1985 and 2008.


Cf. Balibar 1994p. 140: ‘there is no “pure” process of exploitation: there is always some domination involved. In fact the idea of “pure exploitation” the purely calculable difference between the value of labour-power and capitalizable surplus value is nothing but an illusion resulting from the contractual form in which the “seller” and “buyer” of labourpower “exchange” their respective “properties.” ’


Poulantzas 1980p. 19. This conception of the state encompasses the ‘extended’ or ‘integral’ concept of the state that Gramsci first developed i.e. ‘state + civil society’.


Poulantzas 1980p. 62.


Poulantzas 1980pp. 65–6.


Poulantzas 1973pp. 188–91; Poulantzas 1980 pp. 63–5.


Poulantzas 1980p. 73.


Balibar and Wallerstein 1991p. 96. The ethnic character of each people-nation highlights the central intersection of populism (but not only populism) with nationalism and racism a connection manifest in most right-wing populisms but also present (if more obscured or ‘historicised’) in left-wing forms. If all modern states are racial (Goldberg 2002) then so must be all people-nations (and all ethnic formations as both Balibar and Goldberg highlight are also gendered/sexualised especially though their (imaginary) connections to kinship and family). Populism in other words is located at the core of ‘the confrontation as well as the reciprocal interaction between the two notions of the people’: ethnos ‘the “people” as an imagined community of membership and filiation’ and demos ‘the “people” as the collective subject of representation decision making and rights’ (Balibar 2004 p. 9). A full rearticulation of contemporary populism must reckon with the specific effects and implications of this confrontation and interaction. In a few subsequent notes I gesture towards elements of such an account but the principal focus here is on the intersection of class antagonisms and demos. A full critical engagement with the notion of ethnos and ultimately how to understand the tensions and intersections between the two is the second core element of my book project on contemporary populism of which this article represents the first. What should be avoided above all is the presumption that populism is intrinsically more racist than other modern political forms. This presumption merely combines ‘neo-racism’ which posits a ‘natural’ basis of xenophobia (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991 p. 26) with a ‘class racism’ which posits the more ‘natural’ or ‘primitive’ character of the dominated classes.


Poulantzas 1980pp. 128–9.


Poulantzas 1980p. 75.


Poulantzas 1980p. 56. Also Poulantzas 1975 pp. 233–4: ‘[T]his division . . . forms in every mode of production divided into classes the concentrated expression of the relationship between political and ideological relations . . . in their articulation to the relations of production . . .’ It is not grounded in the technical character of specific forms of labour – as if there were pure ‘manual’ work that involved no thought or ‘mental’ work of a incorporeal mind. Rather the division itself is the (shifting) product of ideological-political forms that constitute the relations of production.


Balibar 2014p. 10. See also Cammack 2000 p. 153.


Poulantzas 1980p. 56.


As Bob Jessop notes (cf. Poulantzas 1980p. 63) Poulantzas’s account of the unity of the state never escapes an implicit functionalist presumption – the state unifies because that is its necessary function – and so tends to eclipse any account of precisely how such unity is constructed. What populism suggests is that such unity is inherently fragile and contested. The nation-people can become a term in an antagonist confrontation as much as the integrative term for a fragmented set of individuals. The inverse side of this critique is that Poulantzas ‘overlooks the implications of the “isolation effect” for the creation of hegemony in favor of a class reductionist account of political forces and ideologies’ (Jessop 1990 p. 188). Populism is precisely one of the key such implications especially as argued below given neoliberalism’s intensification of that effect. At the same time the homogenising character of race is a central factor in the construction of such unity (Goldberg 2002).


Quoted in Modonesi 2013pp. 16–17 (Q25 § 5: 2289).


Jessop 1990p. 96.


Roberts 2013p. 42. Despite his identification of ‘economic’ initiating causes Roberts retains a liberal discursive definition of populism.


Cammack 2000p. 155.


Poulantzas 1975p. 311.


Poulantzas 1980p. 89.


Poulantzas 1980p. 168.


Poulantzas 1980p. 169.


García Linera 2014pp. 294–5.


Pollack 1990; Konings 2011.


Fraser and Gordon 1994.


Pollack 1990p. 13.


For a range of accounts see Lapavitsas 2014Kliman 2012 and Duménil and Lévy 2011.


Castel 2002p. xv.


Lapavitsas 2014.


Barker 2013p. 43.


Hayek 2014p. 307.


Mirowski 2013p. 81.


Röpke 1996p. 159.


Davies 2014p. 89. This basic change allows a number of ‘discoveries’ in economics and state regulation including that large corporations do not impede ‘competition’ and that situations that are not strictly speaking ‘markets’ can be rationalised through the application of market-logics of assessment and rational choice.


Frank 2000p. xiv.


See amongst many others Krippner 2012.


Streeck 2014pp. 79–82.


Angosto-Ferrández 2014.


The obvious exception is Laclau 2007which defines populism as the ground of all politics. The account offered here suggests that the plausibility of such a claim lies rather in the historical conditions of neoliberalism. For elements of a critique of Laclau’s later account of populism see Bray 2014a.


D’Eramo 2013p. 20.


Dussel 2007p. 4.


Badiou 2010; Dean 2012; Bosteels 2011.


Dean 2012p. 98; Compare Dussel 2007 p. 12.


Dussel 2008p. 74.


Dean 2012p. 80.


Dean 2012p. 97.


Dussel 2008p. 76. I find more unresolved tensions in Dussel’s use of ‘potentia’ and ‘potestas’ than Ciccariello-Maher suggests. Compare the claim that ‘without organization the power of the people remains pure potential . . . objective nonexistence ideal voluntarism and anarchism’ (Dussel 2008 p. 98).


Dussel 2008p. 76.


Dean 2012p. 69.


Žižek 2006p. 269.


Muhr 2011p. 41.


Sassen 2014.


García Linera 2014pp. 229 238 308.


García Linera 2014p. 239.


Ellner 2013p. 65. The question of whether ethnic/racial identities might undergo analogous (re)formations through such processes in such places must remain an open one here. Something similar at least seems to be projected in Goldberg’s query as to whether states (or peoples?) could become ‘the principal terrains in which social life is played out in all its cultural – what one might characterize as ethnoracial – thickness’ (Goldberg 2002 p. 274).


Lo 2012. Also Davidson 2013 p. 292: ‘The people organized by such movements may well be morally and politically misguided but it is patronizing – and above all politically useless – to pretend that they are simply being manipulated by élite puppetmasters’.


Agarwala 2008; Spronk 2012.


Davidson 2013; Kalb 2011p. 15.


Konings 2011p. 52.


García Linera 2014p. 156.


Gudynas 2009; Veltmeyer and Petras 2014. On the ‘magical state’ see Coronil 1997.


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