No people without populism

, par Arlind Qori

Far from being a natural entity, self-evident or grounded ontically on the riverbed of history, the concept of the people must be considered as a kind of discursive formation, which nonetheless impacts not only the common understanding of the society, both politically and not, but also the way the social and political agents act, relate to each other, and, in general, form the society’s cognitive-practical map. Saying that, it doesn’t mean that there are not theoretical, or more exactly, ideological approaches which consider the people as an objective reality, with objective interests, and independent from any discursive formation. Nevertheless the aim of this essay is to consider any approach as a discursive formation, and to distinguish between them from the standpoint of the emancipatory potentials, both theoretically and politically, of each. So, as long as the discursive formation of constructing or relating theoretically to the people can be named populism, it is useful to distinguish between two kinds of populisms : reactionary populism and emancipatory ones. The latter will be discussed from a critical viewpoint of the important theoretical hints of Ernesto Laclau, Jacques Rancière, and especially Slavoj Žižek, whose views will be considered widely even in the response to what I’ve called reactionary populism.


As long as paradigmatically the social field is viewed as ontologically open, the populist construction of the people, even when considered objective or necessary, will be thought of as a contingent process of discursive formations which form the necessary feature only retroactively. Anyway, what distinguishes the reactionary populism is the discursive formation of the people as a natural wholeness of everybody pertaining to the society “minus One”. Reactionary populism tends to conceive the people as essentially identical to itself, an ahistorical entity whose most important imperative is to live as one, but whose goal is thwarted by an internal/external enemy, the former “minus One” of the people. Naturally the people are described as morally superior and deserving the populist justice, in contrast to the enemy of the people pictured as its opposite. What reactionary populism tends to avoid at any cost is the ontological antagonism of society as such, or to put it more correctly, the impossibility of the society (the people) to attain the dreamy fullness. And the enemy within, with almost any possibility connected to the enemy outside, is not only the politically practical scapegoat, but also a discursive necessity for the failure of overcoming the contingent and antagonistic character of the society. For this reason contemporary reactionary populist parties construct the figure of an alien and parasitic intruder, which is to blame for the absent fullness. So, Slavoj Žižek uses the figure of the “Jew” in the Nazi discourse to explain why the “Jew” is the embodiment of what the society or the people fail to achieve : “…the designation ’Jew’ does not add any new content, the entire content is already present in the external conditions (crisis, moral degeneration, and so on) ; the name ’Jew’ is only the supplementary feature which accomplishes a kind of transubstantiation, changing all these elements into so many manifestations of the same ground, the ’Jewish plot’…the passage of contingency into necessity is an act of purely formal conversion, the gesture of adding a name which confers upon the contingent series the mark of necessity, thereby transforming it into the expression of some hidden ground (the ’Jewish plot’).” Or to put it in other words, the fullness of the society is impossible in a dual sense : It is ontologically impossible, but on the other hand, the reactionary populist approach tends to embody positively this inherent impossibility in the figure of the Jew, whose role is to transform the inherent impossibility into an external obstacle to be overcome by any means necessary .

On the other hand the people designated by the reactionary populism is “naturalized”, which means that the “natural” hierarchical dispersion of the members of the people seems self-evident, and more importantly it does not impede the people from being One, having the same identity, prospects, interests, passions etc, in contrast to the “parasitic intruders” who desire to unnaturalize the people by propagating subversive and artificial ideas in the likes of equality, constructing new identities etc. This tells a lot on the political future that the society reactionary populism wants to construct : a fully transparent, “natural”, hierarchical, and peaceful in the sense of avoiding antagonisms (especially the class struggle) and disorders society, whose former intruders will be dealt with in alternative manners, from the extermination camp to the refugee-expatriation camp.

On the other hand, because of the contingent form of the people and the necessity to give it a unitary content, reactionary populism needs the symbolizing figure of the leader to show the people that they are one, especially against the enemy intruders. The leader needs to be one so he can better represent the people as one. The leader has in actuality what the people have in potentiality, or in the most inner essence, the unity of the will. The leader, whose characteristics represent the void of the people , must give substance to the void by expressing anything, by promising everything, by taking whatever positions, even contradictory ones, by expressing what Leon Trotsky called in his history of the Russian Revolution “the absolute zero” of filling the void with whatever one finds by the way, but most importantly by creating in the imagination of the people the figure of the One whose fate is endangered by the destructing and disintegrating enemy within(out). And considering contemporary populist movements, the leader is the one who dares to speak the truth, as Oscar Reyes puts it, to tell the dirty secret and to expect popular solidarity from it ; and the dirty secret is none other than the imaginary or symbolically constructed enemy within whose real function is to disperse attention to the antagonistic trauma of a society, especially to the class symptom of the antagonism.


Although it seems difficult to talk about emancipatory populism, taking into consideration the theoretical works of Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Rancière, by trying sometimes to take sides, and sometimes to synthesize their oppositions, some ray of light in imagining an emancipatory populism can be traced. The somehow difficult task of this essay is that from the above-mentioned authors only Laclau uses the concept of populism in a positive light, even though he tries to conceptualize it as a neutral ground of the universal ready to be filled by any hegemonic content. On the other hand, Rancière uses the concepts of the political and politics (le politique, la politique) to express the emancipatory potential of the people (demos), whereas Žižek explicitly refuses the term populism as long as for him the only meaning of populism is the reactionary one, but nevertheless by taking the side of the symptomatically excluded from the ideological formation of the society, his views can be linked with those of Rancière in considering “the people” not as a fullness of everybody minus the enemy, but as the particular that authentically represents the universality, i.e. those without rights, fundamentally excluded, or what in historic-political terms was called demos, proletarii, populace, popolino, popolo minuto, vegjëli (Albanian) etc.

To begin with the “neutral” and political conception of the people and populism by Ernesto Laclau, one must say that according to him the open field of discursiveness is the unfounded foundation of the real. This means that through discursive practices, or formations, the social agents are not just represented from some authentic sociological ground, but really constructed ontically. In the case of populism, Laclau tends to view it as a political attempt to hegemonize temporarily the field of discursiveness by giving a common identity to the people as a non-all whose claims and grievances of a fundamental tort try to mobilize large groups against others, or especially against what is perceived as elitist misrepresentation, exploitation etc. What distinguishes Laclau’s approach from reactionary populism is the fact that the former looks at populism not as the direct expression of the “natural” people, but as the direct expression of the political, i.e. as the hegemonic attempt to construct political identities, where a chain of particular elements fill the empty place of universality, but with the certainty that every attempt will be a distorted and partially failed one. So the emancipatory potential of populism rests in the contingent character of the political as the attempt to hegemonically construct and reconstruct society from the standpoint of a part of it, without giving away antagonism, but accepting it as the impossible deadlock of the fullness of the society.

In order to distinguish populism, or the political, from the essentialism of the metaphysical conception of the society, Laclau opposes the logic of the equivalence to the logic of the difference. In an “well-ordered” society, the logics of the difference means that each group has an essential social presence which can be authentically represented in the political field in the likes of political parties, interest groups etc. In the contemporary liberal view, society as a whole exists and can thrive insofar as the different political representatives can reach reasonable agreements that leave everybody happy. In contrast to this, Laclau starts from the absent identity of any social agent, or what he calls the empty ground of the universal, and looks at the identity formations and the articulation of interests of these groups in a negative way ; i.e. through a chain of equivalences which first constructs politically the identity of a group as the negation of all others (We are what the others are not), then creates a hegemonic worldview that gathers different groups in a fragile common which is held by the negation or the refusal of what they are not, the enemy. Again the Schmittian friend/enemy conception of the political is not represented as a naturalized block of the people who are eager to avoid antagonism, but as a content-free space to be filled by any hegemonizing political content.

In order to hegemonize the field of discursiveness, Laclau is in need of signifiers that better express the absent positive and common ground of the newly formed group. For this reason, populism thrives through the use of large-embracing signifiers that try to fill the ranks of the group in front of the political enemy. That’s why terms like “the people”, “democracy”, “justice” etc are used in the form of what Laclau calls floating signifiers and empty signifiers. In concrete terms they may overlap, but Laclau shows the difference between them in this way : “while the latter depend on a fully fledged internal frontier resulting from an equivalential chain, the floating signifiers are the expressions of the ambiguity inherent to all frontiers and of the impossibility of the latter acquiring any ultimate stability.” So the people of populism is the expression of certain groups opposing the system, the exploiters etc, but in the same moment they express the instability of the concrete cleavage as long as other groups can fill the ranks of the people or the exploiters, in a way that destabilizes permanently the concrete frontiers. In a Kantian way, the form of the people against “them/enemy” as an empty ground universal ready to be filled by any concrete particular hegemonic formation, which identifies with the universal, but nevertheless in a distorted and incomplete manner.

It is precisely in this dualism of the universal/particular that Žižek intervenes critically to Laclau. He shares the latter’s position of disclaiming any objectiveness or fullness of the society, accepts the contingent character of the universal, but nevertheless insists that in the chain of equivalences that constructs “the people” (in fact Žižek doesn’t use this term because he fears the reactionary connotation of it. Nevertheless this essay’s position is that the symptomatically excluded with whom Žižek identifies and who take the authentic place of the universal may even be called “the people” in the revolutionary sense this terms has had in the likes of “demos”, “proletarii”, “popolino”, “popolo minuto”, “vegjëli etc”. Consequently, what theoretically may be called critique of ideology, politically may take the name of emancipatory or revolutionary populism), there is a part which overdetermines the others, and in doing so shapes not only the revolutionary identity of the group, but also impacts the terrain in which the struggle is conducted. Concretely Žižek puts it : “…my point of contention with Laclau here is that I do not accept that all elements which enter into hegemonic struggle are in principle equal : in the series of struggles (economic, political, feminist, ecological, ethnic, etc.) there is always one which, while it is part of the chain, secretly overdetermines its very horizon. This contamination of the universal by the particular is ’stronger’ than the struggle for hegemony (i.e. for which particular content will hegemonize the universality in question) : it structures in advance the very terrain on which the multitude of particular contents fight for hegemony.” So the quasi-disappearance of the very signifier of the people from the ideological discourse of today’s liberal capitalism to leave the place to the differential logic of interests’ competitions of alternative groups demonstrates that, politically, “the people” as the emancipatory potential of radical equality has been defeated so far. In contrast to pre-modern conceptions of the people which gave it its name, but nonetheless disregarded and underrated its importance (le tiers état, popolino etc), the contemporary liberal “anti-populist” discourse takes away even the name (signifier) of the people.

Anyway, the above quote from Žižek means that despite the fact that any particularity may struggle for the place of the universal, there is one particularity, which by being the “authentic” symptomatically excluded from the ideologically constructed wholeness, can take the place of the universal, can be the embodiment of the emancipatory struggle, or what I dare to call emancipatory populism. This Lacanian Real, or hard kernel, of overdetermination of parts in a common struggle and of the terrain of the struggle itself is represented by the economy (capitalist mode of production). As Žižek puts it : the economy “…is simultaneously the hard core expressed in other struggles through displacements and other forms of distortion, and the very structuring principle of these distortions.” This means that the overdetermining element which constructs the “false” universality of the positive order is the capitalist economy. Other forms of exclusion can exist independently of the economic exclusion, but the terrain of the common struggle and the identity of the strugglers are determined retroactively by the contingent “political” decision to shape society in the form of the capitalist mode of production. In order to play the game of hegemonic temporary exclusion, there must be an “always anterior” exclusion which shapes the “permanent” (always retroactively, which means that it can be overcome, but only politically) traumatic exclusion, i.e. capitalism.

This implies that as long as capitalism is the overdeterminating form of exclusion which forms a “false” universal positive order, the emancipatory potential of the political (populism) is to identify oneself with, as Žižek puts it, “the point of inherent exception/exclusion, the ‘abject’, of the concrete positive order, as the only point of true universality” . The concrete positive order is grounded on a primary exclusion, the economic one, which doesn’t mean that other forms of exclusion are not important, but that these exclusions are quilted in the nodal point of the capitalist ground of exclusion. In this perspective, to struggle independently against very important forms of exclusions such as racial, gender, religious etc, without daring to put in question capitalism, or more precisely to politicize the economy, is not a fully emancipatory struggle because it leaves untouched the traumatic kernel, silences the Real antagonism that excludes in the name of a false universality, Capitalism.

In this way, contrary to Laclau, Žižek finds the authentic particular to fill the void of the universal : those whose content is itself the void, the nothingness, being reduced out of the margins of the society, the latter’s “bad conscience”, the inherent outsider, the unmastered mob, the part of the no part (in Rancière’s terminology), the Greek demos, the Roman proletarii, the Renaissance’s popolo minuto, the traditional Albanian vegjëli. Although it seems very close to the Rancière’s conception of the people as those who oppose politically the police (as the guarantor of the positive order) in order to have a voice, and in doing so express the fundamental injustice of the society, Žižek’s “outcasts” differ from the latter because he insists on the symptomatic particularity of the excluded as being those whose fundamental reason of exclusion rests in the economical form . This does not mean that the excluded are exclusively the poor, but everyone that belongs to the underclass, everyone who from a capitalist point of view is considered useless, especially those whose nothingness of actuality hints to the everything of potentiality ; those who fill the limitless void of the universal ground precisely because they embody concretely the living conditions of this limitless nothingness – not the sociological working class, but the dialectically constructed economic-political proletarians, vegjëlia.
So using the Žižekian perspective, without the fidelity to his aversion to the signifier populism, one may define the emancipatory populism as the political division of the society in two antagonistic camps : the people , as those who are fundamentally excluded, especially in the capitalistic overdetermination of the exclusion, and everybody else who exploits, takes advantages indirectly from the exclusion or even disregards completely the fate of the outcasts. Nevertheless “the people” is not sociologically represented. Using the Žižekian perspective of the Lacanian relation between the Real and the Symbolic, one can say that the Real is nothing more than the failure of the Symbolic to construct e fully transparent identity, a whole in the Symbolic, which in the case of the contrast between the reactionary and emanciptory populism can take this form : the Symbolic of the ideological-reactionary populism tries to construct the people as an essential, natural, and fully transparent entity, but something is left apart ; something persists, or haunts the reactionary people, and this something is none other than the outcasts, the people as the part of no part. But it doesn’t mean that this Real of the particular that can fill the empty place is self-evident, because the deadlock of the Symbolic rests in the fact that one cannot express the Real (emancipatory people) without words, concepts, i.e. the emancipatory discourse of subjectivizing the people. So the people is formatted through an articulatory practice that subjectivizes those who in the course of it identify with the fundamentally excluded, and start to struggle for the “utopia” : for a society that in the current ideological map of capitalism can only be regarded as a dream with catastrophic consequences, but who should be thought of, at least in broad features, as the communist overcoming of capitalism (Paris Commune example), which does not mean that antagonism as such will be overcome, but at least the overcoming of the capitalist antagonism can open the field of other forms of antagonisms, maybe unthought of in our times, but antagonisms whose common ground will not be the economical inequality that shapes the terrain of every form of struggle for equality, but the economical equality that shapes the emancipatory terrain of every imaginable future struggle.

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1ère publication : mai 2012