Are most countries in Europe democratic? Post-politics, technocracy and populism

The LSE EUROPP blog has a great interview with the political theorist Chantal Mouffe in which she discusses her understanding of European politics as being in a post-political situation. Her understanding of ‘post-political’ is similar to what the political sociologist Colin Crouch means by post-democratic: the formal institutions of  democratic politics are still in place but their substantive content is absent. I was quite taken with Mouffe’s account of right-wing populist parties when I first encountered it around 2006/2007 and it seems particularly pertinent now. Mouffe argues that the politics of ‘beyond left and right’ in actuality represents a hegemonic neoliberal consensus which precludes a widespread affective identification with political parties and leaves an opening for populist parties to fill the gap and offer the electorate a choice:

Of course some people have been arguing that it is good for democracy, this blurring of the line between left and right, because democracy is supposedly more ‘mature’. I disagree with this. For instance in my book, On the PoliticalI’ve tried to explain the development of right-wing populist parties as a reaction to the lack of choice which is given to citizens. Right-wing populist parties are, in many countries, the only parties who argue that there is a real alternative. Now the alternative that they propose is unacceptable, would not work economically, and on top of that often reflects some form of xenophobia, but they give the possibility of mobilising passion toward change.

Politics is, of course, to do with interests and moral concern, but there is also a dimension related to ‘passion’: the need for people to identify with a project. And what I call post-political is precisely the lack of this passion and identification.


One theory I have developed is that political identity is based on the idea of ‘we’ as opposed to ‘them’. If you are to construct a people then it is necessary to determine who ‘they’ are. In the case of right-wing populism this is usually immigrants, or Muslims, or foreigners. But this is not the only way to construct a people. If we consider the Front de Gauche in France, for instance, they are clearly a left-wing movement, but they have also been accused of being populist. In a sense this is absolutely correct, because they want to oppose the discourse of the Front National by constructing another people. This is a people where Muslims and immigrants are not excluded, but instead the chief adversaries are the forces of neo-liberal globalisation. So while both the Front de Gauche and the Front National are populist movements, there is a very big difference between the types of people they have attempted to construct.

It’s a really interesting interview which is worth reading in full. If you like her ideas I’d recommend The Democratic Paradox or On The Political. Both are short, engaging and provocative books. I’m certainly planning to go back and reread them some point soon after having not thought about Mouffe’s work in years. Her work offers some useful theoretical tools for making sense of the rise of Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn party but also suggests that the attempt to ban it is unlikely to succeed:

Europe seems to be caught between two opposing trends which on the surface could not be more different: radical populism on the streets and sterile technocracy in the parliaments. However Mouffe would argue the two go hand-in-hand as populist movements arise to fill the affective vacuum left by the evisceration of substantive democracy. As she observes at the end of the LSE interview:

Certainly I agree with the ideas of people such as Colin Crouch, who argue that we are living in a ‘post-democratic’ situation. Our societies still call themselves democratic, but what does democracy mean in the present circumstances? The most obvious case is of course when they decide to completely overrule democratic processes through parliament and put in place a technocratic government. What does it mean to call this kind of society democratic?

This is definitely a real trend, but it’s a trend that will undermine democracy even further. We seem to believe that it’s now possible to do away with democracy altogether. It leads to the idea that we might be able to run things better if we simply removed any democratic constraints and implemented some form of bureaucracy. The name ‘democratic’ might remain in these cases, but we cannot genuinely see these countries as democracies any more.

These are worrying times for Europe. Caught between what Daniel Cohn-Bendit has called the “neoliberal Taliban” which dominates the European commission and a resurgent neo-fascism on the streets:

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