Yannis Stavrakakis is Professor of Political Discourse Analysis at the School of Political Sciences of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and Vice-President of Hellenic Political Science Association.

He received his PhD from the ‘Ideology and Discourse Analysis’ programme at the University of Essex and his research primarily focuses on contemporary political theory and on the analysis of ideology and discourse in late modern societies. His main publications include “Lacan and the Political” (1999) and “The Lacanian Left” (2007) and has co-authored “Populism, Anti-Populism and Crisis” (2012).  During the 2014-5 period he has served as Principal Investigator of the Thessaloniki-based POPULISMUS research project, which focused on the relationship between populist discourse and democracy and lead to the creation of the Populismus Observatory, an international observatory of populist discourse.

Professor Stavrakakis spoke to Rethinking Greece* about the impact of the “modernizing vs. underdog” scheme on Greek political science and media discourse, the POPULISMUS research project, the merits and limitations of populist parties in Europe and Latin America, the difference between left-wing and right-wing populism, as well as the dangers an “oligarchic anti-populism” that demonizes popular movements in times of crisis.

The “cultural dualism” argument has deeply influenced political science and public discourse in Greece. In this context, populism has been interpreted as a mainly negative phenomenon. How do you account for this widespread schema?

Indeed the so-called ‘cultural dualism’ thesis has been extremely influential in structuring social-scientific analyses as well as in shaping media discourse and political arguments in Greece. It basically understands contemporary Greek history – as well as the current crisis conjuncture – as a continuous struggle between a ‘modernizing’ and an ‘underdog’ cultural camp. The first is thus seen as indicating a forward-looking embrace of the values of European modernity, while the second as revealing a backward-looking traditionalist attachment to obsolete institutions and social identities. Populism is here presented as the predominant political form associated with the underdog culture.

Although it does, to a certain extent, register existing discursive and cultural crystallizations, this schema simplifies a much more complex picture: not only in Greece but throughout Europe and beyond, antithetical orientations enter into complex relationships, which can be antagonistic but also symbiotic. This process shapes a multiplicity of contingent historical outcomes, a multiplicity of modernities, to paraphrase Eisenstadt. Instead of highlighting this dynamic choreography, most articulations of the ‘cultural dualism’ argument seem to insist on a discredited uni-linear understanding of modernization, resulting in a clash between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, between winners (incarnating historical necessity) and losers (fueled by resentment and irrationality), between a ‘normal’ and an ‘abnormal’ economic and cultural trajectory. Within such a framework, populism represents an a priori enemy, a condensation of social evils and pathologies.

Who is, however, to judge what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘abnormal’? What if, today, references to ‘normality’ ultimately camouflage the disciplinary imposition of a neoliberalism that deepens relations of inequality? What if the egalitarian populist forces that emerge in response increasingly function as correctives of a technocratic modernization gone astray? What if, furthermore, what we are talking about is different views of the good life and different models of democracy (elitist vs. participatory)? Within the scope of the POPULISMUS project we have indeed tried to construct a genealogy of such arguments revealing their rather problematic constitution. The unconditional anti-populism of Richard Hofstadter in the 1950s and a theory of modernization associated with Gabriel Almond and other American intellectuals during the Cold War can be highlighted here as the main matrices of such schemata. The latter have enjoyed much influence in a global semi-periphery dominated by what Michael Herzfeld has described as a crypto-colonial logic. And yet, both these matrices have ended up in miserable failure; unfortunately this is rarely brought up when their intellectual descendants are debated.  

populismus1You just mentioned the research project you have supervised, Populismus. What is the approach used in this project to study populism?

POPULISMUS was a research project that ran at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki during 2014-5. It basically aimed at the detailed comparative mapping of populist discourses globally in order to move beyond dominant stereotypes and arrive at a synthetic and rigorous assessment of the complexities of populism, illuminating its intricate and ambivalent relationship with democracy. Hence our fieldwork encompassed Argentina, Venezuela, the US, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Greece. Within this context, our Observatory (set up in both Greek and English), that will remain operative in the future, offers a variety of pedagogical and research tools (timelines, interactive maps, etc.) as well as numerous resources (videos, bibliographies, working papers, etc.) addressed to scholars and active citizens alike.

Now, in order to avoid the problems (mentioned above) associated with a normative (usually pejorative) conceptualization of populism and to be able to rigorously register the multiple articulations of populist discourse, we have adopted a discursive methodology drawing our inspiration from the Essex School initiated by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. When attempting to identify a given discourse as populist or not, the Essex School primarily highlights the importance of two minimal criteria, something largely corroborated by many other contemporary approaches (from Margaret Canovan to Cas Mudde). In particular, it focuses on ascertaining whether a given discursive practice under examination is: (1) articulated around a central reference to ‘the people’ which thus emerges as a privileged political subject, and, (2) to what extent the representation of society it offers is predominantly antagonistic, dividing society into two main blocs: the ‘establishment’, those above, versus ‘the people’, those below.

Does that mean that it is possible to have populism on the left as well as on the right?

What is important here is to understand that populism involves an (antagonistic) discursive articulation of citizens’ demands against a certain power bloc (a government, an economic-political establishment) that is (seen as) frustrating them. This flexible, formal definition does not predetermine the political belonging, the institutional status, the (religious, cultural, sexual or other) identity of the leaders or groups and parties claiming to represent ‘the people’ against the power bloc. It is thus perfectly possible to have politically antithetical articulations of populism. Hence, for example, the distinction between (extreme) right-wing and left-wing populism. The first is, according to Mudde & Kaltwasser and other researchers, exclusionary and often hierarchical, while the second inclusionary and egalitarian in profile. Right-wing populism used to be seen as constituting the European model of populism, while the left-wing, inclusionary type was predominantly associated with Latin American populism(s). Of course, the European debt crisis and the effects of its neoliberal management have dislocated the traditional party systems in countries like Greece and Spain, allowing parties like SYRIZA and PODEMOS to follow a left-wing, inclusionary populist course and complicating the European populist picture.           

To move one step further, my view on what is often labeld as far right populism, is that most of these extreme right-wing movements were never, strictly speaking, ‘populist’ and should not be described as such: their main point of reference is the ‘nation’ – not in the anti-colonial but in the ethnic, exclusionary or even racist/xenophobic definition – and their political adversary is not so much an economic and political elite that has increasingly betrayed democracy and equality, but the figure of the immigrant or refugee that supposedly threatens national or racial purity. To describe such movements as predominantly ‘populist’ is not only a category mistake; it also delegitimizes any reference to popular demands and demonizes the forces representing them, even when they have nothing in common with the far right. As soon as the extreme right is named ‘populist’ the vilification and demonization of all popular movements becomes easier.

Would you then describe SYRIZA as a populist party? How does it compare to other parties of the Left in Europe (Podemos, Die Linke, Front de Gauche) that have been labeled populist?

The meteoric rise of SYRIZA in contemporary Greek politics, its elevation from a political outsider (attracting a mere 4,60% of the vote in the 2009 elections) to a party of government (getting 36,34% in the January 2015 elections and almost replicating this result in September 2015) provides a suitable example to test the Essex School methodology. The prevailing characteristics of the party’s discourse involved (1) putting forward an antagonistic representation of the socio-political field along an Us/Them dichotomy; and (2) elevating ‘the people’ to the position of the privileged signifier, the nodal point, representing the ‘Us’ camp in a sufficiently flexible (tendentially empty) manner that allows diverse groups and subjects hit by the crisis to identify themselves with this position. From an Essex School perspective then, SYRIZA constitutes a textbook case of populism; and the same applies to parties like PODEMOS, Die Linke and initiatives like the Front de Gauche. For example, PODEMOS also claims to represent ‘the people’ – Us, ‘la gente’ – against established elites – Them, ‘la casta’. However, this similarity does not eliminate the many differences remaining that have to do with the particular profile of the broader political culture in the respective countries, the distinct ways in which the crisis has influenced these societies and the corresponding party systems, etc. This is why the hegemonic potential of these different projects has been marked by irregularity and their future development cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty.


The crisis seems to have entrenched even further the populist/anti-populist cleavage in Greek society and politics. What are the implications?

Obviously populism is not a newcomer as far as Greek political culture is concerned. Yet the increasingly brutal imposition of the austerity avalanche in Greece has introduced a polarization along a memorandum/anti-memorandum axis, which, upon acquiring political representation, was bound to reactivate a pre-existing (already from the 1970s and 1980s) populism/anti-populism division. The more the autocratic imposition of austerity kept producing a violent downward social mobility, the more the demands of the alienated and impoverished middle and lower classes intensified. As such demands are usually expressed using a popular-democratic egalitarian grammar, through a reference to ‘the people’ and to ‘popular sovereignty’, it should be expected that they, in turn, would be discredited and denounced by dominant forces as ‘populist’. Thus the opposition between populism and anti-populism emerged as the predominant surface of inscription of political antagonism and may even crystallize into a long-term, salient cleavage.

By the way, this is far from some sort of Greek exceptionalism or abnormal peculiarity. The more the policies implemented in a political system increase inequality and limit democratic participation, becoming increasingly unpopular, the more they are bound to trigger popular mobilizations that, in their turn, are denounced – by established parties and media – as populist. As far as we can tell, this will continue to happen in Greece, in the rest of Europe, in the US, in Latin America, as long as the political grammar of modernity, the grammar of ‘popular sovereignty’, retains some validity. How else can we explain SYRIZA and PODEMOS, Trump and Sanders, Farage and Corbyn, the Latin American pink tide, and many more global phenomena?

The most important research implication here is that it is impossible to effectively study populism without examining anti-populism as well, without taking into account their mutual constitution. There is no identity without difference. In fact, the ascription of the pejorative label ‘populist’ to a political adversary, is very often a construction of anti-populist discourse utilized to dignify, through differentiation, its own purity. In an inversely analogous way, populist forces often denounce the ‘enemies of the people’ that allegedly ignore or even repress popular will in order to highlight, through difference, their own commitment to truly represent it. Both sides can employ manipulation and demonization in their respective constructions, polarizing the socio-political terrain. At the same time, both seem to express, especially in times of crisis, distinct social constituencies and antithetical political visions.

What can the Latin American experience teach us about populist movements and their limitations?

Human achievement is ontologically marked by finitude and political life involves the continuous negotiation of both external obstacles and internal limitations. In that sense, there is no elixir of eternal political success available! Even when electorally successful for long periods of time (like in Latin America during the last two decades), even when able to introduce important economic, social and participatory reforms (reducing inequality, advancing democratic incorporation, imposing a radical debt restructuring), populist governments are subject to decay as all political projects are, sooner or later. There is no question, therefore, that the great populist cycle, which encompassed Latin America during the last twenty years, is gradually coming to an end. Is it possible to learn form the achievements but also from the failures of these projects? We should obviously examine their inability to introduce an alternative, sustainable economic model. In addition, we need to account for their difficulty in slowly replacing charismatic leadership with robust ‘charismatic’ participatory institutions. Last but not least, there is a lot to learn from their obstacles in consolidating a new democratic political ethos and their failure to cultivate new types of desire and consumption able to lessen reliance on neoliberal globalization.

On the other hand, although Latin America can teach us a lot (especially countries in what Nicos Mouzelis has defined as the semi-periphery), Europe is obviously marked by certain unique characteristics. In opposition to the situation in Latin America, European countries – especially those within the euro-zone – are much more constrained in their options due to the advanced stage of trans-national integration, something that severely limits their negotiating power and their chances of even minimally challenging pan-European ordoliberal hegemony. Only an egalitarian trend encompassing a variety of European countries might be able to reverse this situation. This is what Etienne Balibar has defined as a pan-European populist movement, a pan-European counter-populism able to avoid the symmetrically opposite dangers of an oligarchic anti-populism and an extreme right backlash claiming to be the only anti-systemic voice representing the frustrated popular strata. If that fails, if it is crushed by the dominant European powers, then the door will be opened wide to so-called extreme right-wing populism, even to outright fascist political forces. Is this something worth risking?

*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi