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Why Ernesto Laclau is the intellectual figurehead for Syriza and Podemos


When Ernesto Laclau passed away last April aged 78, few would have guessed that this Argentinian-born, Oxford-educated post-Marxist would become the key intellectual figure behind a political process that exploded into life a mere six weeks later, when Spanish leftist party Podemos won five seats and 1.2m votes in last May’s European elections.


Throughout his academic career, most of which he spent as professor of political theory at the University of Essex, Laclau developed a vocabulary beyond classical Marxist thought, replacing the traditional analysis of class struggle with a concept of “radical democracy” that stretched beyond the narrow confines of the ballot box (or the trade union). Most importantly for Syriza, Podemos and its excitable sympathisers outside Greece and Spain, he sought to rescue “populism” from its many detractors.

Ernesto Laclau. Photograph: Chantal Mouffe

Íñigo Errejón, one of Podemos’s key strategists, completed his 2011 doctorate on recent Bolivian populism, taking substantial inspiration from Laclau and his wife and collaborator Chantal Mouffe, as he explains in this obituary. To read Errejón on Laclau is to take an exhilarating short-cut to understanding the intellectual forces that are shaping Europe’s future. Syriza’s victory in Greece, for one, has been directly driven by the ideas of Laclau and an Essex cohort that includes among its alumni a Syriza MP, the governor of Athens, and Yanis Varoufakis. Syriza built its political coalition in exactly the way Laclau prescribed in his key 2005 book On Populist Reason – as Essex professor David Howarth puts it, “binding together different demands by focusing on their opposition to a common enemy”.


On the Mediterranean side of austerity Europe, the common enemy is not hard to discern. During Spain’s massive indignados protests and encampments of summer 2011, one of the principal slogans was the quintessentially populist “We are neither right nor left, we are coming from the bottom and going for the top”. It is, in Laclau’s terms, “the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier” like this, between a broadly defined sense of “the people” and a ruling class unwilling to yield to their demands, that readies the ground for a populist movement like Podemos.


You can see the same political and social realities, the same fertile ground for a mass populist movement, and the same possibility of “radical democracy” in the stunningly successful Spanish housing activist group PAH. A 2013 poll for El País found 89% support for PAH’s campaign of direct action, eviction-blocking and escraches (demos outside politicians’ houses). Amazingly, the approval figure remained almost as high among voters of the governing rightwing Partido Popular, at 87%.


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With more than 500,000 evictions since 2007, and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy enacting Troika-mandated swingeing cuts to public services, there have been times when Spain’s social services have contacted one of PAH’s 150 local branches for help. When a radical activist movement has become so successful that it is called upon to do the work of the state, not just by vulnerable citizens but by the state itself, the political conjuncture is striking in its uniqueness. Podemos is drawing directly on Laclau’s work to make the most of this opportunity, rejecting the old Spanish left of the PCE (Communists), smashing the discredited austerity-lite of the PSOE (Socialists) in the polls, and channeling a rehabilitated notion of leftist populism.


Laclau’s goal was to invert the analysis on populism – overturning the received wisdom that, explicitly or implicitly, always uses the term pejoratively. Usually, describing a person or a movement as populist implies that they appeal to basest instincts, hitting the lowest common denominators like a hammer on windchimes, sacrificing intellectual acuity in the name of short-term success.

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