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La pensée populiste

The plebeian people of populism

Camila Vergara
p. 77-96


Les définitions dominantes du populisme passent sous silence les conditions historiques et matérielles dans lesquelles le populisme tend à émerger. L’abstraction la plus pernicieuse porte sur la notion de peuple. Tout acteur politique qui en appelle au peuple contre les élites est taxé de populisme, indépendamment de sa conception dudit peuple, de son programme politique ou de ses relations à la démocratie libérale, ce qui génère une confusion entre populisme et ethno-nationalisme. Suivant une approche républicaine radicale, je suggère de distinguer résolument le peuple du populisme de toutes conceptions ethniques du peuple. En m’appuyant d’une part sur la thèse de Jacques Rancière selon laquelle le dissensus le ressort de la politique et, d’autre part, sur la thèse Jeffrey Green qui présente le sujet plébéien comme un citoyen de seconde classe, j’avance que le peuple du populisme, abordé dans une perspective historique et matérielle, est construit à partit d’une identité plébéienne qui est à la fois égalitaire et inclusive, élaborée en résistance à l’ordre oligarchique oppressif.

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1The rebranding of concepts to suit ideological projects is nothing new. Throughout history concepts have been established and redefined to support specific material and ideal structures of power and politics. Populism, a concept that in its modern form began to be used around 150 years ago, is today a contested term that is being redefined to make sense of the plethora of leaders and parties being labeled as populist in the media and academia around the world. This article critically engages with the rebranding of populism as an exclusionary form of politics, a redefinition that has helped not only to camouflage and normalize the rise of ethnonationalism and other forms of exclusionary politics, but also to demonize those claiming to genuinely represent the common people. Even if radically different, ethnonationalism and populism appear to be irremediably entangled in most of the mainstream literature. Leaders such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Donald Trump in the United States, and parties such as Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany and Rassemblement national in France are labeled as right-wing populist, even if their nationalist character is what defines them. Political parties and leaders on the left such as the self-ascribed populist party Podemos in Spain and the presidency of Evo Morales in Bolivia are also recognized as populist, even if they have nothing in common with right-wing populists in terms of their political platforms or rhetorical style. This conflation is rooted in the fact that both populism and nationalism are people-centered ideologies that appeal to “the people” as collective subject.

2Through the lens of democratic studies, nationalism and populism appear as almost indistinguishable because “the people” are the entire community, an imaginary whole that overlaps with the nation. Populist politics have been traditionally associated with a political outsider promising to fulfill the demands of the masses, and thus the resurgent nationalism of the last two decades, led by fringe right-wing parties and leaders sponsoring mainly xenophobic immigration policies in the name of the people, has been quickly mislabeled as populism. Even if the difference between class-based politics—aimed at emancipating and empowering the popular sectors (plebeians)—and ethnic-based politics—aimed at protecting and reestablishing the dominance of an ethnic group (nation)—are clear enough, democratic theory has been analyzing the politics of the nation as if it were part of the politics of the plebs: the “good” or “less bad” version being ideologically left-wing, advocating for redistribution of wealth and political power, and the “bad” or “worse” version being right-wing, pushing for anti-immigration and anti-pluralist laws.

3The main definition of populism used in the social sciences today is that of Cas Mudde, a scholar of the European far right. Following Michael Freeden’s analysis of ideologies (Freeden, 1996, p.75-82), Mudde conceives populism as “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” (Mudde, 2004, p.39; Mudde, 2007, p.23; Mudde and Rovira, 2017, p.6).

  • 1 See for example the adaptation of neofascism to postwar democracy in Italy and France (Mammone, 2 (...)

4As Freeden has pointed out, Mudde’s definition of populism as an ideology “is emaciatedly thin rather than thin-centred” (Freeden, 2017, p.3). I agree that Mudde’s definition of populism as an ideology is defective, in the sense that it is so minimal that virtually any kind of politics that appeals to “the people” against a corrupt “other” could fit the populist profile. However, this formal framework of “us vs them” that presupposes “homogeneous and antagonistic camps,” originates from actually existing politics and therefore point to the substantive elements that this thin ideological structure is meant to house. Mudde’s definition originates in his quest to classify far-right parties and leaders, and therefore is meant to accommodate these new forms of neofascist politics that have adapted to democracy disguised as a politics of the “common people.”1

  • 2 For an overview, see Conniff, 2012 (1999).

5Populism conceived in this way—as a “thin-centered ideology” without substantive content, normative commitments, or historical grounding, that imposes a Manichean worldview of a “homogenous ‘good’ and a homogenous ‘evil’” (Mudde and Rovira, 2017, p.7) in which a self-ascribed “pure people” claim their will as sovereign—appears as closely related not to historical populism and its class-based conception of the people, but to the fascist political philosophy of the jurist Carl Schmitt, for whom politics is defined by a friend-enemy distinction, which has as its most extreme result the existential negation of “the other” (Schmitt, 2007 [1932]). Mudde’s definition has been successful at redefining populism, not only to include far right-wing politics, which he recognizes as having “the nation” as a “core concept” (Mudde, 2007, p.16), but also at establishing populism as a short-cut for illiberal politics. Moreover, this rebranding of populism is a form of conceptual colonialism that has imposed European nationalist ideas on a concept that has been widely used, mainly in Latin America over the past century, to refer exclusively to a type of politics appealing to the plebeian sectors of the population—and not to the people as ethnos.2

  • 3 See for example Urbinati, 2014.

6The same as ancient democracy was conceptualized from the point of view of those who opposed the rule of the masses, populism has been defined mostly by anti-populists, who see populist leaders as subverting democracy.3 And even the few scholars who theorize the concept from a more sympathetic stance have failed to fundamentally distinguish populist from ethnonationalist politics. The main referent of populism studies on the Left is Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason (2005). While Mudde’s starting point for his formal definition were European neofascist groups, Laclau’s definition originates in the particular method of discourse analysis that he helped develop in the University of Essex, and his experience with Argentine Peronism, a form of populism that was institutionalized in a party that has been able to accommodate heterogeneous ideological positions.

7Laclau conceives populism as a discursive construction of a popular identity based on an articulation of demands under an “empty signifier” that comes to symbolize the collective subject. “The people” is retroactively constructed through discourse and becomes itself an empty signifier without the need for any previous unity other than shared demands (Laclau, 2005, p.69). Detaching this discursive construction from the specific material and normative conditions shaping it, “the people” of populism could be constructed based on class-based or ethnic-based demands, and for emancipatory or oppressive ends. Consequently, through Laclau’s formal discursive definition, populism as a form of identity formation ceases to be connected exclusively to the people as plebs, their emancipation and empowerment, and is able to attach to other conceptions of the people and their ideologies.

  • 4 For an analysis of Laclau’s inability to separate plebeian and totalitarian politics, see Vatter, (...)

8Since populism is a people-centered ideology, it is crucial to define who is “the people” of populism, both materially and rhetorically. While Mudde thinned out the populist ideology to erase the subject so to accommodate the people as nation into a traditionally class-based concept, Laclau, in order to avoid essentialism, turned “the people” into an empty signifier constructed from heterogeneous demands. Their definitions not only do not allow us to properly distinguish between populist and nationalist politics4 but also contribute to the “conceptual stretching” (Sartori, 1970, p.1034) that has helped cement the perception that populism is compatible with ethnonationalist politics. I propose to escape this logic by interpreting populism from the point of view of radical republican thought, which sees society, not as a unitary community, but as a collectivity divided between the few who rule and the common people who resist oligarchic domination. As I have argued in previous work (Vergara, 2020b c et d), populism should be conceived as a form of plebeian politics in which “the people” is constructed along class lines through the politicization of inequality. This theoretical framework is not only useful to conceptually separate populism from ethnonationalism but it is also more in tune with the origins of populism as an ideology of emancipation in 1860s Russia, with the strong anti-plutocratic rhetoric of the American populists of the 1890s, and with the popular enfranchisement and empowerment that populist governments achieved in Latin America during the 20th and 21st centuries.

9In what follows I provide theoretical ground for conceptualizing the plebeian people of populism. I first engage with the philosophical and political origins of the populist ideology of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, perhaps its most prominent exponent, paying particular attention to his ideas on emancipation, race, and domination, and then briefly survey other populist movements, parties, and leaders in relation to their constituencies, highlighting their continuities and discontinuities. From these ideas and cases, in the second part of this essay I propose a conceptualization of the people of populism for the present time that is in tune with the concept’s long history. I argue we should understand the construction of “the people” of populism as analogous to the subjectification process of what Jacques Rancière calls the “part of no part,” as the inchoate subject that becomes a full-fledge political actor by, on the one hand, recognizing its unequal status, its “no part” within the order of police—what for Jeffrey Green is the recognition of plebeian “second-class citizenship”—and on the other, by actively disrupting the scene through radically performing equality and taking part in populist politics.

1. Philosophical & Political Foundations of Populism

  • 5 His dissertation was a critique of aesthetic theories and a proposal for a materialist theory of (...)
  • 6 The Contemporary (Современник)) was a literary and political magazine published in Saint Petersbu (...)
  • 7 Redemption payments were commonly due for 50 years (Gorshkov, 2005).
  • 8 Shortly after, Chernyshevsky was arrested, tried for sedition, and sentenced to seven years of ha (...)
  • 9 Even if the name allegedly was taken from Alexander Herzen’s “What Do the People Need?” (1862), h (...)

10The first modern populists can be traced back to the Russian narodniks, a group of intellectuals and activists who proclaimed the peasantry as their revolutionary subject and the agrarian commune as the socioeconomic organization of the new society. Perhaps the most famous of the populist thinkers was Chernyshevsky, whose materialist philosophy5 was carefully studied by Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. As a public intellectual in Russia he waged an ideological struggle in the pages of The Contemporary in the early 1860s6 against, on the one hand, the tsarist regime and its conservative allies, and on the other the liberals who advocated for piecemeal reforms. His main focus was the so-called peasant question, which became a central concern in Russian politics when in 1861 Tsar Alexander II proclaimed the emancipation of about 20 million serfs. Attempting to control inevitable social change from above, the tsar in collaboration with reactionary landlords, designed a system to preserve as much as possible the status quo. Peasants were granted small plots of land by their former landlords but were forced to sell their labor to make onerous “redemption payments” to the government, which would then compensate the serfs’ former owners.7 Through this system of debt, serfs became free and owners of the means of production only formally, which allowed for the serf system to endure albeit in a different form. After the promulgation of emancipation, Chernyshevsky wrote “To the Landlords’ Peasants,” an inflammatory pamphlet, published illegally, calling peasants to rise in revolt against the Tsar, landlords, and the legal system that upheld their material oppression.8 A nascent revolutionary group inspired by Chernyshevsky’s narodism came together in 1862 under the name Zemlya i Volya (Land and Liberty).9

  • 10 Marx (1881), responding to the populist rebel Vera Zasulich, wrote that he was convinced that “th (...)

11Despite the revolutionary character of the Russian populists, their aim was not to subvert the existing system of property—this would become later the banner of the Marxists. The populists wanted rather to make peasants individual property owners within a structure of common land tenure managed through the obshchina, a traditional form of local self-government (Kimball, 1990). Periodic redistribution of land through common decisionmaking and access to common pastures were central to the obshchina, an economic and political organization that the populists thought could become an alternative to capitalism.10 Redistribution of property and local self-government were core principles and practices within this populist ideology that appealed not to the working classes or the urban poor, but to the small producers, the peasants who accounted for more than 80% of the population (Moon, 1996). Even if the identity of “the people” was decisively peasant as well as petit bourgeois, as Lenin would argue (Lenin, 2017, p.341), it was also constructed against the absolute power of the tsarist regime and the landlords, against legal and socioeconomic oppression. The narodnik people shared experiences of oppression at the hands of state bureaucrats and landowners, and exclusion from political power, and therefore their identity was class-based, determined by their subordinate position within the socioeconomic and political structures of power. In this sense, narodism is a plebeian ideology centered on a collective subject constructed on the basis of exclusion from power and resistance to monarchical and oligarchic oppression—and not on the basis of their common ethnicity, traditions, or nationality.

12As an ideology of emancipation, Russian populism was abolitionist and anti-imperialist. Chernyshevsky devoted much of his work to denouncing prejudice and the economic interest behind racism. Even if slavery was not a central concern in Russia as it was in the United States, Chernyshevsky wrote in 1887 his Essay on the Scientific Conception of Certain Problems of World History, aimed at dismantling the ideological tropes used to justify exploitation based on race, arguing that racial distinctions are not natural but “of historical origin” arising from experiences of domination (Chernyshevsky, 1953a, p.212). In the United States, where “slaveholders had long governed,” opinions about race, and the supposed superiority of the white race over others, were “clothed in scientific garb and given out as a deduction from scientific facts” (ibid., p.199). It was clear to him that slavery was justified with a “pleasant lie” conceived to maintain the economic domination of planters in the South (ibid., p.206). The racist habits that lingered in post-Reconstruction America would prove an unsurmountable barrier for populism.

  • 11 For an overview of the material conditions of farmers, see Goodwyn, 1978, chap. 2.
  • 12 For a sociological analysis of the connection between the populist threat to the white establishm (...)
  • 13 For a detailed analysis of the alliance and its erosion, see Goodwyn, 1978, p.100-122.

13Beginning in the mid-1880s, local alliances of farmers—small landholders and tenants, white and black, men and women—were established in the Southern states to demand the government protect farmers who were indebted to predatory plutocrats.11 Out of the farmers alliances, the People’s Party was established in 1890 to elect populist leaders and bring their demands into state legislatures, which posed perhaps the most significant political threat to the dominant white elite in the history of the country.12 The populist interracial alliance of farmers, which would expand to form ties with labor unions, even if it was electorally very successful at the beginning, begun to break down soon after when a strategy of collaboration with the Democratic Party meant forgoing the egalitarian and anti-oligarchic principles of the movement.13 In the electoral battle, race was used as a wedge to divide the populist coalition and prevent further collaboration of white and black farmers on socioeconomic interests. The populist class-based alliance disintegrated and the plebeian identity of the people as small producers against plutocracy was effectively disabled.

  • 14 Even if his message also appealed to rural day laborers and indigenous peasants (Rutledge, 1972; (...)

14After the revolutionary populism of the narodniks and the electoral populism of the People’s Party in the U.S., the populist ideology inspired successful political projects in Latin America. Since the plebeian people in the 20th century were no longer peasants but urban workers, the populism of Juan Perón in Argentina in the late 1940s appealed mostly to the low-income laborers in the cities: the descamisados (shirtless).14 By incorporating a workers’ bill of socioeconomic rights into the 1949 Constitution, Perón guaranteed to the people healthcare, social security, education, and paid leisure time. Peronism meant the emancipation of the plebeian people from precarity and poverty through the establishment of the welfare state as well as their symbolic empowerment connected to the rise of the Peronist party as a dominant political force (Adelman, 1992). The peronist people were heterogeneous and multiracial, but nevertheless united under a strong class-identity through their populist leader.

  • 15 Morales run against Felipe Quispe, leader of the Movimiento Indigena Pachakutik (MIP) that wanted (...)
  • 16 For a study on how autonomy has worked on the ground, see Postero and Tockman, 2020.
  • 17 For a deeper account of Morales proposals and challenges, see Centellas, 2010.

15The more recent case of the populist government of Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia—the poorest country in Latin America, the most unequal region in the world—is reminiscent of the agrarian populism of the 19th century. Morales came to power in 2006 as the leader of a multiethnic left-wing party that brought together mestizo coca leaf farmers from the lowlands and the indigenous communities from the highlands. Even if about 60% of Bolivians identified as being from indigenous descent, Morales ran explicitly against establishing a nativist project,15 choosing instead to represent a heterogenous populist coalition of small producers, indigenous and mestizos. By selecting class over ethnic identity, Morales’ populism helped establish a plurinational constitution, granting autonomy to indigenous communities,16 and increased the welfare of the people by nationalizing resources, expanding social services, greatly increasing the minimum wage, and decentralizing political power.17 This populist experiment of a multiethnic class-based coalition ended in a civic-military coup in November 2019 and the return to power of the white Catholic elite and its racist, oligarchic ideology (Farthing, 2020).

  • 18 Spain’s unemployment rate reached 21.3% with youth unemployment rate reaching 43.5%, the highest (...)

16After the 2008 financial crisis and the austerity measures that followed, populist parties were also established in Southern Europe, where unemployment and foreclosure rates soared, leaving the lower-middle classes impoverished and precarious. In Spain the 2011 Indignados movement that galvanized the protests of the unemployed, evicted, and precarious18 constructed a plebeian identity against la casta, the oligarchic class running the economy and the state. Podemos, the political party formed to bring the movement’s demands to the parliament, gained immediate success at the polls, becoming the third strongest political force in 2014. Five years later, it entered into the left-wing alliance Unidas Podemos, which came to power in January 2020 as part of a coalition government with the Socialist Party, PSOE. To deal with the crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the populists have pushed for measures to shield the working classes from poverty such as universal basic income and a moratorium on rents, mortgages, and loan payments.

2. Populism as politics of disagreement and second-class citizenship

17To attempt a conception of the plebeian people that could be transhistorical, broad enough to capture the populist experience across different material conditions shaping plebeian ends and means of action, and specific enough to sharply distinguish between populism from other people-centered ideologies, I begin from the post-foundational political philosophy of Rancière. Even if for him the term populism, as it is used in mainstream discourse, is just a “convenient name under which is dissimulated the exacerbated contradiction between popular legitimacy and expert legitimacy” (Rancière, 2006, p.80), he also denounces it for putting together features that have “no necessary connection” and that “amalgamate the very idea of a democratic people with the image of the dangerous crowd” (Rancière, 2013 [2011]). I propose to disregard this contingent bias against the hegemonic anti-populist conception of populism, and apply his plebeian ideas to the study of populist politics.

18While Laclau follows Claude Lefort, for whom democratic politics thrive in the contradiction of power “emanat[ing] from the people” and belonging to nobody, and are constantly threatened by the resolution of this contradiction either through the embodiment of the symbolic space of power or its privatization (Lefort, 1986, p.279), Rancière rejects this continuum in which democracy occupies a space in between totalitarianism and oligarchic domination, choosing instead a dichotomous lens in which politics as alterity, dissent, and equality stands opposed to the hierarchical order imposed through the police logic of the state. For Rancière every state is oligarchic, and democratic politics are the ones that encroach upon the power of the few (Rancière, 2006, p.72). Within this paradigm, democracy is not a form of government, juridical framework, or symbolic empty place, but a “community that is defined by the existence of a specific sphere of appearance of the people” (Rancière, 1998, p.99). Democracy is actualized when the people, understood as those who do not take part in the oligarchic structure of power, are able to become visible, modifying the realm of the visible with their mere existence, an irruption that “splits reality and reconfigures it as double” (ibid.). While the democratic regime form allows for an alternative image of society by providing a stage for the people to become a political subject and perform their equality, democratic politics are inherently egalitarian and stand against the disciplinary power of the oligarchic state.

19Even if Rancière does not make the explicit connection between the construction of the democratic people as “those who have no part” and the plebeian conception of the people, as those who do not rule and resist oligarchic oppression, the influence of plebeian ideology in Rancière’s thought is substantive and explicit. His political philosophy was heavily influenced both by his participation in Les Révoltes logiques—a journal aimed at “reconstructing grassroots thought” while breaking away from “proletarian metaphysics”—and by Pierre‑Simon Ballanche’s theorization of the “plebeian principle” in the history of the Roman republic (Breaugh, 2013, p.91-92), which Rancière uses as a foundational narrative in his theory of politics as disagreement (Rancière, 1998, chap.2). This plebeian principle is subversive and emancipatory because it refuses “the limits of the possible present of the dominant order,” and the plebeian subject enacting it is neither a social category nor an identity, but an experience, “the passage from a subpolitical status to one of a full-fledged political subject” (Breaugh, 2013, p.xvi, 1). Through this plebeian lens, Rancière’s “democratic” people would be analogous to the plebeian conception of the people, as an event-bound subject, inseparable from its condition of oppression and the emancipatory movement in which it is reconstituted “through a process of enunciation and manifestation” (Rancière, 2009, p.278).

20Within Rancière’s theoretical framework democracy is not part of the oligarchic structures of power—what he calls the “police order”—but consists on the materialization of a logic of equality that is anti-hierarchical and conflictual (Rancière, 1998, p.101). Democratic politics are a politics of disagreement, “forms of expression that confront the logic of equality with the logic of the police order” (ibid.). True political action is always democratic because it attacks inequality and seeks to dismantle patterns of oppression that have been naturalized through the discipline of the police logic. Because politics as disagreement has been completely foreclosed by consensus democracy—a post-democratic regime in which there is an “absolute removal of the sphere of appearance of the people” (ibid., p.103)—instances of politics—popular performances of the egalitarian logic against the hierarchical police order—are only rare. The logic of police, which also structures the system of political representation based on the counting and aggregation of individual preferences and votes, floods the public space, making politics sporadic and ephemeral, outbursts of emancipation amidst the oligarchic structure of the police order. The political act is therefore grounded on conflict, but not a systemic conflict of “interest between constituted parties of the population,” “a discussion between partners,” but a foundational conflict “over the very count of those parties” that “undermines the very situation of interlocution” (ibid., p.100). The political dispute challenges the foundations of the system of police through a radical egalitarian logic that does not speak to the system but disrupts it through the political performance of the people, of those who do not have a part in the system but nevertheless claim it. “Politics means the supplementation of all qualifications by the power of the unqualified”; it is the visible action of the people, of those who are not supposed to act because ignorant and incompetent (Rancière, 2010, p.53).

21Given its egalitarian logic, Rancière is adamant that politics has a very specific subject that cannot be constructed along identitarian lines because it “exists only in the form of disjunction” (ibid.). The democratic subject is “not definable in terms of ethnic properties” or identified “with a sociologically determinable part of a population,” but a subject made up of “those who have no part,” who do not “coincide with the parties of the state or of society, floating subjects that deregulate all representation of places and portions” (Rancière, 1998, p.99). This construction of the democratic people based on an egalitarian logic of alterity and disagreement is not only different from identitarian constructions of the people but also stands opposed to them.

22Analyzing the crisis of representative democracy from the viewpoint of disenchantment and the emptying of transcendental signifiers developed by Lefort, Rancière argues that identitarian constructions of the people are a response to a dislocation of identity enabled by new forms of apparent emancipation. Different from the “emancipation in the Marxist era,” the new emancipation promises “to liberate the new community as a multiplicity of local rationalities and ethnic, sexual, religious, cultural, or aesthetic minorities, affirming their identity on the basis of the acknowledge contingency of all identity” (ibid., p.104). This liberation through the “destruction of metaphysics” produces a lack, a space that needs to get “filled up,” by a new subjectification, an ethnic conception of the people that responds to the logic of police. “[I]n the place of the peoples of Rousseau or Marx, there emerges here, there, everywhere an ethnic people pinned down as identical to themselves, as one body set up against others” (ibid., p. 98).

23According to Rancière, the return of the ethnic people is due to disaffection with representative institutions, which have effectively eliminated the “political stage for exposing and processing conflict” as well as the subjectification of the plebeian people (ibid., p.109), prompting the return to a primordial pre-political identity. He argues that we are experiencing a “violent intrusion of new forms of racism and xenophobia into our consensus regimes” (ibid., p.117), the “abrupt reappearance in the real of an otherness that can no longer be symbolized,” an “archaic form of naked otherness” that is not democratic or political, but that aims at exclusion and inequality based on the essentialist markers of the ethnic people (ibid., p.119). The ethnic construction of the people is for Rancière a non-political subjectification that corresponds to the exclusionary, hierarchical logic of police, and therefore it does not bear the democratic mark of disagreement. The people-as-ethnos is an exclusionary subject; only members of a certain race or with a national heritage or who profess a specific religion, are part of the “true” nation, its integrity depending on the “elimination of its parasites” (Lefort, 1986, p.287). Proto-totalitarian forms of politics such as nationalism use these quasi-essentialist elements to craft the “true” and “pure” character of the nation through a people-centered discourse “structured around an in/out relation” (De Cleen and Stavrakakis, 2017, p.309) that is constantly reaffirmed by the exclusion of others who are considered inferior and a threat to the national identity. The “democratic” people, on the other hand, would be reconstructed as a plebeian subject, bound to its outsider position and performative egalitarian logic of emancipation. The “disruption of the consensus” by populist movements, parties, and leaders, is what “the oligarchs, their experts and ideologues” would deem as a threat to “progress” and “modernization” (Rancière, 2006, p.79). Populism is according to Rancière the name the ruling elite uses to “lump together every form of dissent in relation to the prevailing consensus, weather it involves democratic affirmation or religious and racial fanaticism” (ibid., p. 80).

  • 19 This does not mean however that populism could not overlap with ethnonationalist politics; if the (...)

24Populism, as a concept defined from the top to label dissent, incorporates both plebeian and ethnic conceptions of the people, democratic and anti-democratic popular subjectifications. From Rancière’s perspective this “police” conception of populism as a politics of exclusion makes no sense, since a phenomenon cannot reproduce two opposing logics; it cannot be, at the same time, police and politics, oligarchic and plebeian. Because ethnic constructions of the people are not democratic, but forms of subjectification that reproduce the police logic of privilege and exclusion, they should not be conceived as sharing, conceptually, with a plebeian subjectification of the people and its politics of disagreement. In other words, ethnic and plebeian conceptions of the people, and the politics they engender, are not parts of a continuum but radically different forms of subjectification. While the ethnic people is constructed through the logic of police, the plebeian people disrupts this logic by defying the structures of oligarchic rule and appearing as a political actor, materially performing the logic of equality and their own emancipation.19

  • 20 For a discussion of Green’s plebeianism, see Vergara, 2020a, chap. 8.

25Attempting to theorize this plebeian subject from a liberal perspective, Jeffrey Green argues that the plebeian experience is defined by a “shadow of unfairness” resulting from plutocracy, “the inescapable incursion of socioeconomic inequality into civic spaces” (Green, 2016, p.4). According to him “liberal democracy today suffers from unreality insofar as they take the ordinary citizen to be (or potentially become) fully free and equal vis-à-vis citizens with significantly greater amounts of wealth, fame, and political influence” (ibid., p.20). The subjectification of the plebeian people entails the recognition of this exclusion from privilege, that “ordinary citizenship is second-class citizenship” (ibid., p.9). While Rancière provides the plebeian people with a normative logic based on equality, and a drive to disagree and dissent, Green theorizes the constitutive subaltern position of the common people vis-à-vis plutocracy, as a subaltern subject bound to resist oligarchic domination.20 Through this hybrid lens of postfoundational and liberal plebeian philosophy, the plebeian people are those who share in their exclusion from privilege, enduring the material conditions that amount to second-class citizenship. However, plebeians become the subject of populist politics only when this shared plebeian identity is recognized, politicized, and performed, and collective action is directed towards forcing the oligarchic state to retrench by allowing the common people access to the collective benefits of society from which they are de facto excluded.


26Populism—a people-centered ideology that in the 19th century appealed to small producers against oligarchy, and that in the 20th century became the politics of the disenfranchised working classes—today interpellates precarious workers and the hollowed out middle classes to construct a common plebeian identity against oligarchic domination. The populist people—those who recognize their plebeian condition—share a class identity of second-rate citizenship, of exclusion from political and socioeconomic power. Populist politics therefore come to disrupt the oligarchic electoral field dominated by traditional parties, and disturb ordinary political business by performing the equality of the common people, denouncing oligarchic domination, and advocating to immediately increase the welfare of the people through redistribution of property, universal benefits, and decentralization of power.

27While some scholars see populism as a corruption of democracy, I interpret the rise of populist actors as a plebeian reaction against oligarchic domination and therefore as a symptom of systemic corruption and the slippage into a regime in which laws disproportionately benefit the powerful few (Vergara, 2019; 2020a). Different from the ethnic subjectification of the people, based on privilege and exclusion, the class-based plebeian identity of the people of populism is inclusive, constructed from a position of no-rule, agonistically against the dominant order, in resistance to oppression. Socioeconomic crises and austerity measures that impoverish the middle classes exacerbate oppressive conditions and therefore allow for the construction of this plebeian identity and the emergence of formal populist actors. Far from being a force corrupting democracy, populism should be seen as a politics of last resort in which the plebeian people empower leaders to engage in radical reform and correct the oligarchic overgrowth of democracy.

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1 See for example the adaptation of neofascism to postwar democracy in Italy and France (Mammone, 2015).

2 For an overview, see Conniff, 2012 (1999).

3 See for example Urbinati, 2014.

4 For an analysis of Laclau’s inability to separate plebeian and totalitarian politics, see Vatter, 2012, p.246-248.

5 His dissertation was a critique of aesthetic theories and a proposal for a materialist theory of art (Chernyshevsky, 1953b). For an overview of Russian populism, see Venturi (1960 [1952]).

6 The Contemporary (Современник)) was a literary and political magazine published in Saint Petersburg in 1836-1866, that originated in a literary collective led by Alexander Pushkin. Chernyshevsky became editor in 1853 and turned it into a platform for revolutionary politics. He published there, in parts, his most famous work, the novel What is to Be Done?.

7 Redemption payments were commonly due for 50 years (Gorshkov, 2005).

8 Shortly after, Chernyshevsky was arrested, tried for sedition, and sentenced to seven years of hard labor and exile in Siberia. For a detailed account of his persecution, see Ruud and Stepanov, 1999, p.26-29.

9 Even if the name allegedly was taken from Alexander Herzen’s “What Do the People Need?” (1862), he did not agree with the group’s revolutionary methods (Herzen, 2012, p.176).See also Acton, 1979, p.161-164.

10 Marx (1881), responding to the populist rebel Vera Zasulich, wrote that he was convinced that “the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia.”

11 For an overview of the material conditions of farmers, see Goodwyn, 1978, chap. 2.

12 For a sociological analysis of the connection between the populist threat to the white establishment and racial violence, see Soule, 1992.

13 For a detailed analysis of the alliance and its erosion, see Goodwyn, 1978, p.100-122.

14 Even if his message also appealed to rural day laborers and indigenous peasants (Rutledge, 1972; Little, 1973).

15 Morales run against Felipe Quispe, leader of the Movimiento Indigena Pachakutik (MIP) that wanted to replace the current state with an indigenous order (Canessa, 2006).

16 For a study on how autonomy has worked on the ground, see Postero and Tockman, 2020.

17 For a deeper account of Morales proposals and challenges, see Centellas, 2010.

18 Spain’s unemployment rate reached 21.3% with youth unemployment rate reaching 43.5%, the highest in the European Union.

19 This does not mean however that populism could not overlap with ethnonationalist politics; if the plebeian people happen to also be part of a homogeneous ethnic group that is distinct from that of the oligarchy, then politics of class and race could be effectively combined.

20 For a discussion of Green’s plebeianism, see Vergara, 2020a, chap. 8.

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Camila Vergara

Columbia Law School

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