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Populism, Anti-Populism and Crisis: Post-Democratic Europe and its Discontents

3 December 2014

Time: 5:00 - 7:00pm
Venue: David Sizer Lecture Theatre, Bancroft Building, Ground Floor Mile End Campus Queen Mary, University of London

In most analyses of populism, both journalistic and social-scientific, the meaning of the term is taken for granted and never problematized. Even when this is not the case, argumentation focusing on what ‘populism’ is often hypostatizing and essentializing a particular conceptual content associated with limited geographical and political contexts. 

In order to avoid such pitfalls it may be necessary to shift our attention from the nature of populism to its uses: from what populism is to how references to ‘populism’ have been used diachronically and synchronically in social and political struggles. Such a shift will have to focus on the complex language games marking popular-democratic representation throughout history. It is also bound to reveal the inherent link between the people and populism: studying the latter always involves examining the ways in which the former becomes articulated and debated, recognized and idealized, opposed and demonized. Furthermore, to the extent that representations of ‘the people’ invariably involve the staging of an opposition, to the extent that they are (1) triggered by social division, by the splitting of every political community into part and whole and the dialectics of inclusion/exclusion it enacts, and (2) result in the construction of two (political and intellectual) camps, one ‘populist’ and the other ‘anti-populist’, every study of populism proper must also be a study of anti-populism, researching the symbolic instability and the historical variability of this opposition. 

An inquiry into the manifestations of these language games in contemporary crisis-ridden Europe, where the opposition between populism and anti-populism increasingly emerges as the predominant discursive cleavage, may help us realize their function as symptoms of a deepening malaise associated with post-democratic, neo liberal Europe. If popular sovereignty and representation have been the victims of the oligarchic, technocratic transformation of liberal democracies in an age of advanced globalization, is populism symptomatic of the need for a new type of democratization?

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