Event Highlights: Which Future for Democracy in a Post-political Age? A Lecture by Chantal Mouffe

On Tuesday, April 11th, the Center for the Study of Europe welcomed Chantal Mouffe, a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. Beginning with an assessment of the present state of democracy, Mouffe described our contemporary period as a “post-democracy” era in modern democracy is a façade of true democratic principles and values, whereby institutions are controlled by privileged elite members of society. She explained that “emergence of neo-liberal policies has led to the colonization of the state by corporate interests” and how crucial political decisions are being taken outside democratic political channels and thus undermining the transparency expected in a democratic system. Mouffe claimed that the origin of the “post-political” age is loss of legitimacy in democratic institutions and subsequent process of de-politicization in Europe. Agreeing with the generally accepted analysis surrounding the emergence of the current political order, she emphasized the necessity of examining the consequences of the phenomenon and the role of the left in forming possible solutions.


While her previous book examined the reason for a “post political perspective” in liberal democratic societies, Mouffe talked about its connections to the strategy of the “third way” as conceptualized by sociologist Anthony Giddens. Discussing the approach of Giddens, she explained how his theory argues the necessity of thinking beyond left and right and instead envisage a new type of politics in which a “radical center” transcends the traditional left right divide. Mouffe said that the trend of social democratic parties moving toward the center of the political spectrum in Europe reflects this idea, and added, “according to that approach western societies have entered a second stage of modernity, one they call ‘reflexive modernization’.” She described the now obsolete first state of modernity, referred to as the era of “simple modernization,” and characterized how it was replaced by the adversarial model in which the social democratic leaders believed that adaptation to an increasingly globalized world demanded a movement toward the “center left,” a trend which spread from the UK to Germany and then across Europe. Under the pretense of modernizing the social democratic project, these leaders instead abandoned the project and capitulated to neo-liberalism, “convinced there was no alternative to the current form of global financial capitalism those parties have accepted the framework established by neo-liberal hegemony”.

Mouffe criticized the abandonment of the social democratic project by party leaders, noting the self-imposed limitations of trying to “humanize neo-liberal globalization”. She acknowledged the lack of interest in politics and blurring of policies presented by the center right and center left has led to the emergence of of populist groups appearing “to be the only ones offering an alternative to the existing order.” Mouffe talked the question of traditional democratic elements – rule of law, declarations of human rights, and the idea of popular sovereignty – being declared as obsolete and resulting in the abandonment of the struggle for equality by the center left parties in favor of liberal values. She discussed the precarious position of working class people and their role in the post-democratic European order. Demanding democracy beyond representation, Mouffe described the movements within various sectors of European society which seek to actively participate in the democratic system. Today it is a “crisis of representative democracy,” and she presented her view that the refusal to accept the post-political order and subsequent protests “can be read as a call for radicalization of liberal democratic institutions not for their rejection.” Mouffe continued that the overarching goal is more inclusive representation, and said that the political system must be transformed to one in which the individual is offered a voice. She condemned the desertion of existing democratic institutions, and instead presented the idea of citizens engaging with institutions in order to profoundly transform them, a “strategy of the radicalization of democracy,” which “requires the emergence of a progressive project that will offer an alternative to the post-political liberal consensus which is dominant in center left parties.”

Mouffe discussed the debate between horizontalism and verticalism within the left, and added “if we are thinking of having some impact it is necessary to transform institutions, necessary to articulate these dimensions with some form of channeling toward institutions some form of an electoral war machine.” She articulated her belief that, in order to address the crisis of representative democracy, there must be a formulation of a progressive project offering an alternative to the status quo, an aging monument of neoliberalism. Commenting on the kind of political movement that such a political movement would require, she argued that there must be framework in which the people can establish an open dialogue with the establishment, something she termed “left wing populism.” She explained how the reestablishment of a democratic core in the post-political age demands the construction of a populist movement that promotes an agenda of left-wing values. Mouffe noted how “we are – all of us – subjected to the logic of capitalism,” and then added “the ‘us’ of the collective will that is going to be organized by the left wing is much more transversal, it can bring together – around the idea of collective will – many more groups than those traditionally associated with the left.”

Mouffe emphasized her deep conviction that her interpretation of an emergent “left wing populism” is the only feasible solution to fighting right wing populism. She insisted that this left wing populism should have a European dimension because “it is obvious that if the end is to offer an alternative to neoliberalism, this is not going to be possible only at the national level.” Convinced that the left wing populist movement demands an “agonistic confrontation about the future of Europe,” Mouffe alleged “many people on the left are beginning to dodge constructing a future within the framework of the EU alternative to the neoliberal model of globalization.” She continued “the EU is increasingly perceived as being an intrinsically neoliberal project – a project that cannot be reformed.” Mouffe condemned the perspective carried by many European leaders today that exiting the EU is superior to reforming it, and blamed such pessimistic anti-European sentiments for feeding into the rhetoric used by right-wing populist groups. Rather than turning toward Euroscepticism and the abandonment of the European project as whole, Mouffe told the audience that legitimate criticisms of the current neoliberal policies would lead to the reformations necessary to transition the EU toward a democratic future.

In Mouffe’s view, “what lies at the bottom of the disaffection toward the EU is the absence of a project that could foster a strong identification among the citizens of Europe and provide an objective to mobilize their political passion in a democratic direction.” She explained how the EU is formed around people “as consumers rather than citizens,” and claimed that the lack of a common will as a central weakness of the project. Mouffe argued that in order to foster popular allegiance to the EU, there must be “an elaboration of a social political project offering an alternative to the neoliberal model…the old model cannot continue, but the new one is not yet born.” She placed responsibility upon European institutions and national governments in contributing to the current crisis and discussed the failed attempts of using neoliberal solutions to solve a neoliberal crisis. To stop the growth of right wing parties and the spread of anti-European sentiments, Mouffe concluded with a warning to the audience, questioning a future in which right wing populists succeed in destroying the European project. She ended by calling upon leaders to unite “European citizens around a new vision…a project that could give them hope for a democratic future – establishing, at the European level, a synergy between left parties and social movements…[which] could make possible the emergence of a collective will and radical transformation of the current hegemonic order…to mobilize people’s hopes and passions toward a more just and equalitarian society.”

You can watch the entire lecture on the EU for You YouTube channel:

This event takes place as part of a new initiative entitled “Interferences,” a series of events on issues pertinent to democratic politics in the US and Europe. Organized as part of EU Futures, a series of conversations exploring the emerging future in Europe. The EU Futures project is supported by a Getting to Know Europe Grant from the European Commission Delegation in Washington, DC.

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