Populism, therefore, for all its failings aims to reconceive as well as reconstitute peoplehood as a genuine Hegelian “concrete universal”, even in the way that Marx himself intended. It does so by challenging those who claim to speak for the people, yet have abstracted themselves from the populace per se. In key respects, therefore, contra Laclau, it is neoliberalism rather than populism that effectively leverages the vox populi as an “empty signifier.”
Neoliberalism, especially in its spurious “emancipatory” formatting, authorizes itself as the custodian of democracy, yet its “democratic” credentialing amount to nothing more than the exercise of corporatist and statist prerogatives to manage exclusively what it considers the proper distribution of both moral capital and identitarian schemes of symbolic recognition throughout the political order. This system of distribution obviously enhances the prestige of the elites, and in a thoroughgoing global knowledge economy buttresses their power. The referentless arrow of signification no longer pierces the fragile fault line between people and elites, but between the elites and what we might term the preferred populus.
The notion of a preferential populus is, of course, as old as the story of Moses and it is at the heart of the Biblical theology of a “chosen people”. It follows along with both the Augustinian and Calvinist doctrines of divine election and, as we observed earlier, in the dialectic of redemption and reprobation that demarcates the emergence of the modern. It has tunnelled its way into twentieth century liberation theology with its Marxist colorations and its well-known leitmotif of the “preferential option for the poor.” Yet all these variants on what turns out to be a complex, long-ranging set of highly generalized narratives derived from distinctive historical experiences as well as the broader metaphysical framework for much of Western thought have little in common with the neoliberal mindset.
The “preferred populus” of neoliberalism turns out to be a variety of idealized set pieces – typified “identities” rather than flesh-and-blood peoples – who serve as easily manipulable counters in a grand strategy of maximizing human capital, a game that is thoroughly controlled and overseen by the cosmopolitan elites tout ensemble. These set pieces are the “marginalized” or “oppressed” who as the discourse develops become vaguely racialized with absolutely no account given for how the process itself actually originated, or has unfolded. The modifier “systemic”, for example, is bandied about arbitrarily as if a certain structure of causality were somehow intuitively obvious, when in fact the purported causal nexus itself is conveniently obscured while the dynamism of social, cultural, historical relationships and interactions is taken as irrelevant.
Even once sophisticated forms of class analysis such as the classical Marxist theory of a synergy between the forces of production and the relations of production are slighted in favor of ghostly essentialist – and inherently meaningless – constructs as “whiteness” or “oppression”, especially when the latter signals little more than familiar and observed patterns of differential relations or functional inequality absent even the slightest concern about their etiology. The rise of what might be termed “woke” neoliberalism, a more apt term to characterize the endemic pathologies of progressive neoliberalism, with all its arrogant bluster and ignorant abstractions. It has become the opaque mythology of a hardening caste system where the ascendant knowledge classes, who conceal their own vicious privileges and predations with ever more flamboyant mumbo-jumbo concerning “social justice” without any visible worldly effect on those who are singled out as victims of injustice, consolidate both their economic dominance through the meritocracy of higher education and their cultural hegemony through dictatorship of the means of discourse.
Laclau’s problem of the “people”, therefore, cannot be boiled down simply to transposing the mode of signification. The challenge of populism is a semiotic rather than a semantic one. It is all about fleshing out what real and vital human relations are consistently rendered invisible by the self-referential rhetoric of the neoliberal difference machine. That, of course, is precisely what we have in mind when we employ the phrase “popular sovereignty”. Rousseau himself, who in a profound sense invented what we mean by “democracy” in the late modern inflection of the word, ended up circumventing the very problem he set for himself when couched the notion of popular sovereignty as a manifestation of the volonté générale. Rousseau came to this pass largely because of the manner in which he framed the question of sovereignty in Book II of The Social Contract: “the general will alone can direct the forces of the State according to the object of its founding, which is the common good.” (170)
The imbrication of the general will in Rousseau’s paradigm with state power has been grist for critics such as Talmon, as we have seen. But the difficult lies chiefly in a false dichotomy that Rousseau himself seems to have posed between the Lockean liberal notion of “private interest” and the factitious and somewhat elusive notion of the “common good.” For Rousseau, sovereignty in the true metaphysical, or metapolitical, sense that figures from Bodin to Schmitt have countenanced can never be compromised by any appeal to personal inclinations or the liberum arbitrium, a moral or psychological as opposed to a political principle. It was always a staple of early modern social contract theory that an individual, or group of individuals, could surrender or “alienate” their power to determine their own outcomes.
That is why for thinkers such as Hobbes in particular sovereignty always belonged to the sovereign, not to the subject. Thus, according to Rousseau, if sovereignty is to escape the fate of its own self-contradictory formulary, it must not in any way be imaginable as an attribute of specific personalities. “Sovereignty,” Rousseau writes, “being nothing but the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated, and that the sovereign power, which is in fact a collective being, can be represented only by itself.” Moreover, “sovereignty is inalienable [because] it is indivisible; for the will is either general, or it is not; it is either that of the body of the people, or that of only a part of it. In the first case, this declared will is an act of sovereignty and constitutes law; in the second case, it is only a particular will” (171)
Rousseau, of course, was seeking to preserve the singularity of the notion of the “sovereign” characterized by Bodin two centuries earlier, but to turn Bodin “on his head”, as Marx would famously claim later to be doing to Hegel, so that the synecdochal monarchial figure, in keeping with Kantorowicz’ theme of the “king’s two bodies”, could be eliminated, whereas the polis as a kind of secularized corpus Christi could be retained. That is, in fact, what happened with the guillotining of Louis XVI during the French Revolution, while the demos itself came in the later stages to be overtly sacralized with Robespierre’s infamous “cult of the Supreme Being.”
The Jacobin innovation with its fanatic insistence on adherence to an impossible ideal of “civic virtue” adhered to the same precise logic that Rousseau in The Social Contract had mapped out. The Jacobin program remains very much alive in the progressive neoliberal project. “Wokeness” is simply hypervigilant Jacobin moralism updated for twenty-first century purposes. Just as Jacobinism itself became the conceptual sketchpad for what Marx would later diagnose as the self-aggrandizing proto-ideology of the triumphant bourgeoisie, so wokeness has come to serve as what functions historically as a counterrevolutionary credo to install once and for all the absolute hegemony of the knowledge class. The marker of race is simultaneously wielded almost promiscuously to mask its reactionary intent. Populism is less an empty signifier than its own metonymical marker in an age of boisterous abstractions that calls into question the separation of politics from any attempt to wrest sovereignty from the thicket of a real and embodied populace.
It is thus a populism that draws for its consistency as well as its definition on the people as δῆμος – hence, the authentic import of the term “democracy” – in its originary meaning, that is, as a “village” or small administrative unit with families living in close quarters. On that score the genealogy of the word demos was more closely associated with the notion of the oikos or “household” rather than the city or polis. Contrary to the common academic assumption that the Athenian polis was a primarily a terrain for the exercise of elite power, even within a narrowly circumscribed demographic range, Robin Osborne maintains that the opposite is the case. The demes operated “with an open ethic” that allowed for easy inclusion as “citizens” from below, whereas the “citizen body had become a significantly closed group.” (72).
In other words, the polis itself was constituted at the outset not by a hereditary aristocracy, as became true much later, but by a process where intimate kindred ties and proximate social relations across the board served as the incubator for emergent leadership roles. To invoke Ferdinnd Tönnies celebrated distinction, the polis was a Gemeinschaft before it became a Gesellschaft. Democracy amounts, suggests Osborne, to “the politics of locality”, (64) which necessarily involved the common people. Athenian “democracy”, as is common knowledge, functioned primarily through the assembly, to which the people were “called out of” (ekklesia) their everyday life situations. The “will” of the assembly was expressed through the marshalling of a communal voice from the organic give-and-take of the various views and opinions long before it took on the stylized rhetorical functions requiring thespian expertise that denotes the age of the sophists.
In many respects what we mean by “populism,” as it has evolved across the current global spectrum in both the developing and the developed nations, can be seen as a pushback against the formalization of elite discourse that claims to speak for the demos in its rough-and-ready iterations. The whole notion of “political correctness” has its genesis within this particular kind of dynamic. The very question of sovereignty, therefore, is ultimately a structurally linguistic one. It comes down to Foucault’s question of “what matter who’s speaking?” (138) The question of sovereignty is commensurate with Foucault’s problem of the “author-function”. To be attributable as the progenitor of speech, as what the post-structuralists refer to as the “subject of enunciation” as opposed to the grammatical subject in the abstract, is to give the spoken word meaning in the most concrete façon de parler.
The principle can be traced all the way back to Jacques Lacan’s insight in the 1950s that subjectivation takes place through speech (parole) and the ownership of what one says. The “who” of speech profoundly matters psychoanalytically, and as the ancient Greeks understood, it matters politically. At the same time, the danger of democracy, as far as the ancient Greeks were concerned, was the fact that “free speech”, or “bold speech” (παρρησία), which not only entails the process of subjectivation but also the key to speaking “truth” or truth-telling, can bring about the dissolution of the common logos.
It was the maintenance of a common logos on which the security of the polis depended. As Foucault points out, “the primary danger of liberty and free speech in a democracy is what results when everyone has his own manner of life.”(84) The formation of a genuine politeia hinges on the reconciliation of logos with bios, which is what makes political life possible. Foucault puts it as follows: “in Plato, and in what we know of Socrates through Plato, a major problem concerns the attempt to determine how to bring the political parrhesia involving logos, truth, and nomos, so that it coincides with the ethical parrhesia involving logos, truth, and bios.”(104) What we now understand as “populism” arises from the challenge which democratic parrhesia presents to the highly codified regimen demanded by elite discourse through its leverage over state power.
The tacit dogma of progressive neoliberalism is that speech must be regulated, and hence “free speech” curtailed, for the sake of controlled a fractious demos that constantly raises a threat to an even more rigorously curated common logos. Similarly, the bios itself now must conform to the “logic” of the curated common life, which is largely what Foucault had in mind when he elaborated the frequently misapplied notion of “biopolitics”. Rousseau’s theory of the general will, which curiously also implies a Platonic eidos to replace the active, autochthonous logos, has been the boilerplate for several centuries now for sustaining the ruse that true democracy demands an educated class who can perpetually “speak for” everyone else.
The substitution of eidos for logos, or the privileging of knowledge when it comes to the art of governing (as we find early on in the stance pioneered by Plato in the Republic), inherently requires a theory that can only be instantiated through the elaboration of the state apparatus, which turned out to be Rousseau’s folly. Yet, as Alain de Benoist stresses, “sovereignty is not related to any particular form of government or to any particular political organization; on the contrary, it is inherent in any form of political authority.”(100). It is political “authority” (i.e., authorship of common speech) in the grounding sense that drives populism.
De Benoist notes that populism is not anti-political, but in essence a “call for the return of the political.” He comments that “the people can see that the political these days is overwhelmed by economics, morality, procedural legalism, and expertocracy.” They demand that the scandal of faux politics be called out for what it is, “because it is only politically that they can exist as a people: a community becomes a political entity when it defines itself as such.” In a word, populism is the parrhesia of the people as a whole. It is the reassertion of popular sovereignty in neither its monarchial, monopolitical aspects that many have wrongly associated with Bodin nor in the abstract and formalistic rendition devised by Rousseau. “Free speech” and a “free people” are inseparable from each other.
The often etheric indication of what is known politically as “popular sovereignty” turns decisively on the concretization in the true Hegelian sense of the abstract universal that has be cited nauseously and repeatedly as the name of “democracy”. But the demos, as the etymology of the locution itself strongly implies, is not an abstract entity. It is the very ontology of what is otherwise declared as the “people” in the fullness of relationship with each other. It is a fullness, or plenary condition, that cannot be ciphered out or sliced up into identitarian tokens by the kinds of discursive feints at which neoliberalism as a type of overarching cultural hegemony, insofar as it relies heavily as a perfected computational apparatus for the colonial matrix of power on the reduction of all symbolical relations to differential inequalities, excels. It is not merely a system of social relationships. It is you and I in relation to each other.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic(Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis(IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.