Was will das Volk?: Is “the people” left-wing, or right-wing?

Timothy Appleton

“We cannot shut out the scream of Reich: the masses were not deceived; at a particular time, they actually wanted a fascist regime!” The tone of this remark by Deleuze, which is extracted from a conversation he had with Foucault in 1972, evokes the bewilderment one finds in Freud’s classic question, cited in Jones’ celebrated biography: “Was will das Weib?” (What does woman want/desire?). Combining the two locutions, one could formulate the question of the day as follows: Was will das Volk? (What does the people want/desire?) Why do I consider this an urgent question? I speak from a geographically European perspective, above all, that of my adopted country, Spain. Ten years after the “Spanish spring” – 15M – it seems we are experiencing a kind of political Autumn: the hope that emerged from that magical moment in 2011 seems now to have dissipated, especially following the victory of the right in the recent elections in Madrid. As is often the case, the disorientation of the left that has set in during the last few years has highlighted certain theoretical questions, of the kind raised by Deleuze: ¿What if the masses are not, as we sometimes tend to think, the privileged agent of emancipation, but are in fact the opposite? Or, to put it in our usual vocabulary: is “the people” left or right-wing (if we assume that the left can be directly associated with emancipation)? Logically, there are three possible answers to this question: i) the people can either be left-wing or right-wing; ii) the people is right-wing; iii) the people is left-wing. In this short essay, I shall consider these answers one by one. I will conclude that the third answer is the correct one, although I will add an important caveat.

1. The people can be either right or left-wing

The idea that the people can be either right- or left-wing is defended by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, among others. The criterion they introduce is derived from their reading of Gramsci. It has to do with Gramsci’s principle of “transformism” (or “passive revolution”). Transformism describes the moment when an “organic crisis” (to use another term from the same author) in a social system resolves itself in a conservative rather than a “progressive” direction. What’s the difference between these two possibilities? A transformist resolution of a social crisis would be when the relevant society manages to consolidate itself. Hence the reason I am calling it conservative: it conserves the existing society. A progressive solution, on the other hand, would imply that the previous system predominantly changes into another. From Gramsci’s traditionally Marxist viewpoint, this change will involve the proletariat becoming the ruling class, thus displacing the previous ruling class, the bourgeoisie. Laclau and Mouffe, for their part, would not accept this characteristic, since they do not believe that the proletariat possesses a historical destiny in this sense. On the other hand, they do argue that there exist different hegemonic axes, and when one of these manages to displace another, then we find ourselves in a “progressive” moment. In the first case – that of a net social consolidation -, Laclau and Mouffe would say that we are dealing with a right-wing hegemony, and in the second – a net social reorganization – with a left-wing hegemony. Moreover, since they believe that the privileged agent of a hegemony is “the people”, it is now possible to understand how they might conclude that a people – plus its “philosophical ideology” of populism – may be either right- or left-wing. Does this conclusion make sense? I think it is undermined by what I would call the aporia of hegemony. This is a complex issue that I shall briefly try to explain. It has to do with the status of the category of antagonism in the theory of Laclau and Mouffe.

I believe that “the aporia of hegemony” is essentially a mathematical problem. It seems to me that it is never clear – not even, in truth, to Laclau and Mouffe themselves – whether antagonism – which according to them is the fundamental ontological aspect of populism (i.e., of politics as such) – should be considered a singular or a plural phenomenon. In other words, is antagonism, on the one hand, the unique limit of a “social system” or is it, in contrast, something that appears multiple times within such a system? These authors would certainly answer that it is both things at once, and furthermore that the short-circuit between a particular antagonism – one among others – and a universal antagonism – which limits the social field in which the former can be found – constitutes a very precise definition of the hegemonic process (this is the essence of Laclau’s argument about empty signifiers). I would argue, however, that this position is illogical. An antagonism cannot be both the limit of any social objectivity whatsoever and something that is simultaneously scattered around within that same objectivity. There cannot be “limits of all social objectivity” within other “limits of all social objectivity”. This problem evokes the Russell paradox, since it implies that antagonism simultaneously is and is not the condition of possibility of a social whole. It is a difficult paradox, on which I hope to publish more very soon. It is relevant here because Laclau and Mouffe’s argument about the ambiguous political status of populism is based on aggregations between the plurality of antagonisms that supposedly exist within a social order. If it is true, however, that what is at stake is antagonisms in the plural, then the singular aspect of antagonism – qua limit of a social order – inevitably fades away (precisely because it is incompatible with its plural dimension). If this is the case, however, then the relevant social whole automatically becomes intensional, i.e. a replete totality. The effect of this is inevitable: every attempt at hegemony is aimed towards a social plenitude. But this would imply that such a project is by definition an attempt at consolidation, i.e., it is transformist. Thus we come to our second option: the people is (necessarily) right-wing. To further develop this idea, I think it is useful to pass from Laclau and Mouffe to another post-Althusserian thinker, Alain Badiou.

2. The people is right-wing

What Badiou calls the subject is something that adheres to the void of what he dubs a Situation. This is why Badiou argues that an “Evental site” – upon which there may later be built an Event, which is precisely what breaks with a situation, thus producing a political antagonism – is, as he says, “on the edge of the void”. For the same reason, he considers that an Evental site constitutes a singularity (i.e. an element that belongs to a set without being included in it). I would say that the same logic can be applied to what we are calling a people. If we assume that the subject of politics, in Badiou’s sense, is a people, it can be asserted that the latter adheres to the void point of a social order, thus producing a singular antagonism between the people and the elite. This conclusion is important in part because it offers to resolve the aporia of hegemony that I described earlier. That is, if we accept Badiou’s logic, we can conclude that any true antagonism is singular, rather than plural. Later on, Badiou adds another point to his theory, which is especially important to us in this essay. He presents this point in his book Ethics.

In the above book, Badiou argues that if a subject of polítics, after it is born (because before the Event, this subject does not exist), adheres to the plenitude of a Situation, rather than to its void, then we are encountering one of the main ways of abandoning, or suffocating, the Event with which it is associated. This is not a simple process, because when it has already been subtracted from a Situation, an Event cannot simply be ignored; it must be violently rejected. In these circumstances, something that looks like an Event is produced, although it is in fact what Badiou calls a simulacrum. The paradigm of the simulacrum, for Badiou, is Nazism. This is because Badiou considers it to be a bad copy of his favorite example of a political Event: the Russian Revolution. This last idea might remind us of the apocryphal comment by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, that every fascist outbreak bears witness to a failed revolution. Or it could be seen as a variation on the idea of Marx that history occurs twice: first as tragedy, then as farce. One can see how Badiou’s argument fits with our previous conclusion about the theory of hegemony, i.e. that the latter it necessarily right-wing, since, having glimpsed the contingency of a social situation, it subsequently dedicates itself to covering up this contingency. Once again, it can be concluded that populism qua hegemony is necessarily right-wing. If this is the case, however, how do we get to our third option: that the people is (necessarily) left-wing? Badiou has already given us an important clue. To explain it fully, however, I think it would first be useful to consider the argument of the paradigmatic representative of this idea; I have in mind the work of Jorge Alemán.

3. The people is left-wing

Alemán has long insisted that populism should not be considered right-wing, but specifically left-wing. Why? Like Badiou, he believes that political emancipation is defined by adhering to the singular void point of a social Situation. Alemán invents the term Soledad: Común (Common: Solitude) to refer to this phenomenon. This term nicely captures the dimensions of singularity (Solitude) and universality (Common) that any genuinely emancipatory politics must incorporate, if one takes into account that this singularity is precisely what precipitates an antagonism that is capable of appealing to everyone within a specific Situation. For Alemán, to be in favor of this singularity is to be on the left. If there is a theoretical parallel between Alemán and Badiou at this level, however, why haven’t we simply cited Badiou’s theory and left the matter there? We have not done so because there is an important difference between the two thinkers. Badiou – like another important Lacanian, Slavoj Žižek – has dubbed the privileged subject of a singular emancipation “the proletariat.” As we have said, Alemán, in contrast, calls it the people, and goes on to defend “populism”, as against the “communism» of Badiou (or Žižek). I believe that this distinction is decisive because I feel that it would be difficult to defend the true singularity of a political sequence if this very singularity is “overdetermined” by a (capitalist) social ontology of the type required by the projects of Badiou and Žižek. In truth, I think that the position of Badiou and Žižek leads us back to the aporia of hegemony. Although both of them would reject the latter term, the aporia implies that the social is excessive with respect to an antagonism, and I feel that this is precisely what Badiou and Žižek end up defending. This, then, is the mistake that I think Alemán manages to avoid. In this sense, the use of the dual terms populism and the people in his work is not simply a matter of political taste; it goes to the very heart of ontology. For the same reason, this third position – that of Alemán – is the one that seems to me to be the most logical of all. Thus we can conclude, with Alemán, that the people is necessarily left-wing. But that is not the end of the story. To complete it, we must go back to Badiou.

When liberal European journalists curse the name of populism, associating it with the racist right, this is not, as Wittgenstein might have said, “a stupid prejudice.” It is true that racist populism has a certain connection with true populism, which, as we have said, must be considered left-wing. What does this connection consist of? What they have in common is that they are both based on a real ontological difference: a singular antagonism. On the other hand, as we have explained, they have two very different ways of dealing with this difference. The right tries to violently shut it down, while the left tries to make it even more visible, in order to try to create something new within the ambit of a Situation, a creation that will involve a different kind of violence. Following the same logic, I believe that even though populism as such must indeed be considered left-wing, such populism can in fact be perverted, thus producing a secondary and fake version of it. In this sense, I would propose, following Badiou, that we call right-wing populism a simulacrum of populism. Once again, a key aspect of this phenomenon is chronology. Recently, we have seen numerous examples: for example, Vox occupying the space that was established (and then abandoned?) by Podemos, Trump walking through the door that Bernie Sanders had opened, Bolsonaro replacing Lula and Rousseff, even the way (little known outside of Britain, apparently) in which the British right has colonized the demand to leave the European Union, which was once a key proposal of the British left.


In conclusion, the people is essentially left-wing, although there is the possibility that it will subsequently be perverted, thus producing a simulacrum of itself. One – probably more controversial – deduction that can be made from this conclusion is that we must run the risk of the simulacrum of emancipation if we want to experience emancipation in the first place. Many will see this as a dangerous opinion. I think they are wrong. After all, what genuinely democratic process is risk-free? Also, what would the alternative be? To make our peace with what already exists? This is not an option that I feel we should consent to. In sum, I believe that those of us who consider ourselves to be on the radical left must continue to wager on “the people”, even if we run the risk of opening the door to its perversion by the radical right. To put the deduction in the words of Badiou himself: “Mieuz vaut un désastre qu’un désêtre” (Better a disaster than non-being).

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