A Critique of Populist Reason



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Ernesto Laclau’s latest (On Populist Reason) aims to elucidate the workings of populist movements – movements that have traditionally been academically marginalized as incoherent, irrational, and transitory. In these traditional academic studies of populism, the reason of the mass movement has been explained only in terms of what it lacks compared to a archetypal political reason. It has never, in other words, been given its own immanent explanation. As a result, Laclau sees himself setting out to examine this specifically populist form of reason.

As with any study, the first order of business it to ensure a clear definition of one’s object. For Laclau, populism is not defined by the content of its instances – there can be a conservative populism, as well as a leftist populism; a revolutionary populism as well as a reactionary populism. What defines the specificity of the populist movement is rather its form. Following upon his earlier analyses with Chantelle Mouffe in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau will argue that the ‘people’ constitutive of populist movements arises from the establishment of a chain of equivalences. In other words, rather than taking the group as an already-established entity, Laclau wants to explain how groups emerge in the first place. A populist movement, therefore, is a particular way of organizing a group of people. To this end, Laclau takes as his “minimal unit of analysis” (72), the ‘social demand’. This is a simple enough concept – an individual has a particular grievance over some social problem, and s/he demands that the government (or otherwise relevant authority) do something about it. In its individual form, Laclau refers to this as a 'democratic demand' (highlighting the individualism as the center of democracy). But, with the repeated failure of the local authorities to resolve this demand, more and more demands arise. In the beginning, these demands are all separate and individual (say, one for poor schooling, and another for lack of health care access). Yet at a certain threshold, these democratic demands become articulated together through a common equivalence – they become specifically ‘populist demands’, made equivalent through their common antagonist (real or imagined).

Laclau goes on from here to build an entire edifice upon these basic foundations, examining how populist movements congeal into something more than a transitory phenomenon (through master signifiers), and how the purported irrationality of the crowd in fact has its own reason ('irrational' rhetoric is one major way to articulate a group identity and establish a master signifier), among other insights. But for our purposes, I want to raise the issue of whether or not the demand is a viable ontological unit to begin with. The problem here isn’t a theoretical one (although it may be that too), but rather an empirical one – important studies of conflict have found that grievances play a very small role in predicting the likelihood of a mass movement arising and fighting for its demands. If grievances are rarely correlated with the occurrence of conflict, then despite the theoretical elegance of Laclau’s formulation, it seems we must simply declare that it is not validated by the facts.

The acute reader will note an elision in process already – the slight shift from a discussion of populism to a discussion of conflict. Our justification for the combination of these two is that populism is a form of conflict. Either open and violent, or hidden and subtle, populism is a struggle against an antagonistic other. While the conflict in question here focuses on the most openly violent form (namely, civil war), it is nevertheless clear that civil war is the ultimate form of the populist logic that Laclau outlines – namely the antagonistic drawing of a line between two adversaries, formed through an equivalential logic and structured according to a master signifier. If this ultimate form doesn’t adhere to Laclau’s logic, then it can plausibly be argued that the pre-civil war antagonisms won’t be found to adhere to it either.

With that in mind, let’s look at the most notable study to find that conflict isn’t based on grievances or social demands – Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler’s controversial “Greed and Ignorance in Civil War” (for some qualifications of their paper, see Chris Blattman and Edward Miguel's comprehensive review of the civil war literature here - in particular, pages 31-34). Collier and Hoeffler's basic premise is simple: it is not the scarcity of motivations for conflict which accounts for the rarity of civil wars, but rather the infrequency of the opportunities which explains the rarity of civil wars. Looking at the data from 750 five-year samples during the period from 1960-1992 (including both peace and conflict samples), they come to the conclusion that grievance variables have only a minor statistical significance on the likelihood of civil war. It is rather the opportunity variables (defined by the economic costs of starting a rebellion) that are most determinant when it comes to predicting the likelihood of a violent conflict. These include the proportional size of the natural resources extorted (more resources meaning more money for financing a civil war), the proportional size of the diaspora and the capital received from it, the foregone costs of joining a rebellion (e.g. it is cheaper to join a rebellion if one need not give up a well-paying job), and the geographical distribution of the population (with greater dispersion making it easier for a rebellion to mobilize outside the government’s reach). In terms of grievances, an ethnic majority has some significance, but only to a point – past a certain threshold, increased fractionalization appears to make it less profitable for the majority to exploit small minority groups. Without this economic incentive, the chances of violent conflict drop. Notably, grievance variables that Laclau would cite – such as political repression, inequality, ethnic polarization and religious fractionalization – add no significant explanatory value on top of the other variables. Collier and Hoeffler’s controversial conclusion, therefore, is that grievances play only a small part in the genesis of conflicts, relative to the economic costs and opportunities. This being the case, where does it leave Laclau’s analysis?

To be certain, Collier and Hoeffler's study doesn't disprove the validity of grievance-based theories - their results are also consistent with grievances being widespread and long-lasting, with the rare economic opportunities being what allows these base-level grievances to be voiced without necessarily decimating one's financial standing. In this theory, grievances would be a near constant, and opportunities the important variable. If that's the case, however, Laclau's theory of populist movements is underdetermined. While significant for recognizing the need and role for master signifiers in the construction of a 'people' and its continuation throughout a prolonged period of struggle, Laclau's populist reason ultimately is unable to account for the emergence of a populist movement in some situations and not others. Why, for example, do widespread grievances often go uncontested by any group of people? Collier and Hoeffler, while admittedly focused on civil wars, answer by pointing towards the mundane economic costs and opportunities that facilitate protest, rebellion and contention. In a sense, perhaps, what Laclau requires is a more developed theory of how individuals are attached to their everyday lives, prior to becoming involved in a populist movement. He's well aware of the intense attachments that can be sparked in the midst of a populist uprising, but seems to neglect how certain attachments to one's everyday lifestyle can make the cost of rebellion seem prohibitively unattractive. Relatedly, if these attachments shift as a result of material changes (influxes of capital from resources and diasporas, shifting geographical distributions of people, cheaper foregone costs, and even rainfall shortages), it perhaps also points to the ways in which desire is altered as a result of its embeddness in a dynamic socio-economic-natural context.

[UPDATE:] For an alternative perspective on similar issues, see Understanding Society's post, "Moral Economy as a Historical Social Concept".

[UPDATE #2:] And for even more, see Jon's in-depth discussion of populism, Laclau and other topics here.