Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 12, Nº. 1 (May-October 2021)
Mouffe, Chantal (2019). Por Um Populismo de Esquerda.
Colecção Trajectos. Lisboa: Gradiva. ISBN 978-989-616-906-0.
104 pp
Ph.D. student in Communication Science at ISCTE-Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (Portugal) and
holder of a grant from the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT). He has a Master Degree
in Sociology: exclusions and social policies (University of Beira Interior) and a Degree in
Sociology. He was a Research Fellow (2010-2015) in the Agenda dos Cidadãos: jornalismo e
participação cívica nos media portugueses e Público e privado em comunicações móveis (Citizens'
Agenda projects: journalism and civic participation in the Portuguese media and public and
private in mobile communications), conducted at the LabCom of the Faculty of Arts and
Humanities of the University of Beira Interior. He has been a researcher at OberCom since June
The work Por Um Populismo de Esquerda (For a Left Populism) by Chantal Mouffe is part
of the long-standing neo-Marxist tradition endorsed by a vast and diverse community of
readers, ranging from Sociology to Political Science and Philosophy. For the French
author, it is clear that populism itself may not be solely and simply synonymous with
dysfunctionality and democratic pathology. What she calls the “populist moment is
inserted in a socio-historical and cultural narrative, where different dispositions of the
different social structures are metamorphosed in a permanent dialectical process of
thesis, antithesis and synthesis.
The essay denotes conceptual and analytical rigour coupled with a remarkable
observational argument and synthesis capacity. The author starts by making a statement
of intentions that we consider relevant. She declares that it is a theoretical and reflective
contribution to the study of populism. Still, it does not disregard the militant and activist
side that the political and communicational moment imposes. It contributes to a left-wing
populist programme with a strong cultural anchorage, promoting the revitalization of the
political and public life of liberal democracies.
Critical Review translated by Carolina Peralta.
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 12, Nº. 1 (May-October 2021), pp. 272-277
Critical Review of Mouffe, Chantal (2019). Por Um Populismo de Esquerda.
Colecção Trajectos. Lisboa: Gradiva. ISBN 978-989-616-906-0. 104 pp
João Carlos Sousa
The work is organized in seven parts: introduction, four chapters, conclusion and a
theoretical appendix. In the latter, the author makes relevant conceptual clarifications.
The book has the foreword of José Neves (FCSH-Universidade Nova Lisboa).
In the Introduction, Mouffe defines the research problem and argues that we are
currently facing a crisis in the neoliberal hegemonic formation. In this sense, this is a
historic opportunity to transform political and social structures in favour of a left-wing
policy: the populist moment is the moment when the political and social institutions that
guide current neoliberalism must be called into question by left-wing populism. The
neoliberal hegemony that has prevailed over the past three to four decades has led to
what she calls post-politics. This period reveals itself in the growing lack of interest in
political life on the part of an increasing number of social categories.
There are two reasons for this hegemony. The first is the essentialist conception of the
political practice of a good part of the left political actors, who continue to see political
expression as the result of class configurations. The other is the consensus around TINA
(There is no alternative) embraced by social democracy under Tony Blair's government
through the so-called third way”. Accordingly, the “populist moment” requires the
mobilization of the discursive dimension through which “(...) “a political frontier between
the people and the oligarchy ”(...)” (2019: 19) is built.
In the first chapter, The Populist Moment, Mouffe begins by making a declaration of
interests. This involves postulating the programmatic and activist horizons of her
proposal, albeit guided theoretically and conceptually by a stance that she calls “anti-
essentialist”. Under this epistemological preamble, she argues that society is divided and
constructed discursively through hegemonic practices.
Considering populism as a way of making politics based on discourse, the ideological
component, the programmatic one, and its institutional dimension as a political regime,
are removed.
Historically, the neoliberal hegemonic formation has followed that of the welfare state
with a social-democratic matrix. However, more recently, and in the face of growing
dissatisfaction and demand from broad social categories, the neoliberal hegemonic
formation is under pressure and erosion. Organically, this formation consists of:
deregulation; privatization; austerity; limitation of the role of the State; individualism;
and materialistic ascendant.
Post-democracy corresponds precisely to the height of neoliberal hegemony. In this
phase, the principles of liberalism gain prominence in the regulation of political and
institutional activity, especially economic liberalism, to the detriment of equality and
popular sovereignty and with them the closing of agonistic spaces. The populist moment
is the time for the distinction of populism.
Thus, the design and adoption of a new language are proposed. This new language has
the power of political identification of broad social strata disaffected and removed from
the public sphere. This new linguistic code would allow the second proposed aspect, the
definition of the boundary between the “people” and the oligarchy”. It is at this point
that the bifurcation between left-wing populism and right-wing populism occurs. The “we”
of left-wing populism should be able to articulate the interests of social groups such as
workers, the LGBTI community, immigrants and the precarious middle class.
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 12, Nº. 1 (May-October 2021), pp. 272-277
Critical Review of Mouffe, Chantal (2019). Por Um Populismo de Esquerda.
Colecção Trajectos. Lisboa: Gradiva. ISBN 978-989-616-906-0. 104 pp
João Carlos Sousa
The second chapter, Learning from Thatcherism, goes back to the mid-1970s, when the
tensions in the social-democratic hegemony began to multiply. An exponent of this crisis,
the Thatcherite offensive involved questioning the legitimacy of the welfare state. The
legitimacy crisis was amplified by economic factors, such as the 1975 oil crisis, but also
by the contesting role of the new social movements that advocated greater individual
rights and freedoms. This historical weakness of the welfare state and the hegemony
that legitimized it were relentlessly used to erect a new hegemony, the neoliberal one.
The strategy included the construction, at the discursive level, of "us", that is, the
hardworking people, victims of bureaucrats and a "them” that encompassed the forces
of the system, state bureaucrats, trade unions, and the beneficiaries of social benefits.
The hegemonic strategy of Thatcher's populism resulted in a combination of traditional
Conservative Party themes, such as self-interest, individualism, support for competition
and a strong anti-state culture. The intervention occurred at several levels: economic,
political, and ideological, in order to establish a new cultural hegemony.
The consolidation of neoliberal hegemony included the adoption of aesthetic canons of
counterculture such as authenticity, self-management and the absence of hierarchies,
allowing the neutralization of new social movements.
In the third chapter, Radicalizing Democracy, Mouffe begins by postulating what she calls
hegemonic formation, stating that “(...) it is a configuration of social practices of different
natures: economic, cultural, political and legal, and their articulation is ensured around
some key symbolic signifiers that shape “common sense” and offer the normative
framework of a given society” (2019: 53). Basically, we are facing a social structure that
aims to replace the dominant regulatory framework. It is based on this that social
practices are guided, including those based on common sense.
According to the author, the institutional bodies that support Western societies are faced
with a growing erosion not only of the trust placed by the citizens, but also regarding
their own functioning, especially when prioritizing freedom, especially economic, to the
detriment of equality as the basic principle of democratic life.
It is paradoxical that there is no robust opposition/rejection to/of the neoliberal project
for financialization of the economy and other aspects of social activity. At this point, the
author sees” an opportunity for left-wing populism, capturing and mobilizing the
discontent of broad social categories regarding the regime's elites.
It is up to left-wing populism to radicalize democracy. The constitution of an actor capable
of carrying out this transformation at the level of social and political institutions should
consider and start from the contribution of three types of the leftist actor: pure
reformism; radical reformism; and revolutionary politics. All of them will necessarily have
the State as an agonistic space as imperative for their action. To this end, it is not just
any version of the extreme left, but a left that promotes a break with the neoliberal status
As a consequence, left-wing populism as a collective political actor should intensify the
agonistic confrontation in society and, in particular, in the structures of the State.
The fourth and final chapter, entitled The Construction of a People, is where the author
problematizes the process of radicalization of democracy, which should include the
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 12, Nº. 1 (May-October 2021), pp. 272-277
Critical Review of Mouffe, Chantal (2019). Por Um Populismo de Esquerda.
Colecção Trajectos. Lisboa: Gradiva. ISBN 978-989-616-906-0. 104 pp
João Carlos Sousa
construction of a political subject that articulates different interests and intensifies the
equality component, equating it with freedom. The “people” of left-wing populism must
be constituted by a cause, defined in a clear and objective way that brings together
several manifestations of the popular will. A second aspect is the emergence and
consolidation of the figure of a leader, preferably with charismatic contours. This double
dimension of building a left-wing populist political actor leads us to two important
observations. On the one hand, the model of democracy underlying the transition from
a neoliberal hegemony to a populist hegemony of the left, in which a citizen's role should
replace that of a consumer. This passage implies active involvement of collective and
community life. On the other hand, the figure of the left populist leader distances itself
from the right populist leader who has authoritarian and centralizing features.
In the Conclusion, the author discusses the “populist moment” that has arisen in
contemporary western societies. She sees it as the result of the erosion of the
institutional mechanisms of democratic regimes, which thus accumulate tensions and
clusters of social conflict, sometimes latent, others manifest. As a result of the neoliberal
hegemony that has emerged triumphant in the last decades, the post-democratic
condition is currently undermined by the growing discontent of broad social categories.
The outbreak of discontent in such diverse social categories occurs in a very different
way, embodying what is conceived as a “populist moment”: at the discursive level, with
the construction of a discursive category, the people”, which aggregates very diverse
social categories. As there is no general criterion that applies across the different Western
democracies, those who feel distant from the decision-making and social mobility circuits
come together. It also includes the growing preponderance of affections in politics.
For this reason, more than the programmatic definition of a hypothetical left-wing
populism, the delimitation of a political frontier will culminate in the discursive dimension.
From this point of view, the negative connotation of populism that proliferates in the
West must be dismantled, since this is nothing more than a strategy originating from
post-political interest groups.
Antagonistically, populism can be seen as a promising strategy of democratic
radicalization and its aspect of equality and social justice, as distinctive criteria of left-
wing populism in relation to the others.
In the Theoretical Appendix - An anti-essentialist approach, the author makes some
conceptual clarifications which, in addition to reinforcing the epistemological and
theoretical foundations of the work, are also pedagogical. She begins by clarifying that
her approach is situated in what she calls a dissociative perspective by perceiving the
political structure as the space where antagonistic interests with conflicting potential are
at odds. The anti-essentialist analysis is based on two basic concepts: first, the
“hegemonic practices that comprise “all social orders are the temporary and precarious
articulation of hegemonic practices whose purpose is to establish an order in a contingent
context. Hegemonic practices are articulation practices whereby a given order is created
and the meaning of social institutions is fixed (2019: 90). A second concept, that of
social agent "(...) consists of a set of "discursive positions" that can never be totally fixed
in a closed system of differences" (2019: 90). In short, she affirms that there is no
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 12, Nº. 1 (May-October 2021), pp. 272-277
Critical Review of Mouffe, Chantal (2019). Por Um Populismo de Esquerda.
Colecção Trajectos. Lisboa: Gradiva. ISBN 978-989-616-906-0. 104 pp
João Carlos Sousa
structural determinism, since the positioning of each actor lies in an unstable discursive
structure, constantly reassessed by each actor.
An agonistic concept of democracy - the great contemporary challenge for liberal regimes
is to establish a space for agonistic confrontation that allows the establishment of criteria
that lead to the construction of us” and “them”. The them” is not an enemy that we
have to objectively eliminate, but an adversary that gives rise to a fight of ideas in a
clear distinction between the "adversary" and the "enemy".
Even so, fighting against enemies, perceived as those who refuse to play the democratic
game with its rules and principles, cannot be dispensed with. Hence, the distinction
between "antagonism" associated with the enemies of democracy and "agonism" where
different political perspectives are confronted is also relevant.
Reflections and dialogue with the work
This work represents a substantive attempt to revalue the concept of “populism” and
recycle it from the social debris where it is commonly found, especially in the daily
political and media discourse. It may constitute an opportunity to renew democratic
procedures (Judis, 2017; Müller, 2017; Mudde & Kaltwasser 2017). The French author
contributes to this debate by proposing a programme for a left-wing populism aimed at
revitalizing democracy.
Regarding the definition of the cause, the author provides some clues, which include
appealing to the “social issue”, proposing it as an alternative to the forms of exploitation,
domination and discrimination. The ecological question should also have a pivotal place
in the formation of a new populist hegemony of the left, advocating in favour of a fair
energy transition and the abandonment of the dominant productivist model.
Finally, the construction of left-wing populism, being anchored geographically and
nationally, should: aspire to its internationalization; collaborate with the various national
left-wing populisms; radicalize each of the democracies; and invoke the polarizing affects
that exist between the different actors.
The author refers to a “post-political” time but she does not define it in sufficient detail
so as to identify dimensions and criteria that signal the transition from a period of
neoliberal hegemony to a “post-political” one. Basically, one does not understand the
exact conditions and circumstances in which this transformation takes place, particularly
the passage of what she calls the current “populist moment”.
The author fails to examine, not even generically, the role of the media in contemporary
societies and in particular in the historical dialectics process where key cultural
transformations take place. An example includes the appropriation and use of new social
media by actors considered to be populist (Bolsover, 2017; Benkler, Faris & Roberts,
2018; Gopalkrishnan, 2018), who base their strategy on a double practice: the
establishment of communication and direct interaction with potential voters, breaking
the monopoly of traditional media (Morais & Sousa, 2013); and rupture in the discourse
that emphasizes denouncing corrupt elites or the plot of liberal and cosmopolitan elites
regarding migratory flows (Eatwell & Goodwin, 2019).
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 12, Nº. 1 (May-October 2021), pp. 272-277
Critical Review of Mouffe, Chantal (2019). Por Um Populismo de Esquerda.
Colecção Trajectos. Lisboa: Gradiva. ISBN 978-989-616-906-0. 104 pp
João Carlos Sousa
Benkler, Y., Faris, R., & Roberts, H. (2018). Network propaganda: manipulation,
disinformation, and radicalization in American politics. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bolsover, G. (2017). “Computational Propaganda in China: An Alternative Model of a
Widespread Practice.” S. Woolley, P. N. Howard (Eds.), Working Paper, Oxford, UK,
Project on Computational Propaganda. Available at: http://comprop.oii.ox.ac.uk/
[retrieved on 05-10-2020].
Eatwell, R. & Goodwin, M. (2019). Populismo, A Revolta Contra a Democracia Liberal.
Porto Salvo: Desassossego.
Gopalkrishnan, S. (2018). “The Trump Campaign Computational Propaganda Challenge
for the Indian Parliamentary Elections 2019”. Media Watch, Vol. IX (Nº I), pp. 79-88.
Judis, J. B. (2017). A Explosão do Populismo. Lisboa: Editorial Presença.
Morais, R. & Sousa, J. C. (2013). “As práticas jornalísticas na imprensa regional: a
selecção das fontes e a promoção de desigualdades sociais”. Observatório, 7(1), 187
204. https://doi.org/10.7458/obs712013518
Mudde, C. & Kaltwasser, C. R. (2017). Populismo: uma brevíssima introdução. Lisboa:
Müller, J.W. (2017). O Que é o Populismo?. Alfragide: Texto Editora.
How to cite this critical review
Sousa, João Carlos (2021). Critical review of Mouffe, Chantal (2019). Por Um Populismo de
Esquerda. Colecção Trajectos. Lisboa: Gradiva. ISBN 978-989-616-906-0. 104 pp. Janus.net,
e-journal of international relations. Vol12, Nº. 1, May-October 2021. Consulted [online] at
date of last view, https://doi.org/10.26619/1647-7251.12.01.1