January 2018

Chantal Mouffe and Jean-Luc Mélenchon: People’s Time


While there are other videos in which Chantal Mouffe describes her theory of politics and democracy more eloquently, this debate puts her in conversation with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the French populist party La France Insoumise. The key terms of debate are the intersection of the population, populism, and “the people.” “The people” are supposedly the subjects of democracy, its source of legitimacy and agency. However, as Mélenchon and Mouffe point out, they are also the object of democratic politics, which must construct “the people” as a political reality from the population.

Chantal Mouffe offers a short introduction on the key concepts in her work, including agonism, a theory that founds democratic politics on conflict rather than consensus, and constructs political identity as oppositional, a “we” against a “they.” In contrast to agonism, Mouffe is critical of “post-democracy,” the depoliticized neoliberal consensus that sought to end the left-right divide and ideological questions. For Mouffe, populism is precisely a reaction to post-democracy, a frustration with the consensus defined by the dominant liberal and conservative parties. However, the far right has been much more successful in coopting populist movements, constructing “the people” in xenophobic and hyper-nationalist terms.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s argument draws from his experience as the leader of La France Insoumise, through which he formulates a set of practices very different from his beliefs as a historical materialist. As Mélenchon and Mouffe both point out, populist movements are neither inherently left- or right-wing. Financial capitalism has already eroded the social and economic foundations of class identity, while introducing a more widespread form of precarious self-reliance. Populism works as a vector of negation without ideological orientation, which then must be constructed into a political idea of “the people,” wherein the left and right re-enter as methods of recoding the populist identity.

It seems that populism is democratic in form but indeterminate in content, socially transversal but politically ambivalent. At its most dangerous, without a left populism, this suggests that democracy continues to provoke the question “Who are the people?” while tracing ever tighter boundaries around race, class, gender, and religion. Democracy seems to call us constantly to the question of who is inscribed within the body politic.

Note: This discussion is in French but English subtitles are available by selecting the closed caption option.

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