SYRIZA (and Podemos): “populist inclusion” or interruption of representation?

by Akis Gavriilidis

When it comes to describe and explain what SYRIZA stands for, in the discourse of mainstream media, analysts and politicians in the rest of Europe (occasionally in Greece as well), the term “populist” comes handy and figures prominently. The same epithet is also attached to Spain’s Podemos.

This description is of course a clear example of “how to do things with words”, since it “objectively” creates associations with such depreciatory labels as “nationalist/ anti-European”, even when these are not uttered. (A comparable, and more ambitious, re-signification effort has been lately undertaken, with success, concerning the term “radicalization”, which by now has been practically turned into a synonym of «adherence to Djihadism»).

To my knowledge, the most serious and interesting challenge to this linguistic politics has been the intervention of Yannis Stavrakakis, a political theorist formed in the tradition of the so called Essex school and a collaborator of Ernesto Laclau’s. For the past three or four years, Stavrakakis has been providing extensive and robust argumentation against the uni-dimensional stigmatizing use of “populism” and the respective communicational “carpet bombing” through articles he publishes –by himself or in collaboration with Yorgos Katsambekis- in various journals from the field of political theory.

It is of course not possible to reproduce here all of the facets of this intervention. What I consider important for the purposes of this note is to highlight Stavrakakis’s very interesting –and bold- choice in terms of discursive strategy: to contest the populism narrative on the de jure rather than on the de facto level. Before the accusation “SYRIZA is populist”, his response could be summarized as: “yes, it is, and there is nothing [necessarily/ inherently] wrong about that. There can be no politics without some degree of populism. So it remains to be seen which variation of it we have to deal with in each case”. And then he goes on to differentiate an “inclusionary populism”, such as the one practiced by SYRIZA, from the exclusionary one seen in racist or religious variations.

This defense line that consists in assuming the charge, “pleading guilty” as regards the commitment of the act, and then rejecting its qualification and trying to remove the guilt from it, has raised hesitations from some commentators. These include, notably, Etienne Balibar, who had recently an interesting public discussion with Stavrakakis at the French Institute in Athens.

  1. A nuance

As far as I am concerned, I have nothing to object to this typically non-Leninist strategy –one could even say, plainly, non-strategy– which consists in attacking the opponent’s strongest, not weakest point (and in attacking it by turning it to a self-defeating argument, by making its force function against itself). In this very useful discussion, I would only like to bring in not really an objection, but maybe a nuance, or a remark that could help us pursue this (non) strategy even farther.

In one of their articles, Left-wing populism in the European periphery: the case of SYRIZA, Stavrakakis & Katsambekis describe their criterion of populism as follows:

the process through which populist discourse is articulated typically involves the establishment of linkages between a series of initially heterogeneous unsatisfied demands, which enter into relations of equivalence thus forming a collective identity around ‘the people’ and the leadership representing them.

In this light, they analyze several examples drawn from Tsipras’s speeches, and also, as a central reference, three posters of the party’s electoral campaign. On this basis they conclude that this discourse production conforms to the criterion.

Now my nuance on this is the following.

Posters no 1 and no 3 admittedly confirm the claim. Especially no 1 follows a pattern that can be qualified not only as populist, but also as clearly messianic/ theological (“the people” here being presented as an omnipotent god who “can do everything”).

This pattern, however, is not that evident as regards the phrase on poster no 2, which, as the authors themselves note, served as “SYRIZA’s main slogan for the campaign of the May 2012 elections”. This phrase reads: “They decided without us, we’re moving on without them”.


If “the two criteria [of populism] highlighted by Ernesto Laclau» are “a central reference to ‘the people’ and an equivalential, antagonistic discursive logic”[1], then none of these criteria seem to be present in the literal text of this slogan.

1A. What about the ‘we’?

As regards the first element, the authors unequivocally equate the «we» appearing in SYRIZA’s discourse with «the people». For example, they do so when presenting a long excerpt from one of Tsipras’s electoral speeches, which they introduce in their text by the phrase

«what about the ‘we,’ that is ‘the people’ that SYRIZA calls upon? Tsipras, in his own words, is addressing

And then comes the quotation. I will go through the same quotation, in order to show that it is more ambiguous than presented (I add the emphasis). So Tsipras is addressing

every democratic citizen. All those that until 2009 have been fighting and voting for PASOK. […] the common conservative voter that gasps under the Memorandum. […] We are [also] addressing the leftists and the communists […] Only the establishment […] is profiting from the divisions in the Left, not our people […] Finally, we are addressing the men and the women, the youth, all those that cannot make up their mind, that are still puzzled over their vote, those who believe that the elections have nothing to do with them, and we say: Do not let the others speak in your place.

It is no doubt legitimate to claim that these words interpellate «various subjects» to «form a broad popular alliance», so the we in this phrase stands for the people. But, before getting there, it is equally, even more legitimate to read in them a very clear reference to a rupture and abandonment of established identifications, rather than –or at least beside- a will for unification and representation. These words assume –and try to build on- the fact that the addressees had formerly a different political orientation, or even none at all, a lack of orientation or investment, a confusion. And their first and foremost «interpellation» to these subjects, in both the temporal and the logical sense, is to transform these identifications. This is even more obvious in yet another from SYRIZA’s main slogans: próti forà aristerà – «[vote] left for the first time»[2].

1B. A line of flight rather than a camp

Of course, the two authors are very careful to stress that this alliance entered by the «subjects» is not based on «some sort of pre-existing essentialist unity» (this is precisely why their populism is not an exclusionary one). But what they propose instead as a basis is that these people are «sharing a lack that pervades them all», and this lack «can acquire different meanings depending on what exactly heterogeneous individual or collective subjects have lost in the years of the crisis , be it salary or pension cuts, their works, health insurance and so on». So this non essentialist unity is expressed in a struggle to restore these losses, and more generally in a «common democratic struggle that is supposed to hold the various subjects together, orienting their action towards a common cause: the overthrowing of two-partyism and austerity policies».

However, if we stick to the text of the poster and the Tsipras quotation, we see that these do not name any of these goals –or any other particular goal which would be external to the action, for that matter. If we rush to substitute this lack with a long list of “implied” goals, then we totally overlook a crucial dimension of this «action of the various subjects»: its quality as a means without ends.

If this dimension is already present in the way the subject of the action is staged, the «people», it is even more visible if we turn to Laclau’s second criterion, the «antagonistic logic». Here, the positive use of the verb to move on does not exclusively, not even predominantly, refer to a binary confrontation, to an «antagonistic schema with the pattern ‘us/the people against them/ the establishment’«; this moving on is presented as being performed without them –not against them. It is described as pure movement, and also as abandonment.

I claim, hence, that SYRIZA’s discourse can be read as articulating a desire and an appeal for exodus, for deterritorialization; not –or as well as- for the formation of a camp to fight a regular army.

  1. Do (or should) they represent us?

My concern in claiming so is not a linguistic, nor a statistical one. This nuance would not be of much importance if it did not correspond, as it does to my view, to a real tendency and an existing dimension in the way SYRIZA’s relationship with (many of) its voters was established.

There is no denying that populist elements are present in SYRIZA’s discourse; from this point of view, the argument of the two authors is more than convincing. However, this does not exhaust the question of the nature of SYRIZA as a political phenomenon; what remains to be seen is whether these elements were the (only/ main) reason why people voted for it. As I have claimed before, large parts of the people –or, better, the multitude- decided to vote for this party not because they were convinced it would address some “unsatisfied demands” of theirs, or because they formed “a collective identity around ‘the people’ and the leadership representing them”, but for quite the opposite reason: because this option permitted them to disidentify, to abandon leaderships that claimed to represent them until then. This voting opened a gap in representation; we should not jump to the conclusion that this gap was immediately covered and closed without residues through a mere substitution of the old representatives by new ones, antagonistic to the former. Such a closure would not be useful either theoretically or politically. This is one of the cases where it is very pertinent to keep in mind a remark made by Deleuze & Guattari in A thousand plateaus: that “a social field is defined less by its conflicts and contradictions than by the lines of flight running through it”[3].

  1. On demands, promises, and commitments

In this sense, I think that there is one term in this theoretical framework that should be used with care as it may lead to misunderstandings. This is the term “demands”. The demand is a heavily charged notion in the Lacanian tradition, a tradition that inspired Laclau’s approach; when used in politics, though, this notion implies the existence of a transcendent subject, a Sovereign, to whom these demands are addressed, and who has the material capacity and the authority to grant them (or not). Thus, it has a potential of (mis)leading the reader towards a contractualist conception of political behavior, according to which the (subjects being interpellated by hegemony as the) “people” enter an agreement with their “representative” that he will perform certain functions as an exchange to their submission. And this is the “rational choice” version of the story: this «social contract» can also be construed in the sense of a bargain, of granting certain privileges to organized groups; which, especially if combined with the term «populism», opens the way for another familiar (mis)reading of these phenomena as an expression of “pre-modern clientelism” and favoritism, according to the most typical orientalist-Eurocentric tradition. This latter self-colonizing reading is already largely diffused within Greece amongst the self-proclaimed “Europeanist/ modernist” elites, but was also used by Schäuble himself already during the pre-electoral period, when he admonished Tsipras and his comrades “not to promise more than they can deliver”.

But this conception of the social and political link on the basis of the couple “promise/ delivery” cannot adequately explain the movements of the people. Personally, I am old enough to have memories from the 80s, when exactly the same accusations were made against Andreas Papandreou and his newly founded party by almost everybody. Including from the radical left, who were predicting that PASOK would soon betray the confidence shown to it by the people, as it would prove unable to honor all of its promises. So the left thought that, if they kept denouncing the government’s “inconsistencies” and “betrayals”, they would convince the “people” to abandon the «false» socialists and chose them instead as a more reliable representative. However, they waited in vain; this never happened. And even when, around 1990, some voters started leaving PASOK, they did not turn to the left.

What is missing from such an analysis based on “demands” and their fulfillment is that politics, or at least the most interesting and transformative kind of politics, is not based on exchange, or at least not on a commensurate exchange of equivalent values. Transformative politics does not consist solely in conquering hegemony by establishing equivalences and reducing heterogeneities to a dual antagonistic representation; an equally important moment of it can be the interruption of known and stable identifications rather than their establishment. In other words, the production of greater heterogeneity, of new demands –or, better, desires- that exceed the logic of representation and confrontation, that cannot find a place in it and be translated in its language.

  1. Ask us next time

The part of such an incommensurable or infinite (qua immaterial) demand, as I –and others– have claimed, was played by the notion of dignity. The theme of dignity is indeed present in the poster I analyzed, since there the reason for the moving on is that «they» offended and disrespected «us», by deciding without having asked us.

The desire for dignity can explain why SYRIZA retains, or even enlarges, its popularity after the elections –although its delivery as regards the “heterogeneous demands” it allegedly homogenized has not been spectacular up to now.

I believe that, in the ascension of SYRIZA, we can find elements from both of these procedures; from both hegemony/ homogenizing and lack, even rejection of it.

Although I am not an expert on Spanish issues, I have the impression that the same goes for the ascension of Podemos. I try to follow the discussions about its course, including its results at the recent municipal and regional elections. In them I see similar exchanges as to where we go from here –and how-, and a concern whether a strategy less based on populism and hegemony should be preferred to the current one.

The question of how best to articulate these two dimensions is an open one for both Greece and Spain, as well as for anywhere else, and I do not want to imply that I have a solution consisting in the complete rejection and exclusion of either of them. The rigorous and informed input by Stavrakakis appears to me an extremely useful basis for sorting out this problem, and I tried to add my own contribution to what will hopefully continue to be an open debate.

[1] All phrases in quotation marks, unless otherwise indicated, are from the mentioned article.

[2] Especially in Greece, where, after the civil war of the 40s and the enmities it left over, political affiliations are not just political, but also social, cultural, even familial, this sounds more as a call for disruption rather than for homogenization. For a right wing person to vote for «the fans of the Soviets» [a phrase actually used by ex-prime minister Samaràs just before the elections), or for a member of the Greek Communist Party to vote for the “eurocommunist reformists”, can mean a very large distance to cover, a step with a great subjective cost.

[3] P. 90. It is interesting to note that, immediately before, the two authors mention as a reason for this that “There is a primacy (…) of the collective assemblage of enunciation over language and words” (my italics).

First published at the site connessioni precarie, together with an Italian translation



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