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New research group on populism, radical democracy and square protests

Our new DFG-funded research group "Between Populism and Radical Democracy, between Party and Movement: The Discursive Afterlife of Square Movements" introduces itself

First of well, a big welcome to InIIS and Bremen to Lazaros Karavasilis and Seongcheol Kim. We hope you had a convenient start in the city and the university. And, of course, we are looking forward to this new project of yours on populism, radical democracy, social movements and parties. Could you maybe briefly explain which particular aspects of populism you want to engage with? And how that differs from many other populism accounts, out there? Also, why did you feel that your emphases are worthwhile engaging with, in the first place?

Lazaros: Populism has been a very contested phenomenon in political science over the past ten years, leading to a very versatile array of definitions that do not always agree with each other. Where they do agree though, is on the basic components of populism: people-centrism and anti-elitism. In our project, we use a discourse-analytical approach to examine the articulation of notions such as ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’, leaving aside other peripheral elements that have been attributed to populism such as charismatic leadership. In this sense, we align our understanding of populism with the basic consensus that exists in the relevant literature, while employing the concept’s analytical utility to its greatest extent on movements and parties alike. At the same time, by choosing a discourse-analytical approach we understand discourse as the building block of articulating socio-political antagonisms, political identities, and hegemonic projects that can be expressed by political actors. This allows us to examine discourses with an in-depth look and see how notions such as ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’ are conceptualised in each party’s or movement’s discourse.

Seongcheol: We are especially interested in the intersections between populism, radical democracy, protest, and political organisation. The discursive approach to populism based on Ernesto Laclau’s work offers fruitful avenues for this line of research because, for one thing, it emerged from the background of Laclau’s and Mouffe’s earlier theory of radical democracy. So there is a certain conceptual vocabulary available from this discourse-theoretical tradition for empirically delving into the relationship between radical democracy and populism, but the precise limits and intersections between the two are not always thought through in the relevant literature. In addition to this, we are interested in the role that populism and/or radical democracy play in the relationship between protest movements and party politics. The question here is how political parties have tried to integrate or co-opt the protest discourses of the post-2010 movements of the squares such as the Indignados – possibly by means of populism – and what implications follow from this for the radical-democratic character of these protests. Here, I think there is something to be said for a discursive approach that allows for a dynamic understanding of populism as something that can come and go in protest movements from below just as much as in political parties. This stands arguably in contrast to Weyland’s notion of populism as a top-down strategy, or Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser’s emphasis on the homogenising character of populism.

Martin: For me, the really interesting part of pur project is not populism per se, but the tension between radical democratic aspirations of many social movements and the sometimes populist developments that follow from them. It is this tension that is also negotiated when political parties try to take up the movements’ inputs (and when movements try to resist such attempts at instrumentalization). As a political theorist, I am particularly interested in understanding better the actors’ own theorizing of these processes, that is what we could call “activist poliitcal theory”.

What would you expect from the comparative setting you suggest in the project? By covering Germany, France, Greece, Russia, Spain and Ukraine? What particular dynamics can you render visible with it?

Lazaros: The set of countries that we have chosen covers a wide range of European politics that aims to offer as much of a comprehensive picture of the intersection among populism, radical democracy, parties and movements. By choosing the specific countries we aim to explore common elements among disparate geographical regions that have movements and parties with different origins. Moreover, we also aim to explore commonalities and differences among countries from the same region (Spain/Greece, France/Germany, Russia/Ukraine) and examine them on the nexus of radical democracy and populism.

Seongcheol: All of these countries, first of all, were shaken by mass protest mobilisations on public squares at some point in the past decade. This is our starting point for asking how different party-political offers and new forms of party organisation have emerged in the wake of these protests. The movements of the squares in the six countries were obviously very different, from the character of their demands to their action repertoires (including the use of violence) to the regime contexts they were operating in. What is already noteworthy is that the contexts of party competition changed drastically in the wake of these protests in all six countries – think of the collapse of two-party dominance in Greece and Spain or even the rise of the AfD in Germany after the summer of ’15. In at least two of our six countries – namely Russia and Ukraine – the character of the political regime itself altered fundamentally as a direct result of the protests.

Martin: In addition to what Lazaros and Seongcheol pointed out, I am also interested in understanding better which theoretical resources and/or theoretical arguments—if any—the movements and the party representatives use when they negotiate the tension between democratic and populist politics.

What would you say, what is the biggest change that populist parties and organizations have been going through since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2007/08 and the rise of the Tea Party Movement and Occupy in the US?

Lazaros: it should be noted that over the past 15 years we have seen continuous crises: global financial crisis, refugee crisis, Brexit, Covid-19 pandemic, and the most recent, the Ukraine-Russian conflict. Along with those crises, populist parties and movements have had their ebbs and flows, either having a limited period of success or more long-term presence as the Gilets Jaunes movement in France. The Tea Party Movement and the Occupy belong to the first category, where their success can be found in the first years of the 2010s. However, the demands that those movements represented were incorporated by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in their respective political programmes. In this sense, the USA case shows how movements can inspire the emergence of new political actors and their  demands can become part of their agenda.

Seongcheol: The financial crisis and especially the austerity-based management of the economic crisis within the Eurozone brought to the fore new forms of populism from below in the early 2010s. Movements like Aganaktismenoi in Greece, Indignados in Spain, and Occupy in the US appealed to “the people”, “the citizenry”, or “the 99%” against “the elite,” “the caste”, or the top “1%”, but without necessarily rallying around a centralised leadership or stipulating a homogeneous essence of “the people”. This, in turn, has challenged established notions of what populism is or has to be, and here the discursive approach has found considerable application in the literature, such as in Paolo Gerbaudo’s influential work.

Martin: I guess there isn’t really “the one big change”. Rather, populists react to what they perceive to be elitist politics and position themselves against that. But once more: The project is not about populism per se. I think the most important change for us is the change in movement demands since 2008, when it became more and more common to put democratic self-government itself at the heart of campaigns. This is a key pre-condition for setting up the tension between radical democracy and populism because allows for different and sometimes contradictory interpretations of what democratic self-government entails (radical democracy or Caesarist rule in the name of the people, i.e. populism).

And then later, how would figures like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Matteo Salvini influence populist dynamics? What effect did they have?

Lazaros: Trump, Johnson and Salvini are three different politicians from countries with very different socio-political contexts and backgrounds. Nevertheless, the relevant literature studying them always tends to categorise them under the label of ‘populism’, thus obscuring the other elements that are more prominent in their discourse and practices (authoritarianism, nationalism, racism, etc.). Taking them apart, and examining them individually, we will see that while these actors seem to be declining, their ideas and discourse have remained and are expressed by other political actors, such as the head of the ethnic-conservative party Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni. The same can be said about how both Trump and Johnson have managed to instil their agenda and redefine their respective parties. Of course, a closer look at all these cases will highlight that populism is only a small part of what each of these actors represents, while nationalism and racism appear to be far more prominent.

Martin: As important as some leading figures may be, our project is first and foremost interested in organizational developments, and not so much in individuals.

Seongcheol: In general, I would say we need to be more nuanced and avoid aprioristic assumptions about who is or isn’t populist. Basically, it’s an empirical question to what extent (and at what points in time) Trump, Johnson, or Salvini deployed populism. If you take campaign slogans like “America First”, “Prima gli italiani” or “Get Brexit done”, the primary logic appears to be a nationalist or nativist one, i.e. elevating national interests over those of other nations or foreign immigrants. At the same time, we can also see ways in which these same slogans were deployed in populist fashion, e.g. when Trump pitted the interests of “America” against a self-serving Washington-based political class in his inauguration speech, or when Johnson framed the early election in 2019 as a “people versus parliament” election (over the issue of “getting Brexit done”, of course). So we need to understand populism as a dynamic thing that can come and go in different combinations, rather than a fixed label we can generically apply to this or that actor. Populism is certainly compatible and combinable with nationalism but it’s also conceptually distinct from it, so the task for the analysis is to show which parts of a discourse are populist or nationalist or something else.

And what about the Russia-Ukraine dynamic in the project? Would we see populist escalations between Russian and Ukrainian nationalism in your radical democracy perspective?

Seongcheol: First of all, we shouldn’t assume that everything should be looked at through the lens of populism, and this also goes for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nor should we create a false equivalence between two “nationalisms” when one country is waging a war of aggression on another and committing war crimes. As far as our project is concerned, the ongoing war can be situated in a long chain of events going back to the movements of the squares in both countries, namely the For Fair Elections protests in Russia and Euromaidan in Ukraine. The incidents on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow in May 2012 were followed by a large-scale authoritarian regime consolidation, whose drastic intensification we have witnessed in the realm of foreign policy with the 2014 annexation of Crimea – which was, of course, a reaction to the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine – and again with the full-scale invasion this year. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Russia and Ukraine today are post-Bolotnaya and post-Maidan societies, respectively, fundamentally shaped by the outcomes of these two movements of the squares pulling in different directions: authoritarian consolidation in Russia and regime change in Ukraine. On the level of party competition, there have been plenty of attempts over the years by oppositional forces in both countries to appeal to the unredeemed legacy of these movements – from Navalny to the Left Front in Russia, from Svoboda to Zelensky in Ukraine. As for the question to what extent these projects have changed since the full-scale Russian invasion, I can refer you to the up-to-date analyses (including by myself for the Russian case) in the Länder-Analysen managed by the Research Centre for East European Studies here in Bremen. This will, of course, be an important question for the years to come.   

Lazaros: Contrary to popular belief, political scientists are not prophets, unfortunately! That said, the Ukraine-Russia conflict remains a big question mark as to how it will develop and the consequences that it will have on both countries. Will Ukraine have permanent territorial losses? Will there be a massive anti-war movement in Russia? Both countries and of course the whole world are at a crucial point and the political practices, actors and powers that will come out of this conflict remain to be seen.

Martin: In addition, let me highlight this conceptual point: Radical democracy, properly understood as a political discernment of general contingency, will always be counter-domination because all attempts at domination try to erase contingency. This is also (and probably to a particularly high degree) true for nationalist domination or military domination. Therefore, I see simply no path from a true radical democracy perspective to the horrible events in Ukraine since February 2022.


For more information on the project, visit the research group site.

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