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Populism

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The Palgrave Handbook of Psychosocial Studies

Abstract

Although populism constitutes a multimodal phenomenon involving institutional, socio-cultural, and subjective dimensions, most accounts up to now have focused on the study of political institutions (parties, movements, etc.) and ideological orientations. Analyses that purport to take into account subjective dimensions usually remain trapped within the myth of the charismatic personality, the stereotype of the populist strongman, which, in most cases, fails to register in a nuanced way the psychosocial dimensions involved. It also fails to acknowledge in a rigorous way the two-way movement constitutive of identification processes within democratic political systems. In this text, we employ a formal research strategy associated with the discursive approach initiated by Ernesto Laclau – and further developed by a host of other researchers – in order to highlight the psychosocial aspects of populist identifications and mobilizations. This particular approach is highly pertinent because it embraces many psychoanalytic ideas and has been used to stress the relevance of a variety of psychosocial dimensions: (1) the identification/interpellation loop underlying populist phenomena; (2) the centrality of affect and emotion in accounting for the discursive processes and mechanisms involved in the said loop; (3) demand and desire as the starting point of a populist sociopolitical choreography; (4) the negative ontology marking hegemony including populism; (5) charisma as a discursive, transferential mechanism facilitating populist identifications. Furthermore, the populism/anti-populism antithesis seems to inform the psychosocial dynamic underpinning the appeal of such identifications within a mirroring dialectic. The two rhetorics grip subjects through their clash, as identity formations are partly based on difference. Both the idealization of “the people” and the denunciation of populism involve valorization and demonization processes that call for further analysis.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In this text, the psychosocial is elaborated mainly through a psychoanalytic toolkit (see Chap. 16, Psychoanalysis as a psycho-social hyphen in history: approaching Freud and Walter Benjamin). This is not to ignore certain criticisms other strands of psychosocial theory make towards psychoanalysis, some of them broadly justified. In agreement with Frosh and Baraitser, our starting point is that psychoanalysis may have a “central role to play” within psychosocial studies; however, this relies on the activation of methodological reflexivity against objectivism (Frosh & Baraitser, 2008: 347, 358).

  2. 2.

    “How to deal with populists?” and “Remedies” are the titles of the third chapter and the third part of the books by Müller (2016) and Mounk (2018) respectively.

  3. 3.

    For a more detailed analysis, see Stavrakakis, 2015.

  4. 4.

    The Lacanian dialectic between need, demand, and desire is very relevant here. For Lacan, “every need has to be articulated in language, in a demand to the Other (initially, the mother), who is invested with the power to satisfy or frustrate them. In that sense, on top of expressing biological need, demand also functions as the vehicle through which the subject is implicated in a relation of dependence to the Other,” whose recognition and approval thus acquire a significant value (Stavrakakis, 2007: 46). In that sense, we could say that (1) by allowing the coherent articulation of such demands against established authority, populism registers the lack in the Other and permits its re-shaping; (2) on the other hand, a continuing dependence on the (ailing) Other (either the established power structure, the hegemonic moral economy, or the new populist leader/movement/party) may indicate the limits of such re-shaping.

  5. 5.

    See, in this respect, Stavrakakis, 2021, on which this text partly draws. Also see Stavrakakis, 2020a.

  6. 6.

    We will limit ourselves, here, to English-speaking bibliography. Space limitations do not allow us to encompass a very rich Latin American literature. We will also avoid substantive references to the Laclau-Zizek debate, which largely revolves around different priorities (mainly connected to left strategy) and would require a lengthy contextualization addressing the volatile relationship between the two theorists. See, with regard to Zizek’s anti-populist interventions, Venizelos et al., 2019.

  7. 7.

    The solution offered by Demertzis seems quite restrictive because it focuses on particular emotions (nostalgia, anger, ressentiment) partly downplaying the fluidity and the paradoxical kinks of the affective order. It may be difficult to identify particular emotions that are exclusively associated with populism (or with any other political phenomenon), although this is not denying its utility in certain context-specific analyses. Operating on a higher level of generality, concepts like jouissance seem to capture the inherent ambivalence and volatility of the affective field more effectively. However, the work by Demertzis, drawing on the sociology of emotions, definitely merits a more thorough negotiation.

  8. 8.

    See also, in this respect, Dean & Maiguashca, 2020: 8.

  9. 9.

    In her very recent psychodynamic approach to populism, McAfee seems to be advancing an analogous argument utilizing the concepts of symptom and sublimation. Her approach to populism is critically drawing on Laclau’s work and the discourse-theoretical tradition within a broader psychoanalytic terrain interweaving insights from Lacan, Klein, and Winnicott in order to move beyond “populism” (McAfee, 2021).

  10. 10.

    In his latest book, Thomas Frank notes cases of psychiatriazation from the history of US populism before Trump (Frank, 2020: 72, 128). On the analysis of Trump from a partly psychoanalytic perspective, also see the very rewarding Mazzarella et al., 2019.

  11. 11.

    A postcolonial lens is indeed very useful here. In fact, a certain anti-colonial rhetoric has been used to resist the austerity avalanche orchestrated by the Eurozone – for example, in the resolution of its founding conference, SYRIZA denounced the transformation of Greece into a “debt colony” (SYRIZA, 2013: 1) – and is still utilized by Yanis Varoufakis and the political formation he leads in the Greek Parliament (MERA25). In addition, there has been, recently, a proliferation of academic books and conferences addressing this issue. To give just one example of much interest is the work by anthropologist Michael Herzfeld. “Crypto-colonialism” is a concept introduced by Michael Herzfeld well before the recent European crisis to describe the “political marginality that has marked Greece’s relations with the West throughout most of its history as a nominally independent though practically tributary nation-state” (Herzfeld, 2002: 900). But how does Herzfeld define such a crypto-colonialism? In the first instance, as “the curious alchemy whereby certain countries, buffer zones between the colonized lands and those as yet untamed, were compelled to acquire their political independence at the expense of massive economic dependence, this relationship being articulated in the iconic guise of aggressively national culture fashioned to suit foreign models. Such countries were and are living paradoxes: they are nominally independent, but that independence comes at the price of a sometimes humiliating form of effective dependence” (Herzfeld, 2002: 900–901). More recently, Herzfeld has indeed linked his understanding of crypto-colonialism with the recent choreography of the crisis in Greece:

    From its declaration of independence in 1821, in reality Greece has always been highly dependent both economically and politically. It looked to the West (as well as to Russia) for support in its struggle for emancipation from Ottoman rule, in doing so carefully eliding the history by which ‘it’ became an imperfect and Athenocentric simulacrum of the West’s image of the ancient glories. Its survival has always depended on heavy infusions of economic assistance, usually in the form of loans – the very phenomenon that has prompted the present crisis. (Herzfeld, 2011: 25)

    For a more detailed elaboration, see Stavrakakis, 2017c. The deeply ambivalent relationship between the country and “the West” may also explain why even left-wing politicians and academics utilized the discursive repertoire of “normality” after 2015, pointing to its multiple and often unexpected political uses.

  12. 12.

    Gender is another key dimension inherent in this debate as rationality is usually gendered, being preferentially associated with male rather than female representations (Pavco-Giaccia et al., 2019).

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Stavrakakis, Y., Galanopoulos, A. (2022). Populism. In: Frosh, S., Vyrgioti, M., Walsh, J. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Psychosocial Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-61510-9_1-2

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Chapter history

  1. Latest

    Populism
    Published:
    12 July 2022

    DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-61510-9_1-2

  2. Original

    Populism
    Published:
    29 May 2022

    DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-61510-9_1-1