Posted: March 26, 2013 in Mario Tronti

Mario Tronti: “We have populism because there is no people”

A piece written by Mario Tronti for a recent issue of Democrazia e Diritto (2010, 3–4), dedicated to the question of populism


‘Quite a number of the terms that we use all the time, and which we thus believe that we understand in all their significance, are, in reality, only fully clear to a privileged few. As in the case of the terms “circle” or “square”, which everyone uses, though only mathematicians have a clear and precise idea of what they really mean; so, too, the word “people” is on everyone’s lips, without them ever getting a clear idea in mind of its real meaning’. So said the mathematician and philosopher Frédéric de Castillon, victorious participant in the 1778 contest held by the Royal Prussian Academy on the question, close to the heart of Frederick the Great, ‘is it useful for the people to be tricked?’ ‘Normally, by “the people” we mean’ – Castillon continued – ‘the majority of the population, almost constantly occupied by mechanical, rough and wearisome tasks, and excluded from government and roles in public life’. Here, we are dealing with the eve of the French Revolution – but in Germany, where nation and people had not yet met, as they already had some time before in England, France and Spain, by way of their absolute monarchies. Thus we are also talking about here, in Italy. Frédéric de Castillon arrived in Berlin having come from Tuscany. Nation and people grew together in the modern age. And what brings them together is the modern state. There is no nation, without the state. But there is no people, without the state. This is important, first in order to understand the question, and moreover in order to grasp it within the time that concerns us, and in which we are engaged. Because the theme is an eternal one, Biblical more than it is historical.

The ancient/Old Testament concept of the people – the people founded by Moses – seems to me to be closer to the modern concept of the people than are the Greeks’ demos or the Romans’ populus. Neither the city-state nor the Empire founded a people. No promised land, no exile, no exodus, no God of the armies. The free citizens in the agora or the plebs on the terraces of the Colosseum did not make up a people. These images and metaphors are current/not-current for our own time. The people is a secularised theological concept. It has nothing to do with the assembly of sovereign electors or the many headed beast. Esposito and Galli, in theEnciclopedia del pensiero politico [‘Encyclopedia of Political Thought’] say that the process of secularisation began with Marsilius (universitas civium seu populus) and with Bartolo (populus unius civitatis). But it was Machiavelli who later spoke of a popular government distinct from, and counterposed to, the principality and the aristocratic republic. And for Hobbes, in the state of the Leviathan, ‘the subjects are the multitude and the King is the people’.

Kings or the People, the impressive tableau written by Reinhard Bendix, tells us the history of the passage from the medieval authority of kings to the modern mandate of the people. The mandate to rule: how many times has modern capitalism made but not kept this promise, which has always ultimately been subjected to only its own aims – of development, change and, by way of wars and crises, rebirth? The history of the twentieth century, in its various different passages and returns from totalitarianisms to democracies, is proof enough of this. And as I write, something of the kind is happening afresh, on the shores of the Mediterranean, as sultanates fall at the hands of the people in the city squares. But what will become of these forms of the people? What will they achieve? Who will they serve? Bendix exactingly recounts the history of the long wave that, having come from the England and France of the sixteenth century, only arrived in Germany, Japan and Russia in the nineteenth century, before then reaching the Chinese revolution and Arab socialism and nationalism in the twentieth century. It is an idea of the people entirely bound up with nation building. It is a bourgeois, national-bourgeois idea, of the people. But, contrary to the belief in progress, which has done so much damage to the praxis of the workers’ movement, the political concept of the people did not burst forth with the French Revolution, nor with analogous, previous bourgeois revolutions in England and America, which were forms of national and social conflict. It would not be until 1848 that this new political subject took to the field. Delacroix, drunk on the romantic idea of theVolksgeist, managed to discern in the 1830 July Revolution the triumphant image of Liberty leading the people.

But it was the ‘fated June’ of 1848 that, from Paris to all Europe, saw the reality, unimaginable for the bourgeoisie, of the armed people on the barricades, fighting for their own revolution. Marx committed the brilliant error of prophetically discerning the emerging figure of the working-class political subject. It was, in reality, a matter of the old proletariat that had already, ever since the first industrial revolution, invaded parts of society, above all in urban areas. But here, we find a point of decisive significance for our analysis, orientation and judgement. It is the concept of class that makes the people a political category, as regards the politics that interests us: namely, the politics autonomous of the use of which politics has been made – and is made – by the forces of domination. The concept of class, and of class struggle, burst onto the scene of modern history, unhinging the entire theoretical apparatus for analysing the economy and society; an apparatus invented by the historians of the Restoration era. Reactionaries always have a very acute eye – to the benefit of their own, partial interests – for reading reality. With class, the people becomes a political subject. Without class, there is no people, politically speaking. There is, socially, or there is, nationally – two forms of the neutralisation and depoliticisation of the concept of the people.

The Communist ‘people’ has been bitterly contested by theorists and practicians of the national-popular. Rightly so, from their, respect-worthy, point of view, of continuity from Gramsci through Togliatti onwards. But the Communist ‘people’ had a meaning in a party, and for the Party, which described itself as being of the working class. When this characterisation is abandoned – as it was already some years before the dissolution of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), effectively in the period after the death of Enrico Berlinguer – not only does the Communist people become extinct, but so, too, the political concept-reality of the people. We must be aware that when we today speak of ‘popular strata’ we are dealing with a sociological concept, a condition and a position of social presence – and not by chance, one that is impossible to grasp and impossible to represent politically. And, indeed, it can be grasped, it can be represented, precisely by way of anti-political positions. It is within this bind that we can locate populism. What are we to learn from the fact that populism and Narodism said the same thing, at more or less at the same time – the last decades of the nineteenth century (albeit in very different forms) – and expressed at least the same tendency? What, other than Tocqueville’s prediction that America and Russia would be the great historical protagonists of the twentieth century? It was from the critique of populism that the mature era of American democracy was born. And it was from the critique of populism that the theory and practice of the revolution in Russia was born. This last point in particular concerns us, here. It was on this terrain, fighting against the ‘Friends of the People’, that the young Social Democrat Lenin grasped his adept analysis of the development of capitalism in a backward country. This was the right method. Populism has always indicated a problem – a real problem. So, too, today, we need to take this pointer and rise to the need for an analysis of the actually-existing conditions – social and political, economic and institutional – within which we live.

It is necessary to return from the critique of the solutions offered by populism, to the elaboration of alternative solutions. Populism is the form, or one of the forms, in which the unsolved problem of political modernity, namely the relationship between governing and governed, is sometimes posed. In this sense, the phenomenon has spread to less advanced societies with a mainly agrarian economy and peasant masses, as may have been the case – albeit no longer – in some of the countries of Latin America. The phenomenon has come in unprecedented forms to so-called postindustrial economies and so-called post-democratic political systems. It is here that we need deeper insight – and this issue of Democrazia e diritto tries to do so.

When we of the Centro per la Riforma dello Stato discussed with Laclau his book On Populist Reason, we appreciated his effort to make a critique of populism while trying to salvage the idea of the people. This is the right course to follow, as the anomolous case of Italy – both the past and present ones – demonstrates. The past case saw great political forces solidly based on popular components of the history of society, from Catholic popolarismo [the ideological basis of the People’s Party and Christian Democrats] to the socialist tradition and communist diversity. Since there was the people, there was no populism. On the contrary, in today’s Italy there is populism because there is no people. On this very point it is again useful – indeed, indispensible – to return to the political concept of the people. Because that is what it concerns. How and when was this – which we have called a concept-reality – dissolved? It happened at the same time as, and within the context of, the dissolution of the idea and practice of class. And not because the social condition of class went away, but because the political reference to it has been abandoned. This void has been filled with the current populist impulse, which is no longer a matter of defensively invoking old communitarian traditions, but rather, on the contrary, an aggressive adaptation to the decomposition of all social binds.

Lenin appreciated the first Russian populism, as against the second – just as we must appreciate the populism of the People’s Party, as against the populism of the Tea Party today. Perhaps it is worth us rereading Christopher Lasch, as Claudio Giunta aptly recommends in the ‘focus on populism’ in issue 2010/4 of Italianieuropei. It is worth reading – with a critical eye, of course – what Lasch himself writes in his brief text published in that issue: ‘The left has for some time lost all interest in the lower classes. It is allergic to everything that resembles a lost cause’. A lost cause is to concern oneself still, as people once did, with the everyday problems of the people living on the periphery of the city, who have the terrible habit of never going along to the Auditorium of the Parco della Musica.

It is difficult to say what the people is, today. The people of turbocapitalism: its social composition, territorial roots, inherited traditions, language, dialect, culture, between megalopoles, medium and small towns, villages and fractions of villages, female difference, here, in this point, at the bottom of the social ladder. Areas of analysis for a future Left. It isn’t by browsing the Web that we can touch upon the deepest levels of a distressed human existence. It is not with biopolitics that we can tap into the needs of ordinary people, women and men of flesh and bones, as they say. Recite the mantra: nothing is like it was before, nothing can still be said as it was before. But I do not see any other definition of the people apart from that meaning the lower classes, apart from the eighteenth-century idea of a ‘population almost constantly occupied by mechanical, rough and wearisome tasks, and excluded from government and roles in public life’. Are they still in the majority? It depends from what point of view we look at the world: from the West or the East, the North or the South. Here back home, in our little garden, enchanted as it is tattered, the contradiction is an ever-growing one. Whether in time of crisis or with growth, in recent decades the gap between rich and poor has continued to increase. Those who work, are working more and earning less. Those who do not, unable to find work, are sliding down the social scale, with the emergence, for the first time, of this unprecedented type of intellectual sub-proletariat. And also at work is a sort of postmodern proletarianisation of the middle strata. Sociologically speaking, what might be called the people is being reproduced in an extended form. But this quantitative measure is not the decisive consideration. Even if the lower classes were destined to become a numerical minority, it is necessary to take their side.

There is only one way effectively to combat today’s populism, so as to defeat its logic – and it is to give political expression to this very thing, the people. Gino Germani gave a very insightful reading of populism as the passage from tradition to modernity, with pieces of both tradition and modernity coexisting and clashing. He was looking, above all, at Latin American populism. But the same also goes for the original populism, in Russia and the United States. Today’s populism describes the passage from the modern to what is called the postmodern. No one knows what this postmodern, a no man’s land, really is, but, from what we can see already, it is a soulless world – it is just bodies, virtual, fleshless bodies, appendages of the machines, which are the only creatures with any intelligence remaining. The drift towards populism, a senile disorder of advanced societies, essentially expresses all this, in its dark heart. The political-institutional form – it would be more accurate to say antipolitical-institutional form – is the new Leviathan of populist democracy. A far from tame monster, armed with the subtle violence of plebiscitary consent, the animalised macroanthropos, dressed in the shiny robes of participation, which hide the naked reality of the cessation of sovereignty by the new plebs to the last leader – not even a charismatic one. In today’s populism, there is no people and no prince. And if what we learnt from childhood – ‘to know well the nature of peoples one needs to be a prince, and to know well the nature of princes one needs to be of the people’ – is to bear fruit once again, first there must reemerge the poles of conflict, in their new clothes. For this to happen, it is necessary to defeat populism, in the form of populist democracy: because it obscures the relations of power. It is the ideological apparatus adequate to our time, masking, and at once guaranteeing, the functioning of reality. We can find everything within this – the dictatorship of communication, the old and ever-renewed society of the spectacle, the leisure civilisation, the last rhetoric of the masses, the rhetoric of the Net, and interactivity as a site of the subaltern. The consequence: everyone talks about politics in an extravagant manner, not looking from the low points up to the mountains, or from the summits down to the plains, but turning about, rattling on about more or less, bodies and desires, of the commons and of governance, of rights or of conflict.

How is the people to be made, today: this is the question. How to make the people, now that the centrality of class is no more? Making the people comes up against the same difficulties as making a society. Is it possible again to bring together a collective subject of persons, in the wake of the disaggregation that the animal spirits of the bourgeoisie have produced among the – highly asocial – relations between individuals? Moreover: how can a prince be made, with the nation-state no longer being sovereign? What authority without a state, and yet still facing the reality of power? Who decides what is the normal state, seeing that the state of exception is now to be found outside the West? Laclau has made more than one reference to the studies of Margaret Canovan, whether the later ones where she reprises Michael Oakeshott’s distinction between a redemptive and a pragmatic politics, or the early ones (Populism, 1981) where its is precisely in urban populism – in distinction from the original, agrarian variant – that the question of the relation between élites and people is again posed. The theme of the meaning of politics, and the theme of the verticality of political relations, are closely interwoven. From one time to the next, across all time – and not necessarily for each epoch, and epochs are few in number! – the first theme remains the same, in a constant state of return, while the second changes form through the flow of history.

Holding firm to the politics of redemption and the politics of realism, you must understand what exists, in the here and now, at the bottom of society and at the summits of power. The twentieth century gave you the people as a class and the élite as a party – a powerful simplification, making for a great story. Understandable to everyone, it set the masses in motion. An irrepeatable model? Probably, yes. Because the system of subjects has been superated. But to superate – yes, a whole epoch! – dialectically, means to conserve the essence of its method, the movement of politics. People and élite does not lead to populism. Leader and élite leads to populism. The theory of élites made a pre-emptive critique of the authoritarian personality, and would have prevented it had this theory been put into practice by a large political force. And by reproposing the theory of élites, it would today be possible to make a – retrospective – critique of the democratic personality. It could be delegitimated through the practice of a strong political movement.

There is but one way to deconstruct the power of personalisation, and it is to reconstruct the power of the leading classes. This can only be done on the Left and with the Left. Only here is it possible to resuscitate – mentally – the authentic meaning of the political concept of the people: specifying and determining it with the social concept of labour. A people, not of the subjects of the crown, not of citizens, but of workers. The working people: a very new old phrase. Where work achieves not life, but rather existence, in the political centrality of the person who works. After the just and free partiality of the working class – precisely where justice and freedom had real meaning – it is necessary, and possible, perhaps for the first time, to establish a general class, in oder to rediscover this meaning. That is, the class of the working people. The working class, in its proud assertion of its own partiality, in the refusal of work, which was nothing other than a refusal to be a general class, was a revolutionary subject that went down to defeat. In order that this political defeat does not translate into the end of history, it is necessary to grasp the thread exactly where it snapped, tie it up again, start out anew and proceed onwards. The way out is the totus politicus. The working people as a general class is possible only today, in working conditions that are extended and parcellised, far-reaching and fragmented, territorialised and globalised – the Marxian meaning of labour, without qualifiers, from the exhaustion of the hands to the exhaustion of the concept, from the occupation you don’t love to the occupation you can’t find, an archipelago of islands that make up a continent. What is an élite? It is the political force that makes workers a people. A leading class that makes not itself, but labour, a governing subject. Thus we will find the name of the final goal. In the meantime, we have to talk about the means of getting there.

Translated from Italian by David Broder. Read the full article in Italian here.


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