Sergio Pérez González, Nuria Sangüesa Ruiz and Lasse Thomassen

Populism – and especially right-wing populism – is the revenge of the little man who feels that his voice is not being heard by the elites: the politicians, the mainstream media, the courts, the EU, and so on. This is evidently clear in the cases of Brexit, Trump and Le Pen. Left-wing populism may be slightly different in that the enemies of the people are different, and in that it lacks the racism and xenophobia that comes with right-wing populism. However, left-wing populism is also about being heard, about having a voice and being recognised. In short, it’s about visibility.

Populism, then, is one response to the crisis of representation. The crisis is a growing gap between, on one side, the political elites and an increasingly delegitimised political system and, on the other side, the general population, especially those with little formal education and outside the metropolitan centres (in Latin, metropolismeans ‘measure of the city’, a measure that tries to guide the life of the people in the peripheries, without in fact achieving its objective).

But there has been another response over the last years: projects that seeks to represent the voices of ordinary people. Like the populist movements, these projects seek to represent the people, claiming that the politicians do not do so. And like the populists, they connect people’s everyday experiences to political discourse. Unlike the populist movements, however, they insist on the pluralism of the people; and they do not speak of a sharp division between us and them, the people and the others (the establishment, the immigrants, and so on).

One such project is Raconter la vie, a project started by the French political philosopher Pierre Rosanvallon. In his book Le Parlement de Invisibles (The Parliament of the Invisibles), Rosanvallon presents his project as a response to the crisis of our political institutions. It is a project of democratic renewal. The project’s webpage is meant to be a space where ordinary people can ‘tell their lives’ by publishing books about their lives. It is a matter of making visible the plurality of life experiences. They are the experiences that otherwise go unnoticed and unrecognised because they are ignored by the media and the political institutions. Rosanvallon also presents the project as an alternative to populism. Against the right-wing populist fiction of the homogeneous nation, Rosanvallon stresses the pluralism of society. But like the populists, he understands the need to connect political discourse to people’s everyday experiences. In this endeavour, Rosanvallon aligns his project with the artistic tradition that tells the miseries in novels or films – think of Les Miserables – as a revolutionary art of the visualisation.

These ideas resonate with a number of recent political movements. Perhaps the most talked about at the moment is the En Marche! movement of Emmanuel Macron, who is flying high in the opinion polls ahead of the French presidential elections. Although once a member of the Socialist Party, he now stands outside the political parties, and tries to brand himself as beyond left and right. He is helped by the En Marche!movement, which he helped create last year. Created while still a member of François Hollande’s government, Macron used En Marche! to launch his presidential campaign.

En Marche! is also known by its official name Association pour le Renouvellement de la Vie Politique, which translates as the ‘Association for the Renewal of Politics’. And that is precisely what it aims to do: renew French politics. So far, the Le Pen’s Front National has been alone in opposing the French political class as a political elite out of touch with ordinary French people. Front National have been able to cast themselves in the robes of the ‘new’. Macron has tried to counter this by stressing his outsider status, albeit in a way that is far from the populism of Front National.

The En Marche! movement launched a ‘great march’ in 2016 (En Marche! translates both as ‘Forward!’ and as ‘On the Move’), sending 16,000 supporters off to collect 100,000 ‘testimonies’ from ordinary people. Those testimonies were then used to develop a plan of action, which was presented as Macron’s political programme earlier this month. From the beginning the movement has aimed, and claimed, to give voice to ordinary French people who feel disconnected from the political system.

In Spain, Podemos sought to crowdsource ideas in its initial stages, tapping into the Indignados movement and articulating the ideas in a form of left-wing populism. In Denmark, the new party The Alternative seeks to engage people disappointed with the old political parties. They created political ‘laboratories’ and crowdsourced ideas for their manifesto – they call it ‘a democratic experiment’. The Alternative present themselves as beyond left and right, although they usually vote with the left, and, on many issues, they are to the left of the social-democrats. The party stands out because it is, well, alternative. Like En Marche! and Podemos, they rely heavily on new technologies and social media platforms. In this way, they have reached constituencies for whom ‘parties’ and ‘programmes’ are turn-offs. Like Macron and Podemos, The Alternative places itself in opposition to the ‘old’ politicians and the ‘old’ ways of doing politics, and they talk of a legitimacy crisis of the political system. Unlike Podemos – but like Macron – they do not use a populist discourse.

This all sounds great – who would disagree to give ordinary people a voice? There are limits to this kind of projects, though. Although they seek to give voice to those who are otherwise invisible or have disconnected from the political institutions, they tend draw in people with resources. It is one thing to connect to students, who have already, in some way, made it; it is another thing to make the voices heard of the young and old in the banlieus, people who have experienced one failure after another. These sorts of participatory movements tend to favour those who would otherwise participate in other more formal channels of politics, not those who simply do not participate. The danger, then, is that this is just another form of elitist politics, and that those who are invisible remain so.

Another problem lies in their claim to represent the whole people, whether as a homogenous nation or as a pluralist society. Politics, it could be argued, is partisan. That is the whole point of political parties: they represent parts of society, and they are partisan. The problem with our political parties, then, is not that they do not represent everyone – of course they don’t! The problem is that they are all of a kind and do not articulate a real alternative that does not shy away from creating divisions. And this is precisely the reason why someone like Chantal Mouffe argues for more partisanship in politics, something she believes can be achieved through a form of left-wing populism.


This text is based on a seminar in the series Textos críticos jurídicos y políticos: la política del Derecho in the Department of Law, Universidad de la Rioja. A shorter version appeared, in Spanish, in Diario La Rioja, 9 March 2017


Sergio Pérez González is Professor of Criminal Law at Universidad de La Rioja (Spain). His recent doctoral thesis is about the crisis of labour and the need for new legal forms. He tweets @SrPerezz  Nuria Sangüesa Ruiz is Researcher in Constitutional Law (Research project DER 2014-52817-P). Her recent doctoral thesis deals with fundamental rights of foreigners in Spain and Italy.  Lasse Thomassen is Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest book is British Multiculturalism and the Politics of Representation (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). He tweets @LAT153B.

Image: Rita Vicari