TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The National-Populist Illusion as a “Pathology” of Politics: The Greek Case and Beyond

How are we to explain the current “revolt against the elites,” the “new populist wave,” referred to by the French philosopher, political scientist, and historian of ideas Pierre-André Taguieff in a recent interview?[1] What follows will try to reflect on specific aspects of the intimate relationship between populism and nationalism, the import of the conspiracist view of sociopolitical phenomena, and the overall “populist illusion” in the left-wing version of populism, with reference to the Greek experience of the past few years, notably through the SYRIZA phenomenon. To the extent possible, an effort will be made to examine this against the backdrop of a comparative approach to left-wing populism in general.

In defining populism as a polemical “political style” capable of being crystallized in various symbolical forms and identified in multiple ideological loci—adopting each time the colors of the receiving locus[2]—but also as a style that celebrates the unbreakable unity of “the people” against its “enemies” (the treacherous elites, capitalists, immigrants, etc.), the seminal, ideal-typical distinction proposed by Taguieff between “populism of protest” (or “social-populism”: “the people” vs. “the elites”) and “national-populism” (or “identitarian populism”: “us” vs. “them”), must, in my view, be understood as such: as an ideal-type.[3] In fact, what we are witnessing today is a number of admixtures between these two models of political populism. What is more, as hinted in the brief critical presentation that follows, the current predominance of the national-populist model over the social-populist one (even in left-wing populism) can hardly be questioned.

The mobilization of the Greek “Indignants,” in the spring and summer of 2011, was the founding sociopolitical event, with pivotal ideological consequences: a movement dislocation of the entire Greek political scene of the Metapolitefsi (regime change) period, and an as yet incomplete transition to a political system whose “definitive” outline still remains to be known.[4] To begin with, the mobilization of the “Indignants” can be regarded as a unified whole—its unifying (correlated) elements being its, sometimes violent, denunciatory/”anti-system” dimension, its transcendence of the left/right political division (which was substituted with the “pro-Memorandum”/”anti-Memorandum” division), its sheer emotionalism, its appeal to an imaginary subject (“the people”), and its nationalist orientation. By the phrase “unified whole” I mean that, from the viewpoint the “Indignants” phenomenon is approached on these pages, such divisions as “Upper Square”/”Lower Square”[5] are of relatively minor importance, as “shown” by at least two factors: (1) the emotional element, which, apart from being externalized as “anger” in the “Upper Square,” was also constantly in evidence in the “Lower Square” (particularly in the “assemblies,” where each participant presented his/her own “experience,” his/her own “grievance,” in the form of a monological stream of consciousness); (2) the purely nationalist content of most “petitions” issued not only by the “Upper Square” but also by the “Lower” one.[6]


It was, in other words, a national-populist mobilization with pronounced miserabilist tones[7] (protester outcries and shouts and complaints about losing “vested interests,” as well as voices of despair about the sudden fall from the social scale), where the denunciation of the domestic political elites was enhanced by that of the “foreign elites” (the IMF, the Troika, Germany)—the former (supposedly) being in the service of the latter, so much so that, in political terms, Alexis Tsipras himself (before becoming prime minister) stated that the signing of the first Memorandum (2010) had been “decided beforehand,” because, he claimed, the Memorandum choices had actually been made “before 2009.”[8] He thus clearly subscribed to a “conspiracy theory.”

The mobilization of the “Indignants” led to the emergence of the two political parties—the massive development of SYRIZA’s previously anemic radical left and the foundation of ANEL’s radical right—that have governed in coalition since early 2015. Asserting its movement character, ANEL’s conspiracist radical right proclaimed itself the continuation of the “Movement of the Squares” (i.e., the “Indignants”), turning against the treacherous and corrupt elites.[9] SYRIZA, in its turn, severing its continuity with the Euro-communist profile of its wider political space, “updated” a deep-rooted anti-fascist legacy—the example of a “new EAM” for social and national liberation.[10] Grafted with national-populism (as historically reinvigorated in the Metapolitefsi PaSOK), this model of radical left was strategically evoked in order to support the constitution of the anti-Memorandum tendency and its appropriate political development. Alexis Tsipras himself was quite clear about this, when, in midsummer 2011, following a relative decline in the mobilization of the “Indignants,” he pointed out that the next symbolical rendezvous of the nationally and democratically oriented anti-Memorandum mobilizations was to take place on September 3, 2011, to coincide with the anniversary of the historic foundation of the national-popular PaSOK (September 3, 1974):

The people will no longer tolerate “impoverishment”, misery and limited national sovereignty. For limited national sovereignty means limited democracy. The squares will be again full of people on 3 September. This date is no coincidence. The supporters of PaSOK, its indignant, deceived voters, will again gather in the squares and in the struggles with the other democratic and progressive citizens.[11]

To look upon Tsipras’s defense of “national sovereignty” as an “isolated” case in the overall context of the so-called radical Left is, clearly, to misread it. Jean-Luc Mélenchon painted a very black picture of the then Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou’s “submission”: “In Greece, Papandreou, president of the Socialist International and prime minister, genuflected to the banks, the IMF and the European Commission without a moment’s resistance. . . . The unconditional capitulation of Greece in the face of the banks’ aggression reproduces that of the Social Democratic MPs who voted for war credits, thus paving the way for the World War I bloodbath. Papandreou surrendered his own people to a real occupation army that determined the country’s fate. Opting for the worst outcome.”[12]

Two years later, in 2013, a direction of necessary national-popular symbolical/resistance-oriented resignification of progressive struggles was described and proposed in an ideal-typical manner by Ernesto Laclau, inadvertently validating Taguieff’s wider typological analyses of “identitarian populism.” More specifically, Laclau (with Chantal Mouffe, widely regarded as the most influential ideologists of the radical Left) addressed a legendary figure of the Greek left, the former SYRIZA MP Manolis Glezos, who had personally removed the swastika flag from the Acropolis during the German Occupation of Greece. For Laclau, what was to be done (in 2013) was to repeat that famous anti-Nazi example: “Do you know what Greece’s answer to the crisis should be? Manolis Glezos should go to the Parthenon and raise the Greek flag on the Acropolis. He is still active, now nearing 100 years of age. The sheer symbolism would be so powerful.”[13]

Generally speaking, Laclau’s exhortation/view does not seem to be exclusively about the Greek case of national-populism. It rather seems to be related, indeed connected, to the general conception of left-wing populism as such. This idea is supported by Chantal Mouffe’s recent remarks on the Spanish Podemos populists:

Podemos’s main leaders—Pablo Iglesias, Iñigo Errejón and Juan Carlos Monedero—know Latin America well, and have been inspired by the experiences of the progressive governments of Latin America. In particular, they have been inspired by the idea of constructing a people—indeed, the progressive governments of Latin America see themselves as national-popular governments. . . . In Europe we need to take back democracy. And for this reason Podemos, with intellectuals like Errejón, think we need to learn from Latin America such as to try and construct a people and create national-popular governments, overcoming the traditional Left discourse and going beyond the working class, thinking in more transversal terms.[14]

Apparently, Pablo Iglesias responded positively to the suggestion by stating: “I’m a patriot.”[15]

Interestingly enough, we can see here how “democracy” (“we need to take back democracy”) is, either intentionally or unintentionally, connected to the constitution of (left-wing) populist governments; how, in other words, the populist “democratic” imaginary, namely the social-populism of protest—according to both its interpreters and, mainly, its promoters (social movements, political parties, leaders, intellectuals)—is perfected in its national constitution against the elites and the foreigners, the latter not being the immigrants, as in the case of right-wing populism,[16] but the international financial capital, the banks/bankers, the “Memoranda,” the US (or Germany in the Greek case), the Bilderberg Group, etc.

Consequently, it can be suggested that, if the so-called “leftist,” “progressive,” “good” populism wishes to be worthy of the name “populism,” if it wishes to be a “real” kind of populism and become a majority political force, it must also be national-populism. National-populism thus becomes the supreme, the most complete form of populism, even though it is not the far right (by definition, the representative of reactionary national-populism, which sees the foreigner/immigrant as the enemy) that is involved here. The identification of patriotism and popular interest, as “staged” in populist discourse, enables a certain “convergence of the extremes” to take place, highlighting populism as the prevalent, ideal-typical representation of this convergence: we can thus understand, at least in ideological terms, the left-wing/right-wing coexistence/coalition of SYRIZA/ANEL in Greece, as well as Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias’ recent statement that the left-wing government of Greece, having accepted its submission to a third consecutive Memorandum, is no longer able to make independent decisions: it has become a “protectorate.”[17] We can thus also understand the coexistence of a far-right and a far-left wing in Peronism, the Peronic movement’s nationalist populism,[18] and, beyond this type of historical populism, the statements made by some leading figures of the new European far right, who greeted both SYRIZA’s electoral victory in January 2015 and the Greek referendum of July 5, 2015 and its result. In such cases, populism does not only function as a polemical “political style,” but also as an “ideology”; indeed, it becomes an ideology, one like the others. Therefore, SYRIZA does not represent a case of pure socialist populism, as historian Paul Nolte seems to hold in a very interesting recent interview,[19] but a type of left-wing national-populism that has embodied a “right-wing” demand for “national sovereignty” and governs in coalition with a party of the radical right. Besides, as Alexis Tsipras stated a mere one month after coming to power (February 2015), his government’s efforts are “always” focused on the target of “restoring national and popular sovereignty.”[20]

Conspiracy Theories

The convergence of the extremes can be seen in an ideal-typical manner in the invocation and adoption of “conspiracy theories.” With regard to the Greek case, “the people” was constituted as a subject both by the mobilization of the “Indignants” and the two parties (SYRIZA and ANEL) that appropriated it in polemical opposition to an enemy plotting against the national and popular interests. “Conspiracy theories” have a very important role in promoting and supporting the function of national-populism as an “ideology.” Especially over the first period of SYRIZA-ANEL’s time in office (January–June 2015), the invocation of “conspiracy theories” served as this coalition’s main weapon of propaganda.[21] To give a specific example, the former right-wing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was accused of “conniving” and organizing a “plan” with the “conservative Establishment” of Europe, particularly the Spanish and Portuguese governments, which supposedly made a number of clandestine moves to destabilize the new left-wing Greek government in its negotiations with the Troika.[22] Even though these countries unequivocally disproved all allegations of such a destabilization “plan” and, as a result, the Greek government was led to partially back down, conspiracism remained at the heart of the latter’s rhetoric.[23]

In a very interesting comparative study of populism as a “political style,” Benjamin Moffitt stresses that anti-American conspiracism was particularly important in constructing the “enemy” in Hugo Chavez’s discourse,[24] which could also be anti-Semitic in nature.[25] This conspiracist explanation of political developments seems to be intrinsic to the national-populist ideology. We know from Taguieff that the “ideological” function of national-populism presupposes a conspiracist explanation—that which essentially constitutes the identities of “us” vs. “them” in a Manichean and polemical manner: “Conspiracism, the key to modern mythopolitical explanation, forms part of the populist view as a spontaneous schematization.”[26]

The construction of enemies/scapegoats[27] is, indeed, the core of the national-populist imaginary (the “paranoid style” of populism, as Richard Hofstadter aptly called it in his unsurpassed study[28]); moreover, particularly in the Greek case, conspiracism has become the spearhead of the “dominant discourse” legitimizing the new left-wing power. The Greek case thus proves to be the moment of synthesis between the two versions of conspiracism, the right-wing and the left-wing one—if it is assumed that the former points to “foreigners” as the enemies, while the latter, focused as it is on the notion of “equality,” points to “the rich,” the domestic elite, as the enemies.[29] Further, the simultaneous defamatory denunciation of the national elites (supposedly) serving the foreigners and conspiring against “the people” is the product of conspiracist national-populism, which transcends (in its discourse) any distinction between the right and the left, thus becoming the ideal locus where the “extremes” converge.

The Populist Illusion as the Shadow of Politics

Defending his government’s work against the Opposition’s criticism that he had “lied” to the Greek people before coming to power, Alexis Tsipras recently stated: “You can accuse us of having illusions, yet not of not honoring the [people’s] mandate and telling lies.”[30] He meant by this that his government had misjudged its own ability to subvert the unfavorable “balance of power” within the EU, based on his personal hope that, soon after having formed the right alliances within the EU, he would lead the Greek negotiations with the Troika to results that would be better suited to the Greek interests.

Moreover, the former Finance Minister of the first SYRIZA government (January to July 2015), Yanis Varoufakis, who at the time was responsible for negotiating with the Troika on behalf of Greece, presented, after his resignation, the conditions in which these negotiations had taken place. As he said, during these five months, he found out “the hard way”[31] the role played against Greece by the balance of power within the Eurogroup, despite the “realism” of the SYRIZA government’s proposals. The ideological-political dimensions of this “illusion” were concisely presented by Serge Halimi, the leftist editorial director of Le Monde diplomatique, who specifically referred to the SYRIZA government’s failed “over-optimistic bets.” The Greek government had relied on forging an alliance within the EU—particularly, on receiving help from the French and Italian governments—which was never achieved. A second failed bet: the peoples of Europe did not take the streets, did not massively protest, in support of Greece. A final failure concerned the geopolitical scenario, namely the expectation of Greece that Russia would financially support it during the negotiation period. “Guilty of innocence,” Halimi remarked, the Greek government eventually surrendered.[32]

It is pertinent here to draw attention to a particular interpretation of Alexis Tsipras’ initiative to call the referendum of July 5, 2015 (which concerned the acceptance or rejection of the agreement plan submitted to the Eurogroup by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund). According to this interpretation—mainly put forward by the French Marxist philosopher Étienne Balibar—despite the “immense désillusion” that prevailed in the aftermath of the referendum, given that the SYRIZA government “capitulated” in the end, the decision for holding the referendum was vindicated. Why? Let us try to follow Balibar’s interesting line of reasoning, which is both a very good “introduction” and, at several points, a very good answer to the topic in question.

On balance, we think that he [Tsipras] was [right to call the referendum], because—to use Chantal Mouffe’s terms, reiterated by Ulrike Guerot in Die Zeit—the referendum disturbed the occult “governance” and produced a real “return of politics” in the European crisis, which, in a way, is irreversible. The question about the interests and the voice of the people, as well the one about the publicity of decisions concerning the common interest, were clearly raised. . . . Our feeling is that he [Tsipras] won the battle on this question of principle, even though he lost the next one to a crippling balance of power.[33]

What the authors of the above passage tell us—apparently, accepting an idea that was current in the Greek public opinion at the time, i.e. that Greece is a victim of “conspiracy” (occult “governance”)—is that the decision for holding the referendum, regardless (or because) of the illusion it created, had a positive or even catalytic effect: despite the severe restrictions imposed by the specific environment, by that “crippling balance of power,” the decision as such, being valuable in itself, was vindicated. They also tell us that this “decision’s” “voluntarism” offered a kind of “salvation,” because, according to the high priestess of national-populism, Chantal Mouffe, the “referendum” served as a vehicle for the “return of politics.” Therefore, we are entitled to presume that the ultimate aim of “populism” is this: “politics”—which is called upon to “return,” even if it has to resort to a (perhaps informal) conspiracist understanding of developments, one of the main features of which is the anthropomorphization of “the enemy”: Schäuble, the “Boss”, Germany, etc.[34]

If we take seriously the Greek Prime Minister’s above-quoted statement, his former Finance Minister’s remarks, and their elucidating interpretations, we can put forward the following working hypothesis about the “essence” of national-populism (assuming, of course, that we momentarily adopt an “essentialist” perspective on the national-populist phenomenon in general): the populist illusion has its starting point in a different view, according to which any change in the existing balance of power is just a matter of “decision,” a matter of political voluntarism. If things turn bad, only the mean and treacherous elites are to blame. It is therefore enough to bring about a change at the top of political power; in other words, to ensure that the country’s government is entrusted to the representatives of the “real” popular forces and that a new political will prevails, so that the process of “decline” can be halted. So far the problem was the absence of such a political will, which alone can change the overall direction of things. From this standpoint, national-populism can be seen as an (illusive) criticism of the absence of political will, the absence of a “decision,” and, consequently, as an (illusive) criticism of the absence or even failure of politics, which is considered characteristic of the current managerialist governance of the public thing. Populists claim: “We can.” The “decision” illusion is, therefore, the illusion of national-populism.

Such an approach to the “essence” of national-populism can be further elucidated if, once again, we momentarily adopt an “essentialist” perspective on politics—if, that is, we bend the twig on the other side (to use a well-known Leninist formula), with the risk of breaking it, of course. We know from Julien Freund’s relevant elaborations that politics is constituted within the framework of three hard-and-fast dichotomous categories: command/obedience, public/private, friend/enemy.[35] It can be argued that national-populism is a “corruption” of the principles governing this autonomy of politics, for the following reasons: it overplays and perverts the necessary existence of the element of “command” (e.g., “hierarchy”, “power,” and, ultimately, the state), which is but a metonymy for “decision”; it tends toward overcoming the public/private dichotomy, hence its constant anti-pluralist temptation; finally, it maintains and potentially alters the polemical “friend/enemy” dichotomy, anthropomorphizing it or even reducing it to a cultural-identitarian issue, hence the identitarian feelings of “cultural insecurity” to which it purports to respond. [36]

In this context, political voluntarism, the “decision” illusion of national-populism—in short, the perversion of politics ‒ is embodied, firstly, in the specific national-sovereignty-focused and polemical way in which “national sovereignty”/”national independence” are supported and celebrated (especially in terms of their intimate correlation to “democracy”), and, secondly, in the mythopolitics of conspiracy theory. If the latter, in its modern version, is simply a return of magic to politics, a “magical Machiavellism”[37] of sorts, it can be argued that, alongside the hypertrophy of the national-sovereignty-focused discourse, the conspiracist discourse represents a form of overpoliticization, whose vehicle is national-populism. In this sense, national-populism is less the “shadow of democracy” and more the shadow of politics, of “power”—something caused by the “slumber of politics” and its disorderly, agitatorial, popular/riotous “awakening.” It is, rather, the “decision” itself, the overpoliticization of the demand for a “decision” (which is equated to a national “decision”), national-political voluntarism as such (as an intentional lever for changing the world): this is the “essence” of national-populism in the face of a generalized state of crisis, where national frameworks—as a metonymy for politics—are questioned (see today’s globalization) and the “decision-making centers” are denounced as “foreign” ones, thus becoming objects of negative remythologization, demonization, antipolitical politicization, to use Guy Hermet’s definition of populism as the politics of antipolitics.[38]

Shortly before the European Parliament elections of 2014, Alexis Tsipras (before becoming Prime Minister) made yet another statement that epitomized this hypothesis—in an ideal-typical manner, to boot. He denounced the coalition government formed at the time between the Conservative and Socialist parties of Greece as “dangerous for society, dangerous for national sovereignty.” He further stressed that, in case that government remained in power, there was a risk of perpetuating “a regime of servility that will transform Greece into a cheap plot and its working people into a cheap, gagged mass. . . . If the Greek people consent to this, then, for many years to come, Greece will be prey to foreign interests, a mere commodity in hostile markets, deprived of its voice, its status, its national dignity.” Expressing his conviction about SYRIZA’s imminent electoral victory in the 2014 European Parliament elections, Alexis Tsipras also claimed that this victory would cause a “subversive domino effect throughout Europe.” And he added: “We shall change the political climate in Europe; we shall demand a better solution for Greece, from the more powerful positions assumed by the European Left after the European Parliament elections.”[39] Nationalism making common cause with voluntarism: two sides of the same coin.

Therefore, it can be said that nationalism and conspiracism are the two perverted figures of politics the appeals of populism are connected with. In the absence of nationalism and conspiracism, there is no populism. The populist “decision” is conditional on nationalist conspiracism as an anthropomorphic embodiment of “politics,” of power. And “politics,” in its populist version, does not “merely” point to the (anthropomorphic) friend/enemy dichotomy, as suggested by Laclau and Mouffe’s Schmitt-inspired views, but, simultaneously, if not mainly, to the double-faceted (national and popular) “sovereignty”, to the pole of command/obedience, where, especially today, chaotic globalization alters or even “eliminates” the traditional, “visible” borders and vehicles of (national) “decision”/”power.”

Taguieff’s relevant elaborations, beyond (and in contrast to) any essentialist approach to the phenomenon in question, mainly have this to offer: his typology of “national-populism”, as well as his analysis of “conspiracism,” help us to identify the source of the populist misfortune by showing that “sovereignty”/”decision” (being at the heart of nationalism and conspiracism) are not merely a complement, inter alia, of a populist political worldview. If conspiracism and nationalism (two structures of meaning also present in “good” populism, especially when it manages to be constituted as a political party that can effectively claim power) are the perverted anthropomorphizations of politics, it can be argued that the element of anthropomorphic “decisionism” is a sine qua non for the success of a populist appeal, thus constituting its very core.

In other words, (left-wing) populism is, first and foremost, the “hypertrophy” of politics in the form of “sovereignty,” in the form of a national-sovereignty-focused voluntarism—especially today, when national sovereignties (and identities) are questioned, party political systems are in a state of crisis, the left/right dichotomy is effectively downgraded, and democratic legitimacy (undermined by “governance”) is similarly in a state of very deep crisis. In populism, as generally understood, the assertion of such a “sovereignty” takes the form of nationalism (either xenophobic or not) and conspiracism. That’s why populism, even “left-wing” populism, as shown in SYRIZA’s case, is a conspiracist national-populism.[40]

The Annulment of Politics

Nevertheless, what this populist “reinstatement” of politics ultimately results in is the very annulment of politics: overpoliticization kills politics. “As a more or less observable volatile reality,” Taguieff writes, “populism is a contemporary form of political illusion—insofar as it is reduced to a mixture of demagoguery and magical political thinking that dismisses, as a matter of principle, all mediations and procrastinations—which is focused on the impossible identification of the unified people with their government or their supreme leader, thus presupposing an imaginary of merging as the way to salvation; and this, in turn, presupposes a denunciation of intranational conflict and, therefore, a negation of politics.”[41]

It is in the context of this voluntarist, “decisionist” negation of politics that we must understand the populist obsession with holding “referenda,” the constant populist tendency toward a “referendum-based democracy” (common to all populisms, whether left-wing or right-wing). This is neither an obsession with reinventing a “real democracy” that has been misappropriated by the elites, nor a defense of the people’s “participation.” In the face of an “absence” or even “failure” of politics, it is a referendum-based legitimization of the “decision” of demagogic politics, a “decision” that also promises a direct solution, a direct reversal of a “decadent” course.[42] Yet, as Guy Hermet points out, following here Gino Germani’s relevant comment on Latin American populism, populists are not interested in the citizens’ actual participation in public affairs: rather, they aim at creating a “semblance of participation.”[43] The Greek case probably offers the most recent example: an example of illusive (populist) participation and an equally illusive promise of direct[44] disengagement from the dependence on Memoranda, which enhances “the will,” the populist obsession with “decision.” Of course, I am alluding to the Greek referendum held on July 5, 2015, in which the victory of NO was utterly ignored by the government (which had provoked the referendum, in the first place) and, within a few days, was transformed into YES to the proposals of the Troika (or the “Institutions”) and the signing of the third Memorandum.

Moreover, SYRIZA’s currently emerging proposal that the President of the Republic should be directly elected “by the people” (generally discussed in July 2016 within a public consultation framework for “revising” the Constitution) provoked the following apt reaction from the party’s left wing: “The suggestion about the direct election of the President of the Republic is sheer populism, because it makes people, citizens, feel that, by voting for a person every few years, they actually participate, their opinion matters.”[45]

It is, therefore, futile to look for an “ideological minimum” definition of national-populism, or for its “doctrine.”[46] Indeed, despite its aforementioned ideological function, despite its function as an “ideology,” national-populism actually belongs in the order of “politics”—of something “prior” to all ideological choice, something that is autonomous from any ideological project and can therefore communicate with any ideological orientation. In this sense, “populism” (especially left-wing populism) can be seen as resulting from a “disturbance of the order of politics” and, historically speaking, as a voluntarist and illusive defense of “national sovereignty.” As Taguieff aptly points out in his most recent book (where he refers to far-right populism and, more widely, to populism and its illusions in contemporary Europe as “the form demagoguery takes in contemporary societies”), “the so-called populist reactions combine . . . , in various mixtures, national-sovereignty-focused and identitarian motifs, which are more widely accepted in the public space. They mix various interpretations drawn from the mythic narrative with disturbing events, and systematically apply a Manichean decoding that is at the heart of populist rhetoric: the opposition between the powerful (who are predators and guilty) and the people (who is virtuous and innocent, but also a victim). Siding conspicuously with the people is the simplest way of persuading others that one is an unflinchingly loyal and demanding democrat. Yet, as we know, the terms evoking noble ideas are also the ones most susceptible to deception and disillusionment.”[47]


Using the Greek case as its main (if not exclusive) starting point, this article tried to show that left-wing populism—in its complete, perfect form—appears to be a conspiracist national-populism. Nationalism and conspiracism are inherent to left-wing populism: they constitute its “political” arm; it is through them that the social-populism of protest (the defense of “the poor”/”the modest”/”the many” against /”the rich”/”the elite”/”the few”) is politicized in a vertical, antipolitical way (“decisionism”) not only by defining the “enemy” but also by highlighting and perverting another “essential” feature of “politics” (“sovereignty,” “power”, “the state”), which it turns into a basic means of resistance, using as its vehicle an imaginarily unified national-social body, “the people.” In other words, the national-populist appeal is more closely related to “politics,” to voluntarist-magical “decisions” that must be legitimized in the name of “national sovereignty” (hence its new-Third-World dimension and its contemporary leftist anti-neocolonialist discourse), and much less so to “democracy.” To put it another way: it is the perversion of “politics” that causes the perversion of “democracy” by populism (its tendency, for example, toward a “referendum-based democracy,” “direct democracy,” “radical democracy,” what Taguieff calls “democratic extremism”[48]), not vice versa. In this sense, the national-populist illusion can be regarded as a “pathology” of politics, of the phenomenon of power: a power fixation that manipulates democracy.

Andreas Pantazopoulos is a Political Scientist and Associate Professor, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Some of the points made in this article were presented by the author at the conference “The Greek Crisis: Aspects and Trends,” Hermoupolis Seminars, July 5, 2016, Syros, Greece.


1. Pierre-André Taguieff, “The Revolt against the Elites, or the New Populist Wave: An Interview,” TelosScope, June 25, 2016,

2. Pierre-André Taguieff, L’Illusion Populiste: Essai sur les démagogies de l’âge démocratique (Paris: Champs/Flammarion, 2007), p. 168.

3. Ibid., pp. 219ff.

4. The political system of the years following the collapse of the “Colonels’ Dictatorship” (1974) was essentially based on the alternation of two political parties in power: the conservative New Democracy and the socialist-oriented national-populist PaSOK. For a wider discussion of this period, see Andreas Pantazopoulos, “Le national-populisme grec, 1974–2004,” Les Temps Modernes, no. 545–46 (2007), pp. 237–67; Stathis N. Kalyvas, Modern Greece: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press 2015), pp. 101–51. For the phenomenon of the Greek “Indignants” (or “Indignandos”) and the populism: Aristos Doxiadis and Manos Matsagganis, National-Populism and Xenophobia in Greece, Counterpoint (2012). For the phenomenon of the Greek “Indignants” (or “Indignados”); Paris Aslanidis and Nikos Marantzidis, “The Impact of the Greek Indignados on Greek Politics,” Southeastern Europe, no. 40 (2016), pp. 125–57; Andreas Pantazopoulos, “Populism or National-Populism? A Critical Approach to Cas Mudde’s Perspective on SYRIZA’s Populism,” TelosScope, March 25, 2016.

5. The “Upper/Lower Square” distinction refers to the division of Athens’ central square, Syntagma Square, right opposite the Parliament, where all the mobilizations of the “Indignants” took place. “Right-wing” protesters gathered in the “upper” part of the square, while “leftists” gathered in the “lower” one.

6. Pantazopoulos, “Populism or National-Populism?”

7. The term “miserabilism,” as employed here, belongs to Pierre-André Taguieff, who, to my knowledge, was the first to successfully use it to describe the mobilizations of the “Indignants” in the most complete way possible. See Pierre-André Taguieff, Le nouveau national-populisme (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2013), pp. 81–92.

8. Alexis Tsipras, “ΔΝΤ και χρεοκοπία είχαν συμφωνηθεί πριν το 2009” [“IMF and default had been agreed upon before 2009”], originally published in Epikaira magazine, July 21, 2011.

9. Andreas Pantazopoulos, “L’ alliance de Syriza/Grecs Independants: le facteur complotiste,” January 27, 2015.

10. Pantazopoulos, “Populism or National-Populism?”

11. Tsipras, “IMF and default” (my italics).

12. See Jean-Luc Mélenchon, “Place au Peuple!” preface in Jacques Généreux, Nous, on peut (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2011), p. 15.

13. Ernesto Laclau, “Η αριστερά στην Ευρώπη πρέπει να γίνει πιο λαϊκιστική” [“The left in Europe must be more populist”], Avgi, November 10, 2013.

14. “Left Populism and Taking Back Democracy: A Conversation with Chantal Mouffe,” Verso, March 21, 2016 (my italics).

15. Miguel-Anxo Murado, “What happened to the Podemos fairytale?” Guardian, June 28, 2016.

16. For the distinction between left-wing and right-wing populism with regard to immigration, see Taguieff, Le nouveau national-populisme, pp. 99–105. For the parties of right-wing populism, see also Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right-wing Parties in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007).

17. Álvaro Carvajal, “Pablo Iglesias: ‘España debe ser un Estado plurinacional como lo es el Reino Unido,'” El Mundo, June 21, 2016. Pierre-André Taguieff has insightfully and clearly identified this nationalist dimension both in SYRIZA and Podemos, arguing that “Spanish Pablo Iglesias and Greek Alexis Tsipras resort to populist rhetoric (the people against the liberal/Europeanist elites; the salvationist “change”) and, as adept, though not declared, nationalists, take advantage of the popular classes’ feelings of humiliation and anger.” By forming a coalition with the “Independent Greeks”/ANEL (“a party of the national-sovereignty-focused, anti-immigrant and Europhobic right), Taguieff continues, “SYRIZA offered evidence of both the uselessness of the right/left division and the emergence of a new ‘victorious formula,’ a mixture of populist style and nationalist views.” See Pierre-André Taguieff, La révanche du nationalisme: Néopopulistes et xénophobes à l’assaut de l’ Europe (Paris: PUF, 2015), p. 85.

18. Gino Germani, Authoritarianism, Fascism, and National-Populism (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1978), pp. 119–20; Taguieff, La revanche du nationalisme, pp. 105–9. For the Peronic national-populist doctrine, see also Federico Finchelstein, The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War: Fascism, Populism, and Dictatorship in Twentieth Century Argentina (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014), pp. 65–92. Also, for Latin American populism in general, with a special focus on the contemporary cases of Argentina and Venezuela, and their genealogy, see Renée Fregosi, Les nouveaux autoritaires: Justiciers, censeurs et autocrats (Paris: Éditions du Moment, 2016), pp. 101ff.

19. “A Crisis Reminiscent of the 1930s: Germany Facing the New Populism: An Interview with Paul Nolte,” TelosScope, June 30, 2016.

20. TV address by Alexis Tsipras, “Κρατήσαμε την Ελλάδα όρθια” [“We kept Greece on its feet”], To Vima, February 21, 2015.

21. Pantazopoulos, “Populism or National-Populism?”

22. Speech of Alexis Tsipras, SYRIZA Central Committee meeting, February 28, 2015.

23. Pantazopoulos, “Populism or National-Populism?”

24. Benjamin Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2016), pp. 45, 146.

25. Fregosi, Les nouveaux autoritaires, pp. 150–67.

26. Taguieff, L’Illusion Populiste, p. 192.

27. Michael Barkun, “Les théories du complot comme connaissance stigmatisée,” Diogène, no. 249–50 (January–June 2015), pp. 175–76.

28. Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1965).

29. Pierre-André Taguieff, Court traité de complotologie (Paris: Fayard, 2013), p. 109.

30. Speech of Alexis Tsipras, Greek Parliament, May 8, 2016.

31. Yanis Varoufakis, “Leur seul objectif: humilier la Grèce,” in Europe: Le révélateur grec (Paris: Le Monde diplomatique/Les Liens Qui Libèrent, 2015), p. 15.

32. Serge Halimi, “L’Europe dont nous ne voulons plus,” in Europe: Le révélateur grec, pp. 34–35.

33. Étienne Balibar, Sandro Mezzarda, and Frieder Otto Wolf, “Le diktat de Bruxelles et le dilemme de Syriza,” in Alexis Cukier and Pierre Khalfa, eds., Europe, l’expérience grecque: Le débat stratégique (Bellecombe-en-Bauges: Éditions du Croquant, 2015), pp. 76–77.

34. Ibid., pp. 50–54. On the same pages, the authors present a summary of the developments in the negotiations between Greece and the Troika “from the Greek perspective” (“vus de Grèce”), namely according to the view prevailing in the Greek civil society. Their presentation often gives the impression that they effectively adopt, if not the “letter,” at least the “spirit” of the Greek way of understanding and explaining the particular developments. Yet they subsequently try to hold anthropomorphic and socially oriented perspectives at bay. After all, their apparent critical detachment is intended to serve other purposes as well: to avoid denouncing the “compromise” of the Tsipras government after the signing of the third Memorandum and indicate, ex cathedra, the risk facing those sections of the radical left that may opt for frontally attacking SYRIZA and exiting the European Union.

35. See Julien Freund, L’Essence du politique, afterword by Pierre-André Taguieff (Paris: Dalloz, 2004). Although Freund’s elaborations are occasionally very close to those of Carl Schmitt, Freund stresses the considerable risks involved in such an essentialist approach, particularly in its ideological instrumentalization. See Freund’s preface in Carl Schmitt, La notion du politique: Théorie du partisan (Paris: Champs/Flamarion, 1992), pp. 20ff.

36. See Laurent Bouvet, L’insécurité culturelle (Paris: Fayard, 2015).

37. Taguieff, Court Traité de complotologie, p. 150.

38. Guy Hermet, Les populismes dans le monde: Une histoire sociologique XIXe–XXe siècles (Paris: Fayard, 2000).

39. Alexis Tsipras, “Θα αλλάξουμε την πολιτική ατμόσφαιρα στην Ευρώπη” [“We shall change the political climate in Europe”], Kathimerini, April 13, 2014.

40. Of course, SYRIZA is not the only case of left-wing national-populism. Apart from the well-known case of Sinn Féin (with which SYRIZA maintained very good political relations, at least until the moment the latter came to power) and those of Latin American national-populism, notably Argentina and Venezuela, similar phenomena can also be found in Europe in the immediate past (in the 2000s), albeit not as widespread nor as pronounced. See Dominique Reynié, Les nouveaux populismes (Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard/Pluriel, 2013), pp. 301–13, where the author mentions the left-wing parties of Samoobrona (in Poland), Smer (in Slovakia), PRM (in Rumania) and WASG (Oskar Lafontaine’s party in Germany), all informed, to a greater or lesser extent, by a racist or nationalist rhetoric. See also Matthias Krupa, “Nationalism on the Left,” Die Zeit, September 4, 2015.

41. Taguieff, Le nouveau national-populisme, p. 74 (my italics).

42. The direct fulfilment of a “promise” is (rightly, in my opinion) considered to be a central element of populist rhetoric, embodying a “magical conception of time.” See Taguieff, L’Illusion populiste, pp. 128–29 (my italics).

43. Hermet, Les populismes, pp. 207, 223–24.

44. “With just one article, with just one law” we will abolish the Memoranda: such was the slogan-like articulation of SYRIZA’s national-populist promise before its coming to power.

45. See Dora Antoniou, “’53’ εναντίον Τσίπρα: Λαϊκισμός η εκλογή ΠτΔ από τον λαό” [“The ’53’ against Tsipras: The election of the President of the Republic by the people is populism”], Kathimerini, July 19, 2016 (my italics). Ascribing “populism” to Alexis Tsipras is, here, very important in political terms, because it comes from an intraparty left-wing opposition of Marxist orientation, which does not, or at least used not to, recognise populism as a “category” capable of understanding and explaining the homonymous phenomenon. Quite often, if not always, such Marxist circles criticize the employment of the term “populism” as a way for the elites to “devalue” and “disparage” popular struggles, as an “invention” of “the rich” to be used in their war against “the poor.”

46. Taguieff, La revanche du nationalisme, p. 81.

47. Ibid., pp. 88–99, 101–2.

48. Taguieff, L’Illusion populiste, p. 186.

1 comment to The National-Populist Illusion as a “Pathology” of Politics: The Greek Case and Beyond

  • An excellent analysis, indeed! Rich in theory, and facts. Maybe, the best I read on the populism phenomenon. I would only add (or even more stress) that populism of any kind always entails, in its ideology, two typical elements: (1) a dramatic simplification of politics in terms of “those upper” vs “us lower”, thus reducing a variety of contradictions to just one; (2) a strong “moral” (moralistic, really) connotation put on such a contradiction. Which goes in the same direction as that proposed by the Author: populism as a “pathology” of politics, even at ideological level. In fact, populist ideology (1) denies the complexity of politics, (2) denies its autonomy.

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