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The Brink

Redemption, Emancipation, and Populism: An Interview with Paula Biglieri and Luciana Cadahia

Against the prevailing conception of populism in Western democratic societies, Argentinean political theorists Paula Biglieri and Luciana Cadahia rearticulate the meaning of populism from the perspective of Latin American political reality. In their book Seven Essays on Populism (Verso 2021), Biglieri and Cadahia invite the readers to reconsider populism as constitutive of the political.

This interview is featured in Political Theology 23.1-2, a special double issue on “Deprovincializing Political Theology.” Article topics include: a comparative study between Chinese Marxist and Western liberal human rights traditions; the creation of Confucian religion through the intellectual work of Kang Youwei; the counter-theology of B.R. Ambedkar; the possibility of Rabindranath Tagore’s political thought; a juxtaposition of Carl Schmitt’s and Ayatollah Khomeini’s juridico-political thinking; the transgressive form of boundary crossing and translation across religious divisions by Muslim kings; the assumptions behind “the political” in comparative conversations in political theology; the political theology of an uprising in Buenaventura, the main city-port in Colombia. The special issue also includes a roundtable on “Organizing, Protests, and Religious Practices.”

Populism often carries negative connotations in Western democratic societies. For critics, it endangers the essence of the democratic process, potentially leading toward authoritarianism and fascism. Writing against the widespread conception of populism in the West, the Argentinean political theorists Paula Biglieri and Luciana Cadahia seek to rearticulate the meaning of populism from the perspective of the Latin American political reality. Following the lead of fellow Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau, in their recent book Seven Essays on Populism Biglieri and Cadahia invite their readers to reconsider populism as constitutive of the political. This intriguing proposal opens a host of complex questions regarding the place of the state, antagonistic politics, and the figure of the leader, among many others—probing the uncertain status of today’s left under the powerful hegemony of neoliberal capitalism. Seven Essays on Populism provocatively argues against the sensibilities of many left-leaning scholars who tend to draw an immediate association between the liberal state (and/or sovereignty) and violence. In Latin America, the authors tell us, the state has been historically the only viable medium for materializing plebeian politics against oligarchic power. Constructing an egalitarian and emancipatory state and party politics, they argue, is not only possible but also necessary for progressive democratic politics to successfully resist the totalitarian rule of the twenty-first century capitalism.

Biglieri’s and Cadahia’s bold and provocative claims raise perhaps challenging questions for scholars of political theology and skeptics who often view the state, decisionism, and nationalism as derivative of the sovereign imaginary. To cite Wendy Brown from her Preface to the book, “Have they gone too far presenting a political theology, perfect in its form and promise?”[i] Perhaps one could say that there is a redemptionist theological mechanism at play in their proposal—a political theology that critics might call utopian. But couldn’t we also say that there is an equally utopian gesture in the purity of ideals that theory and critique seek to rescue and preserve from the urgent and pressing reality of plebeian politics?

An Yountae

Why write a book on populism? Or more specifically, why try to rescue populism at all?

Paula Biglieri and Luciana Cadahia

In Latin America, there is a long tradition of political thought interested in populism. Starting in the 1960s, populism became a very important concept for thinking about democratization processes in Latin America. These processes were characterized by national-popular organizations that functioned as alternatives to the oligarchy and consisted of different logics to the organization of European social democracy. Our work, then, is part of a very long tradition of thought in our region. Our work is also part of the Laclausian legacy since he was one of the first political thinkers to radically reverse the meaning of the term populism (although there are other precedents). That is to say, we follow an intellectual line where populism does not acquire a pejorative sense, in terms of a failed democratization process. Instead, we see it as the effort to think about what internal logic populism adopts.

An Yountae

In the book, you address the criticism of populism that comes from both the left and the right. What caught my attention most is how you respond to autonomists that view the rise and success of populism as a perversion of plebian movements. The autonomist position represents, to a certain extent, a widely held position on the twenty-first century left (broadly construed), informed by a certain postmodern sensibility. For these critics, populism exposes a democratic popular movement to the risk of being eclipsed by the violent apparatus that is the state. Can the state be reterritorialized and restructured as a platform for articulating popular demands despite its anti-democratic structure (vertical and decisionist)?  

Paula Biglieri and Luciana Cadahia

It seems very reductionist and mechanistic to identify, in advance, the state with oppression. This kind of claim is an abstraction that does not take into account popular actors in Latin America and the way they have imagined an egalitarian republic. If we pay attention to the work of many historians in Latin America and the Caribbean, we see that state formations are very complex and not free from tensions and porosities. In this direction, there is a historical tension between two conceptions of the state and institutions: on one hand, the oligarchic vision, and on the other hand, the national-popular or plurinational-popular vision. The first vision makes the state into the property of a minority and deprives the majority of an institutional political life. It even makes law and institutions a mechanism for oppression and inequality. The second, in contrast, assumes the possibility of realising equality and freedom for the majority.

We need the state as a form of democratic mediation. Until now, it is the only apparatus of power in which all citizens can intervene and give it content through a popular vote. For this reason, we argue against autonomism in Latin America, which tends to reject the role that parties, the state, and institutions can play in social emancipation. It is a mistake to consider these movements “autonomous” in the sense that they do not depend on any party or field beyond their own articulation. Autonomists identify social movements with the true place of the popular and conceive this space as the only one where emancipation can be pursued. Thus, they restrict the possibility of considering that a union or a political party can also be a place for popular emancipation. Our criticism, therefore, rests on our broader conception of the popular and emancipation. First, it seems to us that social movements are only one set among many other actors within a broader and more complex organisation we call the “popular field.” Second, we believe that the popular field (movements, unions, parties, etc.) can articulate an emancipatory proposal while engaging with the state, transforming institutions and radicalising democracy.

An Yountae

How would you address critics that might accuse you of appealing to a utopic vision: the possibility of constructing an egalitarian and emancipatory form of the state? Could we also say that political movements that locate “true” emancipatory potentialoutside the platform of the state and parties are also utopic (as is the case with autonomism)? 

Paula Biglieri and Luciana Cadahia

It seems to us that these questions present two issues. In the first place, as we discuss in essay 7 of our book, we live in a time unable to imagine the future. We are tied to an omnipresent understanding of capitalism as the only social bond and horizon of life. We believe that this is due, to a large extent, to that immediate identification of utopia with something pejorative. In this sense, we believe that it is necessary to rethink what we understand by utopia. That implies thinking of a new link between lucidity and enthusiasm.

In a slightly simplified way, we could say that modernity has been characterized as the era of enthusiasm. The twentieth century was characterized by a furious criticism of that optimism, showing all the violent and oppressive edges typical of a classist, racist, and patriarchal oligarchy. This critique laid the groundwork for a disenchanted lucidity and a critical thinking to be understood as a project of dismantling. However, together with the critique of modernity, we abandoned the task of imagining alternatives for the future. The critical task cannot be limited to dismantling the places of oppression. It also needs to involve affirmative processes.

And that happens to undo the identification of lucidity with disenchantment. Is it possible to set up an enthusiastic lucidity? We believe so, and that is our historical responsibility and the commitment of our book. On the other hand, it is true that for some voices, the idea of an emancipatory state may sound like a chimera. That is why they prefer to give it up. Our response to these criticisms is: let’s go back to the historical archive. In other words, the idea of an emancipatory state is not something that we propose from zero. On the contrary, there is a whole historical accumulation in Latin America and the Caribbean, both in practice and in theory, that has already explored this possibility.

An Yountae

Another provocative and intriguing argument you two make is your defense of decisionism and the figure of the charismatic leader. You interrogate the binary that assumes the neutrality of institutions and ideas, which goes hand in hand with the Eurocentric bias that associates the figure of the strong leader (and the mass behind them) with the perversion of “purity” preserved in ideas. Can you elaborate?

Paula Biglieri and Luciana Cadahia

We would like to clarify that we do not think of ‘decisionism’ in the way Carl Schmitt introduces it. In our book, we do not quote nor allude to Schmitt, not even once. We are neither privileging any idea of decision in the sense of an individual, beyond or above any law, who decides at will, nor regarding leadership as exclusively associated with the authority of the head of state. Regarding the latter, we think of the figure of the leader in a broader sense including, for instance, those we have called social movement, community, or territorial leaders, considering the long tradition in building popular leadership from below in Latin America and the Caribbean.

There is always a mutual contamination between the way the place of the leader has been shaped and the person occupying it. The consequence is that, on one hand, this place is a singular one as it differs in each political community and, on the other hand, even in the same political community, the leader’s place is always different from itself (there are always new marks being inscribed). It is a singular place due to the name of the leader and the performative character of naming. Let us say that the proper name of the leader imprints singularity to the people. It is not any people or any leader, it is this people and this leader. This relation expresses the crystallization of a unique political context forged by an assemblage of diverse demands and certain antagonisms that are inscribed in historical legacies and shared traditions. Once the name of the leader has become a surface of inscription of popular demands, that is, it has become the name of the people, this name exceeds the person of the leader who will not dominate the people at will.

An Yountae

For many contemporary critics, the figure of the strong leader evokes horror since we have witnessed how, historically, leaders with a strong hold on power have been tempted by authoritarianism. Speaking in the language of political theology, it is not difficult to associate the figure of the strong leader with a certain Schmittian notion of the sovereign – even though you have explained already that your notion of decisionism is not associated with Schmittian political theology. Can we say that in your defense of the leader and (a certain sense or extent of) decisionism, we see an element of the theologico-political? Is there a certain sense of a redemptive messianism at play here?

Paula Biglieri and Luciana Cadahia

We would like to clarify that we do not seek to make a “defense of the leader” but rather to argue that, in any political project, leadership figures are ineradicable. At the same time, in Chapter 5, we show that there are different ways of building leadership. There, we are examine popular leaders who marshalled emancipatory forces. It is necessary to avoid one-sided images of the leader, since leadership is procedural, contingent, and rooted in a specific time and space. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there is an entire bibliography dedicated to thinking about popular leaderships that does not come from the Schmittean legacy, although this bibliography is not well known to the global academy. This does not mean that it is impossible to establish a dialogue with the philosophy of Carl Schmitt, but it is important to explain the nuances and the different genealogies from which traditions of thought are built.

In that sense, and if we remember Benjamin’s theses on the philosophy of history, (political?) theology will always be pivoting around understandings of history. At the same time, it seems to us that from Latin America, theology mismatches a constant game of plebeian desecration that does not point so much to redemption as to emancipation. If we understand redemption as freeing ourselves from a guilt or debt that we are obliged to pay, then focusing more on the moral-theological point of view is what we should discuss. But if we understand redemption in a political sense, that is, as the possibility of freeing ourselves from oppression so that new, more egalitarian and free social ties can flourish, then we could turn to the theology of liberation in Latin America, represented by thinkers such as Franz Hinkelammert.

[i] “Have they gone too far presenting a political theology, perfect in its form and promise? But most political concepts invite something of this kind from their partisans: hence people trying to rescue liberalism from neoliberalism; or rescuing communism from repressive state. So why deny this cleansing and redemption for populism?” Wendy Brown, Preface, Xvi.

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