Populist Movements and Democratic Leadership

Activity: External talk or presentationInvited talk


In the politics of the post-Arab spring era, questions of political organization have once again come to the fore on the left. A key element of these debates is the role of the leader which is often rather too quickly associated with authoritarianism. I suggest that both sides of this debate have however, reduced this debate to a false binary of leader versus no leader which leaves unexamined the many different models of political leadership available. Since the work of Ernesto Laclau is cited by both critics and supporters as the main theorist of left leadership I argue that both have overlooked the full significance of Laclau’s indication that an idea of an abstraction could play the role of the unifying signifier for a movement instead of a leader, which only comes into focus when read alongside his insistence that the populist leader is a first among equals. However Laclau himself makes little of this, and goes on to over-emphasise the importance of the leader for democratic political movements. Whilst his fiercest critics suggest that this is due to racist colonial Eurocentric legacies, I posit that it is instead caused by the very turn to affect and identity that much critical left thinking relies upon today. In contrast, I propose a revision of how affect, and identification operate in democratic leadership, which leads us to question Laclau’s theory of signification, and reframe his primus inter pares leader as a function rather than an identity – a pluralist leader who simply helps us strategically promote the idea or abstraction to which we are committed.
Period8 Mar 2024
Held atUniversity of Vienna, Austria
Degree of RecognitionInternational