European populism in the 21st century: The ideological background of Syriza, Podemos and the 5 Star Movement

Anno LI, n. 216, maggio-agosto 2016
Centro Einaudi
Articolo completo/Full text


This article aims at singling out the cultural foundations of left-wing populist parties and movements in the contemporary European political arena. Specifically, the focus is on Podemos, Syriza and the 5 Star Movement, three of the most successful populist parties in the EU. It is generally argued that they belong to the radical left political culture, the boundaries of which are however blurred: defining what radical left means and whether such parties belong to it is one tasks of this paper.
In addition, they have been linked to the ideas of Ernesto Laclau, the Argentinian post-marxist political theorist who elaborated on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, so as to propose an alternative to both orthodox Marxism and the New Left. The other goal of this work is to test whether any connection actually holds between their political strategy and Laclau’s works.
Laclau’s idea is that socialism should stop focusing exclusively on class struggle and the proletariat, in order to comprehend a wider set of social demands. These, in turn, will represent the claims of different segments of the population, each carrying a specific request; various claims and multiple social groups will then be united under a key concept or principle, that will serve to define the party’s identity and its enemy. Populism, in fact, must exploit – or contribute to create – an “internal antagonistic” frontier, which separates the people from ruling élites. The specific way that a “populist” movement will come to have significance will then depend on the circumstances, for populism is, in its essence, the true nature of the political: it expresses the vagueness of the political and societal reality of the moment, while at the same time taking simplification to the extreme – and simplification is the quintessence of political discourse. 
All three parties – Syriza, Podemos and the 5 Star Movement – would appear to correspond to at least some of Laclau’s ideas, independently of their intention to adhere to his doctrine or not. This is because Laclau’s theory is, in its descriptive part, very effective in singling out the features that a populist movement should possess; among these, the lack of a precise ideological content is one of the most distinctive elements of populism. This way, regardless of a party’s cultural content, it can be said to match Laclau’s doctrine insofar as it displays certain external features. 
Therefore, while all parties display some of such features, this does not necessarily imply that they were inspired by Laclau’s works. The three parties are actually quite different from one another, and the 5 Star Movement is definitely the most peculiar: some have linked its interest for direct democracy to the works of Rousseau, who is however merely used for symbolic reasons. The point remains that these parties are rather different, even though they are all populist in a “laclauian” sense. Syriza and Podemos come from a radical left-wing political culture, while the 5 Star’s alignment on the political spectrum is harder to define.