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School of Politics and International Relations

The Global Populist Challenge: Beyond Euro-Centrism

19 November 2014

Time: 5:00 - 7:00pm
Venue: David Sizer Lecture Theatre, Bancroft Building, Ground Floor Mile End Campus Queen Mary, University of London

Against the background of traditional populist mobilizations (Agrarian populism in the US, Russian Narodnichestvo and traditional Latin American populisms in the 1940s and 1950s), ‘populism’ is dynamically and unexpectedly back on the agenda in a variety of contexts: Kirchnerismo and Chavismo in Latin America, extreme right-wing parties and movements in Europe, the ‘Indignants’ in Spain and Greece, ‘Occupy Wall Street’ as well as the Tea Party movement in the US have all been branded ‘populist’. 

The diversity of these manifestations is such that most analyses of both traditional and contemporary forms of populist movements and populist discourse have largely focused on a single part of the globe in relative isolation (Latin America, the US or Europe). Hence, in recent years, within European debates, ‘populism’ is directly and often exclusively associated with the extreme right, with extremist and anti-European political forces that need to be marginalized. This view is shared by most mainstream media and dominates academic debate as well. And yet, such a restrictive association with the extreme-right seems to ignore the long historical trajectory of populist movements as well as the contemporary global picture of populist politics. 

As social scientists, we are, of course, entitled –indeed obliged– to deal with the phenomenon of the extreme right, especially given its pan-European manifestations. The question is how exactly to deal conceptually and politically with this problem; in particular, is the category of ‘populism’ the most suitable way? If, that is to say, what we are currently facing is the pan-European rise of a nationalist, xenophobic, exclusionist and, very often, violent extreme right, is the concept of ‘populism’ the proper theoretico-political instrument through which the problem should be perceived, categorized and debated? What are the implications (direct and indirect) of such a naming? And what are the risks for critical analysis and for democratic political strategy? 

In order to reflexively account for the global populist challenge we may first have to challenge dominant euro-centric approaches and reconsider our understanding of democratic political subjectivity in times of crisis. In this effort, insights emanating from the Essex School of discourse analysis can be of much help.

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