by Arthur Borriello and Anton Jäger
Few words still offer a more tantalising, but also frustratingly vague, indication of our contemporary era than “populism”. The statistics speak for themselves: from 1970 to 2010, the number of Anglophone publications containing the term rose from 300 to more than 800, creeping over a thousand in the 2010s. The semantic inflation was not only the result of a growing and emboldened nationalist radical right, however. Instead, the 2010s also saw a specifically left-wing variant of populism gain foothold on European shores. This new group of political contenders took, tacitly or explicitly, their inspiration from previous experiences in the South American continent, of which left populism had long been cast as an exclusive specimen. Where did this sudden upsurge come from?
In addition to cataclysmic crisis management, without doubt the most important thinker in this transfer was the Argentinian philosopher, Ernesto Laclau—light tower to left populists like Podemos, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and even Syriza. Before he went properly political, Laclau was already a mainstay of academic debates in the 1990s and 2000s. Laclau’s theory of populism—formulated from 1977 to 2012, spanning books such as Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (1977) to On Populist Reason (2005)—has fascinated a whole generation of scholars dissatisfied by either positivist or mainstream Marxist approaches. To them, Laclau provided a full theory of populism that stands out by its conceptual strength, internal coherence, and direct political appeal. Contrary to many other approaches, there also was intense two-way traffic between his populism theory and its activist uptake by movements, from Latin America (Chavism, Kirchnerism, etc.) to the more recent political experiments in the post-2008 Europe (Podemos, Syriza, La France insoumise, etc.). In the 2010s, this two-way traffic took off in Europe.
Laclau’s vision of populism is as short as it is appealing. In his view, ‘populism’ is not an ideology, strategy, or designated worldview. Rather, ‘populism’ is an ever-present ‘political logic’, which tends to unify unfulfilled demands based on shared opposition to a common enemy—elites, castes, classes, parasitical outsiders. Populists condense the space of the social by reducing all oppositions to an antagonistic relation between ‘the people’ and a power bloc, the latter consisting of a politically, economically, and culturally dominant group held responsible for frustrating the demands of the former. To Laclau, the unity of this ‘people’ is always constructed and a given. This construction is both discursive and negative: because there is no pre-given to the ‘people’, cohesion is necessarily achieved through condensation in the figure of a leader—one of the most controversial aspects of Laclau’s theory. Populism, in this perspective, is also bereft of any intrinsic programmatic content. Instead, it only refers to the formal way in which political demands are articulated: those demands, in turn, can be of any type, and can be voiced by extremely disparate groups. For Laclau populism can thus take many forms, ranging from the most progressive to the most reactionary one—both Hitler and Marx have their ‘populist’ moments.
Like any grand theory, however, Laclau’s theory has also become subject to two symmetric processes: either dogmatic mutation or automatic rejection. These mirror the treatment of left populism in the public sphere in general. Academics either uncritically endorse these movements as democratically redemptive, or unfairly blame them for jeopardising democratic norms. Increasingly, disciples of the Laclauian approach themselves have express their dissatisfactions vis-à-vis Laclau’s theory and the current state of the field. Save a few exceptions calling for an earnest assessment of its balance sheet, however, these critiques—both theoretical and practical—are made from perspectives external to the Laclauian theory (mainly liberalism and Marxism). From the liberal perspective, Laclau’s theory is criticised for its alleged illiberal and authoritarian/plebiscitarian political consequences. Marxists, on the other hand, tend to resist the ‘retreat from class’ that his theory implies.
Contrary to these criticisms, we propose an internal assessment. To paraphrase Chantal Mouffe’s famous quip about Carl Schmitt, we can reflect upon left populist theory both ‘with’ and ‘against’ Laclau, submitting his theory to closer scrutiny while sticking to most of its basic assumptions. Four aspects of Laclau’s theory are granted particular scrutiny: the articulation of ‘horizontality’ and ‘verticality’, a deficit of historicity, an excessive formalism and a lack of reflexivity.
The first point moves from the abstract to the concrete. For Laclau, any populist ‘people’ needs to be constructed and moulded, something that will have to be done through a central agency—here taken up by the figure of the leader. In the view of ‘horizontal’ theorists, Laclau’s theory of populism supresses the natural spontaneity of groups, disregards their organisational capacity, and always runs the risk of sliding into an autocratic path. On the descriptive side, the central role of the leader encounters many counterexamples across historical and contemporary populist experiences, from the American People’s Party, the farmers’ alliance that shook up US politics at the end of the nineteenth century, to the contemporary Yellow Vests, the recent social upsurge against Emmanuel Macron’s politics in France. On the normative side, left populism does indeed live in the perpetual shadow of a Caesarist derailing—as recently shown in the extremely autocratic management of Podemos and la France insoumise by Pablo Iglesias and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, respectively. Yet, in a context where European parties are losing members and politics is becoming more liquid and impermanent, the importance of leaders to organisations seems to be an obstacle to patient organisation-building and mass mobilisation. In this sense, they tend to encourage rather than decelerate the anti-democratic trends they purport to critique.
A second problem in Laclau’s oeuvre is its treatment of historicity. Although Laclau makes recurrent references to historical episodes, his work as a whole consistently suffers from a chronic incapacity to relate his findings to a coherent theory of historical change. The poststructuralist language he takes on leads to a relative randomisation of history, placing him at pains to explain large-scale historical changes. Without falling back on a teleological and deterministic conception of history, it is necessary to pay greater attention to the structural transformations of global capitalism and parliamentary democracy to understand our current ‘populist moment’. The history of the 2010s as the European populist decade can not be understood only through the triptych dislocation-contingency-politicisation but must be replaced within a much broader context: the declining structures of political representation across Western democracies, whose roots, in turn, must be found in the changing political economy of late capitalism.
Finally, we claim that Laclau and his disciples lack a properly performative theory of populism. Recent research carried out by Essex School scholars (the current started by Laclau) have compensated for this problem, focusing on the intellectual history of populism as a signifier, and showing the performative effects its use by scholars and politicians can have. These show anti-populist researchers and political actors tend to consolidate the coming of a populist/anti-populist cleavage as a central axis of conflict by endorsing a specific reading of contemporary politics and setting out a terrain of battle that superimposes itself on older ones, such as the left-right distinction. However, Essex School theorists remain surprisingly silent on the thin frontier between description and prescription from a Laclauian perspective, and thus on their own inevitable role in creating the reality they purport to merely describe.
Finally, Laclau’s extremely formal definition of populism can easily turn into hypergeneralism. His endorsement of a strictly formal conception of populism creates an inability to account both for the similarities and differences between the left- and right populisms. It then becomes dangerously easy to overstretch the concept ad absurdum and even to depict contemporary anti-populism—such as Macron’s—as a form of populism, simply because of the latter’s antagonistic character towards established political parties, even though this antagonism is rooted in a liberal-technocratic conception of politics. As appealing as this overstretch might look—it rightly grasps that Macron and Mélenchon, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, for instance, have ‘something’ in common—it adds to the confusion around ‘populism’ rather than providing a satisfying answer to it. It also distracts the attention from what really unites these political actors: the fact that their emergence in the French party system represents a moment of political disruption (not necessarily populist) made possible by the decline of traditional, organised party politics.
To end on a hopeful note, we propose a renewed approach to populism that builds on Laclau’s strengths while re-embedding them in a more robust analytic framework. Such a reassessment could lead to a more careful balance between a general theory of populism (based on, but not reducible to, Laclau’s political ontology) and the concrete appraisal of its empirical manifestations. We can here deploys the metaphor of an ‘ecosystem’: populism is simply one political species (amongst many) particularly adept at adapting itself to the new environmental setting of our increasingly disorganised democracy. In scientific jargon, Laclau’s ‘populism’ is a bio-indicator: a species which can reveal the quality and nature of the environment, while also depending on it. Only when we take this step back, we claim, can we see the silhouette of populism against the wider democratic canvas.
 The most prolific schools of thought, besides the Laclauian perspective (C. Mouffe, For a Left Populism, London: Verso, 2018; G. Katsambekis & A. Kioupkiolis (eds.), The Populist Radical Left in Europe, Oxon & New York: Routledge, 2019) have undoubtedly been the approaches to populism as a ‘thin-centred ideology’ (C. Mudde and C. Rovira Kaltwasser (Eds.), Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy?, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012; J-W. Müller, What is Populism?, London: Penguin Books, 2016) and as a ‘political style’ (B. Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism : Performance, Political Style and Representation, Standford : Standford University Press, 2016).
 For an early criticism of this sort, see B. Arditi, ‘Review essay: populism is hegemony is politics? On Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason’, Constellations, 17(3) (2010), 488–497 and Y. Stavrakakis, ‘Antinomies of formalism: Laclau’s theory of populism and the lessons from religious populism in Greece’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 9(3) (2004), 253–267. Recent initiatives to go beyond theoretical immobilism within the Essex school can be found, for instance, in the special issue of the Journal of Language and Politics edited by Benjamin De Cleen and al. (« Discourse Theory : Ways forward for theory development and research practice », January 2021), as well as in a 15th year anniversary symposium for On Populist Reason, edited by Lasse Thomassen, Theory & Event, vol. 23 (July 2020).
 Good examples of liberal and marxist critiques of Laclau’s theory can be found respectively in P. Rosanvallon, Le siècle du populisme. Histoire, théorie, critique, Paris : Seuil, 2020 and S. Žižek, « Against the Populist Temptation », Critical Inquiry, 32(3), Spring 2006, 551-574.
 See for instance: A. Jäger, ‘The Myth of “Populism”’, Jacobin, January 3 2018, available at https://www. jacobinmag.com/2018/01/populism-douglas-hofstadter-donald-trump-democracy; B. De Cleen, J. Glynos and A. Mondon, ‘Critical research on populism: Nine rules of engagement’, Organization, 25(5) (2018), 651; Y. Stavrakakis et al., ‘Populism, anti-populism and crisis’, Contemporary Political Theory, 17(1) (2018), 4–27; B. Moffitt, ‘The Populism/Anti-Populism Divide in Western Europe’, Democratic Theory, 5(2) (2018), 1–16; A. Mondon and J. Glynos, ‘The political logic of populist hype: The case of right-wing populism’s “meteoric rise” and its relation to the status quo’, Populismus Working Papers 4 (2016), 1–20.
Ideology and algorithms
by Ico Maly
We are all living algorithmic lives. Our lives are not just media rich, they increasingly take place in and through an algorithmically programmed media landscape. Algorithms, as a result of digitalisation and the de-computerisation of the internet, are ubiquitous today. We use them to navigate, to buy stuff, to work from home, to search for information, to read our newspaper and to chat with friends and even people we never met before. We live our social lives in post-digital societies: societies in which the digital revolution has been realised. As a result, algorithms have penetrated and changed almost every domain in those societies.
Algorithms have become a normal and to a large extent invisible part of our world. Hence they are rarely questioned. Only when big issues erupt—think about Facebook’s role in Trump’s election, the role of conspiracy theories in the raid on Capitol, or content moderation failures— do debates on the role of digital platforms and their algorithms become prominent. Otherwise, they just seem to be “there”, just as the old media is part of our lives. As Barthes eloquently argued, normality is always a field of power. Normality and normativity, he argued, are not neutral or non-ideological. On the contrary, they are hegemonic. Other ideologies and normativities are measured against this ideological point zero. We could expand his logic and argue that digital platforms, their algorithms, and the ideologies that are embedded in them are part of the invisible and self-evident systemic core organising daily life. Just because we fail to recognize those algorithms and platforms as ideologically grounded, it is necessary to examine and study the impact of this algorithmic revolution in general, and its impact on politics—and the production and distribution of ideology—in particular.
Ideology and the algorithmic logic of post-digital societies
Digitalisation and algorithmic culture have rapidly reshuffled the media system and the information flows and interactions within that system. Politicians, activists, journalists, intellectuals and common citizens politically engage in a very different context than in the 1990s, let alone the 1950s. We now live with an algorithmically-powered attention-based hybrid media system. The different types of media—newspapers, television, radio, and social media platforms—do not merely coexist, but form a media system that is constantly changing. That perpetual change is, according to Chadwick, the result of the reciprocal actions and interactions between those different media and their media logics. In that new media system, the distinction between “old” and “new” media or digital and non-digital media has almost become non-existent. Tweets become news and the newspaper tweets. Moreover, the newspaper is also more and more algorithmically produced.
All media in this hybrid media system are increasingly grounded in an algorithmic logic. Our interactions with algorithms determine which information becomes visible to whom and on which scale. Algorithms, datafication, and the affordances of digital media that allowed for the democratisation of transmission and the banalisation of recording disrupt the status quo. We cannot understand the rise of Trump and Trumpism, or the rise of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Squad without taking this new media environment into account. While we should carefully avoid the trap of technological determinism, we cannot disregard the importance of including this new socio-technological context in our analysis of ideology and political discourse in contemporary societies. Post-digital societies create new possibilities and constraints for the production and circulation of discourse. New producers and new relationships have been established between the different actors in this media system and they have had fundamental effects on the construction and circulation of (meta-)political messages and meanings.
In the last two decades, the digital infrastructure has become an inherent part of the social fabric of society. It is one of the deep, generic drivers of concrete human behaviour in hypermediated societies. Without attention to this social structure, one risks the fallacy of internalism, as J.B. Thompson called it. With this concept, Thompson pointed to the widespread idea that the meaning of a text is only to be found in the text itself (and thus not in the attribution of meaning through the uptake and reproduction of texts). He stressed that ‘the analysis of ideology in modern societies must give a central role to the nature and impact of mass communication’, and argued that cultural experience is profoundly shaped by the diffusion of symbolic forms distributed through mass media. As a result, the study of ideology should—if one wants to avoid the fallacy of internalism—be focused on all three aspects of mass communication: ‘the production/transmission, construction, and reception/appropriation of media messages’. If we follow Thompson’s argument, we should at least direct some attention to the algorithmic nature of the distribution of discourse and ideology in contemporary societies.
Algorithmic culture and the attention-based media system
It is important to note here that algorithms are much more than mere technological instruments. They are socio-technical assemblages. Algorithms only work if they are fed with data. In other words, algorithms should be understood from a relational perspective. Not only do programmers (their values and their companies’ goals) matter, but also the interfaces, the data structures, and what people do with algorithms deserve our attention. The idea—so prevalent in public debate—that algorithms just do things and that users do not have impact is false. The recommended videos on YouTube are the result of the interactions between the recommendation algorithms of YouTube, viewers, and how producers prepare their content for uptake. Algorithmic culture matters. People will try to optimise their content, link to each other, have a network of fans which they ask to share content, or even have bots to push certain content.
Algorithms and people have agency. It is in the interaction between humans and algorithms that the contemporary production and circulation of ideology should be understood. When we take the assumption on board that algorithms have agency, then it is important to understand the socio-technical but also the economic context in which they are created. The objectives of the platforms are clear. Beneath all the fine talk of big tech boasting about ‘connecting the world’ and ‘doing no evil’ lies the quest for profit. Social platforms make profit by commodifying our digitally networked social relationships: our emotions, photos, posts, shares and likes are repackaged into ‘tradable commodities’. Or more concretely, data is used to predict the likelihood that certain audiences will be receptive or give attention to certain messages from companies or politicians. The more data those companies have about their users, the more accurately they think that sellers can target them and the more profit big tech can extract from that behavioural data. The result is an unbridled surveillance and datafication. Even if users don’t post or like and don’t leave comments, they still produce data that can be processed and traded.
In order to gather more data on their users, digital media platforms nurture a specific culture in which audience labour takes a central place. We have all become prosumers: we do not only consume information, we also produce it. This has crucial consequences: information—including good quality information—is now abundant. It is no longer a scarce commodity. A wealth of information creates a lack of attention. We have ended up in the opposite of an information economy: an attention economy. In order to convert that attention into profit, attention is codified and categorised. The like, the comment, the view, the click, the share function as proxies of attention. The digital infrastructures of the attention economy are not only organised to keep the users hooked, they facilitate audience labour and thus data production.
This commercial algorithmically-programmed attention economy creates a very specific environment in which we develop our social relationships. “Popularity” has become a crucial factor. The more followers you have, the more likes your posts generate, the more you contribute to the goals of the platform, the more valuable you are for the platforms, and the more visible you and your discourse becomes. As a result, people increasingly present themselves as public personas in search for an audience. In order to capture the attention of platform users, we see that branding strategies have been democratised. People create their brand in relation to the so-called vanity metrics: they monitor the likes, followers and uptake and use it to gain insight in what works, when, and why. Or in other words, they try to acquire and apply algorithmic knowledge to produce attention-grabbing content. The influencer or micro-celebrity is a structural ingredient of this new media environment: they help platforms in realising their goals. These new human practices are best seen as result of their interaction with the algorithms and values of that platform.
The management of visibility and ideology research
The algorithmic logic of this attention-based media environment forces us to understand the importance of algorithmic knowledge in the dissemination of ideologies on the rise. Not only the management of visibility, but also avoiding non-visibility as Bucher stresses is a constant worry for all actors in this media system and is thus of crucial importance for all ideological projects. In line with Thompson, Blommaert argued that ideologies need to ‘be understood as processes that require material reality and institutional structures and practices of power and authority’. Ideologies are thus not just a cognitive phenomenon, they have a material reality. Hence, they cannot be understood without looking at how people spread those ideas, who they address, which media they use, and how those media format the discourses. Studying ideologies in the contemporary era means not only looking at the input, but also at the uptake. Uptake here refers to
(1) the fact that within the digital ecology users are not only consumers but also (re)producers of discourse, so-called prosumers; and
(2) that algorithms and the interfaces of digital media play an important role in the dissemination and reproduction of ideas.
Uptake realises visibility. Human and non-human actors (from bots over the algorithms organising the communication on a platform) are a crucial part of any ideological and political battle. Note here that seemingly simple ‘reproduction’ actions like retweeting, reposting, liking, and sharing are not just ‘copies’ of the same discourse, but ‘re-entextualisations’: a share (and sometimes even a like depending on the algorithms of the platform) is the start of a new communication process where the initial message is now part of a new communicative act performed by a new producer who communicates to new addressees in a new type of interaction. It is also a meaningful act seen from the perspective of the algorithm: a share and a comment adds to the ‘popularity’ of the post and thus can also contribute to its visibility far beyond the audiences of the people who have shared it. Digital media are thus not just intermediaries, they affect the input and the uptake.
Messaging in the digital age is thus not a linear process between sender and receiver, but involves a multitude of human and non-human actors that are all potential senders and receivers and even co-constructs the message. This ‘uptake’ is as crucial as the input and this again highlights why it is important that ideological and discourse-analytical research not only focusses on the content, but also on the different actors and the systems of communication.
Myths, ideology, and the far-right
We can illustrate the importance of the new communicative environment when we zoom in on the emergence of the far-right in the last decades. Although it is certainly not the only factor, the algorithmic hybrid media system is unmistakably an important ingredient in this rise. It has reshaped and re-organised the far-right. The far-right has always used digital media to propagate their ideologies, but in the last decades, we see a fundamental change in the form, content and strategies that are being used today. The far right’s adoption of meme-culture, LARPing (the ironic and metapolitical use of Live Action Role Playing in order to do or say things that are too outrageous for “normies”), digital harassment, trolling, conspiracy theories, and the adoption of influencer culture for metapolitical goals are all relatively new practices that have contributed not only to the spread of their ideologies, but also to recreation, re-emergence, and the mobilisation power of the so-called true right on a global scale.
In post-digital societies, the far-right rarely manifests itself as a hierarchical organisation with one stable ideology or a mass party. More commonly it takes the form of a polycentric and layered network of niched ideological groups. Maly and Varis coined the term micro-populations to describe such social groups. They argued that micro-populations are the material expression of temporary and emerging micro-hegemonies. The Capitol riots in the US are a clear example of how all those digital practices have shaped a wide range of such micro-populations that were moulded into a militant offline mass on 6 January 2021. An analysis of the linguistic signs on display during the storming of Capitol shows us how Trump-supporters are a loose, unstable, and temporal coalition of micro-populations. Next to the red and camouflage MAGA caps and Trump hats, one could spot Confederate flags, QAnon t-shirts, Kek and “three-percenter” flags, Neo-Nazi hoodies, ‘stop the steal’ boards, and of course the Proud Boys themselves.
All these signs and emblems refer to different groups who occupy different (4chan, thedonald.win) or sometimes overlapping online spaces (GAB, Parler, MeWe). Trump—with his massive reach in the hybrid media system—was potentially most important, but he was clearly not the only communicator. Key influencers like Nick Fuentes, Dan Bongino, and Gavin McInnes all collaborated in the production and distribution of discourse. In many cases, we see a complex, layered and ‘democratic’ network of influencers that co-constructs a (micro)-ideology. If we zoom in on QAnon, then we see that even that niche is a decentralised and polycentric pyramid-like conspiracy theory that is constantly being produced and reproduced in different niches by different producers. Mom-influencers, yoga communities, 4channers, and MAGA-activists all prosume the theory and make it ready for uptake in their niches using different angles and discourse strategies.
Trying to understand 6 January means understanding how many of those micro-populations merge to become a mass. One key element is understanding that since Election Day, influencers and prosumers in all those different niches started adopting some version of the conspiracy theory that claims that this election was stolen. This particular type of coalition is grounded in a network of social media sites and of course in the digital campaign of Trump itself. These groups were born within mainstream platforms like Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, and Facebook before some had to move to more fringe platforms like Gab, Parler, and thedonald.win after being deplatformed. In the months before the riot, all those niched groups used digital media to construct their own normalities, their partisan views of the world. In that world, the election was stolen by the left, the liberals, or the deep state. The enemy was accused of manipulating the voting machines, stealing or throwing away ballots, or organising fraud with mail-in and absentee ballots. The seeds for this myth were planted by Trump in the even before his election in 2016—but of course they resonated with discourses on the deep state that were already popular in many of those niches—and were carefully constructed by many of his performances during and after the elections. Trump’s electoral loss was read as the deep state taking over control again. It created a sense of urgency and opposition to the democratic institutions of the US.
We can best understand those conspiracy theories as contemporary and vulgar variants of the Sorelian myth. The Frenchman George Sorel was a prominent and influential anti-elitist and anti-democratic philosopher within revolutionary syndicalism that had a prominent impact on fascism. Myth was central to Sorel’s thinking about revolution and the overthrow of the bourgeois order. He saw myths as “groups of ideas” or knowledge-constructs that can direct reality, people, and movements. Those ideas didn’t need to be rational or true. What was important according to Sorel was that they had affective power. For him, myths had a social function. He saw them as means to mobilise people.
If we look at the role of conspiracy theories from the perspective of this Sorelian concept of myth, we see how they function as a site of ideology:
All those political conspiracy theories create a world in which the liberal elites are destroying traditional societies, enable multiculturalism, feminism, and the destruction of Western culture. That is why debunking the myths doesn’t work. It didn’t matter that Pizzagate was debunked; the general idea—that the liberals are morally rotten—was still seen as true. Important to note again is that those myths are not only cognitive-ideational phenomena, they are grounded in a material reality which is as important as the affective qualities of those myths in the mobilisation of people.
Ideology and algorithmic politics
If we understand ideologies as ideas that penetrate the whole fabric of communities and result in normalised, naturalised patterns of thought and behaviour, then we should realise how important the role of algorithms is in the construction of that normality. The reach of these groups cannot be solely explained by the discourse they produce; all of those influencers and groups deploy ‘algorithmic knowledge’ to spread their discourse and to construct a community around their profiles. Even more, their discourse on ‘censorship’ from the mass media and mainstream digital media platforms helps them to spread digital knowledge. Far-right influencers constantly stress the importance of getting the news out by sharing and liking. This produces fertile ground to grow a supportive culture. The other side of the coin is that the interaction with the personalisation algorithms contributes to the construction of the niched groups circling around specific influencers and pages, whereas the recommendation algorithms help to build a network of different micro-populations.
If we want to analyse ‘political ideologies’, we must not only focus on the content or the large ‘isms’, but also on the form, the communication economy, and the uptake. We need to understand how politicians and activists adapt to this new communicative economy and understand how they use it for their political struggle. What is clear by now is that this new communicative economy creates a polycentric world of communication. Such a world is far more complex than a world dominated by the so-called “mass media”. It thus creates an enormous challenge for scholars of ideology, because we will need to update our toolkit. The good news is that it may help us to develop more fine-grained analysis that takes into account the full context, including the socio-technical context.
 Taina Bucher, If… Then: Algorithmic power and politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
 Florian Cramer, ‘What Is “Post-digital”?’, in David M. Berry and Michael Dieter (eds.), Postdigital Aesthetics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
 Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Hill and Wang, 1957).
 Jan Blommaert, Discourse: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 160.
 Andrew Chadwick, The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); John B. Thompson, ‘Mediated Interaction in the Digital Age’, Theory, Culture & Society 37(1) (2020), 3–28; Tommaso Venturini, ‘From fake to junk news: The data politics of online virality’, in Didier Bigo, Engin Isin, and Evelyn Ruppert (eds.), Data Politics. Worlds, Subjects, Rights (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019).
 Bucher, If… Then.
 Tarleton Gillespie, ‘The relevance of algorithms’, in Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo Boczkowski, and Kristen Foot (eds.), Media Technologies (Cambidge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).
 Ico Maly, ‘The global New Right and the Flemish identitarian movement Schild & Vrienden: a case study’, Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies no. 220 (2018); Ico Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics and the Algorithmic Activism of Schild & Vrienden’, Social Media + Society (2019); Ico Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers: The Case of Brittany Pettibone’, Social Science (2020), 9(7); Ico Maly, ‘Algorithmic populism and the datafication and gamification of the people by Flemish Interest in Belgium’, Trabalhos em Linguística Aplicada 59(1) (2020) .
 Jan Blommaert, ‘Political discourse in post-digital societies’, Trabalhos em Linguística Aplicada 59(1) (2020).
 John B. Thompson, Ideology and modern culture: Critical social theory in the era of mass communication (Cambridge: Polity, 1990).
 Ibid., 264.
 Ibid., 24.
 Shoshana Zuboff, The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power (New York, NY: Profile Books, 2019).
 Venturini, ‘From fake to junk news’, 130.
 Vincent Miller, Understanding digital culture (London: SAGE, 2011).
 José Van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity: A critical history of social media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
 Nir Eyal, Hooked: How to build habit-forming products (London: Penguin, 2014).
 Van Dijck, Culture of Connectivity.
 Alice Marwick, ‘You May Know Me from YouTube: (Micro)-Celebrity in Social Media’, in P. David Marshall and Sean Redmond (eds.), A Companion to Celebrity (Hoboken, NY: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2015).
 Richard Rogers, ‘Digital Traces in Context| Otherwise Engaged: Social Media from Vanity Metrics to Critical Analytics’, International Journal of Communication 12 (2018).
 Bucher, If… Then; Maly, ‘The global New Right’; Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’.
 Bucher, If… Then.
 Blommaert, Discourse, 163
 Blommaert, ‘Political discourse’; Maly, ‘The global New Right’; Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’; Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers’; Maly, ‘Algorithmic populism’.
 Blommaert, ‘Political discourse’; Piia Varis and Jan Blommaert, ‘Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures’, Multilingual Margins 2(1), 31–45.
 Thomas Poell and José Van Dijck, ‘Social Media and Journalistic Independence’, in James Bennett and Niki Strange (eds.), Media independence: working with freedom or working for free? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), 182–201.
 Maly, 2018.
 Maly, 2018, Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’; Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers’; Maly, ‘Algorithmic populism’.
 Ariel Winter, ‘Online hate: From the far right to the ‘Alt-Right’, and from the margins to the mainstream’, in Karen Lumsden and Emily Harmer (eds.), Online Othering: Exploring Violence and Discrimination on the Web (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2019).
 Lisa Bogaerts and Maik Fielitz, ‘Do you want meme war? Understanding the visual memes of the German Far Right’, in Maik Fielitz and Nick Thurston (eds.), Post-Digital Cultures of the Far Right: Online Actions and Offline Consequences in Europe and the US (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2019); Daniele Conversi, ‘Irresponsible radicalisation: Diasporas, globalisation, and Long-distance nationalism in the Digital age’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 38 (2012), 1357–79; Edwin Hodge and Helga Hallgrimsdottir, ‘Networks of Hate: The Alt- right, “Troll Culture”, and the Cultural Geography of Social Movement Spaces Online’, Journal of Borderlands Studies (2019), 1–8; Rebecca Lewis, Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube, Data & Society (2018); Ico Maly, ‘Populism as a mediatized communicative relation: The birth of algorithmic populism’, Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies no. 213 (2018); Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’; Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers’; Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (Washington, DC: Zero Books, 2017); Marc Tuters, ‘LARPing and Liberal tears: Irony, Belief, and Idiocy in the deep vernacular web’, in Maik Fielitz and Nick Thurston (eds.), Post-Digital Cultures of the Far Right: Online Actions and Offline Consequences in Europe and the US (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2019).
 Blommaert, ‘Political discourse’; Maly, ‘Populism as a mediatized communicative relation’; Maly, ‘The global New Right’.
 Ico Maly and Piia Varis, ‘The 21st-century hipster: On micro-populations in times of superdiversity’, European Journal of Cultural Studies 19(6) (2015), 637–53.
 Blommaert, ‘Political discourse’.
 Ico Maly, ‘The Army for Trump and Trump’s war against Sleepy Joe’, Diggit Magazine (2020), https://www.diggitmagazine.com/articles/trump-war-sleepy-joe.
 Georges Sorel, Reflections on violence (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 2004).
 Blommaert, Discourse, 159.
 Maly, ‘The global New Right’; Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’; Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers’; Maly, ‘Algorithmic populism’.
The quarter-century renaissance of ideology studies: An interview with Michael Freeden
by Marius S. Ostrowski
Marius Ostrowski: Perhaps to start with a retrospective view, and a simple question. What first prompted the idea to found the Journal of Political Ideologies?
Michael Freeden: The main reason was the pronounced gap within the field of political theory between political philosophy and the history of political thought and the absence of a journal that could fill some of that gap. More importantly, one that could stimulate researchers to turn their minds, efforts and creativity towards a highly promising, patently relevant, rich, and astoundingly underexplored area of the political thinking that is happening around us, day by day, country by country, emanating from every section of society. Given that the interrogation of political actions and practices is so central to political studies, it seemed remarkable that so little research effort had been devoted to exploring the political thought-practices produced by, and circulating in, societies, beyond rudimentary left-right distinctions and historical accounts.
Despite the growing interest in the study of ideologies, there was no dedicated outlet that could distinguish itself by specialising not in the normative improvement of political arguments or the pursuit of ethical truths, and not in the narratives—however disrupted—about the changing nature of political thought, but in the actual patterns of thinking about politics prevalent in societies and communities. That important genre for anyone interested in how people in concert conceptualise, defend, criticise, or change their political arrangements simply had far too little purchase as a focus of political studies and university courses.
The secondary reason—important to me—was that I felt that I would enjoy the experience of being an editor and ushering a new venture, and sub-field, into greater academic prominence. It was a challenge that emerged directly from my immersion in preparing my 1996 book, Ideologies and Political Theory, and from the questions and interest displayed by the many students who took my courses and seminars on ideology over the years. To my mind, the JPI was not just another journal but had the potential to serve as pioneer in an important and somewhat underrepresented and underpopulated area. My father had been a journalist and newspaper editor and as a child I had often watched him prepare an issue—so the craft of assembling, selecting and bringing together material, and getting the balance right, was familiar to me. Of course, the practice was rather less romantic than I had imagined, but nonetheless very rewarding—give or take the Sisyphean search for assessors to evaluate submissions.
MO: How would you characterise what has happened to ideology studies since the JPI started—not least in terms of the journal's content? What have been the most significant areas of scholarly innovation and growth?
MF: There was indeed an astounding and gratifying change. In the first few years, hardly any submission latched on to the distinction between straightforward political theory as an advocacy endeavour and ideology studies as the interpretation and contextualisation of such arguments and views, whether those were intentional or not. In an extreme case, one author submitted, without comment, twenty letters he had sent to Brezhnev and Reagan, except that (unsurprisingly) there were no replies. But then the sophistication and range of articles started to increase exponentially, as the academic public began to realise what the deep analysis of ideologies entailed. The geographical range of the JPI began to expand; related schools of thought, such as the Essex school of discourse studies, or critical discourse analysts, saw the JPI as a kindred spirit (although occasionally just as an outlet for their own agenda!); the intellectual scope of ideology studies increased throughout its pages; and the concrete concerns and flavours of the year reflected shifting emphases within this or that ideological family or grouping.
The JPI welcomed that diversity, but also tried, in a very modest way, to persuade some practitioners of these genres to think about the differences as well as the similarities between their interpretations of the role of ideology theory and ours. Crucially important, we believed, was to build methodological bridges, or at least start a conversation, in order to relax some of the fixed assumptions that siloed the various sub-disciplinary approaches and aims and resulted in their talking past one another. Not least, we always appealed to contributors to eschew the 'semi-private' 'in-language' of some genres and to write in a way that could be understood and appreciated by all JPI readers. Although too many academics—and that includes university administrators—may think that the point of a journal is to add to one's tally of research publications as a means to career advancement, the dignified rationale of a journal is to speak to a broad readership and convince them that new and exciting ideas are worth considering.
We also strove to reflect the political and cultural issues that preoccupied the world around us in the shape of specific ideological families or segments as they emerged, persisted, or declined. Environmentalism, globalism, feminism, anarchism/post-anarchism, and political Islam appeared alongside the stalwarts of liberalism, conservatism, socialism, nationalism, and fascism. Neoliberalism, the alt-right, and of course the now ubiquitous populism—highly pertinent to contemporary politics, although experiencing a nigh-uncontainable surge in current academic fashion—have been more recent players on the JPI stage.
In sum, the recognition of ideological fragmentation, of how some of the weightiest and most intriguing features of ideologies mutate and adapt, and of the location of ideological expression in hitherto unexplored areas of social thinking, have all brought about a recalibration of the field. Significantly, too, the geographical range of contributions to the JPI has grown considerably—it is no longer a Eurocentric journal as it was at its inception. Moreover, we have always encouraged younger scholars and those at the beginning of their academic career. A journal not set in its ways, not simply replicating the historical conventions of its subject-matter, offers a fresh outlet for new thinking and imaginative research.
MO: It strikes me that the study of ideology or ideologies is on the cusp of moving from being a thematic focus within several separate subfields to evolving into a discrete subfield in its own right. Would you agree? And if so, what is the current 'lay of the land' of the main traditions of ideology theory?
MF: That is an acute observation. But the intertwined nature of many disciplines and sub-disciplines suggests that one can recombine fields of scholarship in multiple ways. By juggling with Venn diagrams, different disciplines and subdisciplines can rank similar material differently according to their criteria of what matters most, or which of many paths through a body of knowledge and understanding reaps the most insight for diverse scholars. The same texts and practices can be read in very distinct ways. An example I have given in the past is to draw attention to a triple reading of John Rawls as a moral philosopher, an exponent of a curious and rather idiosyncratic variant of contemporary North American liberal ideology, or a very indifferent—perhaps abstruse—stylist and communicator. That said, ideology scholars are now confident enough to place their specialisation at centre-stage, or at least as co-equal, with other branches of political theory. They can rightly claim, for instance, that when we access political thinking—in whatever shape—it is immediately, first and foremost, decodable as an ideological statement or manifestation.
As for the traditions of ideology theory, while some reinforce one another, others inhabit separate circles. Our view of ideology theory has consequently been heterodox, pluralistic, and layered. I turn to a passage from a JPI editorial I wrote a few years back: Ideology as fantasmatic veil-drawing, ideology as the articulation of social identities, ideology as distorted belief, ideology through the lens of discourse analysis, ideology as conceptual morphology, ideology as rhetorical language, ideology as aggregated attitudes, the visual representations of ideology, ideology as anchored in emotions, ideology as party programmes, ideologies as bifurcated or multiple psychological tendencies, ideology as performativity, ideology as ritual, ideology as consensus formation, ideology as the management or mismanagement of agonism and dissent, ideology as rupture—all these, and more, have been given a fair platform in the JPI and most of them are accumulating an impressive body of knowledge.
But it still remains a challenge to draw cross-cutting links among some of them. There is also a notable decline in regarding the state as a source of ideology and a shift to non-institutional foci of ideological debate. The one problem amongst that embarras de richesse is the legacy of unease and negativity that has accumulated around the concept of ideology in certain swathes of Continentally-inspired approaches, to which I refer in response to your final question.
MO: One of the most intriguing developments seems to be the explosive rise of 'thin' ideologies (e.g., populism, nationalism, Euroscepticism, etc.), which compete for ever more central positions within their 'thick' host ideologies (e.g., conservatism, liberalism, socialism), to use your distinction from Ideologies and Political Theory. At times, the thin ideologies now seem to threaten to entirely devour the thick ones from the inside. What do you think lies behind this phenomenon? Is it merely the latest form of decontestation in action?
MF: There has been a massive change in the culture surrounding the production and the reception of ideologies. The conventional ideologies were durable and complex systems of ideas and arguments that required education and intellectual sophistication to understand and appreciate them, even in simplified form, particularly those on the liberal, socialist, or radical side of the ideational spectrum. They were interwoven with philosophical texts and traditions, supported, bolstered by, and embedded in political institutions, and linked to defining events and transitions in human history: foundational moments, revolutions, power shifts among social groups, wars, ideals of social reform.
The grand ideas of human association have diminished since the Second World War and, later, since the fall of communism, and they lack new bedrocks, motivation or rationale. People talk of globalisation, but in the world of political ideas there is little evidence for that—bitty and disjointed scraps are circulated by economic conglomerates and would-be petty Napoleons. And the players and cultures on our planet are far more visible and vocal than in the past, an uncoordinated diversity that multiplies and jumbles messages that come and go at great speed and cannot put down ideologically sustainable roots.
The populisms of today are not ideologies in any meaningful sense; they are not movements, either. Communities don’t march under banners proclaiming, or hoping for, them—the proselytising, inspiring or at least conserving levelheadedness of the old ideologies is entirely absent here. Serious tomes may be written against them, but few aiming at recruiting public opinion for them. Even ideologies such as fascism and Nazism were peddlers of social visions, albeit loathsome ones. And the various neoliberalisms are catch-all repositories for distinct economic, neo-colonial, or just trite conservative positions.
The steam seems to have run out of earnest political thinking that can distil the 'spirit of an age' or oppose it intelligently. Even where positive social ideals make headway. such as environmentalism and the perils of climate change, or 'black lives matter', their dissemination is irregular, competing for cyberspace, too decentralised to have cohesive momentum, too sporadic to constitute a body of ideas and, so far, too indeterminate outside their specialised objectives to offer comprehensive social agenda with actual mass appeal, rather than dream of it. The written word—the means of ideological dissemination—has given way to film, pictures, bland repetition ('enemies of the people'), or banally channelling the energy of catastrophes.
More than anything, ideological segments—that is to say, elements that would normally have been lodged in broader frameworks—are popularised and vernacularised, ostensibly easy to understand and reproduce. They possess a superficial resemblance to the propaganda machinery and memes of the 20th century, but whereas those were top-down and regime-led, they now originate from anywhere and are circulated with consummate ease and carelessness. Above all, we now know that they no longer need to be articulated or even consciously developed. Ideologies, and their lesser manifestations, may be unintentionally produced and consumed, which makes them difficult to counteract.
MO: You suggest that what makes ideologies political is, among other things, their capacity to mobilise support, form collective priorities, and project plans and visions for society. In the context of growing social complexity and the proliferation of newly-salient identities, is that task becoming harder? Are the criteria of success for political ideologies becoming increasingly demanding?
MF: Unfortunately, the reverse is true. Given the transformation in the languages and presentation of ideologies discussed above, it is relatively easy to launch and muster support for clarion calls to mobilise, to adopt quarter-baked segments of what at other times would have been incorporated into properly worked-out ideologies. Ideologies are necessarily simplifiers, but the technological and stylistic changes relating to social media, digital platforms, and demands for immediate comments and responses have produced parallel ideological worlds: slow cooking versus fast food.
On the one hand, you have the older, argumentative, far-reaching, detailed and often sophisticated competing maps of the political world that engage in interpretation, prescription, and criticism of forms of common life. On the other, we are increasingly witness to the impatient, from-the-hip, cavalier, and opinionated snatches of private opinion dressed up as vox populi that either are highly fragmented or depressingly shallow. To complicate matters further, some of those—right-wing populism is one instance—take on the semblance of spectral ideolonoids that offer a pat 'comprehensiveness' that turns out to be posturing, even hollow. When you poke them, they evaporate into smoke without mirrors. That said, they all are grist to the mill of the student of ideologies.
But then we have to ask ourselves: what are the criteria of ideological success? Not necessarily guiding us to a political promised land, defeating ideological rivals, or making us better citizens. The success of an ideology should be ascertained through different standards of evaluation, based on what ideologies are designed to accomplish: the mobilisation of support; effective communication to their prospective audiences; the display of imaginative and feasible plans for political action; the intelligible mapping of the ways and means to fashion or interpret the conscious and unconscious political practices and thought-practices of the societies and grouping with which they engage.
It is not so much the criteria that become more demanding, but rather the onus on the ideology scholar to scan the field, know how and where to extract relevant evidence and information, and acquaint her- or himself with the increasing nuances of interpretation and decoding. The questions we should ask ourselves are, have we extracted as much as we can out of a particular, given nugget of information; do we know how to find and identify it when it hits us in the face; and what do we need to do to transform that process into knowledge—into Weberian Verstehen or Ricœurian surplus of meaning. All that should lay to rest the facile characterisation of ideology studies as descriptive, when even at the best of times we can never adequately describe anything without passing it through the filter of interpretation.
MO: One of the recurring themes in your work is the contrast between neat and untidy political thinking, as well as the failure of academic political theory to adequately take the latter into account. At the same time, we are living through a time where denialism, conspiracism, 'fake news', and 'alternative facts' play a prominent role in political argument. What can be done to square that circle? Can a 'political theory of political thinking' as you describe it bridge the gulf between the accepted standards of political reasoning, in the academy versus among the public?
MF: A major role of ideology studies is to examine and analyse the normal expressions of action-oriented political thinking at every level of articulation. Here political theory falls in line with the empirical bent of other genres of political science. Studying ideologies, as the JPI understands it, differs from its subject-matter, and from much political philosophy, in not being an advocacy-led practice but one that satisfies our curiosity about societies—even if that satiated curiosity is always provisional, awaiting contrary interpretation. This makes that perspective very different from the position adopted by many political philosophers, for the latter do not distinguish between the arguments and approaches they scrutinise in their subject matter and the methods they themselves employ as scholars—regarding the two as part of a seamless enterprise. Yet inasmuch as human beings are not automatons, ethical perfectionists, or logic machines, they think in disorganised, disjointed and often messy ways.
That is the scholarly challenge of ideology scholars: to make sense of and interpret the commonplace as well as the exceptional, the incomplete as well as the polished, the mistaken as well as the reasonable. If we are to have a finger on the pulse of what makes societies tick, if we want to take ideologies seriously, we need to craft theories and approaches that do normal political thinking adequate justice, that account for the reasons and forms of diverse conceptual decontestation, deliberate and unconscious, that link together and separate different cultural environments. That does not mean bridging a gap: If the ‘general public’ wishes to read studies on ideology they are of course warmly invited to do so, but ideology studies are not deliberately educational in the sense of making us all better reasoners. The hard sciences and philosophy are geared to that, but the kind of ideology studies reflected in the JPI are not on a mission to improve but on a mission—if that is the mot juste—to understand as best we can and to offer that understanding to other branches of knowledge if they wish to avail themselves of it.
The most worrying thing about failing to reflect the new world of ideology is the lamentably lagging state of undergraduate ideology courses in so many universities. Far too many still follow the tired old classifications and assumptions about ideology that should have been abandoned 20 years ago. The damage is substantial, for while innovative courses in other branches of political theory have admirably marched on with the times, the topic of ideology is made to seem unsophisticated, as if it had stood still. The allure of this field of political theory is thus unjustifiably and negligently made to pale against its lively partners, based on a lack of curiosity about what's happening in the neighbouring garden. The responsibility lies squarely with those political theorists and political scientists who, sadly for all concerned, do not want to educate themselves—and others—in getting to know the changing terrain and the budding plants. If they did, a far more productive conversation of equals would benefit all sides and enrich all facets of theorising about political thought.
I'm afraid that fake news and alternative facts are part of the raw material that scholars of ideology need to confront. At best, ideologies aren't 'true'—I leave the ascertaining of truth to philosophers—but networks of established facts and conventions of understanding interspersed and stapled together with conjecture, speculation, and wishful thinking. Denialism and fabrication offer their own fascinating windows into the ideologies of their disseminators. Even falsehoods are worth studying because their patterns of deceit are themselves revealing of ways of ideological thinking. As responsible citizens we may well be disturbed and depressed by them. But as ideology scholars our job is to explain why this, rather than that, deceit or deliberate misinterpretation prevails? What patterns of 'fake news' work well in which societies and what patterns fail?
MO: Finally, the concept of ideology and ideological thinking still tends to be given a pretty bad rap in common parlance. (Marx, it seems, is casting a long shadow in this respect too.) What do you think needs to be done to turn this around?
MF: The Press has been the worst culprit in this, with endless callings out of plans or ideas as pejoratively 'ideological', including newspapers, such as the Guardian, that should know better than to fall into that rhetorical and often propagandist trap. In my 2003 book, Ideology: A Very Short Introduction I recount the story of a gentleman who took umbrage at a talk I had given and confronted me in affronted tones: 'Are you suggesting, Sir, that I have an ideology?' 'I very much hope you do!,' was my response. As sentient members of society, how could anyone not?
Sadly, you sometimes get equally ignorant, or haughty, responses from within the academic profession. An Oxford philosophy colleague said to me many years ago: 'Those who work on inferior thinking can only produce inferior work'. That writes off many eminent historians, as well as raising questions about the criteria of 'superior' thinking in the realm of politics. What gets a bad reputation are only certain senses of 'ideology', but the fact is that they have frequently colonised the entire field of meaning the word covers. Put differently, the rhetorical, combative, obfuscating, and colloquial senses of ideology—as so often is the case in political language—have overshadowed its more nuanced and analytically perspicacious interpretations, even among political theorists.
All that is hardly improved by poststructuralists and post-Marxists assuming that ideologies always are the product of, and reflect, conflict and antagonism, sidestepping the many ideological features that are based on identifying and building overlapping areas of broad agreement or, for that matter, a vague indeterminacy. Nor is it helped by those who subscribe to the kind of critical theory--Ideologiekritik—for whom ideologies are invariably dissimulative distortions of a so-called reality, or just blatant and manipulative lies. Of course, those variants do exist, but that is not typical ideological thinking. To suggest they are does the entire field a great disservice. If I may be so bold, what might turn this around is the flourishing and persistence of vehicles such as the Journal of Political Ideologies.