by Dani Filc
The strengthening of populist movements worldwide since the 1990s, and especially following the 2008 crisis, has been mostly explained either as the reaction to the socio-economic consequences of neoliberal globalisation, or as a “cultural backlash”. For the former, the strengthening of populism results from increasing inequalities, from the weakening of traditional class identities, and from the growing insecurity, mostly resulting from the individualisation of risk following the privatisation of welfare. For the latter, it is a reaction to the spread of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. Populism, for both approaches, is a form of resistance. Before it reaches government, populism presents itself as the opposition to the elites, and this is a central reason for its blooming. Once in government, populist movements still present themselves as resisting the powers that be, by a narrative that argues that even though the elites lost government, they are still in power (whether in the economy, the media, the juridical system, or the academy).
Resistance may be defined as a set of plural and complex practices that oppose or contradict dominant ideologies, cultural codes, structures, or power relations. So, whichever approach we agree with, we may argue that populist movements are expressions of resistance either to the economic model or to cultural changes. But are populist movements only reactive resistance to change? Are they perhaps more ambitious? Maybe it could be claimed that populist movements are counter-hegemonic, that they are not only reactive, but put forward an alternative to the neoliberal model (mainly in its liberal-democratic version) that became hegemonic since the 1980s? A first, rather obvious answer, is that as posed, this question has no single reply. Since populism is not a single phenomenon, the only way to address the question of whether populism is counter-hegemonic is through empirical analysis of each particular case. This is obviously true, but is it the whole truth? If we concede the plurality and variety of populist cases, are we still able to say anything at a more general/theoretical level about its counter-hegemonic potential?
To answer this question, we need first to define hegemony—since without doing this it is impossible to decide whether a movement or a struggle are counter-hegemonic—and then, since practices of resistance may be understood as a continuum, consider whether there are parameters that help us to distinguish, within the resistance continuum, which movements, struggles, or practices can be considered counter-hegemonic.
I propose to understand hegemony as both a state of affairs and as a political process. As a state of affairs, it is the quasi-stable situation in which a certain model of society—which includes ways of producing, distributing, and consuming, as well as ways of thinking and understanding—becomes dominant. The hegemonic project penetrates society’s system of practices, meanings, and values, producing expectations, beliefs, and an understanding of reality, up to the level of “common sense”; creating a “national-popular will”. A certain model of society becomes hegemonic when its worldview pervades all spheres of society: its institutions, its private life, its morality, its customs, its religion, and the different aspects of its culture. Second, hegemony is also the process through which this dominance is attained, i.e., the struggle for hegemony with other projects or models of society. The hegemonic state of affairs is constantly threatened by counter-hegemonic forces. The attempt to stabilise the social around a certain hegemonic project is always in jeopardy. At any time, forms of alternative or directly oppositional politics and culture exist as significant forces in society.
Hegemonic struggle implies the constitution of a collective subject that advances a certain hegemonic project, what Antonio Gramsci called a historical bloc. In order to succeed, a hegemonic project can never reflect solely the interests and views of the core dominant social groups; it must take into account, at least partially, the interests of those subordinate groups that are part of the historical bloc. The building of consent that is always part of a successful hegemonic project necessitates an ongoing process of negotiation with the different groups that form the hegemonic historical bloc (which is not limited to the core dominant groups). Thus, hegemony is never a completely top-down process; it is always open and challenged from within and from outside the hegemonic historical bloc. It also should be taken into account that the conflict over and for hegemony cannot be reduced to an economic struggle, but always includes a challenge to the current model of material production and distribution. In sum, understanding hegemony as a state of affairs highlights the institutional aspects that produce and reproduce hegemony; understanding hegemony as a process stresses agency and the role of collective subjects.
Once we have defined hegemony, the second step in the attempt to answer the question whether populism, which currently can be considered as a form of resistance, is counter-hegemonic is asking whether there any ways to distinguish, within the resistance continuum, which practices and struggles put forward hegemonic alternatives. I propose three parameters in order to discriminate between which forms of resistance are counter-hegemonic.
The first refers to the potential of the particular practices of resistance to be incorporated by the hegemonic model. Does resistance challenge core elements of the hegemonic model, or only relatively marginal ones? May those practices of resistance be contained or coopted by the hegemonic model, for example by raising wages following a trade union strike, or incorporating into the administration members of environmental movements, or not?
The second parameter involves the interaction between the symbolic and the material dimensions. Hegemony, as argued above, combines both symbolic and material dimensions, so in order to distinguish whether a movement is counter-hegemonic, we must consider whether practices of resistance take place only at the symbolic level, or also challenge somehow the production or distribution of goods and services. For example, whether resistance is against a narrative that argues that a certain group, such as immigrants, does not belong to the political community, or whether it brings to actual allocation of resources to that group, for example, allowing access to health care services for undocumented migrants. This second parameter allows us to identify three types of practices: those that are clearly anti-capitalist, challenging not only the distribution of goods and services, but also the ways in which these are produced; those that put forward claims to modify the hegemonic distribution of material resources and the symbolic patterns of recognition that sustain them, without challenging the capitalist organisation of society; and those that confine themselves to advancing alternatives to the symbolic constructions that validate the hegemonic distribution of power and resources, but do not engage in practices or put forward policies that challenge the hegemonic model at the material dimension. Practices that oppose only symbolic aspects of the social model, that challenge only ideologies or cultural codes—for example the cultural construction of certain identities as “primitive”—do not really challenge hegemony, where symbolic and material dimensions are interrelated elements of a whole. Thus, while the first two types of practices may be considered counter-hegemonic, the third one cannot.
Finally, there is the question of unifying different practices of resistance and the creation of a collective political subject. Counter-hegemony, by definition, entails putting forward an alternative hegemonic project. Thus, it requires a certain level of unification through time, the amalgamation of different actors, interests, and practices. This involves some sort of ongoing political coordination. Counter-hegemony, therefore, includes a dimension where practices of resistance become at least partially consolidated and come together. This is the level at which counter-hegemonic practices coalesce into institutions that can put forward an alternative that may become hegemonic. Moreover, as we learn from the double character of the definition of hegemony, the latter implies the constitution of a collective subject. Following Gramsci, historical blocs should be considered as the subjects of hegemony. Thus, if the collective political subject is the historical bloc, then the construction of alternatives that may eventually become hegemonic requires the political unification of the agents of the different practices of resistance into a historical bloc.
So, after considering the parameters that allow us to discriminate between which practices of resistance can be considered counter-hegemonic, let us go back to our original question. Are we able to make some generalisations about populism and counter-hegemony, or can we only provide empirical, case-related answers to that question? It seems to me that, while the empirical analysis of specific cases is unavoidable, we may be able to provide some more general comments, based on the three parameters I propose.
Considering the first parameter, we could argue that some of the claims that populist movements put forward cannot be incorporated by the liberal-democratic/neoliberal hegemonic model. According either to Cas Mudde’s broadly accepted definition of populism as a thin ideology that considers democracy primarily as the non-mediated expression of the popular will, or Takis Pappas’s or Jan-Werner Müller’s analyses of populism as the negation of liberal democracy, populist movements deeply challenge liberal democracy’s emphasis on mediated representation, checks and balances, and the distribution of power. Populists will try to implement some form of direct democracy (such as plebiscites), or to severely limit or put an end to judicial review, an anti-majoritarian and elitist form of control over the people’s will. Populist movements thus comply with the first parameter, since their claims cannot be really incorporated by liberal-democratic neoliberalism.
At first sight, it could appear that our answer to the second parameter depends on which definition of populism we adopt. If we accept Mudde’s claim that socio-economic issues are marginal to what populism really is—as he famously puts it, “It’s not the economy stupid”—then populism does not meet the requirements of the second parameter, since material redistribution is not part of populism’s core claims. On the other side, according to scholars such as Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards (from an orthodox economic perspective), populism is a program that emphasises economic growth and income redistribution in the short term without taking into account long term consequences, such as inflation or external constraints. From a heterodox economic viewpoint, Adolfo Canitrot saw populism as an alliance between labor and the industrial bourgeoisie, in order to redistribute resources towards them from the traditional exports sector, such as happened during Juan Domingo Perón’s first government, when funds coming from agricultural exports were used to support industrial imports’ substitution; or, mutatis mutandis, during Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s presidency, when agricultural exports were highly taxed and at the same time the government implemented subsidies for the poor and the unemployed. Thus, from this perspective, populism—though not anti-capitalist in most cases—has a material redistributive significant facet, and meets the second parameter.
I think, however, that we can do better than arguing that our answer to the question whether populism is counter-hegemonic depends on how we define it. The literature on populism distinguishes between two main populist “families”: inclusionary and exclusionary populism. We distinguish between both families through three dimensions: symbolic, material, and political. At the material level, inclusionary populist movements put forward claims for redistribution of resources to previously excluded social groups, modifying the hegemonic distribution of material resources; and at the symbolic level, they challenge the patterns of recognition that sustain exclusion. Thus, we could argue that inclusionary populist movements meet the requirements of the second parameter.
The third parameter concerns the constitution of a political subject. In Laclau’s later analysis, populism is characterised by the building of a ‘chain of equivalence’ between particular demands, in such a way that the political field is split in two, opposing the people as a collective subject to the powers that be. According to Laclau, when the state is unable to provide solutions to particular claims—such as wage raises, diminishing unemployment, improving public education, allowing access to health care for all—there is a possibility that those different claims connect in such a way that all the “claimers” see themselves as “the people” opposing the detached elites, unwilling or unable to answer their claims. The political consequence of successfully building a ‘chain of equivalence’ between diverse particular claims is the constitution of a collective political subject, the people. Thus, populism also meets the third parameter. However, is this political subject stable through time? While there is an approach within the literature on populism that regards it as the combination of a charismatic leader and a loose organisation, the history of populism teaches us that there are several populist movements and parties that present strong organisations and firm practices of articulating different social groups into a historical bloc. Among a large sample of such cases, we can mention examples that are very different from one another; inclusionary populist movements such as Peronism and Chavism, and exclusionary ones, such as the French Front National (now Rassemblement National) or the Italian Lega (formerly Lega Nord).
In conclusion, while empirical study of the counter-hegemonic significance of populist movements is indispensable, we are able to see from the analysis above that at least inclusionary populist movements fit the three parameters, and can be considered not only forms of resistance, but counter-hegemonic as well.
 Hans-Georg Betz, ‘Exclusionary Populism in Austria, Italy, and Switzerland’, International Journal 3 (2001), 393–420; Dani Rodrik, ‘Populism and the Economics of Globalisation’, Journal of International Business Policy 1(1) (2018), 12–33.
 Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, ‘Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-nots and Cultural Backlash’, Faculty Research Working Papers Series (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School, 2016).
 Jeffrey W. Rubin, ‘Defining Resistance: Contested Interpretations of Everyday Acts’, Studies in Law, Politics and Society 15 (1996), 237–60.
 James C. Scott, ‘Afterword to “Moral Economies, State Spaces and Categorical Violences”’, American Anthropologist 107(3) (2005), 395–402.
 Gwyn A. Williams, ‘The Concept of “Egemonia” in the Thought of Antonio Gramsci: Some Notes on Interpretation’, Journal of the History of Ideas 21(4) (1960), 586–99.
 Antonio Gramsci, The Antonio Gramsci Reader (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2000).
 William Roseberry, ‘Hegemony and the Language of Contention’, in Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent (eds.), Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 355–65.
 Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism? (London: Penguin, 2016); Takis Pappas, Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
 Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe.
 Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards, ‘Macroeconomic Populism’, Journal of Development Economics 32(2) (1990), 247–77.
 Adolfo Canitrot, ‘La Experiencia Populista de Redistribución de Ingresos’, Desarollo Económico 15(59) (1975), 331–51.
 Dani Filc, The Political Right in Israel: Different Faces of Jewish Populism (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010); Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
 Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005).