ArticlePDF Available

Populism, political organization, and the paradox of popular agency

DOI: 10.1111/1467-8675.12594
Populism, political organization, and the paradox
of popular agency
Michael Gorup
New College of Florida, Division of Social Sciences
Michael Gorup, 5800 Bayshore Road., Sarasota, FL 34243.
The 2010s may well be remembered as the decade of “populism.” On the left, this has entailed a welcome rediscov-
ery of electoral politics—a terrain that had been comfortably monopolized by the neoliberal right and center for a
generation. However, despite the palpable enthusiasm generated by some recent electoral victories, and the genuine
advances made, it is by now apparent that the story of the past decade is predominantly one of disappointment for the
left. Left-populism—from the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn to insurgent parties like Syriza and La
France Insoumise —is now mostly an archive of defeat, with only Podemos, newly tamed by its coalition partners, con-
tinuing to claim any meaningful hold on power. Even if left populism exceeded the cynical expectations of its centrist
critics, it also appears to have failed in providing a durable pathway to transformative change. Today, it is mostly right-
populists—if one is willing to concede the semantic terrain—who continue to head governments around the globe, and
to predictably disastrous effect.
As often noted, the recent left-populist tide owes an important intellectual debt to the political thought of Ernesto
Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Numerous parties and movements, including Syriza, Podemos, and La France Insoumise,
have cited their work as a direct inspiration (Hancox, 2015). If we wish to understand the prospects and pitfalls of
left populism today, it is with their theory that we must grapple. According to Laclau, the central task of radical pol-
itics is the construction of a people (Laclau, 2014, p. 139). As Jason Frank observes, this has typically been reduced
to the question of popular identity—that is, “who the people are” (Frank, 2017, p. 629). Theorists have less frequently
attended to the question of how this construction is to be undertaken: by what practices are the people to be enacted
(Grattan, 2016)? In this article, I take up this latter question and offer a critical reassessment of left-populist theory
in light of its recent practical shortcomings. As I show, to the extent that Laclau and Mouffe engage the question of
popular enactment, they tend to invoke the charismatic leader—a figure uniquely positioned to actualize populism’s
political “logic”—as its appropriate medium. Though they have never been shy about the importance of leaders to their
brand of populist politics (Jäger & Borriello, 2020, p. 743), this feature has not always been emphasized in interpreta-
tions of their work. As I show, in locating the power of popular enactment in a representative leader, the theory of left
populism tends to neglect the terrain of organization (e.g., the associational bonds that tie a demos together), and this
threatens to undermine the project’s normative appeal and strategic viability. In response to these issues, I develop a
theoretical account of political organization as a practice of people-making, drawing on Laclau and Mouffe’s foremost
intellectual predecessor, Antonio Gramsci.
Populism, of course, is a vexedterm—an essentially contested concept if ever there was one—and it is not my inten-
tion to wade into ongoing conceptual debates (Urbinati, 2019). Nor should my argument be taken as an endorsement
of the pejorative usage of the term which has come to predominate in many circles (Jäger, 2017). As I see it, there may
Constellations. 2021;1–15. © 2021 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
yet be a good reason for the left to hold on to the “populist” label—its scholarly uses do not exhaust its rhetorical force,
and many of the histories with which it is commonly associated offer vital sources of inspiration. My intervention is
narrower: it concerns the specific politics of popular enactment implied in Laclau and Mouffe’s theory and its corre-
sponding expression in recent political experience. Though I often oppose “populism” to “political organization,” these
should be understood as ideal-types, not mutually exclusive alternatives. They name broad strategies of enactment,
each emphasizing a distinct register of political practice: the “vertical” register of representation, on the one hand, and
the “horizontal” register of association, on the other. In practice, these registers must always be engaged to varying
degrees, but the analytical distinction I draw is nonetheless instructive: it alerts us to two orientations that left move-
ments might adopt in confronting the problem of how to enact “the people” in whose name transformative change is
pursued. And, as I show, the orientation that places primacy on organization has gone almost entirely unrecognized
and unexplored in the theory of left populism—to its peril.
That said, scholars have recently taken an interest in political organizing and organization. Some havedrawn impor-
tant conceptual distinctions between organizing, on the one hand, and practices like mobilizing and advocacy, on the
other (Han, 2014;McAlevey,2018), while others have produced important in-depth studies of particular organizing
traditions (Bretherton, 2014; Payne, 2007;Ransby,2005). Organizing has yet to be extensively explored by politi-
cal theorists, but some scholarship has begun to appear, conceptualizing it as a practice for deepening democratiza-
tion (Badd, forthcoming; Medearis, 2015; Stout, 2010), and as a challenge to conventional understandings of politi-
cal ethics (Phulwani, 2016;Sabl,2002). However, theorists have not yet extensively explored how attending to ques-
tions of organization might inform understandings of popular agency in democratic theory (but see, Offe, 1985). A
focus on issues of organization holds great promise to enrich democratic theory, particularly in its radical and agonis-
tic modes. Many radical democrats have been primed to view organizational forms as such with suspicion: as sites of
discipline, calculation, and normalization that seek to expunge democratic politics of its spontaneous and unruly char-
acter (Wolin, 1994). However, attending to questions of political organization—that is, organization beyond and/or
against the state—helps to illuminate the conditions that make possible the forms of disruptive and transformative
mass action that radical democrats prize most.
Gramsci believed popular organization was essential to cultivating collective agency on a scale capable of transfor-
mative change.1As he wrote, “a human mass does not ‘distinguish’ itself, does not become independent in its own right
without, in the widest sense, organizing itself” (1971). Resisting the Scylla of top-down vanguardism and the Charyb-
dis of romantic horizontalism, Gramsci depicted organizing as the dynamic craft of developing political leadership in
the plural. His writings were principally focused on the organizational form of the political party, but for historically
specific reasons—he always insisted that political organization needed to be appropriately tailored to its context.2For
this reason, his writings contain many important lessons for theorizing organizing and organization amid our volatile
present, even beyond the party-form. While there are other authors one might consult for a guide to the principles
and tactics of organizing as a practical activity,Gramsci developed a unique theoretical framework in which organiza-
tion emerges as the fundamental political question. He thus drew attention to the relevant terrain of struggle and the
appropriate means for traversing it. In Gramsci’s view, the people are an artifact of organizational practice.
In this paper, I frame populism and political organization as distinct responses to what I dub the paradox of popular
agency. In Section 1, I explain this paradox by turning to Rousseau’s well-known account of the paradox of the people.
While Rousseau’s paradox is most commonly read as concerning the normative foundations of democratic authority,
I show that it can also be understood in connection to the precarious grounds of popular agency. This raises distinct
normative and practical questions regarding the role of the lawgiver, and I schematically offer two contrasting read-
ings of this enigmatic figure to illustrate. Section 2 then turns to Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of populism, which tends to
address the paradox by conceptualizing popular agency as the consequence of the discursivearticulations of a populist
leader. As I explain, this is not only normatively worrisome but also leaves transformative left politics uniquely vulner-
able to defeat. Finally, in Section 3 I develop an account of political organization as an alternative mode of responding
to the paradox, drawing on Gramsci’s account of hegemonic struggle as a “war of position.”
Rousseau’s Social Contract has featured prominently in recent political theory concerned with the paradox of demo-
cratic peoplehood (Frank,2007; Honig, 2007; Keenan, 2003). Rousseau’s canonical formulation of the paradox is intro-
duced in Book II, Chapter VII, in a passage that is by now a familiar reference point for many scholars: “For a newly
formed people to understand wise principles of politics and to follow the basic rules of statecraft, the effect would
have to become the cause; the social spirit which must be the product of social institutions would have to preside over
the setting up of those institutions; men would have to have already become before the advent of law that which they
become as a result of law” (Rousseau, 1968, pp. 8687). Rousseau here draws attention to the perplexing process by
which a mass of individuals becomes a political people. As he observes, founding the people appears to require a power
beyond and greater than the people—a power which would, by definition, be illegitimate on democratic grounds.
Rousseau has most commonly been read as articulating a bootstrap paradox regarding the foundations of demo-
cratic authority. Honig (2007) has framed it in terms of a chicken-or-egg paradox: “In order for there to be a peo-
ple well-formed enough for good law-making, there must be good law, for how else will the people be well-formed?
The problem is: where would that good law come from absent an already well-formed, virtuous people?” In response,
Rousseau introduces the enigmatic figure of the lawgiver, who is taken by many of his readers (Benhabib, 1994; Con-
nolly, 1995) to “solve”the paradox by standing in as a “good man before good law,” enabling the emergent people-to-be
to inhabit the standpoint of generality and thereby grasp the fundamental principles of democratic lawmaking (Honig,
2007, p. 3). Honig, however, discerns a different lesson: rather than solving the paradox, the lawgiver might be better
understood as “marking” the heteronomic conditions that always enable the appearance of popular autonomy. Even
as he seems to secure one democratic good (good law), his very presence undermines another (collective autonomy),
and Honig persuasively argues that this bears important consequences for contemporary democratic theory.
However, whether or not the lawgiver is said to succeed—indeed, whether or not the very notion of his “success”
is an intelligible proposition—it is nevertheless apparent that Rousseau’s various readers seem to converge in under-
standing the terms of his paradox to chiefly concern the normative foundations of democratic authority. To be sure,
this is a central issue both in Rousseau’s text and for democratic theory more broadly. But reducing the paradox to the
question of self-authorization leaves unaddressed a related yet distinct set of concerns also raised in the text, which I
call the paradox of popular agency: the puzzle of how a heterogenous “multitude”might organize itself into a collectivity
capable of purposeful action. As will become clear, shifting interpretive emphasis to the paradox of popular agency
raises unique normative and practical questions regarding the lawgiver’s intervention.
Just before introducing the lawgiver,Rousseau for the first time explains the problem that calls for his intervention,
in another passage that has become a touchstone for democratic theorists: “how can a blind multitude, which often
does not know what it wants, because it seldom knows what is good for it, undertake by itself an enterprise as vast
and difficult as a system of legislation?” (Rousseau, 1968, p. 83). Notice the terms of the problem presented here are
slightly different from the chicken-or-egg paradox presented by Honig. In each instance, the lawgiver is depicted as
a pedagogical figure—he is called on to elevate the people’s self-awareness and lead them to comport themselves in
a manner appropriate to their undertaking. But the issue in this passage is not unambiguously one that concerns the
normative validity of the law. It concerns agency and coordination. On their own, the people lack the capacity to act on
the basis of common purpose. Thus, the task of laying down the fundamental laws that will structure the polity—a task
described by Rousseau as “vast” and “difficult”—appears to be a nigh-impossible feat from a practical point of view. It
necessitates the support of an intervening power: the lawgiver.
The practical dimension of the problem is even more clearly suggested in the questions Rousseau poses preceding
the one analyzed above: “The right of laying down the rules of society belongs only to those who form the society; but
how can they exercise it? Is it to be by common agreement, by sudden inspiration? Has the body politic an organ to
declare its will? Who is to give it the foresight necessary to formulate enactments and proclaim them in advance, and
how is it to announce them in the hour of need?” (Rousseau, 1968, p. 83). The people, absent an institutional frame-
work for collective will-formation, lack the ability to coordinate about how to decide fundamental questions. They
may possess the right to legislate but require support to effectively navigate the practical conundrums associated with
how to exercise this right—how to, as Rousseau puts it, “formulate,” “declare,” and “announce” their will. The lawgiver
is thus called on to bestow them with the requisite “foresight”—a practical, rather than strictly moral, capacity. In the
absence of the appropriate enabling conditions, Rousseau suggests that the people must turn to an external figure to
mediate their agency, transforming them from a people-in-itself into a people-for-itself.
How does the lawgiver enable the people to overcome this practical problem? What is it that his presence is
supposed to deliver? There are, roughly speaking, two different ways we might understand the lawgiver’s interven-
tion here. I introduce these different readings not to resolve the interpretive controversies that commonly bedevil
Rousseau’s text—indeed, I do not defend either one as the “correct”reading. My aim is admittedly instrumental: I intro-
duce the two alternatives to schematically lay out two distinct responses to the paradox of popular agency. The first
approach, which I call the representational model, depicts the lawgiver as engaged in an act of political representa-
tion (e.g., Inston, 2010; Vieira, 2015). This reading foregrounds Rousseau’s intellectual debt to Thomas Hobbes. The
connection between Rousseau and Hobbes is well-established in the literature, particularly with respect to the con-
cept of sovereignty (Douglass, 2015; Garsten, 2009; Steinberger, 2008;Tuck,2016). In Leviathan, Hobbes put forth a
theory in which the representational unity of the sovereign confers unity and coherence on the people—the represen-
tative is logically prior to, and thereby constructs, the represented. As Hobbes put it, “a multitude of men, are made
One Person, when they are by one man, or one Person, Represented.. . For it is the Unity of the Representer, not the
Unity of the Represented, that maketh the Person One”(1996, p. 114). Rousseau famously insisted on a strict separa-
tion of sovereignty and representation (sovereignty is neither representable nor representative), but his account of
the symbolic mediation delivered by the lawgiver can be seen to mirror this aspect of Hobbes’ theory. Like Hobbes’
sovereign, the lawgiver produces a unified people out of an inchoate multitude by personifying them (Inston, 2010).
Though Rousseau never explicitly describes the lawgiver as a representative, he nonetheless fulfills “a doubly repre-
sentative task,” as Vieira explains: “he represents the people’s generalized will by standing in for it. And he represents
to the people as is a people-to-be united in this will” (Vieira, 2015, p. 501). On this view, Rousseau ultimately follows
Hobbes in holding that representation—indeed, personification—is the device that conjures a people into being.3Thus,
beyond simply supplying the legal framework that makes future self-rule possible, the lawgiver symbolically mediates
the people’s identity, bestowing upon them a sense of unity and collective integrity that enables them to experience
themselves as a people. He transforms “each individual, who by himself is complete and solitary, into a part of a much
greater whole” (Rousseau, 1968, p. 84)—an essential precondition for democratic agency.
As will be developed in the next section, this interpretation of Rousseau’s lawgiver bears several notable affini-
ties with Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of populism.4Inston (2010, p. 395) has suggested that “Laclau’s theorization of
populism has much in common with Rousseau’s analysis,” because “both refute the idea of the people as an empirical
reality.” The lawgiver and the populist leader occupy a shared problem-space: they are both tasked with conjuring a
political people out of a heterogenous multitude. And they accomplish this task via an extraordinary act of represen-
tation, one which must call upon “an authority of another order,” since there is no established set of rules on which
their transformative intervention can rely. The lawgiver is accordingly said to enthrall his addressees with a “sublime
reasoning, which soars above the head of the common people.. . compelling by divine authority persons who cannot
be moved by human prudence”; and the success of his representative claim is ultimately attributed to his “great soul. ..
the true miracle which must vindicate his mission” (Rousseau, 1968, p. 87). In this reading, the lawgiver—like the pop-
ulist leader—stakes his claim to representational authority on personal charisma. And it is through charismatic perfor-
mance that the lawgiver imparts upon the people the ability to experience themselves as a cohesive collectivity.
The second interpretive approach, which I call the organizing model, depicts the lawgiver as a political actor chiefly
concerned with the practical work of building solidarity (i.e., the “horizontal” bonds that bind a demos). This inter-
pretation builds on the agonistic reading proposed by Honig (2007), though with emphasis consciously shifted from
the question of normativity to that of agency. According to Honig, the lawgiver is deployed to address a problem that
proves insoluble. Rather than inaugurating a properly grounded democratic order, Rousseau’s invocation of the law-
giver ends up underscoring the inherent contestability of all claims to democratic authority, even beyond the seemingly
discrete moment of founding. The lawgiver signifies one moment in an iterative practice of democratic enactment.
On this reading, the fraught and inexhaustible search for democratic authority—or, for my purposes, for democratic
agency—is the very substance out of which democratic politics is made.
The lawgiver here appears less as an extraordinary representative and more like an ordinary political actor: one
whose uptake depends upon the people’s receptivity, which can never be guaranteed in advance. The people always
retain the power to decide that, notwithstanding the splendor of his performance, he is a mere “charlatan,” and hence
unworthy of their admiration (Honig, 2007, p. 6). Like an organizer, an effective lawgiver must meet the people where
they are. He must address himself to the people’s folkways and speak in a “vulgar” idiom. If successful, he will serve as
a facilitator, enabling the people to “recognize” what they already “desire” and alerting them to capacities they already
latently possess (Rousseau, 1968, p. 83). Political agency is therefore not a gift bestowed from on high: it is an artifact of
the dynamic interaction between lawgiver and demos, emerging in the space between them. This interpretation draws
further strength from Rousseau’s emphasis, in The Government of Poland, on the central importance of everyday cus-
toms, rituals, and institutions to the formation of civic solidarity. As Rousseau argues, the great lawgiversof antiquity—
Moses, Lycurgus, Numa—sought not merely to lay down the higher laws that formed the state. More importantly, they
aimed to cultivate the everyday practices that bind a people together (Rousseau, 1985, p. 4–9). As will be explored in
Section 3, the politics of organizing likewise seeks to foster democratic agency by attending to the “meso-level”terrain
of everyday social practice and association.
It should be quite obvious that these two interpretations of the lawgiver’s mission are not easily reconciled. How-
ever, for my purposes, it is ultimately insignificant which reading one finds more persuasive from the standpoint of
textual fidelity. The point is to show that Rousseau identified the paradox of popular agency, and to lay out two dis-
tinct responses to it hinted in his text—one emphasizing the constitutive role of representation, the other the practical
work of cultivating solidarity. As the remaining two sections will illustrate, the political relevance of these rival models
extends well beyond the pages of Rousseau’s Social Contract.The paradox of popular agency, like the paradox of politics
identified by Honig, is a persistent feature of democratic politics. Democracy depends upon the action of the people,
but the conditions that make successful popular action possible are not simply given. The people must somehow cre-
ate those conditions, but the ability to do so seems to presuppose the capacities they are supposed to deliver. Like
Rousseau’s multitude, polities today are thus bound to find themselves vexed by the question of how to enact popular
power, and nowhere more acutely than in those beset by crises of institutional representation.
As noted above, few political theorists have had as direct an influence on the left-wing political formations of the past
decade as Laclau and Mouffe. To grapple with the fortunes of left populism today is to step into the terms of their
More than 30 years ago, Laclau and Mouffe authored the now-classic Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Laclau &
Mouffe, 2001). Aiming to move beyond the alleged class-essentialism of orthodox Marxism, they developed a theo-
retical framework that depicted political identities as discursively mediated constructs of struggle, rather than the
expression of an underlying objective social structure. At the center of this political theory stood a reworked under-
standing of Gramsci’s account of hegemonic struggle. Laclau and Mouffe reenvisioned hegemony as the articulation of
an irreducible diversity of social conflicts (e.g., based on class, race, gender, sexuality, etc.). As they saw it, such strug-
gles could be linked through their shared antagonism vis-à-vis a designated adversary, rather than as the expression of
a preexisting social foundation (ala “essentialist” theories). The outcome of this intervention was to reorient left-wing
politics away from the traditional emancipatory horizon of communism, built atop an allegedly metaphysically dubious
teleological philosophy of history, and toward a self-conscious “radicalization of democracy” (Laclau & Mouffe, 2001).
Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of populism can be read as their response to the paradox of popular agency.6Populist
politics begins from the accumulation of a wide range of unsatisfied demands. Given the inevitable heterogeneity of
said demands (and the social differences that separate the claimants), there is no given basis for linking them together
to form a coherent program of political action. This is where the populist leader enters the scene—that is, a political
actor who can articulate together the erstwhile disparate demands by discursively identifying the common source
held responsible for their lack of fulfillment. In so doing, the populist creates an “internal frontier,” distinguishing the
people-to-be from their now-designated adversary (e.g., “the oligarchy,” Laclau, 2005, p. 38). However, this interven-
tion, while necessary, is not on its own sufficient to construct a political people. The chain of demands must also be
represented: in addition to their shared negative referent, their collective identity must be symbolically mediated via
a shared positive referent (Laclau, 2007, p. 78). “It is through representation,” Mouffe argues, echoing Hobbes, “that
collective political subjects are created; they do not exist beforehand” (Mouffe, 2018, p. 56). As both Laclau and Mouffe
note, this representative role is most effectively filled through the figure of a charismatic leader with whom the people
can identify (Laclau, 2005, pp. 3940).
Laclau and Mouffe have regularly drawn a sharp contrast between their approach to populism and the horizontalist
tendency prevalent on much of the left that seeks to altogether jettison hierarchical relations of leadership and rep-
resentation. They have most often targeted Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s immanentist theory of radical democ-
racy as a proxy for this broader tendency. According to Mouffe (2018, p. 53), Hardt and Negri endorse a fanciful view
in which it is imagined that the multitude can somehow spontaneously “auto-organize itself.” At times, the dispute
appears to be primarily ontological and only secondarily political (Mouffe, 2018, 55; Hardt and Negri 2019, p. 328).
Nevertheless, the ontological dispute is politically revealing. According to Mouffe, ontological antiessentialism means
that political collectivities (i.e., the people) are always ultimately constructed via vertical relations of representation
(Mouffe, 2018, pp. 5556). To be sure, representation is not simply a one-way relationship—the people interpellated
by a representative claim can always “talk back” to contest or even reject the claims of the representative(Thomassen,
2019). But the key point remains: representation is the privileged medium of popular enactment.
Though Mouffe (2018, p. 55) elliptically suggests that political parties might play a role in the construction and elab-
oration of political identities, the personalistic dimension of populist leadership proves important to her theory. Here
she follows Laclau: “the symbolic unification of the group around a single individuality,” he writes, “is inherent in the
formation of a ‘people’” (Laclau, 2007, p. 100). As they both frame it, a charismatic leader fulfills two conditions neces-
sary to overcome the paradox of popular agency. First, the leader symbolically mediates the people’s identity— repre-
senting them to themselves and thereby serving as the initial “positive” referent in the populist chain of equivalence.
Just as, for Hobbes, the representational unity of the sovereign was imagined to confer political unity onto an erstwhile
disparate multitude, so for Laclau and Mouffe the populist leader renders the demos politically imaginable as a collec-
tive subject in spite of their insuperable social heterogeneity.7Second, the charismatic leader affectively binds the
people together through the shared experience of personal devotion, or what Laclau calls “radical investment.” Popu-
lar agency cannot simply be conjured through the bloodless tedium of procedure or the mediating association of party
membership. It requires affective identification. “A collective will cannot be constructed without some form of crystal-
lization of common affects, and affective bonds with a charismatic leader can play an important role in this process”
(Mouffe, 2018, p. 70). Max Weber placed affect at the center of his canonical account of charisma, describing it as “an
exceptional personal gift of grace” which generates a form of authority taking root in “people’s entirely personal devo-
tion and personal trust in the revelations, heroism, or other leadership qualities of an individual” (Weber, 2020, p. 47).
Rousseau, recall, had described the authority of the lawgiver in analogous terms. Like the Old Testament prophets—
who for Weber epitomized charismatic authority (Klein, 2017)—the lawgiver appeals to other-worldly authorities (i.e.,
putting “his own decisions into the mouth of the immortals”) and sources of normativity “inscribed neither on marble
nor brass, but in the hearts of the citizens” (Rousseau, 1968, p. 87). According to the representational model, the law-
giver’s charismatic performance elicits the people’s devotion and thereby generates the shared bonds constitutive of
collective subjectivity. Likewise, it is through affective investment in the populist leader that the demos come to expe-
rience themselves as a collective agent committed to common purpose.
In an effort to illustrate populism’s strength as a vehicle for transformative change, Mouffe (2018) offers an
analysis of the populist-hegemonic front launched by Margaret Thatcher during the late 1970s and early 1980s that
culminated in the consolidation of the incumbent neoliberal order. It is on the basis of this example that she hopes to
render a left populist project tangible. According to Mouffe, Thatcher not only identified the oil shock and consequent
recession of the mid-1970s as an opportune moment for a right-wing political insurgency; she also seized the oppor-
tunity to remake society’s dominant value orientation, subordinating democracy to the free market, social rights to
individual liberty, and opposing the parasitic state bureaucrat in the name of the virtuous taxpayer. Unsurprisingly,
Thatcher’s political success, on Mouffe’s rendering, derives seemingly entirely from her charismatic authority and
unparalleled rhetorical skill, on full display in her discursive reconfiguration of the reigning “common sense.” Her
charismatic brand of leadership not only explains her rise within party ranks but also her ability to win over the
popular support that would thereafter serve as a durable base of electoral power. The lesson for the left is clear: “we
should follow Thatcher’s route, adopting a populist strategy, but this time with a progressive objective, intervening on
a multiplicity of fronts to build a new hegemony aiming at recovering and deepening democracy” (Mouffe, 2018, p. 35).
Mouffe’s stylized account of Thatcher’s rise to power is theoretically revealing. Her analysis is explicitly indebted to
the work of Stuart Hall, who wrote extensively on Thatcherism and the New Right as it was emerging. However, Hall’s
work, while attentive to Thatcher’s discursive innovations, also emphasized the deep historical roots of Thatcherism,
which he traced back several decades. As he wrote, “Mrs. Thatcher has given the ‘swing to the right’ a powerful impe-
tus and a distinctive personal stamp, but the deeper movement which finds in her its personification has—when prop-
erly analyzed—a much longer trajectory” (Hall, 1988, p. 39). Whereas for Mouffe, Thatcher appears as something of
adeus ex machina who in one stroke seized political opportunity and reshaped national common sense, Hall’s writings
on Thatcherism suggest that hegemony is not the type of thing built all at once. He emphasized the protracted mobi-
lization that made Thatcher possible, from the writings of the Mont Pelerin Society and the promotion of monetarist
economic policy by the Institute of Economic Affairs, to the media-induced “moral panic” over crime that spurred the
turn to law and order and initiated a broader cultural backlash to 1968. Thatcher,on Hall’s analysis, appears to be more
symptom than cause. If the left is to extract lessons from her example, it might, pace Mouffe, look to the practices of
institution-building that made her rise possible.
However,even if one brackets the factors accounting for the emergence of Thatcherism, there nevertheless remain
severe limitations in appealing to it as a model for left-wing political insurgency (Riofrancos, 2018). Simply put, right-
wing and left-wing hegemony are not symmetrical.8Right-wing politics has no natural affinity with mass organizing,
and calls forth popular mobilizations mostly to secure power and legitimate rule.9For this reason, the right possesses
an inherent structural advantage in pursuing transformative political aims: it can comfortably exploit existing power
asymmetries and social hierarchies, and need not—indeed, ought not—provide new avenues for formerly excluded
social sectors to share in political power. Conservativism’s political success certainly depends on its ability to “make
privilege popular” (Robin, 2013, p. 43); but in doing so it must sharply limit the bases for independent mass action.
While the discursive politics of articulation remain a necessary component for any hegemonic project, they more
closely approximate sufficiency for right-wing hegemony than for left. Unlike their left counterparts, right populists
can be content to rule the void (Mair, 2006).
Put differently,emancipatory politics cannot be durably built through a plebiscitary relation to the people. Rather, it
requires both organizing and mobilizing: developing the meso-level associational bases that enable effective collective
action and spurring the organized demos to act in pursuit of deepening democracy. Even if Mouffe’s schematic account
of Thatcherism was correct as a matter of history, it would still be a deficient reference point from the standpoint of
left strategy. As Gramsci once shrewdly remarked: “in political struggle one should not ape the methods of the ruling
classes, or one will fall into easy ambushes” (Gramsci, 1971, pp. 232).
It is no exaggeration to claim that Laclau and Mouffe have done more than any of the thinker(s) of their generation
to retrieve and elucidate the importance of Gramsci’s thought for both democratic theory and left political practice.
However, it remains a conspicuous fact that Gramsci not only rejected the idea that charismatic leadership could
address the paradox of popular agency; as I show, his account of political organization presents a powerful alternative
to it.
I am not the first to turn to Gramsci’s work in search of critical purchase on Laclau and Mouffe’s thought (Leggett,
2013), nor is it unique to emphasize the importance of organization to his political thought. However, political organi-
zation has most commonly been understood as analytically subordinate to the master concept of hegemony (Sassoon,
2019; Thomas, 2011; Urbinati, 1998b), and it has typically been examined to better situate Gramsci within internecine
debates within Marxism (e.g., vis-à-vis Lenin and Luxemburg), rather than for extracting insights that might be more
broadly applicable (but see, Aronowitz, 2009). As I show, Gramsci developed a distinctive theoretical perspective on
the political world in which organization emerges as the orienting question: politics, as he sees it, is organization all the
way down.
Gramsci famously argued that hegemonic struggle in the advanced capitalist world must adopt the form of a “war
of position”—taking shape through insurgent practices of institution-building, consciousness-raising, and collective
will-formation—rather than the strategy of frontal attack (“war of maneuver”) typically associated with revolutionary
politics. Subaltern classes held no hope of storming the gates and commandeering the state through force; at best, they
might be able to slip in through the side door and slowly build the political influence and forms of collective association
that would one day enable them to take the reins of power. As he put it, “a social group can, and indeed must, already
exercise ‘leadership’ before winning governmentalpower (this indeed is one of the principal conditions for the winning
of such power)” (Gramsci, 1971, pp. 5758). The grandeur of revolutionary politics must give way to the slow-boring
of hard boards.
There are two central elements to the war of position as Gramsci conceived of it. The first is ideological struggle.
Movements must aim to achieve “intellectual and moral leadership” among the social groups they want to draw into a
coalition (Gramsci, 1971, pp. 57). This may involve the ideological conquest of “traditional intellectuals”—that is, con-
verting professional experts and “thought-leaders” (journalists, academics, educators) to the driving commitments and
modes of thought that orient the movement. However, the core of ideological struggle consists in grooming “organic
intellectuals”: individuals who are not necessarily intellectuals by occupation but contribute, both formally and infor-
mally, to the active ideological formation of their social strata (Gramsci, 1971, pp. 10).10 As Gramsci saw it, organic
intellectuals were uniquely suited to connect with the masses on their own terms. Their function was to excavate and
reconstruct the latent political content of the dissatisfactions that people experienced in their everyday lives and to
connect them to the struggle for emancipation.
For Gramsci, organic intellectuals were an essential part of how movements could effectively navigate the para-
dox of popular agency. Formulated in terms of political organization, the question is: how to develop a program that is
responsive to ordinary people’s problems and yet capable of linking their demands together into a strategically coher-
ent plan? Unlike Laclau’s populist chain of equivalence, Gramsci’s approach did not place primacy upon the leader (or,
for that matter, the organizer). In sharp contrast to the representational model, the organic intellectual’s appeal does
not “consist in eloquence,” which Gramsci says, “is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions.” It con-
sists “in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader, not just simple orator”
(1971, p. 10). The organic intellectual is a dialogical figure—one who enables movements to take their point of ori-
entation from ideas already rooted in everyday social experience. Ideological hegemony is achieved by dialectically
elaborating these ideas into a program of “renewed common sense,” which, in order to carry motivational force, must
remain in persistent “cultural contact” with ordinary life (Gramsci, 1971, p. 330). Political organizations, therefore, do
not impose an ideology on the organized from the outside, but neither do they avoid committing to a broader polit-
ical agenda altogether (ala the community organizing tradition of Alinksy 1989). Rather, as Ella Baker once put it, an
effective organic intellectual enables the masses to “see their own ideas” (Ransby,2005, p. 363), by elaborating on, and
deepening, commitments that arise from everyday social experience.11
The second constitutive element of the war of position is the material practice of generating countervailing power
through political organizing. Unlike the Tsarist regime toppled by the Bolsheviks, advanced capitalist societies can-
not be transformed via frontal assault on the state (i.e., war of maneuver). A war of position is the only appropriate
strategy for such societies because civic life therein is composed of a complicated tapestry of mesolevel groups and
organizations—political parties, trade unions, churches, schools, etc. “In any given society,” Gramsci wrote, “nobody
is disorganized and without party, provided that one takes organization and party in a broad and not a formal sense”
(1971, p. 264). No matter how alienated or atomized, no one inhabits a social vacuum. Even in purportedly liberal polit-
ical orders where individualism predominates as a cardinal value—indeed, even in the socially impoverished landscape
of our neoliberal present—individuals nonetheless find themselves embedded within overlapping networks of associ-
ation, each of which can, to some degree, make a claim on their identity, affinity, and/or allegiance. Such associations
are of course deeply riven by asymmetries of power. Civil society is by no means already emancipated, but it is where
an emancipatory politics must begin. Gramsci memorably described such associations as the “trenches and permanent
fortifications of the front in the war of position” (Gramsci,1971, p. 243). In ordinary times, they serve as crucial sources
of social and political stability, shaping people’s consciousness and subjectivity in ways favorable to the perpetuation
of the incumbent order. During periods of relative stability, it is therefore crucial for emancipatory movements to infil-
trate or subsume existing organizations, or, more pertinently, to build mass organizations of their own. Challenging
the regnant order can only succeed if radicals effectively shift individuals’ identities and allegiances by bringing them
within the ambit of movement organizations (see Bagg, forthcoming).
As I have mentioned, Gramsci gave pride of place to the political party as the political organization par excellence.In
his vision, an effective political party should aspire to be the dominant element in an overlapping web of associations—
the one that, in the final instance, always commands the highest degree of commitment. If the status quo is sustained
through the subjectifying practices of intermediary institutions, then emancipatory counter-organizations can only
successfully undermine this order by producing subjects willing and able to challenge it. Crucially, this means that a
core function of such organizations is pedagogical: shaping the consciousness, beliefs, and values that people hold (a
role for which organic intellectuals are clearly critical). But the pedagogical value of organizing is not merely ideologi-
cal. It is also practical and material: organizing is an education in the use of political power (Phulwani, 2016).
Emancipatory organizations likewise have a unique role to play during moments of crisis. Crisis disrupts ordinary
associational bonds, leaving people socially unmoored. The masses “become detached from their traditional ideolo-
gies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 27576). Political identities come
unsettled and political loyalties newly malleable. This creates unique opportunities for insurgent movements—for
example, to adjust their programs to meet emergent demands, to recruit members seeking new sources of political
orientation, and to align themselves with the seemingly spontaneous uprisings that often appear during moments of
political dislocation.12 Crises also create circumstances apt for the formation of new popular organizations. Histori-
cal examples of organizations born of crisis are myriad, ranging from the council systems Hannah Arendt admiringly
observed to have independently appeared in the midst of various revolutionary situations (e.g., the United States,
France, and Russia, Arendt, 2006) to the many Black radical organizations that arose during the U.S. urban rebellions
of the late 1960s—most notably the Black Panther Party (Bloom & Martin, 2016). Though political organizing during
normal political times is indispensable, not least because it can serve to cultivate the types of popular agency that make
transformative action possible once crisis arrives, it is also undeniable that crisis conditions have been historically gen-
erative for building emancipatory organizations.
Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of articulation is their attempt to translate Gramsci’s war of position into their
antiessentialist framework. Recall that the starting point for their theory is the demand—like Gramsci’s hegemonic
strategy, Laclau and Mouffe’s populist strategy begins from the fact of mass dissatisfaction, which serves as the raw
material out of which a demos is politically constructed. But Laclau and Mouffe do not grant serious consideration
to the political practices by which this construction takes place. Instead, they provide an exposition of its logic.The
emphasis they place on discourse might at first blush appear to be their counterpart to Gramsci’s emphasis on ideolog-
ical struggle, but they do not travelwith him into the trenches of civil society. The populist leader—recall the example of
Thatcher—appears on the political scene not as the outcome of a long-waged struggle, but as the prime mover of hege-
monic politics. Aiming to move beyond Gramsci’s alleged class essentialism, Laclau and Mouffe dispense altogether
with an analysis of the associational terrain that must be ideologically and organizationally traversed. The name of the
populist leader can stand in for the empty place of the social.
Laclau and Mouffe retain Gramsci’s emphasis on the latent power of everyday ideas, symbols, and sources of nor-
mativity, but they tend to subsume them to the representative power of a charismatic leader. Gramsci, by contrast,
was deeply skeptical of (if not outright hostile to, e.g., Kalyvas, 2000) the value of charismatic leadership for transfor-
mative change in complex capitalist societies. As noted above, he saw the political party—which he famously dubbed
(with a nod to Machiavelli) the “modern prince”—as the appropriate vehicle for emancipatory politics. However, in
contrast to the model of leadership of which Machiavelli wrote, the modern prince “cannotbe a real person, a concrete
individual. It can only be an organism, a complex element of society in which a collective will, which has already been
recognized and has to some extent asserted itself in action, begins to take concrete form.” According to Gramsci, the
political party is precisely this “organism,” wrought by historical experience. To the extent that charismatic leadership
has a role to play in modern politics, it is an exclusively defensive and restorationist one. It is not adequate to the task
of constructing a “people” capable of founding a new order (Gramsci, 1971, pp. 129130).13
The politics of organizing does not eschew leadership. The political party, in Gramsci’s view, depends on leader-
ship, but a style of leadership markedly different from the charismatic model of the populist leader. As political orga-
nizations, “parties may be said to have the task of forming capable leaders; they are the mass function which selects,
develops, and multiplies the leaders which are necessary if a particular social group.. . is to become articulated, and be
transformed from turbulent chaos into an organically prepared political army” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 191). Parties do not
centralize leadership, nor do they shun it. They pluralize it. Not everyone leads, but anyone might. In this sense, organi-
zation does not strictly operate on the register of the horizontal. It may be more accurately understood as the creation
of mechanisms that connect the horizontal (mass base) to the vertical (leadership). Such mechanisms produce unity
of purpose and strategic coherence among the former while also creating means for the latter to be held to account.
This carries distinct practical advantages over the charismatic model of leadership proffered by Laclau and Mouffe.
In refusing to vest a single person with the representational authority of the whole, the plural leadership offered by a
party (or other emancipatory organization) creates a more durable basis for transformative action since its fate is not
pinned to the political fortunes of any one individual (Kalyvas, 2000, p. 18). Moreover, it bears the normative advantage
of avoiding the risk of plebiscitary capture: because leadership is pluralized, power is less susceptible to usurpation by
a single person. The power of political organization always depends upon the masses remaining dynamically aware of
their own capacities.
Gramsci’s commitment to the party-form was neither rigid nor dogmatic, but historically contingent. He under-
stood the party to be the appropriate vehicle for emancipatory politics given his context, but his general reflections
on political organization were deliberately open-ended. Organizational form had to be tailored to the demands of the
situation, and it is for this reason that he described the party he envisioned as an organizational “laboratory” (Gramsci,
1971, p. 335).14 The “modern prince” did not refer to an actually existing entity (e.g., the Italian Communist Party, then
mostly in-exile), but a party-to-come. Forthis reason, Gramsci’s reflections on organization are of enduring relevance—
even for those who no longer see the party as a viable or attractiveorganizational form (e.g., due to parties’ increasingly
oligarchic structure, or near-total absorption into the state).
Recall that, for Laclau and Mouffe, charismatic leadership enables popular agency because (1) it provides a source
of symbolic mediation, and (2) it binds the people together through the shared experience of affective investment.
Political organization does not dispense with these enabling conditions: it satisfies them by other means. First, left-
wing political organizing is rich with its own radical iconography and aesthetic tropes. Far from lacking the symbolic
resources to mediate popular identity, there is a deep aesthetic well on which to draw—ranging from the visual culture
of the age of democratic revolutions to the radical muralism of the early 20th Century to the militant aesthetics of
Emory Douglas and the Black Panther Party. Democratic mobilizations have always developed hand-in-hand with the
aesthetic repertoires that, as Frank (2015) argues, “mediate the people’s relationship to their own political empow-
erment.” To the extent that a singular charismatic leader remains for Laclau and Mouffe the only intelligible basis for
mediating popular agency, their thought remains within the trappings of the Hobbesian aesthetic imaginary in which
the people may only acquire unity through personification. Second, in place of shared investment in the person of the
charismatic leader, organizing contrastinglydepicts the demos to be affectively bound together through solidarity.Sol-
idarity is an affective bond that commits each to each in the name of the whole. It supplies a motive for each individual
to act on behalf of the group, producing “a unity that neither subsumes the individual nor represents solely the com-
munity” (Scholz, 2015). The affective force of political solidarity is succinctly captured in the famed Wobbly slogan,
“an injury to one is an injury to all”: each is motivated to act for the whole not out of altruism but because one’s very
sense self is at stake. This is a lesson that Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizers, to takeone
example, knew well: as Payne explains, SNCC’s regular mass meetings generated strong bonds among participants,
ultimately creating “an environment in which you [felt] that if you stumble, you [were] letting down not only yourself
but all of your friends” (2007, p. 260).
Organization does not generate solidarity ex nihilo. It depends upon preexisting sources of social solidarity, which
it transforms into bonds of political solidarity. Gramsci’s insight that “nobody is disorganized” alerts us to the fact that
people are always already embedded within overlapping sets of relationships and associations—some formal (schools,
workplaces, churches, political parties) and others informal (communities, neighborhoods, friendships, families, and
perhaps today, digital networks). What Gramsci characterized as the trenches and fortifications of the capitalist state
are also the everyday springs of solidarity: sites of association that bind people to one another. Effective organization,
as Gramsci suggested, must begin by attending to the relationships that already shape people’s lives and senses of self.
It is not enough to simply rework the reigning “common sense” or to articulate one’s political program in the familiar
scripts and affective idioms of mass discontent. A viable mass politics must take its bearings from—and operate on the
terrain of—the forms of association and attachment that define people’s social experience. It is with reference to this
terrain that a democratic “demand” is rendered politically intelligible for most people. Though not explicitly indebted
to Gramsci, the tradition of labor organizing associated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) offers
an illustration of how this insight becomes operable. In this tradition, rather than directly taking on leadership roles
themselves, organizers seek to identify “organic leaders” within a given community. Organic leaders (note the reso-
nance with Grasmci’s language) are persons who enjoy the respect of their peers and serve as regular sources of social
guidance, though often without occupying formal positions of authority. Recruiting organic leaders is key to building
a broader base and developing durable commitment to movement principles (McAlevey, 2018; for a discussion in the
context of the Black Freedom Struggle, Payne, 2007, p. 260). This organizing tactic—which likewise appears in the
Alinsky tradition of community organizing (Phulwani, 2016)—can be understood as a political activation of the infor-
mal social bonds that link people together. It transforms everyday relations of trust into relations of political account-
ability and answerability. The point is not that associational life is always already a site of virtue; rather, it is the site
of struggle, the space from which emancipatory forms of solidarity can begin to emerge. Democratic agency thereby
arises not via the mediating representation of a leader, nor the charismatic articulation of a demand, but out of the
practical transformation of the tapestry of ordinary social life.
This article has drawn a contrast between populism and political organization, depicting them as competing responses
to the paradox of popular agency; and I have argued that political organization is preferable on both normative and
strategic grounds. Political organization not only responds to the heterogeneity and plurality that led Rousseau to
suggest a lawgiver was necessary to found a people; it deploys the multitude’s plurality as an enabling condition of
collective agency. It is precisely because the multitude are many and different that they can hold one another account-
able. On this view, a demos is bound together as a collective actor not by the representational unity generated by a
charismatic leader, but by an infrastructure of democratic accountability and relations of responsibility linking each to
However, as my reading of Gramsci suggests, populism cannot be sharply analytically contrasted with organization
as such. Gramsci prompts us to see in populism a particular mode of organization—one which prioritizes personalis-
tic representation as the medium of enactment. Like all political projects, populism must find its target constituency
already arrayed into particular sets of relations; and, in turn, it must seek to organize them into a new formation.
However, it is precisely this relational terrain that the theory of left populism ends up obscuring from view. With-
out an ability to perceive the mesolevel terrain of associational life, populist theory provides little vantage from which
to offer judgments about the relationships, commitments, and participatory practices that are supposed to hold its
coalition together. Jäger and Borriello (2020, p. 753) have accordingly observed that Laclau and Mouffe’s theory does
“not provide any clue” to understanding what has gone wrong with left-populism in practice over the last decade. As
this article has shown, returning to Gramsci offers some noteworthy clues. Populism’s “successes” have likely proven
hollow because its viability as an electoral project has been premised on the desiccation of the vehicles of popular
enactment—parties, unions, and other political organizations—capable of delivering the transformative change it has
sought. If the left hopes to move beyond such empty victories, it must be prepared to venture back into the trenches
and fortifications of civil society.This ought not entail (once again) shunning electoral politics; but it might mean decen-
tering it as the exclusive domain of popular enactment and instead placing renewed emphasis on the mundane work
of building political capacity across many facets of social life. Indeed, if left populism is to have an electoral future, its
fate will likely lay with the capacity built through such “spadework” (Battistoni, 2019).
For comments and suggestions on previous versions of this article, I thank Sam Bagg, Banu Bargu, Yuna Blajer de la
Garza, Rafael Khachaturian, and participants at the 2020 annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association.
1Throughout, I refer to both political “organizing” (verb) and “organization” (noun). Strictly speaking, Gramsci wrote more
extensively on the importance of organization than on the nuances of organizing as a practice, though his conception of the
former carries many implications for the latter.
2My focus is on the Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks, not his earlier writings. For an exploration of the relationship between
these two phases of Gramsci’s thought on organization see, (Sassoon, 2019).
3There are, of course, significant differences between Hobbes’ sovereign and Rousseau’s lawgiver that must be acknowl-
edged. Most notably, Rousseau’s lawgiver is said to possess no power in the political order he helps to found and retreats
from the scene once his work is finished, giving way to the people’s immanent self-rule. Hobbes’ sovereign, by contrast,
continually possesses absolute power and the people’s political unity is never conceived to persist on its own.
4Rousseau cannot be said to have put forth a theory of populism, but he remains a conspicuous point of reference in
the literature, and key ideas in his political theory—for example, popular sovereignty, the general will, the critique of
representation—provide the basic conceptual scaffolding for contemporary theories of populism (inter alia, Crick, 2005;
Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017; Muller, 2016; Urbinati, 1998a).
5My analysis bundles together Laclau and Mouffe’s various works on populism, treating them as authors of a single theory,
which is consistent with how Mouffe (2018) frames the theory of left populism.
6Laclau and Mouffe’s writings on populism need to be understood within the broader theoretical framework introduced in
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, but it is not the case that the importance of leadership and representation found in their
work on populism (and which I emphasize here) applies retrospectively to that earlier work.
7Laclau explicitly acknowledged the parallel to Hobbes in explainingwhy the logic of populism privileges representation by a
concrete individual: “we are in a situation comparable to Hobbes’s sovereign: in principle there is no reason whya corporate
body could not fulfill the functions of the Leviathan; but it’s very plurality shows that it is at odds with the indivisible nature
of sovereignty” (Laclau, 2007, p. 100). See also, Arditi, 2010. While neither Laclau nor Mouffe refer directly to Rousseau on
this point, Inston (2010) elaborates on the conceptual analogies.
8Laclau was aware of this asymmetry in his early work, wherein he opposed a “populism of the dominant classes” to a “pop-
ulism of the dominated classes” (Laclau, 2012, p. 173).
9There is, of course, a deep history of reactionary mass politics, ranging from fascism (Riley, 2010) to Jim Crow (Gorup,
2020). However, such political formations generally do not involve independent popular organizing. Instead, they tend to
mobilize via modes of association (e.g., businesses, churches, parties) linked to prevailing social hierarchies.As Corey Robin
has argued, reactionary politics has often consisted in such hierarchical associations wielding—and attempting to further
capture—the coercive power commonly associated with the modern state (a dynamic referred to as “the private life of
power,” Robin 2013).
10 The terms “organ,” “organic,” and “organism” appear frequently in Gramsci’s writings, and it is no coincidence that they
share an etymological root with “organize” and “organization” in the Greek organikos. For Gramsci, “organic” (in Italian:
organico) was not a substitute for “natural,” but signified the existence of political bonds—e.g., an organic intellectual is
politically bound to a particular social class. To “organize” is the activity of creating such bonds. (Ives, 2004, pp. 63–64).
11 Ransby characterizes Baker as an exemplary “organic intellectual” (2005, p. 362).
12 Strictly speaking, Gramsci denied the existence of genuine spontaneity. As Sassoon puts it, “what may seem to occur spon-
taneously will simply be the result of influences which are undocumented” (Sassoon, 2019, p. 173). Politics is organization
all the way down.
13 Gramsci wrote that the consolidation of rule around a charismatic leader in the midst of crisis signals the “immaturity of
the progressive forces” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 211). With reference to Napoleon III, he suggested that such leaders seek to
“disintegrate” the associativebonds of civil society, “to detach them from the broad masses and obtain ‘a force of non-party
men linked to the government by paternalistic ties’” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 227).
14 Gramsci’s writings on the party were a key component of his extended (and much debated) dialogue with Lenin. While
Gramsci was in many ways operating within a Leninistproblematic, his account clearly marked a significant departure from
classical vanguardism. For a discussion see (Sassoon, 2019).
Alinsky, S. (1989). Rules for radicals: A practical primer for realistic radicals. New York: Vintage.
Arditi, B. (2010). Review essay: Populism is hegemony is politics? On Ernesto Laclau’s on populist reason. Constellations,17(3),
Arendt, H. (2006). On revolution. Penguin Classics.
Aronowitz, S. (2009). Gramsci’s concept of political organization. In J. Francese(Eds.) Perspectives on Gramsci (pp. 21–33). Rout-
Bagg, S. (forthcoming). The dispersion of power: A critical realist theory of democracy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Battistoni, A. (2019). Spadework: On political organizing. n+1, (34),
Benhabib, S. (1994). Deliberative rationality and models of democratic legitimacy. Constellations,1(1), 26–52.
Bloom, J., & Martin, W. E., Jr. (2016). Black against Empire: The history and politics of the Black Panther Party (1st Ed., With a New
Preface ed.). University of California Press.
Bretherton, L. (2014). Resurrecting democracy: Faith, citizenship, and the politics of a common life. Cambridge University Press.
Connolly, W. (1995). The ethos of plurilization. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Crick, P. S. B. (2005). Populism, politics and democracy. Democratization,12(5), 625–632.
Douglass, R. (2015). Rousseau and Hobbes: Nature, free will, and the passions (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.
Frank, J. (2007). “Unauthorized propositions”: The federalist papers and constituent power. Diacritics,37(2–3), 103–120.
Frank, J. (2015). The living image of the people. Theory & Event,18(1).
Frank, J. (2017). Populism and praxis. The Oxford handbook of populism. Oxford University Press.
Garsten, B. (2009). Saving persuasion: a defense of rhetoric and judgment. Harvard University Press.
Gorup, M. (2020). The strange fruit of the tree of liberty: Lynch law and popular sovereignty in the United States. Perspectives
on Politics,18(3), 819–834.
Gramsci, A. (1971). Q. Hoare & G.N. Smith, Selections from the prison notebooks (Reprint,1989 ed.). International Publishers Co.
Grattan, L. (2016). Populism’s power: Radical grassroots democracy in america. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hall, S. (1988). The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism And The Crisis Of The Left. Verso Books.
Han, H. (2014). How organizations develop activists: Civic associations and leadership in the 21st century (1st ed.). Oxford University
Hancox, D. (2015). Why Ernesto Laclau is the intellectual figurehead for Syriza and Podemos. The Guardian,https://www.
Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2019). Assembly. New York: Oxford UniversityPress.
Hobbes, T. (1996).Hobbes: Leviathan: Revised student edition. Cambridge University Press.
Honig, B. (2007). Between decision and deliberation: Political paradox in democratic theory. American Political Science Review,
101(1), 1–17.
Hooker, J. (2009). Race and the politics of solidarity. Oxford University Press.
Inston, K. (2010). Representing the unrepresentable: Rousseau’s legislator and the impossible object of the people. Contempo-
rary Political Theory,9(4), 393–413.
Ives, P. (2004). Language and hegemony in Gramsci. Pluto Press.
Jäger, A. (2017). The semantic drift: Images of populism in post-war American historiography and their relevance for (Euro-
pean) political science. Constellations,24(3), 310–323.
Jäger, A., & Borriello, A. (2020). Left-populism on trial: Laclauian politics in theory and practice. Theory & Event,23(3), 740–764.
Kalyvas, A. (2000). Hegemonic sovereignty: Carl Schmitt, Antonio Gramsci and the constituent prince. Journal of Political Ide-
ologies,5(3), 343–376.
Keenan, A. (2003). Democracy in question: Democratic openness in a time of political closure(1st ed.). Stanford University Press.
Klein, S. (2017). Between charisma and domination: On Max Weber’s critique of democracy. The Journal of Politics,79(1), 179–
Laclau, E. (2005). Populism: What’s in a name? In F. Panizza (Ed.), Populism and the mirror of democracy (pp. 32–49, 1st Printing
ed.). Verso.
Laclau, E. (2007). On populist reason (Reprint edition). Verso.
Laclau, E. (2012). Politics and ideology in Marxist theory: Capitalism, fascism, populism (Reprint edition). Verso.
Laclau, E. (2014). The rhetorical foundations of society.Verso.
Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (2001). Hegemony and socialist strategy: Towards a radical democratic politics (2nd edition). Verso.
Leggett, W. (2013). Restoring society to post-structuralistpolitics: Mouffe, Gramsci and radical democracy. Philosophy & Social
Criticism,39(3), 299–315.
Mair, P. (2006). Ruling the void? The hollowing of western democracy. New Left Review,42(November–December). https://
McAlevey, J. F. (2018). No shortcuts: Organizing for power in the new gilded age. Oxford University Press.
Medearis, J. (2015). Why democracy is oppositional. Harvard University Press.
Mouffe, C. (2018). For a left populism.Verso.
Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, C. R. (2017). Populism: A very short introduction (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.
Muller, J.-W. (2016). What is populism?. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Offe, C. (1985). Disorganized capitalism: Contemporary transformations of work and politics. MIT Press.
Payne, C. M. (2007). I’ve got the light of freedom: The organizing tradition and the Mississippi freedom struggle, with a new preface
(2nd ed.). University of California Press.
Phulwani, V. (2016). The poor man’s Machiavelli: Saul Alinsky and the morality of power. American Political Science Review,
110(4), 863–875.
Ransby, B. (2005). Ella Baker and the black freedom movement: A radical democratic vision. University of North Carolina Press.
Riofrancos, T. (2018). Populism without the people: On chantal mouffe. n+1,
Riley, D. (2010). The civic foundations of fascism in Europe: Italy, Spain, and Romania, 1870-1945. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins
University Press.
Robin, C. (2013). The reactionary mind: Conservatism fromEdmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Reprint edition). Oxford University Press.
Rousseau, J.-J. (1968). The social contract (M. Cranston, Trans.). Penguin Classics.
Rousseau, J.-J. (1985). The government of Poland (W. Kendall, Trans.,1st Ed.). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Sabl, A. (2002). Ruling passions: Political offices and democratic ethics. Princeton University Press.
Sassoon, A. S. (2019). Gramsci’s politics. Taylor & FrancisGroup.
Scholz, S. J. (2015). Seeking solidarity. Philosophy Compass,10(10), 725–735.
Steinberger, P. J. (2008). Hobbes, Rousseau and the modern conception of the state. The Journal of Politics,70(3), 595–611.
Stout, J. (2010). Blessed are the organized: Grassroots democracy in America (1st Edition). Princeton University Press.
Thomas, P. D. (2011). The Gramscian moment: Philosophy, hegemony and Marxism. Haymarket Books.
Thomassen, L. (2019). Representing the people: Laclau as a theorist of representation. New Political Science,41(2), 329–344.
Tuck, R. (2016). The sleeping sovereign (Reprint edition). Cambridge University Press.
Urbinati, N. (1998a). Democracy and populism. Constellations,5(1), 110–124.
Urbinati, N. (1998b). From the periphery of modernity: Antonio Gramsci’s Theory of subordination and hegemony. Political
Theory,26(3), 370–391.
Urbinati, N. (2019). Political theory of populism. Annual Review of Political Science,22(1), 111–127.
Vieira, M. B. (2015). Founders and re-founders: Struggles of self-authorized representation. Constellations,22(4), 500–513.
Weber, M. (2020). Charisma and disenchantment: The vocation lectures. P. Reitter, C. Wellmon, & D. Searls (Eds.). NYRB Classics.
Wolin, S. S. (1994). Fugitive Democracy. Constellations,1(1), 11–25.
Michael Gorup is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the New College of Florida. He is currently writing a
book on popular sovereignty and race in U.S. political thought. His writing has appeared in the journals Perspectives
on Politics and Law, Culture and Humanities.
How to cite this article: Gorup G. Populism, political organization, and the paradox of popular agency.
Constellations. 2021;1–15.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
The transition from royal to popular sovereignty during the age of democratic revolutions entailed not only the reorganization of institutions of governance and norms of political legitimacy, but also a dramatic and less-examined transformation in the iconography of political power and rule. Drawing on a wide range of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century visual sources, this chapter examines the pressures of popular visualization that accompanied the victorious appearance of popular sovereignty at key moments of its emergence, and how competing strategies of imaging popular will were implicated in different conceptions of popular agency and power. The chapter is focused on the emergence of “the living image of the people,” the idea that collective assemblies, crowds, and mass protests were no longer understood as mere factious riots or seditious rebellions, but instead as living manifestations of the people’s authority, sublime expressions of the vitality and significance of popular will.