A psychoanalytic conceptual framework for understanding populism

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In this paper, I argue for two claims. The first is that all social and political thinking lies along a continuum and that the structure of each thought along the continuum is that of a basic desire for self-determination. Self-determination, I argued, occurs in a variety of ways including, importantly, at a variety of levels of intention. On the one hand, there are the relatively unreflective ways of understanding oneself as autonomous. I attributed this way of thinking of the Neo-Aristotelian conception of practical reason which is characteristic of conservatism. On the other side of the continuum, there is a rigoristic version of Kantian moral philosophy in which, to be autonomous, one must act exclusively from duty or from purely economic motivation. The second claims is that populism can be understood as a clash between different practical conceptions of autonomy which are brought into conflict as a result of the process of modern rationalization. This clash can, I argued, be clarified and also alleviated by appreciating that what the values which stand opposed in the “us vs. them” of populism and liberalism are based on a fundamentally similar conception of the value of autonomy but have come into conflict by sometime contingent historical processes which can be undone or steered in a different direction.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPhilosophy and Social Criticism
StateAccepted/In press - 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021.


  • emotions
  • Freud
  • liberalism
  • populism
  • psychoanalysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science


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