The energetic exchange on ‘A General Logic of Crisis’ that appeared recently in the pages of the London Review of Book stands as an exceptional vehicle for current discussions on the rhetoric of progressive populism. Wolfgang Streeck, implacable, lashes out at the reservations put forward by Adam Tooze in his review of Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End? . At the centre of the polemic lies Streeck’s use of the word ‘people’ (Volk). The word appears in the analytical distinction with which the author presents the crossroads in which democratic capitalism finds itself today in Europe: an ‘innocent’ (Streeck’s word) distinction between a ‘people of the state’ (Staatsvolk) and a ‘people of the market’ (Marktsvolk), with the first subordinated to the second.

What is the problem? It is undeniable that contemporary capitalism is marked with the imperative of attracting investors and making them comfortable, which of course means tweaking with fiscal policy and public spending in an arguably twisted way. The fact that this translates into a tension between the democratic rationale of service towards citizens and the financial rationale of service towards investors is hard to refute. But how ‘innocent’ is a vocabulary that precipitates an interpretation in terms of kinds of people? There lies Tooze’s preoccupation, which sees in that terminology an inclination towards a form of nationalist essentialism that, combined with a critique of ‘financial aristocracy’, can find its way into the political space of antisemitism, in an number of its many avatars.

Streeck is undoubtedly among the most astute critics of the rhetoric of ‘faux cosmopolitan’ and ‘utopian universalism’ (his words) that flourishes in bien-pensant intellectual circles, in which he evidently locates Tooze. He reclaims, against this, a frank ‘empiricism’ from which thinking the crisis of democratic capitalism in Europe without a turn to the primacy of the nation-state would be illusory. He is obviously pissed off with the fact that any reference to ‘national borders’ or ‘national sovereignty’ tends to be systematically received, especially when coming from Germany, with measured references to the perils of an isolationist mentality and of an ideal of national community. He defends a form of political realism that simply cannot ignore the historical resources on which a struggle against the neoliberal foundations of the European Union can count, with the nation-state being the handiest one.

Tooze does not enter the jungle of political realism in his response. He rather focuses on the question that most intrigued him in the first place: that of vocabulary. The national question, on which Streeck expands, is less crucial to him than its negative double: the notion of Marktsvolk, a neologism that may cover in fact an intertwined complex of financial institutions but which still denotes the existence of a ‘people’ that gives body and meaning to it.

There are flesh-and-blood individuals occupying dominant positions in the banking complex, no doubt. It is also certain, though, that the persona of the ‘investor’, which embodies this particular form of political sovereignty that emanates from the financial rationale, operates in this complex as a rhetorical element: a figure in the name of which the banking complex justifies its action and which is as ductile and abstract as that of national citizenry. In practice, the person who holds a passport and votes in national elections (Staatsvolk) is most likely the same as the one who holds a bank account and a pension plan and which therefore constitutes the investor whose satisfaction the banking system is supposed to serve (Marktsvolk). The empirical person that is certainly left out in this analytical distinction, one should note, is the one that has neither a passport nor money.

But the word Volk, and here is the crux of the argument, rather than signalling the existence of two moral imaginaries (or models of subjectivity, or regimes of justification, or ideological deliria), points directly towards the substantive constitution of an anthropological type as a human adversary. Tooze goes further here, deploying the immense political potential than a merely ‘innocent’ question of vocabulary can entail: in his letter Streeck applies, perhaps unintentionally, the categories of an anthropological type (the bien-pensant cosmopolitan) to the author of the critique, leaving no doubt where he situates himself in the antagonism opened up by his analytical distinction.

One has to recognize in this discussion crucial aspects of the rhetorical challenges confronted by progressive populism today, discussed for instance in a recent conversation between Íñigo Errejón and Chantal Mouffe. What is at stake is the semantic filling of categories such as ‘people’, ‘nation’ or ‘homeland’, their rhetoric opposition to an ‘elite’, an ‘system’ or a ‘cast’, and the tactful occupation of a space, at once political and semiotic, that is otherwise been accessed from openly regressive positions. And which should instead be taken, why not, in the direction of what Streeck calls ‘faux cosmopolitanism’ and ‘utopian universalism’ (but that should obviously be called otherwise).

Beyond a mere polemic interplay, the Tooze-Streeck exchange is an invitation to examine the political importance of vocabulary operations. Streeck’s operation is certainly effective, but calling it ‘innocent’ is standing on the edge of a vast political slip. Tooze’s is more sensitive to semantic cracks, to what they can leave out and to the political imagination that they ought to provoke.