Beyond left populism
What is populism?
The first thing that anyone notices about the definition of populism is that generally there isn’t one. Or rather there are as many definitions as people who use the term (or more, given people being inconsistent) which is another way of saying the same thing. Usually when a term has common currency but no agreed definition this is a sign that the signified concept is itself ideological rather than well-theorised. We’ll return the meaning of these categories in a minute.
The Guardian has recently opened what is intended (according to their announcement) a 6-month series on populism. They began, inevitably, by nailing their colours to the mast in choosing an anchor-point definition of populism to work off, one advanced by Dutch academic Cas Mudde:
“[populism is] a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people”
Actually, that definition is not the one given in the Guardian article but quoted from his (co-authored) 2017 book “Populism: a very short introduction”. The difference with the definition given in the latest newspaper piece is the omission of the qualifier “thin-centred”. This is in keeping with the general message of the piece that we can really forget (for the time being) about any forms of populism other than the populist radical right for the moment. In the earlier work, he explains the “thin-centred” qualifier thus:
“Defining populism as a “thin-centered ideology” is helpful for understanding the oft-alleged malleability of the concept in question. An ideology is a body of normative ideas about the nature of man and society as well as the organization and purposes of society. Simply stated, it is a view of how the world is and should be. Unlike “thick-centered” or “full” ideologies (e.g., fascism, liberalism, socialism), thin-centered ideologies such as populism have a restricted morphology, which necessarily appears attached to — and sometimes is even assimilated into — other ideologies.“
This centre-grounds the whole problem of defining populism as an ideology — first you need a working definition of what an ideology is. And if there’s one concept that’s even more contested than populism when it comes to competing, mutually incompatible definitions, it’s ideology. Definitionally speaking, it seems to be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Interestingly Mudde takes the unusual step of making a bi-valent definition of ideology which divides them into two main types, the “thin-centred” and “thick-centred”. That a “thin-centred” ideology can, and possibly needs to, seek conjugation with a “thick-centred” one, is reflected in Mudde’s repeated use of the term “host ideology” to refer to the relation of the former to the latter, in an obvious organicist analogy to host and dependent or parasitic organisms. Organic metaphors generally get bad press in political and social science, and this case is no exception. Apart from the fact that the two above quoted sentences “An ideology is a body of normative ideas about the nature of man and society as well as the organization and purposes of society. Simply stated, it is a view of how the world is and should be” is the only attempt to give any definition of ideology in the whole text (and one that even in such a sort space manages to confuse the descriptive/analytical “how the world is” and the normative “…and should be”).
Behind this silence lurks another. Anyone with any knowledge of left discourse in relation to ideology is familiar with the terms “bourgeois” or “dominant” ideology and that they have precisely to do with ideas such as that “politics should be an expression of the [general] will of the people”. And yet we are not told whether bourgeois ideology is either a “thin-centred” or “thick-centred” ideology — or even if such a thing as bourgeois ideology exists at all.
In order to defend himself against the accusation that populism, as defined, is so general that it is all-encompassing, Mudde points to two counter-tendencies:
“…our definition of populism only makes sense if there is non-populism. And there are at least two direct opposites of populism: elitism and pluralism.”
The first, according to Mudde is as bad as populism itself:
“Elitism shares populism’s basic monist and Manichean distinction of society, between a homogeneous “good” and a homogeneous “evil,” but it holds an opposite view on the virtues of the groups. Simply stated, elitists believe that “the people” are dangerous, dishonest, and vulgar, and that “the elite” are superior not only in moral, but also in cultural and intellectual terms. Hence, elitists want politics to be exclusively or predominantly an elite affair, in which the people do not have a say; they either reject democracy altogether (e.g., Francisco Franco or Augusto Pinochet) or support a limited model of democracy (e.g., José Ortega y Gasset or Joseph Schumpeter)“
Which leaves only pluralism as the potentially “good” alternative:
“Pluralism is the direct opposite of the dualist perspective of both populism and elitism, instead holding that society is divided into a broad variety of partly overlapping social groups with different ideas and interests. Within pluralism diversity is seen as a strength rather than a weakness. Pluralists believe that a society should have many centers of power and that politics, through compromise and consensus, should reflect the interests and values of as many different groups as possible. Thus, the main idea is that power is supposed to be distributed throughout society in order to avoid specific groups — be they men; ethnic communities; economic, intellectual, military or political cadres, etc. — acquiring the capacity to impose their will upon the others.”
Sounds rather like the sort of thing certain people might say if you asked them to come up with a definition of liberalism (probably with a few “moderations” and “tolerances” thrown in for good measure). But liberalism was already mentioned as a “thick-centred” ideology in the second quote above, so it’s not clear what “pluralism” is meant to be — a “thin-centred” ideology in its own right (context would be suggestive, in this case); or merely a “value”? One can’t help feeling that Mudde is in practice falling into the default liberal habit of naming as ideologies things of which he disapproves and leaving personally more “acceptable” norms like “pluralism” and “liberal democratic ideology” free from any such deprecating qualification. It’s also worth noting, in passing, that Mudd’s definition of pluralism is purely political, with no economic aspect at all.
Without necessarily accepting that the frame of ideology is the beginning and end of a working definition of populism, it will be necessary to have a working model of ideology to progress further. So in that pursuit, we will take a short diversion to sketch a slightly more worked out model than Mudd’s couple of sentences.
Dual process model of ideology (a parenthesis)
In fact, the struggle to determine whether ideology and ideological are politically neutral or defamatory terms has caused the spilling of much ink amongst leftists in general and Marxists in particular. The common gag amongst Marxists is that “Your mistaken ideas are ideology, whereas my correct ideas are scientific”. A full exploration of a working model of ideology (and, crucially, its relation to practice) is too lengthy to do justice to here (see my forthcoming “Ideology and practice” for this). A quick sketch of the model will have to suffice here.
The basic idea is to use the dual process model of cognition (specifically that from Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, fast and slow”) as an analogy for a bi-valent model of ideology. To summarise Kahneman distinguishes two modes of cognition: the first (“System I”) is intuitive, mostly unconscious and fast and efficient; the second (“System II”) is deliberate, conscious, and slow and energy intensive. System I is what allows us to make split-second decisions and snap judgements before we know all the facts. Thanks to the wonders of evolution, System I is remarkably efficient but it is far from perfect and subject to increasingly well-mapped out weaknesses or cognitive biases. In a sense, System II is what we fall back on when we become inescapably aware that System I has failed and we need to consciously work out the “counter-intuitive” reasons why our instincts have let us down.
The dual process model of cognition is to do with individual decision-making and thought processes. Ideology is a different category in that it relates to social thinking and discourse about how we understand our society. But the analogy is still useful in distinguishing about the “received ideas” or “common sense” about how society “naturally” is, the “Ideology I” of bourgeois ideology, for e.g, and the deliberative, explicitly theorised “Ideology II” models of (classical) liberalism or Marxism, for e.g. Most journalism, blogging, opinion columns, etc, is clearly Ideology I — how to reconcile the latest events and developments within the existing dominant “common sense” of society. The social sciences (sociology, economics, etc) attempt to work out more explicitly rationalised models of social dynamics (with greater or lesser degrees of success in separating themselves from the presuppositions and prejudices of the dominant bourgeois Ideology I — economics, we’re talking about you here).
One final bit and we can move on from this brief sketch of the model and back to populism. We can divide efforts at Ideology II reflections on society into theory, doctrine and dogma. The difference between theory and doctrine is the difference between individual and collective practice. (There is no room to discuss this in detail, but the maxim ‘practice is primary, ideology is secondary’ is a crude summary of the proposed relation between the two factors). Any fool can produce (or attempt) theory. Individual theoretical production only becomes socially significant to the degree that it influences a significant number of people. Theory is transformed into doctrine (that which can be taught or reliably reproduced) by organised collectivities, be they academic “schools”, political parties or organisations, religious groups, etc. The very act of “collectivising” theory into doctrine (and the associated organisation practice necessary to reproduce it), introduces the need for a certain stability or fixedness in the concepts and narratives. At the extreme this fixedness can become total ossification resulting in dogma and, generally, an organisational practice reduced to the reproduction of self (the organisation) and defence of the identity-defining dogma.
In summary, the passage from Ideology I through to theory, then doctrine and finally dogma is in one aspect an increasing loss of flexibility. Ideology I, with its almost total lack of self-criticism, blythe disregard for contradictions or any of the other strictures of deliberative models, is in some ways almost infinitely flexible, but only insofar as the new adaptations don’t stray too far from or challenge the foundations of the self-justification of the status quo. The effort and time taken to construct a worked out Ideology II model of society does make the work of changing the model more demanding. But on the other hand, the power of the passage from the intuitive to the deliberative mode makes possible (if not guaranteed) critical breaks from the axioms of the dominant bourgeois ideology, trading in a loss in one sort of evolutionary flexibility for another category of flexibility — the ability to make radical breaks in continuity, to open clear blue water in critical distance.
Finally, on terminology: because Ideology I and Ideology II are both hard to remember as to which is which, and because of an unfortunate resonance with inappropriate aspirations to mathematical or formal logic terms, for shorthand we will use the ancient Greek word “doxa” for Ideology I (the intuitive “common sense”) and “doctrine” for Ideology II (the consciously articulated deliberative shared theories of schools or factions).
The mystery in the populist narrative — whodunnit and how?
If we accept Mudde’s characterisation of populism as the worldview of society separated into a “pure people usurped by a corrupt elite” that raises the obvious question of how the people came to be usurped. Populism takes as its starting point that the foundation of democracy and the nation state or republic is that the people should be sovereign and in the heroic past, once were. But at some point since the heroic era where the natural order of the people being sovereign reigned, a downfall has taken place. It’s clear that this downfall must somehow be due to the immoral malice of the corrupt elite. But how did these evildoers managed to invert the natural order and deprive the people of their birthright, their freedom and sovereignty? Clearly, an element of deception must have been involved, so what are the delusions and lies that have ensnared the sleeping giant of the people and how can we get the people to wake up, arise and take back what’s theirs by natural right?
Corruption is the core image or metaphor in this narrative. Once the nation was a healthy, prospering organic unity. Now it is festering with corruption. If the elites of the “golden era” past, when all was well, virtuously did their best to serve the people and the collective good, now the corrupt elites of the present serve only themselves and care nothing for the suffering of the common people. Populist demagogues are forever railing against corruption. In part this is like being the man who was against sin. It’s almost impossible to argue against being against corruption, after all, no one is ever actually in favour of corruption. But the other advantage of this trope is that it avoids addressing more difficult questions such as, isn’t the process of the rich enriching themselves at the expense of the masses just part of how business as usual runs in capitalism? Or even, when was this supposed golden age of the past when ordinary people had real control over their lives and their political representatives truly did act in the interests of their constituents rather than their own and their cronies?
Sapere Aude! Populism and conspiracy theory
One of the signature characteristics of populism is its openly declared “anti-political” stance. In our terms this is a rejection of all existing political doctrines (ideology II — usually starting with “socialism”, hence why most populist movements eventually tend to break right rather than left). Usually these are all equally castigated as “failed dogmas”. This firm refusal to consider any ideas from outside the sphere of “common sense” (doxa) creates a tension between the practical failure of the status quo (doxa failure) that prompted the populist insurgency in the first place, and the refusal of existing (Ideology II) doctrines that might help theorise those very failures. The irony of this “anti-political” stance then is that at the same time that it clears a free space ìn which to potentially construct a new critical politics (doctrine), it simultaneously deprives itself of the languages and conceptual toolboxes with which to build it. Nature abhors a vacuum, no less in ideology than in everything else, so into this ideological vacuum flow conspiracy theories as viruses bearing the disparate strands of ideological DNA out of which, in time, a new mutant ideological doctrine will evolve.
Conspiracy always announces itself as the “non-ideological truth” that “they (the elites) don’t want you to know”. In a sense they allow people who are dissatisfied with the status quo but for whatever reason, don’t want to grapple with the effort and difficulty of actually breaking with the dominant ideology (which would require constructing an individual theoretical or collective doctrinal Ideology II critique of where it has gone wrong), to have their cake and eat it. Here the moral story of populism (a “pure” people mislead and betrayed by a “corrupt” elite) provides an easy get-out clause from the problem of constructing a well-worked out critique.
In the name of “democracy”, the populist collectivity can refuse to discuss political questions (“These arguments only divide us and serve the interests of the corrupt elite”). “Corruption” itself becomes the evil that exists in the world, a safely empty signifier that everybody can project their particular resentments into. The refusal to discuss anything “political” other than how much we hate all the symptoms of social distress and those wicked elites guilty of them, the more bearers of the maddest conspiracy theories are allowed to participate in the movement, unchallenged, as valued equals whose attitudes and opinions are as valid as anyone else (because democracy). Fluoridation? Chemtrails? Lizards? Mind-control? White genocide? You name it, anything goes. And in any political space within which conspiracies are given free rein, antisemitism will always inevitably appear (for ideological/structural reasons there aren’t room to discuss here, Auguste Bebel’s characterisation of antisemitism as “the socialism of fools” is still valid).
Because conspiracy theory infests the political vacuum that a refusal to allow critical reasoning creates, it is entirely possible for individuals to make the passage straight from bourgeois ideology to the far-right without passing through any intermediary stages, purely through the conveyor-belt mechanism of conspiracy theories. (Gemma O’Doherty being a case in point, from anti-vax to full-blown fash in a few short months: do not pass go, do not collect 200…). For better or worse, there is no corresponding passage towards the radical left via the mechanism of conspiracy theory (despite what fans of Russia Today might think). Which is another significant element of asymmetry between left and right possibilities to influence the process.
Left, right and centre
Before we can address the questions of left populism, we first need to sketch out the relation between the political centre and the left and the right. Of course there are centre-leftists and centre-rightists who are as appalled, if not more, by their non-centrist counterparts as they are with each other. Similarly the left-of-centre hate the centre-left with nearly as much passion as they hate the right and the same applies on the right of the spectrum. But the question remains, what defines the political centre that left and right consider themselves to be either part of, or in opposition to? Again this is a bigger question than can be gone into in detail here. It goes without saying that the boundary that defines the political centre is drawn by concrete processes of power rather than abstract ideological speculations. For now, let’s say that the current conjuncture is that the political centre is defined by the current neoliberal regime of accumulation, that is politically liberal democratic and economically neoliberal. Of course this boundary does not fall from heaven, but is the result of historical processes of class struggle and reproduced by mechanisms in the fields of the political and bureaucratic elite, the commercial media, academic and cultural industries and the various civil society institutions and enterprises.
When it comes to tendencies, whether left, right or populist, that dissent from or reject the current political centre, any notion of symmetry breaks down. The political centre and the regime of accumulation behind it is a combination of a political and economic regime (and has to be, given the appearance of separation between the economic and political spheres is a peculiar “feature” of capitalist society). But in general left dissent from the centre is based on opposition to the economic aspect, whereas the right is primarily driven by disgust at aspects of the political status quo (the idea of migrants being treated as equal human beings, for e.g. — regardless of the total lack of this in reality). As a mental exercise, you can try to imagine people who reject the political centre from a leftist critique of liberal democracy and a rightist critique of capitalist economics (if such a thing existed). The converse hypothetical of someone who rejected neoliberal economics in favour of something more Keynesian or state-monopoly socialist and liberal democracy in favour of something more dictatorial and intolerant of ethnic, racial or sexual diversity, may seem a little more possible, but despite the real existence of individual lunatics, as a tendency there is no real home for such hybrids on either left or right of the spectrum.
But the final categorisation that we need to perform in relation to the centre and the left and the right is the distinction between not just the centre-left and the left-of-centre, but between the left-of-centre (i.e. anti-centre-left) and the radical or far left (and the right wing equivalents). The radical left is defined by their doctrinal commitment to a radical break with current capitalist society, including its associated political forms. Similarly, the far right looks for a radical departure from liberal democracy (but capitalism, not so much, obviously). Properly speaking neither the far left or far right are populist, by the definition sketched above, because they have both fundamentally broken with bourgeois ideology (doxa) by committing to a radical doctrine.
However, on both left and right there is an “in-betweener” zone of rejection of centrist politics that is not yet committed to a radical alternative. Not every UK supporter of Corbyn who yearns for an end to neoliberal austerity, proper funding for the NHS, schools and the return of British Rail, is committed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the instauration of soviet power. Similarly, not every social media follower of Gemma O’Doherty is committed to an Irish Catholic fascist dictatorship to “eradicate corruption”. These two “in-betweener” zones of the left-of-centre and right-of-centre are distinct from the apoliticism of populists proper, in that they have a more or less developed ideological commitment to a partial rejection of centrism, either on economic (Keynesian) or political (anti-pluralist) grounds. However, outside of that partial opposition to the aspect of centrism that offends them, their views on matters political (for leftists) or economic (for rightists) may be, and probably are, entirely “conventional” in the centrist sense. One can be opposed to privatisation and neoliberalism’s assault on the NHS, services and infrastructure and still demand immigrants be driven back into the sea. Similarly one can harp on about foreigners being the cause of native workers sleeping on the streets, but still be opposed to any infringement on the rights of private property in housing and the unfettered rights of developers to turn a profit.
Being minoritarian, both the far left and far right have to orient themselves to their non-doctrinally committed periphery as well as the “apolitical” populist discontented and the sceptical electorate in general (for those pursuing or toying with an electoral road to power). There are two basic strategies for doing this. The first, more difficult strategy is to radicalise your periphery — this means moving them away from and breaking their remaining attachments to the dominant bourgeois ideology. This is difficult because generally, most people don’t change their basic assumptions except through personal participation in transformative actions (leaflets, literature and the “battle of ideas” won’t cut it to radicalise people en masse). The second strategy is to adopt a strategy of “mobilise” rather than radicalise, which basically means pitching your message at a level that’s going to minimize the challenge to people’s existing attachments to the dominant ideology. In practice, this pretty much means pandering (or “tailism” as Lenin called it). On the other hand, it is much easier as mobilisation activity does not require much creative energy or coming up with original ideas or strategies, being based generally on a long-established familiar playbook of event-managed rallies, marches and meetings that minimise risk, barriers to entry and the possibility of taking people outside their comfort zones.
Populism and the far right
Recently in France, we have seen the upsurge of the gilets jaunes movement, which according to our definitions is (or was) an organic populist insurgency. No sooner did the movement get international media headlines, than multiple attempts to replicate the “brand” sprung up around different western European countries. Almost without exception, these attempts at mimicry were initiated by far-right groups attempting to cash in on the phenomenon. For the most part, these top-down efforts by far-right doctrinaires to ape the bottom-up populist insurgency in France failed to have much impact. But they point to the current strategy of the far-right in the 21st century (at least regionally) to portray themselves as anti-system populists.
Given this “wolves in sheeples’ clothing” strategy, it is an absolute necessity for contemporary anti-fascist movements to be able to distinguish between the confused flux of genuine populists and the fake populist-presentation of the actual far right. Above all, strategically the old antifa strategy of “first isolate, then destroy” must be carefully followed. To attack the entirety of a populist mobilisation due to the presence of a minority of far-right infiltrators in its midst is to run the risk of doing the fash’s job for them by pushing the uncommitted in their direction. Similarly, where committed far-right ideologues try to conceal their politics to present as “ordinary Joe or Jane” populists, careful work needs to be done to expose their actual allegiances in an undeniable way. A fuller treatment of the implications for anti-fascist strategy is once again out of scope for this text, other than to say that given the relative numerical insignificance of the left, nearly all strategically important anti-systemic insurgencies will likely take the form of initially populist uprisings for the foreseeable future. So the capacity to respond effectively to the challenges of the far right attempting to colonise and instrumentalise such movements is an existential necessity.
There’s much more to be said on the subject of right populism, but for now, let’s turn to the question or questions of populism and the left.
Is there a left populism?
In answer to the question of whether there is such a thing as left-populism, and whether such a thing is impossible, inevitable, or good, bad or neutral it appears that there are a number of possible answers.
The laziest one is to say that because populism is clearly rooted in bourgeois ideology, then no “true” leftist group or tendency can be populist. This is clearly a “no true Scotsman” argument as you’d have to clearly have to define “true leftist” as “not populist” in a circular fashion to deal with the numerous cases of actually-existing left groups who display populist tendencies.
The next laziest is to say that because all leftist tendencies see the broad mass of humanity (i.e. the working class) as deprived of any real control over their lives, then all leftists are some species of populist because they want the mass of society to “take back control” from the current dominant minority (the bosses, the capitalists). This takes the opposite route from the first position, which redefined leftism circularly, to redefine populism to be so non-specific
as to encompass all movements of social contestation (left and right). This gambit is also basically pointless.
Although it must be said, that there is one good reason why a lot of people fall into this leftism = power to the people = populism, simplification. Which is the instrumental use by liberal centrists of the term populism as a 21st century replacement for the category of totalitarianism in the 20th — namely the embodiment of “horseshoe theory” that the far left and far right “extremists” who oppose the “capitalist realism” of the centrists, are indistinguishable from each other, both morally and politically (superficial differences aside).
As repulsive as horseshoe theory is (and as relevant as it remains, due to its continual use by the ideological defenders of the status quo in the media) that’s not a reason to eviscerate populism of its specific political content, just to dismiss attacks from media shills.
Having dismissed the impossible vs inevitable dyad, we need to accept that left populism is not universal on the left, but it does occur more often and more significantly than token rare cases that serve merely as the exception that proves the rule.
The question then becomes, how positive or negative or neutral is left populism in aiding or obstructing the left project — which for the purposes of this article we will take to be the political recomposition of an antagonist proletarian counterpower with the force to effect radical social change. The argument put forward here is that left populism is destructive to the left project, so defined.
Left national-populism is the adoption, for whatever motive, of the language of “the people” over that of “the class” as the primary subject of politics, and the strategy of liberating the people from their subjection and suffering by means of the framework of the state. While well-meaning noises may be made about the peoples of other countries, the responsibility of the left project locally is to the people of this particular nation-state only. In this light, much is made of the rights of the citizens — non-citizens are generally excluded from the discourse from the outset (this was a major bone of contention between national-populists and radicals within the Apollo House action, for example).
Given its primary purpose of defending the welfare of the “national working class” or the citizenry, left national-populists tend to fall easily into nativist and anti-migrant narratives and the age-old slur that migrants undermine wages and conditions for native workers. People within the socialist movement have been banging this particular drum since the 1820s when William Thompson warned against the tendency of English trade unionists to blame migrant Irish workers for undermining wages. Left national-populism is as old as the socialist movement and will likely be with us as long as capitalist society is around to reproduce the bourgeois ideology on which it is based.
Left national-populism is not only ethically or morally vile, it is ultimately self-defeating in building class power. The attempts of the American Federation of Labour to exclude immigrant Catholics from Ireland and Southern Europe, led to the latter category siding, by default with the (distinctly ambiguous) Knights of Labour against the more protectionist WASP-ascendency of the AFL. When the Knights fell prey to anti-Chinese hysteria, the founders of the IWW again set themselves to the task of recruiting all workers, of whatever origin. And it’s from the organising tactics of the IWW, inherited in the 1930s by the communists in the CIO, that the organising might of the working class in its syndicalist heyday came. The radical internationalism of the Wobblies and the revolutionary syndicalists around the globe in the pre-WW1 and interwar years was central to building an inclusive proletarian counterpower.
A century after the peak of the global political and technological composition that defined class power in that era, the conditions for organising have changed almost beyond recognition. But the one constant that remains in the era of globalisation and (renewed) mass migration, is that exclusionary, nativist conceptions of class organisation can only lead to defeat and the rise of the right on the principle of “why settle for the imitation when you can have the real thing?”. In short, as a project for political recomposition, left national-populism is class suicide.
The danger of left-populism to political recomposition is a two-fold threat to the identity and mission of the antagonist class subject. In terms of identity, reducing the interests of the proletariat or working class to that of the British or Irish worker, makes it impossible to stand against Len McCluskey’s “British jobs for British workers” slogan. A nationally-divided proletariat cannot challenge the power of globalised capitalism. Globalised production chains requires globalised organisation of workers resistance to regain any level of control over the economy. The right wing campaign for Brexit was based purely on opposition to freedom of movement for labour. But that is only one of the four freedoms of movement defined as core pillars of the EU, freedom of movement for capital, goods, services and labour. And yet the British left criminally ape the right in continually using “freedom of movement” to refer to the freedom of movement of workers only. If the left had attacked the free movement of capital, goods and services as well, then that at least would have marked them out from the right and far-right — but their message was in fact indistinguishable from the latter.
In terms of the mission of the antagonist class subject, defence of “national sovereignty” is total misdirection. No amount of retreat from supranational organisations, whether EU, NAFTA, UN, ASEAN, etc, can transmute the fiction of national sovereignty into the reality of workers power. There is only and has only ever been one true sovereign power in capitalism and that’s capital. To reproduce the bourgeois ideological myth of the sovereignty of “the people” is to reforge the links of the ideological chains that bind us. In terms of mission, the populist narrative of regaining the lost paradise of the Keynesian golden age in Ken Loach’s nostalgic “Spirit of ‘45” vein, denies the necessity of a radical break from capitalist social relations to deliver us from poverty, oppression and ecological destruction.
Populism: Why now? How should the radical left respond to the current conjuncture?
Ten years ago in a talk the week after the fall of Lehman Brothers, I rather boldly proclaimed the death of neoliberalism as a hegemonic ideology. Clearly, that prediction was wildly premature. However the crisis of authority of neoliberal hegemony caused by the unpredicted system crash of 2007–2008 has not been without lasting effects. There is a crisis in the rational-legal authority of neoliberal economists and technocratic “experts”. In the UK the 2016 EU membership referendum saw the establishment-backed Remain campaign base itself entirely on the legitimate authority of economic experts, from the governor of the Bank of England on down, predicting economic armageddon resulting from a Brexit vote. Politicians backing the leave campaign, particularly from the Tory right read the public mood and declared that the “so-called experts” had no legitimate authority. A charge to which the centre-right and centre-left had no response other than spluttering impotently about “post-truth politics”.
The point here is that if the rational-legal authority of the neoliberal economist’s “There is No Alternative” discourse has lost its ideological (doxa) dominance, then the social terrain is opened up to the search for other sources of authority. Capitalist modernism, at least in the “fully subsumed” OECD countries, has done a pretty good job of dismantling the institutions of traditional authority, so that really only leaves charismatic authority as an alternative option (following Weber’s tripartite classification of ideal types of authority). The first lesson to note is that the call from the centre-left to redouble the efforts to regain popular legitimacy for the rational-legal authority of neoliberal experts is an obvious dead-end and represents the impossibility for coalition between the far left and centre left on that basis. “Project Fear” may be a clever bit of spin by the Brexiteers, but from a radical left perspective, it certainly is “Project Dead-end”. No possible attempt can be made towards the recomposition of an antagonist class agency on the backs of appeals to taking the economic forecasts from the Governor of the Bank of England more seriously.
That is not to say that populist insurgencies need to take the form of movements led by charismatic populist demagogues. Indeed in the 2011 Arab Spring and the “Movement of the squares” the populist refusal of politics expressed itself in the refusal to allow leaders or figureheads to mediate the movement and transform it’s imminent process into representation. However, the point is that even if this refusal to accept the charismatic authority of leaders may be anti-authoritarian in practice, the populist ban on all formal political ideologies, including those of the libertarian and anti-authoritarian left, make the continuation and reproduction of that starting point entirely contingent and subject to reversal when confronted by the failure of the movement to achieve desired change. Thus in Spain we saw the movement of the squares (15-M/Indignados), with its slogan of “no les represantan!” (they do not represent us) become recuperated as support for the populist (but otherwise utterly bourgeois) Podemos with its charismatic leader, Pablo Iglesias. Today, in France, we see, despite spirited resistance, the gradual emergence of self-appointed figureheads, anointed by a media desperate for leaders to raise up and then drag down.
In terms of how the radical left should respond to the current conjuncture, I will make only a few brief points before ending this text (which is already too long). Firstly, as mentioned above, given the weak and numerically insignificant strength of the left in the current era, it is likely that most sizeable social upheavals will take the form of populist insurgencies, if only in the initial stages, so developing the capacity to intervene effectively in these moments is of utmost importance. Secondly, while in the 1920s and 1930s the left was of such scale and implantation in the social reproductive sphere (workers educational, social, sports, health, housing, insurance etc organisations) that the far-right defined themselves first and foremost as defending the nation against the threat of leftist subversion. Today the lack of the left as credible systemic threat, means the far-right presents itself first and foremost as directly in opposition to the system itself — although the castigation of internationalism as treason remains undimmed. Consequently the far right enter and related to populist insurgencies on a much more equal footing with the radical left, and this presents the very real and present danger that movements of social contestation can be captured by them to the detriment of any real social change and possibility for recomposition of a proletarian counterpower (not to mention the existential threat to existing left and progressive militants). Thirdly, the only medium to long term solution to the current marginality of the radical left is to propagate itself through the strategy of radicalisation, not mobilisation — which runs the risk of opportunistically amplifying right-wing narratives for short-term gain and long-term disaster.