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Beware of Private Populism

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I’m occasionally invited to go on Rising, an internet show hosted by Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti. The show’s premise is that the working class in America is being hosed by economic elites, and populists on the Right and Left can band together to wrest control of the nation’s social and political life from oligarchs, regardless of the cultural differences between the American Right and Left.

A handful of dubious assumptions undergird this premise, and most of them can be waved off as the two hosts agreeing on what they agree on and disagreeing on what they disagree on.

However, Randolph Hohle makes an argument in his newest book, “Racism in the Neoliberal Era” that suggests that public populism is fundamentally an intramural sport that excludes Black people. The facade of public populism only remained viable because Jim Crow violently kept Black people out of the public as rights bearing parts of the populace. Hohle’s is the first book I’ve read that takes the Jim Crow populism of “Big” Jim Folsom in Alabama, Maddux in Georgia, and Huey Long in Louisiana seriously. These racists were legitimate populists as long as the people who counted as people weren’t Black. Some of these populists, like Folsom, wouldn’t mind if a few Black people were helped along, too. As long as there weren’t too many, relative to the poor Whites who were aided.

Hohle’s argument runs that in response to the way that the Civil Rights Movement forced the legal recognition of Black people in the public, the public stopped being a White space and Whiteness was privatized, with racism stopped looked like explicit, denoted Black codes, and it started looking like a deregulated, enhanced, and government supported private sphere, e.g., segregation academies. In this way, desegregation led to the privatization of social infrastructure and the evacuation of public goods that we now call neoliberalism. Which means that neoliberalism is a racial policy, not an economic one. Neoliberalism is what racism looks like in the post Jim Crow era.

What this means is that populism, if it follows American racism, will find its expression as liberal/private populism. This is the populism of the UBI, charter school, even universal healthcare, especially if it comes in a private model like the ACA. It’s a populism that cedes power in production to elite power in exchange for a racialized White private space, while stigmatizing and racializing public services as Black, even while it secures government resources for private services.

This private populism is still going to be anti-Black, but it will not be the Right populism of Jim Crow. Right populism uses tradition and convention to avoid extending justice to Black people; private populism uses the mechanism of markets and choice, while restricting access to the productive power that creates the options among which people choose.

This private populism will redistribute resources in a way that doesn’t democratize productive power. You can put the people on welfare and give them healthcare and still keep people unempowered, even though their landlords will have secure access to rent. In this private populism, real power still flows through the unaccountable and capricious discretion of private transfers of wealth, e.g., inheritances and corporate access to investment.

For populism not to be racist, it’s going to have to return to a public that now includes Black people.

To reiterate, Right populism is going to be racist because it doesn’t overthrow conventional habits of thought and action in America, which are organized to induce Black degradation. But the alternative is begging to fall into the trap that the liberal Protestant church falls into, where you over throw the parochial cultural habits of the dominant institution, but you do it in a way that leaves a vacuous public, and ultimately privatized alternative.

If the drive towards privatization is driven by racism, then a populism that does not deal with racism will be a private populism, even if it’s not explicitly a Right populism.

This private populism will be vain and feckless because they are privatizing goods that can only be justly distributed through the public. Again, in the same way that the liberal Protestant church is feckless when it overthrows conservative orthodoxy but does not adopt public and political posture.

This private populism will not secure institutions that entail sharing public power. It’ll be the populism of the Universal Basic Income (UBI), Charter School Choice, and possibly a public option for healthcare. But the basic infrastructure of production will be left unchecked, and racialized by private firms and elites who can take advantage of the standing productive infrastructure.

It’ll be further atomizing because it promises freedom, but it only democratizes enough power for vanity pursuits. The alternative is a public populism of a Federal Job Guarantee in the Works Progress Administration mold, one that mainstreams people into the civic infrastructure doing public works, and rescues decision-making power over what goods and services need to be produced from the market, and distributes a share of productive power into the public by providing the coordination infrastructure and materials. Unlike the UBI, a Federal Job Guarantee is how schools, parks and roads are built and repaired. They are also how cultural institutions like theaters and museums are sustained, not has hobbies, but as institutional vocations.

Public populism universalizes these goods through public production and interaction, whereas private populism sustains the productive and reproductive infrastructure as is, while giving individuals slightly more resources to participate in it as consumers, as is. This private populism is perfectly consistent with sustaining racism, while softening the blow, just like the liberal church manages racism, while softening the blow relative to its conservative counterparts.

A populism that leaves the public infrastructure in tact, or worse, flatters the populace into believe that freedom is privatized, leads to a deregulated, atomized, confused, and ultimately feckless private sphere that is still dependent on corporate capital and individual, elite charity for production.

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