It’s no surprise that a popular subjectivity conditioned by neoliberalism should fixate on the illegitimate expropriation of value or its stand-in as the source of grievance. The experience of neoliberal society has made the free exchange of equivalent values the hegemonic ethical standard of our time. (Today’s populism, then, needs to be distinguished from that mobilized by Nixon through his racist silent majority. The resentment of the early 1970s backlash was not a response to perceptions of theft but to the existential challenge that the postwar white faced from blacks and student radicals. The abundant polemics (e.g.) that trace an unbroken line from the racist silent majority to today’s nativist and anti-tax right wing obscure this essential change.) For today’s populists, if you’re convinced you’re doing what you’re “supposed to be doing” – namely, working hard and taking responsibility for your own decisions – and things still aren’t going right, it’s only natural to assume it’s because someone is cheating you.
What is actually happening is not that some group of people is violating the ethical order, but that the social order that gave rise to that very ethic is itself breaking down.
Because populism cannot grasp this, it becomes one more force pushing forward the disintegration of the reigning regime of accumulation. Its targets are the whole range of social forms that have marked neoliberalism: against the free movement of labor, populism poses anti-immigrant bile; against the free flow of capital it demands capital controls, financial transaction taxes, currency manipulation; against the free trade agenda it looks to protectionism and state retaliation against “cheaters”; against the rootless cosmopolitanism born of globalization it celebrates the local, the particular; against the abstract placelessness of financial flows it asserts the concrete immediacy of life in a particular city or nation; against the experience of the atomized consumer it hungers for a feeling of community and transcendent meaning. (The exception in populism’s compulsion to negate neoliberal social forms is the Tea Party, which is so confused that it actually wants to strengthen the source of its woe.)
Obviously no particular populism signs on to this whole agenda, and the right-wing populism of hierarchy, inequality, repression, and exclusion is far more repugnant than its counterpart on the left. But what all populism shares is a gnostic understanding of modern society. That is, populists see modernity as inhabited by two contending forces locked in struggle. The populists represent the divine, and they join in battle the demonic.
But consider the possibility that modern society is instead monistic, and the contradictions that populism understands as good and evil are instead internal structural features of modern social forms. No matter how strong one side of each antinomy becomes, it can never annihilate its opposite because the nature of modernity constantly reproduces each opposition. The seeming triumph of one side will be abruptly overturned during the next crisis; the return of the repressed provides a path out of the impasse into which each temporary fix necessarily descends. Within modernity, there can be no permanent settlement.
In this analogy, the position of the mover that is not moved, the Subject of History, is occupied by capital. This makes the problem of evil rather easier to resolve than in Christian ontologies: capital must be overthrown. In this way, the antinomies of modernity would not be resolved with one side extinguishing the other, but by transcending the opposition itself.
But we still haven’t developed the ideas needed to make sense of this line of argument (see Postone’s Time, labor, and social domination if you want to read ahead!). And in any case, as I have been arguing, the movement that could transcend modernity is still some way ahead of us. So the question is not whether populism can grasp the nature of modernity, but whether it is adequate to the political tasks posed by the crisis of neoliberalism.
I have already given reasons for thinking that the left-wing version of populism is ideally suited to several of those tasks, namely bringing finance under control, raising the incomes of the large majority of the population that has suffered wage stagnation for over three decades, and perhaps most important, repudiating the brutal Hobbesianism of neoliberalism in favor of a more inclusive and egalitarian society. But by its nature, left-wing populism is focused on smiting enemies rather than imagining a new configuration of social relations that could revive the accumulation of capital, a task which is rendered even more difficult by populists’ intense (and fully warranted) feelings of disgust and fury toward neoliberal elites.
The problem with populism is not that it doesn’t have any ideas, but that it doesn’t understand the conditions that would be required to realize those ideas. And so it can only act to disorganize neoliberalism further, which is to say that it will only intensify the crisis. If populism continues to grow and begins to win real victories, the real question is how it will respond when it begins to run up against the inadequacies of its own project.
The obvious danger is that the right will emerge as the main populist force and lead the angry majority into a spiraling disaster for us all. The hidden danger is that, even if left populism emerges as the stronger force, it will prove unable to distinguish between the dysfunctional neoliberal social forms causing the crisis and the progressive side of neoliberalism, which could be joined with the progressive planks of left populism to establish a more humane regime of accumulation. A crude offensive against every aspect of neoliberalism from the left could produce its own spiraling disaster.