17 January 2012

The dangers of populism

The reigning metaphor deployed by all contemporary populism, whether of the left or the right, is theft: the government is stealing our earnings, the immigrants are stealing our jobs, the bankers are stealing our houses, the Greeks are stealing our government reserves, the Chinese are stealing our factories.

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.


  1. Walker, for me, poses a question-- and it remains a question-- is there such a thing as "left populism"? It is perfectly possible for the right to clothe itself in the language of the left: think of the Bush administration's justification of the invasion of Iraq or of the Paulite/Tea Party celebration of liberty and freedom. Is that what is happening with "left populism"?

    Walker writes: "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 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." (cont...)

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  4. Is the "left populism" that Walker describes left, understood historically? The Jacobins (the origins of the term left) sought to fundamentally transform the social order (and perhaps were the last genuinely left populists, but that is another story) as did classical liberals, elements of the New Left, and, despite their detractors, reformist social democrats like Bernstein. This desire to fundamentally transform social relations for the better, for me at least, is definitive of a left point of view. Is contemporary "left populism" interested in that, even gradually as Bernstein was? I would say no. Sanding down the sharp edges of domination without a desire to fundamentally transform the social order is a discourse of the right and an effort to reinforce the foundation of domination, as the Second International correctly argued in response to the growth of the welfare state. Contemporary "left populism" treats this sanding (as an endpoint) as if it were progressive and I am not convinced it is. What if often represents is a desire to return to Fordism. (This is particularly ironic when argued by former members of the New Left.) I am not convinced that Fordism is to the left of Neoliberalism (or visa versa)-- certainly not if one understands Fordism as Postone and his students do.

  5. I feel obliged to add, for sake of clarity, that I mention Bernstein and not his further left contemporaries in order to bring into focus the rightism of much of our contemprary, self-identified left.

  6. The question here isn't whether 'left populism' lives up to a historical adequate definition of what is 'left.' It seems to me that in this article left is being used to distinguish between two broad categories of populist sentiment, and is not intended to have a deeper meaning. This seems to be supported because the substance of the post is the dangers that populism would pose to a project of overcoming capitalism.

    I think the real question here is how we can constitute a leftist politics in the present. We've been getting into some pretty interesting territory with this question lately, although we've only begun to scratch the surface. Walker has been presenting the argument that (if i may attempt to briefly summarize it) presently society has made individuals incapable of understanding the need to overthrow capitalism. Therefore the historical task before us is to take action conducive to the formation of a regime of accumulation that will constitute subjectivities capable of grasping the social totality in a way that makes the overcoming of capitalism a possibility.

    There have been some interesting responses to this proposition questioning, for example, to what extent the left should be involved in creating a new regime of accumulation, which represents after all, the perpetuation of capitalism. I think that there are a lot more questions to investigate, such as what institutions and social movements could carry out these tasks, or in other words, how could we constitute 'the left?'

    But Frank, you seem to be suggesting that only a politics which explicitly recognizes the nature of modernity is adequate to our historical task. To me it seems that Walker has presented a compelling argument against this view--briefly, that neoliberal subjects are incapable of this understanding, and therefore it is impossible to imagine such a politics that could actually be used to mobilize people. Of course, there is much empirical evidence to support this view. So Frank, how do you imagine that such a politics could be constituted, made plausible to people, what institutions could take it up, etc.?

  7. It is my sense that we should be using the term "left" with (and only with) that "deeper meaning," because only by using it in this way can be begin to understand the significant problems that now plague the left. But to address the rest of your post...

    I, as I have stated in the past, reject the idea that neoliberal subjects cannot conceive of collectivity. For me, because of the character of the commodity form, individuality always implies a form of collectivity and collectivity always implies a form of individuality. Despite the emphasis on individuality within neoliberal ideology, there exist critical, (pseudo-)critical and affirmative forms of collectivity for example, the US is a "Christian Nation" or of a global idea of an Islamic Community, of "Global Civil Society," or for that matter of "Europe" as a project. This has been rejected in the past on this blog, because it is claimed that what is of interest is neoliberalism as an explicit and distinct ideology among other ideologies. If this is the case, then fine-- though it does not resolve the question of civil society or of "Europe,"-- but that is not how the term is used on the blog. Neoliberalism is treated not just as a specific ideology, but as the regime of accumulation and the governing ideology of all specific ideologies. It is used in a manner akin to Fordism. If one is going to argue, for example, that the Eastern Block, China, or Third Worldist states represented a form of Fordism, even as they understood themselves to be in opposition to Fordism, which I think this blog would like to do, and if this blog wants to deal with neoliberalism as a category of equivalent scale to Fordism, then it is necessary to account for the forms of religious collectivity that so animate world politics.

  8. I am suggesting that only a politics which explicitly recognizes the nature of CAPITALIST modernity is adequate.

    There are two problems with Walker's argument about the incapacity of neoliberal subjects to understand a critique of capitalism that points beyond capitalism. (I am going to assume that this blog believes Marx is still adequate to our world and proceed from there, if this blog does not believe this is the case, then that argument needs to be made.) Marx argues in the Theses on Feuerbach that the capacity to offer and understand a critique of society must be rooted and explained with reference to contradictions within society. Walker offers a critique, but claims that it is impossible for neoliberal subjects to grasp such a critique. Is Walker not a neoliberal subject? What are the conditions of possibility of his own capacity to be critical? This is a question of self-reflexivity. How is Walker able to pierce this ideology and others cannot? The other side of the coin with this claim is that neoliberal subjects are incapable of understanding a critique that points beyond capitalism, this would mean, if we take the relationship between capitalism and ideology seriously, that capitalism, somehow, has become non-contradictory. If Walker believes that this is the case, then he would need to explain this at the level of the basic categories of capital-- commodity, labor, capital, time, etc.-- and explain why what was once contradictory is no longer so. I would argue, though, that the very existence of periodic crisis strongly suggests that capitalism remains contradictory, and not just in the sense that it is irrational.

    I will address your other arguments later...

  9. What would an adequate politics look like?

    Our contemporary crisis is a crisis of value production and not of use value production. We are actually in the midst of a boom in use value production per hour worked. An attempt to restart value production would would work to reinstitute the domination of humans by their abstract labor time. An adequate politics in response to a crisis of of value production which is the midst of a boom of use value production would be to address the division of society into the over employed on the one hand and the under or not employed on the other hand. An adequate politics would call for the even distribution of labor across society, the reduction of labor time, and the creation of a universal stipend in the place of a wage.

    Who would be the revolutionary actors? It would need to begin with the Union movement an spread from there.

  10. Why is the analysis offered by this blog "Stalinist" as I claimed earlier?

    This is the case on three fronts: 1. Its central argument is that we need to recreate or restart value production, i.e. recreate or restart our domination, and then later, once that has happened begin to talk about human freedom. We are forever creating the conditions of possiblity for an adequate politics of the left and never those politics, within this view. 2. It is Stalinist because it proceeds from a vision of a popular front that seeks to avoid discussing what are actually fundamental differences between us and, for example, the bulk of the Occupy movement. This, through the back door, affirms the bad analyses offered by the Occupy movement.
    3. Its vision of political action resembles that of stalinist/maoist/(and at times)trotskyist sects, which see social movement, affirm its bad politics (Hezbollah, for example) and then try to infiltrate it and change its way of thinking to better cohere with the sect's thought. "Occupy would be great, if they thought completely differently than they do..."

  11. What is the revolutionary subject of this blog?

    Given the concern with restarting value creation, it seems to me, it is large scale capitalists. Social movements of the poor and disenfranchised are not in a possition to determine how and where value creation occurs.

  12. I agree, as I have in the past, with the idea that if we want "to deal with neoliberalism as a category of equivalent scale to Fordism, then it is necessary to account for the forms of religious collectivity that so animate world politics." Alas, I do not have time or expertise to provide an adequate theorization of every aspect of neoliberalism as a totality. If others would join me in this project, it would be much easier.

    The question under discussion here, however, is not whether imagining a collectivity is possible under neoliberalism (the politics I've been developing would require that), but whether it is possible to imagine transcending the opposition of individual and collective itself, and whether this is possible on a large scale. Given the vanishingly small number of people whose particular experience of neoliberalism has led them to conceive the problem in that way, the answer seems clear. This isn't a matter of capitalism being contradictory or not - obviously it is. It's a simple empirical question.

    But neoliberalism is disintegrating, so the more urgent question is whether the conditions produced by the crisis will make it possible for large numbers to think in this way. We need to spend much more time trying to sort out this question. Obviously I'm pretty skeptical, though I haven't yet provided very strong reasons to substantiate that skepticism. I will try to write a post on this sooner rather than later.

    I think Frank's potential political program - "the even distribution of labor across society, the reduction of labor time, and the creation of a universal stipend in the place of a wage" - is worth discussing much more. Maybe you could develop this further in a full post? The two questions that spring immediately to my mind are: 1) how could this, practically speaking, become the agenda of the left given its current state and especially the state of the unions? 2) what economic effects would follow if this program were adopted, and would these effects strengthen the movement to overcome capitalism or tend to undermine it?

    Finally, on Stalinism, I will just reiterate that I think name-calling makes for both bad arguments and bad politics.

  13. The ideas idea of reducing labortime per worker as opposed reducing workers per corporation is central to many of the platforms of European labor unions. The protection and expansion of free time is a key point, also, of European labor unions. Andre Gorz has thought quite carefully about what a more radical version of these politics would look like. I would refer you to:

    Reclaiming work

    Paths to paradise [I can provide a pdf].

    Strategy for Labor: a radical proposal [I can scan a pdf].

    Populism is an expression of powerlessness. Its basic feature is a loud, ruckus beseeching of the powerful, either for the state to protect the declasse from capitalism or for corporations to behave ethically. At its heart, despite the volume and intensity of its protestations, is a recognition of the fact that the populist him/herself cannot transform his/her situation, at least when configured in the form of populist politics. Therefore an appeal to the populist masses is indirectly an appeal to the powerful to be beneficent—hence its focus on ethics. The truth of the matter is that you are demanding that I provide an immediate movement and political subject to take up and press for my ideas, but your appeal is essentially to the J. Pierpoint Morgans, Henry Fords, Franklin Roosevelts, and Andrew Carnegies of our age to act against their self-interest, all of whom don’t know you and have no concern for you suggestions. Essentially, your immediate political actors are just as speculative as mine. The difference between our speculative politics is that I am trying to press, through critique, for a politics that uses the present crisis to push beyond capitalism, whereas you are trying to press for the reestablishment of capital accumulation to then at some future date press for socialism.

    I employ the analytical term Stalinist the same way one might use Leninist, Lassallean, Proudhonian, Third Worldist, etc. as a category with a specific content—content that I enumerated—and not as empty name calling.

  14. Frank, I think your contributions are very interesting and I hope that you will have the time to further develop them. I was particularly interested in your comments on Fordism that I believe were made in the 'Blog Self Critique.'

    However I think it will be more helpful to assume that there is no one 'line' of 'the blog.' Walker has so far contributed by far the most writing, but dissenting and challenging voices have brought a lot of richness to the discussion, and we would definitely benefit from more postings whether or not they followed the agenda laid out by Walker up to this point or not. So acting as if 'the blog' has one line doesn't really show enough attention to the different ideas being developed by Earl, Chris Wright, and AB.

    Further, I think we should we should all be willing to read other's posts generously. There are many good reasons for this 1) this is a labor (ha) of love that we are doing in our free time 2) these are blog posts and not polished publication-ready papers 3) the very nature of a crisis calls on us to keep an open mind and consider seemingly unlikely possibilities.

    This should in no way be taken as a call to blunt the content of criticism, but rather a request to frame criticisms in constructive ways. You may have analytical reasons for deploying 'Stalinism' as a critical term, but here it will be far more effective to use alternate language to make the same point. In a different venue this request might be inappropriate, but in one where we are brought together by a spirit of friendship and creative collaboration it seems entirely appropriate to me.

  15. Deckard, I went back and read my comments and they don't seem uncivil to me. I think that ideas matter, that they are not merely means to plan our next "action" to use contemporary parlance. When certain ideas have highly problematic provenance or consequences, it seems to me, that it is incumbant upon those that care about this blog to make those problems clear, and to do so in a way that makes the full extent of those problems clear.

    Walker, I do not expect you to solve every empirical problem, this is impossible, I do however believe that your theory of neoliberalism, in this case, should account for the commodity generated double-sided form that your particular object of study takes. I am not convinced that your approach to neoliberalism does this.

  16. I'm glad that Walker raised the question of populism - it's been weighing heavily on my mind since the beginnings of the Occupy movement. The fact that Neoliberal responses to capitalist crisis have begun to shake what many Westerners take to be the foundation of their society makes the issue especially relevant today.

    Because populisms, though there are a lot of them and they are as varied as Walker and other posters have noted, usually have something in common. As opposed to other mass movements/ideological positions, which tend to appeal toward those who know themselves to be excluded or disinhereted by their societies, populisms appeal to those who think themselves to be entitled. Populism is for what we in the US call the middle class, and generally for those who were already enjoying significant social privilege from that position. The veteran who's lost his pension, the programmer who's had her job outsourced away, the office worker who's lost his home, etc. These are people for whom capitalism (I'd say neoliberalism, but what they think of is Fordism) was working. And all they want is for it to come back.

    It's nothing new to say that this is the fundamental demand of Occupy and the Tea Party both: to get our privilege back. Both groups even have similar scapegoats, the bad rich people, whether they be corrupt politicians or greedy bankers. Both claim that we could fix the problem by "cleaning up" politics/finance. The problems they see are not structural but functional.

    The problem is that they're probably not going to get their privilege back. Environmental, social, and economic changes are making that less and less likely. Unlike Walker I'm not optomistic about the potential for the radicalization of left populism. It doesn't seem likely to me that a politics of privilege could transform into one of egalitarianism and environmental responsibility, unless it is sheilded from its own image by race blindness, post-classism, and greenwashing.

    To be blunt, populism scares me. And that goes for those of both the left and right. Of course I don't have an answer to Walker's question of how we could or should improve people's understanding of the crises of capitalism. But I don't think that that answer will be found in, or in a movement from, a populist frame of reference.

  17. Thanks for your comment Eugene. I think it makes a lot of sense to see the urge behind populism as outrage over lost privilege, especially when you notice how common the invocation of "fairness" is in its rhetoric (something that Obama has now latched onto). Many attracted to populism experience the loss of their privilege as a betrayal of this notion of fairness, viz that if you work hard you get ahead in life. There seems to be a very limited appreciation of the fact that this sort of fairness was not on offer to large numbers of people for the last thirty years or more, which also indicates that, in keeping with hegemonic neoliberal social forms, the concerns of populism in some sense fail to transcend the individual. So you're right to question the potential of such a movement for a really transformative project.

    But just to complicate this, I think it's an open question how these ideas will be reshaped by the experience of the crisis, which I think really does create new possibilities for solidarity and recognition that exceed individual interests. This could open the space for a more serious engagement with the kind of ideas we've been pursuing here. But that won't happen if intellectuals continue to refuse involvement with these movements.

    I think we also need to acknowledge that even privilege has within it a liberatory moment. After all, much of the "privilege" that most populists enjoyed - a secure income, ready access to healthcare, education, and leisure, some measure of control over one's circumstances - would be enjoyed universally in any desirable society. The recognition we need to strive for is that the right to such "privilege" is always distributed more or less capriciously by social forces rather than won through personal merit.

  18. I don't want to quibble overmuch but what one might refer to broadly as Left Populism is probably more properly called Liberal Populism, that is, a liberalism which seeks its ends in mass action and mobilization. The Populist Movement in the 1890's was just such a movement. Populism, which always contains a demagogic element, was also part and parcel of the leadership of the CIO in it's early days, and the Popular Front policy of the CP was most certainly a kind of Populism by Frank's definition.

    I have problems with what seems like a general consensus on the potentially radical role of the unions. Aside from their almost continual decline in the last 50 years, once the attainment of legal recognition of labor by the law has taken place and the unions are granted status as the legal representative organ of labor, their role shifts quite dramatically to the right. It is no accident that the unions formed the right-wing of both the Second and Third Internationals.

    That said, I think that Frank hits on some crucial problems with the predominant political and theoretical orientation presented on this blog. I haven't seen those points adequately addressed (who educates the educator?; has ideology suspended capital's dynamic?; our crisis is one of value production, not the production of things) and yet they are at the center of the discussion.

  19. I question whether the Populists were left. In the 1960s and '70s, New Left historians, insearch of an indigenous American left and in sympathy with Third World people's movements, tried to reframe the populists as left-wing. I think though that Richard Hofstadter's invocation of Adorno through the "paranoid style of politics" and emphasis on their conspiratorial world remain important. It is not for nothing, that the populists shared members and ideologies with right-wing popular movements in Europe, including anti-Semitic ones.

  20. I didn't say Left, I said liberal:
    "what one might refer to broadly as Left Populism is probably more properly called Liberal Populism, that is, a liberalism which seeks its ends in mass action and mobilization. The Populist Movement in the 1890's was just such a movement."

    Not that "Left" isn't a pretty nebulous term anyway.

    Are the unions Left? They don't orient, except in the case of Red or Anarchist unions, towards the radical transformation of capitalism, and those unions don't even exist in any meaningful way today.

    Is most of the Left Left? Most of them are rackets, sects, and gangs who can't likely play anything but a reactionary role.

    How about the CP in the 1920's and 30's?

    I just don't see the value in trying to purify the concept of The Left. It clarifies little and I see no purpose for it except to make people who want to be Leftists feel better about themselves by engaging in self-comforting denial that "the Left" has been part and parcel of the progression of capital.

  21. Re: the Populists and "Left" populism-- point taken. I would question, though, whether they are liberal. They seem further to the right to me.

    Re: the purity of the left-- My distinction was more one of self understanding, one of subjectivity, than one of determining left purity objectively. One is left to the extent that one conceives of oneself as attempting to overcome capitalism and create a qualitatively better world.

  22. In which case, the Left as you think of it begins with Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals, not the Jacobins, who sought more of a political than a social transformation (I think in this regard, Comninel's book on the French Revolution is required reading.)

    That way of posing 'the Left' still does not come to grips adequately with the fact that what you qualify as Left conceived of "overcoming capitalism" in terms that themselves were strictly extensions of capitalism, for lack of having grasped the critique of capital, instead taking a Rousseauian view which was really a critique of distribution. To that extent, how they conceive themselves is part of what makes them the left-wing of the bourgeoisie, Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.

  23. Unfortunately, the only alternative to populism is elitism which dominates now and is completely in line with and supportive of neoliberalism. There is no coherent ideological left to counteract the parochial tendencies of popular anger. For my part, as a community organizer, my solution is to create a multi-racial, multi-ethnic urban/suburban coalition that uses popular economic training to create a working analysis.

  24. At this point I'm totally fine using populist themes to mobilize people, as long as we're aware of the dangers and, once people are involved, start pushing them on some of the problematic prejudices. An organizing model that breaks down the boundaries that facilitate reactionary scapegoating is ideal, and obviously race/ethnicity and residential neighborhoods are two the worst offenders, so this definitely seems like the right way to go.

    The other big boundary that seems to me very dangerous for us is that of the nation. That's a bit harder to break down when you're doing local organizing, but I think we should start considering ways to do it. In my next post I'll discuss what I think the dangers are.