Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

The perils of left populism

It remains unclear how populism should serve as a working program for broad left demands

Canadian PoliticsEconomic CrisisSocial MovementsSocialism

Downtown Ottawa during the Freedom Convoy protest. Photo courtesy Freedom Convoy 2022/Facebook.

This article is a response to “What the Left can learn from the ‘Freedom Convoy’,” by Emma Jackson, published in The Breach on February 2, 2022.

As the contradictions between classes sharpen in a crisis, so too do the contradictions within them; and wherever this is the case, the spectre of populism is sure to exert a persuasive appeal. In a recent piece for The Breach, entitled “What the Left can learn from the ‘Freedom Convoy’,” writer and organizer Emma Jackson calls for an “expansive left populism” to defeat the far-right. There is much in Jackson’s assessment on which a principled left can only agree—in a powerful litany of motivating causes, Jackson rallies against pharmaceutical profiteering; government austerity; the overexploitation of migrant workers; the underdevelopment of First Nations; declining wages and quality of work; and more. These are certainly among the fronts on which the left must fight—but it remains unclear how populism as such should serve as a working program for broad left demands, given its susceptibility to the politics of reaction.

Populism has proven an effective framework for centre-left electoral strategy throughout Europe and Latin America, providing significant gains for broad coalitions such as SYRIZA in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and more suspensefully, Apruebo Dignidad in Chile. While these are noteworthy objects of study, it’s difficult to apply their lessons in North America, where there are no leftist parties in Parliament to coalesce, let alone govern. Here it’s likely that interest in populism crested around the time of the 2016 US presidential election, during which liberal commentators drafted a provisional equivalence between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both candidates were ideological outliers, it was said, eccentrics of their respective tickets; and both made a class-first appeal to a declining standard of living, recruiting support from the same disenfranchised base. Surely this implied proximity—based on a purely subtractive assessment of a self-cancelling status quo, Democrats versus Republicans—was in part responsible for the liberal commonplace that Bernie’s ‘democratic socialism’ was authored by and for a mythical “white working class”—the same to whom Trump pandered at his self-consciously blue-collar rallies with sinister panache.

In Canada, most significant examples of populist style still come from the political right; from the far-right People’s Party to the Yellow Vests, an eclectic imitation of les gilets jaunes in France. As Jackson writes, “the Right has successfully tapped into widely held resentment and built a mass on-ramp for people with highly divergent views,” presumably outmanoeuvring the left at our own game. Rather than simply assume that the contemporary form of politics is populist, however, we could ask: why is this style and method so well-suited to the purposes of rightism in advanced capitalist economies? What precisely is populism, other than a generic practice of a generalized people? And what, if anything, is its proper content?

Populism’s reasons

Populism, according to the late Argentinian scholar Ernesto Laclau, is not a politics per se but a model of discourse. In his influential account, populist style works to establish a provisional equivalence between a plurality of heretofore unsorted demands by reference to a common signifier—an enemy or otherwise excluded element of the group created thereby. As his lifelong collaborator Chantal Mouffe describes, the goal of populism is to construct a people, rather than discover any such body already intact. Mouffe continues: populism consolidates a specific group of interests under the hegemonic sign of ‘the’ people, delineating an ‘us’ from a ‘them’—though neither term factually precedes its symbolization as part of an antagonistic couplet. Populism designates the purely formal means by which a common interest is demonstrated, by reference to a common adversary.

This formal emptiness doesn’t necessarily equate to political neutrality, however. Populism, says Mouffe, is a discursive strategy by which one erects a conceptual “frontier” between a people and its counterpart. And while Laclau and Mouffe each acknowledge the preponderance of right-wing populism in the political field, both thinkers see populism as a formal operation that can reach beyond the supposed “class essentialism” of the Marxist tradition, collating various progressive causes by way of a rhetorical attractor or emotional appeal. This strictly discursive strategy leaves aside rationality and objectivity altogether; abandoning any factual standard by which to differentiate between a fantastic frontier, proffered by conspiracy theories and popular prejudice, and the real gulf between class interests.

For this reason, populism is always in danger of backsliding into simplification—closer to bourgeois nationalism and conspiratorial fervor than to liberationist politics—insofar as populist style is fundamentally unable to observe any difference between science and ideology, fact and fiction, truth and lies. Where all signifiers are counted equal insofar as they are efficacious, the best result one can affect is a false depiction of a true state of affairs.

More importantly, the empty formalism of populist style conceals a predetermined social content. In Laclau’s description, populist group formation presupposes a chaos of interests prior to a point of articulation, such that a summary atomization logically precedes the constitution of a people from so many separate claims. In this respect, populist style infers the radically atomized social fabric of liberal capitalism—not as an ideological effect concealing the operations of class society, but as social reality itself.

‘Populism’ is thus based on a liberal axiom of highly changeable individual interest, subject only to persuasion. With reference to the electoral successes of self-styled ‘populist’ parties the world over, one might even suggest that the purely formal defense of populist style associated with Laclau and Mouffe is in some sense a reification of the ballot form—displacing the consulting subjectivities at play in liberal democracy onto the social field at large.

Supporters wave flags as the Freedom Convoy passes through Brandon, Manitoba. Photo by Marilyn Ostash.

The dangerous class

Should we choose to directly equate the practice of politics with populist style, then we might indeed deceive ourselves into thinking that the contemporary right, however fractious, has a decisive advantage today. But this chastening comparison is less compelling should we conclude that populism is uniquely suited to reactionary mystification. With reference to the so-called Freedom Convoy, Jackson opts for the former narrative:

In stark contrast to the Left, the past few days have revealed how much better the Right is at meeting people where they’re at … Instead of building an insular movement restricted to people who agree with each other 93 per cent of the time, the Right has successfully tapped into widely held resentment and built a mass on-ramp for people with highly divergent views. It’s why the Freedom Convoy isn’t just being ardently defended by white supremacists on Rebel News, but also by anti-vaccine Green Party supporters in the inboxes of mainstream environmental organizations.

This is a fairly precise description of the populist style outlined by Laclau and Mouffe, as well as its superficially broad effectivity—by tapping into a timely resentment, the right has collated so many only seemingly disparate interests into a large coalition. This would be a damning comparison in terms of momentary scale, were we to mistake the qualitative ‘masses’ from whom socialism would recruit—those who create the wealth on which the world turns—with the merely quantitative ‘masses’ of populism: which is to say, a bunch of people, doing stuff.

As we know, populist style is chiefly utilized on behalf of ruling class interests, masquerading as a discontented working class front; and the Freedom Convoy is no exception. So rather than accept the terms of populism as a rhetorical attractor, explaining the affective appeal of the convoy in nebulous terms, we should immediately ask why the likes of Rebel News pundits and Green Party environmentalists converge on this of all causes.

Where populist style typically supposes left and right to converge on a similar terrain, struggling to orchestrate the many conflicted desires of its favoured people, it’s crucial to note the objective circumstances from which the Freedom Convoy and its associated movements effectively recruit. These are not working class movements, even to the degree that they appeal to, and have truly endangered, large factions of alienated workers. The anti-vaccine movement is chiefly comprised of disaffected members of the lower middle class, libertarians, entrepreneurs and others classically destined to align with proto-fascist currents during a massive transfer of wealth to the ruling class, such as we have seen over the course of this decade, and during the pandemic especially.

Of course, socialists should have a reply to the economic and social anxieties of these demographics. To a certain extent this grouping, divided against themselves, may be identified with the fabled “middle class” to whom all political parties campaign. Doubtlessly, the attempt to insert this term of meagre ascendancy into the popular vernacular, obfuscating the class society altogether, is partly responsible for today’s perception that the right has effectively cornered the sympathies of working people. But we must be able to say with clarity: it is no miracle that the right is able to recruit from those predisposed to reaction by their objective position between warring classes.

Populism tempts us with the dangerous illusion that both right and left recruit from an identical discontent, and that we are speaking to the same fundamental interest, albeit with different reasons. In broad strokes, this is true; the larger part of the right has a class interest in common with the larger part of the left, insofar as the larger part of each faction have to sell something of themselves in order to survive. In many specific instances, however, this idealization entirely elides the fact that right and left do not represent separate administrative strategies for gradually improving the lives of the middle class. Rather, these positions (at least theoretically) span the distance between socialism and reaction, thus representing very different interests. With a class analysis in hand, it’s not difficult to account for the apparent success, and the strangeness, of the Freedom Convoy; nor is it especially tempting to model a broad left movement on the ideologizations of a proto-fascist business lobby and its easy riders, who represent a truly marginal percentage of their industry after all.

That said, this is a decisive moment, as contradictions within classes multiply and lateral antagonisms mount; and it is important for the left to have a multi-level reply to the anti-mandate movement as it presently exists. The ruling and business classes no doubt stand to benefit from a vaccine mandate, where this requirement has finally removed any expectation of a greater social wage from the state for those unable to work; it is a scandal for equity and hastens the privatization of nominally public space. None of these legitimate concerns has any bearing on the incontrovertible evidence that the available vaccines save lives, and ought to be embraced as a public good. As the left itself struggles with this basic fact, succumbing in many quarters to bizarre conspiracy theories, and many of our family members and friends are tempted to further extremes of misinformation, we shouldn’t miss the more covert features of these conversations. Populism is never so literal in its representations.

As greater evidence of populism’s formal emptiness, the central terms of this debate have long since been euphemized, even as the pandemic rages. This week, the Freedom Convoy unfurls a sea of Canadian flags and intermittent swastikas. In its most photogenic moments, this ‘movement’ seems to have nothing to do with the management of a global pandemic whatsoever. This has long been the case, of course. As the People’s Party pivoted from their established brand of xenophobia to a chaotically effective, rapid-growth campaign against “vaccine passports,” the irony of this terminology was stark: after all, as a fanatical anti-immigration party, the PPC would check actual passports at every door. Nobody believes in free movement with less consistency than Maxime Bernier and his adherents, but he found a foothold in the popular imaginary, and used one paranoid talking point to operate another.

This kind of equivocation is itself a hallmark of populist style, and the remarkable success of populism on the right intimately concerns this bizarre convertibility of every cause and every sign. “In the anti-mandate movement,” Jackson writes, “everyone’s participation is welcome.” This is a sure indication of a single-issue populist movement in the making; right down to this statement of false inclusivity, where a self-vetting “everyone” is nonetheless recruited from within the densely overdetermined interests already comprising class society. If it sounds like a strange claim to make for a movement with such close ties to organized racism, it’s surely as strange that a de facto white nationalist movement has been so inclusive on the face of it. Such are the vagaries of ideology, which can only be corrected gradually and by reference to reality.

This, perhaps, is what we should read when Jackson says that the right is better than the left “at meeting people where they’re at.” For all the prejudice and experience condensed into this folksy idiom, we could restate it in equally circular terms: the right is better than the left at recruiting from experience that is already interpreted to the right. That said, the new right has happened upon wrong solutions to real problems, and there’s no doubt that any progressive movement needs to speak to these problems with an unsparing specificity, and a large amount of understanding where possible.

Jackson’s essay stares down this difficulty with a great deal of courage; but envy of the right, however formal, has never ended well. Jackson argues that we “have to learn from what the Right is doing successfully. We have to listen to their story about power and control, and counter it with a more compelling story of our own.” But we need an objective, rather than an imaginary standard by which to organize; because the left cannot recruit against itself, nor parlay the racist conspiracism of the owning class and their associations.

Where the populist playbook is concerned, we simply mustn’t oppose one fantasy of strength with another. No matter how broad, the movement against capitalism has so much more to offer than a rumour of belonging, on the other side of an exclusionary threshold.

Cam Scott is a poet, writer, and organizer from Winnipeg, Canada, Treaty 1 territory. His books include ROMANS/SNOWMARE and The Vanishing Signs, both published by ARP Books. Follow Cam on Twitter @vanishingsigns.


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