On the Impossibility of Left Populism

Mudar Kassis is a faculty member at the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Birzeit University (Palestine). He currently serves as director of Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, director of the MA Programme in Democracy and Human Rights, and co-director of the Windsor-Birzeit Dignity Initiative. His current research interests are embedded in the tradition of praxis and include democratisation, decolonisation, the concept of dignity, the everyday, research ethics, political corruption, and populism.[1]

The world is at a point of bifurcation. Dominant forms of governmentality have led to levels of inequality, and devastation that generated an invincible threshold. Change in the foreseeable future is inevitable. There is struggle over the direction of change: either democracy, or the radicalisation of neoliberal oligarchy – an equivalent to fascism. After bifurcation, neither neoliberal oligarchy nor democracy can be a simple extension of the current variations of establishment, securitised state, or what is called today Western or liberal democracy. While it is not possible to predict the result of the political schism, the options are limited: either a system that moves towards equality and inclusion – a realisation of human dignity; or one that radicalises exclusion, and inequality – a trajectory towards human self-destruction.

Populism is currently a prevailing form of political dynamics, and an important tool in the struggle over the direction of change. It serves those who seek the radicalisation of neoliberal oligarchy. There are also voices that call for the utilisation of populism in the service of democracy. The call is usually framed as a call for “left populism”. This piece argues that “left populism” is essentially impossible, and that if populist elements are used by the left, it can lead to anything but to the realisation of human dignity or democracy.

There is no room here to delve into the interminable discussion about defining populism, but for the purposes of this discussion, one of its self-evident features suffices: populism is, in all cases, a promise to the masses that cannot be fulfilled – or else it would signify a mass movement for a revolt or a reform or some other aspired change. But this is not what is usually on mind when political dynamics are characterised as populist. It is in particular this impossibility to accomplish what is promised that reveals populism’s irrationality. As noted by Lefebvre: 

A revolution wanting to change life and transform the world other than by understanding them and by fulfilling them would be both impossible and irrational (voluntaristic and nihilistic).[2]

It is specifically these characteristics of populism – its inability to fulfil its (implicit) promises and its irrationality– that make it tantalizing for certain actors whose access to the political stage has been spreading over that past decade or two. The same characteristics also make it a futile technology for the left – assuming the left is seeking change.

Succeeding in instilling change in the direction of inclusion and equality requires: unmasking exclusion that is camouflaged with post-politics; re-establishing the actual socio-economic demarcations (frontiers); and overcoming the neoliberal illusions of a “third way” that is conditioned on the irrationality of futile consumption (including consuming populist politics). In addition to neutralising the obstacles to change, a strategy for change needs to be identified. Such a strategy hinges on the intended goals that it is designed to achieve. While it is impossible to define the conditions that shall prevail after a bifurcation, one can broadly outline some features of the needed future: less inequality, more security for people rather than for trade, more freedom, and a serious commitment to a complete range of rights – a silhouette that can be identified as: dignity.

Changes that are capable of generating these features should be understood to encompass both alleviating the symptoms of the current crisis and attacking its causes. The greatest challenge to such changes is that this proposition is too rational for the current order – where irrationality is normalised and hailed even by those who task themselves with critiquing this order. There are plenty of “entrepreneurs” who are seeking solutions “outside-the-box”, but “the box” (our world), unfortunately, is like a ship in a turbulent sea—jumping outside it is disastrous. William Mitchell reminds us about Plato’s Ship of Fools:

“Plato’s famous metaphor of the Ship of Fools captures perfectly the way populist irrationality can lead the Ship of State, steered by an incompetent, corrupt, and deranged captain, into catastrophic shipwreck.”[3]

Seeking a solution aboard, on the other hand, inevitably means replacing the captain and taking over command. However, this will not solve the problem if the new command is irrational or the passengers are divided. Then, the chances of survival are small. In all cases the captain, and possibly crew members, will resist. The typical tactic of those who are in “power and crisis”, like our captain, is to buy time, divide the populous, and resort to inventing a new threat that is greater than the threat of their own bad command. Thus, populism is their solution of choice since it has the necessary ingredients: avoiding the real problem, directing the passengers’ energy to a void, or manipulating it for serving internal crew contestations. Populism is the “outside-the-box” solution to the crisis of the oligarchs – their ultimate and most natural resort.

The similarity of the situation on the ship to the current political situation explains the dangerous recent and ongoing growth of populism in various countries. Some features of the current (dis)order are conducive to populism: prevalence of elements that constitute an enabling environment for populism (what we can call a “populist situation”). The development of this situation into a populist socio-political pattern requires the conjoining and interaction of two poles. The first pole is the elite instigators (sometimes called the political entrepreneurs,[4]which we shall call the “populister”). The second pole is the populist mass (a segment of the populace that is targeted and positively responds to the populister and enters the populist pattern of socio-political engagement). In other words, populism has two dimensions: an elitist (instigation) and a popular (responsiveness). The popular dimension should be evident in everyday life and reflected in the irrational aspect of the “common sense” of that segment of the populace that adopted the populist pattern.. Interestingly enough, this is one of the instances where common sense is not identical to the “good sense” (seen by Gramsci as “the healthy nucleus that exists in ‘common sense”’[5]).

For populist entrepreneurship to function, there needs to be a crisis of legitimacy. Populism appeals to a public that is not happy with the current state of affairs (rule, representation, or (corrupt) representatives, for example). Populism involves a process of transposing (in a reductionist manner) what are essentially political problems into elementary and trivial kinship-like forms of social divisions by (a) constructing scapegoats and (b) cleavages separating the “populists-to-be” from those scapegoats – based on various markers of identity. There is another inverse technique of fomenting populism: replacing the scapegoat with a “sacred cow”. Rather than the identification of a constructed enemy, we have the “constructed self” which defines the cleavage through the self and the non-belonging (consider the notion of “the West and the rest”). These two techniques are frequently conjoined. A clear case in point is Trump’s insinuation against the Mexican immigrants (the scapegoat) and the promise of reviving the American dream (the sacred cow).

Two brief and final yet important characteristics of populism: intra-elite rupture and everydayness. First, populism is only possible because elites mobilise the discontent of the masses against other elites. Intra-elite rupture allows the populisters to operationalise anti-elitist/anti-establishment notions in their discourse that frequently take the forms of slogans that are oriented against institutions (government, universities, the media, etc.), and protest the existing representation schemes. Second, populist responsiveness to the populister involves simplicity, naturalness, spontaneity, directness, and everydayness. Given its irrationality, populism sanctions the emergence of pseudo-conscious beliefs (in contradistinction to wilful positions, as in class-conscious positions) thus being the “unavoidable illusion of everyday political action.”[6]There are, of course, other distinguishing features of populism, but we can suffice with the above for now.

The conditions for the emergence of a populist situation are similar to those identified by Lenin for the emergence of a revolutionary situation – a situation that, according to Lenin, possesses three symptoms:

(1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the ‘upper classes’, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth… For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for ‘the lower classes not to want’ to live in the old way; it is also necessary that ‘the upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in ‘peace time’, but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the ‘upper classes’ themselves  into  independent historical  action.[7]

Similarities between the populist and revolutionary situations can be summarised in that both situations emerge in times of crisis, involve the indignation of the populace, and involve an elite rupture. The realisation of each of them requires their “activation” by a political entrepreneur, and defining an enemy (either a scapegoat in the case of populism, or a real enemy in the case of a revolution).

The main manifestation of the differences between the two situations lies in political organisation. The populist and the revolutionary situations stand as opposites: in the populist case, the masses are not politically organised and are dependent on the actions of the populister; while in the revolutionary case, the masses are drawn into organised independent historical action toward achieving a political goal. Consciousness is at the heart of the difference: accepting a false designated enemy vs identifying the enemy; massive herding vs organised masses; and the absence of “independent historical action” vs its existence. In other words, the difference is one between herding a segment of the populace towards irrational self-destructive acts in the case of the populist situation, and rational leadership organising wilful action in the case of the revolutionary situation.

The crucial question today is whether a populist situation can be transformed into a revolutionary one? The answer is yes on the condition that: a) one is positioned in relation to an established frontier based on a cognition of interests, thus identifying a real enemy; b) the masses organise on the basis of the position vis-à-vis this frontier, and on the grounds of rational, conscious, and voluntary enrolment; and c) leadership is provided from within the same side of the frontier that can facilitate the conscious, organised, independent, and historical action of the masses.

The starting point for the transformation of a populist situation into a revolutionary one is naturally political organising around three central tenets: a) magnifying political pluralism, which can reflect both the cleavages that constitute the frontiers and the nuanced “agonistic” differences within each side of the frontier; b) rationalising these differences and positions towards leading to independent historical action based on popular “good sense” (in the Gramscian sense); and c) organising sufficient pressure capable of de-nourishing the enemy and reversing the symptoms of indignation, or what Lenin would have called “creating new victories every day and every hour”.

In view of this analysis, we must believe that the way to combat the radicalisation of neoliberal oligarchy is through the rationalisation and organisation of the masses. This, in turn, requires the return to politics, and a radicalisation of political differences that is commensurable with the socio-economic differences. The irrationality and the blindness of populism cannot serve this goal.

[1]I am grateful to Interfere team for commissioning this piece, and for the useful comments and editing proposals that made this text more lucid.

[1](Lefebvre 2009 [1973], 207)

[2](Mitchell 2019, 22)

[3]The term “political entrepreneur” is broader in meaning than what needs to be signified here – the ‘populist entrepreneur’ (populister). According to the World Economic Forum expert Alvin Carpio, the term refers to the ‘people who create ideas and innovations, and act as new leaders in the field of politics.’ (Carpio 2017)

[4](Gramsci 1971, 328)

[5](Denning 2020, 79)

[6](Lenin 1974, 213-214)

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