Understanding Right and Left Populism

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By Samir Gandesha, an Associate Professor in the Department of the Humanities and the Director of the Institute for the Humanities at Simon Fraser University. . He is co-editor with Lars Rensmann of Arendt and Adorno: Political and Philosophical Investigations(Stanford, 2012). He is co-editor (with Johan Hartle) of Spell of Capital: Reification and Spectacle(University of Amsterdam Press, 2017) and Aesthetic Marx(Bloomsbury Press, 2017) also with Johan Hartle. Originally published at openDemocracy

Neoliberal globalization has increased both economic insecurity and cultural anxiety. Have theories of populism taken adequate account of such insecurity? Such accounting is key to understanding the difference between right and left forms of populism.

We appear to be living in an age of populism. Over the past two decades, we have witnessed the rise of right-wing populist parties throughout Europe such as Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, Victor Orban’s Fidesz Party in Hungary, and the Polish Law and Justice Party. Today, the Five-Star Movement is in the process of negotiating a coalition arrangement with the far-right Liga Nord.

Such a development hasn’t been confined to Europe but is a global phenomenon as evinced, for example, by the electoral triumphs of Narendra Modi in India in 2014 and that of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey as early as 2003. But no phenomena more clearly evince this thesis than the stunning victory of Donald J. Trump in the 2016 American presidential election and the triumph of the Leave Campaign led by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

But there has also been a populism of the left. The Arab Spring was widely regarded as a broad-based, if short-lived, popular revolt and therefore as a kind of populism in the streets in 2011. The events of Tahrir Square profoundly inspired the Occupy Movement. Radiating out beyond Zuccotti Park, the movement spread through much of the western world. Arguably, the Occupy Movement’s most significant and enduring effect was to be felt five years later in the rising support for Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Latin America, moreover, has seen a dramatic revival of populism in the Bolivarian model in the Chavez/Maduro regime in Venezuela and in Evo Morales in Bolivia as well as in the Kirchner governments in Argentina. The dramatic global rise of populist parties and movements has resulted in a burgeoning scholarshipon this most slippery of political concepts.

But can we understand populism with more precision? How can we account for its recent pervasiveness? I will focus on two exemplary accounts of populism before trying to arrive at some conclusions of how to understand the difference between right and left forms of populism in the context of neo-liberal globalization.

The first account is a recent widely-cited and discussed empirical study by Norris and Inglehart (2016). The second is a more theoretical account of populism by Ernesto Laclau articulated over several decades (Laclau 1977, Laclau and Mouffe 1985, Laclau 2006). If Norris and Inglehart struggle to come to terms with the populism of the left, then Laclau struggles to come to adequate grips with the populism of the right. The former draw upon a somewhat narrow definition of populism, emphasizing its anti-establishment, authoritarian and nativist dimensions; the latter understands populism as a logic constituted by the establishment of an “equivalentialchain” of differentdemands. It appears to suggest that populism is a democratic, horizontal and egalitarian discourse.

Populism Explained: Economic Insecurity or Cultural Backlash?

A paper widely discussed in the media by Pippa Norris of Harvard University and Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan suggests – following Cas Mudde – that populism shares three distinct elements: 1) anti-establishmentism, 2) authoritarianismand 3) nativism. The first contrasts with the established structures of representative democracy; the second with the principles of liberalism(in particular with the protection of minority rights), and emphasizes the direct expression of popular will via charismatic leadership, referenda and plebiscites that circumvent the typical checks and balances of liberal-democracy; and the third contrasts with cosmopolitanism.

Building on Mudde’s conceptualization, the authors develop a heuristic model of populism based upon two distinct axes: economic and cultural. The former has to do with the level of state management of the economy, and the latter has to do with “conservative” versus “progressive” values. The authors suggest three possible analytical types of explanation for the rise of populism: 1) the rules of the game, 2) the “supply-side” of the market of party politics and 3) the “demand-side” of party politics. They gear their explanation to the third dimension and suggest that this can be understood to have two distinct – though not mutually exclusive – causes. The first is that populism emerges in response to economic insecurity, and the second is that populism appears as a backlashby older white males to the erosion of traditional cultural values.

Norris and Inglehart argue that the latter is the most convincing argument: “We believe that these are the groups most likely to feel that they have become strangers from the predominant values in their own country, left behind by progressive tides of cultural change which they do not share… The silent revolution of the 1970s appears to have spawned an angry and resentful counter-revolutionary backlash today.”

While the empirical data the authors cite to support their argument is indeed impressive, it is possible to raise significant objections about the way they framethis evidence. First, the separation of “supply” and “demand” explanations seems deeply dubious. In strictly economic terms, according to Say’s law of markets, for example, aggregate production necessarily creates an equal quantity of aggregate demand.

A second objection arises from the cultural backlash argument: by mischaracterizing Mudde’s definition as inherently authoritarian and nativist, Norris and Inglehart bias their conclusion towards culturalist explanations.

A third objection is that it is deeply debatable that “progressive values” are on the ascendant. Indeed, today it is far from clear what comprises “progressive values,” as we saw in the recent Democratic Presidential Nomination pitting Hilary Rodham Clinton against Bernie Sanders. This opposition has been echoed in debates between political theorists in terms of the relative priority between politics of recognitionversus redistribution.

Whether populism can be understood exclusively in terms of traditionalist backlash is also debatable. If this was the predominant measure of populist politics, one could expect recent immigrants – who themselves hold traditional values – to the US, the UK and other parts of Europe to join in these movements. However, far from this being the case, they are often the targets of the backlash.

Finally, one wonders whether the authors don’t seriously underestimate the threat right-wing populism poses to the institutions of liberal-democracy in the United States. A worrying inference that the authors explicitly draw from their progressivist premises is that populism will eventually die out. The study therefore fails to sufficiently appreciate the ways in which populist governments seek to institutionalizetheir agendas, thereby changing the rules of the game. This has become most drastically evident in the case of Poland, for example, in which Andrzej Duda (leader of the right-populist Law and Justice party) has significantly limited the autonomy of the judicial branch of government.  Other such examples abound.

Understanding Populist Reason

In his hugely influential yet profoundly controversial work with Chantal Mouffe entitled Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau seeks to develop his analysis of populism so as to generate a new post-Marxist politics. In other words, Laclau is developing in a British context a political strategy that is germane to a context that has seen the rise of what StuartHall has called “authoritarian populism” in the form of Thatcherism. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy differs from Laclau’s earlier work in at least two ways: 1) it breaks with Althusserian Marxism, particularly that of Nicos Poulantzas, insofar as it no longer accords the working class a privileged role in social transformation; and 2) it provides a discursive account of the social. As he and Mouffe argue:

In our view, in order to advance in the determination of social antagonisms, it is necessary to analyse the plurality of diverse and frequently contradictory positions, and to discard the idea of a perfectly unified and homogenous agent, such as the ‘working class’ of classical discourse. The search for the ‘true’ working class and its limits is a false problem, and as such lacks any theoretical or political relevance.

The continuity, however, lies in the fact that Laclau insists upon the centrality of the concept of hegemonic articulation of heterogeneous political demands as the basis of a leftist political strategy.

In On Populist Reason (2005)Laclau argues against those political theorists who claim that populism is an irrational political discourse by reconstructing and foregrounding, as the title suggests, populism’s own distinctive reason. Its logic is that of an “antagonistic synthesis,” but now understood as an equivalential articulation of differences – that is a linking together of what different political demands share in common – in relation to a common “antagonistic frontier”. For Laclau, all democratic politics are, in fact, populist.In other words, if we assume that society is inherently heterogeneous, politics must entail the hegemonic articulation of a multiplicity of political demands in a manner that is always provisional and open to revision. A given hegemonic equivalential articulation of differences is always shifting, temporary and open  because based on a logic of the empty signifier.

The key difference from his previous work is Laclau’s attempt to conceptualize the affective dimension of politics via Lacanian psychoanalysis.  John Kraniauskas understands thisas the articulation of a Gramscian Lacan in contradistinction to Žižek’s Hegelian Lacan. While the latter takes, as its point of departure, the understanding of the “desire of the Other” (the impossible-because-unattainable desire for intersubjective recognition), the former can be understood in terms of political desire.

For Laclau political desire is geared to what Lacan calls the “objet petit a,” meaning a partial object that is a fragment of the Real (that which eludes symbolization yet is caught within the symbolic order). The “object petit a” is often symbolized by the bountiful breast and, as such, promises a return to an original plenitude prior to the symbolic order based on the split between signifier and signified.

Political desire, then, is established through the Name or the coincidence of signifier and signified that is only set retroactively. The key point Laclau is making here is that this Lacanian understanding of political desire enables is an alternative to Freud’s, the latter being mass politics grounded in the love of an authoritarian leader who represents the Imago of the father. In contrast, political desire grounded in the utopic logic of the “objet petit a” is characterized by the horizontal relations between brothers (and presumably, sisters).

Several criticisms can be made of Laclau’s approach to populism. Critics have drawn attention to its formalism, stemming from its reliance on structural linguistics in which signification is understood by way of a system of differences with no positive terms. This formalist premise is the basis for his understanding of the figure of the peopleas an empty signifier that can take on radically divergent contents. What the approach seems to elide is the historical continuity of this figure.

Secondly, it appears that Laclau thinks either we must conceive of necessity in reductive terms that is, of a closed historical totality, orthe social dissolves completely into an infinite, deconstructive play of radical difference. This is untenable.

Thirdly, Laclau also downplays the role of institutions in historical change and continuity. Can we understand the mechanism of articulation other than through institutions such as the state, political parties, trades unions, and the whole host of organizations and associations that comprised what Gramsci called “civil society”?

Finally and most importantly for our purposes, the above questions are raised by the Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis upon which Laclau depends to ground his account of populism, in particular to rescue populism from the “denigration of the masses” of figures like Gustav Le Bon. Laclau’s engagement with Freudian social psychology, however, must be regarded as a missed opportunity, since he ignores the problem that occupies such an important role in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, namely the phenomenon of the regression of the group through a libidinal cathexis in the figure of the leader possessed of (real or imaginary) strength. Such an investment constitutes what Erich Fromm called an “escape from freedom.”

Differentiating Right and Left Populisms

According to David Harvey, neoliberal globalization is comprised of four processes: accumulation by dispossession; de-regulation; privatization; and an upward re-distribution of wealth. Taken together they have increased both economic insecurity and cultural anxiety via three features in particular: the creation of surplus peoples, rising global inequality, and threats to identity.

The anxiety wrought by neoliberal globalization has created a rich and fertile ground for populist politics of both right and left. Neither Norris and Inglehart nor Laclau adequately account for such insecurity in their theorization of populism. As we have seen, populism can be understood as a mobilizing discourse that conceives of political subjectivity as comprised of “the people.” Yet this figure of “the people,” as Agamben has indicatedin What is a people? (2000) is deeply ambivalent insofar as it can be understood both in terms of the  body politic as a whole (as in the US Constitution’s “We the People”), or in terms of what Ranciere calls the “part that has no part,” or the dispossessed and the displaced; as in “The people united shall never be defeated,” or in the Black Panthers’ famous slogan: “All Power to the People.”

In this dichotomy, the figure of “the people” can be understood in terms of its differential deployments by right and left, which themselves must be understood in terms of the respective enemies through which “the people” is constructed. And this is the decisive dimension of populism.

Right populism conflates “the people” with an embattled nation confronting its external enemies: Islamic terrorism, refugees, the European Commission, the International Jewish conspiracy, and so on. The left, in marked contrast, defines “the people” in relation to the social structures and institutions – for example, state and capital – that thwart its aspirations for self-determination; a construction which does not necessarily, however, preclude hospitality towards the Other.

In other words, right-wing or authoritarian populism defines the enemy in personalized terms, whereas, while this is not always true, left-wing populism tends to define the enemy in terms of bearers of socio-economic structures and rarely as particular groups. The right, in a tradition stemming back to Hobbes, takes insecurity and anxiety as the necessary, unavoidable, and indeed perhaps even favourable product of capitalist social relations. It transforms such insecurity and anxiety into the fear of the stranger and an argument for a punitive state. In contrast, the left seeks to provide an account of the sources of such insecurity in the processes that have led to the dismantling of the welfare state, and corresponding phenomena such as “zero-hours” contracts, the casualization of labour, and generalized precarity. It then proposes transformative and egalitarian solutions to these problems. Of course, left populism can also turn authoritarian – largely though not exclusively due to the interference and threatened military intervention of the global hegemon and its allies – with an increasing vilification of the opposition, as we saw in Venezuela and Ecuador with Rafael Correa.

This is a much shorter version of a chapter in a forthcoming volume edited by Jeremiah Morelock entitled Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism,(University of Westminster Press).

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  1. vlade

    Well, all you really have to do on this is look at the history of (wider, including USSR and to an extent Turkey) Europe in 1920s.

    TBH, I have an issue with painting the left-wing populism as almost always benign and non-authoritarian.

    Historical experience shows that power corrupts, and left-wing populists can get corrupted by power as easily as anyone else.

    Anyone who is willing to remove checks and balances ‘for the good of the cause’ – be it left or right – is likely to end up in an authoritarian regime, even if it was not the original intention.

    That does not mean it never should be done, but when it’s done, it’d be understood what is being done (see Lincoln and ACW, and it’s actually an easy argument to be made that ACW strengthened federal government considerably vis a vis states, even if it’s unlikely that it’s the long-term outcome that Lincoln would have wanted)

    1. Anonymous

      Indeed, when you look at the Left’s desire to reform humanity into their higher ideals the impacts have been hardly benign when they get substantial power. Left authoritarianism, as seen under Stalin and Mao, caused millions of death and massive upheavals.

  2. Larry Coffield

    This rant is a road to nowhere: Left populism was on display at the Battle of Seattle from which Occupy and Standing Rock would eventuate. Then, as now, we are against world government that colonizes nations into export-dependent colonies The same populism reflective of Ralph would later find Bernie a Ralph-lite.

    Those who embrace the retrograde values of puritanism went from Pat to Trump.

    This article is just some gobbledegook that avers very little intellectual heft goes beyond Noam Chomsky and Michael Hudson.

    1. sharonsj

      I agree that the first part of the article struck me as word salad, but the rest seems spot on. People pretty much everywhere are dissatisfied with their lot in life. But how the right and left deal with their anger can be blamed on the decades-long rise of right-wing media, particularly on radio.

      About 10 years ago, I had to drive to a conference and the trip was nearly six hours long. I probably drove through as many states and, in every state, all I could get on the radio was a ranting right-winger who lied or misrepresented the facts. The times I tried to listen to Rush Limbaugh left me mystified by the “ditto heads” who phoned in to thank him for telling the truth when I knew he was lying. I was particularly struck by one show where he spent hours blaming the Democrats for everything wrong with Congress and not once mentioned the Republicans. It was though Republicans did not exist.

      Maybe it’s white men upset because minorities of different races and religions (not to mention women) are demanding their rights. But I believe we’re going down the toilet because of a completely ignorant population that is no longer interested in actual facts.

      1. bruce wilder

        maybe the guys who own (0.1%) and the guys who run the radio and its programming (9.9%) have something to do with mediating economic discontent thru political ambivalence into right and left by means of mass media propaganda

        maybe the tastes or knowledge base, such as it is, of the mass population has little to do with the state of politics or the functioning of the economy, except as an effect of the tools of management

  3. disc_writes

    Liga Nord -> Lega Nord.

    However, Nord was recently removed from the name, so it is just “Lega” now.

  4. Expat

    “The continuity, however, lies in the fact that Laclau insists upon the centrality of the concept of hegemonic articulation of heterogeneous political demands as the basis of a leftist political strategy.”

    I can’t take anyone seriously if they write crap like this. If this were an article on advanced physics or a treatise on Linear B, I could understand having sentence that no one but experts can understand. But this is just gibberish. Why bother even trying to read this article?

    People don’t change their views. They express them depending on the political environment. Trump supporters are no different today than they were ten years ago. Left wing Bernie supporters supported his ideas long before they supported him.

    1. Katsue

      I think that while the different expression of views is a real phenomenon, I think that views, at least in the sense of policy positions, aren’t fixed either. I know there are issues I’ve changed my mind on in the past.

    2. Watt4Bob

      Trump supporters are no different today than they were ten years ago.

      I think the important way that everyone is different than they were ten years ago is that they are much poorer, and so their economic lives are more precarious.

      While the working class was holding its own, and still able to afford a few toys and send their kids to college, their displeasure with the political trends was pretty much contained and attenuated by, and within the framing provided by the two-party system. Since the recent economic collapse, the working class has found itself edging ever closer to the same precarious financial position formerly enjoyed by the ‘poor’.

      IMHO, the people who constitute the populist left, have had a deeper, and more realistic understanding of the forces that shape their life experience, but they have previously placed their trust in democratic leadership. This trust was misplaced, and has recently eroded precipitously.

      The people who identify increasingly with the populist right, OTOH, due to their previous level of economic comfort, and privilege, have only relatively recently begun to question their previously blind faith in the republican leadership. Their trust was also misplaced.

      This situation is the result of the success of the divide and conquer tactics perfected by the rich and powerful.

      This situation leaves me wishing that more people supposedly on the ‘left’ understood that identity politics has been used to divide and dilute their political power, and that more people on the historic ‘right’ understood that it has not been the poor, and the fictional ‘nanny state’ that have degraded their life experience, but the machinations of the rich and powerful.

      We’re in this sad situation because our political leadership is totally corrupted by the love of money.

      And the formerly comfortable and relatively privileged working class has finally begun to feel the impact of that corruption.

      That’s what has changed in the last ten years.

      1. JTFaraday

        Well, if you look at something like the Freedom Caucus as being one expression of right wing populism, what I think you see is how neoliberal policy was supported by the public. These people don’t think that the Republican establishment is neoliberal enough or nasty enough yet, and are still helping to drive the whole party to the right.

        Left populism and right populism are probably not going to amount to the same thing. I can’t imagine the populist right that I see overcoming its hatred of liberals, the left, and the nonwhite constituency in order to make common cause with them in anything like the near future. Maybe in another generation.

        Sorry if that’s not what people want to hear.

        1. Watt4Bob

          I can’t imagine the populist right that I see overcoming its hatred of liberals, the left, and the nonwhite constituency in order to make common cause with them in anything like the near future.

          That’s why many people fear we are looking at some sort of civil war.

          The careful cultivation of hatred as a means of control has been going on for so long, and has been so successful that we seem to have reached a saturation point.

    3. Pym of Nantucket

      Pedantic writing is probably as old as writing itself. Its purpose is different from writing which is designed to influence large numbers of people. Its purpose is to augment the status of the writer within an elite or select circle of people with whom they are either communicating or competing. It is ironic that the topic of this is populism. It is tedious and you can see it a mile away. This writing wasn’t meant to be disseminated; it was meant to be ignored.

      1. Arizona Slim

        Truth be told, I scrolled right down to the comments. I suspected that they’d be better than the article, and they are.

      2. Glorious Bach

        Mein Gott!

        The key difference from his previous work is Laclau’s attempt to conceptualize the affective dimension of politics via Lacanian psychoanalysis. John Kraniauskas understands thisas the articulation of a Gramscian Lacan in contradistinction to Žižek’s Hegelian Lacan. While the latter takes, as its point of departure, the understanding of the “desire of the Other” (the impossible-because-unattainable desire for intersubjective recognition), the former can be understood in terms of political desire.

        What frustratingly pretentious and gag-inducing sentences. The Earth is reeling from the Death, Immiseration, and lack of Accountability (D-I-A) which hounds us. Class conflicts are real and comprehensible, the struggle for MLK’s “arc of justice” is real. People of good will, such as those here at NK, are real. But the sentences quoted above are conversation-killers and the near-impenetrable vocabulary, despite the occasionally helpful points that slip in, hardly advance meaningful exchanges or reform. Yes, the comments are far better.

  5. The Rev Kev

    I think that there might be another factor here that has not been accounted for and that is not so much economic security or cultural anxiety but something else more fundamental. Decades ago the governments in many countries decided who were going to be the winners and who were going to be the losers as they brought in Neoliberalism. They then decided that the losers could be ignored but in recent years these ‘losers’ have discovered that they still have a weapon left – their ever increasing numbers. The message from them is now clear. “You-are-not-listening-to-us!” and those people that ignored this message are paying the price. Thomas Frank tried to give this message with his book “Listen Liberal!” but has been sidelined.
    About 20 years ago both this country’s main political parties were taking the voters for granted and ignoring their needs as they brought in policy after policy and ignoring the consequences for the average person. That’s why it was a shock when one million people voted for a female demagogue and though they were able to (illegally) neutralize her then, she has never gone away and is still having an outsize effect on current politics. I think that the same is happening in the UK and the US. It was only last year that a study in the US found that what average voters wanted was always ignored unless it aligned with what some interest wanted. And that is how you got Trump.
    This is why I have difficulty with this article as I believe that it has not taken the situation in properly IMHO. When that sentence appears that many are ‘left behind by progressive tides of cultural change which they do not share’ you have to ask, progressive for who? Could you not from the viewpoint of these people say that they were ‘left behind by regressive tides of cultural change which they do not share’. You know that there is a reason why the term neofeudalism has appeared you know.

    1. Amfortas the Hippie

      I’ve used “neofeudalism” to denote what we now call “neoliberalism” for about 20 years now.
      CEO/BOD as Lords of the Manor.
      (Moldbug has taken this and run with it)
      and as noted above, those towards the socialist left end of the spectrum do tend to have a habit of logorrheah and obfuscatory verbiage,lol.
      I see no conflict between being “nationalist” and also “cosmopolitan”…I can love my local environs and the people that inhabit them, as well as feel kinship with the rest of humanity.
      I also see no necessary conflict between Smithian Capitalism and Marx…”Wealth of Nations” “Moral Sentiments” and “Das Capital” are next to each other on my shelf, I accidentally acquired and read them in sequence, and saw them as complimentary….the issue is undue Power, which is why Mario Puzo is next to them in my library.
      for all the talk of freedom and initiative and “The People”, few people in power seem willing to even try to get an accurate read on what all that means…especially who “the People” actually are.

      as far as the scary side of populism, I paraphrase JFK:” if you deny the people the means for peaceful change, then violent change is what they are left with”.
      The powerful get too big for their britches, and do what they want with no regard for us’n’s…eventually, the powerful start to look rather tasty.
      …and the powerful always seem to be surprised to find themselves roasting on a spit, or hanging from a lamppost.
      That Nemesis forever stalks Hubris is truism as old as civilisation.
      and while it’s apparent that the Greeks failed to follow their own sage advice, the cure for this circle of chaos was written in stone above the door at Delphi:” Moderation* in all things”.

      (* that’s actual Moderation…not the BS version exhibited by the Corpsedems)

      1. Pym of Nantucket

        I use the feudalism comparison all the time too. Will technology (mostly automation and artificial intelligence) make it increasingly difficult for the disenfranchised to seek that violent change mentioned by JFK? There is reason to believe current technological change is different from swords or guns which can be grabbed during a Bastille storming event. The same goes for physical currency which can simply be confiscated during an uprising; modern wealth is embedded in the digital systems used to record and assign power to the wealthy.

        1. Amfortas the Hippie

          which is, of course, it’s weakness.
          I won’t advocate violence or destruction(waves at nsa),I am strictly an Under the Big Oak Philosopher; but if all the “wealth” is in the form of ones and zeroes in some mainframe, somewhere, the “Fight Club Option” is sure to cross somebody’s mind, at some point. Ie: Pull the Plug.
          I’ve seen the reports from orgs like the ASE that paint a rather disturbing picture of the “health” of the Grid…multiple points of failure. Bridges and water and food imports(like into the Rich Enclaves….the Hamptons, River Oaks, the “Dominion”, the Woodlands)…I can think of lots of potential targets for “direct action”.
          The option of fighting the man toe to toe was long ago made impossible(is there a Second Amendment Right to tactical nukes? ak-ak guns? manpads? If not, then the “protect us from tyranny” excuse is just silly).
          But Us’n’s are not yet completely powerless…even before we get to Pulling the Plug, there’s always the potential for a general strike…probably very disorganised and chaotic, driven by feeling and the heat of the moment. FDR understood(rather, the people in his ear did) that the Governed can’t be pushed too far…that at some unknown and perhaps unknowable point, a spark will appear,lodge in the dry tinder of our discontent, and suddenly the Fat and Happy will be longing for their bunkers.
          The trick since the 70’s, when the FDR meaty bone throwing was abandoned, has been to keep Us fighting with ourselves…the right hand gnaws on the left, and vise versa.
          In spite of the state of social media, and the incidents that are continually put before us to frighten and anger us, I don’t really think that that trick is working as well as it used to.
          We see various polls…by folks like Pew…that indicate that a majority are discontented, tired, and mad.
          All that’s lacking is a Narrative Framework.
          Like a “New New Deal”.
          I’ve noted that our Aristocracy is very ill defined, and that their defining feature seems to be pretending real hard that they don’t exist. That ain’t working all that well, either….due to Hubris(Look at Me!”) and an increasing complacency and sense of entitlement.
          I’ve thought about all this since I discovered “Peak Oil”…then “Peak Everything”, circa 2003.
          Civilisation, as we’ve come to know it,is fragile…a thin patina, at best…and there are numerous things that could black swan into the necessary Spark…supply lines stretching around the world, exporting our Physical Plant and Nonindustrial food production,neglect of infrastructure, as well…as mentioned…the increasingly shameless harvesting of the Commons and the 80%’s wealth.
          Yesterday’s(?) links had a piece about the moribund and collapsing middle class….and not in some lefty rag.
          The signs and portents are all around us.
          “Doom”, she said….

        2. Synoia

          To feudalism we need to add two phrases

          1. Aristocracy, Lord of the Manor
          2. Landless Peasants

  6. Sionnach Liath

    If I may be forgiven for corrupting the thoughts of two of my favorite poets:

    Words, words, words…
    Incredible herds of words…
    Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…

    1. Jamie

      “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

  7. flora

    I’m less interested in theories about the symptoms of the problem of neoliberalim – rising populism – than in addressing the problem of neoliberalism itself. Right and Left are both getting their lunch stolen by neoliberal policies.

  8. Enrique

    Academic studies that attempt to draw meaningful conclusions across cultures/eras and assign some arbitrary “right” or “left” designation to same on top of that. Which dates back to the Girondins on one side and the Montagnards on the other during one of the many iterations of French revolutionary government.

    For me, academic wankery of order #1 right there. The almost pathological need to label things. From whence the labels themselves take on some sort of independent significance within the framework of the silly “analysis.”

    I am of Spanish nationality originality. I am always amused when foreigners would tell me about the Civil War that my great-grandfather fought in. You know, the one where the bad guys were the “fascists.”

    Except that both sides were made up of many factions – and particularly on the Republican of factions almost more hostile to one another than to Franco’s bunch. Then Franco himself was more or less just a militarist and ally of convenience with one Royalist faction, the Catholic Church, a domestic faction somewhat more similar to the Italians (arguably the only real “fascists”) and Germans.

    And don’t even get me started on the Anarchist militias, the Catalunya/Euzkadi v Madrid dynamic, and every other damnable combination of things.

    But this was “left” against “right,” of course.

    I’m with the poster above to the extent of “let’s stop labelling everything and concentrate on the simplest of same.” There are the transnational cretins who devalue human life/dignity in favour of profits and institutions. And then there are those opposed. I broadly sympathise with the latter in almost all cases.

  9. marym

    In the US the “populace” is all of us. Native Americans (here for thousands of years), African Americans (here before the Pilgrims), Hispanics (same), everyone who has immigrated here legally or not, every gender and orientation, who has worked, built and defended this country, and enriched its culture. If the definition of populism doesn’t include everyone, and doesn’t espouse policies that directly benefit them, find another name.

    Yesterday, in response to Trump screeching about it, the NFL said players can be fined if they kneel. That wasn’t enough. Today he said maybe they shouldn’t be in the country. There are actual words in the English language to describe Trump, his appointees, and their policies. Populist isn’t one of them.

  10. flora

    Here is Thomas Frank’s take on today’s populism. I largely agree.

    Sounds bad, all right. Demonic, even. But the phrase “populist moment” rang a bell. I went to my bookshelf and pulled down my copy of – yes – The Populist Moment by the historian Lawrence Goodwyn, a celebrated study of Populism published in 1978. Here is how it starts: “This book is about the flowering of the largest democratic mass movement in American history. It is also necessarily a book about democracy itself.” What Goodwyn meant was that Populism in its 1890s permutation represented a vision of democratic participation that was actually more advanced than what we settle for today. Far from being a threat to democracy, Populism was democracy’s zenith.

    To produce a whole book on populism while ignoring this completely opposite interpretation strikes me as a serious oversight. Yes, I think we need to understand why liberal democracy is crumbling around the world. But to describe this process with the unmodified “populism” is a mistake. It is, after all, an American word. And the history of American populism contradicts item after item in Mounk’s devil theory. Populism is simply not what he thinks it is.


    1. Musicismath

      I read that earlier: it was like a little beacon of sanity broadcasting from a less fervid age. As one of the commenters said, it’s a pity it was tucked away in the “Culture” section. It’s probably the single best thing on the topic of “populism” that the Guardian has published in years.

    2. Arizona Slim

      And here’s Frank’s conclusion. Drop the mike, Thomas!

      Reduced to its essentials, populism is America’s way of expressing class antagonism. It is a tradition of rhetorical protest that extends from Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt to Bernie Sanders and on to the guy who just cooked your hamburger or filled your gas tank . It is powerful stuff. But protest isn’t the property of any particular party. Anyone can be the voice of those who work, and when one party renounces its claim the other can easily pick it up.

      All of which suggests a different answer to the question with which we began. Why is our traditional left failing? It is true that the other side doesn’t play fair any more, but it’s also true that the Democrats are lost in a fantasy of white-collar benevolence. For all their algorithms and their lavishly detailed position papers, their leaders have little personal sympathy any longer with the travails of working people. Populism isn’t the name for this disease; it’s the cure.

      1. Patrick

        I usually learn from (and agree with) TF, but here I think he misses a key point. Yes populism is an expression of class antagonism, but as such, it’s a symptom, not necessarily a cure. Has populism solved class antagonism…? It’s not a new movement, so a historical review should give some insight…

        What is worrying (to me. at least) is that capitalism enabled by technology is a major enabler/driver of neoliberalism and the rampant inequality it can create, AND other problems such as money laundering, human/drug/illicit goods trafficking, terrorism, etc.

        One of the the key definitions of terrorism is that it is a means by which those with no access to political power can make their grievances/demands be at least “recognized”, if not acknowledged or acted upon.

        The class antagonism that drives populism can be utilized by either side of the mainstream political spectrum to build base and momentum (hence right and left populism), but at a certain point, the persistent underlying class issues and lack of any real political control may build up and win out (how many times can Frank point out that the base of the right keeps getting fooled by social conservative aligned politicians that once elected, go against the economic interests of their base? or that the leadership of the Dems basically sold out the parties core values in the ’90s which is why the brand is in tatters with the broader base?).

        At that point, we have the perfect infrastructure for populism to get results/attention through other means. Look into the history of the alt-right, the InCel movement, and you may be looking at the future of “populism”.

      2. makedoanmend

        Thanks for citing the book and Frank’s comments on Populism.

        It seems to me that there is a very real difference between US populism and European populism as to how we understand the concept.

        If US populism is as Frank describes, then it behooves us to understand why (if it is indeed the case) US populism is different: 1) in the latter half 19th century the US was reintegrating 2) expanding territorially westward and 3) the first phases of industrial development was only beginning to reveal the change in social relationships and attendant wealth distribution impacts? So a more expansive populism emerged?

        If one looks to European populism in the 1930s, especially in France and Spain, one sees a movement that claimed to cleave a way between right and left “extremism”. I would argue that Franco’s Fascism was more of a convenient way to organise people along nationalist sympathies than a desire for national expansion or racial purity. If one looks to France during the same period, there was an emphasis on nationalism, adherence to a strict moral code and a reversion to an ossified class system as a bulwark against social and historical change over which the ruling class had little control. It may have been a little more less repressive in physical terms (very debatable) as they sought a Burkean solution to arrest historical developments but, in the end, did little to prevent the carnage which ensued.

  11. Newton Finn

    An extremely important work on the same subject, ignored in the above discussion, is “Reclaiming the State” by Mitchell and Fazi. Their claim is that the left, by abandoning the nationalist cause to the right, is missing an extraordinary opportunity to oppose the disruptive savagery of global neoliberalist capitalism with a nurturing, protective, and inclusive vision of state sovereignty, liberated from xenophobic and/or racist tendencies. If the left is to regain its political footing, it must stand on the kind of conceptual ground staked out in this perceptive and provocative book, which is also replete with the sorry history of the left’s surrender, at least so far, to allegedly insurmountable transnational interests.

    1. Amfortas the Hippie

      I’d add a rcommendation for another book, which was laying around my house when I was a kid for some reason: Crane Brinton’s “Anatomy of Revolution”.
      when I read it again, when I was older and working,I looked at the poor college kids and poor mothers and fathers working with me in the kitchen, and then look out the little cook’s window at the frat boys and sorority chicks out there with their platinum cards and porsches, and wonder at the lack of any revolutionary inkling among the former.
      As I keep saying, the “working class” is multi-hued, and starting to notice what’s on their end of the stick. Even the Tea People are noticing this, and they ain’t blaming the brown guy working for peanuts alongside them.

  12. Enquiring Mind

    Trust, or lack thereof, features prominently in emotions and actions of people and their degree of attachment, however tenuous, to labels and movements. A simple, five-letter word that is basic to human understanding. The author wallows in sesquipedalian tergiversation by ignoring basics and hiding behind theory.

    Ask the average person about trust and how it relates to their feeling about government. They will often tell you that trust disappeared gradually, then suddenly. That also speaks to the bankruptcy of so much academic thought. Populists of whatever stripe often want somebody to tell them the truth, verifiable, objective truth, and to respect their ability to think, rather than being herded like sheep.

    1. Rod

      Trust, imo, is the set up for some sense of Security within ones life.
      Lack of this sense of Security is manifest in an array of behaviors I see.
      Or a misplaced sense of Security that wealth affords some.

  13. Altandmain

    What is left unsaid is how the rich screwed over the rest of society in their greed to get richer.

    The ruling elite never understood that their legitimacy claim came from their ability to deliver a high standard of living to their citizens. When they betrayed that to get even more filthy rich, they lost their legitimacy in a key part of the base.

    All of the claims that capitalism works so well are proving worthless if they do not translate to the bottom 90 percent of citizens. In reality, crony capitalism is the type of society we are living in. Far from being innovative and pushing the high standards of living promised, it is a source of deep inequality and rather than innovation, often it is used for rent seeking.

    You can hide it with propaganda in the short run, but people will wake up. That has happened and the elite are struggling to get Humpty Dumpty back together.

    1. Amfortas the Hippie

      I question whether what we are laboring under is actually “capitalism”.
      Monsanto or Exxon are not capitalism…they’re something else.
      I wonder if it’s even rent-seeking any more, having morphed into some new thing that we don’t have a taxonomy for.
      (As I said before, all that “wealth” is only real inasmuch as a sufficient number of folks believe in it.)
      I used to holler at the more Randian Libertarians about this; walmart moves in and is soon the only place to get toilet paper or a box fan. Their answer was to open a store and compete,lol.
      They’d go on and on about the beauty and perfection of the corporate model, and the efficiency of Markets(Holy, Holy, world without end), and ignore or attack anyone who pointed out the blood and corruption oozing under the foundations.
      They could paper over the ugly parts with anticommie fervor and prosperity gospels and much spittle and froth for a time(longer than I expected), but at some point, a sufficient number will take notice, and “remember that they are powerful”.

  14. David

    Well “populism” comes from the same root as “people”, so populism is another way of saying “what the people want”, or if you prefer that quaint formulation, “democracy.”
    Much political theory since the coming of the universal franchise has been an attempt to evade this issue. Currently, we are in the dying stages of liberalism, which was always an explicitly anti-democratic ideology, and still wheels out its anti-fascist artillery to coerce ordinary people to vote against their own interests. The article itself is a good example of trying to disguise a simple problem as a complex one, in order to avoid facing up to it. Oh, and recent immigrants often vote for right-wing parties (it depends where they come from) but that’s another issue.

  15. anon48

    “In other words, right-wing or authoritarian populism defines the enemy in personalized terms, whereas, while this is not always true, left-wing populism tends to define the enemy in terms of bearers of socio-economic structures and rarely as particular groups.”


    US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has called half of Donald Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables”.
    Speaking at a fundraiser, she said they were “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it”.
    Mrs Clinton later apologised for her criticism of Mr Trump’s supporters but promised to keep fighting “bigotry and racist rhetoric”.
    • Posted By BBC 10 Sep 2016

    It’s the economy, stupid” is a slight variation of the phrase “The economy, stupid”, which James Carville had coined as a campaign strategist of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against sitting president George H. W. Bush.I
    From Wikipedia

    Not trying to defend those that promote right-wing propaganda for which there is plenty to go round… But from what I read and catch on TV and internet, the left is no better than the right. That’s why I try to jump from CNBC to FOX back to CNBC an so on just to try to find some common ground. But there never seems to be any.. It’s like I’m living on 2 different planets…However, the most amazing thing to me is just how many pots out there that can’t see they’re the same color as kettles.

    BTW lumping “authoritarian” and “right wing” together as meaning the same thing could be construed as another form of personal name-calling

    1. Grebo

      Hillary Clinton, from the point of view of the writer of this piece and also many people here, is right-wing.
      CNBC and FOX are both right-wing. Their vast common ground is never mentioned, ratings require conflict, trivial but inflammatory differences are amplified to disorienting levels.

      If you live in America you may have trouble accurately surveying the political landscape as you have been locked in the privy your whole life.

      Broadly speaking, right-wing means conservative and authoritarian. Left-wing means radical and liberal (ie. anti-authoritarian). In the radical-authoritarian corner we have Communists and in the conservative-liberal corner we should have Libertarians if most of them didn’t worship the authority of the corporation.

    2. Jamie

      BTW lumping “authoritarian” and “right wing” together as meaning the same thing could be construed as another form of personal name-calling

      Yes it could be, except that I believe there are studies that show that self identified conservatives tend to favor authoritarian relations while self identified liberals tend to favor non authoritarian relations, which makes it not name calling, but a simple observation of a statistical reality and a real differentiator of “left” and “right” values. So in order to persuasively construe it as name calling, you would have to discredit those studies and demonstrate that no such statistical relationship actually exists. To the extent that conservatives really do espouse authoritarian values, being labeled authoritarian ought not to bother them.

      BTW: there is nothing in the word ‘authoritarian’ to imply that it is necessarily the state that is the authority, so anti-government rightists can still accurately be describe as authoritarian in their values if they believe, for example in the authority of fathers in family relations and the authority of parents and teachers over children, or in the authority of God or church on moral questions, or take a strong “law and order” stance while simultaneously wanting “less government”, or believe in the inherent “rightness” of hierarchical corporate structures, or think we live in a functioning meritocracy in which those at the bottom and top “deserve” their respective positions, etc. Conservatives who think of themselves as anti-authoritarian either think differently than the rest of their group, or don’t understand what ‘authoritarian’ means.

      1. anon48

        “Yes it could be, except that I believe there are studies that show that self identified conservatives tend to favor authoritarian relations”

        Gotcha… so your foundational argument is based upon the fact “you Believe there are studies”…Great I’m really impressed

        “BTW: there is nothing in the word ‘authoritarian’ to imply that it is necessarily the state that is the authority..”

        So who are you addressing? Cause I didn’t say that anywhere.

        BTW I believe that you and the person who commented above might be more accurate if your labels were applied to people who considered themselves “Ultra” Right and “Ultra” left. And I say might, because even some of them might be offended by your labels.

        Please note that the article itself was addressing populism which I interpreted to mean it was encapsulating a much larger slice of the population than just the extreme fringes on either side.

        1. Jamie

          “I believe there are studies” is a figure of speech. If you prefer: there are studies. If you want to know them, do your own homework. My argument does not hinge on “belief”. Your “gotcha” is nothing more than an indication that you are trolling and I am certainly not trying to impress you. I couldn’t care less what you think. I am just correcting your misstatement for the record.

          1. Anon48

            You are a perfect example of a rebuttal to the author’s conclusion in the article…hilarious

  16. JBird

    (If you live in America you may have trouble accurately surveying the political landscape as you have been locked in the privy your whole life.)

    Oh Good God, yes.

    I am drowning in this sewage amd it is slowly wrecking my sanity. I like talking politics, but trying to talk to someone sometimes is like talking to a visitor from some political uncanny valley. They look like and act like thinking beings but only know the approved good think and if I asked a question (trying to use the Socratic method to go around the darn programming) it’s like that does not compute. Anything outside the approved script for whatever “side” they are on is ungood and people get angry even when you ask questions.

    1. Amfortas the Hippie

      pardon my french, but it’s the Mindf%ck.
      a systematic program of gaslighting and confusion that at some point became sentient and turned in upon itself, until now it’s very difficult to determine what the hell is going on.
      I tentatively trace it’s beginnings to around the end of WW2, when the nascent “intelligence agencies”(which,like the FBI, were initially composed of “blue bloods”) learned that they could work with both Big Bidness and Big Government, and set about engineering a sort of counterinsurgency to eventually cement themselves into the catbird seat.
      I’m being only somewhat hyperbolic.
      I think that one of the scarier possible scenarios is that many of the top dogs(say…Billary) have been smoking their own stash, and have come to believe that the illusion, intended to keep us in check, is in fact real.
      It’s helpful to unplug from the tv(including video news). Reading something doesn’t seem to have the same deleterious effect.
      and regular application of Socratic Perplexity seems to be prophylactic.

  17. Michael Morris

    @In other words, right-wing or authoritarian populism defines the enemy in personalized terms, whereas, while this is not always true, left-wing populism tends to define the enemy in terms of bearers of socio-economic structures and rarely as particular groups.@

    Complete rubbish, and just a gander at the online Guardian refutes the above. The populism of the left is as personal and nasty as any right wing crap. Look at how Brexit voters have been depicted as knuckle dragging racists, fascists etc..

    There is no meaningful difference between the two sorts of populism, none at all.

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