In the third part of the series on populism, which is a major issue in the current political thinking and debates all over the world, the focal point is the problematic of combining the concepts of the Left and populism.
It is perfectly possible, as long as we unquestioningly accept the unsubstantiated claim that there is something to be called ‘the Left’ in the first place. After all, it is us who dumped together everything that included an ounce of oppositionality (and sometimes not even that), and called it ‘the Left’. Communists and communalists, socialists and Fabians, trade-unionists and ecologists, feminists and queer activists, national liberationists and anti-imperialists, liberals and anarchists, social-democrats and plain democrats, the Bolsheviks and Turkish Kemalists, the Viet-Kong and the Khmer Rouge, Britain’s Labour Party and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Spanish anarchists and communists of the Civil War and the Stalinists who massacred them, the German Spartacusbund of 1918 and the German Social Democrats who betrayed them and killed their leaders. They were all included in this umbrella phrase, ‘the Left’.
Anybody who wanted to keep the pre-capitalistic element within modern capitalism was a conservative and belonged to ‘the Right’. Anybody who opted for change, however small and insignificant, was on ‘the Left’. Of course, time and again, this ‘change’ included corporatist measures, blatant statism, nationalism disguised as patriotism and/or anti-imperialism, Keynesianism, liberalism, and even at one time, in 1920’s Italy, fascism. Everything was haphazardly stuffed together in this shapeless sack (not unlike the one in Buñuel’s Cet obscur objet du désir), as long as the deadly calm imposed by a seemingly eternal capitalism held fast.
There is no such thing as ‘the Left’. Consequently, when we set out to talk about, hypothesise, or even invent a ‘Left Populism’, we are merely referring to an inexistence predicated upon a non-existence, very much like Italo Calvino’s Il Cavaliere Inesistente: the story of an empty full-plate armour, animated only by the dead knight’s undying loyalty to his king.
At the risk of (seeming to be) repeating myself, I will again say: La [gauche] n’existe pas: There is no such thing as ‘the Left’. Consequently, when we set out to talk about, hypothesise, or even invent a ‘Left Populism’, we are merely referring to an inexistence predicated upon a non-existence, very much like Italo Calvino’s Il Cavaliere Inesistente: the story of an empty full-plate armour, animated only by the dead knight’s undying loyalty to his king.
The People as such does not exist: it is an illusion, a fiction predicated upon a disregard of many actual elements that make up a population –social classes, genders, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations and ideological alignments; a handy universal to ignore a multiplicity of actual agencies in order to invent a single illusory agency which cannot speak for itself (since it does not exist), so it has to be spoken for by somebody else, an actual political agent, in our case, the populists.
The Left as such also does not exist: it is a made-up category, a fiction predicated upon a disregard of many actual elements that supposedly make up a nebulous tendency for any kind of change or an un- (or ill-) defined ‘progress’. Bring the two together, as ‘Left Populism’, and you have an impossible oxymoron, an untenable politico-ideological position, which can only serve the same populist agenda as the so-called ‘Right Populism’, only with a seemingly more ‘radical’ and/or liberating/liberal rhetoric.
One of the most outstanding proponents of ‘Left Populism’, Chantal Mouffe, is quite forthcoming in her promotion of this idea (and prospective movement), that she sees ‘the people’ as ‘a new subject of collective action’:
In his book On Populist Reason, Laclau defines populism as a discursive strategy of constructing a political frontier dividing society into two camps and calling for the mobilization of the ‘underdog’ against ‘those in power’. […] We can speak of a ‘populist moment’ when, under the pressure of political or socioeconomic transformations, the dominant hegemony is being destabilized by the multiplication of unsatisfied demands. In such situations, the existing institutions fail to secure the allegiance of the people as they attempt to defend the existing order. As a result, the historical bloc that provides the social basis of a hegemonic formation is being disarticulated and the possibility arises of constructing a new subject of collective action – the people – capable of reconfiguring a social order experienced as unjust. (Mouffe 2018, 20, my italics)
The first problem with this argument is not ideological or even political; it is historical: ‘The People’ is definitely not, nor can it be constru(ct)ed as, a ‘new subject’; it has always been ‘the subject of collective action’, that is, it was subjectivised as an illusory, fictional agent whenever the need for such an agent arose: an agent that did not exist in actuality, a spectre almost always invoked by the ruling classes whenever a need for the legitimation of non- or extra-legal measures arose. What Mouffe seems to miss in her analysis is the historical continuity of ‘the People’, as it is narratively represented in proto- and properly populist ideologies, from Caesarism to contemporary populism, and therefore her endeavour to present it as something brand new, something fresh and shiny that the beaten and tired ‘Left’ can pick up and use for its own purposes, is mostly in vain.
The definition of populism as a ‘discursive strategy’ (no problem so far), dividing society into two camps as ‘the “underdog” against “those in power”,’ is a reiteration of the dimorphic logic Mouffe usually and Laclau sometimes employ. It is definitely possible to see society divided into two camps in revolutionary moments, but this is limited to moments rather then periods or entire eras.
The second problem with Mouffe’s argument is in her definition (which she attributes to Laclau): the definition of populism as a ‘discursive strategy’ (no problem so far), dividing society into two camps as ‘the “underdog” against “those in power”,’ is a reiteration of the dimorphic logic we see Mouffe usually and Laclau sometimes, albeit seldom, employ. It is definitely possible to see society divided into two camps in revolutionary moments, as Marx and Engels did in 1848 (‘the party of the revolution’ vs. ‘the party of order’), but this is limited to moments rather then periods or entire eras. Even then, the dimorphic structure is temporary and highly unstable, again, as it happened in 1848, when the ‘party of the revolution’ quickly split and disintegrated, and a more stable, trimorphic structure replaced it.
The ‘underdog’ seldom evolves into a ‘party of the revolution’ in and of itself as it is willy-nilly politicised, but is split between the two parties, the lumpenproletariat and the petty bourgeoisie usually going one way and the rest another. And this is only true for the 19th century Europe; in the 20th and 21st centuries things get immensely more complicated and the politicisation of social classes take many different forms, hitherto unimaginable coalitions and alliances arise and are broken, and although the basic class structure remains more or less intact, its representation in the political sphere resemble something completely bizarre and uncanny. In short, therefore, there is no shortcut from the ‘underdog’ to the ‘party of the revolution’.
Likewise, no such shortcut exists from ‘those in power’ to the ‘party of order’, the ruling class, the dominant class or the governing class; to those who control the means of material and intellectual production, and those who control the circulation and dissemination of capital, commodities and knowledge. Although in the long-run of the Capitalist World-System, these can be seen as different aspects of a comprehensive single entity, in given historical moments they are different and often conflicting and incompatible subjects. Mouffe’s dimorphic logic does not allow for this diversity, and treats both the ‘underdog’ and ‘those in power’ as integral subjects in and of themselves, which substitutes a wish for a concrete analysis of the facts of every specific era (including ours).
When we try to combine ‘populism’, therefore, predicated upon an imaginary subject, with ‘the Left’, at best an umbrella term which means little, if anything, under today’s circumstances, we revive what is worst in both of them: a series of manipulations, demagoguery, self-victimisation, and a history of false representations unerringly ending up in empire. Furthermore (and worse), we also revive a political culture trying to squeeze Machiavellianism, naïve liberalism, statism disguised as collectivism, Social Democracy, Stalinism, and nationalism disguised as anti-imperialism, together in a carryall, assimilating and subverting radical anti-capitalism, that is, the collective endeavour to imagine a post-capitalist future still in its birth-throes. Alas, the concept of ‘the People’ is as beaten and tired as the ‘Left’ today, and no fusion of the two will provide us with something new, a movement that can weather the present profound crisis of neoliberalism, as the embodiment of the crisis of capitalism as a whole. One ‘must be cruel, only to be kind’: both ‘the People’ and ‘the Left’ are dead as useful analytical concepts, and the least we can do for them (in memory of the unforgettable Chilean slogan ‘El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido!’, or of the early Montagnards who sat on the ‘Left’ in the first really revolutionary assembly) is to give them a decent burial. Otherwise, like every dead body that is not properly buried, they will always return to haunt us.
Whither the ‘Left’?
All these, however, are not the worst we can expect from a ‘Left Populism’: the worst characteristic of populism (right or left) appears when ‘the people’ (or rather, the wolf pack hiding among the flock, the lumpenproletariat) demands its pound of flesh, so to speak, namely, a social class or stratum that exists, and should by all means remain, hierarchically on a lower plane than itself. Under today’s circumstances, this class or stratum can be nothing but the mass of immigrants, who are moving with increasing speed among the third-world countries at war with each other and/or within themselves, and trying to reach Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand at any cost.
A perfect example of this is visible in today’s Turkey, which seems to have become a(n un)safe haven for immigrants mostly from Syria (the number is estimated between 3,5 and 4 million people), trying to reach Europe but stuck there for a purportedly temporary but actually indefinite period. The immigrants in Turkey are despised and demeaned by various sections of society, economically and culturally excluded, but at the same time exploited as an illegal and cheap labour force and more often then not, as sexual objects: their women are driven into prostitution and/or into becoming ‘second wives’ for wealthy Turkish men, and their children are under constant threat of abuse and rape.
The concept of ‘the People’ is as beaten and tired as the ‘Left’ today, and no fusion of the two will provide us with something new, a movement that can weather the present profound crisis of neoliberalism, as the embodiment of the crisis of capitalism as a whole.
On top of this, the AKP government uses them as a bargaining chip, threatening the EU to ‘open its borders’ if the EU does not provide free funding (supposedly for the immigrants) and support for its ongoing (un?)declared war against the Kurdish elements in Northern Syria. The immigrants, therefore, are unwanted and subject to xenophobia and racist attacks, but still maintained to form a yet lower echelon in society, upon which ‘the people’ may have an illusory domination.
Populism, no matter however ‘left’ of ‘good-intentioned’, cannot resist this immense pressure to keep the immigrants at the lowest rung of the food chain, which seems to be coming from ‘the people’, but actually is a result of different sections of the population being manipulated by the lumpenproletariat already in cohorts with the shrewdest elements within the ruling class. This entails, first, keeping the immigrants in a state of nebulous legal uncertainty. Secondly, immigrants, in case that they are not immediately deported or ‘kept out’, should provide (a) a cheap labour force; and (b) an objet petit a, an object of both desire and abjection.
Any political ideology and/or movement that defines its ‘base’ as an imaginary ‘people’, supposedly regardless of class, gender or race, in fact ‘represents’ a hidden kernel in this nebulous quasi-subject, in most cases the lumpenproletariat sanctioned by the ruling class(es). Any ‘left’ attempt at populism – ‘left’ loosely meaning any egalitarian and/or libertarian political ideology that strives for a post-capitalist future in this case– cannot escape the real material drive that resides within the illusory ‘people’. When Mouffe suggests establishing ‘a chain of equivalence among the demands of the workers, the immigrants and the precarious middle class,’ therefore, she is only demanding not the impossible, which can be revolutionary, but the improbable:
Left populism on the contrary wants to recover democracy to deepen and extend it. A left populist strategy aims at federating the democratic demands into a collective will to construct a ‘we’, a ‘people’ confronting a common adversary: the oligarchy. This requires the establishment of a chain of equivalence among the demands of the workers, the immigrants and the precarious middle class, as well as other democratic demands, such as those of the LGBT community. The objective of such a chain is the creation of a new hegemony that will permit the radicalization of democracy. (Mouffe 2018, 24)
In her haste ‘to construct a “we”, a “people” against the ‘oligarchy’, a ‘people’ which apparently includes the immigrants, Mouffe overlooks the fact that we first have to deconstruct the ‘people’ already in circulation, fabricated by the existing populists, the one which is predicated against the immigrants. In doing so, we must necessarily deconstruct the narrative of populism as well, because once this ‘people’ is gone, populism will have nothing to represent and consequently become immediately obsolete. In other words, it is impossible to extract the working class and ‘the precarious middle class’ from that classless hotchpotch called the ‘people’, that ‘subject which is not a subject’, that ageless inamorata of all ruling classes throughout written history, without conceptually dismantling it first in its entirety.
Any political ideology and/or movement that defines its ‘base’ as an imaginary ‘people’, supposedly regardless of class, gender or race, in fact ‘represents’ a hidden kernel in this nebulous quasi-subject, in most cases the lumpenproletariat sanctioned by the ruling class(es). Any ‘left’ attempt at populism cannot escape the real material drive that resides within the illusory ‘people’.
It is possible to understand the difficulty to resist the appeal (indeed the lure) of populism for those who are critical –or, to be blunt, sick and tired— of the inherent elitism of many so-called ‘leftist’ ideologies and positions, but, alas, populism is not the cure: it is rather an inseparable part of the problem. As long as we insist on thinking in terms of the populist/elitist dichotomy, we will necessarily miss the fact that without an Aufhebung of that plane of argument, we will end up where we begin. Populism and elitism are not only two equally soiled ends of the same stick; they are the same stick: every so-called populist ideology not only invents a ‘people’ so that it can speak for it, it also, as a part of the same act, distances itself from its own creation and hierarchically places itself above it. It is not a coincidence that almost every populist or proto-populist ideology in Turkey, from the pan-Turkic early opposition to the Ottoman Sultanate, to many allegedly socialist groups of the 60s and 70s, and in some cases even of today, uses the same catch-phrase ‘to go down to the people’ (‘halka inmek’).
It is an inevitable fundamental rule of every binary hierarchical social structure, however, that the dimorphic construction of society necessarily creates a third, making it a triune structure. The third, the ‘other’ which seemingly unites the other two so that the hierarchic interrelation between them could be blurred, opacified and eventually ignored, has taken on various forms. This ‘third other’ has almost always been women throughout history and across various social formations; it can be the slaves (or ex-slaves) in specific social formations (Greek, Roman and Colonial American), and it is, like women, almost always the foreigners, not only as an external threat, as outsiders, but also as an internal element, from the Ancient Greek metoikoi to today’s immigrants.
It will be an exceedingly optimistic attitude to claim that when ‘the left’ dons the mantle of populism, it may be able to escape the urge to create and debase this ‘third other’, which is how populism manages and manipulates the ‘people’, using the prejudices among its most despicable elements. We must keep in mind that whenever a libertarian and/or egalitarian political entity has spoken in favour of immigrants, as in German Green Party’s early 80s slogan ‘Ich bin ein Ausländer!’, it is almost always from a non- (or even anti-) populist position.
It is possible to understand the difficulty to resist the appeal (indeed the lure) of populism for those who are critical –or, to be blunt, sick and tired— of the inherent elitism of many so-called ‘leftist’ ideologies and positions, but, alas, populism is not the cure: it is rather an inseparable part of the problem.
The ‘left’, on the other hand, has always tended towards sexism, homophobia, racism and xenophobia, not structurally, not as an ideological prerogative, but only when it tried to employ populist strategies, and has done this usually semi-knowingly, putting the blame on the ‘people’, the allegedly uneducated, moralistic, traditionalistic and ‘innately’ conservative and even reactionary mass it allegedly represents. It always has remained in the clear, owning up to none of these characteristics: eventually, however, it becomes all of these in the middle-run, while the ‘people’, not being an actual, integrated subject, is none. There has always been sexist, homophobic, racist and xenophobic elements within the ‘people’, but whether (any of) these elements will become dominant is subject to an ongoing, almost never-ending struggle, as an integral part of the already ongoing class struggle. Sexism, homophobia, racism and xenophobia have always been the ‘ideas of the ruling class’:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class, which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it. […] Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an historical epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. (Marx & Engels 1998, 67)
No matter how well-intentioned or libertarian/egalitarian the ‘left populists’ may be, the moment they opt for ‘representing the people’ as it stands as a unified subject, rather than already infinitely divided by class struggle, they necessarily take over the current dominant ideas of the ‘entire’ people, which are the dominant ideas, that is, the ideological prejudices, of the ruling class. In order to avoid this fate, they have to subvert the presumed unity of the ‘people’, and acknowledge its fragmented/conflicted structure and the ongoing class struggle within, thereby disowning the ‘populist’ epithet they adopted in the first place.
We must keep in mind that whenever a libertarian and/or egalitarian political entity has spoken in favour of immigrants, as in German Green Party’s early 80s slogan ‘Ich bin ein Ausländer!’, it is almost always from a non- (or even anti-) populist position.
This move will probably create an ambiguity about the possible outcome of the struggle, an unpredictability which most ‘left’ political movements and ideologies dread and abhor, after decades, indeed centuries, of (sometimes humiliating) defeats. The ambiguity and unpredictability, however, are precisely what a truly libertarian/egalitarian (or using Balibar’s neologism, ‘equalibertarian’ [Balibar 2014]) political movement needs. Unpredictability causes, according to Wallerstein, ‘confusion, anger, disparagement of those in power, and above all acute fear’, not only in the left, but also in the ruling class itself:
The basic reality is unpredictability not merely in some middle run but very much in the short run. The sociopsychological consequences of this short-run unpredictability have been confusion, anger, disparagement of those in power, and above all acute fear. This fear leads to the search for political alternatives of kinds not entertained before. The media refer to this as populism, but it is far more complicated than this slogan term suggests. For some the fear leads to multiple and irrational scapegoatings. For others, it leads to the willingness to unthink deeply ingrained assumptions about the operations of the modern world-system. This can be seen in the United States as the difference between the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement. (Wallerstein 2013, 32)
The desperate need for absolute clarity and predictability has been haunting the ‘left’ almost for centuries now, and has even given rise to an almost blind faith in positivism, which has been discredited over and over again, not only in social sciences and humanities, but also in ‘hard’ sciences themselves, starting as early as 1927, with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle:
But what is wrong in the sharp formulation of the law of causality, ‘When we know the present precisely, we can predict the future,’ is not the conclusion but the assumption. Even in principle we cannot know the present in all detail. (Heisenberg 1983, 83).
The pursuit for a poor certainty and predictability among socialists and communists (even among anarchists) is a gloomy outcome of the years following the ‘defeat’ of the traditional anti-systemic movements in the 1990s, which generally caused confusion, disarray, disorientation and a sense of panic in the ‘left’ in general. Decades (almost centuries) of setbacks and the consequent descent into insignificance and feeling of impotence had already created in the radical anti-capitalist camp a need to hide, among or within more mainstream political entities, and the indefinite and nebulous concept of the ‘left’ was a perfect hiding place for such an escape: hence the insistence on the term, ‘left’, although everybody is surreptitiously aware that it is analytically hollow.
The concept of ‘Left’ populism offers us one of the more recent recesses to go on hiding, trying to mimic what we perceive as the ‘vox populi’, but is, in fact, the discourse of the ruling class, disguised as ‘public opinion’, using the rhetoric of the lumpenproletariat.
As the traditional, institutionalized ‘left’ disintegrated, however, and even the social democratic parties with a more or less socialist (even Marxist) past were entrenched more and more in the neoliberal establishment, it became harder and harder to ‘hide’. The concept of ‘Left’ populism offers us one of the more recent recesses to go on hiding, trying to mimic what we perceive as the ‘vox populi’, but is, in fact, the discourse of the ruling class, disguised as ‘public opinion’, using the rhetoric of the lumpenproletariat. We become ‘mottled against a mottled background’, as Homi Bhabha quotes Lacan in his ‘Of Mimicry and Men’ (Bhabha 1994, 85), and one day we wake up, not much unlike Kafka’s cockroach, to find ourselves to have become nothing but mottles.
The ability to imagine a non-capitalist future has its own language and style, something not inherently elitist or arrogant, something anybody (belonging to ‘the people’) without a secondary (or indeed primary) benefit in things remaining as they are, can understand, join in and enjoy. Decades of ‘defeats’ and the resentment thereof, often against the ‘people’ who refused to ‘follow’ us while we were suffering for them, may have made us forget this language, and driven us to mimic others, liberals, social-democrats, authoritarian and totalitarian leaders, sometimes even fascists, and now the populists, in the hope of snatching victory while, like Odysseus, in disguise.
Every time we do this, however, we become a little more like them. We need to see clearly that this consistent mimicry hasn’t brought us victory, not even the faintest semblance of it, but only changed us and made us pale ghosts of what we are mimicking. What we need is to find (again) our own language, our own voice, not above ‘the people’, not mimicking the self-appointed ‘representatives’ of ‘the people’, but only, as Marx and Engels had pointed out in 1848, ‘[to] express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.’ (Marx & Engels 1975)
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