Politicising Populism

Home-made placard (photo: Steve Eason)

As the neoliberal model of capitalism has been attacked from left and right, the notion of Populism has become increasingly the currency of mainstream political commentary. In this piece Cam Scott looks at what is driving this process, and whether we can draw on the ideas of populism as developed by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe to develop a working class form of popular sovereignty to challenge the system.

Words have a way with us, gathering momentum in circulation, and we live in their wake. This is especially true of a term like ‘populism’ today, which everywhere suffices for a diagnostic insight and an accusation, a rallying cry and a frightful omen. To start with one true formula: the more that a term is made to designate at once, the less it ultimately means. Accordingly, one might suggest that ‘populism’ is the catchall for a wide range of political manifestations today to the precise extent that it fails to account for the particulars of each, and may even serve as a depoliticizing explanation for the consciousness it names. ‘Populism is the political buzzword of the new century, and with good reason – populists have never been as successful as they are right now,’ says Cass Mudde in a too-timely Vice spread on the topic, and his short article fails to transcend the logic of this tautology: populism is, apparently, the politics of populists.[1]

No one in recent memory in has done as much for the academic reputation of populism, otherwise used to evoke the fearful suggestibility of hypostatized masses, than the Argentinean scholar Ernesto Laclau. While Laclau’s repudiation of Marxism in favour of a somewhat hazy concept of radical democracy may place him on the wrong side of many a reader’s esteem, his structuralist description of those movements one may deem broadly ‘populist’ is nonetheless invaluable for the parsing of these conflicted tendencies, in order to complicate not only their surreptitiously nationalist identitarian claims, but to better address a moment in which both right and left claim the mandate of a rather hazily delineated people. However, before regarding Laclau at some length, perhaps we ought to call upon some of the aforesaid pundits.

In a Guardian roundtable on Labour from this past December, a handful of panelists were asked to weigh in prescriptively as to the face, and fate, of Jeremy Corbyn’s then-burgeoning ‘leftwing populism.’ Especially in light of Corbyn’s rousing performance at the polls last week, it is worth revisiting this panel in its well-mannered opprobrium and cautious optimism.  Says Yanis Varoufakis: ‘I too was portrayed as a populist. For the establishment, anyone who does well electorally by challenging its favourite sons and daughters is dismissed as a populist. But this lets populists off too lightly. A populist promises all things to all people, while preying on their superstitions and fears.’ [2] Varoufakis not only rejects populism, he claims that it is nourished by the establishment that it must reject, in a ‘never-ending feedback mechanism.’ This is not entirely mistaken, but omits consideration of what is at stake in this antagonistic relation, practically as well as formally. In the same round-up, Chantal Mouffe, a close collaborator of Laclau, evinces real enthusiasm for the program that Varoufakis disparages. ‘The recent announcement that Corbyn is going to adopt a left-populist approach indicates that he has understood that this is the only way to renew radical politics … The aim is the creation of a “collective will” that could mobilise collective efforts towards equality and social justice.’[3] These two descriptions of populism, as predatory paranoia and heroic collectivity respectively, don’t seem to have a great deal in common.

To what then does this term refer, having so little content that it accounts for left and right tendencies as well as their mutual antagonisms? To follow Mudde, it would appear that a defining feature of populism is political ambivalence. In a post-mortem of the Greek alternative, Stathis Kalyvas describes an ‘unusual left-right coalition government united in its populist sentiment. (It was as if Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders decided to govern together.)’[4] Even at some distance, we know how this queasy compromise pans out. And George Ciccariello-Maher observes that the attempted counter-revolution of the Venezuelan right borrowed forms of protest associated with the populist left: ‘under the guise of spontaneous popular resistance to an authoritarian regime, it had patiently studied the tools, imagery, and social media techniques more often associated with progressive or leftist causes.’[5] (49)

During the lead-up to the recent French election, an op-ed by avid Brexiter Matthew Elliott declared that ‘A Populist Win For Le Pen Or Mélenchon Would Be A Bigger Crisis For The EU Than Brexit,’ as though the pair were already a unified front. Elliott’s anatomy of a phenomenon is not very insightful or specific:

While each instance varies in some respect, common themes can be identified across the burgeoning populist support in France and elsewhere, such as the votes for Donald Trump and Brexit. Like them, support for Marine Le Pen is stronger among white voters and those with fewer educational qualifications. And like Trump swing voters and Brexit voters, her support is also correlated with low income levels.[6]

This is not nothing; most definitions of today’s non-denominational populism emphasize this class correlate, though it rarely appears as a positive term of identification; rather, this class consciousness manifests in alienated, nationalist expressions, on which basis class war is discredited by liberals as a euphemism for racial agonism when the opposite is as likely to be true. The innovation of the so-called alt-right may consist in the inversion of this Marxist analytic; in which case the shame of liberals would be that they bought it wholesale. Regardless, the formal opportunity of which the right avails itself today would seem to exploit the fundamentally ambivalent terrain of populist discourse.

On Populist Unreason

Populism, it would seem, has no universal content whatsoever. And that’s precisely correct, says Ernesto Laclau in his work on the topic. Most importantly, Laclau says, citing the work of Peter Worsley, populism is a form or ’emphasis’ of politics, ‘a dimension of political culture in general’ which comes to life performatively.[7] As a result, traditional separations between organizational form and ideational content come apart.

Laclau describes the phenomenon of ‘left-lepenism,’ a movement within the French political spectrum of Communist party supporters to the far-right National Front after 1990. In this case, Laclau says, “the ontological need to express social division was stronger than its ontic attachment to a left-wing discourse which, anyway, did not attempt to build it up any longer.”[8] Many commentators described the energies at play in this most recent French election along similar lines, attempting to demonstrate a left exodus from Mélenchon’s corner to Le Pen’s, out of disdain for the investment banker candidate Macron. In the American press, this may be little more than an unsubtly superimposed version of the commonplace that Sanders and Trump have common (working class) constituents and cause.  Jordan Bardella, a Front National secretary, specifically ventured this comparison (‘We are making clear that Macron is the candidate of the system, and we are for the people. It is a bit like Trump’s campaign against Clinton’) as Le Pen herself exhorted ‘faisons barrage à Macron!’[9] What does this strategically unclear language, erecting a boundary before an elite threat, protect?  For Le Pen, it is a fantasized white European (“French”) collectivity, which is a rather paltry ‘people’ after all. But that’s precisely to the point where an attachment to division is concerned.

Consider James Wolcott’s coinage of the epithet ‘alt-left,’ denoting a tactical and moral equivalency between some social democratic chauvinists and the seething brigands of the self-named alt-right:

Disillusionment with Obama’s presidency, loathing of Hillary Clinton, disgust with ‘identity politics,’ and a craving for a climactic reckoning that will clear the stage for a bold tomorrow have created a kinship between the ‘alt-right’ and an alt-left. They’re not kissin’ cousins, but they caterwaul some of the same tunes in different keys.[10]

Wolcott’s class contempt is crystal clear from this punchline, alluding to tropes of incestuous Appalachian sociality: a reader needn’t persist past such innuendo. But the means by which Wolcott attempts to secure this fantasy pact between left and right populist platforms in entirely negative terms is pertinent, especially as he mistakes a structural homology, where two unrelated things have features in common, for positive propositional content. Again, as accords with a formal definition of populism, the prefix ‘alt-‘ would be divisory. There is no ‘alternative’ platform that is intelligible without reference to an original template.

Generic oppositionality will be absorbed into the most vacuous territories of discourse: democracy abhors a vacuum. (Popular opprobrium for the ‘throwaway vote’ is a strong example of this principle from the American setting.) But this is something entirely distinct from the centrist commonplace that left and right are opposed only insofar as they are eventually interchangeable. Laclau’s analysis concerns the gradual transvaluation of (or surreptitious swapping-out of meaningful associations under) a given sign. Laclau quotes Peter Worsley:


It is suggested here, per contra, that ideas, in the process of becoming absorbed into successive cultural contexts, different from those in which they were engendered or have hitherto flourished, not only assume a different sociological significance in so far as they will be differently used by being incorporated within new frameworks of action, but will be also modified qua ideas, since they must necessarily be articulated with other psychic furniture: pre-existing ‘interests’, cognitive elements and structures, effectual dispositions, etc., which are all part of the receiving milieu. The ‘original’ ideas must intrinsically, therefore, be modified in the process and become different ideas.[11]

With this in mind, one might consider how left and right have become formally interchangeable in the imaginary of an American liberal milieu, which hasn’t rearranged its ‘furniture’ since the Cold War or earlier.

A Vanguard of Sharks

To start, one may rewind upon the early propaganda of the Trump campaign and its detractors. A great deal of the reporting on Bannon’s appointment seized upon a moment of contrarian lunacy from 2014, in which Bannon apparently identified to journalist Ronald Radosh as a ‘Leninist.’ Bannon quotes from memory that for Radosh: ‘Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.’[12] This is a particularly conflicted affinity considering that Breitbart routinely wields the word ‘Communist’ as a slur against opponents on the center-left.

Bannon, may his fearsome reputation be promptly forgotten, was hardly the only person in Trump’s corner appropriating Marxist talking points. Malik Obama, Obama’s brother and a vocal Trump supporter, celebrated Trump’s victory by tweeting ‘The LUMPENPROLETARIAT who ARE interested in revolutionary advancement SHALL RULE!’[13] This statement is bizarre, but Malik appears to know his Marxist theory, somewhat, championing the reactionary element of the working class that is adverse or hostile to revolt. (Rosa Luxemburg compared the lumpenproletariat to sharks in the revolution’s wake.) In this and related remarks, Trump’s lumpen more or less conceive of themselves on the model of a revolution of the counterrevolutionary; which is to say, as reactionaries. This eerie rhetoric impels one to conceive of a reaction to something that has long since been officially absent from the political discourse: a spectre appears for consideration.

Trump himself never veered this far into jargon to win over supporters of the left-populist Sanders, who declined to sound any overtly proletarian note in the first place. So where does this innuendo originate? The above are cases of highly idiosyncratic self-identification with communist tropes from Trump’s initial circle, before the GOP made a party man of him, but similar suggestions were made repeatedly from without the campaign. In one of the more inscrutable pieces of New Yorker election commentary, Jiayang Fan wrote of ‘The Maoism of Donald Trump,’ conflating Trump’s xenophobic exhortations with Mao Zedong’s delineation of ‘the people’ from their class enemy:

From the start, Trump’s campaign relied on a core constituency of beleaguered blue-collar voters – ‘the people,’ Mao would have surely termed them – whose economic distress he masterfully channelled toward the creation of loathsome villains, the enemy.[14]

Fan describes a Chinese audience, hyper-sensitized to ‘the threat of proletarian resentment,’ watching the American election with grim recognition of a candidate whose rhetoric she chooses to view through the prism of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Already by the time this article was published, journalist Carol Pogash had compiled and published a novelty ‘red book’ of ‘Quotations from Chairman Trump,’ for ‘the scholars of the future who will analyze Trumpian doctrine and for the schoolchildren who will memorize Trump’s pithiest quotes.’[15]

So the head-scratching embrace of these left ‘dictatorial’ tropes by the alt-right seems to have originated in affirmation of a critique from the center-left; a critique which borrows heavily from Fox News and the establishment-Republican devaluation of these same names and points of historical reference. To be sure, as alluded to above, the American right and liberals alike share a longstanding record of ridiculous embellishment and glaring semantic gaffes where ‘socialism’ is concerned. In 2012, Mark Hendrickson was comparing Obama’s policies to Lenin’s New Economic Policy: ‘Obama’s economic program is taken directly, if not deliberately, from the Marxist-Leninist playbook.’[16] (It is pertinent that the NEP was a major concession to capitalism.) One ought to note the ambiguity of the comparison: for Hendrickson’s Obama, Lenin is a model bureaucrat; for Radosh’s Bannon, he is a model terrorist.

The American proscription of far-left politics is perhaps responsible for these signifiers coming unmoored from historical reference, such that they may designate any hazy threat to a ‘way of life’ rather than a system of thought per se. Americans still have a mental block when it comes to socialism, let alone the C-word, of which we can only say that it rhymes with ‘anti-communism.’ There is a famous quote of Steinbeck in retrospect of the nineteen-thirties: “the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.’ One could do worse today than to consider Steinbeck’s political reminiscences, in which the more combative poles of American politics are represented by a fractious Communist Party on one hand, and a menacingly proactive KKK on the other.

‘No Word for Freedom’

Today, Russian influence on the Trump administration, however real, is heavily inflected with nostalgic paranoia. This is a conflation of present-day oligarchy with past regimes, in which one may see the racial operators of Cold War rhetoric: fear of the nearer east, its every politician an identical menace, from Rasputin to Putin, Lenin be damned as mere intermediary. Trump’s Russian ties are paraded as evidence of “Communist sympathies” by market-centrists who (again) seem to have little or no historical context for their claims, and not even a dictionary definition at hand. This in spite of the fact that many fringe to establishment right wing groups, from the Oath Keepers to the GOP, expressly mischaracterize popular demonstration against Trump’s presidency as a communist insurgency from within the United States.

Whatever the outcome of an investigation into Russian meddling – and it is difficult to take seriously centrist indignation at the prospect that American democracy might have been rigged in favour of whatever elite – it remains as always that this pathological Russophobia is part and parcel to Cold War orientalism as an ideological means.

The howlers enumerated above may be broadly described as the terminological appropriations of a right-wing that has heard certain words used incorrectly so often that it has imagined its own context for them. The cognitive dissonance astounds: but that words have shed their customary meanings is the least original thing one might say about the year in discourse. So why does one find icons of the far-left adrift on the opposite end of the political spectrum? It is both trite and offensive to cite a common ‘authoritarianism,’ affirming the liberal commonplace that far-left and far-right are eventually indistinguishable. Rather, these misprisions concern the negative aura of so many heretofore derogatory epithets, with no real political referent at all.

Terminology is a tactics. In this case of insidious polysemy, one may perceive a version of the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend defense, in which certain terms become notable for little else than their antagonism of what Tariq Ali, in overview of Europe, has described as ‘the extreme centre’; the liberal-capitalist consensus that prevails regardless of election results and party rhetoric. As Chantal Mouffe observes:

When we examine the state of democratic politics in all the countries where right-wing populism has made serious inroads, we find a striking similarity. Their growth has always taken place in circumstances where the differences between the traditional democratic parties have become much less significant than before.[17]

Does this in any way redeem Wolcott’s characterization of the alt-left as having common cause with its right nemesis? Do Bernie Brethren crave secular Kek? In a recent op-ed for The Guardian titled ‘Why the ‘alt-left’ will succeed where centrists fail,’ Bhaskar Sunkara argues against the slur on the grounds that it is meaningless: ‘Feisty internet reactionaries faced off against Beltway conservatives and traditionalists, dubbing themselves the “alt-right”, but there was no doubt that an actual “right” existed before them. On the left, though, who are we the “alt” to?’[18]

Not to ennoble Wolcott’s attempted slander, but this perhaps misses a would-be point. For as accords with Laclau’s formalism, where left and right populism have an ‘alt-‘ in common, they are both extrinsic to a system of coercive consensus, and may co-exist but antagonistically. Wolcott sees the prefix as denoting a spate of positive commitments – to deep-seated misogyny, trolling as tactics, and, as noted above, a mercenary Russophilia – but if anything, to the degree that this prefix denotes a populist approach, it betokens only abstract negativity.

The Transit of Publics

Indeterminacy is an opportunity. For Laclau, populism has essentially to do with the establishment of equivalential chains. In his description, an equivalent relation between a plurality of demands forges a peculiar macro-object called a people; but this equivalency refers to an excluded element, around which heterogeneous constituent demands may be consolidated. The conceptual grasp of a totality, based upon the relation of differences, depends upon the demarcation of however many elements from an excluded section by consensus. Populism is a form of hegemony, then, which in Laclau’s words occurs when a particularity takes up ‘an incommensurable universal signification.’[19]

Laclau wishes to address the people in the capacity of so many individual agents, rather than dismiss this construction as an ideological smokescreen, so in order to depart from the group, he must decompose this supposed unity into so many smaller claims. Imagine the numerous complaints originating in a slum, neglected by a local authority, Laclau says: if promptly addressed, requests originating from a variety of different positions remain in isolation from one another. If unaddressed, however, these individual requests become demands. Gradually, people come to perceive the similarly unaddressed demands of neighbours and a unity is forged in this coincidence. Because an institutional power failed to absorb those problems differentially, in isolation, an equivalential relation is established between different standpoints.[20]

Laclau’s description is related to Sartre’s thinking of the movement from the inert series to the fused group. Sartre uses the example of a group of people waiting for the bus. These individuals, ‘who may differ greatly in age, sex, class, and social milieu,’ constitute a ‘plurality of isolations.’[21] With reference to this bus, the 7:49 arrival, say, these different people are constituted as interchangeable. They are equal in separation. When the bus fails to show up, perhaps there is a murmur in the crowd: after some time, people remove their headphones and begin to talk amongst themselves, at the initial level of a mutual complaint. In acknowledgement of a common obstacle, formal equality comes to consciousness.

Laclau observes that ‘the more extended the equivalential chain, the more mixed will be the links entering into its composition.’[22] What is it that extends this chain? The longer and the more comprehensively a given authority ignores the demands placed upon it, the stronger those demands become as a counterforce. The later the bus, the angrier the fare. However, ‘to say that oligarchy is responsible for the frustration of social demands is not to state something which can possibly be read out of the social demands themselves,’ Laclau clarifies.[23] It comes from a secondary discourse on those demands. (In this space, one could assert the historic vocation of the vanguard party, though Laclau charts a path away from this brand of politics and toward a rather hazy concept of radical ad hoc democracy.) Otherwise, populist rhetoric is definitionally vague and social diffusion inhibits its forthrightly political claims. ‘The empty character of the signifiers that give unity or coherence to a popular camp is not the result of any ideological or political underdevelopment; it simply expresses the fact that any populist unification takes place on a radically heterogeneous social terrain.’[24]

By this formalization, Laclau means to redeem populism from its reputation as a predominantly reactionary, even racist, grassroots politics. As seen, this requires an assertion of its ambivalence. To this end, Mouffe asserts that the project of left-wing populism is to ‘construct a people’ rather than discover any such body intact. The proletariat, too, would be a retroactive effect of naming; something is elicited of a structure that could not be deduced of its separate parts.

Proletarian Knights

The proletariat, however, is not a people; if anything, it may be what Badiou calls ‘the people of the people,’ an honour indefinitely forestalled. For populism is as formally apt to express a kind of class consciousness as it is consciousness of race or nation: but ‘the people’ as a category stands in contradiction to the proletariat insofar as ‘the people’ is a provisional sameness forged in discourse. The proletariat, on the other hand, mediated by the socially corrosive form of capital, is a universal class only because it is an identity in contradiction to identity itself. When Marx reduces history to a single contradiction between two classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, this is tactical more than descriptive, and by no means intended to elide salient differences within each. In short, the self-identity of the proletariat is negative, such that it is incommensurable with any culture.

This is not to oppose class politics to so-called identity politics in any facile manner. Class politics has always vetted identity, and then selectively, insofar as class consciousness appears in one specific setting or another, and afflicts a pre-existing population or caste; a displaceable body pre-configurative of class. Thus the subjectivization of a local proletariat (a somewhat contradictory proposition) depends upon a minimal degree of enfranchisement in a nonetheless restricted system, according to whatever acculturated criteria. In the American setting, this modicum of inclusion may be administered, as ‘wages of whiteness’ ala DuBois and Roediger, or inherited, as the unacknowledged debt of settlers to the colonized, but these and other palpable factors conspire to make a (frequently seething) select ‘people’ of much broader company; that of capital’s discontents.

Even without reference to the racialized inexistent of class politics, ‘intra-working-class differentiation cuts across the grain of Marx’s radical recuperation of the term “proletarian,”‘ writes Nikhil Pal Singh in citation of the lumpen, who remain heterogeneous to this collectivity by dint of exclusion from the (racially or otherwise) vetted social bodies whose constituents have access to the market. So there has never really been a politics of The Proletariat; there have been configurations of proletarian politics; such that a popular left imaginary has inherited a fantasized proletarian figure from so many site-specific struggles. Numerous didactic realisms may furnish us a visual. But the proletariat as a concept is not apt to figuration, whereas populism as a style of discourse tends to the production of figures.

To return upon Steinbeck’s phrasing, what would a ‘self-admitted proletarian’ look like? Anybody, one might answer. As said, the proletariat is difficult to rally for symbolic purposes where it represents no one in particular, which is only a craftily Odyssean manner of addressing Everybody. The task of the proletariat is to make common cause of a constitutive division: for on a superficial level, those forced to make a living by selling their labour have only competition in common. To cite the interests (qua resentment) of a white working class, for example, or a middle-working class, or an American working class, or really any popular sub-grouping, is only to enlarge the scale on which one diagrams the stakes of an absolutized competition. One might suggest that right populism consists in such an aggrandizement of the group dynamic broadly descriptive of capitalism.

Dangerous Masses

Some of the difficulties with populism as praxis may be referred to Guy Standing’s theorization of the so-called ‘precariat’; this nomination, unlike the proletarian subject of which it is an echo, is intended to be descriptive rather than exhortatory. Both denizens of Trump’s America and those excluded, as a discursive limit and a political target, are precariatized. But it is difficult to rally uncertainty. For this reason, Guy Standing calls the precariat ‘the new dangerous class’; dangerous not only to others but to its own constituents, as it lacks a common class enemy

Whilst Standing declines to identify the precariat with the lumpenproletariat, he is clear that the precarious conditions of which he speaks impede not only solidarity but empathy. ‘The precariat has a feeling of being in a diffuse, unstable international community of people struggling, usually in vain, to give their working lives an occupational identity.’[25] It is for the lack of an identity in common – for the lack of a common, one might say – that the precariat is primed for recruitment by any number of populisms.

‘The outcome is a growing mass of people – potentially all of us outside the elite, anchored in their wealth and detachment from society – in situations that can only be described as alienated, anomic, anxious and prone to anger. The warning sign is political disengagement.’[26] This disengagement, as per Standing’s speculation, will only characterize this lumpen element for so long:

A group that sees no future of security or identity will feel fear and frustration that could lead to it lashing out at identifiable or imagined causes of its lot. And detachment from the mainstream of economic affluence and progress is conducive to intolerance. The precariat is not a class-for-itself, partly because it is at war with itself. One group in it may blame another for its vulnerability and indignity … Tensions within the precariat are setting people against each other, preventing them from recognising that the social and economic structure is producing their common set of vulnerabilities.[27]

In Standing’s account, Sartre’s bus is fatally late, and arrives careening. To restore Laclau and Mouffe’s thinking to the jurisdiction of Marxism, one need only observe that the material forces responsible for collating heterogeneous social demands tend to proletarianization. But the precariat is not isomorphic with this century’s global proletariat because something impedes the recognition in which consists the name: as Standing says, this is because the precariat is at war with itself.

This more or less accords with a Hobbesian description of the social body; and many populisms would appear to culminate in just such a solution. Laclau actually compares the individual sovereign charged with quelling the masses in Hobbes to the transcendental signifier capable of collating the heterogeneous demands typical of populism.[28]

Class Logos and Mass Line

The sovereign power of political speech as it relates to the identity of the people is a particular problem of the French revolution, as a moment in which difference was subordinated to equivalence by force and rhetoric alike. As Sophie Wahnich inquires in her work on the topic, the unity of patriots was a particular goal: ‘should we then consider that what was sought here was the creation of an undivided people, with the people as a whole being identified with the common people, the poor?’[29]

Not quite: rather, ‘the tension between the people as a whole and the common people was not abolished, but as in every political situation in which a democratic upsurge makes itself felt, the little people, the people so often left out of account, were supposed, not to become rich, but to put the rich back in their moral and political place …’[30] A certain social hierarchy was retained, but liberty was conceived in distinction from the impossible matter of equality. (For Laclau, this is the site of ‘zigzag movement of partial recognition and partial repression,’ illustrative of the tension internal to any discursive wholism.[31]) Liberty is an act of participation; a capacity of speaking, sovereign, beings.

Wahlich continues that ‘the poor referred to here were not suffering bodies but beings of speech, they even disposed of what we can call a sovereign speech, they were those who disposed of the political logos even if they were not the executive power, the government that may always be negligent.’[32] Thus the poor are enrolled in a practice of collective responsibility that even necessitates the terror; which, as directed at errant individuals, is then justified in the language of Ciceronian biopolitics; as an amputation from a common body. This figure is always partial and exclusive; but one could compare the liberal tack, which is to disaggregate populist movements into so many discrete claims, to be poorly serviced in slightly-better-than-random array; which is to say, electively and for a price. As Margaret Thatcher, whose name stands for the most divisive politics in recent memory, might say, ‘There is no body, there are only limbs and organs.’

That the signifier that consolidates the crowd can be an errant or excluded term itself is a threatening aspect of populism to be sure. Here another absolutely crucial difference between left and right populism appears. Where right populism fantasizes belonging on the basis of an excluded element, left populism, as alluded to above, affirms a community of the excluded. Communist collectivity proceeds from this political logos, which permits one creatively to interpret an essential negativity, whereas fascist holism makes a mute offering of suffering on behalf of the future.

Even so, people do not encounter each other in such abstract terms: quite the opposite. They encounter in concrete situations as acculturated beings, such that, writes J. Moufawad-Paul, ‘the revolutionary masses are not simply an abstract and unqualified proletariat’ but an internally variegated mass prone to rupture and contradiction.[33] It is on this basis that Mao Zedong will part with Marx in addressing himself directly to ‘the people,’ which is less abstract than the category of the proletariat, such that it is importantly contestable.

For Mao, Laclau explains, ‘the ‘people,’ far from having the homogeneous nature that one would attribute to pure class actors (defined by precise locations within the relations of production), is conceived as the articulation of a plurality of ruptural points.’[34] In ‘The Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People,’ Mao differentiates between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradiction, which may be referred to intra-discursive measures of equivalence and difference respectively. One idiosyncrasy of particular interest here concerns Mao’s own situatedness, or self-professed synecdochal standing, within the figuration of ‘the people’ proper. To quote Rebecca E. Karl on the moment of this address:

Much of this was familiar enough as Maoist analytical method or as settled ideology. What was extraordinary in the speech was Mao’s pronouncement that in the China of 1950s, there was a contradiction ‘between the leadership and the led’ and it could be an antagonistic one. Clearly, for Mao, ‘the leadership’ was not himself, but the Party. His insinuation was that ‘the people’ (and Mao as their spokesperson) were better arbiters of revolutionary truth than the Party.[35]

However obviously improper, this sacrificial contraction of one’s own position to a site of contradiction is of great importance to an understanding of popular politics qua form. As noted above, there is a structural affinity between the sovereign and the signifier, where one constitutes a social order and the other a signifying totality. It is with such a comparison in mind that one may think not only a politics of popular sovereignty, but a contradictory figure like ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’: rule by ‘the people’ appears the conceptual opposite of sovereign rule, however ‘the people’ is an object forged by reference to an individual signifier. (On this point Laclau is Freudian, and better for the admission.) When this signifier is a person or a nation, however, we must contend with the unseemly incommensurability of terms. Bad wholisms such as these must always be rebutted from without, by a remainder that is produced and repudiated at once.

It is worth observing that today’s populisms, enumerated fretfully by Vice et al, are not equally popular, in tenor or design, at least not as accords with the above description. While the so-called populist right is ever more bellicose and forthrightly racist, forging its pet demographics by exclusionary means, the so-called populist left, in Europe and North America at least, is still comprised of relatively prudent social-democratic reformers, from Sanders to Corbyn to Mélenchon, none of whom even remotely live up to the reputation or rhetoric of the left-wing luminaries invoked by say, one Steve Bannon. Of course the alt-right does not coast on the détournement of left tropes alone; in proper mercenary fashion, it mingles these with fascist keynotes to great effect. Guy Standing in particular warns of increased susceptibility to a ‘politics of paradise’; case in point, the threat of Donald Trump to restore America to a mythical greatness that never was. What kind of collectivity can a left that must definitionally exceed any given ‘people’ hope to forge?

Modernity and Discontent

In his Guardian op-ed, Sunkara defends a common-sense, moderate leftism that is neither ‘extreme’ nor ‘demagogic’: a ‘politics that can win over tens of millions who feel like politics hasn’t been working for them and might otherwise be won over to the populist right.’ But how? Here again we must part ways with Laclau, for although signs may see to equality, not all signifiers are equal, and the aforesaid tens of millions of excluded are only a ‘dangerous class’ insofar as they already have the capacity of sovereign speech and action. Further, this obsession with numerical odds smacks of a moribund electoralism, which, as seen above, culminates in the courtship of abstractions; campaigns directed at roving sentimental clouds of would-be People, readily indoctrinated either right or left.

As noted, not all populist signifiers are equal; and the right must always appropriate those of the left because the promise of total emancipation remains the only properly political horizon. To this end perhaps, Sunkara suggests that those on the so-called alt-left ‘look increasingly like modernity’s (and democracy’s) only hope,’ although it ceases to be clear by this point if he has any transcendental objection to capitalism at all. As concerns the vacuity of this endgame – door-knocking to save ‘modernity’ – it is good to remain suspicious. The polite suggestion of this conservationist rhetoric is that not only do the left and the right share a recruitment base (true only insofar as ‘everyone’ appears a guiltless abstraction) they share a telos, as well.

This manifesto of the alt-left is so prudent as to be paltry: if the challenge of this common epithet is to envision an alternative to society as constructed, perhaps one ought to look to the decidedly more fearsome signification that belongs to the history of the left, and yet today is routinely polished by the right. If one were to attempt at this hour to seriously extrapolate the rhetorical ‘Maoism’ of Donald Trump, one could look to his (albeit hardly dialectical) self-defeating streak and cite his frequent calls to collapse the government of which he is nonetheless full-bodied representative. If populism is without content, then neither is the power that consolidates its reach necessarily to be decried; rather, possessed and only then disposed of, in a double sense.

Wolcott’s grounds for attacking the ‘alt-left’ and ‘alt-right’ alike is their common chauvinism, and certainly one ought to call that out wherever it may be observed, starting with Wolcott’s own waspish condescension to a decidedly more plural left than he is capable of noticing. But an attempted recuperation of the pejorative ‘alt-left’ label would be doubly repellant. More pressingly, if one were to creatively affirm a paranoiac keynote of liberal conspiracism at this juncture, those to the left of liberal democracy could start with the scarcely believable rumours that Trump campaigned as some brand of revolutionary, and do the same – that is to say, the very opposite – at minimum.

Today’s populisms may indeed court the enthusiasms and resentments of a ‘new dangerous class,’ but it seems important to insist that this class is ‘dangerous’ on account of its negativity and not any popular program or essence. Populism is the politics whereby a social body is consolidated, on the basis of the occluded social link between individual labourers. But it is not the practice of competing appeals, from left and right alike, to a pre-existing constituency. This is the very reason that new populisms appear to exceed the remit of democratic representation, which presumes an equivocal whole. If the left attempts to advance its cause by canvasing the masses on the basis of their pet resentments, it will lapse into conservatism or worse. And though ‘worse’ is difficult at times to imagine, it cannot remain the standard by which to fare better: the popular is only as good as the idea it animates.

A Convenient Coda

This is the immediate lesson of establishment shock at Labour gains during the British election: Corbyn’s campaign did not energize an existing Labour base, but operated on the basis of an entirely different set of appeals, which, multiple as they were, could be condensed by a signifier heretofore absent the electoral spectrum. Corbyn, according to Peter Bloom’s recent op-ed in The Independent, is not just bolstering the Labour brand: rather, ‘he is fundamentally transforming who are the “British people.”‘ [36] This is the sense of populism in a nutshell; not to discover but to subjectivate a people irreducible to demography. Corbyn’s campaign then gives the lie to one conception of ‘the people’ altogether, rather than competing on matters of policy for the attention of the undecided in its ranks.

The obvious risk here is one of inverse representation: Corbyn’s gains manifest a very different social body than politicians typically deign to address, but this subject remains properly inexpressible in a parliamentary setting, the function of which is to disaggregate any mass politics into isolated and competing demands. When a popular philosopher opines that Corbyn is a threat to so-called democracy because his mandate is to follow the will, or the whims, of a disparaged people, while ‘the real job of politics is to balance competing demands,’ he is being obtuse but not speaking incorrectly. [37] A foreseeable problem, then, is that state politics may pose a greater threat to the reputation of Jeremy Corbyn than he poses to state politics.

What might the foregoing observations suggest to an energized left going forward? First, the formal ambiguity of populism mustn’t translate to political collaboration in practice, as has been the case with Syriza and any number of popular movements that have attained to a modicum of power: left politics must never suppose a rule in common with the popular right. If this looks like mere oppositionality in practice, perhaps this only follows from the multiple clamour of popular form, and for the moment is to be embraced.

For the people have not attained to anything like proper representation in the person of Corbyn; as said, this is impossible. Rather, the collating power of his sign consists largely and articulately in the loathing he engenders within a certain strata, that he may be regarded as a break in a highly exclusive system of representation. With regard to policy, one hopes he will prove more drastic than prudent. But where the negative identifications broadly determinative of mass politics are concerned, it is far more important that people see themselves in what he isn’t, which is something after all.


[1] Cas Mudde. “What Populism Is Not.” Vice. 9 May 2017. https://news.vice.com/story/what-populism-is-not. Accessed 17 May 2017.

[2] Yanis Varoufakis, Maya Goodfellow, Mark Seddon, Aditya Chakrabortty, Chantal Mouffe, Ayesha Hazarika and Rafael Behr. “What should Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of leftwing populism look like?” The Guardian. 19 December 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/19/panel-jeremy-corbyn-brand-leftwing-populism-yanis-varoufakis. Accessed 12 June 2017.

[3] Ibid

[4] Stathis Kalyvas. “What Democracies Can Learn From Greece’s Failed Experiment.” The Atlantic. 4 May 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/05/greece-populism-syriza-trump-imf-eurozone/525369. Accessed 17 May 2017.

[5] George Ciccariello-Maher. Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela. London and New York: Verso Books, 2016, 49

[6] Matthew Elliott. “A Populist Win For Le Pen Or Mélenchon Would Be A Bigger Crisis For The EU Than Brexit.” Huffington Post UK. 22 Apr. 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/matthew-elliott/french-election-populism_b_16172244.html. Accessed 17 May 2017.

[7]  Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason. London and New York: Verso Books, 2007, 14

[8] Ibid, 88

[9] Michael Stothard. “Le Pen redraws battle lines with appeal to voters on left.” The Financial Times. 28 Apr 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/95362da8-2c08-11e7-9ec8-168383da43b7. Accessed 17 May 2017.

[10] James Wolcott. “Why the Alt-Left is a Problem, Too.” Vanity Fair. March 2017. http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/03/why-the-alt-left-is-a-problem. Accessed 17 May 2017.

[11] Quoted in Laclau, 14

[12] Ronald Radosh. “Steve Bannon, Trumps Top Guy, Told Me He Was a ‘Leninist.'” The Daily Beast. 8 Aug. 2016. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/08/22/steve-bannon-trump-s-top-guy-told-me-he-was-a-leninist. Accessed 17 May 2017.

[13] Obama, Malik (@obamamalik). “The LUMPENPROLETARIAT who ARE interested in revolutionary advancement SHALL RULE!” 12 Nov. 2016, 1:33 PM. Tweet.

[14] Jiayang Fan. “The Maoism of Donald Trump.” New Yorker. 13 May 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-maoism-of-donald-trump. Accessed 17 May 2017.

[15]  Carol Pogash, Quotations from Chairman Trump. New York: RosettaBooks, 2016.

[16] Mark Hendrickson. “President Obama’s Marxist-Leninist Economics: Fact and Fiction.” Forbes. 26 Jul. 2012. https://www.forbes.com/sites/markhendrickson/2012/07/26/president-obamas-marxist-leninist-economics-fact-and-fiction. Accessed 17 May 2017.

[17] Chantal Mouffe, On the Political. Abingdon: Routledge, 2005, 66

[18] Bhaskar Sunkara. “Why The Alt-Left Will Succeed Where Centrists Fail.’ The Guardian. 15 May 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/15/why-the-alt-left-will-succeed-where-centrists-fail. Accessed 17 May 2017.

[19] Laclau, 70

[20] Ibid, 73

[21] Jean-Paul Sartre, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith. Critique of Dialectical Reason Volume One: Theory of Practical Ensembles. London and New York: Verso Books, 2004, 256

[22] Ibid, 75

[23] Ibid, 98

[24] ibid

[25]  Guy Standing. The Precariat. London: Bloomsbury, 2014, 39

[26] Ibid, 42

[27] ibid

[28] Laclau, 100

[29] Sophie Wahnich, translated by David Fernbach. In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution. London and New York: Verso Books, 2015, 79

[30] Ibid, 81

[31] Laclau, 79

[32] Wahnich, 83

[33] J. Moufawad-Paul. Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain. Alresford: Zero Books, 2016, 147

[34] Laclau, 122

[35] Rebecca E. Karl, Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010, 95

[36] Peter Bloom. “Thanks to Jeremy Corbyn, populism is no longer a dirty word.” The Independent. 12 June 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jeremy-corbyn-labour-populism-not-dirty-word-a7785556.html. Accessed 12 June 2017.

[37] Julian Baggini. “Jeremy Corbyn is a great populist. But that’s no good for our democracy.” The Guardian. 25 July 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/25/jeremy-corbyn-populist-democracy-mps. Accessed 12 June 2017.



Cam Scott is a poet, essayist, and improvising non-musician from Winnipeg, Canada, Treaty One territory. He performs under the name Cold-catcher and writes in and out of Brooklyn.



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