The possibility of left populism

Are we?

by Eamon Rooke

There is a silent afterword to the Cameroon slogan ‘We’re all in this together’. It should read: ‘we’re all in this together, except for ‘them’’. Silent rejoinders like this are the substance of ideology in practice, here I’ll talk briefly about that logic in relation to populism.

Ernesto Laclau’s recent On Populist Reason (2005) expands on the notions of political strategy in advanced capitalist democracy, picking up where Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) left off.

The populist logic employed by parties and social movements, Laclau writes, is one where ‘the people’ are constructed out of a ‘failed totality’. By this, Laclau simply echoes the standard critical theorists’ definition of ideology, or hegemonic discourse: an entity defined precisely by what is absent. Slavoj Zizek’s famous examples are the post-modern commodities of our times – alcohol free beer, coffee without caffeine, chocolate without calories – the wholeness of something, the ‘thing’ that defines it as separate from anything else, is possible only by reference to what is not there.

In parliamentary party populism, this means uniting an inter-class vision of society through demonising a specific, contingent, parasitic element (the silent thing, what is not there) as unworthy of citizenship, and, in so doing, establishing the hegemony of an elite political project as representative of the majority. The perfect example of this in practice is the constant abuse of those on benefits as ‘scroungers’. The point of ‘scrounger’ rhetoric is not simply to point out the right’s belief in abolishing welfare, its primary function is to define a ‘legitimate citizen’ – the people – as neoliberal, Thatcherite. Indeed, whenever we hear the noise surrounding ‘hard-working families’, ‘the community’, and so on from Cameron et al., what we really think of are precisely those silent remainders: those who don’t work hard, who don’t ‘play by the rules’, those who prevent ‘the community’s’ realisation.  (The devastating, material consequence of this sort of discourse is apparent in the summer riots). These ‘non-people’, conveniently, are always the poorest and most vulnerable, and therefore are the politically voiceless. In contrast, ‘the people’, within this logic, don’t ask for anything. They keep their noses down, and they know that they behave better when they have less. ‘Scroungers’ or ‘Chavs’ are outcast as external problems, not inherent to ‘our’ Britain, and therefore the problems that go along with them become ones ‘we’ aren’t responsible for. To fast-forward this example, notice how whenever our government announces plans to steal publicly owned goods, like healthcare, and give them out to private tyrannies, it’s portrayed as a victory on behalf of the common man. And, furthermore, whenever half a million workers go on strike to fight for fairer pensions for ordinary people, they are branded ‘sectional interests’. You couldn’t make it up.

Populism is crude, but it works, and has worked for the Tories since their inception, so the left shouldn’t be so naïve as to think it’s ‘above it’. The consequence of not challenging the right with its own strategy is clear. New Labour didn’t attempt to construct an alternative narrative, a new version of ‘the people’ to defend social justice, it abandoned communicating in a moralistic way altogether. The consequence of which was a submission to a pre-framed debate, a Britain already defined, in foundational moral terms, by the right. The question today is how to cut public debt. Why is this even an issue? The financial sector crashed, that had absolutely nothing to do with publicly owned goods. Yet, since the right wants to cut the State, the left has to respond to it, since there is no alternative narrative, no other version of the world plausible. The tragedy of our political era isn’t simply that everyone’s a right-winger. It’s worse than that. Our very method of conceptualising left and right has been devoid of political significance, reducing dissensus to administrative quarrels, the background to which is a fortified Thatcherism, that has gone from being an openly declared political project, to a way of life. As Stuart Hall summarises, ‘Thatcher had a historical project, Blair’s project was adjusting Us to It’.

Developing a leftist populism depends on our ability to construct an alternative narrative around legitimate social whole. This requires an ‘other’, an element to outcast as ‘not us’, from a left position. The Occupy movement knows this, hence the perfect abbreviation: 99% versus the 1%. Labour, and apparently every other parliamentary left party, does everything in their power to distance themselves from such seemingly crude slogans, for fear of losing ‘credibility’. It’s up to the far left to pressure Labour into realising that without a conception of the world without neoliberalism presupposed, the left will have no purpose within the next 10-20 years.

Populism needn’t be a long-term strategy either. Left-wing politics isn’t and never has been about one section of society dominating another, it’s about removing the structures that divide society into sections altogether.

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