The Paradox of Populism

For those of us who wish to see a world beyond inequality and oppression, and who believe popular movements are key to achieving it, the past decade has been dizzying.

We witnessed extraordinary upsurges on the left, including the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, the spectacular growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, and massive strike waves and worker insurgencies in parts of the world beset by austerity.

At the same time we saw a series of far-right surges that boosted white supremacist elements and spread their toxic message of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny. A spate of anti-Semitic attacks at home and abroad in recent weeks only underscored the revival of neo-fascism at the grassroots.

The simultaneous escalation of left- and right-wing tendencies around the globe proved disorienting. Just as it appeared progressive uprisings might finally end the reign of neoliberalism, the policies that for 40 years have gutted social spending and shrunk the commons worldwide, mass crusades on the right reemerged to push tribalism, rather than economic redistribution, as the popular language of the day.

The two faces of contemporary mass protest—social democratic/anti-capitalist or nationalist/anti-immigrant—bewildered many observers. During the 2010s it was difficult not to recoil from what often appeared to be the chaos of politics in the streets.

Today, however, leftists must avoid such a retreat. They must embrace the current historical moment as an opportunity, unparalleled in recent memory, to steer popular energy away from the rising forces of reaction and toward a revitalized movement for democratic socialism.

Step one is recognizing the transformative possibilities of mass disaffection. Widespread anxiety about economic instability, declining living standards, and social turmoil exists within and beyond the U.S. As the suffering of workers intensifies practically everywhere, the resulting social fallout is fueling populist revolts on both ends of the political spectrum.

People crave ideological frameworks that purport to explain their hardship and that promise to emancipate them and usher them into a community of believers. This is especially true in times of insecurity. However, in societies like the U.S. which lack a viable third party, a strong labor movement, and a robust left tradition, it is far too easy for the vulnerable to seek solace in the backward philosophies they have imbibed, often unconsciously, since birth. Rather than wage class struggle, they fall back on familiar dogmas of religion, race, and sexuality.

But workers only compound their misery by pursuing metaphysical (based on social illusions) rather than materialist (rooted in class analysis) solutions to their shared problems. The bosses and bankers are happy to see precarious laborers, battered by globalization and the gig economy, scapegoat “the Other” while ignoring or adoring the wealthy. Elites rest well knowing that white nationalism, Islamophobia, and the worship of guns help suppress genuine rebellions from below.

Capitalism requires a distracted and delusional citizenry to perform its signature trick—the transfer to the very top of fabulous amounts of the wealth collectively produced by our toil. For maximum efficiency, however, the system needs not just confused but fully indoctrinated subjects. Obtaining consent for permanent war, mass imprisonment, and militarized borders means conditioning the masses to accept the logic of human expendability. The normalization of deadly hierarchies inevitably breeds further savagery. In a sense, American Neo-Nazis are little more than crude reflections of the core tenets of a decadent society.

Given the obstacles to class consciousness that exist in the U.S., recent uprisings on the left—from teacher strikes to the mobilization against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock—are deeply encouraging. The new decade may witness even broader progressive revolts. For that to happen, however, a growing segment of the rank and file must free themselves from the vice grip of capitalist thought. They must reject the ideas of the ruling class and develop new frameworks for comprehending the world.

Progressive and leftist organizers can play a crucial role in this process. Powerful shifts in consciousness occur when exploited people struggle to change their objective conditions. Grassroots activists can bolster such campaigns. They can help form independent institutions—from tenant unions to cooperatives to peoples assemblies—that enable workers to build class power and grapple with the material forces shaping their existence. Radical trade unionism is an essential agent of class consciousness. Yet almost any instrument of worker autonomy can empower laborers to diagnose the crises of life under capitalism; identify real rather than perceived enemies; and shun the dystopian theories of cultural warfare that often consume desperate folks.

By no means am I suggesting that socialist organizing alone can erase the deep currents of bigotry in our society. This is not a plea to rehabilitate Klansmen. Nor should racism be dismissed as a mere symptom of “false consciousness.” While firmly enmeshed with economic realities, racial and ethnic chauvinisms have pernicious and enduring lives of their own.

My point is that extreme alienation from the barbarism of late capitalism is entirely natural, and need not metastasize into nihilism and virulent hatred. In the 2020s, the left must stand ready and able to furnish wide swaths of the public—including the profoundly embittered—with alternative explanations for their plight. It must arm ordinary people with weapons of concrete analysis and encourage them to eschew a politics of resentment that pits marginalized populations against each other. It must provide creative ways for people to reorder their lives, govern themselves, and experience rich and fulfilling forms of solidarity.

Socialism may not be on the horizon. But the eclectic insurgencies of our time demonstrate that people everywhere crave alternative paradigms and social models. The task of the left is to enable a humane transition to the more just, sustainable order that must arise if civilization is to survive. Capitalism’s self-immolation grows more violent with each passing day. We need a rational counterforce to expand our political imagination and help us live decently while the old beast dies.