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.

More articles by:
March 30, 2020
Marshall Auerback
Washington Uses the Pandemic to Create a $2 Trillion Slush Fund for Its Cronies
Ron Jacobs
Going After Maduro
Justin Podur
When Economists Try to Solve Health Crises, the Results Can Often be Disastrous
Thomas Knapp
Decarceration: COVID-19 is Opportunity Knocking
Arshad Khan - Meena Miriam Yust
Dying Planet and a Virus Unleashed
William Astore
How My Dad Predicted the Decline of America
Seth Sandronsky
Reclaiming Vacant Homes in the COVID-19 Pandemic
John G. Russell
Racial Profiling Disorder: the All-American Pandemic
Vijay Prashad, Paola Estrada, Ana Maldonado, and Zoe PC
As the World Tackles the COVID-19 Pandemic, the U.S. Raises the Pressure on Venezuela
Laura Flanders
Covid-19: Our Health Crisis is Born of Bigotry
Cesar Chelala
The New World of Coronavirus
Lawrence Wittner
The World’s Major Military and Economic Powers Find Happiness Elusive
Ted Rall
My Dead French Grandfather Helped Me with COVID-19
Rob Okun
A Citizens’ Call to Invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment
Ashar Foley
COVID-19 Proves It: We Need Medicare-for-All
Robert Koehler
The Virus is Our Teacher
Wim Laven
Are You Prepared to Needlessly Die for Your Country?
Jill Richardson
Stay Home, Stay Angry
What’s Wrong with Ranked Choice Voting
Mike Garrity
Alliance for the Wild Rockies Sues Trump’s Bureau of Reclamation for Bull Trout Fatalities in Saint Mary-Milk River Irrigation Project on the east Side of Glacier National Park
Weekend Edition
March 27, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Bailouts for the Rich, the Virus for the Rest of Us
Louis Proyect
Life and Death in the Epicenter
Paul Street
“I Will Not Kill My Mother for Your Stock Portfolio”
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The Scum Also Rises
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Stimulus Bill Allows Federal Reserve to Conduct Meetings in Secret; Gives Fed $454 Billion Slush Fund for Wall Street Bailouts
Jefferson Morley
Could the Death of the National Security State be a Silver Lining of COVID-19?
Ruth Hopkins
A Message For America from Brazil’s First Indigenous Congresswoman
Kathleen Wallace
The End of the Parasite Paradigm
Anthony DiMaggio
Misinformation and the Coronavirus: On the Dangers of Depoliticization and Social Media
Andrew Levine
Neither Biden Nor Trump: Imagine Cuomo
David Rosen
God’s Vengeance: the Christian Right and the Coronavirus
Evaggelos Vallianatos
In the Grip of Disease
David Schultz
The Covid-19 Bailout: Another Failed Opportunity at Structural Change
Edward Leer
Somebody Else’s World: An Interview with Kelly Reichardt
Robert Fisk
What Trump is Doing in the Middle East While You are Distracted by COVID-19
Daniel Warner
COVID-19: Health or Wealth?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
Corona in Germany: Hording and Authoritarianism
Ramzy Baroud
BJP and Israel: Hindu Nationalism is Ravaging India’s Democracy
Richard Moser
Russia-gate: the Dead But Undead
Ron Jacobs
Politics, Pandemics and Trumpism
Chris Gilbert
Letter From Catalonia: Alarming Measures
Richard Eskow
Seven Rules for the Boeing Bailout
Jonathan Carp
Coronavirus and the Collapse of Our Imaginations
Andrew Bacevich
The Coronavirus and the Real Threats to American Safety and Freedom
Peter Cohen
COVID-19, the Exponential Function and Human the Survival