Should the left’s answer to rightist populism really be a “Me Too”? Part I

Should the left's answer to rightist populism really be a 'Me Too' - Part I Should the left's answer to rightist populism really be a 'Me Too' - Part I

The latest trend in the vagaries of Leftist politics is the weird movement of MeToo. The Left, however, should learn from the rise of Rightist populism, because WeToo can play the populist game…

We are repeatedly told that Left populism is de facto winning and it works. But where and how does it work? Everywhere where it became a serious force, from Latin America to Spain’s Podemos, it stumbled upon a fatal limit. As for Corbyn’s Labour Party, its politics cannot be called populist in any meaningful way. (Plus, it hasn’t yet come to power; only once this happens will the real test come). Against Rightist populist passions (from Nigel Farage to Boris Johnson), today’s Labour politics is precisely a triumph of rational pragmatic argumentation, where one can disagree with some proposed measures, but the line of argumentation is always clear. Can one imagine a politician less prone to outbursts of passion than Corbyn, which, to avoid a misunderstanding, is for me what makes Corbyn great?

This fact alone renders problematic Left populist reliance on the opposition between cold pragmatic-rational argumentation and passionate confrontation. Although Left populists insist that there are limits to this confrontation, they remain within the democratic frame: according to them, antagonisms should be transposed into agonistic competition in which all sides obey basic democratic rules. But what if these rules are no longer accepted by all agents?

When, two years ago, I was answering questions posed by the readers of Sueddeutsche Zeitung about the refugee crisis, the question which attracted by far the most attention concerned precisely democracy, if with a rightist-populist twist. After Angela Merkel made her famous public appeal inviting hundreds of thousands of immigrants into Germany, what was her democratic legitimization? What gave her the right to bring such a radical change to German life without democratic consultation? My point here, of course, is not to support anti-immigrant populists, but to clearly show the limits of democratic legitimization. The same goes for those who advocate a radical opening of the borders to refugees: are they aware that, since our democracies are nation-state democracies, their demand equals the suspension of democracy, since they encourage a gigantic change, which should be allowed to affect a country without democratic consultation of its population?

I remember watching George Soros some time ago on TV where he advocated the idea that Europe should accept another million refugees. Despite his best humanitarian motifs, one aspect did trouble me: what right does he, a billionaire, have to promote such a large displacement of people without even raising the question of what the local population in Europe may think of it? Yuval Harari points out how the ongoing troubles with immigrants in Germany confront us with the limits of democracy: how are we to counter anti-immigrant populists who demand a referendum on immigrants, assured that the majority of Germans will vote against them? Is the solution, then, to give the voting rights also to immigrants? To whom among them? To those who are already in Germany, to those who want to go there…? At the end of this line of thought, we get the idea of world-wide elections which is self-defeating for a simple and precise reason:

»People feel bound by democratic elections only when they share a basic bond with most other voters. If the experience of other voters is alien to me, and if I believe they don’t understand my feelings and don’t care about my vital interests, then even if I am outvoted by a hundred to one, I have absolutely no reason to accept the verdict. Democratic elections usually work only within populations that have some prior common bind, such as shared religious beliefs and national myths. They are a method to settle disagreements between people who already agree on the basics.«1

Where this “agreement on the basics” is missing, the only procedure at our disposal (outside an outright war, of course) are negotiations. That’s, incidentally why the Middle East conflict cannot be solved by elections but only by war or negotiations. And negotiations by definition imply the overcoming of the antagonistic logic of Us against Them. According to Left populists, the main reason for the defeat of the Left is the non-combative stance of rational argumentation and lifeless universalism in theory epitomized by the names of Giddens, Beck, and Habermas. This post-political Third Way cannot combat in an efficient way the agonistic logic of Us against Them, successfully mobilized by anti-immigrant Rightist populists. Consequently, to combat this Rightist populism effectively is to have recourse to Left populism which, while retaining the basic populist coordinates (agonistic logic of Us against Them, of the “people” against a corrupted elite), fills them in with a Leftist content: Them are not poor refugees or immigrants but financial capital, technocratic state bureaucracy, etc. This populism moves beyond the old working-class anti-capitalism, as it tries to bring together a multiplicity of struggles from ecology to feminism, from the right to employment to free education and healthcare, etc., as Podemos is doing in Spain…

With regard to a pragmatic and dispassionate politics of rational compromise, one should first note that the ideology of neoliberalism (also in its liberal-Left version) is anything but “rational.” Quite the contrary, it is EXTREMELY confrontational, inasmuch as it brutally excludes those who do not accept it under the pretext that they are dangerous anti-democratic utopians. Its expert knowledge is ideology at its purest. The problems with the Third Way Left, which endorsed neoliberal economics, was not that it was too pragmatic-rational, but that it was precisely not truly rational, seeing that it was permeated by unprincipled pragmatism which in advance endorsed the opponent’s premises. Leftist politics today does not need (just) confrontational passion; much more than that it needs a true cold rationality. Cold analysis and passionate struggle not only do not exclude each other, they need each other.

The formula of agonistic politicization, of a passionate confrontation directed against lifeless universalism, is precisely all too formal, ignoring as it does the big question that lurks in the background: why did the Left abandon the agonistic logic of Us against Them decades ago? Was it not because of the deep structural changes in capitalism, changes which cannot be confronted by means of a simple populist mobilization? The Left abandoned antagonistic confrontation because it failed in its struggle with capitalism, because it accepted the global triumph of capitalism. As Peter Mandelson said, in economy, we are all Thatcherites, so all that remains to the Left is the multiplicity of particular struggles: human rights, feminism, anti-racism, and especially multiculturalism. (It is interesting to note that Ernesto Laclau, the theoretical father of Left populism, first enthusiastically greeted Blair’s Third Way politics – as a liberation from class essentialism, etc. -, and only later targeted it as the mode of non-antagonist politics.)

Podemos undoubtedly stands for populism at its best: against the arrogant Politically Correct intellectual elites which despise the “narrowness” of the ordinary people who are considered “stupid” for “voting against their interests,” its organizing principle is to listen to and organize those “from below” against those “from above,” beyond all traditional Left and Right models. The idea is that the starting point of emancipatory politics should be the concrete experience of the suffering and injustices of ordinary people in their local life-world (home quarters, the workplace, etc.), not abstract visions of a future Communist, or whatever, society. Although the new digital media seem to open up the space for new communities, the difference between these new communities and the old life-world communities is crucial. The old communities are not chosen, I am born into them, and they form the very space of my socialization, while the new (digital) communities include me into a specific domain defined by my interests and thus depending on my choice. Far from making the old communities deficient, the fact that they do not rely on my free choice makes them superior with regard to the new digital communities since they compel me to find my way into a pre-existing not-chosen life-world in which I encounter (and have to learn to deal with) real differences, while the new digital communities depending on my choice sustain the ideological myth of the individual who somehow pre-exists a communal life and is free to choose it.

Even if this approach undoubtedly contains a (very big) grain of truth, its problem is that, to put it bluntly, not only, as Laclau liked to emphasize, society doesn’t exist, but “people” also doesn’t exist. This thesis is not to be taken as an abstract theoretical statement about the inconsistence that traverses the social body. Rather, it refers to a quite concrete, even experiential, fact. “People” is a false name for the social totality. In our global capitalism, totality is “abstract,” invisible; there is no way to ground it in concrete life-worlds. In other words, in today global capitalist universe, a “concrete experience” of being a member of a particular life-world with its customs, living links, forms of solidarity, etc., is already something “abstract” in the strict sense of a particular experience which obliterates the thick network of financial, social, etc., processes that rule and regulate this concrete particular world. Here Podemos will encounter problems if it at some point takes power: what specific economic measures (beyond the standard Keynesian bag of tricks) will it enact to limit the power of capital?

Therein resided the difference between Syriza and Podemos. Syriza touched the Real of our global order. It threatened the reign of Capital, which is why it had to be humiliated without mercy. The heroism of Syriza was that, after winning the democratic political battle, they risked a step further into disturbing the smooth flow of the reproduction of Capital. The lesson of the Greek crisis is that Capital, though ultimately a symbolic fiction, is our Real. That is to say, today’s protests and revolts are sustained by a combination (overlapping) of different levels, and this combination accounts for their strength: they fight for (“normal” parliamentary) democracy against authoritarian regimes; against racism and sexism, especially the hatred directed at immigrants and refugees; for welfare-state against neoliberalism; against corruption in politics and economy (companies polluting environment, etc.); for new forms of democracy that reach beyond multi-party rituals (participation, etc.); and, finally, questioning the global capitalist system as such and trying to keep alive the idea of a non-capitalist society.

Two traps are to be avoided here: false radicalism, proclaiming that what really matters is the abolition of liberal-parliamentary capitalism, while all other fights are secondary, as well as false gradualism, asking us to fight against military dictatorship and for simple democracy, to forget Socialist dreams, which will come later – maybe… When we have to deal with a specific struggle, the key question is: how will our engagement in it or disengagement from it affect other struggles? The general rule is that, when a revolt begins against an oppressive half-democratic regime, as was the case in the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilize large crowds with slogans that one cannot but characterize as crowd-pleasers – For Democracy! Against Corruption!, and so forth. But then we gradually approach more difficult choices: when our revolt succeeds in its direct goal, we come to realize that what really bothered us (our un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospects for a decent life) persists in a new guise.

In Egypt, protesters succeeded in getting rid of the oppressive Mubarak regime, but corruption remained, and the prospects of a decent life moved even further away. After the overthrow of an authoritarian regime, the last vestiges of patriarchal care for the poor can fall away, so that the newly gained freedom is de facto reduced to the freedom to choose the preferred form of one’s misery. The majority not only remain poor, but, to add insult to injury, are also being told that, since they are now free, poverty is their own responsibility. In such a predicament, we have to admit that there was a flaw in our goal itself, that this goal was not specific enough – say, that standard political democracy can also serve as the very form of un-freedom. Political freedom can easily provide the legal frame for economic slavery, with the underprivileged “freely” selling themselves into servitude. We are thus brought to demand more than just political democracy: we have to admit that what we first took as the failure to fully realize a noble principle (of democratic freedom) is a failure inherent to this principle itself. Understanding this is a big step of political pedagogy.

The double U-turn that the Greek crisis took in July 2015 cannot but appear as a leap not just from tragedy to comedy but, as Stathis Kouvelakis noted, from tragedy full of comic reversals directly into a theatre of the absurd. Is there any other way to characterize the extraordinary reversal of one extreme into its opposite that would bedazzle even the most speculative Hegelian philosopher? Tired of the endless negotiations with the EU executives in which one humiliation followed another, Syriza called for a referendum on Sunday July 5 asking the Greek people if they supported or rejected the EU proposal of new austerity measures. Although the government itself clearly stated that it supported the NO, the result was a surprise for the government itself: the overwhelming majority of over 61% voted NO to European blackmail. Rumors began to circulate that the result – victory for the government – was a bad surprise for Tsipras himself, who secretly hoped that the government would lose, so that a defeat would allow him to save face in surrendering to the EU demands (“we have to respect the voters’ voice”). However, literally the morning after, Tsipras announced that Greece is ready to resume negotiations, and days later Greece agreed to a EU proposal which was basically the same as what the voters rejected (in some details even harsher). In short, he acted as if the government had lost, not won, the referendum. Here we encounter the truth of populism: its failure to confront the real of the capital. The supreme populist moment (referendum victory) immediately reverted into capitulation, into confession of impotence with regard to the capitalist order. There is no simple betrayal in this reversal, but the expression of a deep necessity.

Laclau insisted on the need to construct some figure of the Enemy as immanent to populism, not as its weakness, but as the resource of its strength. Left populism should construct a different figure of the Enemy, not the threatening racial Other (immigrant, Jew, Muslim…) but the financial elites, fundamentalists, and other “usual suspects” of the progressives. This urge to construct the Enemy is another fatal limitation of populism. Today, the ultimate “enemy” is not a concrete social agent but in some sense the system itself, a certain functioning of the system, which cannot be easily located into agents. Years ago, Alain Badiou wrote that one doesn’t fight capitalism but its concrete agents: therein resides the problem, since the true target IS capitalism. Today, it seems easy to say that the Enemy is neo-Fascist anti-immigrant nationalism or, in the US, Trump. Still, the fact remains that the rise of Trump is ultimately the effect of the failure of liberal-democratic consensus, and so, although one should, of course, not exclude new forms of “anti-Fascist” alliances with the latter, this consensus remains THE thing to be changed.

It is because of their focus on concrete enemies that Left populists seem to privilege national sovereignty, the strong nation state, as a defense against global capital (even Auferstehen in Germany basically follows this path). In this way, most of them not only (by definition) endorse populism but even nationalism, presenting their struggle as a defense against international financial capital. Some Left populists in the US already used the term “national socialism.”2 While, of course, it would be stupid and unfair to claim that they are closet Nazis, one should nonetheless insist that internationalism is a key component in any project of radical emancipation. Whatever critical remarks one makes against Varoufakis’s DIEM, the movement at least sees clearly that resistance against global capital has to be itself global, a new form of universalism.

There definitely are enemies and the topic of conspiracies is not to be simply dismissed. Years ago, Fred Jameson perspicuously noted that in today’s global capitalism, things happen which cannot be explained with a reference to some anonymous “logic of the capital.” For example, now we know that the financial meltdown of 2008 was the result of a well-planned “conspiracy” of some financial circles. However, the true task of social analysis still remains to explain how contemporary capitalism opened up the space for such “conspiratorial” interventions. This is also why references to “greed” and the appeal to capitalists to show social solidarity and responsibility are misplaced: “greed” (search for profit) IS what motivates capitalist expansion; the wager of capitalism IS that acting out of individual greed will contribute to the common good. So, again, instead of focusing on individual greed and approach the problem of growing inequality in moralist terms, the task is to change the system so that it will no longer allow or even solicit “greedy” acting.

The problem we are facing is best exemplified by what took place a couple of years ago in Croatia. Two public protest gatherings were announced: trade unions called for a protest against the exploding unemployment and poverty, felt very much by ordinary people; Rightist nationalists announced a gathering in order to protest the re-introduction of the official status of Cyrillic writing in Vukovar (because of the Serb minority there). To the first gathering, a couple of hundred people came, and to the second gathering, over one hundred thousand people showed up. Poverty was experienced as a daily-life problem much more than the Cyrillic threat by ordinary people, and the rhetoric of trade unions didn’t lack passion and confrontational spirit, but…

One has to accept that some kind of especially strong economy of jouissance is at work in the identification with one’s own “way of life,” some core of the Real which is very difficult to rearticulate symbolically. Recall Lenin’s shock at the patriotic reaction of Social-Democrats to the outburst of World War I. People are willing to suffer for their way of life, up to today’s refugees who are not ready to “integrate.” In short, there are two Reals (the real of capital; the real of ethnic identification) that cannot be dissolved into the fluid elements of a symbolic hegemony.

[Appeared in The Philosophical Salon on October 15th 2018.]

Footnotes

  1. Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow, London: Harvill Secker 2016, p. 249.
  2. It happened at the conference of the Union for Radical Economics at Amherst, Massachusetts, in September, 2018.