Left-Wing Populism in Response to Neoliberal Hegemony
Two global phenomena—neoliberalism and the rise of right-wing populism—are not only connected, but also troublesome for the future of a twenty-first century left agenda rooted in social justice.
The Political Moment
On November 8, 2016, the world was blindsided when the American people elected Donald Trump as President of the United States. While some went to sleep in celebration and others woke up feeling sick and confused, the election results made one thing quite clear: the political right had managed to mobilize passions and voters in a way that the left had not.
Trump’s election laid bare two aspects of the current political moment particularly relevant to the future of the American (or even global) left and its work for social justice. First, the election revealed that large numbers of individuals feel threatened by neoliberalism, even if they do not articulate their situation as such. Neoliberalism is an ideology that champions free-market economics, but also seeks to economize all aspects of human life by proposing the free market as a model and an end for governance, policy, and individual behavior. Neoliberalism commonly manifests itself in policies of privatization, deregulation, and austerity; it has even come to define how we view ourselves and relate to one another, making people synonymous with pieces of “human capital,” worth only what we can contribute to the market economy.
Neoliberalism has made all of our existences precarious, while remaining elusive enough to allow us to assign blame and channel rage into other aspects of our lives. Journalist and activist Naomi Klein claims that grievances caused by neoliberalism mobilized large numbers of citizens to vote for Trump, as they misdirected their hurt against “the other” rather than “the system” responsible for their insecurity. With respect to white, working class voters, she says, “Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening.” These voters, left behind by the modern world, feel voiceless and marginalized on the political stage.This past election, Donald Trump offered them a voice.
A second, deeply troubling feature of Trump’s election is that it falls directly in line with a significant global trend towards right-wing populism, one we can see in movements across Europe. Populism is a logic or form of political discourse that transcends class and ideological allegiances, setting up a “conflict between an ‘underdog’ and a ‘power’ that is defined by specific kinds of demands that establish a political “frontier” between the two.” In other words, it is a way for citizens to articulate their demands and form a new popular identity. In popular discourse, populism has an overwhelmingly negative connotation; because of its history and political perceptions, it can be associated with “nativism, xenophobia, racism, irresponsibility, demagogy, immorality, corruption [and] irrationalism.”
And yet, we should not be too quick to demonize or discredit populism. Given its current prominence, greater understanding of populism may provide important insight into our political moment, and an embrace of such tactics on the left could serve as an appropriate response to the economic, social, and political injustices experienced by individuals across the political spectrum.
These two related phenomenon—neoliberalism and the rise of right-wing populism—are both troublesome for the future of a twenty-first century social justice agenda. The nature of a left-wing response to right-wing populism is still in formation, but its early stages can be seen in the colorful waves of protest across the globe since the election. While protest is a valuable form of social identity and political action, if the demands behind these protests are to be met they must be channeled through the streets and into the construction of a power over and against neoliberalism, a problem more immanent and foreboding to social justice and democracy than Mr. Trump himself.
What is needed is a counter-power in the shape of a left-wing populist movement, composed of intersectional grassroots coalitions that confront neoliberalism and address its injustices. Naomi Klein explains that “people have a right to be angry, and that a powerful, intersectional left agenda can direct that anger where it belongs, while fighting for holistic solutions that will bring a frayed society together.” In light of the passions of right-wing populism, the left must realize that logical arguments and policy briefings will not win this fight. We need not abandon them, but we must also embrace passion, protest, and people-power in a fresh way in order to successfully challenge the right, which has historically (and successfully) excited voters through inclusion of passion, and even religion, in its politics.
Populism’s appeal as a political approach is that its makeup and objectives are not predetermined. Anyone can be the “underdog” or the “power.” In the case of left-wing populism in response to neoliberalism, the underdog is “the people,” who are mobilizing against the transnational corporations, forces of neoliberal globalization, and “uncaring ‘political establishment’ that, having abandoned the popular sectors, concerns itself exclusively with the interests of the elites.” This “underdog” movement will form a new political subject marked by diversity, not by the exclusion thereof, as it aspires to broaden and radicalize the democracy threatened by the pervasion of neoliberal ideology.
Saving Our Endangered Democracy
Populism leaves a bad taste in the mouths of some people, and establishment forces especially may try to make those who support it seem like extremists in order to maintain their domination. Yet, populism is the most promising option we have if we want to save not just “the people,” but politics itself. It has been said that we live in an age of “post-politics” in which political life has been gutted to a “ping-pong” of power between center-right and center-left parties that both advocate for neoliberalism, allowing the people no real choice. Slight party differences exist, but these differences do not translate into meaningful choices for voters, nor do they provide viable alternatives to neoliberal dominance. This proves problematic because choice, as a component of popular sovereignty, is central to democratic society. Accordingly, the phenomenon of post-politics reinforces the “post-democratic” society paved by neoliberalism. Post-democracy refers to the hollowing out of democratic institutions; the facade of a functioning democracy remains, but its application is limited and its institutions remain co-opted by a political elite. Our post-political national climate will lead individuals to either reject politics altogether, or join the only viable alternative of the moment: right-wing populism. A left-wing, populist movement capable of reinvigorating the cause of “the people” and fostering an “underdog” coalition to contest neoliberalism seems to be a viable antidote to this troubling political reality.
Who Will “The People” Be?
While it may seem like the unity of those left behind by neoliberalism is natural and their joint project inevitable, it is only through the intentional creation of a counter-hegemonic project that a coherent political actor may arise. The ingredients for a populist movement already exist, but they need to be mobilized. The clearest plan is to link existing social movements and struggles for justice in order to revitalize the concept of “the people,” who will form our new political subject. This would entail, for example, increased collaboration between workers’ rights groups, environmental activists, women’s rights organizations, campaigns against structural racism and police violence, and minimum wage movements. It would involve fostering dialogue between churches, schools, non-profits, businesses, and governments. This broad-based coalition would be intersectional, acknowledging the interconnection between oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) and stressing that the justice issues which stem from them cannot be addressed apart from one another.
However, each particular struggle would not be melted down, reduced, or subordinated, but rather, remain autonomous and singular, even as it relates to others. This notion of “singularity” fosters common terrain by allowing groups to take on elements of other groups’ agendas and identities, partly reshaping their own wills and the wills of other groups, while forming a new collective will through relationship with others. This creates an inclusive movement without forcing the homogenization that is so often the enemy of diversity and justice.
The need for such a vision of “intersectionality” is evident in the difficulties experienced by individual movements and organizations fighting for their causes alone, and in the ways that different justice issues naturally relate to one another. As Frederick Clarkson says:
…we cannot talk adequately about reproductive justice without also talking about health care, child care, job security, and safety from violence. LGBTQ rights are linked to the whole spectrum of gender equity, as well as to social security, health care, immigration … and immigration is inseparable from racial justice, education, civil liberties. The links are endless if we train our eyes to see the complementarities rather than the conflicts.
What Are We Fighting For?
Ultimately, what unites all of these struggles is their antagonism towards neoliberalism. Neoliberalism’s spread is de-democratizing both in its policy effects and in the ways that it disempowers the individual democratic subject and the collective people, reducing the citizenry to a collection of self-interested individuals. In this way, it is in direct conflict with the majority of current social movements, which seek to highlight the dignity and equality of all people, no matter their market value, and to defend shared resources and common ends. No movement for justice will find success so long as the people it seeks to protect are oppressed by the tyranny of the market.
Critics of this view could see the act of connecting these social movements into a broader populist movement as an attempt to subsume all struggles to a class struggle, reducing political identity to class identity and political agendas to economic interests. Yet, in the left’s intersectional populist movement, neoliberalism becomes not so much a “unifying factor” as a locus of resistance. It is not only what the groups have in common, but also where change might begin. In addressing neoliberalism, we will begin to address patriarchy, heteronormativity, classism, and other oppressive structures, because they are all reliant on one another, as intersectionality theory suggests. Intersectionality is not only natural, but necessary, as the social field is too fragmented for one class or group to rule on its own: in order to hold power in society, groups must form alliances and pursue more than their own self-interests. This is reinforced by the ways in which the right employs a similar strategy to unite multiple distinct groups—such as capitalists, evangelical Christians, the electronic news media, and Republicans—to form a potent political machine.
The good news is that this work is already underway. We see models in the way that the movement against the Standing Rock pipeline has linked indigenous rights and climate change, the Black Lives Matter and Movement for Black Lives has posed gender, sexuality, and economic justice as essential for racial justice, and in the way that Occupy tried to make race a central part of its protests against wealth inequality.
Europe has already witnessed the emergence of left-wing populist movements like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Will the United States mirror this trend? While social movements and even populism can be viewed as the antithesis to rational political behavior, reflecting “aberrant personality types and irrational forms of ‘crowd behavior,’” we live in a political and historical moment in which only mass social movements can save us. Because the neoliberal crisis is a subjective crisis, we are fighting not for an economic system or a political victory, but rather for a conception of who we are, and how we will relate to one another as human beings living together on our shared planet. Could anything be more valuable or more pressing?
(Overhead photo credit: Flickr/South Bend Voice)