Thursday, May 24, 2018

Differentiating Right and Left Populisms

nakedcapitalism |  According to David Harvey, neoliberal globalization is comprised of four processes: accumulation by dispossession; de-regulation; privatization; and an upward re-distribution of wealth. Taken together they have increased both economic insecurity and cultural anxiety via three features in particular: the creation of surplus peoples, rising global inequality, and threats to identity.

The anxiety wrought by neoliberal globalization has created a rich and fertile ground for populist politics of both right and left. Neither Norris and Inglehart nor Laclau adequately account for such insecurity in their theorization of populism. As we have seen, populism can be understood as a mobilizing discourse that conceives of political subjectivity as comprised of “the people.” Yet this figure of “the people,” as Agamben has indicatedin What is a people? (2000) is deeply ambivalent insofar as it can be understood both in terms of the  body politic as a whole (as in the US Constitution’s “We the People”), or in terms of what Ranciere calls the “part that has no part,” or the dispossessed and the displaced; as in “The people united shall never be defeated,” or in the Black Panthers’ famous slogan: “All Power to the People.”

In this dichotomy, the figure of “the people” can be understood in terms of its differential deployments by right and left, which themselves must be understood in terms of the respective enemies through which “the people” is constructed. And this is the decisive dimension of populism.
Right populism conflates “the people” with an embattled nation confronting its external enemies: Islamic terrorism, refugees, the European Commission, the International Jewish conspiracy, and so on. The left, in marked contrast, defines “the people” in relation to the social structures and institutions – for example, state and capital – that thwart its aspirations for self-determination; a construction which does not necessarily, however, preclude hospitality towards the Other.

In other words, right-wing or authoritarian populism defines the enemy in personalized terms, whereas, while this is not always true, left-wing populism tends to define the enemy in terms of bearers of socio-economic structures and rarely as particular groups. The right, in a tradition stemming back to Hobbes, takes insecurity and anxiety as the necessary, unavoidable, and indeed perhaps even favourable product of capitalist social relations. It transforms such insecurity and anxiety into the fear of the stranger and an argument for a punitive state. In contrast, the left seeks to provide an account of the sources of such insecurity in the processes that have led to the dismantling of the welfare state, and corresponding phenomena such as “zero-hours” contracts, the casualization of labour, and generalized precarity. It then proposes transformative and egalitarian solutions to these problems. Of course, left populism can also turn authoritarian – largely though not exclusively due to the interference and threatened military intervention of the global hegemon and its allies – with an increasing vilification of the opposition, as we saw in Venezuela and Ecuador with Rafael Correa.