4 Reflections on Left Populism

by Jack Kellam

25 February 2017

Credit: James Criland https://goo.gl/Cts9e5

A recent #NovaraIRL considered possibilities for a radical left populism, and touched on crucial debates around strategy, historical trajectories and social analysis. Below are some of the central lines of contention that emerged during the conversation.

1. Populism and the Concrete

A central problem with conventional discussions of populism is a tendency to retreat into a formalistic, a priori account of the concept, constructing a definition in advance of engagement with its living, historically active embodiments. Populism becomes an abstract idea, marked by a people v. elite antagonism, reliance on key vague, ‘unifying’ signifiers and a leader figure.

While any sort of analysis relies on some forms of abstraction away from concrete specificity, it’s important to maintain a genuine ‘live’ engagement the contemporary reality. Thinking through populism, and its potential merits for the left, therefore means thinking through what populism actually means here and now.

Paul Mason indicates this in his claim that we need to think with populism, not necessarily for or against it,. “If you see a tank coming down the street”, he claims “asking yourself ‘what should we do about this tank?’ [misses the point], the real issue is ‘am I in a war?’” Our guiding question should be: how do we respond to developments as they actually present themselves – what does populism mean for the war we are fighting?

This will involve some recourse to dynamics that exist across different populisms, and taking stances on certain key tenets: must we rely on the signifier ‘the people’? Can there be a progressive incarnation of a friend/enemy distinction? These must be historically situated, within our current political context, so that the question becomes not “is ‘the people’ a good discursive tool for the left?”, but “what would it mean for the left to use ‘the people’ as part of a rhetorical strategy, in a context of wider nationalist, xenophobic discourse?”, etc.

2. Populism and the Nation

The recurring problematic when it comes to formulating a left-populist political strategy is whether it is possible to do this without reproducing paradigms – like the nation – that are historically embedded in the xenophobia we seek to challenge. Ash Sarkar raised this persuasively on the night, and has previously done so elsewhere.

Is it possible to fully disentangle these populist organising frames from the radical right? This isn’t just about whether a progressive understanding of the nation can be conceived per se, but whether, in trying to ‘reclaim’ it, we end up enforcing it’s importance as a framework of understanding. Though some defenders try to avoid this charge by claiming that left populism operates with an inclusive understanding of ‘the nation’, this begs the question of whether this is meaningfully possible within our current political context.

Some have pointed to SYRIZA as projecting a left populism with a progressive, inclusive account of the nation, though the reality seems more complicated. Their government has been shored up through a coalition with the right-populist ANEL, which indicates the slippery compatibility between the respective ‘nations’ of each. Indeed, recent analysis points to the way the parties have increasingly amalgamated.

Our own national context makes a progressive British populism even more difficult. When categories like ‘Britishness’ and ‘the nation’ are so deeply sedimented with imperialist connotations, reframing them within a radical left discourse would seem a monumental challenge – just talking about Mo Farah and the NHS won’t cut it.

Any ‘left-populist’ strategy must acknowledge the profound difficulty of such a task, and recognise that if new, radical articulations of ‘the nation’ are even achievable, they will be products of long-term counter-hegemonic struggle, not short-term political campaigns. The scale of the challenge might mean we are better off expending our limited time and energies into different discursive strategies that aren’t as clearly susceptible to making things worse if unsuccessful.

3. Populism and Patriarchy

Populist strategy also faces the charge of being tied to patriarchal norms. Sian Berry and Zoe  Williams raised this during the #NovaraIRL discussion, pointing out the ‘Big Man’ saviour complex as pervading populist political formations. Elsewhere, Kate Shea Baird and Laura Roth have expressed similar scepticism, claiming that it generates a destructively antagonistic style of politics, antithetical to the ‘feminisation’ of the political the authors desire.

The record of left populism demonstrates the difficulties of transcending typically hierarchical structures of political parties. Podemos has seen increasing centralisation of its internal power, and a major disappointment of the Corbyn project so far has been the inability to genuinely democratise the Labour party’s inner structures. A total break from ‘traditional’ organisational models has so far proved beyond the capabilities of populist projects.

These critiques are pressing – but debates over the nature of leadership and democratic structure are live issues for all radical left organisations. Populism is not alone in its difficulties escaping rigid hierarchy and patriarchal dominance. So long as we accept the necessity of some form of verticality within political relationships, the question needs to be how we negotiate between ‘the horizontal’ and ‘the vertical’, such that the former is never entirely sublimated by the latter.

4. Populism and Complexity

The (non)relationship between populist political discourse and ‘complex’ modernity emerged as an overarching problem of the left populist project; the tension between the ‘simplifying’ tendencies of populist articulations (which Zoe labelled ‘bullshit’ ideologies) and the Left’s sympathy towards pluralism of individual/group identity, and its understanding that the problems of the present require difficult, complex solutions.

However, as Zoe raised during the discussion, this can be mitigated: through the use of ‘carrier issues’ i.e. using problems like housing as a ‘way in’ to explaining wider economic problems, demonstrating he universal in the particular. This is a central feature of populist discourse: deploying prominent ‘floating signifiers’ as nodal points around which collective subjects can be constituted. This does not mean reducing everything to that one issue, but allowing diverse, pluralistic groups to see what they share in common through their collective relationship to the case at hand.

Populism depends upon making the complexity of left solutions resonate with people’s lived experience. Populism isn’t the antithesis to climate justice, for instance, but rather the condition of possibility for its success. Thinking through how we can successfully combine populist discourse with complex politics is therefore a crucial priority for the radical left.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.