We have entered an ominous age of political conformity. Support is growing for a right-wing populism that views liberal democracy as both an anachronism and a curse. Meanwhile, many of those who oppose this growth of the right wing are turning to a left-wing populism that is dangerously susceptible to the same patterns of demagoguery and discourses of unity and exclusion.
The signposts are clear. Across the globe, politicians spew out inordinate incitements of hatred and bigotry, while legitimating and often overtly supporting racism. Liberals cling to notions of freedom and liberty that ignore the power of capital to turn such terms into their opposite. The mainstream media measure the task of pursuing the truth against how their bottom line is affected.
What has emerged out of this abyss of rising authoritarian power and its politics of depoliticization is the depredations of an updated version of fascist politics and the normalization of a rising tide of cruel and habituated ignorance. Habit normalized in a politics that destroys notions of informed agency and self-determination now merges ignorance and hatred. One result is the growing support for right-wing populism, which views individuals and populations displaced by global forces and deprived of the most basic means of existence — including food, shelter and pure water — with disdain and hatred. The late Russian writer and journalist Vasily Grossman issued a warning from another time that seems equally appropriate today. He writes:
How mighty, how terrible, and how kind is the power of habit! People can get used to anything — the sea, the southern stars, love, a bunk in a prison, the barbed wire of the camps.… What creates this abyss is the power of habit. Dull as it seems, it is as powerful as dynamite; it can destroy anything. Passion, hatred, grief, pain — habit can destroy them all.
The Dangers of Right-Wing Populism
Right-wing populism offers a pseudo-democratic notion of politics in which matters of informed judgment, critical agency and collective action disappear into the symbol of the leader. In this discourse, politics becomes personalized in the image of the larger-than-life demagogue, removed from the alleged ignorance of the masses or “herd.” The past and present emergence of right-wing populist leaders is exemplified in the rise of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Geert Wilders, among others. Right-wing populism destroys everything that makes a genuine democratic politics possible.
As I have written elsewhere, right-wing populism builds upon and accentuates a long tradition of anti-democratic, neoliberal and racist tendencies that have been smoldering in the United States for decades. It eliminates critical thinking, undermines acts of civic courage, dismantles genuine collective action rooted in mass movements, suppresses democratic forms of opposition and crushes opponents. Its stark Hobbesian division between friends and enemies, unquestioning loyalty and democratic participation contains a propensity for violence rooted in its unforgiving politics of exclusion. The latter is especially troubling at a time in which violence has increasingly emerged and is accepted as a defining feature and organizing principle of politics, if not society itself. In this instance, the friend/enemy binary becomes all the more dangerous in a context where history is being erased and ignorance colludes with power to give rise to widening networks of oppression.
Trump makes this divisive feature central to his mode of governance. Putting forward coded assertions of white supremacy, Trump acts on a regressive notion of unity that relies on exclusion and a politics of disposability. According to Trump, “The only thing that matters is the unification of the people — because the other people don’t mean anything.” In Trump’s discourse, the call for unity has as its foundation the implication that all opposition is not only illegitimate but constitutes the terrain of the enemy. His notion of “the people” is reduced to a category that mimics the will of the leader whose image of the U.S. is as racist as it is anti-democratic in this deeply authoritarian discourse. The right-wing populist claim to exclusive power, representation and governance in the hands of the leader is not without its critical moments. For instance, right-wing populist leaders go out of their way to criticize globalization and the elite, but in doing so, they claim that only they can “represent the people” while putting policies into play that expand the power of the financial elite and their neoliberal imperatives, such as regressive tax cuts and the hollowing out of the welfare state.
The demagogic character of populism can be seen in its use of a language of simplicity, one that avoids complexity, honest dialogue, multifaceted struggles and the hard work of power-sharing modes of governance. This spirit of populism is at odds with a language that is troubling, calls power into question, disturbs machineries of class, gender, sexual and racial oppression, and uses language to sharpen the moral imagination and bear witness to state and corporate violence. Right-wing populism both demonizes and promotes the fear of an internal enemy, distorts information, and suppresses dissent and resistance. In doing so, it attempts to strip democracy of all of its ideals. Populism’s language of simplicity and its embrace of an agency-stripping notion of anti-intellectualism is further strengthened by neoliberalism’s culture of fear, insecurity and uncertainty that accentuates a sense of frustration, anger and political impotence that traps individuals in their own feelings, unable to translate private troubles into broader social and political considerations.
Right-wing populism speaks in the language of the perpetrator as victim, refigures the language of war as heroic, and merges the rhetoric of command and racial purity with the discourse of commerce and capitalism. Under right-wing populism, the language of violence parades as the language of war, redemption, walls, barriers and security. This is a populism without a social conscience — one that supports authoritarian societies marked by deregulation, the dismantling of the welfare state, the denial of climate change, a soaring inequality and a struggle to define a nation’s past.
Populist leaders such as Trump and Bolsonaro rule not for the public interest, but for themselves and their ultra-rich allies, furthering the slide toward lawlessness and barbarism. How else to explain Trump’s pressuring Israel to ban two congresswomen of color from visiting Israel after he has stated that they should go back to their own countries after they had criticized his policies? How else to explain his relentlessly cruel policies, such as cutting federal support for food stamps for over 3 million people, asserting that immigrants who use government benefits such as housing vouchers or Medicaid may be denied green cards and visas, and his ongoing immigration raids which separate families and traumatize communities? Trump’s grotesque sense of entitlement and limitless self-regard translates into a fixation on dominating and humiliating others.
Right-wing populism thrives on the allure of the spectacle of violence and redirects pent-up anger and aggression into a form of collaborative pleasure and emotional release that becomes complicit with the ugliness of authoritarian modes of governance and morally compromised lives.
Right-wing populism shares many elements of a fascist politics, including an ideology of certainty, unhampered by doubt and complexity in its explanation of history and justification for its policies. Its friend/enemy distinction fuels both a politics of disposability that makes some human beings superfluous, and also promotes a culture of fear and terror in which the unthinkable becomes normalized. It disdains the truth and scientific evidence, and empties words of any meaning while elevating lying to the status of a national ideal that legitimates a dystopian mode of governance. A willful forgetting of history covers over its support for anti-Semitism, its hostility toward elites, and its embrace of nativism and racial hatred.
Right-wing populism also destroys any notion of the social marked by the principles of individual freedom, justice, equity and equality; it also thrives on anti-intellectualism, and as Hannah Arendt once said, brings “to light the ruin of our categories of thought and standards of judgment.” Finally, right-wing populism, like fascism, supports authoritarian governments in which power is concentrated in the hands of the alleged leader.
The Limits of Left-Wing Populism
Populism comes in many forms, and some writers such as Chantal Mouffe have argued that the antidote to right-wing populism is left-wing populism. She insists that left-wing populism works to expose and denounce rising social and economic inequality, criticize the deep cruelties of capitalism and rightly reveal corrupt middle-of-the road politicians. Mouffe also argues that left-wing populism opposes centrist politics with its investments in neoliberal ideology, finance capital, austerity, deregulation and corporate power.
Federico Finchelstein, meanwhile, has pointed out that left-wing populism is often marked by its “attention to unequal social and economic conditions … questioning even the dogmas of neoliberal austerity measures and the supposed neutrality of technocratic business-oriented solutions.” Yet, he qualifies the latter by pointing out that left-wing populism undermines its political project “by its claim to exclusively represent the entire people against the elites.” Mouffe ignores this criticism and suggests that the combination of popular sovereignty and equality advocated by left-wing populists offers the greatest challenge to the pervading hold of right-wing populism across the globe, which she argues is the background condition for the erosion of the democratic ideals and institutions.
What is particularly strong about Mouffe’s argument is the call for a populist movement rooted in a more comprehensive struggle to recover and expand radical democracy as a political force. For Mouffe, the challenge of left-wing populism is to make clear that the struggle for popular sovereignty has to be part of a broader struggle for democracy. She recognizes that people no longer feel in control of their destinies. Her answer to massive forms of alienation is to create a left-wing populism that highlights the contradictions between liberal democratic ideals and the anti-democratic politics of the emerging right-wing populism. Democracy in this view becomes a means to fight an ideological war against right-wing adversaries and diverse modes of authoritarianism.
As crucial as some of these arguments are as part of a challenge to confront right-wing populism, they are not unproblematic. Mouffe and many other advocates of left-wing populism fail to understand the pathologies inherent in all forms of populism. As theorists such as Finchelstein along with John Keane and Jan-Werner Muller point out, these extend from underestimating how populism is susceptible to being a politically empty category that can be appropriated by almost any political group. Moreover, populism in all of its forms is too indebted to the personalization of leadership, whether such leaders are on the left, such as Bernie Sanders, or on the right, such as Donald Trump.
Moreover, as Finchelstein rightly observes, “In all cases, populism speaks in the name of a single people, and does so in the name of democracy. But democracy is defined in narrow terms as the expression of the desires of the populist leaders.” In addition, it runs the risk of being organized around notions of unity that replicate the friend/enemy divide and employ politics as a weapon based on hard and fast notions of exclusion and inclusion. Populism tends to ignore the hard work of education as a crucial tool for addressing the crisis of neoliberalism and its corresponding crisis of subjectivity, identity and agency.
Critical Education Could Change the Political Landscape
Education has a central role to play in addressing and changing the consciousness of people who occupy either side of the populist divide, as well as people who hold contradictory attitudes toward power, equality, identity, citizenship, asylum and other central political issues. Binarisms do not produce a collective political consciousness; instead they feed into either the dead end of a rigid orthodoxy or the banality of celebrity culture. Instead of a revolution in consciousness, we get a mix of intellectual infantilism and a commodified culture that denounces all thoughts of a critical public consciousness.
Populism on both sides can open the door to conspiracy theories, create what historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” of politics, and “morph into a tool of journalistic [if not simplistic] discourse.” In short, populism can represent a range of perspectives and possibilities while still maintaining its illiberal attributes including “understanding its own position as the only true form of political legitimacy” while refusing to recognize the validity of its opponents’ views, subjecting them to the process of demonization and accusing them of “being tyrannical, conspiratorial and anti-democratic.” In other words, such a perspective becomes sclerotic in its own ideology and political certainty.
Populism on both the right and left narrows the scope of power to the role of leaders, whether progressive or reactionary. This weakens a politics of resistance and potentially undermines the hard work of building a mass anti-capitalist political movement while potentially sabotaging the rise of self-determining and engaged individual and social agents. However, it does more; in its application to any group that challenges power, it loses a sense of political specificity and historical context and tends to overgeneralize the opposition with a homogenizing view of people that conceives of political opponents as enemies. Populism in general runs the risk of pitting groups against each other, and for the left, this means often pitting class against race or failure to move beyond the fracturing of groups into isolated, single-issue movements. In addition, power in all of its complexity is increasingly defined in simplistic terms as something to resist rather than as a tool of possibility rooted in the struggle over developing democratic institutions.
Populism has strong tendencies to criticize elites, but power runs much deeper and is present in both economic and political structures and ideologies that develop over time — all of which need to be challenged. At the same time, what is needed in this instance is a vision and a broad-based movement of informed workers, artists, intellectuals, young people, and others who are challenging not just corporate elites, but capitalism itself. Populism runs the risk of becoming synonymous with momentary, if not misdirected, outbursts of anger, discontent and moral outrage, only to be then appropriated by demagogues. Social movements are built not merely on feelings of isolation, anger and emotional dissatisfaction, but also on the hard work of organizing concerted ideological struggles to connect with the problems that everyday people confront, and to create a politics of identification in which people can recognize themselves and join with others not merely to condemn elites, but to radically change the structures of domination.
What is needed is an anti-capitalist movement that can redirect the pain, anger and rage of the dispossessed toward a radical restructuring of society whose aim is the construction of a democratic socialist society. The problems people face in the United States and other authoritarian capitalist societies are too deep, extend too far and command too much power. Their deep sources of oppression must be challenged by building alliances that bring together workers, intellectuals, young people and diverse anti-capitalist social movements. Such a broad-based social and political formation must learn to speak to and with the dispossessed while addressing how capitalism deprives them of the material conditions of freedom, forcing them to compete over scarce resources, time and dignity.
Capitalism is the antithesis of democracy and must be overthrown because it cannot provide what Jeff Noonan calls “universal life-goods,” which translate into “a healthy environment, public healthcare distributed on the basis of need and not ability to pay, and an adequately funded public education system.” Noonan describes these all as “universal life-goods without which we cannot live and live fully.”
Any challenge to the current rise of right-wing populism must address the need for a politics that contains a language both of critique and hope. This suggests a politics that rouses the passions of people to be energized and more informed, and makes clear that resistance must be a collective enterprise with struggles unified in their aim to refuse the notion that capitalism and democracy are the same. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he argued that we need a politics that comprehends the totality of the system we are fighting, that there is no struggle without risk, and that struggle is a collective project rooted in a revolution of values and the dream of a world in which justice and equality merge.
The depoliticizing forces at work under neoliberalism cannot be underestimated in terms of their contribution to the rise of right-wing populism. Widening inequality, widespread alienation, a hardening of culture, the collapse of public goods and civic culture, the dismantling of the social contract, the expanding criminalization of social problems and a ballooning civic illiteracy, among other forces, all contribute to diverse forms of depoliticization. Under such circumstances, the declining popularity of liberal democracy produces a populace that lacks a sophisticated understanding of how neoliberal fascism infantilizes them politically and undermines their ability to exercise critical judgment, concerted acts of self-determination and collective resistance. The left needs to make visible the right-wing assault on the basic values and programs that undermine democracy and social justice, and promote widespread misery and suffering. It needs to provide alternative educational programs, use alternative media to educate people in a language they can understand, use demonstrations as pedagogical tools to raise consciousness, and make education central to promoting policies that both undermine capitalism and give meaning to what a socialist society looks like. There will be no change to the power and ideological dynamics of capitalism if matters of popular sovereignty, class struggles and economic equality are not central to the collective fights for economic, political and social justice.
Neither a reactionary nor a progressive populism will provide a strategy capable of challenging the new capitalist formation I term “neoliberal fascism.”
Populism tends toward extremes, and a pseudo-democratic style of politics that embraces an imagined people, oversimplifications, and charismatic and demagogic leaders.
Neoliberal fascism must be challenged with a new narrative and vision of what counts as politics at a time in which power has become global and the promises of established liberal elites have become bankrupt politically and ethically. Nancy Fraser rightly argues that we need a political movement in which “a broad spectrum of social actors can find themselves” and address the “challenge of financialization, deindustrialization” and “corporate globalization.”
Populism neither explains the rise of fascist movements around the globe nor does it provide the answer to challenging them. What is needed is a powerful new vision of politics, one that takes education, agency and power seriously in its ongoing efforts to develop an alliance among those forces who can imagine and struggle for a world in which neoliberal fascism no longer exists and the promise of a socialist democracy becomes more than a utopian dream. There will be no justice without a struggle, and there will be no future worth living without the collective will to struggle.