They Don’t Represent Us: The Populist Moment

by Richard Seymour


If a theory of populism could be inferred from the media’s coverage of the subject, it would go roughly like this. The majority of people outside the political class, which is the reasoning executive of the body politic, are essentially vulgar, corporeal beings, pushed around by basic needs and desires, and unable to engage in authentic political reflection. Sometimes, in difficult situations, the people turn their inchoate, mobbish, tendentially violent rage against their benefactors, and are led astray by false masters (‘demagogues’) promising false solutions. ‘Populism’, then, is what happens when the people no longer recognise their true masters, and begin to snap the leash.

In this sense, the ‘populist moment’ is necessarily, to quote Nick Clegg, an ‘age of unreason’. Consider the chain of equivalents culpably and dishonestly established by the media: Sanders, Corbyn, Iglesias, Tsipras, Trump, Farage, Le Pen. The coverage implies that the differences between radical left and far right are in this instance relatively superfluous compared to the irrational fury that binds them and their constituents. The by-word for this irrationality, of course, is the supposed indifference of these figures to normal canons of ‘electability’. As Tony Blair put it, “the question of electability” and all that this implies about how politics is done, is strangely amiss in the current cycle of political fluctuations.

But is it possible to think about populism as something other than a pathology of the people? Suspending for a second the question of how fairly and accurately the category of ‘populism’ is being applied — Corbyn, for reasons we will return to, is a most unlikely ‘populist’ — is it possible to define features of a conjuncture that favour populist strategies, which at other times are less persuasive? I will argue that it’s a question of representation. When the ‘representative link’, in which ‘the people’ and their aggregate wills are supposedly efficiently mirrored in the parliamentary apparatus, breaks down, the terrain is ripe for populist insurgency.

I will take as my starting point Francisco Panizza’s definition of populism as “an anti-status quo discourse that simplifies the political space by symbolically dividing society between ‘the people’ (as the ‘underdogs’) and its ‘other’”. Neither ‘the people’ nor its ‘other’ has any real sociological referent; each is symbolically constructed. The difference between left- and right-populisms is the manner in which that construction takes place. Generally speaking, left-populisms identify ‘the people’ in more or less broad, inclusive terms, and its ‘other’ as a narrow, out-of-touch elite (‘la casta’ in Spain, ‘the billionaire class’ in the US). Right-populisms identify ‘the people’ more narrowly, with reference to nation or race, while its ‘other’ includes both an elite and an underclass or national or racial outgroup who are seen to be in collusion (in the case of George Wallace and other icons of ‘Massive Resistance’, liberal elites and African Americans).

In ‘normal’ political circumstances, the state represents itself to us as the representation of our unity as a people, as a nation. The legitimacy of this claim derives in class-democracies from the right to vote for representatives. You vote for your representatives and the sum of individual wills is aggregated through the institutional format of the state, or its representative branch, as the popular will. But of course, this representative link is never as straightforward as it appears. First of all, the existence of ‘individual wills’ is not merely given, but is organised by the state itself through its constitution of the governed as individual citizen-subjects. Second, the constitution of the people as represented ‘interests’ (class or otherwise) is organised through political parties which, to be effective, must become integrated into the state apparatus and organise their internal life along such hierarchical lines as will make them both electorally efficient and adequate for government.

Third, the state is not a neutral terrain, but one in which legitimate power is monopolised by the fractions and elements of the capitalist class, hierarchically organised through the institutional materiality of the state. Poulantzas characterised this ruling coalition as the ‘power bloc’ in any given society. Ideally from the point of view of this power bloc, it would be able to formulate its – always contested, never fully transparent – interests not only in the technocratic language of state policy, but also the moral language of collective democratic will. This does not necessitate that they take all class interests into account — there is invariably a more or less sizeable excluded remainder — but to be effective, it does mean incorporating strata of the dominated classes into a wider alliance tending toward what Gramsci termed a ‘hegemonic bloc’. Finally, the field of the state includes a range of apparatuses formally considered separate from public power but effectively integrated into the circulation of state power, particularly the media. The latter have an important role in formulating, making and legitimising policy as the product of a democratic will and the instrument of a collective historic destiny. The people as an ‘imagined community’, to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase, are constructed not only by their representation in parliament but by the representation of that representation in the national media.

To put it succinctly, in ‘normal’ political circumstances, ‘the people’ are equivalent to their representation as such in the capitalist state. That is the representative link in its broad outline. The breakdown of the representative link in recent decades is one of the dysfunctions of neoliberalism. In their assault on social democracy, the neoliberals have sought to reduce the democratic capacities of the state, and expunge the ‘resistances’ built up within the state by working class and left-wing forces. They have sought to reorganise the inner life of the state along ‘market’ lines, the better to exclude effective democratic control over decision-making. And they have sought to discipline parties of the centre-left, the better to foreclose political options not congruent with neoliberal forms of capital accumulation. In so doing, they have driven down parliamentary political participation on all fronts, from voting to party membership to party identification. Party politics increasingly became the business of electoral-professionals, pollsters, focus groups, spin doctors and party knuckle-crackers. Meanwhile, the leadership of parliamentary parties depended less and less on public support and more and more on their embeddedness in the apparatuses of the state for their legitimacy. The upshot of this is that the class coalition that is effectively, in one way or another, ‘represented’ in the state, has become much narrower. Likewise, the representation of representation has become narrower, and more people feel excluded from the political landscape policed by the media.

This chronic degeneration has become an acute crisis in the austerian aftermath of the credit crunch, in which previously dominant political parties have faced implosion – Pasok in Greece, Labour in Scotland, the Socialist Party in France, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in Ireland. The mirror of democracy cracked and warped, so that ‘the people’ indeed no longer recognised themselves in it. These are the conditions in which populist insurgencies are made. Populism seeks to summon an alliance of subaltern class elements, by flattering them as the virtuous ‘people’, and to unify and direct their lines of political force for a reorganisation of the existing power bloc. In doing so, it usually aims its fire as much at the ‘mainstream’ or ‘establishment’ media as at politicians, and derives a lot of its support from being castigated in that same media.

It is important to stress that populism aims not to overthrow the power bloc or the representative political system through which it is organised, but to change its composition and change its political character and to restore a lucid representative link. Thatcherism, for example, mobilised a form of reactionary populism behind a project designed to displace the old paternal elites of the civil service; to reorganise the state apparatuses on neoliberal lines; to break up the corporatist alliance between large industry, the state and the union bureaucracy; and to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of finance. That was a recomposition of the power bloc that could by no means be confused with its overthrow. Today, Sanders deploys a similar strategy from a social democratic perspective, seeking to convoke the ‘American people’ against the ‘billionaire class’, in a project designed to put manners on finance capital and empower industrial capital; introduce and augment elements of social democracy in the national state; temper its repressive apparatuses, particularly in their racialised capacity; and democratise the state in such a way that the representative link will be restored.

The fundamental weakness of populism, from a socialist perspective, is that to be an effective populist you have to work with the grain of popular prejudice. That gives you considerable latitude for interpretation, of course, but it is difficult to frontally attack popular prejudices if your discursive strategy depends on flattering the idea of a virtuous ‘people’ betrayed by a wicked ‘elite’. Another difficulty with populism is that in its goal of restoring the representative link, it does tend to function as what Lacan characterised as a ‘discourse of the hysteric’. That is, in assailing ‘the elite’ as a false master, it seeks a new, true master. It is, in other words, covertly a discourse of mastery. This accounts for the enhanced role of charismatic personalities with a ‘common touch’, able to ‘say what people are thinking’, in populist movements. This is obviously not all that is going on in populism, involvement in which can also organise people, give them confidence as political agents in their own right, raise their ‘class consciousness’, and challenge their prejudices. But it is assuredly a tendency at work in populist movements. In this sense, the Telegraph reactionaries are right to scoff at the idea of Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘populist’. He eschews the habits of charisma, and is admirably, boldly willing to tackle popular prejudice on immigration, welfare and a range of other subjects.

A sensible socialist approach to populism, I would suggest, would be both discriminate and appropriative. That is, it would not summarily dismiss all populisms as intrinsically and equally ‘problematic’, to use the net warrior phrase de nos jours, but it would seek to strategically intervene in them to further their democratising and radicalising dynamics. The Left should not simply assent to populism, even where it avoids the dangers mentioned above, because our goal is not to restore the representative link but to challenge the representative structures. But in recognising populism, not as a pathology or a deviation from class-enlightenment, but as a political situation, a moment availed by the crisis of parliamentary politics, we can intervene effectively in it.

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