May 5, 2022
The socialist left’s sporadic successes in recent years have correlated with its being prepared to ride the wave of anti-systemic populism. Its failures, meanwhile, have usually followed instances of giving in to establishment pressure to defend the status quo against populist incursions. The Bernie movement was hurt by its flirtations with #Russiagate anti-Trumpism ahead of the 2020 primary and obliterated as an autonomous force when it threw itself behind Biden in the presidential election. The disaster of Corbyn’s Remain-ward drift over Europe is well-rehearsed. After these Anglophone catastrophes, Mélenchon was wise to refuse to endorse Macron against Le Pen, and to uphold his condemnation of both.
Yet to make such observations is usually to be met with the objection that any attempts to associate socialism with populism are at best an opportunistic obfuscation. To go along with populism’s framing where ‘the people’ are pitted against ‘the elites’ may at times be ‘good enough in practice’ (enough to create surprising electoral over-performances such as Corbyn’s in 2017) but it is not, as Slavoj Žižek puts it, ‘good enough in theory’. To imagine ‘the people’ as, in contradistinction to the wicked elites, a materially and morally coherent entity untroubled by conflicting interests, is in the long run fascistic, since it necessarily requires one to project all real-life tensions within ‘the people’ onto imagined external enemies instead.
Rather than defending left populism against this charge (I have done so elsewhere, and – honestly – how much left populism is there left to defend?), it would be better to respond by turning this critique onto what is probably a more prevalent self-sabotaging habit of thought on the left today: anti-populism. If populism stands accused of essentializing a coherent ‘people’ it presumes to be tendentially good, anti-populism is the habit of tacitly assuming a coherent ‘people’ who are tendentially bad, reactionary, or idiotic. If the first is an obfuscation, then so is the second. Yet as much handwringing and debate as ‘left populism’ has prompted over the past decade, left anti-populism has less often even been named.
The most fascinating origin story for anti-populism on the left appears in Thomas Frank’s 2020 book, The People, No. For Frank, the mistrust of the rabble of ordinary folk that characterized right-wing responses to the original 19th century Populist Party and the New Deal in the first half of the 20th century was thereafter strangely transferred onto the left. The first stage of this transition came in the 1950s, with the left’s justified horror at the popularity of Senator McCarthy’s demotic anti-leftism. The second stage was the ’60s New Left’s eagerness to discover the subject of emancipation almost anywhere other than in average blue-collar workers, who they imagined to be – as one representative document had it – ‘tight-lipped, tense, crew cut, correctly dressed, church-going’ with ‘an American flag on his car window’ and ‘a hostile eye for communists, youth, and blacks’.
Today we too often find the tacit anti-populist assumption of such a ‘people supposed to be reactionary’ in the responses leftists have had to successive crises. The COVID-19 pandemic and the socialist left’s tendency to demand ever more extreme restrictions from governments is an unavoidable egregious example. Lockdowns, at least initially, were broadly popular, and vaccine uptake has been enormous across the rich world, so I do not mean to suggest that there is anything laudably populist about opposing COVID restrictions in itself. Rather, it is the concerted anti-populism of the messaging around many of these restrictions – undertaken with the left’s almost uncritical support – that warrants interrogation.
Take the difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2020 and 2021. The common agreement in the first (pre-vaccine) holiday period was that the decent thing was that we all avoid meeting in person, lest ‘we kill Grandma’. Many more of us now are skeptical that this was ever the right decision, but the real shock comes in comparison with the widespread messaging a year later. In the holiday period 2021, the demand was now specifically for unvaccinated family members to stay away, lest ‘you kill grandma’. The universalism of the first demand had revealed its anti-populist sadism against ignorant chuds in the second. The Biden Administration’s then-habitual references to COVID being a ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’ underlined the way the disease was shifting from being a tragedy that has befallen all of us, to being the fault specifically of reactionary parts of the ‘people’.
The original rationale for lockdowns was conducted on similarly anti-populist lines. As the epidemiologist, Mark Woodhouse’s recent memoir notes, the death count predictions that pushed Britain into lockdown in March 2020 were based on comparing the lockdown scenario with one in which no measures were introduced and nobody changed their behavior in any way whatsoever. Officials were presented with a cho