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For Anti-Anti-Populism

James A Smith

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 choice, in other words, between suspending freedom of movement and assembly altogether, and the idiot ‘people’ continuing to blunder around coughing on each other unchecked. Of course, this was a perfectly false assumption on the part of the modelers. Woodhouse notes that mobile phone data in the weeks between the disease’s outbreak and the imposition of lockdown shows people spontaneously taking considerable wise precautions of their own. It is tempting to say that the vast harms caused by state-mandated lockdowns were in this regard the product of ‘institutional anti-populism’.

Of course, these examples are not unique to the socialist left, and are reflective of the liberal/professional class reaction to the pandemic in general. But as I pointed out in Jacobin last autumn, in Britain at least, it is untrue to claim that on COVID, as on Brexit, the left simply followed the libs to disaster. Rather, organization for an even more extreme ‘zero COVID’ strategy has almost entirely been the preserve of the socialist left. When resistance to extreme COVID measures did emerge – such as in the Canadian Truckers convoy earlier this year – socialist commentators on both sides of the Atlantic were more invested in digging up dirt on the drivers than in wondering whether their demands are right.

For a more complicated and more current example of the dynamics of left anti-populism, we can take Florida’s ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill, signed in early 2022. The law has been seen as using ‘Libs of TikTok’-style examples of educators going to wacky lengths to promote niche gender theories as a wedge to criminalize any acknowledgment of non-heterosexual and cisgender identities in schools. Even commentators that share some of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill’s anti-trans agenda have disowned it for encouraging frivolous litigation against teachers. Perhaps more than any other issue, the millennial left is – for better or worse – Pavlovian in taking the most pro-trans side in almost any argument, so it is unsurprising that they have recognized the most regressive face of populism in the bill’s invocation of effeminate elites promoting the ‘grooming’ of innocent children.

Yet conversely, the bill contains its own well-placed triggers for left anti-populism. The Republicans’ focus on banning schools from recognizing and cultivating students’ non-cis/heteronormative gender identities without informing the child’s parents seems custom-designed for this purpose. Knee-jerk attacks on this ban from the left are well-meaning in their urge to defend the ability of gender-nonconforming children to flourish in school in ways some cannot at home. Yet the anti-populist dimension becomes visible when we note how the scenario described dispenses with any ambition that ‘ordinary’ parents could be brought around or convinced to listen to and support their children. Parents are instead the ‘subject supposed to be reactionary’, the ‘tight-lipped, tense, crew cut’ of old, and are discounted from the start in favor of the education system’s respectable professionals.

It would be absurd, of course, to characterize underpaid state school teachers as elites. But the left’s intuitive preference for the assumed expertise of progressive teachers against the assumed reactionary ignorance of parents does surreptitiously repeat the current anti-populist logic of genuine elites. Supreme Court nominee Kentaji Brown Jackson was mocked last month for avoiding the question ‘what is a woman’ with her reply, ‘I’m not a biologist’. Wherever one stands on questions of trans identity, the answer to that question cannot be the preserve of some imagined caste of qualified experts (especially not experts who are always mysteriously out of the room when an answer is demanded!). Liberation comes when people are convinced of its truth in their own language: not by narrowing the pool of those with the credentials to comment while turning apparently simple questions into Mad Hatter riddles in the eyes of everyone else.

Much as the left’s ‘zero COVID’ campaigners for greater restrictions are unconsciously in cahoots with the government scientists who assumed no one would even wash their hands unless mandated to do so; so the leftists immediately siding with imagined teachers against imagined parents repeat the logic of a jurist who thinks you need a Ph.D. in biology to attempt to comment on what a woman is. All this is not to say that the left should rush the other way and follow the card-carrying right-wing populists’ positions on such crisis cultural issues. Rather it needs to learn to spot the bad habits of anti-populism within itself, and to produce responses to conflicts between liberals and the right that don’t depend on it. Unlike populism, anti-populism may be wrong in theory, but it is also wrong in practice. Today, it is not enough for the left to merely be populist. It must be anti-anti-populist.

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