04 November 2016

The borders of populism

For more than a century, populism has been a puzzle for the American left. For starters, there's the question of defining populism. Then there's the eternal hope of consolidating a movement of left-wing populism, though the hope itself is an admission that populism in raw form is not a phenomenon of the historic "left." In fact, one wonders whether "left-wing populism" would be a pointless redundancy, whether it wouldn't just be a more elaborate way of saying "left." In a recent issue of The Nation Jedediah Purdy reviews two of the latest efforts to define (if not also thereby to tame) populism. For John B. Judis populism treats "ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class [and] views their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic." A critic of neoliberalism, Judis credits 21st century populism with a legitimate grievance against Democrats as well as Republicans. He also distinguishes between "left-wing" and "right-wing" populism, the difference being that the left-wing version targets the economic elite exclusively, while the right-wing version, in Purdy's paraphrase, "often punches both up and down." It's most likely that willingness to "punch down" at the what Purdy calls "the disenfranchised" that makes this group "right-wing" in both Judis's and Purdy's eyes, though it's more likely that punching both up and down characterizes the mainstream of populism, to which any left variant is a wishful exception. The sort of populism that only punches up is the sort that arguably becomes redundant, not so much populist as just plain left. It's probably more plausible to speak of a "populist left" than of "left-wing populism. Jan-Werner Muller seems to see populism as implicitly "right" in what he perceives as its definitive hostility to pluralism. For Muller, populists are those who "claim that they, and they alone, represent the people." You could probably simplify that to a claim that they, and they alone, are the people. In his hostile account, to the extent that populism rejects pluralism it represents a "degraded form of democracy" in which not all people are equal. He sees 21st century populism as a backlash against "identity politics" that "predominate" in some suspect way and thus incurs some criticism from Purdy, who writes that "A lot of what we call 'identity politics' is about basic forms of civic respect [or] the most basic protection from bigotry." Purdy seems less concerned overall about cultural politics, however, then he is about the challenge of globalization, and on that subject he emerges as a sharp critic of would-be left-wing populists who see no need for borders and the protections they provide ordinary people. So long as "market-oriented economic integration" outruns democratic control, unconditional "openness" to the global economy." Purdy believes that you can take a "populist" stance against free trade without sacrificing your "social-democratic" credentials. If anything, protectionism is imperative for social democrats.

The difficult and unpleasant fact is that to be for social-democratic policies today means also being for borders, for a line demarcating who is in and who is out, and for limits on the mobility of labor. Economic policies are partly the product of a peace pact between classes and between capital and labor, especially over questions such as mobility and borders. Any egalitarian economy will come under stress when capital is free to leave and labor is free to enter....Those who want to combine economic democracy with cosmopolitan moral concern, personal freedom of movement and an egalitarian social order must face a tough set of questions with no easy answers in sight. Democracy remains caught within borders, and the power of democratic politics to shape and discipline the economy will only grow weaker without some geographical and economic boundaries being drawn.

If the left wants a truly open world, Purdy argues, it must concentrate on "developing the kinds of internationalism that might eventually allow political accountability to keep pace with globalization." Until then, those countries where labor is in a relatively good position have to defend their position against the global market. Such a defense, apparently, is a legitimate expression of populism and, in Purdy's account, a pragmatic form of leftism to which much of the left seems blind. That may be because the left tends to see itself in global terms as the party of "humanity," with the world's poorest, those most in need of opportunity and enrichment, as their objects of first concern. Leftism tends to assume the poor are always right, while populism, as noted, makes no such assumption. Ironically, that assumption may be the most populist thing about the modern left, depending on your perspective.

There's something conservative about populism that emerges when you compare it with what may be its antithesis, the progressive movement. You could argue that populists and progressives are the shadow parties that have flourished in the U.S. since the end of the 19th century, always courted by both Republicans and Democrats, both right and left. Theirs are contradictory impulses. Populists don't exactly reject the idea of progress in the simplest sense of an ever-better life for all, but while true progressives will preach that true progress requires everyone to change, populists often resist that they have to change in some profound way for life to be better. Their conviction is that they're already doing the right thing, and that the problem is with other people, both above and below them, who refuse to play by the same rules as The People, who themselves often prefer not to question those rules. Modern leftists are often labeled progressives, but many reject the old progressive imperative for change if it means conforming to unquestioned traditional majority values. They prefer to say that it's those who uphold and enforce those values unquestioningly who need to change. This is a departure from the old hardcore Bolshevik left that had little patience for either tradition or pluralism. They were the progressives par excellence since their goal was the creation of a New Man independent of traditions, but the perceived arrogance of their ambition came into disrepute in the days of Stalin and Mao. Those oldschool commies would sneer at a progressivism that demands only that people grow infinitely more tolerant of each other in all our idiosyncracies and worse. But in the absence of Marxism's guiding vision, those who still believe in a profound sort of progress sense may see it necessary to place their bets on one civilization knocking off all the others, instead of a new civilization conquering all. They could be the cultural equivalents of the "social democratic" economic populists Purdy defends. It probably shouldn't surprise us to see cultural chauvinism make a comeback in an unstably globalizing world, just as economic populism has. It may make leftists and other progressives uncomfortable, but so long as it behaves itself it would be wise for leftists to find ways to accommodate it while still striving to make a better world for everyone, if only within one set of borders at a time.

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