The left in the labyrinth of populism

Terry Winters, Untitled, 1994


Populism does have a strategy to radicalize democracy

The motley crowd and the mass

For Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in Crowd: Government and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Record), the concept of multitude describes a set “formed by all those who work under the dominion of capital” and constitute themselves “potentially as the class of those who refuse the dominion of capital”. Multiple, crossed by a veritable kaleidoscope of subjectivities and pluralities, the crowd would not be equivalent to a homogeneous grouping, like the mass in Gustave Le Bon. Heterogeneous, it would point to the “real democracy of the government, based on relations of equality and freedom”.

Ambition is not lacking in the authors. “The concept of multitude intends to re-propose the political project of class struggle launched by Marx”. In the place previously destined for the proletariat, the new demiurge would encompass rural and urban workers, the unemployed, environmental movements, blacks, feminists, LGBTQIA+. The dispersion of decisions on social networks would annul the messianic construct of the social class organized in a centralized political party, ideologically, for the seizure of state power.

“Political action aimed at transformation and liberation can only be conducted today on the basis of the multitude”. Autonomism / spontaneity of conception (ops) discredits the organization's role in gait of emancipation. The emphasis is on social movements. The merit of the work resides in emphasizing the importance of the “common” – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the climate in which we live, the streets we walk through. Sharing, which is not to be confused with the public, is unity in diversity.

Composed of militants, artists, researchers, popular pre-university students, the transnational Rede Universidade Nômade (UNINÔMADE) would illustrate the “global resistance”. The “Empire”, conceived as the cloud in which local governments do not hold power, would replace the limited architecture of “imperialism”. The booklet (532 pages) presents intriguing and obscure aspects. It provokes, but fails to convince.

The primordial book on human agglomerations is found in The Lonely Crowd (Perspectiva), by David Riesman, who describes three moments of culture: a) an old time, governed by established traditions and customs; b) modern, driven by the project of individual and social change and; c) contemporary, defined by the identities recognized by the multitude. The current stage is exemplified with young people who shape their opinion about themselves with their friends, more decisive for self-esteem than the judgment of their parents. If he were alive, Riesman would quote the influencers No. You Tube, Instagram ou TikTok. Hardt and Negri transposed the sociologist's considerations to the political level.


Populisms and the struggle for the people

In Latin America and Brazil, as a bad language, the pejorative expression populism was inaugurated by the military coup that led to stardom Vargas (Brazil, 1930) and Peron (Argentina, 1943), landmarks of the direct relationship between rulers and ruled without mediation. At the present time, points out Professor at the University of Sydney, Simon Tormey, in Populism: A Brief Introduction (Cultrix), the term understands the centrality of the people as subjects of history, on the podium once occupied by ethnic-racial groups, social classes and nations. “The characteristic feature of populist movements and parties is the propensity to divide society into two antagonistic groups: the people, on the one hand, and the elites, on the other. For some critics, like Ernesto Laclau, it is what differentiates populism from other styles of politics”.

The people would be “morally pure and fully united”, a fiction. The elites, “morally inferior and corrupt”, a caricature. Instead of distinguishing between elites economical (big companies, financial markets) and the elites policies (leaders of political parties, holders of ministerial positions), populism makes a diffuse reduction of elitists, as opposed to the mythification of the populace. In the labyrinth, utopia looks for Ariadne's thread (logic). As in frevo, “a blind eye wanders looking for one”. Depending on the occasion, dissatisfactions are channeled to the allegories of the Centrão, the Federal Supreme Court (STF), governors and mayors (sic).

Vague terminology invokes elites. Now with the term of the English, establishment, which in origin went back to the alliance between the urban bourgeoisie and the British landed gentry. With the name bequeathed by North American functionalist sociology, social system (system, in short), which involves individuals, social groups and institutions. Instances with normative attributions to enable “accumulation by dispossession, with concentration of wealth and power”, in David Harvey's formulation.

This includes authorities that impose conduct. Elites (“ruling classes”) thrive in the web of social structures, loci tensions and crises that fuel populism's chances of success. This would lead to convulsion what post-modernism sent to destruction, by decreeing the end of the subject of history. “Their instinct is to manipulate, suppress, persuade and intimidate independent institutions and civil society”, for the protection of their neighbors (family). Parties are mere disposable props.

The binomial “us” and “them” simplifies conflicts and exacerbates repeated persecutory delusions. To the point of ignoring science in the pandemic with denialism and torturing the facts so that they confess agreement with their beliefs and oddities. “In the absence of crises, the system can revert to its usual prosaic character, with citizens choosing who should represent them from the menu usual”, ponders Tormey.


The dispute today between the people and the elites

For Chantal Mouffe, in For a Left Populism (Literary Autonomy), the populist turn implies “a discursive strategy, dividing society into two camps and calling for the mobilization of the 'excluded' against those in power”. New forms of subordination emerged in neoliberal capitalism, outside the circuits of production and supercommodification. “The defense of the environment, struggles against sexism, racism and other forms of domination – became central. Now, the political frontier needs to be built in a transversal 'populist' way”.

Here's the Machiavellian verità effettuale della thing. The People's Dispute vs. elites requires “a left-wing populism” to mobilize the “affective dimension of people” towards an emotive praxis that does not allow itself to be imprisoned in “rationalism”. A policy that overcomes the barrier of stigmatization of pacts, individualization due to the discredit of collective calls and the collapse of institutional intermediations. In a word, that overcomes “post-democracy”: the label designed to explain the emptying of the ethos process of sociability in the 1980s and 90s, due to the acceptance of neoliberalism that painted left and right with shades of gunmetal gray.

In Europe, after consecutive elections won by Margaret Thatcher with the program of deregulations, privatizations and austerity – the feeling spread that there was no alternative (“Theres no alternatives”) to neoliberal ideals. Ideologies faded. Politics distanced itself from the vocation for dissent. Globalization has made a clean slate of popular sovereignty. Nothing to keep the Thatcherist thinker, Hayek, up at night, who subordinated democracy to individual freedom: to the free market and private property in place of equality. He slept and dreamed of goods. To save the capitalist mode of production, he did not hesitate to shoot liberal institutions.

Democracy, whose archetypal framework no longer contemplates the needs of the people, has contributed to the erosion of political parties. Block criticism of the system increased ratings in Austria, Switzerland, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland. The extreme right presented itself as the (pseudo) way out. The anti-democratic nature of neoliberalism, supported by the authoritarianism of neoconservatives, served as a handrail to ultra-rightist narratives. But it's not a destination. Churchill, who defended the fiscal restraint left over from the Great War, lost the elections to the Labor unknown who postulated the Welfare State with a more egalitarian and redistributive ethic.

For the icon of classical liberalism, Alexis de Tocqueville, in La Démocratie en Amérique (Flammarion) the “passion for equality” is inherent to modernity: “It is impossible not to believe that equality will not penetrate the political world as it does in other domains”. The supposed “populist moment” in the rise of humanity materializes this genial intuition, by stirring up cultural discontent with the real or imaginary threat to the customary patriarchal (sexist) and colonialist (racist) identity.


For a radicalization of democracy

The CEO of Pyxys Intelligence Digital, Andrés Bruzzone, in Cyberpopulism: Politics and Digital Democracy (Ed. Contexto), seeks to decipher the encounter between political persuasion techniques and advanced communication technologies. It highlights the similarity between the populist and neo-fascist postures. And he shoots: “Populism is, in addition to a form of reporting, a way of approaching politics with an essentially anti-democratic matrix. Its opposites are republicanism and pluralism.” Very calm at this time.

The reasoning is valid for the extreme right, not for the aspects of the political spectrum that guarantee republicanism an egalitarian content in the arch of civil rights and, for pluralism, respect for the exercise of freedom with new forms of participation to give voice to the silenced. If it is not an adherence to the horizontalization of power, on the other hand it is not an acceptance of the current feature of representative democracy.

The important thing is that populism does have a strategy to radicalize democracy: a) based on the distinction between antagonism (friend-enemy relationship) and agonism (relationship between adversaries) and; b) with the ideal announced by Abraham Lincoln – a “government of the people, by the people and for the people".

Regarding the shortcomings of the caudillo-type leader in the populist proposal, this is an evil for which there is an antivirus. The leader needs to be a primus inter pares. Without eliminating the inevitable non-rationalist affections in the bonds crystallized in the process. With the discounts, Bruzzone's study on the responsibility of cyberpopulism for the propagation of fake news and blatant polarizations on social media – is a timely wake-up call. A post truth it is the ground of obscurantism. Steve Bannon explored the manipulation, without scruples, and placed in the White House and in the Planalto Palace children of Echidna (Mother of Monsters, in Greek mythology). One more bizarre, sinister and bestial than the other.

In the US, right-wing populism has engaged absenteeism. Those who did not vote in the elections began to vote. The rebirth of politics took place with the devastating crisis of 2008, which led the middle class to impoverishment and precariousness. The evident contrast with the privileges of the elites generated the revolt capitalized later by Trump. Even preserving the institutions of representation, neoliberalism allied with meritocracy eroded democratic aspirations for endless decades, so that democracy ceased to be experienced as a condition sine qua non to the qualification of the lives of individuals and families. Untrustworthy, he made himself a bridge to hell.


Problem of left populism

The problem of left-wing populism lies in the minimization of social classes, unions by categories and union centrals in the class struggle. Such organisms disappeared in the trawl of non-unified cooperative singularities. In the pandemic landscape of neoliberal capitalism, the appreciation of social movements that intertwine identityism should not be a “Sophie's choice”. The fighters and their organizational devices bring latent in their memory the atavistic anti-employer potential.

The establishment in society of the binomial authoritarianism / neoliberalism pays a toll to the extermination of the future. Not to mention that populism, adept at the “war of movement” (epic, Hollywoodian), is the bearer of an ideology weak close to the theoretical-practical accumulation of democratic socialism, adept at the “war of position” (methodical, everyday). Furthermore. it is a phenomenon born in the depths of cyberspace with the extreme right in the role of midwife, assisted by people alien to political militancy and accustomed to digital communication. It's not a seductive or pedagogical environment, that's for sure.

The obstacles facing civilization are enormous. They cannot be defeated within the framework of the national State. Globalized neoliberalism presupposes globalized alternatives. Olavo de Carvalho, the guru, was aware of the populist moment when he stigmatized the exchange of experiences in the Latin American and Caribbean popular-democratic field, in the hated Forum of São Paulo. He did not do the same with the international articulations of the Barra da Tijuca clan. He could have aimed World Economic Forum, from Davos.

 The resilience that inspires solidarity actions also echoes the revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, of August 26, 1789, which continues to shed light on civilizational battles against inequalities: “ignorance, forgetfulness or contempt for human rights (human being, in correct grammar) are the sole causes of public ills and the corruption of governments.” There is hope.

The crisis of the neoliberal paradigm is the password for the offensive in the main ongoing social struggle. Both the regressive responses and the emancipatory responses to the crisis reject neoliberal common sense, on a planetary scale. The Bolsonaro misgovernment is an exception permeated by contradictions, incompetence and casuistry that allow us to glimpse the apocalypse and the prayers of salvation as signs of lukewarmness, not vitality.


Not to say that I didn't mention the flowers

Base instincts jumped out of the sewer given the frustration of expectations for improvements, with the economic crisis that pushed a progressive government to budget restraint. Had it been a populist, rather than popular, governance – it would have restricted republicanism and pluralism, with a police veto and material for the circulation of opinions and different views on the direction of the economy, freedom, equality and justice.

But he did not encourage his followers to make aggressive gestures against the status quo Although the evocation of the people did not signify a populist attestation, per se, avoided accusing the current institutions of executing the “Will of the People”, even in the face of the imminence of the impeachment, with the ban by the STF on the possession of charismatic leadership in the Civil House trench. The rules of the game were followed, despite discretion.

Learning about the right to have rights was suspended for tax reasons by the State, without society metabolizing the reasons of the dialectic in the revenues and expenses of the treasury. In the absence of political-participatory sociability to deconstruct the secrets of power and raise the awareness of the commons – resentment surfaced. Subsequently, the Brazilian economic-financial, political, judicial, military and media elites opted for the habitus scammer. 2016 was vindictive and decorative. 2018, premonitory and tragic. May in 2022 the country rediscover the path of dignity. Without fear of being happy.

* Luiz Marques is a professor of political science at UFRGS. He was Rio Grande do Sul's state secretary of culture in the Olívio Dutra government.


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