The Populist Trick

pop·u·lism /ˈpäpyəˌlizəm/ — a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.

The term has only existed for around 150 years, and in that time, “populism” has changed meanings. Even today, context alters what people mean when they say it, but our concern here today is how the word is being used in civil society discourse by the liberal retainer class.

As preface, we may need a side trip into language as a species of power. The Trinidadian radical C.L.R. James, author of The Black Jacobins (a history of the Haitian Revolution), once quipped that, “In politics all abstract terms conceal treachery.” What does that mean?

First, let’s put abstraction together with another word, encompassment. The following is an excerpt from Mammon’s Ecology, a book I had published last year on money as an ecological phenomenon.

<<Abstraction can be understood as folding something into something bigger, or encompassing. You, the individually unique person named Janie in Oakland with her two kids and a job at the dentist’s office, might also be an American — but there are many Americans who are not Janie, a female — and there are many females who are not Janie, an African American — and there are many African Americans who are not Janie. Any of those latter categories wraps around the personhood of Janie and submerges it into a more abstract category. As a human, Janie is a member of a species, yet more abstraction — more encompassment. As a Homo sapiens, Janie is of the Family of Hominoidea, the Order of Primates, the class of Mammals, the Phylum of chordata, the Kingdom of animalia, and then within the overall category life. Each stage in this taxonomy further abstracts Janie or encompasses [mentally captures] Janie.

The “biosphere” to which we have referred and of which we are a part is an abstraction that encompasses unimaginable local complexity in every continent and ocean, every region, every watershed, every field and pond and town, even every unique inch of soil.

Abstraction is a trade-off. We get more clarity about what differentiates a category from everything apart from it, or conversely we demonstrate what joins more than one thing into a greater whole. Janie’s American citizenship qualifies her to vote, for example; and Janie’s status as an African American in a racialized culture creates a kind of solidarity — a political identity — with other African Americans that may influence if and for whom she votes. But we also conceal/erase the differences between everything captured inside the abstraction. Janie can interpret her status as a mammal in ways that are helpful, for example, in determining certain valid medical generalizations. On the other hand, her status as a mammal does little to resolve her conflict with an insurance company, or help her figure out what to do with her visiting grandmother, or which movie she and her husband want to watch with the kids on Friday night.

The real danger of abstraction is that it can lead to lazy thinking in the guise of serious thinking, or worse, self-deception. Janie herself cannot be boiled down to any of those encompassing categories, nor is it advisable to uncritically project group characteristics on her. Janie is one generation from a Louisiana creole family that lived near the coast, for example, and so she can catch and clean fish unlike many other females, she speaks a second language unlike many Americans, and she is Catholic unlike most African Americans.

Every social theory trades in abstractions, because these theories are concerned with humans as organized aggregates, not simply as singular persons. This is helpful as long as we don’t begin to impose the abstractions back onto the specific persons; and the way we do that is by shifting focus back and forth between the abstract and the concrete — called a dialectical (two-sided) approach — to make sure these two domains continue to agree, that the abstract and concrete constantly correspond to each other. We say something about women, then something about Janie, then we see if these two statements agree. When they don’t agree, this contradiction is telling us there is something faulty about our assumptions or methods, or that we need to further specify our claims. There are sometimes exceptions that do not totally disprove the rule; but they do preclude us claiming the rule is absolute. If I say, “all generalizations are false, including this one,” then I need to revise my statement to, “Most generalizations are false.”>>

When I wrote, “The real danger of abstraction is that it can lead to lazy thinking in the guise of serious thinking, or worse, self-deception,” I was emphasizing to the reader how abstraction can lead to self-deception, but here I need to add, abstraction is always part of intentional political deception, which is what C.L.R. James was driving at, too.

By submerging two or more distinct things into the same category — by abstracting them — we can also erase critical differences; and this is exactly what the mavens of MSNBC, CNN, and the New York Times are doing when their “experts” and talking heads call out “populism,” which they have already applied to both Bernie Sanders and the social democratic upsurge as well as Donald Trump and his Cult of Unapologetic White Stupidity.

They are combining two threats to ruling class power — which they exist to serve — the quasi-fascist threat to ruling class legitimacy (combined with incompetence in this case), and the re-emergence of socialist politics as a real force in American society. Populism is their corral, and they drive both tendencies inside as captives.

The language encompasses, then valorizes the category “populist,” from a bird’s eye view that only sees their similarities. And yet they know perfectly well that this is a superficial category, one that would stand no scrutiny beyond itself. The intent of this term and its (fuzzy to most of us) meaning is to conjure up fearsome images of mobs. This whole notion drips with ruling class bias — their perennial fear of the Great Unwashed.

The truth of the matter is, there is far greater distance in political substance between a Sanders and a Trump than there is between Trump and the centrist establishment that peddles this babosadas. The Trump Cult is highly militaristic, devoted to white male supremacy, committed to unfettered capitalism, and skeptical-to-delusional about environmental concerns . . . to name a few. The social democrats are skeptical to antagonistic about militarism, opposed to patriarchy and racism, skeptical-to-antagonistic to capitalism, and in a near panic about a very real environmental Armageddon unfolding around us.

The populist trick of conflating left and right this way tries to minimize these differences in order to emphasize how all “political approaches that strive to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups” are inherently dangerous.

Safety, then, is the status quo, the center — as far as we can get away from these two “extremes.” I don’t want mob rule, so I need to cling to the pantlegs of the technocratic rule of establishment Democrats for protection. They have all the experts . . . I can leave the thinking to them. And they sound nicer than those other guys.

The whole way the discourse of populism is set up by bourgeois civil society is to arrange the pieces in precisely this way. Two extremes (now conflated as the same thing) with a safe zone down the center.

In reality, of course, the left wing actually is aiming to curtail the power of the rich; and fascist movements always re-secure ruling class power on a more authoritarian basis, only with an extra helping of ethno-nationalism and male entitlement. Would it be impolitic to point out that most of what the so-called “left populists” are saying is true, and most of what the “right populists” thrive on is a pathogenic mixture of pseudo-science, whackadoodle conspiracy theories, race and gender baiting, and . . . well, lies . . . mountains of lies.

“No matter. They are all populists. A pox on both their houses. Give me a Clinton, fast. I am so afraid.”

Expect to see this a lot in coming months. There are reasons for the right-left polarization, which are beyond the scope of this piece, but those too are concealed in all the theatrical hand-wringing about populism — a strategy of misdirection brought to you by “the liberal media.”





Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”

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Stan Goff

Stan Goff

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”

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