populism

Jon Beasley-Murray jpb8 at acpub.duke.edu
Wed Feb 1 20:20:14 MST 1995


On Tue, 31 Jan 1995, Doug Henwood wrote:

> An interesting theoretical issue: the American populist right shares a lot
> with European fascist thinking, especially on "cultural" issues (religion,
> family values, hatred of fancy art, reflexive patriotism), but, aside from
> its worship of cops and the military, it is far more hostile to the state
> (and other collective entities) and far more friendly to the market. What's
> all that mean?

I'd love to hear people's thoughts on populism.  Right now I'm attempting
to think through Peronism (another conundrum--Peron practically created
the working class, the unions were consistently behind him, and the
Peronist coalition certainly included leftists and revolutionaries, but
at the end of the day one would be hard-pressed to say that Peronism was
anything but a bad thing; in the middle of the day, however, no one
seemed sure--as was evident by the vacillations of Cuba towards Peron and
the incomprehension of the rest of the Latin American left).

Peronism is a counter-example to Doug's stress on populism being
pro-small business, by the way.

A classic text on populism (which usefully surveys other positions too)
is Laclau (while still a Marxist, by the way) in _Politics and Ideology
in Marxist Theory_.  His broad conclusions are that there can be a
populism of the dominated as well as a populism of the dominant, and that
ideally socialism should be populist also, in that it is the complete
antagonism between the people and the state:

"Therefore, the only social sector which can aspire to the full
development of 'the people'/power bloc contradiction, that is to say, *to
the highest and most radical form of populism*, is that whose *class
interests* lead it to the suppression of the sate as an atagonistic
force.  *In socialism, therefore, coincide the highest form of 'populism'
and the resolution of the ultimate and most radical of class conflicts*."
(196)

Laclau also has a chapter on fascism, but I haven't read that for a long
while, so can't summarize.

Meanwhile, I think it is at the least tendentious to say that fascism was
anti-state--though Alice Kaplan's _Reproductions of Banality_ usefully
periodizes fascism into a first "revolutionary" moment and a second
statist one--nor is it a given that US populism is anti-state, either.
Perhaps rather one could say that the domain of the US neoliberal state
has moved from economics/politics to morals (family values,
censorship...).  This is at least part of the argument of Hardt and
Negri's _Labor of Dionysus_.

Anyhow, I think the issue of popularism is crucial, especially for a
theory of ideology--and a concomitant political practice--that is not
content merely with "false consciousness" or "manipulation" theses.  A
question for Louis, here: how can one make Marxism "popular" without an
analysis of why the most reactionary movements can be the most popular of
all?

> Doug

Take care

Jon

Jon Beasley-Murray
Literature Program
Duke University
jpb8 at acpub.duke.edu
http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/~spoons

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