Neo-Populism?

Jon Beasley-Murray jpb8 at acpub.duke.edu
Fri Feb 10 10:46:52 MST 1995


In the discussion of populism we've managed to produce lengthy but fairly
abstruse discussions of the Russian peasantry or Peronism (which is
important, I think), but next to nothing on the original topic, raised by
Doug Henwood, specifically about current populism in the US.

I think Reagan and Gingrich-ism can legitimately be called populism (but
let us call it neo-populism just to be safe) and I have been wondering
what I mean by that.  Here follows something like a definition.

I suspect that populism is the articulation of a class politics
subordinated to a larger unity (or totality).  The conditions of its
success are the decay of a previous totalizing construct (which may well
have been able to negate class difference) and its ability to produce a
class fraction that materially can benefit from the shift, which it may
well later pass for universal.

I was going to extend that definition, but it seems good, if loose, as it
is.  It also highlights the similarities between populism and
movements for national democracy and liberation (Chris' point).  On the
other hand, it may mean nothing to anyone.

Some thoughts, though:

What seems clear to me with Thatcher, Gingrich, Peron... is their class
consciousness.  In general populism seems to break liberal consensus
models of equality etc. by attacking perceived "elites" (big business, as
Doug originally mentioned, but also university elites, agrarian elites,
cultural elites etc.).  The fact that much of this has been done on the
cultural sphere in both Britain and the US is clear.  Traditions and
institutions that were traditionally regarded as unifying and
homogenizing (from the BBC to the Anglican Church; or the National Parks
to the Education System) are now "demystified" as serving vested, elite,
interests.

But populist movements articulate such class consciousness in the service
of a new totality--the nation, race, people.  Here are connections to
national democratic movmenents, but I'm not sure what to say about that
(perhaps, with Laclau, that populism is itself ideologically neutral, but
I tend to disagree with that).  Anyhow, certainly with populism, this new
totality performs its own exclusions, new sets of people now elided from
the polity (from welfare mothers to illegal immigrants to union
organizers) but these exclusions can be presented as *not* predicated
upon class.

I dunno.... gotta run right now.

Does this make any sense to anyone?

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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