Populism

Guy Yasko guyy at aqu.bekkoame.or.jp
Fri Feb 17 21:03:53 MST 1995


The recent comment on the possibilities of viewing populism as a sort of
Turnerian anti-structure, potentially useful for the Marxist
project brings to mind a number of objections and thoughts on populism.

First, haven't we been through structural Marxism already?  Granted it
didn't have much  a  populist cache, but I suspect that the mere introduction of
populist folksiness would do little to satisfy its critics.   Secondly, even if
Marxism had not experienced Althusser (or here in Japan, Hiromatsu -- I think
there are translations in French and German, but none in English), structural
populism would still remain vulnerable to very old questions.  For example,
how far would such anti-structural populism take us from the current regime?
Even if structuralism maintains a center outside or above the structure, anti-
structure for example, the entire system remains no less centered. The centered
nature of structure plays a role in limiting the play of the structure.  Without
pushing the structure of capitalist society -- and necessarily, our
consciousness of it as structure -- off its axis, it would seem difficult to
break out of the capitalist game.

In recent comments populists have ignored the issue of the formation of the
popular.  Unless one understands how the popular comes into being and changes
the production of the popular, one is stuck with the problems Doug Henwood has
identified with populism: small town reaction, racism, anti-intellectualism, ad
nauseum.  According to the populists, Marxists and Marxism have become alienated
from what they construct as a font of authenticity, and urge a reunification
between the two.  But do not Marxists labour?  Do they not buy?  Why is a
Marxist not "the people?"  That Marxists have become a priori inauthentic points
to the ideological production of "the people" and "the popular."  Under the
current production  of the popular as a source of authenticity, Marxists (and
not just Marxists, but any critical project.) find themselves in a double bind.
Excluded from the outset from "the popular," Marxists are told to return to the
people, but as Marxists, this is impossible; witness the special revulsion for
proletarian literature.

Marxists have two choices: to attempt on their own to change the popular, or to
foster a self-transformation of the people.  The first corresponds to a seizure
of what Althusser called the Ideological State Apparatus: schools, mass media,
the family, etc.  Of course, that we conceive of the project in Althusserian
terms indicates severe limitations.  Such a project would come encumbered with
the major flaw of the current populism, its profoundly undemocratic and un-
popular nature.  Moreover, it is quite likely that Marxists would find
themselves seized by the very structures they hoped to conquer.  In other words,
by engaging in the same manipulative, undemocratic social practice of Hollywood,
Madison Avenue and Nashville, Marxists would end up little different from
today's bosses.  The second option preserves a sort of populism at the expense
(?) of destroying what is now constructed as "popular." In that today's
populists urge a return to the people as they are -- in other words, as they are
constructed by capitalist ideology -- they are not populist in the least, for
such populism ultimately serves to keep the people in their place.  In that they
aim to smash current exploitative relations of production and culture and place
them in the hands of the people, Marxists should feel no need to turn populist.
After all, as Marxists, they are already more populist than the Populists.






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