Let’s take an (artificially) clear-cut case. Imagine a democracy, in which a large majority of voters succumb to the anti-immigrant populist propaganda and decide in a referendum to close borders to the refugees and make life more difficult for those who already are within a country. Imagine, next, a country, where, despite such propaganda, voters assert in a referendum their commitment to solidarity and their will to help the refugees.

The difference is not just objective, i.e., it is not just that, in one case, voters made a reactionary racist decision and, in the other case, they made the right choice of solidarity. The difference is also “subjective” in the precise sense that a different type of political passion is at work in each of the two cases. One should not, however, be afraid to posit that, in the first case, no matter how sincerely convinced they appeared to be, they somehow know “in their heart of hearts” that what they are doing is a shameful act, while all their agitated reasoning just covers up their bad feelings. And, in the second act, people are always somehow aware of the liberating effect of their act: even if what they are doing is risky and crazy, they do achieve a true breakthrough.

Both acts in a sense achieve the impossible, but in an entirely different way. In the first case, the public space is spoiled, the ethical standards are lowered. What has been up to that moment a matter of private dirty rumors, inacceptable in the public space, becomes something one can talk about publicly: one can be openly racist, sexist, preach hatred and spread paranoia… Today’s model of such “liberation” is, of course, Donald Trump who, as they say, “says publicly what others are only thinking about.” In the second case, most of us are ashamed that we didn’t trust people more: before the referendum, we were silently expecting a defeat, and the ethical composure of the voters surprises us. Such “miracles” are worth living for.

But how are we to prepare the ground for such “miracles”? How are we to mobilize “our” people to fight for the rights of the refugees and immigrants? In principle, the answer is easy: we should strive to articulate a new ideological space in which the struggle for refugees would be combined with the feminist struggle, ecological struggle, etc. However, such an easy way out is purely rhetorical and runs against the (ideologically determined, of course) “experience” which is very difficult to undo. More profoundly, the catch is that today’s constellation doesn’t allow for a direct link between a program and the direct experience of “real people.”

The basic premise of classic Marxism is that, with the central role of the proletariat, humanity found itself in a unique situation in which the deepest theoretical insight was echoed in the most concrete experience of exploitation and alienation. It is, nonetheless, questionable if, in today’s complex situation, a similar strategy is feasible. Left populists would, of course, insist that this is precisely why we should abandon the Marxist reliance on the proletariat as the privileged emancipatory subject and engage in a long and difficult work of constructing new hegemonic “chains of equivalences” without any guarantee of success. (There is no assurance that the feminist struggle, the struggle for freedom, and the struggle for the rights of immigrants will coalesce in one big Struggle). But my point is that even this solution is too abstract and formal. Left populists remind me of a doctor who, when asked by a worried patient what to do, tells him: “Go and see a doctor!” The true problem is not one of formal procedure – a pragmatic search for unity versus antagonist confrontation – but a substantial one: how to strike back at global capital? Do we have an alternative to the global capitalist system? Can we even imagine today an authentic Communist power? What we get is disaster (Venezuela), capitulation (Greece), or a controlled return to capitalism (China, Vietnam).

Official attempts at Marxist social theory in China try to paint a picture of today’s world which, to put it simply, basically remains the same as that of the Cold War: the worldwide struggle between capitalism and Socialism goes on unabated, the fiasco of 1990 was just a temporary setback, so that today, the big opponents are no longer USA and USSR but USA and China, which remains a Socialist country. The rise of capitalism in China is read as a gigantic case of what in the early Soviet Union they called NEP politics, so that what we have in China is a new “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” but still a Socialism (the Communist party remains in power and tightly controls and directs market forces).

Domenico Losurdo elaborated this point in detail, arguing against “pure” Marxism, which wants to establish a new Communist society directly after the revolution, and for a more “realist” view which advocates a gradual approach with turnarounds and failures. Roland Boer evokes a memorable image of Losurdo drinking a cup of tea on a busy Shanghai street in September 2016:

“In the midst of the bustle, traffic, advertising, shops, and clear economic drive of the place, Domenico said, ‘I am happy with this. This is what socialism can do!’ To my quizzical look, he replied with a smile, ‘I am strongly in favor of the reform and opening up’.”[i]

Boer then goes on to resume the argument for this “opening up”:

“Most efforts had been directed at the relations of production, focusing on socialist equality and collective endeavour. This is all very well, but if everyone is equal simply because they are poor, few would see the benefit. So Deng and those working with him began to emphasize another dimension of Marxism: the need to unleash the forces of production.”[ii]

For Marxism, in turn, “unleashing the forces of production” is not “another dimension” but the very goal of transforming the relations of production. Here is Marx’s classic formulation:

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.”[iii]

The irony is that, while, for Marx, Communism arises when capitalist relations of production become an obstacle to the further development of the means of production, so that this development can be secured only by a (sudden or gradual) progress from capitalist market economy to a socialized economy, Deng Hsiao-Ping’s “reforms” turn Marx around: at a certain point, one has to return to capitalism to enable the economic development of Socialism… There is a further irony here that is difficult to surpass. The Left in the twentieth century was defined by its opposition to two fundamental tendencies of modernity: 1) the reign of capital with its aggressive individualism and alienating dynamics; and 2) authoritarian-bureaucratic state power. What we get in today’s China is exactly the combination of these two features in their extreme form: a strong authoritarian state, coupled with wild capitalist dynamics. And this should be the most efficient form of Socialism today…

From this standpoint, the economic success of China in the last decades is not interpreted as a proof of the productive potential of capitalism but as a proof of the superiority of Socialism over capitalism. To sustain this view which also counts Vietnam, Venezuela, Cuba, and even Russia as socialist countries, one has to give this new Socialism a strong socially conservative twist, and this is not the only reason why such a rehabilitation of Socialism is blatantly non-Marxist, totally ignoring the basic Marxist point that capitalism is defined by capitalist relations of production, not by the type of state power.[iv]

One must, nonetheless, concede a partial truth in this Chinese position: even in the wildest capitalism, it matters who controls the state apparatuses. Classical Marxism and the ideology of neo-Liberalism both tend to reduce the state to a secondary mechanism which obeys the needs of the reproduction of the capital; they both thereby underestimate the active role played by state apparatuses in economic processes. Today, perhaps more than ever, one should not fetishize capitalism as the Big Bad Wolf which is controlling states. State apparatuses are active in the very heart of economic processes, doing much more than just guaranteeing legal and other (educational, ecological…) conditions for the reproduction of capital.

In many different forms, the state is active as a direct economic agent, for instance, when it helps failing banks, supports certain industries, orders defense and other equipment, and so on. In the US today, around 50% of production is mediated by the state, while a century ago, the figure was between 5% and 10%. Marxists should have learned this lesson already from state Socialism where the state was a direct economic agent and regulator, so that whatever it was, it was a state without a capitalist class (Marxist analysts often used a suspicious term “state capitalism” to account for it). But if we can get a capitalist state without capitalists as a class, to what extent can we imagine a non-capitalist state with capitalist playing a strong role in the economy? While the Chinese model cannot serve as a model for emancipatory struggle – it combines exploding social inequalities with a strong authoritarian state -, one should not exclude a priori the possibility of a strong non-capitalist state that resorts to elements of capitalism in some of the domains of social life. It is, therefore, possible to tolerate limited elements and domains of capitalism without allowing the logic of capital become the over-determining principle of a social totality.

So what happens with populist passion here? It disappears, and it has to disappear. When populism takes power, the choice is, to designate it with names, Maduro (a passage from genuine populism into its authoritarian version with social decay) or Deng Hsiao-Ping (authoritarian-capitalist normalization and an ideological return to Confucius). Populism thrives in a state of emergency, which is why, by definition, it cannot last. It absolutely needs the figure of an external enemy. 

Let us take Laclau’s own precise analysis of why one should count Chartism as populism:

“Its dominant leitmotiv is to situate the evils of society not in something that is inherent in the economic system, but quite the opposite: in the abuse of power by parasitic and speculative groups which have control of political power – ‘old corruption,’ in Cobbett’s words. /…/ It was for this reason that the feature most strongly picked out in the ruling class was its idleness and parasitism.”[v]

In other words, for a populist, the cause of the troubles is ultimately never the system as such, but the intruder who has corrupted it (financial manipulators, not capitalists as such, etc.); not a fatal flaw inscribed into the structure as such, but an element that doesn’t play its role within the structure properly. For a Marxist, on the contrary (like for a Freudian), the pathological (deviating misbehavior of some elements) is the symptom of the normal, an indicator of what is wrong in the very structure that is threatened with “pathological” outbursts. For Marx, economic crises are the key to understanding the “normal” functioning of capitalism; for Freud, pathological phenomena like hysterical outbursts provide the key to the constitution (and hidden antagonisms that sustain the functioning) of a “normal” subject. That’s why populism tends to be nationalist in calling for people’ unity against the (external) enemy, while Marxism focuses on the inner split that cuts across each community and calls for international solidarity because we are all traversed by this split.

The hard fact to accept is that “ordinary people” do NOT “know.” They possess no authentic insight or experience; they are no less confused and disoriented than all others are. I remember, in the debate after a talk of mine, a brief exchange with a supporter of Podemos who reacted to my claim that the demands of Podemos (getting rid of corrupt power structures, authentic democracy, which is rooted in people’s actual interests and worries) are without any precise ideas on how to reorganize society. He replied: “But this is not a reproach, since Podemos wants just this: not another system but a democratic system that would actually be what it claims to be!” In short, Podemos wanted the existing system without its symptoms, to which one should retort that it’s OK to begin with this, but then, sooner or later, comes the moment when we are forced to realize that symptoms (corruption, failure, etc.) are part of the system, so that in order to get rid of the symptoms we have to change the system itself.

The third version of radical politics today is waiting for a catastrophe. Many of my radical friends are telling me privately that only a big ecological catastrophe, economic meltdown, or war can mobilize the people to work for radical change. But is this very stance of waiting for a catastrophe not already a catastrophe, an admission of utter defeat? In order to find a proper orientation in this conundrum, one should become aware of a fateful limitation inherent to the politics of interests.

Parties like die Linke in Germany effectively represent the interests of their working class constituency, demanding better healthcare and retirement conditions, higher wages, etc. This puts them automatically within the confines of the existing system, and is therefore not enough for authentic emancipation. Interests are not to be just followed; they have to be redefined with regard to ideas which cannot be reduced to interests. This is why we witness again and again the paradox of how Rightist populists, when they get to power, sometimes impose measures which are effectively in the workers’ interests, as is the case in Poland where PiS (Law and Justice, the ruling Rightist-populist party) has managed to enact the largest social transfers in Poland’s contemporary history. PiS did what Marine le Pen also promises to do in France: a combination of anti-austerity measures (social investments no Leftist party dares to consider) plus the promise of order and security that asserts national identity and deals with the immigrant threat. Who can beat this combination, which directly addresses the two big worries of ordinary people?

We can discern on our political horizon a weirdly perverted situation in which the official “Left” is enforcing the austerity politics (while advocating multicultural etc. rights), while the populist Right is pursuing anti-austerity measures to help the poor (while pursuing the xenophobic nationalist agenda). That is the latest figure of what Hegel described as die verkehrte Welt, the topsy-turvy world. The obvious (not only) populist reaction to this is: should we not reestablish the “normal” state, i.e., should the Left not enact the anti-austerity measures that the populist Right is enacting, just without the accompanying racist-nationalist baggage? “Logical” as it may sound, this, precisely, is what cannot be done by the Left: the Right can do it, precisely, BECAUSE its anti-austerity measures are accompanied by racist-nationalist ideology, and this ideological coating is what makes anti-austerity acceptable.

This logic is vaguely similar to the fact that, as a rule, it is only a great Rightist leader who can make a historical agreement with Leftist forces. Only Nixon could establish links with China or achieve peace in Vietnam; only de Gaulle could recognize the independence of Algeria. For a Leftist leader, such a step would have been self-destructive. Today, we also have the opposite example: only the Leftist Syriza was able to implement austerity measures in Greece. If a Rightist government were to do it, it would have triggered an explosion of protests. What this means at a more general level is that, in a hegemonic chain of equivalences, the position of elements is overdetermined by the composition of other elements: the recognition of a radical anti-colonialist struggle by the colonial power is more easily compatible with a general conservative orientation than as an element of a much more “natural” chain where it is coupled with Leftist politics.

Populism ultimately NEVER works. In its Rightist version, it cheats by definition: it constructs a false figure of the enemy – false in the sense that it obfuscates the basic social antagonism (“Jew” instead of “capital,” etc.) – and, in this way, its populist rhetoric serves the very financial elites it pretends to oppose. In its Left version, it’s false in a more complex Kantian sense. In a vague but pertinent homology, we can say that the construction of the Enemy in an antagonistic relation plays the role of Kant’s schematism: it allows us to translate theoretical insight (awareness of abstract social contradictions) into practico-political engagement. This is how we should read Badiou’s statement that “one cannot fight capitalism”: we should “schematize” our fight into activity against concrete actors who work like the exposed agents of capitalism. However, the basic wager of Marxism is precisely that such a personalization into an actual enemy is wrong. If it is necessary, it is a kind of necessary structural illusion. So does this mean that Marxist politics should permanently manipulate its followers (and itself), acting in a way it knows is misleading? Marxist engagement is condemned to this immanent tension, which cannot be resolved by claiming that now we are fighting the Enemy and later we will move to the more fundamental overhaul of the system itself. Left populism stumbles upon the limit of fighting the Enemy the moment it takes power.

The obvious Left-populist counter-argument is, of course: but is not the fact that Left populism does not provide a detailed vision of an alternative society its very advantage? Such an openness is what characterizes a radical-democratic struggle. There are no prescriptions decided in advanced; re-arrangements are going on all the time with short-term goals shifting… Again, this smooth reply is all too easy, in that it obfuscates the fact that the “openness” of the Left-populist struggle is based on a retreat, on avoiding the key problem of capitalism.

So why persist in a radical struggle, if today radical change is unimaginable? Because our global predicament demands it: only a radical change can enable us to cope with the prospect of ecological catastrophe, with the threats of biogenetics and digital control of our lives, etc. The task is impossible, but all the more necessary.

Decades ago, in a debate in the Irish parliament, Gerald Fitzgerald, the PM at that time, rejected a proposal with a nice Hegelian reversal of the commonplace wisdom “This may be good in theory, but it is not good in practice.” His counter-argument was: “This may be good in practice, but it is not good enough in theory.” This is how things stand with Left populism: without fully endorsing it, we should treat it as part of a short-term pragmatic compromise. We should support it (when it is at its best, at least, as is the case of Podemos), but without any illusions, knowing that it will ultimately fail and hoping that through this failure something new may emerge.

[i] https://stalinsmoustache.org/2018/07/01/the-passing-of-domenico-losurdo/.

[ii] Op.cit.

[iii] Quoted from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm.

[iv] For this view, see, among others, Vol. 7 / No 1 (March 2017) of International Critical Thought (Routledge), especially the texts by Domenico Losurdo, William Jefferies, Peggy Raphaelle, and Cantave Fuyet.

[v] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, London: Verso 2005, p. 90.