Left Populisms


Reading and its Cultural Politics
Robert Faivre

The Daydreams of iPod Capitalism
Rob Wilkie

Freedom and Human Rights under Imperialist Hegemony
E. San Juan, Jr.

Transnationalist Nationalism: Globalization and Late Bourgeois Notions of "Freedom"
Amrohini Sahay

How to Stop Paying Lip-Service to Class—And Why it Won't Happen
Julian Markels

Spiritualizing Race: Sketches on the Values Politics of Cornel West
Mas'ud Zavarzadeh



There is a new joke circulating in the post-vote liberal press: prominent sections of the Left are now advising that in order to avoid any further drift into irrelevance it should compromise its principles and adopt a new Bible-toting symbolism capable of appealing to the swing voters of Middle America. The punch line, of course, is the notion that the Left has any principles left to compromise! Principles require a non-cynical approach to the political, and cynicism is precisely the strategy the Left has embraced so it can justify its pragmatic opportunism as the height of "enlightened" thinking. The rise to cult celebrity of John Stewart and Comedy Central's The Daily Show is a case in point. Most weeknights The Daily Show entertains a primarily younger audience with a savvily cynical Left take on current events. With shrewd hilarity, Stewart and his cohorts relentlessly puncture the solemnity of the official political discourse in the U.S., all under cover of what is billed as "fake news". "Fake news" is what allows Stewart to evade any political responsibility for the state of political discussion on the Left while remaining an idol of the Left. Laughing the seriousness out of all "principles", Stewart is the "real" idol of a supposedly idol-less Left (and his faking not being an idol only adds to his idol-ness). Yet what Stewart conveniently doesn't get is that in Bush's "America" the fake is what keeps the (manufactured) "real news" looking like reality. The cultural politics of the "fake news" of Comedy Central is to produce the "real fake" so that the Brian Williams and Peter Jennings of the world look less fake.


The Left has, with amazing simplicity, pointed to the daily "experience" as the home of the concrete. It has therefore substituted for any sustained and scientific analysis of the objective conditions of life a rather banal spontaneity as the very condition of the political: at the appropriate moment the people will—through the very experience of oppression—rise up and rebel against tyranny. It is in this context that the U.S. vote has been about more than just the re-election of a criminal clique to global power. It is also a referendum on left populism. Fifty million Americans, including some of the most impoverished sections of the working class, have not only not "rebelled" but have actively sided with the ruling class. In doing so, according to the populist mantra, they have acted on their "experience". Where does this "experience" come from? What left populism obscures is that this is an experience painstakingly fabricated in religious and cultural terms by Karl Rove and funded by huge corporate donations. The "spontaneous" far from being spontaneous is an ideological effect of capitalism and its institutions. What is "out there" is put "out there". It needs to be critiqued, not propitiated. The Left sentimentalizing of politics as the automatic agency of the oppressed has not only failed at intervening into the ideological consciousness of workers: it has, by its own logic (experience!), actively cultivated it.


The populist Left repeats that people are never dumb, ignorant or unaware: that the powerless are never duped by the powerful. The very idea that people are "duped" has been read on the Left as an "insulting" notion, as a sign of utter contempt for everyday citizens whose "native intelligence" should instead always be affirmed—since people's understanding of their "experience", the Left has insisted over the last several decades, always coincides with their "interests". The Left has thus outlawed any discussion of "false consciousness", since it finds the critique of misunderstandings of experience that side with owning class interests more troubling than the class relations that produce false consciousness. But now that the election has done little more than expose how effective the right wing of capital has been in duping working class people to act against their class interests, the Left is at a pathetic loss. Because it has abandoned the concept of false consciousness, it has no way to explain what happened in the recent election: why millions of struggling Americans rallied around someone who has unleashed the most severe rollbacks of social services and funding in support of the richest corporations, couched in cultural appeals to "common", "moral", and "religious" values. The Left will now, of course, argue that voting for religion is a sign of resistance to capitalism because the Bible says "take care of the poor". It will defend people's "native intelligence" as a sign that there is no need for the Party and the pedagogy of totality. It will, in short, go so far as to defend "stupidity" (to name one title of a recent book extolling ignorance) as the new "intelligence" rather than examine how the "stupid" is produced in order to conceal and justify the interests of capital.


The (not so new) Left has laid the groundwork for a radical shift to the right by abandoning systemic class politics for the idol of fragmented "new social movements". Having rendered all issues separate issues, the new social movements "cover" the issues—the differences of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.—by adding together, or "articulating", all the different pieces. In other words, not only is the left obsessed with differences of race, gender, sexuality, ability. . .within the working class, but it has no coherent theory of differences. What do racism, sexism, homophobia have to do with each other? What do they have to do with exploitation? Nothing, as far as the Left is concerned. This is because it sees class as status—a surface (market) difference like all others rather than the structure of exploitation underlying all differences. Not surprisingly, the Left's "new social movements" have served capital more than anyone else, since having rendered workers a series of status groups with no underlying connection, capital can readily recruit the different groups to its "cause" as it needs them. It can also just as easily dissolve the differences when it requires national "unity" to support its wars. Class as status is the logic behind the workers in imperialist nations aligning—more or less consciously—with the bourgeoisie of their country, riding the coattails of whatever is the latest attack on the least powerful workers of the world, and remaining desperate for the crumbs the owners throw them.


The Left academy formally distances itself from the corporate ideology of profit in the universities which has led to, among other things, the restructuring of university classes, especially those in the social sciences and humanities, as little more than assembly lines for the processing of students. At the same time, through its embrace of populism, it actively helps the university administrations to do exactly that. The de-education of students is most energetically carried out in the public universities where most students are from working class families and have very limited access to elite pedagogies of small classes and individual attention. The specific target of assembly-line classes are all and any courses in critique, critical reading of cultural texts, and theoretical and conceptual analysis. The underlying assumption is that students who attend public universities do not need such intellectual skills because they are not going to be in positions of serious decision making. The reality that university administrators act on this cultural (un)consciousness is not surprising: they are part of the state oligarchy. What is revealing about the U.S. Left is that the left academics that are in administrative positions not only support such views but offer commonsensical "reasons" to justify the de-education of working class students.


In fact, "After Theory," the populist left has started marketing a new commodity: the uncritical reading. "Uncritical" is, for the populist left, the code of brave defiance against reason and critique and a celebration of what it represents as the people's wisdom. "Uncritical reading" is the Left's latest attempt to naturalize by spontaneity the ideological working of capitalist cultural politics. Through "uncritical reading"—which is the sign of "reading from the heart" (and a not-so-secret attack on science, critique, and objective understanding of the world)—it posits a pre-critical authenticity that precedes all reading, and celebrates an uncritical thinking (a resistant irrationality, a pre-textual essence or experience that cannot be conceptualized, etc.) that is present in all critical thought. Uncritical reading critically trains the student to turn away from objective class interests and toward values, religion, and even superstition, all in the name of the spontaneous. Uncritical reading is a continuation of the left's interpretive strategy that in the 1980s and 1990s found in every quietistic text a moment of resistance and argued that power was actually in the hands of the weak. After the disastrous end of that project, resistance reading has been transformed into uncritical reading—a reading that resists the knowledge of the world (which might be used to transform the world) and embraces instead matters of affect.


In the aftermath of the U.S. elections, the dismay and disbelief of the Left that a majority of rural voters would choose "culture" over their economic interests is reaching comical proportions. After all, hasn't the Left spent decades making an idol of "culture"?  Isn't it a core Left belief that the fundamental difference of capitalism is not class but "lifestyle"?  Hasn't the Left made "cultural differences" more central than "solidarity" in forging political connections, and defended the view that it is people's consuming habits and not their place in production that determines their "identity"?  The difference, it seems, is only a culture clash: the Right fights for the four G's (gays, grizzlies, guns, and God), while the Left's platform is a more subtle "green" faith based on crunchy foods and the freedom to shop as one pleases. This, however, would be to miss the profound economic reality that underlies the so-called "culture wars". People's (cultural) beliefs are always shaped by their economic position in class society and the voting divide in contemporary America in fact reflects the difference between an urban workforce trained and educated to participate in the new transnational networks of global capitalism and those who are excluded from it. Culture, in short, is not simply the question of how lifestyles shape belief. Rather, lifestyles themselves need to be explained. By abandoning class analysis for cultural differences the Left has not only rendered itself incapable of providing such an explanation. It has perpetuated the myth that what divides people is not whether they are exploiter or exploited but whether they shop at Wal-Mart or Starbucks.


The Left is shocked that American workers have voted for unrestrained American domination in the world market. The irony, of course, is that the Left has become one of consumer culture's most loyal and sophisticated marketers. It has taken the self-indulgent study of culture's surfaces and styles to new aesthetic heights, and established cults around the philosophy that nothing matters but simulation and appearance. Taking its cue from the Right, the Left has marginalized all attempts to understand culture's wider social significance (the class substance beneath the style). Any who do not embrace the consuming habits of the multitude are, from the margins to the mainstream, universally branded as "out of touch" with real people. The Left's populism, in other words, makes dissent look like "elitism". It has thus indoctrinated a generation in the lesson that political effectivity and power is a matter of style not substance. But what is truly elitist is the rule of "style" over substance in a world where people cannot even meet their basic needs for food, housing, health care, education, . . . What is elitist is the "leftism" that is more concerned today with the politics of shopping than with the global class relations that make "shopping" possible for the elite at the expense of the many, whose desperately poor conditions will never be solved by the market.


Having declared class dead, class politics a dead-end, and class analysis just plain boring (if not impossible), the Left has eagerly embraced the subtleties and nuances of "ethics". Ethics, the Left has said, is necessary because scientific knowledge of class—which is necessary for any transformative politics—is the bête noire of freedom, democracy and difference. The ethical person, the Left insists, "recognizes" that there is, after all, no definite basis upon which to bring about fundamental transformation of class for social justice and economic equality. All that can be done is to act "ethically" within capitalism. Ethics, in other words, is the politics of conscientious capitulation to capital. The epitome of conscientious capitulation is the "lesser of two evils" and "anything but Bush" approach—now canonized in such films as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which has become the pinnacle of "left cinematherapy" in the face of brutal imperialist onslaught. Such an approach opportunistically proclaims "outrage" against Bush, the current face of the war and U.S. capital's imperialist interests, only to replace it with a new, seemingly more "ethical" face that leaves intact the system of production for profit that produces the imperialist war economy. Ethics allows the left to see the war in Iraq as a scandal, but not the wars against Afghanistan and Yugoslavia (or Iran or North Korea, for that matter). The ethical Left opposes the moralist Christian fundamentalism and jingoistic nationalism of U.S.-based capital and supports a savvier but equally religious "global ethics" favoring U.S. capitalist interests that rely heavily on foreign investment. Which is to say that the left's "ethical" values, like the Right's religious and moral values, are no more than a translation of inter-capitalist competition into cultural values. Conscientious or not, they both leave working people, who now more than ever need an un-subtle politics to end exploitation, with no choice but to consent to the dictates of capital accumulation.


In the face of the militancy of capital, the Left has retreated to polite formulas and put a stop to all polemic. Confronted with capital's offensive, the Left has slavishly embraced civility (one of its favorite idols) and excluded critique for fear of offending the ruling class. Civility in other words is a declaration of silence in response to the war of profits on people. It is the class lie that says that only by "working within" the system can it be changed. But by changing the system the civility-ists mean change within the system—to which they have shamelessly capitulated. Not surprisingly, every effort to think outside the system, which is necessary for transforming the inside of the system, is more or less violently marginalized through the discourse of civility. Civility says to the working class: Don't offend your exploiters, embrace them! You'll get more with "kindness" than you will with critique! Civility is always an attack on critique. Because it brings the ("uncivil") outside to bear on the ("civil") inside, critique is one of the most effective weapons in all struggles for transformation. A Left that dispenses with critique is a Left that has, beneath its occasionally militant rhetoric, in fact dispensed with the struggle for social and economic justice.

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