The weaknesses of the PCI on the question of populism (part I)

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jk1921
The weaknesses of the PCI on the question of populism (part I)
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The discussion that follows was prompted by the article: The weaknesses of the PCI on the question of populism (part I). The discussion was initiated by jk1921.
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jk1921
Important exchange

This is a very important piece helpful for clarifying the concept of "populism" and how we are using it to describe the current phase of the political life of the bourgeoisie. "Populism" is used here not simply to describe an ideology or a political strategy of this or that faction of the bourgeoisie in a given moment or campaign, but as a way of describing a new turn in the direction of capitalist society under the weight of permanent crisis and decomposition.

It is true that populism as an ideology, as a political moment in the life of society, has existed for quite some time, from Narodniks in Russia to agri-labour activism in the turn of  the 20th century US (William Jennings Bryan, the Farmer-Labour Party, etc.). There was a major populist element to the "New Deal coalition" in the United States and even Obama himself ran on a kind of populist message when he confronted Romney in the 2012 election, whom he pilloried as a "one-percenter" and a job outsourcer. But accepting that populism has existed in this way for quite some time, is a far cry from concluding that the populist era we are in today is "nothing new under the sun," as the PCI (and CWO) seem to suggest.

On the contrary, the emergence of a populist era marks a fundamental acceleration in the process of decomposition where the bourgeoisie is more and more losing control over its political apparatus (particularly in the so-called "democratic" states), where the operation of electoral mechanisms is producing increasingly unpredictable results, i.e. Brexit and Trump, which are often against the wishes of the main factions of the ruling class and/or function contrary to something like the interests of the national capital. While we may be in a "populist era," this doesn't mean everything that happens is populist. In fact, there is a genuine push back from the main factions of the bourgeoisie around the theme of the defense of democracy, but also around the ideology of openness, anti-fascism, anti-racism, anti-xenophobia, etc. which has a real social base in the structure of the neo-liberal form of capitalism which undergirds this period. As such, even though we live in an era of populism, this doesn't mean that populists will always have the upper hand. For every, Trump there might be a Macron or a Trudeau, or maybe not--the point is that the current period is marked by an increasing political volatility with wide swings of fortune possible--Obama turns into Trump, but Trump himself could easily turn into Corey Booker.

This is why it is wrong to understand this era, as many leftists and even those in the swamp do, as the return of "fascism." While it may be true that overt fascists might be more active and that there is the rise of a new right wing sensibility in various quarters, there is also a predominant sensibility that defends "neo-liberal progressivism," racial and other forms of identity politics that purports to prop up liberal democratic values and which uses the language of universalism to legitimate neo-liberalism, not division and exclusion. There is even the rise of a New Left that has made "socialism" popular again, especially among the younger generations. The point is not that the more nasty factions of the bourgeoisie can't ever win, but that there are nevertheless counter tendencies afoot in society, which reflect the fact that whatever the real dangers today, this is not the 1930s--different conceptual models are necessary to understand the balance of forces today, something which the concept of populism is attempting to elucidate.

I will take issue with a couple of points here. I am not entirely convinced that the concept of a "labour aristocracy" is completely useless today. I am not sure how the PCI is deploying the idea, but I think to make a sober assessment of the social structure today that one must acknowledge the very real structural stratifications within the proletariat that in many ways drive populist politics. The PCI seem to see populist politics driven by a (white?) privileged sector of the working class, while the ICC takes issue with this and points to the social devastation in the industrial sectors, which have left many formerly relatively secure workers with little perspective for the future as driving populism. The truth is, I think, somewhere in between. It is true that many Brexit and Trump voters are relatively privileged in relation to other sectors of the working class (mainly immigrants and younger precarious workers), but it also true that it is this sector of the working class that has seen its conditions of life fall the most precipitously as a result of neo-liberalism. The issue is not so much one's absolute position in relation to others, but ones' trajectory up or down in relation to their own past. It is in this way that some of the more abjectly poor sectors of the working class--immigrants--can act politically as vested beneficiaries of the neo-liberal status quo, while downwardly mobile white workers from formerly Fordist communities can be the most angry. As much as capitalist society has been historically stratified by income, education, etc. today, it is as much stratified along the lines of "winners" and "losers,"  a status which may be only loosely related to ones' bank account balance. I do not know if a traditional "labour aristocracy" framework is the best way to understand this situation today, but I wonder if Trotsky's theory of "combined and uneven development" might help?

I do not think that understanding populism as the ideology of the petty-bourgeoisie is very helpful today, although it is nevertheless true that it appeals to elements of the petty-bourgeoisie and even sectors of something like a "lumpen-bourgeoisie" (real estate interests, other more shady factions, etc.), but it is nevertheless the case that populism couldn't be electorally viable if it didn't win over certain sections of the working class.

Finally, in regard to the article's observations about Trump. I agree with the attempt the ICC makes to evaluate populism not as some kind of historical ideology, but in its concrete expression in the political life of the bourgeoisie today. In that sense, it is true that most of the US bourgeoisie has been very resistant (one might even say deranged) by Trump. There is an intense campaign going on to restrict and limit his ability to do damage to the US national interest. For the most part, with some exceptions, such as scrapping TPP, various foreign policy embarrassments, etc, this campaign has been largely successful on the policy level. Trump is essentially operating as a restrained agent of the Republican congressional majority. While this may not be the most optimal situation for the main factions of the US bourgeoisie, which is mostly situated in the Democratic Party, Trump has not so far been the existential disaster that many had feared. It is hard to think of a policy achievement of Trump's so far that Clinton would have refused on principle to implement. There has been no open rapprochement with Putin, even if there is growing concern about the decline of US power more generally.

While the situation is fluid, it is necessary to consider just what it is about Trump that is so threatening to the neo-liberal establishment. More and more, it is looking like it is his manners more than anything else and his stubborn refusal to go along with certain "norms" and behaviors that the bourgeoisie expects from its Chief Executives, the abscence of which  endangers the democratic illusion. Of course, the establishment's attempts to control Trump, using the "Russiagate hysteria" is itself starting to have a negative feedback effect in this regard, fueling suspicions of a deep state and infuriating those on the left who see it as a naked attempt to distract from the establishment's efforts to rig the Democratic primary in favor of Sanders.

Finally, I remained unconvinced that there is not something like a "left populism" that today is symbolized by Sanders and Corbyn (but also Podemos, etc.) and which the establishment is no less fearful might gain power one day as a result of the electoral volatility unleashed by this period. While Corbyn might perform a function in marginalizing more destructive forces like UKIP and the SNP, there has to be a reason why campaigns around his supposed anti-Semitism continue, and while Sanders is trying his best to demonstrate his ability to function as a loyal Democrat, the establishment factions have been no less adamant in attempting to keep him from any position of institutional influence in the party.