Right-wing Populism and the Future of Left-wing Politics

Modi Trump

 In the times of pandemic, the undoubtedly crucial question of a new leftist strategy is being broached. The Covid-19 pandemic has precipitated a massive economic crisis in which the globally integrated mechanisms of capitalism are floundering and are unable to get rid of their social insensitivity. According to IMF, the global economy will shrink by 3% in 2020, second only to the catastrophic Great Depression of the 1930s. As a natural corollary of the immense mismanagement done by neoliberal financialized capitalism, alternative options are being reluctantly explored and even the hardcore neoliberal nations of EU are contemplating the necessity of nationalization. These objective conditions are cumulatively pointing towards the need for socialism and are underlining the importance of a leftist politics of pandemic. This article attempts to contribute to this broad outlining of a new leftist strategy by situating left-wing politics within the context of right-wing populism and neoliberal capitalism.

Right-wing populism is creating an ideologically hazy environment of socio-political struggle in which the left is losing its clear-cut distinct directionalities. Right-wing populism’s emergence as a hybrid hegemony on the terrain of the political represents an electoral backlash against the neoliberal democracy of the past decades in which the constitutional -liberal institutional syntax had become unresponsive. Theresa May in UK, Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Ahmet Necdet Sezer in Turkey are some of the many examples of the political leaders of neoliberal democracy whose structural inability to surpass neoliberal economization prepared a conducive environment for the rise of the right. This anemic politics of neoliberal democracy was characterized by the cartelization of political parties, their status as quasi-state apparatuses attached to the bourgeoisie state structure and their overwhelming bureaucratization and detachment from social movements. The decay and decomposition of neoliberal democracy started because it was not able to successfully maintain the strict separation of the sphere of circulation from the sphere of production in a politically-electorally appealing way. The segregation of the sphere of circulation from the sphere of production is a prerequisite for the political existence of capitalism. On the one hand, it needs to indemnify the ownership of the means of production from any disruptive politics in order to preserve the crux of capitalism which is the private possession of the productive system. On the other hand, capitalism also has to construct a unified consensual mechanism which provides a political veneer to the economically exclusionary machinery of private property and class division. This political ornamentation was firstly provided by a liberal state structure which legally-politically dissociated circulation from production through legal codification of exchange equality (the proletariat is not a wage laborer but a free agent involved in an equal exchange), political enunciation of universal egalitarianism and juridical unification under the “rule of law”.

Liberalism’s efforts to perpetuate capitalism through politico-legal equalization in the relations of exchange were continually undermined by capitalism’s greater push towards unrestrained accumulation in the sphere of production. This happened through the intensified extraction of surplus value from the laborer, economic disciplining of the workers through a labor-saturated market, use of crude productive techniques such as lean production and finally through financialized neoliberal deregulation and heightened privatization . Further, liberal state’s failure at legally balancing class struggle due to the continuous debilitation of equal exchange relations was compounded in the political domain through neoliberalism. It unleashed the entrepreneurialization, responsibilization and human capitalization of individuals by economically penetrating into the “non-monetized organs of the social” and by blurring political liberalism’s crucial distinction between a consumer and an equal electoral participant under the aegis of the rule of law. In this way, the individual under the liberal state became objectively displaced through capitalism’s relentless accumulation drive and got subjectively dislocated through neoliberalism’s economizing impulse.

In a historical context where neoliberal democracy and liberal institutional framework were unable to resolve the “contradiction of accumulation” (the erosion of formal equality in the sphere of circulation by the inequality in the sphere of production), right-wing populism emerged as a political phenomenon transversally translating the amorphous pent-up discontent of different classes affected by the neoliberal regulatory regime into a generalized and emotionalized anxious anger against the old elites. Along with an anti-elitist rhetorical stance, right-wing populism culturally stamped the accumulated disgruntlement of the masses with a hysterical religio-cultural revivalism. Through the dismantlement of the ostensibly “elitist and exclusionary institutions of liberal democracy”, the right is atavistically whipping up the visceral, raw and emotionally immediate through street mobilizations and extra-judicial excesses. Here, we can clearly discern that the right has substituted liberalism’s politico-legal equalization of the sphere of circulation with a horizontal cultural unification of individuals. Now, in place of the insipid universalism of the liberal framework, we have the open expression of unhealed cultural wounds, forcefully asserting particularisms against an identified enemy. Instead of political equality, we have the unrelenting desire of majoritarian communities for gaining a lost heritage and a resentful outcry against a vaguely outlined elitist echelon, sabotaging the muscular leader’s robust policies.

Despite right-wing populism’s apparently stable policy of converting economic anxieties into identitarian- cultural ones, there are many chinks in its strategy which will then allow us to present a leftist program of political praxis. Right-wing populism’s agenda of coalescing cultural horizontality with economic verticality to fortify the sphere of production involves the indispensable dialectical operation of the “moralization of market” and “marketization of morality”. Moralization of market refers to the cultural cloaking of market mechanisms with consolidated cultural commonness and claims to identitarian fraternity. Marketization of morality indicates the simultaneous exercise of economically inflecting the ethnic-identitarian axes of cultural commonality with class divisions and economic unevenness. In these two processes moralization and marketization, there is considerable communitarian friction and moral velocity. If we go back to the initial phases of right-wing populist politicization, we will notice that the right culturally converted the ill-defined anti-elitist outrage of the masses into an antagonistic articulation of “us vs. them”. This crucially means that the rise of the right was fuelled by its cunningly clever tactic of ethnically politicizing the constitutive insecurity of neoliberalism and shifting the economic-empirical discursive plane to a psychological politics of retribution. Therefore, today’s right is electorally entrenching itself through the escalation of antagonism with the “other” or the “excluded exterior”. This is contributing to the sharpened identification of the dominant cultural collectivity in relation to the otherized and ostracized opponent.

A reworked leftist strategy willing to refuse a simple discursive diremption of the political territory can effectively counter the viscerally vindictive politics of the right. The new left has to – unlike liberalism – avoid the political simplification of the current conjuncture into a mere binary of a dictatorial right vs. a democratic left. This binarization obscures the rich class content of leftism and reduces the fight against right-wing populism to a mere question of more democracy. Moreover, by doing this the Left reproduces the capitalistic separation of circulation and production and misses the opportunity to de-sediment the ossified architecture of the bourgeoisie ownership of the means of production. In a nutshell, by primarily positioning itself in the camp of democracy, the Left engages itself in an empty evangelism of bourgeoisie democracy and decouples the economic from the political with bland democratic verbosity.

To correct this mistake, the Left needs to solidly integrate the economic with the political by subverting the communitarian togetherness of politically mobilized collectivities through the narrativization of the economic verticalness of that community. This strategy depends upon the ability of the Left to break the tense dialectic of the moralization of market and marketization of morality by underscoring intra-community class divisions and transmuting cultural horizontality into economic verticality. But this transmutation necessitates that the left cross the boundaries of parliamentarianism and develop a hydra-headed organizational structure which is able to build politically permeable molecular micro-aggregations. The resuscitated right has finessed this organizational modality which Aijaz Ahmad calls the mixing of “legality and illegality, electoral politics and machineries of violence, in full view of agencies of law and organs of civil society”. In a similar way, the Left has to wage a struggle in and against neoliberal capitalism wherein, it consistently utilizes extra-parliamentary techniques to culturally percolate through the micro-pores of society. Simultaneously, it has to use parliamentary institutions to nationally spread its reach and undermine the system from within. By espousing the aforementioned two strategies, left-wing politics can experience a resurgence in which it is able to actualize a painstaking subaltern praxis and conceptualize a radical alternative to present-day neoliberal capitalism.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and is interested in studying the existential conditions of subaltern classes. He can be contacted at [email protected].




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