The Danger of Populism

(October 2011)

There are many ways that the system defeats popular movements and struggles. One of them is populism. When people are discontent and want to act, populism is often used to mobilize us in ways that will leave us, in the end, without transformative change.

Through history, powerful movements for social and economic liberation have been co-opted and diverted by populism with very reactionary, repressive results, such as the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, the election of the imperialist puppet Martelly (“Sweet Micky”) in Haiti, and the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood within the struggle against Mubarak in Egypt.

If we’re not aware of this possibility and careful to avoid it, there is a danger that the Occupy movement will meet a similar fate.

Populism is a way of thinking that doesn’t acknowledge the fact that we live in a system of class domination –that the capitalist class exploits the working class, and uses the middle classes to stabilize this social inequality. Instead, populist rhetoric masks this reality by contrasting more vague economic/social divisions, commonly “the people vs. the elite.”  In other words, populism hides class struggle.

Most people in the U.S. consider themselves middle class, even many who actually belong to the working class. Thus there is not widespread consciousness of working class interests – fundamentally, that capitalism must be eliminated and that the ruling class (large capitalists and their high-level representatives) are an enemy to be defeated.

Instead, the middle class, which has some privileges and advantages within this system, tends to identify its own interests as universal. Vague terms such as “freedom,” “democracy,” and “fairness” are not given context. What does it mean to have “freedom” and “democracy” if we are trapped in a system characterized by capitalist class dictatorship, a system that is fundamentally exploitative and oppressive?

The danger, then, is that when the middle class achieves the partial reforms that it wants, it can then snuggle back under the wing of the ruling class, and end up abandoning the working class and even turn against it. This strangles the process of liberation and turns it into its opposite.

The ruling class understands this very well, and leans on the middle class to divert the overall struggle back into the framework of the system. In South Africa, for example, as soon as the interests of the middle and ruling classes were satisfied, they quickly moved to squash the workers’ struggle for total emancipation, by claiming that the workers were promoting instability against the newly reformed state. And so we see that even decades after the end of apartheid, the conditions of the vast majority of South Africans have not changed. A similar process occurred in Nicaragua after the fall of Somoza.

Anyone can use populist rhetoric to mobilize masses of people. Even Nancy Pelosi can dare to say that she supports the Occupy Movement against the interests of “The Establishment.” Obama talks about the excesses of Wall Street at the same time that he facilitates them. Mainstream media pundits say positive things about the movement. Politicians and institutional unions jump on board, offering support and direction. What they are doing is attempting to divert the mass mobilizations into a reformist path and above all, to prevent a true liberation movement – one that would eliminate classes altogether – from gaining traction.

Today in the US, the economy is in crisis. There is a struggle between different fractions within the ruling class about how to best solve this crisis. The two main fractions are finance capital (which is currently dominant) and industrial capital (which is struggling to retain profitability).  They are each pushing solutions for their own respective economic benefit, and propose different directions they each want the country to take.

Each of these fractions will attempt to gain support from the masses of people for their side. Represented by their respective politicians and institutions, they will attempt to unite people behind them with promises and demands. They will each try to shape public opinion on issues like jobs, banks, immigration, budget cuts, free trade, and so on, so as to gain our support and compliance for their policies. They will even try to make us, without realizing it, fight for their interests instead of our own.

Populism can be used within both the left and right. Both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements are influenced by populism.

Populism has two sides. On the one hand, it can express the views of good, sincere people who want democracy and freedom for all. But within a framework of a class-divided society, it also can be used by the dominant class to prevent the transformation to a truly liberated society. Plus it can lay the basis for extremism in the interests of fractions of the dominant (capitalist) class.  In class societies, though the majority of people do have an objective interest in liberation, it is insufficient to have a concept of “The People” that includes everyone. Instead, it is important to take into account and build a strategy around the fact that there is an “Us,” the dominated, and a “Them,” the dominators.

Global capitalism is a system that is structured upon, and enforces, this domination. It is our enemy.  Our goal must be to liberate ourselves (the world!) by eliminating this exploitative system altogether. We must keep this uppermost in mind – and learn our history and political theory – if we are to avoid being the unwitting foot-soldiers of any of the fractions of the capitalist class.

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