On Populism: An Interview with Jamie McAfee

Jamie McAfee is a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Composition and a long-time friend and former colleague of mine.  Lately he and I have been talking about populism: its definition, uses, and abuses.  Starting the ideas of Ernesto LaClau and working forward, he and I talked about the developing idea of populism in American.   Jamie’s take is interesting and his studies on the uses of rhetoric make populism all the more complicated to deal with.

Skepoet: You and I have been discussing populism and variant definitions of it, particularly LaClau’s definition.  What do you see as a viable definition of populism?

Jamie McAfee : Thanks for asking. I’m flattered by the invitation, and it’s a chance for me to spill out some thoughts that I need to spill out anyway.

I like Laclau’s definition, which as I understand (meaning “I think that Laclau means” but admittedly “as I interpret him through my own filter”) it is something like the following: “Populism is a political practice that involves the deployment of anti-authoritarian symbols that are associated with some kind of class and/or national identity. For Laclau, deploying symbols is how classes are articulated together, and so understanding populism is intimately connected to understanding how class struggle could be constructed, even though populism usually serves the status quo and often rejects socialist goals.”

“Populism” does not imply any particular political program. Central to his theory (or my version of it) is that populist symbols float from one place to another (his essay ends with this as the conclusion), and the strategy we’re labeling “populism” isn’t the province of anybody in particular. Populism can be left wing,right wing, racist, social justice oriented, etc. National Socialism began as a populist movement. Occupy Wall Street has aspects of becoming a populist movement. The labor movement in the U.S. was a populist movement. Part of Laclau’s argument is that populism is a symptom of the contradictions inherent to being a political subject living under a state capitalism regime. We are going to feel some animosity against “authority” on behalf of our “group.” Populism is the strategy of trying to define and exploit this animosity, often by associating our group with traditional, pre-industrial iconography and associating whatever we are opposing as the machine. Populist tropes are kinda like memes that get picked up by different people every so often (more like lolcats than the stuff Dawkins meant by the term). Populism is often understood as a rhetorical style- when you claim you are representing “the people” and opposing “the elites”- and Laclau means something that can be crudely understood as being that. What makes populism populism is that it is what rhetoricians call epideictic rhetoric- rhetoric that is meant to define the audience in a certain way through appeals to values and identity. Laclau puts a lot of weight on the meme thing also, which seems useful.

People (including me) sometimes use the word pejoratively to refer to anti-intellectual lizard brain politics or they use it in opposition to “rational,” much as people use the word “rhetoric” pejoratively. And like “rhetoric,” I think a legitimate issue one might introduce into talking about populism is where to draw the boundary around what we include. A very broad definition of populism would include pretty much anything done to get people to participate in either political dissent or representative democracy. I don’t think that’s useful, and it isn’t what Laclau probably meant, but one could use the theory as a lens for lots of stuff. I’m not advocating throwing the word all over the place, but it’s provocative enough to suggest ways to discuss a lot of things we don’t usually mean when we say “populism.” (Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy theorize “hegemony” as a much richer all purpose term for political discussion, and before I let a populism discussion get out of hand, I’d advocate jumping over to that book instead of getting all carried away.)

The “purest” and most instructive example of populism in action that we’ve got going in the U.S. at the moment is the (post-Republican base infiltrated version of the) tea party. They are really overt in how they appropriate symbols- American revolutionary war stuff in this case. They are articulating their politics to anti-authoritarian, “revolutionary” symbols. They romanticize the 18th century. All those memes of tension with modern advanced capitalism, and the big state that goes along with it, are in service of a rhetoric that puts “the people” against the “elites.”  That rhetoric, however, is in service of a political project that is very, very conservative, even regressive, and it is a project that is overtly hostile to the left and very friendly to capitalism. (Since we’re talking about Marx stuff here, “revolutionary” for the American rebellion against the British Empire is problematic, but that’s kind of how populism works.) The right has been winning the battle for claiming populism as their own in the U.S. for some time now, which is one reason they keep moving those goalposts on us. They’ve got a good chunk of “the people” invested in defining left wing, or even classical liberal, ideas as oppression imposed by a class of elites. They are sort of pro-free market, but they seem to be a lot more anti-liberal.

Best things about this theory: it’s not essentialist and it offers some symmetry in discussing how politics works in the service of different goals. Worst thing about it: it seems to permanently displace any hope of a theory for political consciousness that isn’t rooted in partisanship.

One last thought and I’ll shut up. . . .

One thing I’ve been thinking about that complicates this whole business is how media culture has displaced the kind of “folk” culture that LaClau talks about as the populist meme generator. Anonymous might be understood as using a kind of populist rhetoric since they dress up like a comic book character. Since they are more interested in constructing a particular counter culture identity than in enrolling people into a class identity, it’s not really populism at all, but it seems like the strategies they use and their relationship to cultural memes is analogous. I think the future of populism is going to get a lot less rooted in particular real geographies and a lot more hyperreal. In a way, the symbolic nature of populism means that it’s already a bit like that. Who uses hammers or cycles anymore?

(One of the reasons for my negative gut reaction to Anonymous is that I find their comic book fantasy rhetoric to be stupid. “V” has its moments, but in it was kind of the start of Alan Moore’s thinking about superheroes rather than the best thinking Alan Moore did about superheroes.)

Skepoet: Would you say that a lot of American politics right now is adopting a populist posture?  For example, you and I discussed how this applied to both Chomsky and Herman Cain.  Perhaps even the vague “Change” campaign message of Obama was a populist message.

Jamie McAfee: I do think that, particularly on the right. I tend to think that liberal (Dems, I mean) appeals to “the people” are often more appeals to democratic idealism or something like a social contract than real populism, although that kind of move is certainly epideictic rhetoric. I tend to think that we need to draw boundaries around “populism” so that the word refers to some sense of class struggle, although “class struggle” in this case may or may not be well informed, self reflexive class struggle. “Change” and “Hope” do have populist overtones, but in a pretty vague way that didn’t really leave the kind of imprint that really effective populism leaves. There was, I think, an element of a Rorschach test in some of his campaigning, which is kind of related to how populism functions, but he didn’t really go very far in narrowing the possibilities for articulation. Obama got himself elected, but I don’t think he did much to realign how we talk about anything. As it turns out, he’s just tacked toward a more traditional kind of conservatism than what our sometimes loony right endorses.

The American right is so overtly populist that it’s going to stop being interesting soon. Stuff that sounds like common sense (that’s the definition of hegemony, of course) is stuff the right likes. Herman Cain wants to simplify the tax code into something that can be a slogan. Down to the point even of living up to Laclau’s theory about using romantic nationalistic symbols of pre-industrial life as symbols of rebellion. George W. Bush made political hay out of owning a “ranch” for God’s sake. (I don’t know if it’s a working ranch, but I’d be surprised if that were the case.)

I’m troubled by the populist tenancies (or at least, the knee jerk animosity that feels to me like populism) I see in some of the dissident rhetoric floating around right now. When you building your theory around simple animosity, you are not really being responsive to the particularities of specific cases. Populism as a strategy for mobilizing people may be necessary, and it may be a way to think about how classes are constructed and coalitions are built, but it’s not a stance for analysis. When I see idealistic young people who inadvertently sound exactly like Glenn Beck, I’m bugged, particularly when these guys are some of the more outspoken activists coming along. I understand that anarchism, in theory, is not the same thing as right libertarianism, but when I see a lot of the stuff I see among some of the idealistic young people I know online, I’m bugged. One of the defining things about populist rhetoric is it’s “meme-likeness,” and when people cultivate ideas that seem so related to right wing rhetoric, I’m not very comfortable.

Skepoet: How do you think Chomsky fits into this? You were speaking about counter-propaganda on the left being problematic in a way?

Jamie McAfee: I think that left wing counter propaganda can be problematic because of that meme likeness that Laclau identifies as a feature of populist discourse. I’m certainly not going to condemn anti-authoritarianism, but it seems counterproductive to me when left wing people overreach and oversimplify in their claims about corporatism or imperialism because they are shoring up anti-authority ideas that aren’t carefully positioned within the specificity of a situation and carefully articulated to a particular enough worldview.

Obviously, people should be able to have political preferences and to advocate for them, but the problematically consistent take on American foreign policy that Chomsky espouses, presumably as a strategic choice, means that the conclusions he gets to are predictable anti authoritarianism, which can be articulated to a wide array of political positions. So, as you noted, Lew Rockwell is a fan. I don’t know if Pat Buchanan is, but if he’s not I don’t understand why. Since Chomsky’s not drawing on popular discourses, I wouldn’t say he’s using populist rhetoric, but I think my ambivalence about him stem from the similarity of what he does to populist discourse. He’s made a deliberate choice to be so consistent (and he’s said it is a choice) in blaming everything on American hegemony so that he can agitate through his writing.

Where I’m being really problematic here is that I seem to be suggesting that analysis and agitation should be separate, which is a stupid position. I think what I mean to say (and I’m kind of getting to the edge of how far I’ve thought this out) is that I’m not sure he’s as useful a thinker as he could have been because some of his work ends up being simplistic empire bashing. Empires need to be bashed, but why are you bashing it? What direction would you have us move? What about dis-confirming evidence? From what I know of him, he’s not strong on those questions. I remember reading some of Christopher Hitchens bashing of Chomsky and thinking Hitch was right on, even though I strongly disagreed (that’s an understatement) with his support of the invasion of Iraq. It was unnecessary to defend Saddam to oppose the invasion. Just as, in the example you mentioned in a blog post, it was unnecessary to minimize the Khmer Rouge to oppose that war. Some kind of moral pragmatism would be preferable to the Manichean perspective I’ve seen in some of his work.

I’m not complaining, by the way, about his specific complaints about specific actions the U.S. has taken or to his complaint about empire. He’s perfectly right, and perfectly wonderful, for worrying over our bad behavior so consistently for so long.

Of course, a perfectly good counterargument is that since his complaints are so unambiguous, and since there are factions on the right who agree with him, it’s great for him to do things that might empower those parts of the right. Of course, I’m not the kind of guy who can imagine ever planning to vote for Ron Paul, so that doesn’t get very far with me, but I can’t really take too much issue with that. I don’t like Paleo-conservatism, but it’s a lot better than neo -conservatism.

(I’m not, by the way, all that deeply knowledgeable about Chomsky’s work, and I’d be prepared to concede to counterarguments that are specific to the rhetorical moves he uses.)

Skepoet: You and I both joke about how Fascism has moved from a specific right-wing movement out of far left politics such as national syndicalism to “anything that involves corporations” to “anything that I don’t like.”  We have observed that Imperialism moved from its historical terminology which is a mercentilists Imperial policy to capitalism extraction of resources to any attempt to have political influence.  Do you see these kinds of hollowing out of ideological terms as part of populism?  For example, the confusion with liberal and left?  Or is something else going on?

Jamie McAfee: I don’t think there something else is going on, although this might be where I’d jump from populism to the broader idea of hegemony. “Hollowing out” is a fair way of putting it, since words just end up being pejoratives or banners, but I’d instead say “rearticulated.” In the body of theory I’m leaning on here, fighting about definitions of words is fighting about how social classes are constructed and about worldviews, and so these competing definitions are what the political sphere is.

I’m not arguing that we can’t remind people of the “original” meaning of a world, or the history of a word, and in fact, I’d say that’s exactly what we should do. One reason I like Andrew Sullivan, in spite of his flakiness and his failure to get serious about some civil liberties stuff and empire stuff that he should be more serious about, is that he fights hard for a definition of the word “conservative” that I find appealing. I’m not really a Sullivan conservative, but that’s a point of view that’s reasonable, and it’s a strong counterweight to the right populist goonism that we call “conservatism” right now. (Most people would call what he means Burkean conservatism, although he leans of Oakeshott, who he wrote his thesis about.) Sullivan’s version of conservatism is not the “truer” one, but it’s a better one, and the way he advocates for it is to argue about the word. I’m aware of the argument that conservatism always has a hostile, reactionary core, and that’s a perfectly fine observation, but it doesn’t mean that people can’t fight for a sane definition of the word.

“Meritocracy” is a great example. The word was coined as a negative thing- it was a satire of a social Darwinist dystopia. Now it’s either an unreachable goal, an organizational strategy, or a cultural myth, depending on who you ask.

Certainly this re-articulation stuff is how populism works, although I’m not sure every worthwhile example is really that. Same underlying notion of politics though. I think the “left/liberal” thing is certainly that, as it’s just lumping together all the baddies who seek to oppress god fearing Americans.

By conflating the cultural enemies of the right (the new left), the communist boogieman, and the institutions of government and academia (liberals) together discursively, right populism is easier. So that particular word trick seems to be exactly a function of populism to me.

Skepoet: Interesting. I am reading a book on conservatism and counter-revolutionary thought by Cobin Robins.   He has some stuff to say to Sullivan about how Sullivan’s history is flawed.  Here’s the link if you’re interested.

I feel like this fits into the discussion.

Jamie McAfee: Yeah, I’ve read the reviews of the book, but not the book. It’s certainly relevant, although I think any claim about what “real conservatism” is problematic. I think of it as being kind of like DNA. Some genes can be switched on and off depending on how a political perspective is articulated, but they are still there. I think I’m thinking of Christophe Hitchen’s argument about violence being inherent to religion because it’s in the texts. I’d respond that those genes aren’t going away, but it’s a mistake to say they have to be expressed. The church with the gay pride flag where we pick up our share of local produce every week isn’t going to burn any heretics, but they are certainly Christians.

From what I gather, Robins has a very good point to make for people who want to describe post-neo con conservatism as an aberration. From what I’ve read, I wonder if he isn’t essentializing a bit though. (Or maybe not. I haven’t read it.)We’re talking about discourses here, and Burke might have advocated some reactionary violence at times, but his political theory offers a vision of Sulli conservatism also. All those things are in play, and it’s up to political actors to articulate them. The “best” opponents of the left, in my opinion, deserve some support. I’d rather the right look like Sullivan (well, less flakey, but of that political persuasion) than like Rick Perry. I do probably need to read Robins soon.

I disagree with the complaint that his book “flatters” liberals, if only because the “those guys aren’t even real conservatives” trope is one that liberals like to make when complaining about right populism, which isn’t rigorous like libertarianism or as historically grounded as Burkean conservatism. Yes, right populists are real conservatives.

Skepoet: Do you think either form of populism has the possibility of sincerity?

Jamie McAfee Like personal sincerity or some kind of authenticity? I tend to think that people who work in politics are sincere, even the scheming panderers, if for no other reason than the fact that people invest themselves in what they do, even when there’s some cognitive dissonance involved. Right now I’m teaching business writing, and although I try to do it in a way that draws attention to how value laden workplace communication is (the first thing we read is the classic Katz essay about expediency and the holocaust), I’m aware of the discrepancy between my humanities oriented concept of what I do and the purposes that my student and my institution have for it.  I don’t like agribusiness, but that’s what I’m participating in through some of my students. So personal sincerity, certainly, I tend to think is involved.

As for the issue of whether populist strategies, because people are consciously crafting rhetoric rather than speaking their minds, is sincere, is a good question that cuts to the heart of what politics is, and it places us squarely within the wheelhouse of rhetorical theory. I’ve got two answers, a flippant one and a more knotty one. The first is that rhetoric doesn’t really “believe” in that kind of personal sincerity. It’s a performance. It is important that a performer can maintain the necessary ethos for the job. That’s a flippant, but kind of true, answer. It’s problematic because one claim rhetoric makes is that language is value laden and is articulated to “the good,” and so the Machiavellian attitude that efficacy is what counts kind of fucks up our identities as humanists. There have been efforts to deal with this, but it’s not something I’m going to claim to be able to really resolve. Richard Lanham has a chapter about “The Q Question” – named after Quintillian who said rhetoric was “a good man speaking well- that lays out the problem well. The weak response is that the good guys have to arm themselves. A stronger response is that language, identity, and values are so intertwined that you can’t really separate out efficacy from context. A very strong affirmation of Quintillian is impossible.

The second answer, which might be more on point to the Laclau stuff and Marxism, is that discrepancies and disruptions are a part of subjectivity, and so the presence of inconsistencies and deliberate strategizing that go into using populist rhetoric are just inherent to politics. You can’t smooth out the disruptions except through using a hegemonic strategy, and populism is such a strategy. If you DON’T deliberately use a strategy, I think you are going to be interpolated into one. Such is ideology. If we, at this point, return to personal sincerity, then yeah, people can be true believers who don’t really think they are contriving something. I’m convinced that Sarah Palin means what she says, as self serving, inconsistent, and absurd as it is. I really am. She reminds of people I grew up around.

Skepoet: And what do you think of the idea of populist elitism explaining people like Ayn Rand?

Jamie McAfee:I think it exactly explains Ayn Rand’s popularity, although I don’t know if it explains her writing. She certainly would recoil at being labeled a populist. (The irony is some comfort.) I tend to personally think that her amateurish efforts at philosophy and bombastic literature reflect a very smart mind that had no interest in the discipline of formal training, so there’s a germ of populism there. “Precocious” is a good description of her. That’s my not-interested-enough-to-read-Ayn-Rand-very-deeply-and-I-have-graduate-training-as-a-literary-critic opinion, which is pretty undisciplined also.

I don’t think we should understand Rand’s popularity in a vacuum though. She “fits” into the anti-elite narrative and into the definition of negative freedom as liberty that the right uses in their version of populism. Here you’ve got an actual philosopher-type person who thinks that liberalism as corrupt, self serving, and hostile to liberty as the most cynical banker is an anarchist’s imagination could ever be. Add to that the conflation of liberal institutions with “the left” that right populism does so well, and you’ve got a recipe for Paul Ryan to make his staff read Atlas Shrugged as a condition of working for him.

I think of Frank Meyer’s advocacy of fusionism, which is pretty much a battle plan that anticipates Laclau’s work. Rand fits the libertarian part of the coalition Meyer was talking about. There’s a good book called The Right Nation by a couple of guys from The Economist that traces the evolution of fusionism and argues that Reagan was it’s fulfillment. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is, of course, specifically about Reagan.

I think her broader popularity is a populist thing as well, as she can be the strongest possible version of really obvious hegemonic discourse. “Work hard and capitalism will take care of you. Death to parasites.” The egalitarian way she’s understood by many of her fans is at odds with her extreme elitism, but there you go. Hegemony does strange things.

I’d personally toss in that the hyperreal business I mentioned about Anon is relevant to her also because of the kind of narrative her novels are. It’s curious that polemic speculative fiction is so important to populist imagination. Orwell, who was a socialist, is often appropriated by the right as well.

I just thought I’d toss in that a really simplistic version of what I think right populism in the U.S. is right now is that it’s fusionism gone to seed. That’s how I understand the recent history of the right-that they’ve managed to amplify certain “common commonsensical” hegemonic aspects of that project, and it’s become disarticulated from its original cold war context and from any coherent notion of public policy. Well, it’s internally coherent I guess, but it doesn’t respond to the facts of the case very often. Some have pointed to Karl Rove as a tipping point of policy being used to enhance partisanship becoming the norm rather than partisanship being used to make gains for particular policy positions.

I think the think I was just saying about Karl Rove kind of makes the right function like terrorism, which uses violence as a strategy for recruitment rather than using recruitment as a way to become capable of strategic violence. (There’s an essay by a political scientist, Idon’t remember who as it doesn’t apply to much of anything I work on,that describes terrorism as “new war,” defining the term in this way.)
That reversal is a danger, obviously of partisanship in general, and maybe populist strategy in particular.

Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

Jamie McAfee: Thanks again for quizzing me. This has been helpful to spill out a bunch of text about some of the ideas I’ve been pondering, and to tie together some of the stuff I’ve been reading during the past few months. You tricked me into beginning some work I needed to do.

I would close by reiterating a caveat I made up front, that I’m expanding and exploring, in some ways, this populism business in ways that Laclau, who’s my lean to, might or might not have intended. The populisms he discusses are more straightforward, unproblematic movements, while I’m fusing the idea with his later work about hegemony, with certain rhetorical concepts, and with a few bits of literary criticism. I think those move is important and useful for discussing what’s happening in American politics, but I’d emphasize that I’m adapting him for my own purposes and for my own contexts. I think I’m being fair, but I want to emphasize that I’m deviating somewhat from perhaps what the texts are intended as. I think synthesis and adaptation are important, and I want to emphasize that I see what I did there. A problem with people in English departments is that people take little snippets of this or that and use it out of context. I don’t think that’s what I’m doing, but my loyalties aren’t to Laclau’s intentions either.

Thanks again. See you round.6


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