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Review: J.A. Smith’s “Other People’s Politics: Populism to Corbynism”

So confident were many in the apparent neutrality and sensibility of the third way approach that the difference between Conservatives and Labor, much like the Republicans and the Democrats, started to look merely cosmetic.”

Introduction

J.A. Smith’s Other People’s Politics: Populism to Corbynism, which was released in July 2019 and is available here, is a necessary read for understanding the contemporary political climate from a progressive standpoint. That it is also eminently readable and burgeoning with wit is a serious plus. The book is the latest in a series of works trying to explain the rise of right-wing populism—what I’ve called post-modern conservatismin a more comprehensive manner. But Other People’s Politics goes beyond many competing volumes in attempting to explain not just populism on the Right, such as the election of President Donald Trump and Brexit—but also populism on the Left, with the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Smith is among the first to aim to systematically distinguish between populism on the Right and on the Left, and he argues persuasively for why emerging social democratic and socialist movements warrant our admiration.

While the populist right and the social democratic left are the primary antagonists in the book, Smith also spends a great deal of time arguing for why “third way” style politics eventually faltered. This came as a surprise to many, since in the aftermath of both September 11th and the Great Recession, it seemed like centrist politicians in the vein of Barack Obama and David Cameron had maintained a firm grip on power and stabilized potential resentments. Smith’s argument is that the momentary reprisal granted to third way politicians distracted from the more significant and epoch changing development taking place beneath surface level politics. His analysis is sweeping but never inaccessible, taking in everything from Lacanian psychoanalytic theory to digital aesthetics.

The book also speaks to a real need on the part of progressives to go beyond just condemning the Right—and towards trying to understand it.

The Center Cannot Hold

Smith’s book opens with his reflections on Blairism. In the 1990’s, during his own political ascension, Tony Blair famously reoriented the Labour party towards a more centrist position as a reaction to the neoliberal reforms of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Once Labor managed to defeat the Conservative party in 1997, Blair quickly went about propagating the apparently ideology-less “third way,” which distanced itself from the extremes of the Right and the Left. But, as the late Mark Fisher observes, this was never very true in practice. One of the features of Blairism was an acceptance of the Thatcherite dictum that there “was no alternative” to neoliberalization. All that “New” Labour could accomplish was softening its worst elements. So confident were many in the apparent neutrality and sensibility of this approach that the difference between Conservatives and Labor, much like the Republicans and the Democrats, started to look merely cosmetic. Conservatives would come into power and slash taxes on the wealthy, cut a few social programs, and be more bellicose in supporting military force as a solution to foreign policy dilemmas. Labor and other nominally “left” parties would come in and raise taxes by a few percentage points, restore a few small scale social programs, and express regret over the necessity of using force while still being willing to do so.  Neither would try to change that much. So quiescent was this approach that when the populations of various countries came to demand radical change, third way politicians and their cultural allies were shocked. As put by Smith:

“The…problem with Blair’s imputation of the result to a ‘convergence’ of right and left and a ceding of the center ground, 3 Preface is the simple fact that it was centrism that called the referendum (Cameron’s faith in the electoral power of his personal affability and self-vision as a Blair-like maneuverer of his own party) and centrism that had established the conditions for its loss (Blair’s own historical policy of driving forward European integration while making only spectral efforts to justify it to the country). It also misses that the great organs of the political center, The Economist magazine, The Independent, and The Financial Times, conspired in the result when they endorsed a Conservative Party that had the referendum in its manifesto in the 2015 General Election. UK centrism’s high-stakes arrogance was matched only by the ‘Pied Piper strategy’ simultaneously adopted by the Hillary Clinton campaign in the US, which instructed media allies to elevate Donald Trump’s candidature in the Republican primary, on the assumption that he would be the easiest candidate for Clinton to beat.” 

Of course, many of these radical movements were not driven by the political left, as one might have expected—but, rather, from the right. Smith’s book spends a great deal of time trying to analyze the roots of this development. Unlike many commentators who speak primarily about “values,” Smith insists that at least part of the problem lay in “economic anxiety.” But anxiety is not to be understood conventionally as just concern about where the next paycheck is coming from or how many shifts you’ll get a work next week. It is related to this but goes considerably deeper. Invoking the French psychoanalytic theorists Jacques Lacan, Smith argues economic anxiety feeds into our belief that “our reality may have come ‘unmoored’ from the great signifiers we think give it meaning—God, national identity, family etc.—and that things may instead at this stage just be “going with the drift.” He contends that in the aftermath of the 2008 Recession, many were left wondering whether the signifier of “the economy” existed at all. Commentators insisted that things were improving and the worst of the recession had passed. But for ordinary individuals impacted by recession-era austerity, not to mention decades of growing job precarity and declining real wages, the idealized insistence that their problems weren’t real grew increasingly grating.  As a result, many became increasingly attracted to “government and media willingness” to blame foreigners, minorities, and the even more disadvantaged for the situation. 

This left the door open for the emergence of populists eager to construct a narrative about the “people” being constrained by various antagonistic groups. The common reaction of centrist commentators was to insist on the Thatcherite dictum that, “there was no such thing as society really”; the people were just an aggregate of individuals and competing groups. Invoking the rhetoric of “we the people” was just a convenient legal fiction. One of the tactics of right-wing populists was, ironically, to exploit the distinction between legal fiction and atomized reality to insist that the people were actually real. In Lacanian parlance, it was to “supply” the notion of a unified body politic, which could come into the fullness of its political existence if only its various enemies were eliminated. This is also where the conservative dimension of right-wing populism comes in. Despite the claims of right-wing populists being disruptors, they retain a strong need to “ground” their position in something more than continued change. They also need to find a way to short circuit calls to actually redistribute power to historically marginalized groups (such as the poor), while also claiming to be an anti-elitist movement. The way to do this is to frame an enemy, who provides the populist worldview with a sense of stability. It enables them to present themselves as contrarians, while calling for reactionary demands to restore power to those who have traditionally wielded it.

“Populism by contrast—and rather surprisingly given its reputation for glorying in unruliness—finds its philosophical ‘ground’ precisely in the insistence on an originary stability or consistency, which has only been brought to antagonism by the disruptive intervention of an outside enemy…In this view, the differentiation made by John B. Judis, between a right-wing populism which is ‘triadic’ (the people vs. the elite and the immigrants they let in) and a left-wing variation which is dyadic (immigrants are part of the people! the only enemy is the elite!) is beside the point. As soon as such a cleft between “actual” people and “actual” enemy is made, we are witnessing a false exportation of antagonism from the polity as such (of which it will always be part), into some externalized figure.”

This externalized figure or enemy stabilizes the populist worldview by allowing populists to continuously claim to be threatened representatives of the real people under siege from hordes of media elites, immigrants, welfare queens, and so on. 

My brief summary of Smith’s analysis does a disservice to its richness and sophistication. Throughout much of the first few chapters, I found myself frequently nodding in agreement. My one critique would be to request a more sustained analysis of the materialist roots of economic anxiety and social transformation in chapter one. The Lacanian theorizing adds a great deal to our understanding of the psychological consequences of the economic situations of the early 21st century, but it doesn’t explain how these material instabilities emerged from within the neoliberal global order. This would also benefit his analysis when he seeks to explain the revolutionary character of neoliberal governance in establishing certain kinds of subjects and anti-democratic forms, while undermining various forms of traditionalism. But these are not problems with the book so much as ways to extend its analysis, and I look forward to Smith elaborating on his problematic in greater detail.

Corbynism as a Model for the Left

The central chapters of the book contain an interesting analysis of conservatism in the vein of Corey Robin, along with a description of Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker’s appeal. These chapters are well done, though I take some issue with Smith’s characterization of conservatism as, “being virtuously resigned about the sacrifices other people are going to have to make for the greater good.” I would argue that this places too much emphasis on the idea of the “other” and misses Robin’s central point about the attraction of conservatism to hierarchy.  Drawing on this, I would say it is closer to say that conservatism entails, “virtuously supporting function hierarchies in the name of the greater good.” But these disputes shouldn’t distract from the provocative and learned quality of these chapters.

What I wanted to discuss is a claim Smith makes at the end of the book: that Corbynism provides a model for a kind of left-wing resurgence. Smith argues that Corbyn, while superficially similar to right-wing populists, embodies a fundamentally different kind of populist movement. Invoking Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau’s post-Marxism, Smith argues that left-wing populism, “can be conceived as the construction of ‘popular identity out of a plurality of democratic demands’: an unstable, momentary ‘people’ that is, coming into being when projected momentarily onto a set of political signifiers—the leader, the enemy, certain political terms and policies—which are by their nature ‘imprecise and fluctuating.” This approach to left-wing populism would be “productively adversarial” in not demanding a liberal positivist acceptance of “multiplicity,” what Rawls, Nussbaum and others might call the existence of social and political “pluralism.” Instead Smith, following Mouffe, claims that left-wing populism ala Jeremy Corbyn, “is an idea of politics that leaves space for acknowledging the constitutive character of social division and the impossibility of a final reconciliation.” It mobilizes followers and advocates from the bottom up, using digital media and other modern resources, while enabling them to express their unique and even irreconcilable democratic and egalitarian ambitions for the country through the temporary unity of a national movement. On the question of whether this model can be universalized beyond the confines of the nation-state, Smith concedes that such would ultimately be the goal. But that must be an issue for the future since one cannot “legislate for wokeness.” 

Smith’s book ends by outlining this inspiring platform, and I largely agree with it, theoretically and morally. My one question is whether such a nationalist movement can actually have an impact beyond the confines of the nation-state and generally provoke more dramatic changes elsewhere. This is an important question since—as the tumultuous experience with Brexit shows—trying to go at it alone in today’s world is extremely difficult no matter where one falls on the political spectrum. Moreover, this is not just a theoretical problem; one of the biggest dangers I predict would be a political left which embraces economically progressive policies while adopting a xenophobic nationalist approach to identity. This is, of course, what happened with the Danish Social Democrats, and I worry about the temptations this might pose.  

Conclusion

Other People’s Politics is an essential book for our time. It is theoretically rich, well-written, and aspirational without being recklessly idealistic. It will surely be of interest to anyone with an interest in progressive politics and the rise of right-wing populism. The book also speaks to a real need on the part of progressives to go beyond just condemning the Right—and towards trying to understand it. One of the most refreshing features of Smith’s book is its willingness to take seriously the arguments of conservative commentators like J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy. Smith is capable of demonstrating sympathy and understanding for the plight of conservative blue collar workers concerned with the state of their country, while also insisting that the Trumpist solutions they are turning too are ultimately dead ends. I think this is the correct approach and adds to the nuance of Smith’s book. It is a piece driven by authentic passion and care for the people it describes: a virtue all too rare in today’s political commentary. One hopes we see many more works in this vein.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at mattmcmanus300@gmail.com or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.

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