By Alan Finlayson
How can we create a progressive ‘popular force’ in an era of digital media platforms dominated by the innovations of right-wing populism?
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a powerful 18th-century polemicist and a radical democrat, thought that political dispute would have no place in the ideal society. Given the right information, he believed, citizens might consult only their hearts. Arguments would only get in the way.
Today, as our politics feels ever more factional, our debates continuous and without end, it is tempting to think as Rousseau did: that what appear as deep-rooted conflicts of interest are simply failures to see clearly what is in the common interest; that things would be much better if we could stop all this noisy misinformation, disinformation and arguing.
From this perspective, good politics is all about subtraction. We have to take away whatever is preventing us from seeing how to live in harmony: lying politicians, corrupt media, pretentious academics, divisive extremists, unruly foreigners, uneducated citizens, the European Union… and so on.
When political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues for a radical democratic ‘Left populism’, she has a very different kind of politics in mind. Instead of a politics of subtraction she proposes addition: people federating around a political project, connecting a politics that defends our environment with ‘democratic struggles against different forms of inequality’. In place of silent inward-looking politics, she urges more public debate and dispute because, for her, politics involves ‘ideological battles’, which create rather than discover ‘collective popular force’.
Politics as translation
In simple societies in which everyone lives the same sort of lifestyle, we might imagine with Rousseau that what is best for everyone is perfectly clear. In complex, diverse, accelerating societies, conflicts of interest and outlook are unavoidable. For us, politics can never be a simple reflection of society, a magic mirror revealing the way to satisfy all interests. On the contrary, politics is there to translate our needs and wants into demands that might be collectively understood, judged and acted upon.
Political and social movements translate and organise such interests by linking or combining them, perhaps placing them within a more general demand, and expressing them in a language recognisable to the political community. Parties develop these demands into policy and attempt to unify them into a ‘programme’ written up as a manifesto. Parliamentary debating chambers are machines for converting such policy ideas into questions on which representatives may vote ‘aye’ or ‘nay. In these ways, political action is ‘constitutive’. It makes claims about what is going wrong for this or that group of people, who or what is to blame and what should be done about it. In so doing it ‘constructs’ political identities and interests, inviting people to identify with them.
Consequently, any politics is in some degree and in its own particular way, populist. Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s rhetoric centred on a promise to liberate forward-thinking, innovative British people, from restrictive ‘forces of conservatism’ on the Left and Right; while ex-Tory prime minister David Cameron argued in his speeches that everyone could be a leader, when set free to be creative and innovative in the ‘post-bureaucratic age’; and the incumbent prime minister, Boris Johnson, famously promised that leaving the EU would bring about the UK’s ‘Independence Day’.
Knowing that political interests are, in this sense, ‘constructed’ doesn’t require one to abandon commitment to whatever demands or interests one thinks essential. On the contrary, one should be committed precisely because such interests will never automatically present themselves to others as unambiguous, straightforwardly actionable demands to which we can all immediately assent.
There is always work to do, a noisy process – intellectual, aesthetic, ideological – through which people become conscious of these conflicting demands, start to fight things out and establish a common resolution. In that process, things are lost in translation. Some demands get blunted or disappear; others because they must be expressed in an established, recognisable and common language, are prevented from ever being properly heard.
That is why a common political demand is that the way we make demands be different – that parties be more democratic, the official language of politics less formal, Parliaments more representative of the kinds of people they govern. But a refusal to participate in the creation and communication of arguments is a refusal of politics.
Politics is then, at least in part, a ‘rhetorical’ activity. That is to say, it involves communication, argument, disputation – attempts to explain, represent and demonstrate one’s claims to others who do not share them and who may, at first, not even understand them. Political success requires cultivating and deploying the arts of persuasion. That art consists of a lot more than attractive presentation and pretty words. Rhetoric helps to (re)organise thinking. It divides issues up and brings them together in ways that help us to see them anew (or which hide them from us); it uses language creatively to redefine and redescribe our experiences so that they are apprehended in common (or obscured); it proposes various ways of applying our universal values to specific cases and invites us to judge between them.
Rhetoric helps to communicate political character, so that we might be convinced someone can take on and perform the role of representative of a people. And rhetoric moves; it paints pictures that stir our sympathy, or our anger, and motivate us. As Mouffe writes, no matter how well developed a programme, if it is to inspire people to action it ‘has to convey effects that resonate with their desires and personal experiences’.
If such rhetoric is to animate people they have to hear (or see, or read) it. And how that happens depends on the technologies used to augment it. Hearing a speech as part of a crowd of people in the House of Commons is very different from reading a pamphlet in the library of a constituency Labour Club, which is also very different from watching BBC Question Time at home. Each of these creates a particular and distinct relationship between speakers, audiences and ideas.
Today speeches, pamphlets and television programmes still convey political ideas. But digital media platforms – YouTube, Reddit, Facebook and so on – are creating new forms and new kinds of relationships between speakers, audiences and ideas. They are reconfiguring ideological and informational contestation in ways that have given rise to new kinds of populist politics. Indeed, many current forms of populist politics cannot be understood apart from the digital platforms through which they have been propagated.
Social, digital, media platforms make it possible for lots of people to become ‘ideological entrepreneurs’, making a living from producing and disseminating political ideas and arguments yet unconstrained by the obligations that come with representing a party or adhering to the codes of professional journalism. This has enabled ambitious people to consolidate and coordinate political outlooks previously too marginal and dispersed to be noticed, developing new ways for people to apprehend their political life simply by ‘liking and subscribing’.
The individualising nature of social media – not least the fact that we mostly consume it on our own, the voices inside our headphones – creates a very particular dynamic between speakers and audiences. Supplied with the daily data, producers can quickly and rapidly adapt to audience reactions, in search of a continued supply of subscribers and paying followers. Audiences can develop close ‘parasocial’ relationships with their ideological entrepreneurs of choice and with each other.
Significantly such online political actors do not produce only 30-second videos or 280-character tweets. They produce hours-long videos and millions of words discussing and developing political ideas, analysing current events and proposing ways to mobilise. They are far more complex and detailed than any party political broadcast.
Digital platforms are locations for intense ideological-rhetorical action and for the cultivation of political understanding. This is where a lot of the work of translating needs and interests into hearable demands now takes place. But people also find there new forms of subcultural community to attach to, and charismatic ideological entrepreneurs promising to explain the world, to show you how to identify the baddies and the goodies, to give you ‘rules for life’.
Translating class power
All of this also takes place, however, in a political-economic context. For most of us occupational security, status and income have all declined over the past 40 years. The acceleration of technological ‘innovation’ has abolished some kinds of work, deskilling and routinising others (including, perhaps especially, the once-grand professions such as law or education).
It has brought a new experience of economic vulnerability to those who thought that their numbers, skills or credentials protected them. Within the workplace, union power and collective bargaining have been replaced by individual negotiations governed by mechanisms of ‘performance management’, overseen by the formalities of Human Resources. In daily life, we must follow the rules and live by the decisions of those whose technical, scientific and intellectual knowledge is applied by various bureaucratic authorities. In our time off our leisure pursuits are shaped by the creative workers of the capitalist media and entertainment industries.
Our working lives are governed by impersonal rules which feel imposed on us from outside; in our private lives, our capacities for creative expression are dwarfed by the power of the commercial media. Meanwhile, in our public, civic lives what was once ‘mainstream’ political rhetoric has long since failed to be either engaging or reassuring about any of these experiences.
Professionalised and mechanistic, using a bland language we all know because we are subjected to it by technocrats at work, it urges us to enjoy the ‘disruption’ and experience it as liberating. Many repelled by or simply excluded from all this, have been attracted by political figures who break with and mock the conventions of such official rhetorics, and who, with their deliberate ‘bad manners’, blur the genres of political discourse with those learned from prior careers in, say, comedy, wrestling and opinion journalism and who promise to free us from the iron cages of late-modernity.
Online, this kind of populist opposition to changes in occupational class experience and cultural power is led by the Right and far Right. Across platforms, and especially on YouTube, new ideological entrepreneurs have achieved commercial viability by cultivating audiences to whom they offer an explanation of what has happened and why, translating general anxieties and expectations into demands contained with a claim about a fundamental antagonism. What they offer – in great detail, through polemics that are both angry and comedic – is a ‘class analysis’ but one which concentrates on domination by a class defined by its possession of cultural and discursive rather than economic power. That rhetoric divides ‘us’ from the ‘them’ – the administrators and managers (especially those in HR), the government bureaucrats and officials, the professionals and experts, the entertainers and journalists.
Above all, what such antagonising ideological entrepreneurs of the Right promise their followers (as the titles of so many online videos, shared Facebook posts and Reddit threads make clear) is ‘The Truth About…’ and ‘What they don’t want you to know…’. That truth centres on ‘exposing’ ‘the agenda’ of the Eurocrats, bureaucrats, liberal woke students, the cultural Marxists, and fellow travellers, what it is that they ‘really think’ and are planning.
‘They’, we are told, invent rules about equity and correct language so as to trap ‘us’; ‘they’ have encouraged ‘mass’ immigration because they despise anything – like ‘us’ – rooted, local and particular; ‘they’ manipulate words and ideas to use against ‘us’ who make useful things with our skilled hands; ‘they’ think that there are no objective values or truths and everything is about power which ‘they’ want to wield against ‘us’. It’s a caricature, a distorted hybrid of a mythical form of liberal universalist, grafted on to a fantasy of ‘the postmodernist’ and imagined advocates of ‘identity’ politics.
It’s also a powerful and mobile myth. It can be given a racial character and exploited by the neo-Nazi anti-Semites. It can be gendered and used by anti-feminist activists. It can be made mainstream, and incorporated into the speeches of cabinet ministers and their advisers, railing against ‘Critical Race Theory’, Foucault or ‘chat about Lacan at dinner parties’.
This is, then, a very familiar form of right-wing populism. It is also particular in how exactly it defines its central antagonism. And it is novel in that it is a kind of ‘distributed populism’.
It has its leaders, its political-intellectual celebrities. But their followers are not passive. They are parts of busy online communities, producers of subsidiary content through sharing and recirculating with their own comments added, editing and remixing videos of admired ideologies, sometimes becoming full-fledged ideological entrepreneurs with their own channels.
The ideology enjoins them to participate, to circulate and share the truth, to respond to the call ‘do your own research’ and to push back against ‘them’ by expressing hostility towards whichever professor of political and social theory they come across online. The subjects of this populist politics can identify not only with leaders but with themselves, becoming the audience to their own performances of the antagonism. The status they feel they have lost in the economic sphere is won back through combat in the online cultural sphere.
Culture class wars
We have, then, a rhetoric that translates needs and expectations into demands by processing them through intense social media-led ideological work. In so doing it constructs a new ‘people’, redefining class experiences by locating them within cultural domination and exclusion.
The counter-response from Left and liberal voices online is surprisingly limited (though often imaginative and interesting). More common are calls to try and regulate or no-platform such populism out of existence. Some in The Labour Party think that they just have to learn how to imitate it, amateurishly reciting scripts culled from the answers provided by focus groups and poll data on national identity. None of this will provide what Labour’s former head of strategic communications, James Schneider, calls an ‘inspirational framework’. It will not, to quote Mouffe again, ‘re-signify sovereignty’, connect it to ‘the democratic tradition’ and ‘deactivate… authoritarian connotations’.
Online reactionary forms of populism are a politics of subtraction. They want to expel things from the polity in order to re-establish natural, tamed and homogenous politics. The counter to this is an ‘additive’ populism. One that moves beyond seeking compensation for individual harms or trying to rerun the industrial class war lost by an earlier generation.
So-called ‘culture wars’ have not supplanted so-called ‘class wars’. The two are completely entwined and each is an expression of the other. To have a chance of winning, a populist counter to reaction will have to show that experiences of dispossession and humiliation are shared by different social groups, while relocating the centre of conflict from experiences of entertainment culture and public discourse, and onto experiences at work: disrespect for our skills; mistreatment because of the kind of people we are; the loss of our collective workplace autonomy; the unjust distribution of the fruits of our labour (by hand and by brain); the erosion of the line between work and the rest of everyday life.
That argument is really very old. It has to be made anew, however, online and offline, in styles and through rhetorics adapted to that medium and which others can be encouraged to take up reuse, remix and recirculate. That means neither wishing nor hoping that people consult their hearts and see reason. It means making noise and taking part in an argument that is currently largely going on without us.
Alan Finlayson is a Professor of Political and Social Theory at the University of East Anglia.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.