On Contesting Populism

By Two Toronto Members, One Hamilton Member, One Kitchener-Waterloo Member

In recent decades we, the Left, have had shockingly little to show for ourselves. Our various tendencies each have their own take on why this is, and the explanations are all familiar to us. Material conditions are not yet ripe. The Left is fragmented and sectarian. There is a crisis of leadership in the unions. Our activists lack the requisite commitment and discipline. The movement lacks militancy. Those of us with privilege have not yet become good enough allies. And from our class struggle anarchist scene, too often: the Left just needs to refocus on “class.” While there are no doubt kernels of insight to be found in some of these worn out tropes, let’s be honest. There are material conditions, and then there is the North American Left of 2015.

In Canada, neoliberal restructuring continues to erode the living standards of large sections of the working class. Urbanization, capital flight, and reaccumulation-by-gentrification have reorganized our cities. In Toronto, this reorganization pushes the growing lower strata of the class into the new inner-suburban proletarian districts. State immigration policies swell the ranks of a migrant worker underclass labouring under worsening conditions in the agricultural, manufacturing, and service sectors. All these pressures combine to fragment and re-fragment our class. We cannot overstate the Left’s failure to contend with this onslaught. Countless hours of internal debate have not produced a productive reorientation to these conditions. Our public forums, publications, and Internet presence are an echo chamber that deafens us to the very voices that should inform our politics: those of our neighbours and co-workers. Marginal, isolated and inward-looking, no matter our particular tendency we share a common affliction: our politics are ridden with populism.

Populism spans the political spectrum, but is commonly associated with the political Right. Locally “Ford Nation,” led by former mayor Rob Ford and his brother and former city councillor Doug, represents a populist political current of suburban Toronto. Ford Nation positions residents of the city’s inner suburbs as the disenfranchised common people, the political underdog whose interests are opposed in a perpetual contest with the politically dominant, left-wing, downtown elite. The Fords raise real working-class concerns, such as poor transit service outside of downtown. They build their following through direct contact with, and casework on behalf of, constituencies traditionally ignored by Toronto’s political class. This has allowed the Fords to mobilize electoral support for what is a fairly typical fiscally-conservative agenda of reducing and privatizing city services and cutting property taxes.

Populism is also the favoured politics of many a social movement. The Tea Party, Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), Occupy, and environmentalists have much more in common than is often acknowledged. Within Left circles, much of what has been written about and discussed regarding populism concerns itself with analyzing how it is used by the Right, supposing it could be used better by the Left. We feel that the time has come to forge an understanding of populist methods and intentions that goes beyond its talking points and gets to its underlying politics. The following is our working definition of populism:

1. A way of talking and a method of organizing used by a leader, or leadership, to opportunistically increase their following among a certain group of people.

Our definition specifically does not reference the mass population, but rather a predetermined group of people. Populists only ever speak to a certain particular constituency, not a vague, indivisible mass. For example, “Ford Nation” is deliberately meant to be the residents of the inner suburbs of Toronto. This is not contained to “Big Populists” such as the Fords. Petit-populists abound, as well – especially among the Left. The key here is not the quantity of those being engaged, but the quality of the engagement. This shouldn’t be confused with cults of personality, which are more up-front about their authoritarianism. The bait-and-switch with populists is that rather than taking orders, you’re supposedly just following your heart, only to find yourself manipulated.

2. A method of arguing for solutions that ignores the complexity and subtleties of problems in favour of simplicity, if not willful inaccuracy; evoking feelings of fear, anger, love and hope in order to manipulate or pander to one’s constituency.

How many times have leftists opportunistically railed against “greedy bankers” or “corporate rule” rather than undertaking a careful investigation and strategic intervention into the intricate set of social relations that give rise to class struggle?

3. A proven strategy to increase numbers of followers, but one which produces a passive and politically weak following.

Populist leaders of leftist movements, whether a singular charismatic figure, an NGO, or a core of committed activists, either consciously or unwittingly pacify their base by stringing them along in a series of mobilizations and calls to action, which appeal to the state to redress their issue of the day. This produces a base comprised of individuals that, when substantively engaged directly on an individual basis, often present a level of incoherence and contradiction that can only be borne of an acute ignorance of their own supposed political orientation.

4. A strategy that substitutes superficial commonalities for more relevant shared material conditions.

Cultural similarities such as nationality, dress, composure, vocabulary, and music override income, employment, health, education, and physical safety as the basis for coming together. Populist movements are therefore always cross-class endeavors. On the radical left, our small-scale populism has us hemmed in with little to no presence beyond university campuses and subcultural radical scenes (punk, alternative lifestyles) where academic obscurantism and cliquishness abound. The educational events we organize, the propaganda we distribute, and the Internet articles, blogs, and Facebook posts we write are more apt to appeal to the people we hang out with on the weekends than to our neighbours or co-workers. The self-styled radical activists and intellectuals among us cultivate tiny followings and bases of support within their social circles, with only a pretense of building independent organizations of the class.

Our populism has produced a contemporary Left that has practically abandoned the terrain of class struggle, while feverishly working to maintain the illusion of engagement within it. We play at movement building and mobilization, call for solidarity and social justice, and mimic direct action. In a relentless blitz of protest organizing, public statements, social media campaigns, and internal engagements, we shroud ourselves in a fog of self-involvement. To the extent that we build any base within the class, it is tiny, inward-looking, and passive.

Populism has taken hold of us. We reproduce a deep-seated authoritarianism embedded within our politics. Authoritarianism so thoroughly enmeshed in our practices that it has become difficult for us to distinguish; it stands at odds with the very core of anarchist communist politics. Unless we begin to examine the folly of our conduct and refrain from habitually ingratiating ourselves to a demobilized base, even the best analysis is of no consequence. Until we shed ourselves of manipulative practices, we will continue to flounder amidst the decomposition of our class and the growing reactionary influence upon it. Until we drop the radical posturing, we will fall short of the task of revolutionaries – to organize working-class power. Until then, we are little more than organizers of protest.

This article will attempt to point out the dangers of populism manifested in three different areas of struggle. All three struggles will be further explored by our comrades in the pages that follow. For our part, we will concern ourselves with the Left’s particularly hazardous fixation on populism, and how it hinders revolutionaries’ prospects for contributing to these struggles. On the ecological front, we insist on abandoning one-off mobilizations and millenarian fear mongering. We call for struggle against reactionary movements that take hold within our class and demand that we evict ourselves from the house of liberalism in order to make war on enemies. And, finally, in contesting the police, we consider the possible end of the Copwatch era and stress the need for resistance to police brutality to go beyond reactive anger and become rooted in organizations that can defend territory. In issuing these warnings and suggestions, we hope to contribute to a reorientation to better organize for working-class power.

Marching On as We Poison the Well

The sky is falling as the seas rise and our ship sinks. But don’t worry – important steps are being made. Environmental justicers just need more support and we can save this dying planet. There’s little more sophistication to common leftist environmental rhetoric than that of a door-to-door canvasser. About as much participatory struggle is offered, as well. The change they seek is a change of habit, or better yet, a change of political parties. We need to join their mobilizations to save the planet and stop those (apparently) in favour of killing it. Lawn signs in favour of windmills, mobilizations of hundreds of thousands for stricter emissions controls, solar panels on parking meters, better fuel economy for public transit vehicles – all of these developments have the appearance of change. As revolutionaries, however, we find it difficult to identify any significant changes, and we refuse to pass on the due diligence that is required to truly tackle the issue. We can’t bank on only the appearance of change, otherwise we run the risk of continuing to set ourselves back, while foolishly thinking we are progressing.

In anticipation of the September 2014 UN Climate Summit in New York city, a global call to action was made by 350.org to stop climate change. The resulting People’s Climate Marches, organized not only in New York, but other cities around the world, were endorsed by fifteen hundred organizations – including unions, schools, and churches, as well as hundreds of NGOs. On September 21st, 2014, the day of the march, over three hundred thousand participants gathered in New York City. Although the number of marchers was significant, the march itself was nothing more than a large-scale version of any typical activist and NGO-led mobilization. Local activists replicated the event on a smaller scale in their respective areas, and for the foreseeable future, it left the climate, those that live in the climate, and those that profit from environmental devastation, largely unaffected.

With its simplistic “it’s now or never” or “all or nothing” millenarianism, the lead up to this “historic” march was off on a galloping populist pace. With its calls for everyone to change everything, it cast its widest net in order to catch… whatever. The mobilizers played on people’s fears, rather than telling them the truth: that climate change is real, and humans will need to adapt and make revolutionary changes, not to avert it, but in order to deal with it. Climate change is in fact here – as are we. It can’t be “stopped,” but we can still take measures to limit its further devastation. Vague statements like “an invitation to change everything” also don’t mean much, nor do they point the way to any concrete or direct actions. In fact, these sorts of statements demonstrate that the mobilizers have no trust in working-class people’s abilities to think for ourselves and create our own solutions to these problems. We need only to show up, but not to be consulted or organized with, as the environmental activist “specialists” already have the solutions. All they need are unthinking bodies to swell the demonstration’s numbers. This approach, of course, fails to achieve the nuanced conversation on environmentalism within the working class that is sorely required for real change to happen. The “base” that is created in this fashion, thus, will always be politically weak, while perhaps numerically large. Without the hard truth being presented, the lack of understanding of what is at stake is unavoidable. The end result, regardless, is that it becomes glaringly evident that this form of mobilization, and its populism, produces no independent or effective struggles relating to the growing environmental crisis.

Closer to home, in west Toronto, a “secret uranium factory” was discovered by environmental activists in the fall of 2012. Word was spread, town halls were called, residents were organized, and demands to close the GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy Canada facility were made. All of this sounds like successful working-class organizing. In a residential neighbourhood, an industrial conglomerate operated a secret processing plant that posed lethal threats to all those in the surrounding area. Hundreds of neighbours were informed by environmental activists that the local water, soil, and air were potentially contaminated and that were a train to derail from the tracks next to the factory a cloud of lethal radiation could be unleashed on an unsuspecting and unprepared city. They were warned of potential birth defects and developmental impacts on their children. In the area surrounding the local elementary school an agitational propaganda campaign of spray-painting “nuclear holocaust” was taken up. Justifiably outraged, local residents organized to have the GE Hitachi factory shut down. Taking matters further, residents of this west end Toronto neighbourhood attempted to build links with Indigenous communities engaged in their own struggles against uranium extraction.

Here’s the rub – practically all of the claims and insinuations of the environmental crusaders that parachuted into that neighbourhood were false. There was zero evidence of local contamination, the uranium in question was un-enriched (not highly radioactive), and the factory had been operating for over fifty years at the same location with no correlating health impacts reported by local residents.

Regardless, the crusade against this potential nuclear holocaust kept chugging along and mobilized a significant number of residents of the neighbourhood, if only for a time. It did so by capturing and playing to people’s fears of past-nuclear disasters – going so far as to explicitly invoke Fukushima and Chernobyl. These “organizers’” goals may have been met (the factory continues to operate and pass safety inspections and soil testing, though there was some pretty decent local coverage of the key organizers) but only through deliberate manipulation.

Fool me once. Lying to people in order to get a better photo-op is strategically unwise in the immediate term. In the long term, after repeated kicks at the-sky-is-falling can, people don’t just stop taking you seriously, they start to hate you. They may even start to listen to anyone else that hates you, as well. This is the brand of fire populists play with. It shouldn’t just be viewed as anathema to core principles of what it means to organize within the working class. It should be viewed as potentially suicidal.

They Reap What We Sow

Only one thing could have broken our movement – if our enemies had understood its principle and from the first day had smashed the nucleus of our movement with extreme brutality. There you go – a Hitler quote right off the hop. Happy?

Much of the Left sees a fascist in every cop, conservative politician, and reactionary militant. For some this is transparent hyperbole, but for others an unassailable truth. And why not? If one wishes to marshal the full potential of outrage, what better way than to evoke the most evilest name in history? If one wishes to portray a struggle as an epic confrontation between the forces of good and evil, well, go ahead and “Hitler” it right up. So what if it makes little sense, or fails to hold up to scrutiny? It’s all in the game. Trouble is, two can play it.

We had our kick at the (equality/free speech/anti-racist/anti-sexist/anti-violence/multicultural/secular) can. Now, it seems, it’s the other team’s turn. We’re confronted by an interrelated rightward shift of “movements” that lurked on the sidelines of ours and studied us. They now emulate our rhetorical claims to righteous victimhood and our vague allusions to the justice of our cause. Like us, they obscure the matter at hand with a veneer of vague “isms,” while rallying forces behind them, rather than with them.

When the barricades go up (dutifully supplied by the state) we volley all the liberal objections in our arsenal at our enemies only to be met in kind. The vague (and occasionally incoherent) charges of intolerance, violence, prejudice, and dangerousness we levy against the Islamophobes, MRAs, and anti-Native organizers are neutralized with a simple counter-accusation of “YOU ARE!” We are engaged in a spiraling, intractable war of semantics over which of us is the rightful standard bearer of the peaceable liberal.

Trouble is we aren’t liberals. At least we aren’t supposed to be. When we are at our most honest, as revolutionaries, we have it in us to be principled, and at times brilliant, in our articulation of what it is we oppose, why, and what it is that we strive for. It’s when we find ourselves in the terrain of struggle that honesty escapes us. This is, often times, a calculated dishonesty. There’s a lack of trust that pervades the Left – not in ourselves, but in everyone else. A mentality that the size of a mobilization is the measure of struggle and that the size of our mobilizations are inversely proportional to the degree of our revolutionary honesty. The first evaluation is false and the second evaluation is, therefore, irrelevant.

This mentality presents itself as pathology most when we confront those enemies “among us” in the class who are mobilizing against “us” using the same tried and true rhetorical methods that we’ve been cultivating for political generations. We don’t find ourselves in the position of defending bourgeois virtues of nonviolence, free expression, and democracy. We put ourselves in that position by concealing our struggle for power and communism. Fearing that no one will listen to us otherwise, we grope around for a palatable pitch. We put in play politics that can’t support the weight of their own contradictions (those of liberal democracy and revolutionary communism) and are therefore destined to collapse. When we leave itinerant reactionary populists to pick up the rubble that remains and cobble together their own political edifice, how do we not conclude that we are the architects of our own undoing? Honestly. This is not simply a fear of recuperation. The concern is that we are furnishing a political environment we will soon be evicted from. One in which reactionaries will feel more than comfortable putting their feet up and making a home for themselves.

You Are Cordially Invited to an Eviction Party

It’s only a matter of time before we’re evicted from our claims of victimhood, demands for our rights of protected speech, and our positions as champions of secular enlightenment. We don’t propose fighting for our right to continue to inhabit this space. We should welcome the eviction and, with proletarian abandon, trash the place on our way out. We propose moving on. Salt the fields and poison the wells of populism. We propose war with enemies. We don’t simply carry a new world in our hearts, rather, we carry it on our backs as we proclaim it clearly and unequivocally in our words to our class and take on organizing in order that we may all grasp it with our fists.

On the Justice of Slitting Bearded Necks

When we square off against MRAs specifically, or misogyny generally, we should leave debates of “sexism” and statistical inequality to the liberal depths from whence they came. We should be honest with others and true to our more private discussions when we enter the fray. Leave behind the wordsmithing that reduces our politics to a pale reduction of its honest form. Ground struggles against patriarchy in our organizing of any front – because that’s what feminists do. Deliberately build our strength, wage battles, weaken and defeat misogynists, and make no excuses for that – because that’s what revolutionaries do. Let misogynists’ claims of victimization ring true. We should silence them. We should run them off. They should be afraid. We should wage war on MRAs publicly and effectively, while not wavering from our position that defeating patriarchy is a victory for humanity, and that all those that stand with patriarchy stand opposed to humanity – and us.

Nous Sommes Confus

The repugnance and brutality of a secularism that comfortably thrives at the heart of Christendom can’t possibly continue to be ignored by any revolutionaries. Nor can the facile, tacit support of religious reactionaries be seen as any rectification. Any game where the players have to pick between team Hitchens and team Galloway (or any of their farm teams) is a game that no revolutionary can win.

2015 began, for the Left, with the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office and the following increase of attacks on Muslims in France. The incoherence of progressive and radical rhetoric was thrown into stark relief as we attempted to reconcile the supposed impasse that pits “enlightened values” against segments of the working class brutalized by white supremacy and Islamophobia. Revulsion at the attack was met with anti-imperialist denunciation. Battle lines were drawn and the indignation was let loose with an abandon few others but leftists are capable of. To what end? When enlightened principle faced off against an attempted exorcism of the Left’s racist demons, revolutionary politics were left in the lurch. The unstoppable force of “anti-racism” collided with the immovable object of “free speech” and – as the idiomatic paradox implies – the outcome was incomprehensibly vague. Mobilizing sentiment behind these ideas became the priority, and reactionaries on both sides responded enthusiastically. Why we cling so dearly to these vagueries is a question that we must take stock of and rectify.

Settling Accounts

Whether it’s the “Two Row Wampum,” “The Dish With One Spoon,” class interest, or all of the above that guides our solidarity with Indigenous struggle, our analysis should be comprehensible as something more substantial than a meme, or a flag. We should be compelled by more than mere sentiments of guilt, shame, or admiration. It should be taken as incontrovertible that the Indigenous people on this land are those that are poised today to be those most opposed to the interests of the Canadian ruling class and its state. It should also be understood that some of the most potent (while still somewhat latent) opposition to Indigenous fighters will come from a Canadian population galvanized by their own ready-made sentiments of fear, indignation, and pride, and replete with their own flags and memes. It’s unlikely that in a balance of forces, “our” sentimentality will win out over “theirs,” if and when the question is called. This is anticipatable and unnecessary. There are real class interests for “settlers” to ally with Indigenous communities and territories engaged in conflict with the ruling class of Canada. We need to be clear on these, lest we perpetuate an approach to “the Indigenous question” far more suitable to antagonism than solidarity with Indigenous struggle.

Police: Pox Populi

Not since the events that followed Rodney King’s beating at the hands of fifteen LAPD officers have things “kicked off” to such a degree across the United States in response to the brutality of its police. For some it may be difficult to appreciate the significance of “the first ever viral video,” which clearly showed cops taking turns, as one after another truncheoned an unarmed Black man. It was 1992, and the real outcome of the “War on Drugs” was becoming impossible to ignore for an ever-growing number of people. The rapidly expanding police force and prison population stood congruent with, and not opposed to the spiralling violence again taking hold of the deindustrialized urban centres of the United States. The urban unrest of the 1960’s had been historically attributed to militant action in service of the “Civil Rights” movement (read: Black liberation). Back in the early 1990s, it seemed quite likely that the US was poised on the brink of a new era of civil unrest. Yet unlike before, this unrest would not be in defence of liberatory momentum, but rather, in response to the decades-long all-out assault on the working class, generally, and the urban Black working class, particularly. Enter into this simmering cauldron of potential “rupture” the voices of all those that sought to lead their people to the promised land, yet again. This was twenty-three years ago. It would be a stretch to claim any concrete gains for the working class in its struggle against the police since, despite the galvanization of sentiments of objection broadly, and the reinvigorated militancy and consciousness of the Black working class specifically.

While it’s true to say the events of Los Angeles in 1992 were catalytic for many – gang members organized peace summits, prisoners familiarized themselves with the struggles of those that came before them, Copwatches were started formally and informally across the country, and the Prison-Industrial-Complex, as a growing phenomena, accompanied a generalized understanding of the police-as-enemy, again being articulated. Yet no breakthroughs can be claimed, despite the opportunities available.

We have every reason, twenty-three years later, to claim opportunities for breakthrough are again before us – though it’s far from a given. It can be said that the murders of Oscar Grant in Oakland and Trayvon Martin in a Miami suburb had each contributed to a stewing resentment giving way to localized resistance. But Ferguson seemed to be a watershed moment that was then compounded by the callously indifferent way in which Officer Daniel Pantaleo murdered an unarmed and peaceable Eric Garner – on camera. If Mr. King’s beating at the hands of the LAPD ushered in the era of Copwatch, does this mean that Eric Garner’s murder at the hands of the NYPD brings it to a close? While recordings of the brutality of police can still provide a catalytic spark for popular outrage, the idea that they are in any way a preventative measure should have been dispensed with as we watched Eric Garner having the life slowly choked from him by an officer who knew that his murder was being documented.

Police beatings and murders are common occurrences; the phenomenon of those beatings and murders producing a groundswell of resistance is far rarer; that resistance spreading out and sustaining itself, even more so. The resistance to police violence and state abuse that swelled in Ferguson, Missouri has given birth to new memes and slogans, sure, but more importantly it’s stirred the conscience and objections of hundreds of thousands of people across the continent and moved them to act. The how has been attributed to all the new communication methods and social networking technologies available to us today. Fine. The why is not that murdered but rather that the people in Ferguson most targeted by its police force were the ones that fought back. It was different than the staged protests everyone had become so accustomed to, and they, rightly, took notice. The how of the resistance has very much to do with the refusal of militants and residents in Ferguson to allow others to speak for them (while actually speaking at them). They took matters in their own hands and inspired thousands of others to do likewise.

When Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were run out of town, they didn’t leave behind them a power vacuum. In the absence (or following the removal) of self-appointed leaders, the power and intelligence of those they wished to lead came to the fore. Tactics diversified, fronts of struggle opened up, attacks were met with resistance, and every person inspired by the actions of those in Ferguson could imagine carrying them out themselves. Many did. Across the United States actions were taken up to give voice to those who objected to the role of the police. As activity spread, it was not a process of repetition giving way to stagnation, but solidarity paving the way for innovation. Thousands blockaded major roadways, took workplace action, organized walk-outs of their schools, and blocked access to major retail locations on the country’s busiest shopping days.

Success in struggles against police requires organization. Successful organizations require that their memberships be comprised of those impacted by police violence. These should be givens for any revolutionaries. What often goes unaddressed are the ways in which we enforce a division between these organizations and the resistance they are supposed to be facilitating. The organizations we construct are those that craft the rhetoric and analysis relevant to the resistance others carry out. “Revolutionary” organizations evaluate the conditions for struggle from a remove, while “community” organizations support (read: intervene on) the masses with workshops aimed at cognitive and behavioural remedies for privilege and oppression. Meanwhile, their chosen audience remains unmoved, either intellectually or physically.

This is no spontaneitist screed against organization, but a demand that we reconceive the role of organizations as something beyond the purview of those that think what they have to say to others is so important that they need institutions to do so. Organizations that can effectively respond to the scourge of police need be accountable and responsive to the will of those up to the task. Our current populist affliction is of no service to that end. And in many ways, our reactive hit-and-miss ambulance chasing mentality, at times in which police violence even moderately captures the attention of a broader segment of the class, acts as an interloping place-holder that obstructs, rather than contributes to, the building of organizations by those most in need of them.

If we wish to avoid another twenty-three year hibernation period for struggles against policing, we need be wary of our tendency to stymie the building of real organizations that can contest territory with the police. Overcoming the tendency to speak for and to “the resistance” is crucial for us to be able to contribute to the building of the organizations of counter-power best suited to combating the police. If not – we can, at the very least, afford the working class the courtesy of not standing in its way as it takes up that organizing itself.

Moving Forward

In our opening volley for Mortar Volume Three, we have tried to identify the Left’s default orientation towards the inherently authoritarian politics of populism, and the dangers therein. We want to be clear. We are in no way opposed to appealing to people’s anger, hopes, and fears in our organizing. On the contrary, not doing so will mean we fail to make the basic human connection required to agitate our neighbours and co-workers, and encourage their self-organization. We are for direct organizing within the class on all fronts to improve our lives and increase our power.

The hazards of populism lie, not in engaging with the passion evoked by the disparity between what the working class has and what it wants, but in its latent or explicit authoritarianism. We must shed ourselves of the bred-in-the-bone methods that capture those passions while corralling people into dead-end pathways that prioritize the most numerous or “militant” mobilization over the most powerful organizing. In doing so, we aim to demonstrate how self-organized working-class action can defeat and cast into irrelevancy even the most energetic displays of populist movements.