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Populism or people’s movements? Interview with Mary Taylor

Members of the
Györffy-Kollégium 1943. Photo:

Ágnes Gagyi: “Populism” seems to have become a central notion in debates about contemporary politics. How do you see the socio-political process that led to this centrality within the US? How would you characterize the political and discursive fields that shape the meanings and applications of this notion in contemporary US debates?

Mary Taylor: Let me first address the term ‘populism’s status as a catch phrase more generally at this global historical juncture. It seems that people are using the term quite often without defining it, and that (in most cases) it is valued negatively; it is an accusation of sorts. As an accusation, it seems to always mean radical, and most often rightist, but sometimes leftist. The other characteristic of the widespread common uses is the broad agreement that populism is a logic, or rhetorical practice which pits ‘the people’ against a corrupt or evil elite. Basically, today, those who use the term populism seem not to be very interested in social movements of ‘the people,’ so much as in politicians and their parties, and it seems to have become irrelevant what policies so-called “populist” politicians enact. It also appears irrelevant whether there is any kind of material basis or class character these rhetorical oppositions, the policies enacted (or for that matter, to the mobilizations).

People’s Party candidate nominating convention held at Columbus, Nebraska, July 15, 1890

First, I’d like to say, although I am by no means an expert on populism in the US, that at the end of the 19th century in the US, there was a People’s Party which was tied to a “populist” movement (and another party formation that predated it). It might be best summed up as a producerist movement, inspired by shifts in the global economy, low agricultural prices, the expansion of the railroads. It was a movement that stressed the needs of producers in contrast to the banks, the financial elite, and the social relations represented in the money system. A good portion of these producers were in debt and they supported inflation to help the position of “the people,” in their understanding: agrarian producers.

People often take it for granted that this “populist” movement was racist, and therefore put it in the family of explicitly right wing movements in the US. Chip Berlet would be the person who could detail the specificities of the connections between right wing ideas to this strand of “populism” in the US. His work is about “regressive populist movements”, which, fueled by people’s actual experiences of oppression, “deflect popular discontent away from positive social change by targeting only small sections of the elite or groups falsely identified with the elite, and especially by channeling most anger against oppressed or marginalized groups that offer more vulnerable targets.” The question is always how this happens under specific circumstances.

What is clear to me as someone who has read just a little about this movement, but who has also been reading the Southern Poverty Law Center’s excellent work on the far right and patriots in the USA since I was a teenager, is that this “populist” movement can by no means be reduced to racism, antisemitism or nativism. However, it would certainly have been vulnerable to the promises of racial privilege that have played a strong role in undermining worker solidarity in the U.S. slave state and since. There was indeed antisemitic language used by people in this movement. Others, however, went out of their way to clarify that they would be against the power of bankers regardless of their ethnic or religious creed; that they were against bankers, not Jews. Some were surely racist, but beyond that fact that most whites at the time were racists in today’s esteem, at least some factions of the movement explicitly espoused a cross racial alliance of agricultural workers against the elite. The question of how hegemony works requires us to take these contradictions seriously. I’ll come back to these issues when I discuss the népi movement(s).

While people like Chip are careful with how they use terms (he distinguishes “Progressive Populism” from “Regressive Right-Wing Populism”), many people use the term populism interchangeably with right radicalism here in the USA and also further abroad. This, along with lack of attention to class formation seem to me to perform a closure on critical examination on how “peoples movements” take the political and social forms they do.

Another development in the US seems important to mention here: “Populism” also became a target of Chicago school economists in the second half of the last century, who were particularly focused on transforming Latin American economies (and thus governments and governance) in a neoliberal fashion. To them, the issue was “keeping the

Supporters rally in support of Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution in 2013. Photo:

hands of the people off of the levers of the economy,” as my colleague Carwil Bjork-James recently summed it up. So here we see that the term populist is pointing to the left (or at the very least forms of developmentalism that sought to decrease peripheral dependence on core capitalist countries, which of course would be a barrier to certain kinds of accumulation).

So we have this odd pairing of left and right (the twin evils) in the accusation “populist!”, put forth in the name of “the center” at a conjuncture in which a technocratic kind of governance has been normalized in tandem with neoliberalization of the economy. Once State Socialism fell, this seems to have become a pretty successful and widespread political tactic, up until recently. Marco D’Eramo makes a very interesting argument in his 2013 article “Populism and the New Oligarchy” about how the emergence of populism as accusation (against both left and right) is paralleled with the disappearance of “the people” as a legitimate subject (on the side of liberal democracy, with Freedom as it’s catchword) in the course of the cold war. I can’t summarize it easily here but it is a significant part of the important genealogy that we must construct.

One last note, before we move on. Stuart Hall, whose work addressed hegemony and popular culture, coined the term “authoritarian populism” in his analysis of the rise and consolidation of Thatcherism. He pointed to the Conservatives’ success at winning support with a hard-line on law and order, and on issues of race and social permissiveness; by constructing “the people” against social democratic “statism,” working to turn radical popular sentiment around and create a “populist unity” in the place of a popular rupture. “Authoritarian populism” brought to light the way in which this Right (a historical bloc seeking hegemony) won consent for its ideas; how it constructed popular consent for a free-market right disguised as “anti-statist.”

This use of the term populism is now just about as far as you can get from the US movement at the turn of the 20th century or the Hungarian népi movement(s) in the interwar period, but it certainly is worth asking if Hall’s quite deliberately contradictory term is useful in understanding what we are seeing with Trump or Orbán, as well as how those earlier “populist movements” could be harnessed by a historic block in the pursuit of hegemony. I find it unfortunate that Hall, whose realm was the popular and who I admire greatly, lent this meaning to the term, given the way it is being used now.

A.G: The rise of “populism” or “illiberalism” in Central and Eastern Europe has, according to some commentators, foreshadowed a similar turn in Western Europe and in the US. Others talk about an “illiberal axis” running from Donald Trump to the Visegrád Countries’ right-wing governments. To some extent, such translations between contexts are applied by CEE governments locally, like in the case of acknowledgments of Trump’s anti-migrant policies, or of the idea of patriotism (“America first”). How would you comment on these recent geographies of ideological translations between US and CEE contexts in the present geopolitical conjuncture?

Party members and sympathizers of the Hungarian government and  party FIDESZ, take part in the ‘Peace March’ at the Heros square of Budapest on March 29, 2014. AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK (Photo credit should read ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images)

M.T: I think the question is how we can keep the conjuncture at the global scale in mind while also being attentive to local and regional specificities and take uneven development into account. First, we have a problem with terminology. The problem with using the term liberal, and thus also the term illiberal, is that it presumes that speaker and listener understand it in the same way. Political and economic liberalism coevolved, and are thus intertwined, but there’s a tendency to mean political liberalism when we use the term. First, we know that the rise of political liberalism was tied closely to colonialism, which also underlines contradictions in it’s universalist claims. But the term neoliberalism, meant to refer to the specificities of creating the conditions for a “free market” at a particular historical conjuncture -as a class project to undermine the social state and redistribute wealth upwards- allows for a party, or government, to be politically conservative, or even “illiberal” and still, neoliberal. In the cases we are discussing, Trumpism and Orbánism, we can see a blatant disregard for political liberalism and yet a furthering of the neoliberal project.

We should also note that authoritarian measures seems to be required for successful implementation of the neoliberal economic vision. As David Harvey points out, realization of neoliberal economic ideals requires a state structure to regulate them, the rule of law is needed to ensure individual property rights in the face of collective claims, and the people cannot be free to make democratic decisions about their lives if it means interfering with the property rights of the elite. In whatever way popular aspirations might lead to policies that redistribute resources more equitably, the “minimal: neoliberal state must be able to guarantee the rights of the individual over the demands made by the majority. Thus, we have seen the development of authoritarian measures in neoliberal contexts. So, it seems to me that “illiberals” make this authoritarianism explicit, and perhaps formalize it further. Trump’s anti immigrant policies are abhorrent, but it shouldn’t go unnoticed that Obama deported more migrants than any president to date, just to point to one brief example. And even of you think it ok to deport “criminals” broadly construed, it turns out that many people without criminal convictions were deported under Obama, despite his “pro migrant” image.

All that said, there certainly seems to be a global phenomenon of the rise of “illiberal,” yet elected, governments, (even if we can say that problems within the electoral laws and practices are also partly what allows this). That is, if we use the term the way Orbán does. The global effects of financialization have meant that we are facing similar issues in many places that are not limited to, but can be seen most clearly in the aftermath of the so-called “great recession.” The incredible concentration of wealth we are seeing at the same time that people are experiencing very tangible forms of dispossession, whether from the protections and gains of the welfare, communist or developmentalist states, or from direct access to land, water and other natural resources is certainly a motivator for people to seek something different-thus antisystemic movements and antisystemic voters. The widespread idea and practice of technocratic governance is connected to this. So much of decision making, from monetary policy to tax policy to healthcare policy is completely untouchable by the civis, the demos, “the people.” It is also firmly in the grips of a discipline of economics dominated by neoclassical and neoliberal logics.

But wouldn’t any real leftist politics also have to be “illiberal” in the economic sense? I want to stress that the rise of “illiberalism,” understood as authoritarian and right, has been paralleled with (slightly preceded by) the rise of a new, or “pink”, anti-neoliberal left (also called populism by liberals!). In Latin America we see the troubles of the “pink” left as it fails to find successful strategies vis a vis the power of finance capital, and the reconsolidation of the right. Of course we haven’t seen that on such a great scale in Eastern Europe, where the legitimacy of the left faces additional barriers, but I think the dissatisfaction with the status quo-with things as usual is apparent. In the case of the US, it’s important to note that Bernie Sanders (also called a populist!) was the greatest challenger to Trump and it was in fact the Democratic Party worked actively to bar the possibility of Sanders actually running against Trump. This raises questions about the role of the “liberals” and “soft left” in the rise of “illiberal” governments. The Democratic Party and its leaders have deep ties with Wall street, and they simply weren’t willing to risk anything for someone like Sanders, himself really a soft leftist, to come to power. While I don’t mean to imply they cynically brought Trump to power, their arrogance allowed them to believe that there was no way Trump would win over more of the same of wall street Democratic rule. Incidentally, many of them and their donors will benefit personally from Trumps’ tax deal.

Hungary’s Anti-Soros Campaign Cost 100 Million Euros. January 26, 2018. Claudia Patricolo

As many, including Tamás Gáspár Miklos, have pointed out, the policies pursued by the “left”, ie: the Social Democratic parties in Europe (and the Democrats, in today’s language of left and right in the US) are far to the right of what they would have been in the middle of last century. I’m using the term “soft left” to point to those actors who may identify as “left” or “progressive” or “liberal”(in their respective political systems), but whose role in providing a real alternative to the roll back of the social state, or for that matter, in addressing class inequity, has diminished considerably in the last half a century. None of these actors espouse a critique of capitalism. We might attribute this to a post Marxist, or post socialist, condition (a la Nancy Fraser). This failure of what I’m calling the soft left to act like a left ma have contributed at one point to its legitimization, perhaps – as they continued to say they are on the side of social justice. Yet they have delivered neoliberal package after neoliberal package. But now they simply appear systemic. We also have to understand the constraints on national governments by the contemporary capitalist world system, especially the power of finance. All that said, regarding something like immigration, it is of course easy to make parallels between Trump and Orbán or the other V4 countries. They all traffic in ethno-national (and perhaps nativist) rhetoric. Such moral panics are convenient ways to distract the people from discovering who their real enemy is, whether it is local or global capitalist classes. I will say that the spectre of George Soros to me is more complex than him being the Jew and cosmopolitan (which are of course quite useful to nationalist rhetoric). I think we all have to accept that Soros is also a finance capitalist and he stands in for that as well. Let’s be realistic about the fact that the money that Soros uses to support “liberal” projects of “civil society building,” protection of minorities, support of migrants and neoliberal think tanks, comes from him having bet against entire national currencies such as those of Thailand and Malaysia. I am not saying Soros is a criminal. I’m saying that we have to take this seriously when we analyzing what is wrong with global and local economies and how to change it. Should it be possible have that effect on a “sovereign nation”? Well, it’s perfectly legal, and Soros is not alone. We have to ask if what we conceive of as democracy can possibly be rooted in such a practice. I do not. But that’s because I espouse a notion of democracy in which equality comes first.

The intertwining of political and economic liberalisms has to be acknowledged. One really important thing about this “illiberal” conjuncture is that while there is a restriction of the liberal political values of pluralism, civil liberties, ethnic freedoms etc, these governments are still pursuing neoliberal policies, from Trump to Orbán to Erdogan.

I feel like I haven’t really addressed the “local”, V4 question. I guess the important thing I’d want to add is that the specificites of the way these economies have been peripheralized via the latest round of incorporation into the world capitalist system and into the EU after the fall of the socialist bloc means that there are limited options. In Hungary, despite all of its flaws, MSZP tried to keep a robust welfare state running, even while dismantling the basis of the economy, espousing liberal values of dependency rather than social values of entitlement, and incurring massive debt. It ran into the limits of the Maastricht Treaty (note the politics of money coming up again), and the limits of the arrogance of “post political” (to use Mouffe’s words) Social Democracy. So the challenge came from the right, and in Hungary the challenge to that has come from the right! Poland has similarities to the Hungarian case regarding its authoritarian direction, and Orbán seems to have borrowed some policy ideas from Slovakia, but the other V4 countries jumping on the anti migrant resettlement bandwagon does not necessarily mean they will take the same route, as horrible as this anti migrant politics is in itself. I think we have to be very careful when making comparisons, and pay close attention to the actual situations. The fact that “Europe” as EU has been seen as the way to go, while at the same time it has been so central in structuring the way these countries which have been peripheralized since the end of socialism experience the current conjuncture of capitalism puts them between a rock and a hard place. It does now seem that Fidesz has managed to cushion Hungary from external shocks, even while it caters to foreign companies and a few (loyal) oligarchs at the expense of working people. (Those who decry him claim that he is using unorthodox economics. Just what do they mean by that? Which values are orthodox?). These “anti EU” governments, by the way, are “anti Brussels,” but don’t seem actually to want to leave the EU. Without EU funds, Fidesz could not have built up it’s new class of national oligarchs. As József Böröcz and Mahua Sarkar have pointed out, while defying Brussels, such politics also construct these countries (who send migrants to the core EU countries under conditions that have restricted their labor forces’ right to mobility) as European!

A.G: Intellectual debates around the notion of “populism”, influenced by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s contributions, imply a strong connection between the limitations of representative democracy and the strength of populism on the one hand, and right-wing and left-wing directions of populist politics on the other hand. Your work on populism seems to come from a different context – you studied the history of the populist movement in Hungary in the 20th century under various authoritarian regimes, from the period of Horthy’s rule to the late wave of folklorism under the Kádárism of the 1970’s. How do the frames of contemporary studies of populism relate to what you see from your research?

M.T: Working within LaClau’s legacy Chantal Mouffe argues that the widespread use of populist logic today is an effect of a the post political condition, marked by a convergence of left and right; the tendency towards a “consensus at the middle that suggests that with the disappearance of the adversarial model of politics, democracy has become more mature and that antagonisms have been overcome.” This consensus, can be seen in seen in the policies and rhetoric of third way Social Democracy.

Seeing the rise of “populism” as an expression of this “crisis of liberal-democratic politics” under the neoliberal era of capitalism in which finance capital is central, Mouffe is interested in promoting left populism, aimed at constructing a collective subject, “the people”, that would deepen democracy through synthesis of the social movements. She sees the transversal character of what she seeks; the overcoming of traditional distinctions of left and right, as a positive thing.

The widespread reference to LaClau and Mouffe’s approach, although it is admittedly much more complex than this, is unfortunately in my opinion among the main reasons for the core meaning of the contemporary vague usages of the word populism, by which it is reduced to a rhetorical strategy of politicians and parties.

Mouffe is known for her arguments on agonistic democracy: that a multiplicity of subject positions should exist in a “democratic matrix”, thus strengthening democracy, by not denying the conflict and relations of power and authority inherent to the process. I have to point out, though that both she and LaClau have been explicitly post Marxist for half a century. Perhaps this is why we find liberal political theory emerging from this so-called “left.” And while Mouffe now acknowledges that we have to preserve what’s left of the welfare state, I find their hope for a cross class alliance in her vision of left populism to be problematic. It’s not that I can’t see the tactical use of such a thing, and I certainly recognize the need for “decolonial” approaches that would diversify the question of who s the working classes are. But as long as we don’t take class seriously, then it seems we get back to the vagueness of “post political” politics and are aught within a very limited liberal idea of diversity in representation. But we are not just talking about differences of political opinion here. Class formation matters!

Finally, Mouffe dismisses movements that are not party oriented. I think, insofar as what she means by populism is the construction of a collective subject, it is really problematic to dismiss popular movements. It is a problem to reduce the political to electoral politics. But her game is liberal democracy.

Regarding my own research in Hungary, I did not begin with an interest with “populism.” In fact, when I set out to study the táncház folk dance and folk music revival movement that arose in the 1970s I was only vaguely aware of the interwar “népi movement,” and my awareness was limited to having heard about the “népi writers” and the tradition of sociography that influenced Hungarian sociology. I started my research on táncház much more from the questions of the popular, influenced by the work of Stuart Hall, Gramsci, and Latin Americanist anthropology focused on political economy, and on the relation between state formation and the popular, or popular culture. So, when I discovered the significance of the legacy of the népi movement(s) of the interwar period to the institutional and organizational forms of the táncház revival I had to learn a lot. My use of the term populist was not particularly well thought out. I used it because the convention of translating népi into English from that period was “populist” and I simply adopted that term. I did already prefer to use both “populist” and “people’s movement” interchangeably, in the same way I chose to keep “culture” and “cultivation”; and “nép”, “volk”, “folk”, and “people” in tension. Just to clarify what I mean when I say “népi movement(s)”: I mean those mobilizations and practices that were pursued in the interwar period associated with a “népi” position. I would include the so-called népi writers, the village research movement(s) and their correlate village visiting practices, the March Front political mobilization, the National Peasant Party, and Népi Kollégium movement and their correlate NÉKOSZ, as well as the folk revival practices of these groups. How to translate népi becomes a real issue, even for today’s Hungarian speaker. Let’s just say it covers this array of meanings: people’s, popular, of the folk, of the volk.

So, at the time of my research, I was not really interested in arguments about populism per se. I was simply talking about the various strands of the népi movement(s) of the interwar period and their through-lines to the táncház. I did of course read LaClau, but didn’t at the time find much use in engaging him regarding this historical and ethnographic work. Maybe any insight I offer regarding the interwar movement comes simply from me not being Hungarian and not having been exposed passively to any of the tropes that place them in certain ways.

I have noted in my work that while the term népi was translated as populist for the interwar movements, no-one would translate népi, as related to táncház folklorism, with the term “populist” today. But it is also important that, although in the public sphere people do draw lines from interwar népi politics to Orbán (I did so myself, but see in particular András Bozoki’s work), Hungarians refer to Orbán’s politics with the Latinate “populizmus,” not with the term “népi.” I think this is significant. But these examples speak to how the meanings of terms change over time, connected to historical conjunctures; in relation to material and ideological changes locally and globally.

Given the current use of the term populist it might not be very useful to use the term to describe the népi movements of the interwar period, as it would reduce our purview to the symbolic dimension Doing so does the work of creating parallels between Orbán’s government and the népi movements, when in my opinion it would make more sense to draw lines between Orbán and the Christian National governments under Horthy, against which both “népi” and “urbanus” camps struggled (even while debating one another). These governments were controlled by the co-called historical classes, ie: the former nobility and the officer class whose domain was the state bureaucracy and made up (along with the Catholic church) the bulk of landowners. So, if actors in these movement called themselves népi, and were ok with translating it as populist, it’s a good question what we’d call them today. The structure of Hungarian society has changed a lot in the meantime, and the term nép has been used differently too.

There’s a tendency to reduce all “people’s movements” in the interwar era to nazi or protonazi. “Volkish,” also a direct translation of népi, comes to stand in for that. But, what such a reduction fails to do is ask the hard questions about how hegemony works. We have to do the work to understand why popular habits and sentiment, and popular movements take particular forms at particular conjunctures. To say that the népi movements were all rightist and then a small group of them were “coopted by the Communists” is not very helpful.

I don’t want to dismiss the fact that a number of people in the “népi camp” could easily be understood as antisemites. Nor do I mean to ignore the fact that Roma seem to be entirely absent from their thinking. But the situation of agrarian workers/peasants in Hungary in the interwar period was truly horrendous! Communism had been discredited and Socialist activity curtailed via various means, especially in the rural areas, so that while between 1905 and 1908 there were close to 700 branches of the Agrarian Socialist Union of the Social Democratic Party, by the 1930s, the Social Democrats were barely present in rural areas and the Smallholders were the key actors there. The historical classes were in control of the country, eager to defend their relation to property (and status) within small Hungary and to reestablish its relation to land and labor in greater Hungary.

When I ask what was the interwar népi movement, and what was the népi movement that táncház was or is, I can only do that seriously by looking at continuities and differences, in relation to shifts in political and economic conditions and arrangements, and how language is being used. People like to point at this region and say its a powder keg of nationalism. But in my understanding its precisely this region’s resistance to the national form that is at stake. The nation-state is a form expedient to capitalist regulation. The rounds of boundary making, population exchange, “ethnic cleansing” are related to rounds of incorporation into capitalism. So, without denying that there are layers here that align with nationalism, I have to ask seriously what “the people” might mean, might have meant under any conditions. It is poor social science to paint our meanings back onto history. Nép and nation (nemzet) are not the same word. Neither are narod and nacija. When we treat them the same we lose out on some visibility regarding what “the people” is in relation to the nation-state or other politico-territorial forms. The nation-state form was not consolidated in this region until after WW1, and then only somewhat successfully. Many folks in the népi movements espoused a vague idea of a Danubian federation, or “friendship of the small peoples of the Danube.” They did not at all do the theoretical (or political) work that would have been needed to keep this in view in contrast to the thrust of the national idea, but this national thrust was not just coming from inside Hungary-it has strong supporters outside, all the way over to Woodrow Wilson.

I also don’t mean in any way to deny the anti Roma and anti migrant sentiment in contemporary Hungary or the longer history of antisemitism and of treating Roma as not quite Hungarian. But I’m interested in HOW this comes about. I can’t just paint the present onto the past, or Nazi Germany onto interwar Hungary. Paying attention to how language was and is used can be really useful examining the shift from other forms to nation-state or ethnonational thinking/acting (which are no always the same).

Among things I discovered, in brief, about táncház is that it emerged out of organizational and institutional histories of the népi movement(s) in combination with the socialist states’ efforts to cultivate a communist citizenry. This was neither a dictatorial vision nor an extremely centralized set of technologies, although of course it was being played out in an authoritarian context and coercion was present in many forms. Táncház emerged as a uniquely state socialist cultural form, I’d say (in contrast to many táncház participants). It highlighted a number of issues, but it was precisely because the problems of the dwarf holding and landless peasantry, “the nép”, were no longer dire in smaller (and Socialist) Hungary (although they certainly experienced coercion) that the object of the népi movement- táncház- becomes the ethnic folk, not the agrarian one. But this falls in line with a broader pattern of the dominance of “culture talk” that Verena Stolke and Mahmood Mamdani identify as occurring which in the era of the roll back of the social state and the global diminishment of socialism and communism, with their class perspective on things, as alternatives. My work on táncház after 1989, and questions about the rise of “culture talk” led me to look into the ways in which (neo)liberal governance in fact encourages ethnonational identification and boundary making via many routes, including the supranational technology of heritagization. Again, we cannot understand what is happening in Hungary today without attending to the dynamics of global capitalism and liberal-democracy, and its position in it.

A.G: From a political perspective, the question of “populism” seems to arise from a liberal perspective: when democracy doesn’t work properly, you get populism. The debate on right-wing and left-wing populism seems to revolve around that cornerstone set by liberal political theory. How do you conceive of this relation within your own research and political thought? In terms of actual historical contexts, how do you see the relation between “populism” and the “left” in the US, and in your research on Hungary?

M.T: Well, I think at this historical conjuncture populism is framed from the liberal/neoliberal supposed “center.” But I’m not sure that this has really been the case. The liberal perspective doesn’t really seem to me to recite that “when democracy doesn’t work properly, you get populism.” I’d say the positions of most self identifying liberals is that populism is extremism, without asking much about why this “extremism”now? Rather it is a post-Marxist “left” critique – Mouffe, for example – that contextualizes today’s populism as the (appropriate) response to a democratic deficit or the post political. Liberal political theory traditionally accepts pluralism, but as Ellen Meiksins Woods notes, it prefers pluralisms that keep us from recognizing the universal effects of capitalism; pluralisms amenable to liberal governance. So, in the sense that the left is relying on liberal political theory, as Mouffe does, then we could say it’s a liberal perspective. But most self-identitfied liberals don’t even get this far in their analysis.

I would agree with Mouffe on the analysis of why so much “populism” (rhetorical construction of the people vs the elite” now. But I think D’Eramo has a point. We need the people, not populism. Marxist analysis gives us the dialectical approach a class which owns the means of production and a class which does not, and must therefore sell its labor to the other class. Of course we have to complicate this ideal type binary, and of course we have to note the ways in which capital works beyond the labor dynamic, especially via finance (and its various materializations via debt relations) today, but to me it’s clear we have to attend to class formation. Note the verb form here.

Many of my good friends, really smart social scientists and activists who I admire, want to say that people voted for Trump first and foremost because they are racists. Well, that they are racists of a kind may be true: they have benefited in myriad ways from their “whiteness”; and they certainly would have had, at the very least, to be able to overlook/ignore the racist subtexts and blatant racist statements Trump makes. But in the US the “middle class” is severely downwardly mobile. As each crisis hits, a small class of very wealthy gets richer-walks away with the resources of “the 99%” and uses it to destabilize the economy again as it plays financial games. Much of this stratum was where it was because of racialized privilege-there’s no doubt about that. But they are truly downwardly mobile (I’m not talking about rich people who voted for Trump here-they have different reasons). This dispossession has happened under the post political consensus Mouffe identifies and the post socialist condition Fraser does. The Democrats, tied to wall street, have not really done much for them. In fact, in the big picture, they have taken part in this dispossession, as well as that of the Black and Hispanic “middle class,” not to mention the poor (the statistics on the destruction of racial wealth after the last foreclosure crisis are very clear). Trump, like many so called “populists” offered an anti-systemic solution. Of course he hasn’t delivered that. I do have a hard time understanding how people could have fallen for his anti-systemic line, but I do get their suspicion of the “center.” Then, yes, there is the way that racism is being authorized and cultivated now (much like in Hungary). But we have to take class formation seriously. The lens of racial capitalism can be very useful to this.

There is no reason, in my mind, why movements of the people have to be ethnonationalist. I think that analytically we have to separate “people” from “race” from “nation”. Doing so would allow us to take more seriously how, when and where we find cross racial and cross national alliances of people who work together to analyze their shared yet different conditions in the face of an elite that dispossesses them. Oops! Does that mean I am a “populist”? I prefer to be called a Marxist. I’d be happy to develop, along Mouffe’s line, a way of thinking about the “diversity” of the “working class” if you will. But this leads me to think about the success of a formation such as this in campaigns in the the Bolivian “water wars” as an example. Then, we have to take seriously the fact that this was not a party formation. Mouffe sees populism as a party political formation, as Podemos, for example, but not 15m, the PAH, or even Barcelona en Comu (to refer to Spain where her attention is focused). There’s a reduction to party formations here that might make sense for a simple political expedience, but not in terms of real hegemonic shift, I think.

Mary Taylor is Assistant Director at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics, Graduate Center, City University of New York. Mary received her PhD in anthropology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research focuses on sites, technologies and politics of civic cultivation, social movement, and cultural management; the relationship of ethics and aesthetics to nationalism, cultural differentiation, and people’s movements in socialist and post-socialist East-Central Europe and the United States. She specializes in studying, theorizing, and organizing radical and alternative pedagogical activities under different conditions of urbanization. 


By Agnes Gagyi

Agnes Gagyi is a social movements researcher focusing on Eastern European politics and social movements in long-term global historical perspective. She is member of the Working Group for Public Sociology "Helyzet".