Populism as a strategy for a just political system has its limits

Photo by: Brenden Cowan

Left-wing populism has its limits.

Some of the best content on the left comes from populist media platforms. On YouTube, channels like Secular Talk with host Kyle Kulinski prove to be excellent pipelines for impressionable right-wingers to hear from the other side of the aisle in a rhetorical manner that appeals to them. 

The Majority Report, another left-wing YouTube channel, splits their show into a main show and a “fun half” following it. The fun half often generates clips that are posted as independent videos on the channel due to their having a much higher likelihood of being viewed. Like Secular Talk, this show’s setup is effective in bringing in ordinary viewers through fun half clips and getting them interested in the main show where there’s detailed policy and news analyses, interviews with experts, and historical deepdives. 

However, viral populist-oriented videos don’t equate to noticeable spikes in viewers for the more analytic politico-historical videos for these channels. There’s a few reasons for this phenomenon, and they’re all entirely structural. 

First, most people don’t have much time because they’re working or in school or both, so a snappy clip that has more entertainment value is frankly easier to consume on a lunch break, between classes, etc. Second, these channels need to make money and that is often a direct function of AdSense from viewership. Oftentimes these content creators use a third party service to build a donation base as well but viewership is still where the majority of the money is to be made to continue producing content. 

The ecology of social media is increasingly one of attention-grabbing where building a critical worldview involves time to absorb dense information through reading, not to mention the challenge of synthesizing that information into a coherent political identity. College students are guaranteed at least three years to hone these skills  — which is never a guarantee considering the climate of precarious employment alongside relatively stagnant wages and high prices for housing and food — but those of the working class who can’t afford to go into debt at college often don’t have the same amount of dedicated time to build those skills. Still, Ivy League-adjacent students tend to use those skills to enrich the ruling class, usually making nearly twice as much as regular college graduates mid-career, and often ending up in high places in government or the private sector. 

To be clear, appealing to what’s common to people is important if the left wants to radically shift the balance of power in society. 

However, that’s just the beginning of the fight; populism doesn’t work as an end in itself, especially in the era of mass social media. As Jodi Dean presciently puts it in her groundbreaking theoretical work from 2016, Crowds and Party, which focuses on the interplay between the crowd and the political party, “breaking with the suffocating reflexivity of contribution and critique in the mediated networks of communicative capitalism, insistent crowds impress themselves where they don’t belong.”

This brings out an important flaw that hardcore populists tend to ignore, “the people” is always an abstraction.

Dean doesn’t do away with essential aspects of populism due to this, though, but reconfigures them into a necessary relationship of transference between the demands of the crowd as a subject and the party form:

“The gaps substitutionism flags are the space of the subject. Neither the crowd nor the party is the people. The people is the gap between them. Political capacity always involves delegation, transfer, and division of labor. Not everyone can do everything. The very idea of a politics of everyone is a debilitating fantasy that denies the constitutive feature of the political: division goes all the way down.”

This is why, with all due respect, anarchist thought is often not realistic about the necessary hierarchical aspects needed to supplant the capitalist state. With all of its emphasis on direct action and justified hierarchy, anarchism is too recalcitrant to the necessary gap that forms the abstraction of the people between the disruptive crowd and the organized party. 

Anarchism today allows a kind of enjoyment in one’s radicalness at the expense of the pragmatics of political division and the particular standing in as the universal in representing the demos. This is also why anarchist feelings of social horizontality are so easily subsumed into the horizontal individuating networks of social media. 

In her book, Dean works with the psychoanalytic edifice of Jacques Lacan, a popular psychodynamic theorist of the left today from the 20th century, to make her argument for the party at the level of the psychology of inter-subjectivity. 

Lacan formulates three registers essential to human experience: Imaginary—the register of fantasy and illusions of wholeness; Symbolic—the register of language which is characterized by division, difference and incompleteness; and Real—the inner limit of symbolization, that which cannot be symbolized or represented, the register of trauma and, therefrom, subjective disintegration; not to mention pain as well as the intrusive enjoyment seen in compulsive disorders, for example, which Lacan calls jouissance. 

Many 20th century postmodern theorists of the left understood the registers of the real and the imaginary to become predominant in late-capitalism and in some ways interchangeable; the definition of a simulacrum. Jean Baudrillard’s fatalist theories of society as a simulation as postulated in the ‘80s, for example, certainly were ahead of their time when it came to describing societal phenomena today as content (and misinformation) is refracted through multiple networks of digital representation as commentary, critique, mimicry and germination. 

But surrendering and appealing to the simulation-like dynamics of horizontal social networks won’t work, especially as the much more top down models of state-capitalism seen in China or Singapore means that the West and the ostensibly democratic simulation economy therein are no longer the site of the global geist. Baudrillard certainly thought they were in the ‘80s, positing Los Angeles, California as the paradigm of simulation in the world, putting forward extended analyses of places like Disneyland. However, this analysis seems dated in 2023 where social media doesn’t necessarily call for a certain identity drawn across lines of nationality. 

Altogether, the West ought to consider the organized party as something that will necessarily universalize certain particular struggles from below at the departure from others, and present them as the thought of the people. 

Populism is a starting point, but ultimately not a strategy for the long run when it comes to a just democratic politics. 

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