I have lots of feels and lots of arguments about these two pieces by Peter Levine on an alt-left populism:
n a year when we’ve watched a wave of populist elections sweep through the industrialized world on the back of nationalism, Islamophobia, and anti-elitism. Though the left frequently makes populist appeals as well–especially when we’re criticizing agency capture by industry or the undue influence of the very rich–it’s not always obvious to me that progressive political goals are compatible with populism’s mass movements and drive towards uniformity. Progressives tend to be pluralist and cosmopolitan in their egalitarianism.
Is Populism Inherently Nationalist?
For these critics, populist impulses tend towards the violent elimination of difference. Put another way, populist movements tend to become mass movements. Populists appeal to a mythical common good that renders class and geographical interests uniform, and usually identifies an evil or corrupting Other as the people’s enemy. For populism’s critics, the kind of anti-racist and grassroots intellectualism Peter has been describing is something else if it’s possible at all: class solidarity that re-organizes antagonisms without suppressing internal disagreements.
Is Populism Inherently Anti-Intellectual?
Famously, the Progressives of the early 20th Century were quite hostile to the Populists that had gone before. Populist hostility towards elites often swept up intellectuals as well, and the Populists–being farmers–had targeted urban dwellers, financiers, and Jews as their enemies. There is a tendency to lump the rich and the knowledgeable together, so efforts to raise the status of regular working people sometimes try to lower the status of scholars, teachers, and upper-middle class professionals. That’s a worrisome tendency.
But Peter quotes the JCI Scholars Program website, a group I helped found, on our motivations for working with traditionally excluded groups: we do
as collaboration between teachers and students, and to make classes free-ranging discussions and workshops more than lectures.
But is that populist? Even at the JCI Scholars Program, we’re working with the talented tenth: at most 150 students, in a prison that has between 1400 and 1800 prisoners. The main question among prison educators is the extent to which we are engaged in a truly populist project, and the extent to which we are cultivating what Antonio Gramsci called “organic intellectuals.”
My co-founder, Daniel Levine, likes to invoke CLR James’ Every Cook Can Govern on this question. Pulling from Greek sortition, James praised the capacity of ordinary folks to take up the tasks of governance. Of course, this required a much simpler state, and much shorter periods of governance before passing the responsibility on to another. But perhaps our state has become so complex precisely as a result of–and perhaps as justification for–elite domination.
The deeper problem is that sortition required institutional safeguards as well as agreement. And it’s probably relevant that it didn’t survive, suggesting it wasn’t sustainable. As I’ve written elsewhere, Greek sortition depended on a number of institutional factors to function:
The three norms of isonomy are mutually reinforcing: equal participation requires that the office-holder act with the understanding that she might be replaced by any other member of the community. She cannot abuse her office without being held to account at the end of her term. For the same reason she must regularly give reciprocally recognizable justifications for her actions, without which her decisions might be reversed by the next office-holder, or even punished when her office no longer protects her from prosecution. The ideal result of such a regime is a strong preference for deliberation, consensus, and mutual respect, alongside a cautious honesty and transparency with regard to potentially controversial decisions.
Populism cannot fall into demagoguery. If facts are relevant to a decision, they must be given proper weight, even if facts cannot be a substitute for values. But though I doubt that populism is inherently anti-intellectual, the problem is that too often our society mistakes credentials for knowledge, which means that anti-elitism requires the motivation of a certain kind of anti-intellectualism.
So that’s the version of populism I can support: one that celebrates the even distribution of insight and institutionalizes a fear of the even distribution of ignorance and arrogance. A populism that is pluralist and cosmopolitan. But I have to admit that this doesn’t really sound much like populism; I usually call it “democracy.”