The moment in which we find ourselves is marked by promise and peril. Throughout the Middle East, popular uprisings are dramatically accelerating history and undermining a half-century’s worth of geopolitical certainties. Meanwhile, in Canada, the US, and Europe, right-wing politicians and movements have been making significant inroads. In the US, the Tea Party has decisively undermined the Obama administration and opened up spaces for far right and fascist organizers to popularize their positions. In Canada, the Conservative Party has been steadily consolidating its grip on power and has been remaking the state in its image. In cosmopolitan Toronto, rightwing populist Rob Ford soundly defeated his liberal and social democratic opposition in the Mayoral election of October 2010.
It’s a little bit overwhelming. Enamored by naïve visions of a socially progressive Canada (arising primarily from misguided comparative analyses), popular commentators in the US have for the last half decade looked on with incredulity as Conservatives at the helm of the Federal Government launched concerted attacks on women, queer people, and sex workers. Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage could not conceal his bemused incomprehension that a nation set to let gays walk down the aisle smoking pot could repeatedly put someone like Harper in power.
But despite the alarming rate at which they’ve been proceeding over the last decade, these rightwing incursions have not gone unopposed. Massive demonstrations against austerity in Wisconsin and elsewhere make clear that there are forces committed to checking attacks on collective bargaining and social spending; however, up until now, these forces have remained marginal and defensive in their orientation. In order for their efforts to coincide with the demands of the situation in which we find ourselves, it’s necessary that they be dramatically expanded. As always, this means base building. The question, then, is this: how do we build a base when our enemies on the right seem to have stolen our constituencies?
In order to answer this question, we must first ask and then answer another: how did the right – whose policies are at odds with the material interests of working class and racialized people – manage to build a popular base amongst those it holds in contempt? And why do right-wing ideas resonate with people who are objectively imperiled by their implications?
Resources are part of it. The Conservative Party of Canada has cultivated strong alliances with Christian groups boasting active memberships that have been more than willing to put time and money into the war of position. At the same time, nearly half a century of attacks on trade unions and social organizations like the National Action Committee on the Status of Women have left oppressed and exploited groups with few channels through which to articulate their own interests. Faced with a choice between a moribund social democratic party, an ineffectual trade union movement, and a marginal and – at times – incomprehensible radical scene, it’s understandable that many have looked elsewhere to find fulfillment.
But even if the radical left had the resources available to the right, it’s not clear that we’d know how to use them. It’s indisputable that the right has more access to money, media, and seats of power than does the radical left. And it’s true that these resources allow it to promote its agenda and objectives more effectively than do street posters, zines, and potlucks. However, as every good propagandist knows, millions of flyers are meaningless unless the message written on them resonates.
Even if people don’t benefit from their allegiance to the right (and even if this allegiance causes harm to them and to others), their identification with the right cannot be dismissed as “false consciousness.” The desires for self-realization and community to which the populist right appeals are real. And while the right’s mobilization of these cynical desires ensures that they remain unresolved and unresolvable, people’s identification with rightwing positions nevertheless allows them to highlight and critique liberal democracy’s own unresolved conceptions of freedom and equality.
In other words, the right has learned to successfully appeal to forms of disaffection that ought to be the preserve of the radical left. Listening to Glenn Beck, one is immediately struck by the manner in which his followers are encouraged to imagine themselves as being both in the mainstream and on the margins. Their aspirations, they learn, are at once quotidian and revolutionary. It’s a position that neatly accords with the emancipatory premise of The Internationale where the exploited remind themselves that, though they have been naught, they shall – through struggle – be all. It’s hard to deny the seduction; like the communards, Glenn Beck makes you feel like there are millions more just like you, wholly normal in their radical disaffection. And if you – all of you – got your act together, you could tear this rotten system down.
Recently, Colorlines writer Sally Kohn highlighted several things that the left could learn from Beck. Along with “making popular education popular,” “taking affirmative steps to acknowledge race,” “personalizing politics,” and “building movements through mass media,” Kohn pointed out that understanding Beck’s allure required that we acknowledge his ability to present “feelings first and facts second.”
None other than Adolf Hitler said, “Great liars are also great magicians.” Glenn Beck’s manipulation of emotion is nothing short of vicious, inhumane treason but there’s no question his capacity to understand and work through the medium of emotion is also magical.
It’s a pretty seductive argument. But since radical politics can’t be resolved through myth or magic (our solutions must instead tend toward the concrete resolution of contradiction), we must ask: if magic can reveal to us our true hearts’ desire, what must we do to see this desire realized – not in myth but in reality?
As the online comments responding to Kohn’s article make clear, this line of reasoning seems to irritate the left. Our reflex is to point out that the things rightwing populists think are wrong with the system are the very things for which we’ve fought, the very things we are now struggling to defend. And, anyway, since the right’s agenda is at odds with people’s material interests, there’s no reason for it to resonate with them. Because people aren’t stupid, “rational thought” is bound to kick in at some point. Staring into the face of a generalized catastrophe from which – some argue – capitalism is unlikely to recover (proposed decade of austerity notwithstanding), an anti-capitalist uprising is bound to strike people as logical and self-evident. Or, maybe things have to get a whole lot worse first: let the conservatives get a majority so that we can consolidate an oppositional base! There’s nothing to save! Let it all fall apart.
Apart from occasionally generating irrational strategic conclusions like the one rehearsed above, the left’s love of reason fails to consider both the affective appeal of right-wing positions and the logical calculation underlying people’s identification with them. During the 1930s, George Orwell struggled to come to terms with the enormous resonance that fascism had for many working people. Considered from the standpoint of “elementary common sense,” this identification seemed incomprehensible. In contrast, Orwell found socialism to be so logical that he was “amazed that it has not established itself already.”
The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all co-operate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.1
Nevertheless, socialists during the 1930s seemed “almost everywhere” to be “in retreat before the onslaught of Fascism.” Why was this so? In Orwell’s estimation, fascist ascendancy only made sense when considered from the standpoint of socialist failures to identify with both the material interests and the underlying desires of their putative base. This disconnect was analytical; however, it also owed much to the inward looking culture of socialist forces themselves. “The first thing that must strike any outside observer,” Orwell proposed, “is that Socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle class.”
The typical Socialist is not, as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years’ time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaler and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting.2
Orwell thus indicted middle-class socialists for their incapacity and unwillingness to associate with those who offended their delicate sensibilities. In contrast to the proletarian fighters lionized in the socialist imagination, ordinary workers smelled bad, had poor table manners, and spoke improperly. At the same time, British socialists couldn’t bring themselves to organize the well-mannered white-collar workers who made up a significant portion of the actual workforce in interwar England. Although better mannered, these workers were inadmissible as subjects of revolution since they had little in common with the middle class socialists’ idealization of the very industrial workers they found, in reality, to be so repugnant.
Orwell’s account should be taken with a grain of salt. Its bombast owes as much to literary whim as to shrewd analysis. Nevertheless, it’s hard for contemporary radicals to deny that – in at least one decisive sense – he hits the nail squarely on the head. Apart from anticipating contemporary radical sub-cultural figures like the straightedge vegan, Orwell’s characterization cannot help but alert us to the fact that we do often find it hard to talk with those who constitute (or ought to constitute) our base. Like early 20th century socialists, we do recoil from cultural insensitivity to radical norms. And we do become dismayed when their actual conditions don’t coincide with our romantic notions about revolution’s true subjects.
The right has demonstrated in both theory and practice that it’s not affected by such considerations. And while the radical left holds yet another meeting about the need to “build community,” the right is out there stealing our base.
Although there are many important exceptions, the radical left in Canada and the US today has much in common with the socialists to whom Orwell took exception. Like them, today’s radicals often find themselves idealizing the oppressed while simultaneously doing all they can to avoid messy political engagements with people outside their own self-referential scenes and communities. Either unaware of or indifferent to the fact that many of those historically drawn to rightwing populism are the very people that revolutionaries must take as their base, radicals have often dismissed them. They are “crackpots,” “wing-nuts,” “rednecks,” and “Bible-thumpers.”
The recent mayoral election in Toronto provides an excellent case in point. A right-wing populist cut from the same cloth as the Tea Party, Rob Ford won the race by a significant margin. His campaign drew support from diverse sectors, including working class and racialized communities in both the suburbs and the downtown core. But rather than reaching out to those who voted for him and figuring out how to channel their disaffection with liberal democracy in a more productive direction, both the liberal and radical left have chosen, for the most part, to deny that Ford was given a mandate to rule. And while this position may be strategically useful in the context of media sound bites, those who voted Ford into office are justified in interpreting it as the analytic and conceptual equivalent of disenfranchisement.
The anti-capitalist left is barely present in communities where the right has been making significant headway. Sometimes, these communities are written off before they’re visited. But even in atomized middle class suburbs, the desire to live an autonomous and meaningful life is far from extinguished. These feelings are the affective base of all revolutionary politics; however, in the absence of a concrete means to realize these desires, many are left to find what satisfaction they can from perverse proxies.
In non-descript block warehouses throughout Canada and the US, people are finding each other in mega-churches. A source of solace to thousands of believers, these churches provide a framework for experiences of human solidarity that seem, in many instances, to be wholly at odds with the sublime alienation of the neoliberal commodityscape. Gathered together outside the market and in the name of some consolidating divine force, parishioners search for meaning in the words of new-age pastors who reaffirm the value of family, patriarchy, and submission. For ninety minutes each Sunday, churchgoers are reminded of something they know intrinsically: they exist to be part of something larger than themselves. The radical left knows this feeling. We value it. Thus far, however, most of us have been unable to imagine how these parishioners might be part of our base.
Meanwhile, mega-churches are just one part of the right’s overarching effort to build infrastructure – universities, think tanks, grassroots networks – to take over spaces neglected by the left. And despite our insistence on “building community,” activists on the radical left have had difficulty envisioning how to configure our affective appeals so that they resonate with those on the outskirts of our own important but far-too-marginal spaces.
How do we extend these spaces? And how do we redirect the desires currently being captured by the growing forces of right-wing reaction? To begin, it’s important to recognize that conservatism often appeals to people precisely because it correctly identifies the contradictions and inadequacies of liberal democracy; it’s only in the moment of proposing resolutions that the right ties working class desires to processes wholly at odds with their material interests.
David Roediger has noted that the contradictions and limitations of the American Revolution proved to be fertile ground for rightwing populism. After the revolution, white workers and farmers were faced with a logical inconsistency: the emergent capitalist class whose rise they’d helped to enable stood as an affront to their fight for freedom. How would they reconcile their efforts in struggle with the subjection they now endured at the hands of bosses, governors, and police?
The solution proposed by the populist right involved the elaboration of a community defined by exclusion. Although white workers were shortchanged by a revolution that couldn’t live up to its slogans, they could at least find solace in the affective ties that bound them to their compatriots, the revolutionary promise of the bourgeois revolution for which they fought, and the economic gains which accrued from the colonization of indigenous lands and the exploitation of Black slave labour. Practically speaking, this meant forging white racial solidarity and elaborating forms of “community” defined in large part by those it kept out. This resolution may have offered perverse solace to many who happened to find themselves among the included; however, it also erected what remains – to this very day – one of the most significant barriers to the actual realization of the promise that guided working class participation in the Revolution.
How should we understand this scenario? Because they arise from the limits and contradictions of liberal democracy, the desires that prompt working class identification with the right are legitimate. However, the particular genius of rightwing populists has been to bind these desires to inappropriate resolutions – resolutions that are divisive, harmful, and incapable of resolving the contradictions that prompted disaffection in the first place. As in psychoanalysis, where the goal is to decouple latent desires from the perverse forms in which they manifest themselves so that they might at last find their true object, the radical left must point out the inadequacies of the right’s proposed resolutions without dismissing the desires that lead people to identify with them in the first place.
But why would anyone go through a painful therapeutic process if they didn’t believe that things would be better at the end of it? Despite obvious limitations to its proposed resolutions, the right can still seem like a more reliable path to individual self-realization and community than anything the left can currently offer. Certainly, when juxtaposed to the half measures of social democrats who – from Bob Rae to Tony Blair – have made clear that they are no alternative to neoliberalism, the right’s systemic critiques often seem more in tune with the profound disaffection that so many currently feel.
While liberals and social democrats busy themselves proposing half measures, conservatives have learned to speak in the resonant language of total social transformation. And though they are ultimately cynical and duplicitous, they have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to speak directly to working class desires and political aspirations. Listen, for instance, to the following comments by Front Nationale leader Marine Le Pen as she outlines what she perceives to be the demands of French voters:
The French want justice – political justice, democratic justice, social justice – they want an end to double standards and they want some ethics from their political class. The French are suffering. They are permanently being asked to make sacrifices and yet there’s a political-financial caste that is reaping all the benefits of the economic situation and awarding itself endless privileges.
The Front is a neo-fascist organization; however, it’s solely by way of Le Pen’s oblique antisemitic reference to the conniving “political-financial caste” that this fact becomes symptomatically clear. And while their hardcore base is comprised of committed antisemites, large numbers of new supporters are likely more compelled by the call for justice than they are by the Front’s concrete plans to realize these objectives. Nevertheless, like their antisemitic counterparts, these supporters become fully implicated in the Front Nationale.
On this basis, it’s possible to intuit the political importance of the affective register. August Bebel once called antisemitism the socialism of fools. For Jean-Paul Sartre, it provided a mythical means for those left behind by capitalism’s increasingly abstract character to reinfuse the adversarial relationships in which they found themselves with a mythical concreteness. Perceived to be the embodiment of finance capitalism, Jews stood accused of distorting and undermining real – material – production. As these examples make clear, rightwing positions “resolve” tensions arising from capitalism’s alienating and diffused abstraction by enacting a kind of object substitution with dangerous consequences. It’s a cynical move that ties potentially revolutionary disaffection to reactionary objectives that are all the more compelling for being so mythically simple. But while the right exploits working class desires, no one can deny that they take working class offence to elite society seriously.
While liberals write books defending “reason” (Al Gore) or take to the streets to patronizingly defend “sanity” (Jon Stewart), conservatives rightly acknowledge that expertise – neoliberalism’s orthodoxy – is little more than the means by which a particular form of capitalist class rule is legitimated. Through its efforts, the populist right mobilizes the working class against one mode of capitalist accumulation in order to reinforce the position of another.
Rob Ford’s election highlighted the extent to which the electoral scene has devolved into a conflict between different modalities of capitalist rule. Prior to Ford, Torontonians elected the social democrat David Miller for two consecutive terms. Winning the support of labour unions, property developers, downtown bankers, elite law firms, and hipsters, Miller implemented ostensibly “progressive” policies on transit and the environment. Under his rule, Toronto became a “green and livable city” that privileged “sustainable” business and worked to attract the world’s top talent and firms. Culture, science, biomedicine, education, tourism, and design: these were the industries he courted. No longer at City Hall, Miller now works with Richard Florida on “Creative Class,” an organization committed to helping companies innovate and grow in the “new” global economy.
Although seemingly counterintuitive, Miller’s progressive veneer was fully commensurate with the neoliberal projects he endorsed. As Stefan Kipfer has noted, Miller consistently supported the private development of public lands, favoured expert panels over community participation, and contributed to the “monetization” of public assets and the gentrification of what had been public housing. He also endorsed the brutal G20 crackdown and shifted the tax base from commercial and industrial property taxes to residential property taxes and user fees. And, to add insult to injury, Miller increased funding for the Toronto Police, focused policing on poor and racialized communities, and launched attacks on city workers and organized labour.
But for the new downtown “creative class,” life was good. Miller’s mayoralty saw an explosion of cultural festivals. He was an eager proponent of the corporate gay pride parade. Under his tenure, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario each underwent massive multi-million dollar renovations. The city got an opulent opera house and was awarded the Pan-Am Games. Meanwhile, Miller himself chaired a global committee on climate change. For many, it seemed that Toronto had finally realized its goal of becoming a truly cosmopolitan city and a meaningful contributor to global politics.
It was thus with paroxysms of surprise and anger that Miller supporters responded when they learned that bombastic rightwing city councilor Rob Ford seemed poised to beat the liberal George Smitherman and the social democratic Miller acolyte Joe Pantalone in the upcoming election. Next to Miller’s sophistication, Ford exuded crass simplicity. Throughout the election, he repeated one basic mantra: if elected, he would end waste and not spend money on huge projects. He pledged to stop “the gravy train.” Although his message resonated with a majority of voting Torontonians, it flummoxed many left liberals – and more than a few radicals to boot. In retaliation, mortified cosmopolitans flooded the internet with video footage featuring Ford candidly outlining his offensive positions on immigrants, homeless people, and cyclists. But while some may have derived a self-satisfied pleasure from these videos, they did little to stop the landslide. If anything, mid-brow attacks on Ford’s buffoonery seemed to further legitimate his message.
After eight years of Miller, Toronto had become a wall of glass and steel. Unfathomable amounts of capital have reconstructed the city; new spires constantly reach skyward. Meanwhile, working class and racialized communities see the money and know there’s lots of it – just not for them. Development under Miller couldn’t help but be offensive to those enduring increased poverty and dissatisfaction. And for what? Designed for the “creative class,” the reconstructed city excluded most of those who lived within it. Hip, white, and expert: Toronto’s new elite became increasingly removed from the quotidian concerns of daily life.
Enter Rob Ford offering “respect.” Proposing to get back to brass tacks, he tapped into people’s deep dissatisfaction with the financialized variant of neoliberal rule that had remade the city in its own image. Contra Miller, Ford validated patriarchy, spoke on behalf of the family, and attacked queers. It didn’t matter that he’d done some bad things; frequent references to his life as a football coach more than made up for it. At a moment when neoliberal capitalism had transposed nearly all social relations into the individuating register of the commodity exchange, the folksy allure of Ford’s bread and butter proved far more compelling than Miller’s glass and steel.
But for all his affective appeal, Ford remains a successful capitalist. And while he represents capitalism’s more “real” manufacturing and extraction wing (and while he lacks the urbane charm of a Miller), his project remains as neoliberal as his predecessor’s. Like a guest who farts at a fancy restaurant, Ford defiantly wins the hearts of those who don’t care which fork comes first. But it’s a weird solidarity; though they identify with him, they weren’t invited to the table. And scandalizing bourgeois sentibilities, fun though it may be, will never fill our stomachs.
The growing appeal of populist rightwing rhetoric – and particularly its racism and xenophobia – has offended liberals and radicals alike. Nevertheless, our opposition has often been framed in liberal terms. In a context where multiculturalism, inclusion, tolerance, and even the notion of rights are under attack, we feel inclined to defend them to ensure that they don’t erode completely. For though we’ve critiqued these policies and postures, and exposed their inadequacies in good times, we know that – when push comes to shove – they’re what has allowed us to organize against power.
Rightwing attacks on the basic tenets of liberal democracy – the right to privacy, the right to peaceful assembly and protest, and the right to free speech – have put us in a tricky position. Radicals have historically been ambivalent about liberal democracy and have identified its very real limits. In particular, the bourgeois call for liberty, equality, and fraternity never translated into any meaningful challenge to the ongoing inequality of class relations. Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw it coming as early as 1795.
But you plead, it seems, for equalization of Rights, not of Condition. O mockery! All that can delight a poor man’s sense or strengthen his understanding, you preclude; yet with generous condescension you would bid him exclaim “Liberty and Equality!” because, forsooth, he should possess the same Right to an Hovel which you claim to a Palace.3
But this is only part of the story. Liberalism’s ideals have been compelling; historically, they’ve enabled social movements to advance claims for equality on the basis of the discrepancy between what is and what ought to be. Today, as basic liberal rights are being rolled back, it makes sense that radicals are wondering whether devoting energy to defending limited rights is better than running the risk of losing them altogether. Moreover, since these rights continue to resonate with vast sections of the population, doesn’t fighting to defend them afford the possibility of entering into broad – and potentially transformative – coalitions?
This may be true; however, while many radicals identify with the promise of liberalism’s cherished but unrealized principles, the fact remains that there is no inevitable or logical progression from liberal ideals to concrete utopias. And while radicals can make strategic use of the contradiction between the “ought” of liberal democracy’s ideals and the “is” of their perverse and partial contemporary articulation, this is not our only strategic opportunity.
Demanding that the “ought” be actualized makes sense when liberal ideals are infused with hegemonic power; however, in the context of rightwing ascendance, we cannot simply presume that these ideals remain persuasive in all instances. The contemporary appeal of right-wing populism makes clear that vast sections of society are no longer swayed by the promise of the liberal “ought.” Contradictory though they may be, their desires exceed it. They contain a revolutionary promise at odds with the forms through which they get articulated. When determining where to put our energy, it may make more sense for radicals operating under current conditions to orient toward the contradictions of the conservative base than toward those of the liberal establishment.
The left is rehearsed at responding to oppression by taking to the streets in symbolic demonstration and hoping that passersby and media audiences will agree with our messages and join us. But calling for a fight isn’t the same as starting one. At some point, we’ll have to argue face-to-face with people who endorse the right’s contradictory ideas. And sometimes we’ll lose the argument – not because we can’t win, but because we don’t yet know how.
As radicals, we’re often reluctant to debate people who disagree with us. We’re good at drowning out directors’ meetings and campaign dinners with noisy rallies or co-opting a photo-op with a banner drop. But when we encounter chance debates, we tend to duck out the second it seems we might lose the upper hand. It’s an understandable habit; we’re aware that many people casually dismiss our ideas, call us crazy, naïve, stupid, and worse. The risk can be more serious, too: bigotry, verbal abuse, or potential violence. Sometimes turning our back to naysayers can seem like the only way to ensure that a campaign ends on a good note and that activists remain safe. Still, proceeding in this way prevents us from learning how to engage with others and restricts our political consequentiality.
In 2001, activists with Vancouver’s Bus Rider’s Union (BRU) began getting on buses in pairs or groups to talk with riders. Their focus on public transit didn’t prevent them from engaging in dialogue about a full range of recent events, policies, and local experiences. When riders responded with conservative arguments or reactionary hostility, BRU activists would stick together and pursue the debate. In this way, the opponent helped to produce a captive audience. Campaigning on crowded buses, BRU activists were safer from violence than they may have been on the street. Pedagogically, they were also in a position to get more out of casual confrontations. Many radicals seem reluctant to use such tactics. Nevertheless, they remain indispensable to the project of base-building.
People drawn to rightwing populism may lack the left’s political language and hold offensive “politically incorrect” positions. But we need to be inquisitive, not dismissive. Although we may hate the answers, we have to ask why people like Rob Ford or voted for Stephen Harper. These uncomfortable conversations are vital to unearthing capitalist contradictions. They’re opportunities to help deepen our collective understanding of colonization, racism, and sexism. There’s too much at stake for us to walk away.
1 George Orwell, Road to Wigan Pier (London: Penguin Books, 1989), 158-159.
2 Road to Wigan Pier, 161.
3 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Essays On His Own Times: Forming a Second Series of the Friend, edited by His Daughter (London: William Pickering, 1850), 27.