The Masses Against the Classes, or, How to talk about populism without talking about class
For we are class enemies,
whatever they tell us:
He among us who didn’t dare to fight,
he dared to starve.
—Bertolt Brecht, “The Song of the Class Enemy”
On September 20th, 1891, a group of black cotton pickers in Lee County, Arkansas went on strike. Gathered round by the black labor leader Ben Patterson—himself a thirty-year-old farm worker, who had toiled on the plantation for about three weeks to secretly seek recruits—about twenty-five pickers walked out into the fields, equipped with knives and hoes, and headed for the offices of the local planter. As such, the strike was about destitute working conditions and contracts issued by the local plantation owners, who had consistently refused increases in wages and improvements of working conditions. More broadly, however, Southern pickers felt they revolted against a whole system of exploitation. The organization Patterson headed—the so-called “Cotton Pickers’ League”—may only have spoken for a specific section of Southern labourers, in contrast to groups such as black sharecroppers and smaller yeomen. These other groups, however, did not refuse sympathy for the landless element in the coalition: all Southern agricultural laborers were in a bad way.1 Most of them had to sell part of their crop yield to local merchants, who then trucked their produce to Eastern cities. The logic of the “crop lien” went like this: farmers took on loans with local merchants to finance the repayment of land or farming tools. This was done through a seasonal payment of crops, which farmers had to supply regardless of meteorological variability. Since the very same merchant who supplied the loans was also the one who sold the farmer’s grain on the market, it was easy for agents to keep market-advantage on their side, and engage in price-gouging. The results were foreseeable: the crop lien made it practically impossible for the Southern farmer to ever fully repay his loan, condemning him to constant cycles of debt bondage (black workers, of course, bore the brunt of the system, due to their prior status as landless proletarians). As the American historian Lawrence Goodwyn notes, the crop lien “constituted a new and debasing method of economic organization that took its specific form from the devastation of the Civil War and from the collapse of the economic structure of Southern society which had resulted from the war.”2 “The South,” he notes, “had become…a ‘giant pawn shop.’”3
Such were the conditions that motivated Arkansas cotton pickers to rebel. The organizations that buttressed their action, however, far predated 1891. Since 1886 at least, black Southerners had united in a variety of organizations to further their cause, including the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and Agricultural Wheels, the Knights of Labor, the Cooperative Workers of America, and the Colored Farmers’ Union.4 In the late 1880s, all formations mentioned counted as sub-sections of the so-called Populist movement, which had mushroomed in Southern and Midwestern states in the preceding decade. Initially, its focus had predominantly centred on white agricultural workers. Steadily, however, it had also spread to other parts of the population, giving up its exclusivist focus. “By 1891,” the historian of Black Populism Omar H. Ali notes, “the Colored Alliance had established chapters in every southern state, prompting its national spokesperson, [Richard] Humphrey, to claim a ‘total membership [of] nearly 1,200,000, of whom 300,000 are females, and 150,000 males under twenty-one years of age.’”5 The numbers were impressive indeed.
This biracial aspect also made for problems, however. Populist meetings were often held on a separate racial basis, with white and black chapters meeting in segregated assemblies. Not only did the color line run starkly through the coalition itself; more importantly, the color line at times also stood in for a class line, in which landed elites within the Populist coalition, eager to defend their position as agricultural producers, discouraged poor members (white and black) from agitation. This was no different with the 1891 Arkansas Cotton Picker’s Strike. A local white Populist leader, Leonidas Polk, expressed his dismay over the excessive activity enacted by the black subsection: the strikers, he claimed, “seek to better their condition at the expense of their white brethren….Reforms should not be in the interest of one portion of our farmers at the expense of another.”6 Instead, he advised black tenants to turn to “the power of the ballot,”7 and cast their votes for Populist lawmakers in the upcoming presidential elections.
This accommodationist sentiment was not exclusive to white elites, however. A new black bourgeoisie, headed by improvers such as Booker T. Washington, were equally unenthusiastic about the prospect of poor blacks revolting against their superiors. As they saw it, such action endangered the precarious peace secured by the 1877 “New South” settlement, which allowed for black improvement in the margins. At his educational institute in Tuskegee, Washington pleaded to Southern blacks to “keep out of politics (and) make any concession consistently with manhood….Let the white men know you are glad you are a Negro. Don’t push, but be proud of your blood.”8
Black elites’ reticence to assist black working-class agitation had a fatal effect on the 1891 Cotton Pickers’ Strike. Because of the lack of support the strikers received from the white and black gentry, the pickers’ rebellion was swiftly suppressed. Local planters were quick to dispatch an armed militia and mobilized the necessary number of scabs. A fierce battle ensued, with black workers skirmishing with strike-breakers in towns and fields. Patterson himself was wounded in the ensuing gunfight. After the strike’s quashing, he was transported down the river for imprisonment in Mississippi. In the end, his journey was in vain: the instigator of the 1891 Cotton Pickers’ Strike, a watershed moment for black Populism in the South, was executed by a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan in 1892, at a town called Hackney’s Landing.9
Upon hearing the episode, one aspect might appear striking to the contemporary reader. Black Populism as exemplified by the Arkansas Cotton Pickers’ League was, in every way conceivable, a class-based movement. It mobilised poor agricultural laborers, both white and black, against a common enemy, on economic lines. Its members were from the poorest classes of Southern society, and, as one historian noted—“the poorest of the poor in the South…were Negroes.”10
The class character of Black Populism, however, was no mere question of electoral sociology. It was not simply the case that Populists simply gained most votes from predominantly working-class regions. Rather, it was because of the specific programmatic proposals set forward by black and white Populists alike—higher wages, inflationary monetary policy, augmented prices for agricultural goods, abolition of enclosure laws—that intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Comer Vann Woodward could later describe it as the foremost “working-class” movement of the Gilded Age South.11 As the historian Judith Stein notes:
commonality of need among all parts of the laboring classes was basic to the Populist view of the world. It taught that both whites and blacks were oppressed, and it promised to “wipe out the color line” in the South….As the leader of the CFA (Colored Farmers’ Alliance) in Florida said, “especially is this true in the South [that] anything that can be brought about to benefit the workingman will benefit the Negro more than any other legislation that can be enacted.”12
Contemporary discussion on “populism,” however, offers a confusing contrast to 1891. If anything, today, “populism” is not really about class. To many readers on the left, “populism” even seems predicated on the complete renunciation of class as such—or, populist movements are based on a competitive signifier, that of “identity.” Perhaps populism is today best understood as a form of “anti-particularist identity politics”: it denotes the moment the working-class decides to see itself as a “people” rather than a “class,” exchanging “economics” for “culture,” and losing its claim to a hegemonic universality.
Is it possible, however, to speak about Black Populism without ever talking about class? Inspecting the story of the Arkansas Cotton Pickers’ Strike, the answer seems rather firmly not. In fact, it almost seems as if Black Populism was about nothing but class—“commonality of need among all parts of the laboring classes,” as Stein had it, “was basic to the Populist view of the world.”13 Drawing on this contrast between Populism anno 1892 and 2017, the current article has a triple aim: (1) to show that American Populism was firmly about class; (2) that current populism-discourse, on both the left and the right in Europe, tends to see populism as intrinsically opposed to class approaches, wedded, as it is, to identitarian claims; and (3) to show how this shift from populism as centred around “class” to “identity” (or, from “economy” to “culture”) came about.
To begin with, the notion of an “anti-particularist identity politics” perhaps stands in need of some exegesis. It now seems rather evident that, in the last thirty years, identitarian strategies have come to occupy an ever more prominent place in the political repertoire of the dwindling Left (even a figure such as Hillary Clinton, of course, has now come to embrace the language of “intersectionality” and “privilege,” providing the most apt illustration of this thesis), while simultaneously, a general “retreat from class”—as the political theorist Ellen Meiksins Wood once conjectured—has taken place.14 Instead, strategies which have increasingly tended to stress non-economic factors have gained an upper hand in socialist circles, seeking to unite subjects on the basis of cultural, gendered or personal markers, rather than their locations in the economic cycle.
There are differences, however. Classically, in liberal doctrine, such identitarian strategies have consistently shown a certain sectorial bent. Identity groups are presented as competing in the arena of civil society, posing their demands at a state level, gauging how much accommodation the reigning elite will allow for. (For example: how many students of non-white ethnicities will access positions at Ivy League schools? How many Latinx actors will feature in sitcoms? Or, how many military commanders will be of Chinese-American descent?)
This particularism, of course, always ran parallel with a distinct counterpart: pluralistic “group-politics.” In this schema, a putative stratification is maintained between the different claims made by these identity groups: African-Americans may supposedly not make political demands on behalf of non-African-Americans; Latinx may not do so on behalf of non-Latinx, and whites may certainly not do so on behalf of non-whites. As Cedric Johnson notes with regards to currents of 1960s black radicalism, critics of the civil rights movement saw it as engaging in a “meaningless abstraction outside of the formal, influential political groups that could give them material and practical force. Following this logic, blacks possessed few rights…because black leadership had failed to act in the nationalistic manner historically pursued by other ethnic groups.”15
In the case of contemporary “left-populism,” however, such a particularist ethos is more difficult to maintain. Left-wing populism, as it seems, is anti-particularist by its assumption: it seeks to unify socially heterogeneous groups against a common enemy, erasing the “narcissism of small differences” which divided those groups before and opting for a broader, transversal approach. As the main proponent of such a populism, Ernesto Laclau states that the populist “people,” “far from having the homogeneous nature that one would attribute to pure class actors (defined by precise locations within the relations of production), is conceived as the articulation of a plurality of ruptural points.”16 As he writes, this fusion of identity groups into an over-arching coalition “makes the emergence of the particularism of the demands possible but, at the same time, it subordinates them to itself as a necessary surface of inscription.”17 Nowhere, however, do they share a necessary affinity with class-markers: “ideological ‘elements,’” states Laclau, “have no necessary class connotation, and (this) connotation is only the result of the articulation of those elements in a concrete ideological discourse.”18
Perhaps it is exactly this focus on “identity” that has also made Laclauian populism vulnerable to criticism. In a recent review, American philosopher Jodi Dean has led the charge against the left’s embrace of the “p-word,” claiming that its focus on “identity” obscures the specifically materialist character of capitalist social relations. A foremost problem with “left-populism,” she claims, “is its continued embrace of identity as a central category….Just like the politics of multitudes and affinity groups, so does populism occlude this fact, again effacing the fundamental antagonism at the heart of capitalism: capitalism requires proletarianization, the production and reproduction of the exploited and immiserated, those with nothing to sell but their own labor power.”19 In fact, Dean claims, “populist” movements often run across class coalitions, thereby also spelling their final ruin: “there is no such thing as a left-populism,”20 she proclaims.
Starting off from Dean’s observation that “populism is unable to let go of the concept of ‘identity,’”21 and its contrast with the original Populism of the 1891 Arkansas Cotton Pickers’ Strike, we might be tempted to ask when Americans and Europeans first started discussing “populism” in identitarian terms. The question we face thus seems relatively straightforward: when at first did America stop talking about “class,” when talking about “populism”?
It has not always been the case, after all, that American academics saw populism in terms of “identity.” In the 1920s, American historians could still look back fondly on the Populist episode as one of the many episodes in the age-long American class struggle. To followers of Charles A. Beard, doyen of the Progressive School in American History, Populism represented the last revolt of the small freeholding class, who, while being crushed by the advent of the industrial society, protested their new market-dependency by uniting on class lines.22 Other writers in this tradition, such as Vernon Parrington or John Hicks, shared their sentiments. Parrington’s Main Currents of American Thought (1927) cast “populism” as the revolt of small property-holders upholding the Jeffersonian ideal, sharing a pedigree which went back to the Founders’ Age. John Hicks’ classic The Populist Revolt (1931) tracked a similar genealogy, trying to show how the aims of the original Populist movement were translated into the working-class agitation of the incipient New Deal. Another classic of Populist historiography, Comer Vann Woodward’s Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1937), made a similar diagnosis of the economic character of the “agrarian crusade” which took Southern states by storm in the 1880s and 1890s. Although not wholly compatible with Marxist approaches (Populists were too much wedded to ideals of private property to figure as card-carrying socialists, although many did join Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party after Populism’s defeat in 1896), it was clear that such treatments of Populism saw “class” as crucial to the coalition. In fact, Populism’s support with black workers was precisely predicated on its strongly class-based appeal, and its promise to elevate the “producing” classes regardless of skin color.
The 1950s, however, brought a different judgment. To historians such as Richard Hofstadter, and sociologists such as Daniel Bell (the most famous of post-war pluralists) the agrarian rebels were not benevolent reformists or crypto-socialists, but rather, the forebears of the so-called “paranoid style in American politics.”23 In 1955, Hofstadter published his epochal The Age of Reform, in which he offered a “revisionist” assessment of the original Populist movement. Hofstadter drew a contrast between the Populist “Agrarian Myth” and the “Commercial Realities” of the late nineteenth-century, castigating the farmers for their pastoral posturing, whilst simultaneously seeking the benefits of a commercial economy. The economic changes wrought by the Civil War, he claimed, left the position of the agrarian small producer untenable. The result was a rhetorical duplicity, which often ended in a form of aggrieved identitarianism. “The utopia of the Populists,” Hofstadter stated,
was in the past, not the future….The Populists looked backward with longing to the lost agrarian Eden, to the republican America of the early years of the nineteenth century in which there were few millionaires and, as they saw it, no beggars, when the laborer had excellent prospects and the farmer had abundance, when statesmen still responded to the mood of the people and there was no such thing as the money power.24
It was also at this moment, then, that “populism” came to be perceived as an essentially culturalist phenomenon, rather than a movement which sought to combat economic exploitation.25 No epoch had more influence on how Americans thought and wrote about their social past (and, thereby, also Populism) than the 1950s, with the appearance of works such as Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform, Oscar Handlin’s The Uprooted, Daniel Bell’s edited volume The Radical Right, and Seymour Martin Lipset’s work on “working-class authoritarianism.”26
Such a reframing, as we see, was in no way confined to historiography. More specifically, a new status-based, culturalist understanding of Populism first made headway in the social rather than the historical sciences. Hofstadter himself, for example, admitted that his conception of Populism was thoroughly influenced by his reading of Max Weber and Theodor Adorno, which he had most likely first encountered in a Columbia seminar in the early 1950s. Recently, Todd Cronan has argued that the very roots of “intersectionality” are to be sought in this very conjuncture, with theorists such as Adorno and Max Horkheimer being the first to distance themselves from more orthodox, class-based Marxist approaches, and moving instead to accounts of capitalism which saw it as a system of “domination” rather than “exploitation.”27 Significantly, the repercussions of such a turn towards “status” were felt in fields even further from social theory. Historians who were not necessarily interested in explaining the rise of fascism (as Adorno was) were equally fascinated by the “intersectional” turn initiated by writers such as Horkheimer and Adorno, who provided a more promising avenue than orthodox methods. In fact, the very notions of “cultural” or “status politics” (an Ur-form of what we today call “identity politics”) were first theorised by these pluralist writers, who consciously set them up as an analytical alternative to class-based approaches.
The foremost question these pluralist writers sought to address concerned the rise of a specific phenomenon in the mid-1950s: McCarthyism. Why did such a movement, which was supposedly not situated on class lines, arise in the “affluent society” of the mid-century United States? This question was even more puzzling to these writers in the light of their own political experience. Intellectuals such as Hofstadter, Lipset, and Bell all shared their background in Trotskyist radicalism, previous members of the New York Intellectuals in the mid-1930s. One of the hallmarks of this variant of American Trotskyism, was what one could call a “banal materialism” in the interpretation of political phenomena. Political movements had to be explained through their class bases, and were inexplicable when such movements did not show any economic incentives for their mobilisation. Politics, in turn, was to be considered as the mere institutional translation of class strife, and consistently took place on the terrain of the economy. Such an “economistic” bias, of course, was prevalent in both the great historical schools available to mid-century intellectuals: Progressivist history or continental Marxism. Although both also showed significant differences, they nonetheless converged in their mutual insistence on the “economic roots of politics,” and the need to maintain a materialist lens when observing parliamentary scheming. “My generation,” Hofstadter wrote in the early sixties, “was raised in the conviction that the basic motive power in political behavior is the economic interest of groups.”28
If politics was about economics, then why was McCarthyism political? In fact, no economic motivation could be found for the movement at all. The frantic calls for “disclosure,” its insistence on the essentially “moral” nature of its revolt, its endless perorations on the need for a religious “war against communism,” were not even comprehensible in terms of mere ruling class diversion. Marxist scholars, pluralists claimed, were woefully underequipped to comprehend the scope of the McCarthyite revolt, and why it had managed to stir popular spirits (the complaints were akin to objections levelled at Marxist observers of Nazism, who claimed that the movement’s anti-Semitism was not primarily about “race,” but, above all, about “class”). The rise of McCarthyism, Hofstadter claimed, revealed the existence of a “wide range of behavior for which the economic interpretation of politics seems to be inadequate.”29
What the Marxist schema also left unexplained, Hofstadter claimed, was why McCarthyism had exercised such a fatal attraction on the popular classes specifically. Pluralists noticed that all the states which were characterised by heavy Populist activity in the 1890s—Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Dakota—showed an equally high support for McCarthy in opinion polls.30 The correlation was simply too conspicuous. Populism could not arise ex nihilo. Not only did McCarthyism draw on an extensive populist reservoir, they claimed; it also, in terms of sociological resources, mobilised classes which had first bound themselves to the Populist coalition. “Senator McCarthy,” noted Peter Viereck in The New American Right, a collection of essays which first made available the Hofstadter thesis, “with his gruff charm and his Populist roots, seems made to order for such men; and he has attracted some of the political plungers among the new underprivileged rich, a task made easier by the fact that they have too few intellectuals and idea men to divide and distract them.”31
Viereck—like Bell and Hofstadter—did not think, however, that McCarthyism really had anything to do with economics. As such, two parameters of the status-thesis were already in place: McCarthy drew on a populist reservoir, and had support in former Populist-voting states. “A great many Americans, newly risen from poverty or the catastrophe of the Depression,” he continued, “are much more fearful of losing their wealth than are scions of more established families already accustomed to paying taxes, to giving to charity, and to the practice of noblesse oblige….We face the paradox that many Americans are more fearful today though more prosperous than ever before and though America is in some ways more powerful.”32
Viereck’s answer to the McCarthyite enigma was predictable. It simply traded “class” for “status,” replacing the “economy” with “culture.” Rather than a class- or interest-based movement, “small p” populism (visible in both the late nineteenth century and the 1950s) relied on cultural appeals to segments of the lower classes endangered by the rise of the new economy. No one enunciated this theory with more bravado than Hofstadter himself. As he wrote about the Populist farmer in the 1890s in his Age of Reform:
Rank in society! That was close to the heart of the matter, for the farmer was beginning to realize acutely not merely that the best of the world’s goods were to be had in the cities and that the urban middle and upper classes had much more of them than he did but also that he was losing in status and respect as compared with them.33
Subsequently, Hofstadter continued to assert that all the material grievances Populist farmers had objected to—low wages, stagnant grain prices, suppression of strikes—were, in fact, not real. These developments were not objectionable, he claimed, since they implied real forms of material degradation, but rather, because they impinged on the possibility of maintaining stature in a “commercializing” society. “For the farmer it was bewildering, and irritating too,” Hofstadter postulated, “to think of the great contrast between the verbal deference paid him by almost everyone and the real status, the real economic position, in which he found himself.”34 That economic position, Hofstadter insisted, was eminently favorable, and in fact negligible: the farmer was doing rather well, and need not worry about the size of his wage or the market-value of his crops.
Intellectual historians have speculated on the exact roots of this turn towards “status.” Why did previously Trotskyist activists such as Seymour Martin Lipset, Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Bell come to identify American Populism as the ultimate predecessor to American McCarthyism? And why, in the process, was Populism recast as a status-revolt after all? A canonical answer has been to simply refer to the anti-communist bias of these pluralist writers. Determined to write out any viable socialist movement from America’s past, they simply went on to castigate any manifestation of class-consciousness, however covert, as an incipient sign of proto-fascism. As this theory has it, “consensus history” simply reproduced a political anti-communism in its theoretical commitments. The United States—wedded, as it was, to the “Lockian” property regime—only knew two forms of politics: interest-group bargaining or status anxiety. American workers, in turn, were “temporarily aggrieved millionaires,” who were never truly able to see themselves in class terms, and spurned frantic calls to such economic conflict.
Pluralists themselves acknowledged that such an argument was at times hard to make, specifically in the light of the United States’ bloody record when it came to class war. (American elites, in opposition to their European counterparts, could not simply defuse class tension by starting inter-imperialist wars; Pinkertons, as Alex Gourevitch has noted, were an almost exclusively American phenomenon.35) To claim that the miners at Blair Mountain had fought over “status anxiety” rather than “class conflict,” was a strained judgment to make, and indeed required considerable stretching of empirical evidence.
A more likely explanation traces the tenets of the status thesis back to Adorno’s 1950 study on the “Authoritarian Personality,” in which a cohort of psychologists and social scientists undertook a large-scale interrogation of American union members, to investigate the prevalence of prejudiced attitudes within their ranks. In both The New American Right (and in its expanded new edition, The Radical Right) and The Age of Reform, Hofstadter admitted to being heavily influenced by the work, although not wholly agreeing with its final balance sheet. (“Although I have drawn heavily upon this enlightening study, I have some reservations about its methods and conclusions.”36) The methodological impact of Adorno’s book (its substitution, as Christopher Lasch wrote, of “political criticism [with] psychiatric categories”37) was without question, however, and of paramount pertinence for the importation of the status-idiom into American thought.
The key claim made by Adorno and his associates—that the citizens most susceptible to recruitment in fascist movements all shared a form of “authoritarian personality”—of course relied heavily on the language of “status” and “culture,” derivative of notions such as Kultur or Stand so prevalent in Nazi discourse.38 Given the analogy pluralist writers such as Hofstadter and Bell discerned between McCarthyism and Nazism, (both “cultural” rather than “class” movements, and both heavily infested with anti-Semitism), the notion of “status” proved to be of capital importance in new pluralist visions. As Todd Cronan states, “with the advent of this immensely influential mode of analysis—the origins of intersectionality itself…the basic terms of political argumentation on the left after 1940 were changed. They opened the possibility from within Marxism of seeing class as a matter of power, of domination, rather than of economics….And once that possibility was raised, it became the dominant mode of analysis on the Left at large. In other words, it was the tool some on the Left had been seeking all along to get ‘beyond’ Marxism itself.”39 Contemporary scholars have of course tended to contextualize Adorno and Horkheimer’s work on the “authoritarian personality” pointing out the strained and tangled process which preceded the work’s publication. (Adorno voiced reservations about the work in later writings, and Simon Jarvis noted the relative “weakness” of his sociological theory in the light of later work.40 With regards to “small-p” populism, however, it is not Adorno’s own intent which is in question here, but rather, how pluralistic writers recuperated Adorno’s theses to initiate their very own post-Marxist moment.)
For pluralists, the motivations for such a “move ‘beyond’ Marxism” were twofold. On the one hand, it allowed for an explication of phenomena which Marxism itself had left inexplicable, and widened the intellectual scope of pluralistic arguments. On the other hand, the subsumption of “class” under the broader category of “interest” also allowed for a more harmonious alignment with the new political co-ordinates of the Cold War, in which an American “vital center” had to be protected against the totalitarian twins (Nazism and Stalinism). What was so appealing to pluralists in the language of “status,” then, was that it retained the language of “conflict” and “difference” without succumbing to a species of economic reductionism. Even if the concept of “consensus” was a rather blunt tool to approach Gilded Age America (how much consensus was there between the Pullman strikers and the robber barons?, one might ask), the concept of “status divergences” at least seemed capable of explaining the existence of such divergences, without reducing them to a fully-fledged clash of interests.
The Hofstadter thesis—together with its pluralist twin—faded into academic oblivion in the late 1970s. Many of the claims posited by the pluralists were shown to be empirically unjustifiable. Counter-revisionist historians such as Lawrence Goodwyn and Norman Pollack showed that Populist grievances were far from illusory and, in fact, very real. Their diagnosis was borne out in the investigations of economic historians, who noted the steep fall in agricultural prices in the late 1880s, and the wage depressions which followed it. By the end of the 1970s, the Hofstadter thesis was “languishing in ruin”41 as Goodwyn put it.
Yet, while historians were busy discrediting the Hofstadter thesis, political scientists were busy giving it a new lease on life in other disciplines. Notably, many of Hofstadter’s pluralist colleagues—Oscar Handlin, Talcott Parsons, Seymour Martin Lipset—proved to be key figures in American social science, which first cast American history as not a struggle between classes, but rather, as either a struggle for recognition between different ethnic groups, or a process towards “partisan mutual adjustment” between interest factions. (Immigration studies as started by Handlin was an example in case: as noted by Touré Reed, for Handlin and the pluralists, “racism and even poverty were no longer seen as products of class exploitation—as they had been during the New Deal and World War II. Instead, pluralists…traced the origins of such ills to the cultural deficiencies of the disadvantaged, and the attitudes of the privileged.”42)
How, then, did Laclau and Dean’s status-based conception of “populism” end up in contemporary debates? Part of this heritage can be explained through Laclau’s own encounter with the concept of “populism” in the mid-1960s. The first Latin American scholar to implement the pluralist conception of “populism” as defined by Hofstadter was the Argentinian political scientist Gino Germani. Some biographical background might be helpful here. After an encounter with Talcott Parsons (himself a contributor the infamous The New American Right/Radical Right, with his own essay on populism and social strains43) and pluralist sociology in the late 1940s, Germani first took on the so-called status thesis first formulated by the pluralists, and globalised it towards non-U.S. movements. Later, Laclau himself would become a research assistant to Germani at the University of Buenos Aires.
What exactly was the relationship between Hofstadter’s populism and Germani’s? Once again, “identity” took on a paramount role here. What the “p-word” came to stand for in Germani’s Peronism, was the replacement of “class politics” for “status mobilization.” Such a replacement, of course, had specific historical roots—only specific forms of societies produced populist results, Germani claimed, and qualified for a classification under the rubric of “populist” regimes (more specifically, democracies “without the rule of law,” in which economic modernization had not been coupled with a concomitant change in cultural roles—a phenomenon which Nils Gilman has analysed as “the disease of the transition”44).
What was abundantly clear again—and what someone like Laclau explicitly took from Germani—was the firmly status-based appeal such populist discourses had to their followers. It relied, as he stated, on the slogan of the “masses against the classes,” reserving the word “class” for those who were wholly alien the body politic. Laclauian Peronism—whilst letting go of the teleological undertones of Germani’s modernization theory—very much claims the same; as Laclau writes, for Peron, “there is no populism without affective investment in a partial object”; a “Peronism without Peron” would, therefore, have been practically impossible.45
In the previous passage, another crucial facet of Laclauian “populism” is highlighted: its libidinal dimension. There exists, as Laclau himself notes, an inevitably affective dimension to every form of populist politics, visible in its vocabulary of “drives” and “desires,” and its diatribes against consensual liberalism, most notably in its Habermasian form.46 Habermas’ postulate of a “communicative consensus,” left-populists claim, simply does not allow for the survival of emotions into the political sphere, and forfeits the possibility of ever forging affective bonds between subjects engaged in mass action; liberal consensus theory, as it seems, remains too closely allied with Marxism in its tacit rationalism and adherence to a pre-discursive notion of “material interests.”
Interesting enough, it is in this very “libidinal” or “affective” dimension that the essential incompatibility of class discourses and populist discourse is borne out. Class discourses, as it seems, need not necessarily rely on an affective claim to turn into a rallying force. In fact, purely “self-interested” arguments form a key kernel of such class discourses, which tend to shy away from overtly emotionalist appeals; as “the logic of class is just as incompatible with the logic of identity,” Walter Benn Michaels, “as the logic of belief is.”47 Laclau disagrees. “If society were unified by a determinate ontic content,” he writes, “determination in the last instance by the economy, spirit of the people, systemic coherence, or whatever—the totality could be directly represented at the strictly conceptual level. Since this is not the case, a hegemonic totalization requires a radical investment—that is, one that is not determinable a priori ….(H)ere, the affective dimension plays a central role.”48
Yet, as Laclau admits, such visions are more difficult to impose on the original American populism—that of the 1892 People’s Party. At the end of his On Populist Reason, he provides a brief survey of Populist historiography since the 1950s. Expectedly, he remains quite critical of Hofstadter throughout, whom he criticises for mischaracterizing the original movement. Curiously enough, however, his own account of the Populist movement is conspicuously close to Hofstadter in its insistence on the “symbolic” and “identitarian” focus of the movement: “the situation that the People’s Party faced,” he claims, “had all the components I have enumerated as typical of the populist turn of politics: widespread disaffection with the existing status quo, incipient constitution of an equivalential chain of demands centred on a few cathected symbols, increasing challenge to the political system as a whole.”49 In a more general treatment of “populist logics,” he writes:
We know, so far, that populism requires the dichotomic division of society into two camps—one presenting itself as a part which claims to be the whole; that this dichotomy involves the antagonistic division of the social field; and that the popular camp presupposes, as a condition of its constitution, the construction of a global identity out of the equivalence of a plurality of social demands.50
Now, two questions seem to follow from this claim. Firstly: are we justified to describe the Populists as focusing on “popular identity” rather than on “class markers”? Secondly: did the Populists themselves seek out to endow this “popular identity” with a libidinal fix?
Perhaps it is best to let the Populists themselves speak on this matter. In 1892, when touring the Georgia countryside for the presidential election, the Southern Populist Thomas E. Watson gave a succinct summary of his own stance on the race question. As he saw it, black and white tenants did not necessarily need to cooperate out of some mutual sense of moral duty, or a shared Southern identity. Neither was it a question of “affect,” or “libidinal investment,” appealing to the emotional goodwill of both sides. Rather, it was their shared material stake in the necessity of agrarian improvement that made possible their political cooperation. “Their every material interest,” Watson spoke, “is identical. The moment this becomes a conviction, mere selfishness, the mere desire to better their conditions, escape onerous taxes, avoid usurious charges, lighten their rents, or change their precarious tenements into smiling happy homes, will drive these two men together.”51 “This is so obviously true,” he ended “it is no wonder both these unhappy laborers [whites and blacks] stop to listen [to Democratic politicians]. No wonder they begin to realize that no change of law can benefit the white tenant which does not benefit the black one likewise; that no system which now does injustice to one of them can fail to injure both.”52
There is, of course, no need to defend Watson for his later crimes and sliding into nativist bigotry. (Watson subsequently became a staunch defender of Jim Crow, and was partly responsible for the lynching of the Jewish factory-owner Leo Frank in 1915.53) There is also no need to disavow the fact that the absence of strong libidinal bonds might have facilitated the occurrence of these later deviations, and that the task of overcoming white supremacy is not a task that can be solved by agglomerative politics alone.
Yet, in 1892, Watson did express a central truth about late-nineteenth-century Populism, which fails to conform to the formulae set out by Laclau and the pluralists. Rather than relying on a notion of identitarian identification or a call for affective investment, Watson’s plea to black voters was solidly centred on the notion of “material interest”: it was about the economy, and not about “culture” or “status.” Although critics have retorted that Watson’s plea was simply an instance of electoral opportunism, this fails to explain why Black Populists (and the Arkansas strikers) themselves felt they had to join the Populist coalition in the first place. Rather than a coalition based on “identity” or “affect,” Populism was based on the exact opposite: naked self-interest. This was a concept which needed surprisingly little discursive manoeuvring (an operation which is no way to be equated with organization, of course).
What troubles liberals in late-nineteenth-century Populism, therefore, is not that white Populists were unable to fully shed the vestiges of racism within their own ranks. It is not that Southerners simply remained too bigoted when preaching the biracial gospel all along, or that behind the 1892 Watson there would always be the nativist Watson of 1915. Rather, liberal writers seem to have a more fundamental objection to the Populist outlook. The main objection to Populism can be boiled down to the following: Populism was wrong since it required no “moral” motivation as to the fundamental desirability of its biracial co-operation. In fact, Populists claimed, mere economic common-sense would be enough to convince Southern blacks to team up with poor Southern whites. How, for example, could they reconcile the fact that citizens who might have held violently racist views, and expressed these publicly, still join hands with their purported enemies out of a shared set of “interests”? The solution, as Watson saw it, lay not with “affect”: that would prove too capricious a god and possibly intensify mutual enmity. The solution, rather, was to focus on what white Populists were concretely doing to further the cause of black labor, and how this engagement expressed itself in political terms.
Evidently, this often involved a rather hazardous balancing act. On the one hand, Southern Populists had to assure their white, previously Democratic-voting public that they posed no threat to “white man’s rule” in the South, and that “social equality” would remain an unattainable goal. (Populists remained segregationists, and it is here that their fundamental weaknesses reveal themselves.54) On the other hand, however, they also had to clarify to southern blacks that the Populist platform was indeed the most propitious for their own interests, since it furthered the case of agrarian labor in general and allowed for more than curtailed forms of black entrepreneurship. As such, Southern Populists were more occupied with what people did than what people said; or, “black Populists did not need to have white folks say that they weren’t racist,” Omar Ali claims, “[t]hey were less concerned about people’s purity, what they thought, what their intentions were, but about what they did. And the thing they were willing to do, was to go out there and build a third party, with black people.”55 Similarly, Judith Stein notes “Populists did not conduct campaigns against the idea of racism, a word not used at that time….Populist treatment of race came principally from their own analysis of their past actions.”56 “In their view,”
former white Democrats had opposed black Republicans because they had not understood the world, not because of racism. The corollary of racism, black powerlessness, was a view white Populists did not hold. Populism was not the politics of guilt. Blacks and whites needed political education, not moral uplift.57
What, then, about the Populists themselves? “Concede that in the final event,” Watson again spoke at a meeting in Georgia,
a colored man will vote where his material interests dictate that he should vote; concede that in the South the accident of colour can make no possible difference in the interests of farmers, croppers, and laborers; concede that under full and fair discussion the people can be depended upon to ascertain where their interests lie—and we reach the conclusion that the Southern race question can be solved by the People’s Party on the simple proposition that each race will be led by self-interest to support that which benefits it, when so presented that neither is hindered by the bitter party antagonisms of the past.58
Again, such episodes provide an apt optic on the contemporary opposition to Populist politics. In a world where the evaluation of discursive acts has been promoted to the quintessence of American and European political life—debates over what “problematic” statements this or that speaker has made now form an obligatory part of every left-wing discussion—any form of mobilization which is not bound to “moral demands” can easily be stigmatised as insensitive or, at worst, bigoted.
The reason that contemporary liberal writers seem to have such thorough problems with the form of anti-racism exemplified by the Populist movement, is not, therefore, that Populists sought to unite poor white and black tenants in their shared “material self-interest.” Rather, it lies in the fact that they did so without seeing such co-operation as originating in a moral duty, and refused to carry out the necessary amount of affective investment. The contemporary vocabulary of “virtue-signalling,” whatever its polemical side-effects, does succeed in capturing one essential dimension of contemporary liberal anti-racism, and its antipathy towards populism: its insistence on “affect” rather than “ratio,” its tendency to evaluate “attitudes” over “ideologies,” and finally, its relentless obsession with “personalities” over “ideas.” Although one might tend to consider this form of identitarianism as intrinsically irreconcilable with class politics, the implicit class-content of identitarian pluralism is, in fact, far from negligible. As Adolph Reed notes, the affective approach has always been “the expression and active agency of a political order and moral economy in which capitalist market forces are treated as unassailable nature”59 —a “progressive” neoliberalism happy to deconstruct any Grand Narrative around, except for its own.
There are good reasons to think, however, that the non-affective, non-moral and non-personal alternative offered by the 1891 Arkansas Black Populists has lost none of its pertinence.60 Not only did they manage to overcome, however transiently, the deep-seated enmities which divided black and white workers in the Gilded Age South—they also managed to do so by appealing directly to those workers’ material interests, and not to the moral imperatives of anti-racism. In doing this, Black Populism offered neither a specimen of what Hofstadter called “cultural politics” or Laclau’s “identity-construction,” but rather, a purely structural diagnosis of what was wrong with Southern society, and how one might go about alleviating it. “Insofar as the conflict between classes is structural rather than affective,” Walter Benn Michaels writes, “it has nothing to do with attitude, by which I mean that it is real, whatever the attitude of the classes might be, and it would survive even if the (person in question) gave up his bad attitude and adopted the good one.”61 “[With] the economic shifts that are taking place, the more and more extreme inequality, the more and more going to the top,” Michaels notes elsewhere, “no doubt some people may be unhappy because of loss of status, but many millions more are going to be unhappy because of the loss of actual money.”62
That today we are unable to speak about populism without ever mentioning the term “identity,” is a rather telling indication of our current predicament. Whether it is for Gramscians, Leninists, pluralists, or white nationalists, “populism” is consistently cast as the identitarian strategy par excellence. What unites Steve Bannon, Laclau, and Dean, then, is not so much their symptomatic visions of populism, but rather, that, when it truly comes to populism, they are all identitarians. As the cotton pickers in the 1891 Colored Farmers’ Alliance show us, it has not always been so.