Last summer I questioned the ability of social media to actually rally people and bring about populist revolution. The storming of the United States Capitol on January 6th, however, is a counterexample which clearly casts doubt on my claim. Social media played a critical role in mobilizing and unifying diverse right-wing groups – QAnon supporters, Proud Boys, elected officials, everyday Americans – in their thankfully brief and unsuccessful insurrection.
Oddly while the political right can unify behind common causes, this seems to elude the political left. In an excellent article in Die Zeit Marina Weisband argued that one cause is infighting among left-wingers: “The Internet is an inexhaustible source of judgements and verdicts. Every day I observe this spiral of escalation. Why, when we are online, do we weigh every utterance of our fellow human beings on such a devastating golden morality scale? I despair at how much energy left-wingers and progressives put into shooting down other left-wingers and progressives, while the right-wingers focus their shitstorms on their political opponents.”
Rosi Braidotti goes further arguing that populist revolution has become a fascist concept. “I believe that revolution today is a fascist concept. I believe that the people calling for revolution are from the extreme right: they are Steve Bannon, they are conservatives who believe in a neo-revolution to recover the values and notions of God, nation and family.”
In Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism, Samir Gandesha counters that populist movements are neither left nor right. They align along two distinct axes: economic and cultural. The former has to do with the level of state management of the economy, and the latter has to do with ‘conservative’ versus ‘progressive’ values.
I agree with Gandesha. Left-wing populism is nothing new and most recently reemerged out of the social discontent and political disillusionment following the 2008 financial collapse. The Occupy movement in the United States and the Pirate movement in Germany and Austria are both examples. As opposed to a populism of xenophobic politics, nationalism, and demagogy, these movements demanded democracy, equality, dignity, and economic justice. However, they were not able to forge a broader basis and seem to have fizzled out.
Can the left form and sustain a populist movement? Can, as Weisband puts it, shitstorms be focused on the opposition and not each other? Leave a comment.