by Brendan Cooney
The rise of Trumpism, and the global rise of proto-fascist movements, have triggered calls on the left for a renewed left politics which can offer an alternative to Trumpism and fascism. A common theme is the call for a new left economic populism, of which Bernie Sanders’ “Our Revolution” may be the one of the most prominent examples in the US. This new left economic populism is not all that new. It is a romantic populism that harkens back to the “glory” days of American prosperity in the post-war boom of the mid-20th century, when the US had a relatively robust welfare state, wages rose, policy makers saw a big place for the state in the maintenance of capitalist growth and regulation of class conflict, the state invested in big infrastructure projects, and the US had a strong manufacturing base which employed many people.
The new left economic populism calls for a redistributionist politics which aims to decrease income inequality through progressive taxation, higher minimum wages and generous social welfare programs. It often calls for the state to guarantee universal free health care. It calls for regulation of financial capital. And it calls for the state to jump-start economic growth through massive social spending programs, especially infrastructure spending that favors green design.
This essay critiques some of the assumptions behind this economic form of left populism. Left populism can take on other dimensions outside of this economic form, but this essay’s content is restricted to a discussion of left economic populism.
Calling for a new left economic agenda rooted in mid-20th century social democracy may not necessarily constitute “populism” in itself, but such calls easily fit into the narrative of populist politics. Left economic populism follows the typical populist narrative that juxtaposes an oppressed “us” against an elite class, substituting for class analysis. At the center of the political vision is a popular leader who will take the reins of the capitalist state on behalf of the masses, reproducing the capitalist division between mental and manual labor as the masses function only as bodies, only as numbers.
This left economic populism also constructs arguments and attempts to win adherents in a populist fashion. Rather than relying on defensible theoretical positions, or engaging in a dialectical process of debate and critique to further the theoretical development of left ideas, the new left populism does not have any concern for inconsistencies and theoretical mistakes. Rather, it wins arguments by appealing to popular superstitions and myths, and by appealing to popular discontent with easy answers. It doesn’t worry about the difficulty of delivering on its promises as long as the promises win adherents. Above all else, this is what makes it populism. It is also the trait it has most in common with Trumpism.
This essay examines and challenges some of the core mythology at the center of the left economic-populist project. It then lays out some possible political implications of the critiques.
The Mythology of the Populist Left
Myth 1: Neoliberalism as Political Project
For some time now, left thinking has characterized our age as a neoliberal age, blaming all of the economic ills of our time, from rising inequality to the Great Recession, on neoliberal policies. This characterization is based on an assumption that the development of capitalism is shaped by political will and the ideas behind this political will.
It may at first seem logical to blame the economic trends associated with neoliberalism on neoliberals, but there are some problems with this approach. In his book The Failure of Capitalist Production, Andrew Kliman makes the argument that the economic trends associated with neoliberalism (sluggish growth, global financial instability, rising debt burdens, decline in compensation growth, rising inequality, and decline in infrastructure spending) all began prior to the ascension of Reagan and Thatcher and other “neoliberals.” These trends actually began while Keynesians were running the show.
This suggests that the typical neoliberal narrative puts the cart before the horse. It is more likely that the major economic trends associated with neoliberalism are an expression of the economic crisis of the 1970s and the failure of global capitalism to fully recover from that crisis. These trends laid the ground for their own ideologies and ideologues who justify their inevitability.
In his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx famously wrote that, “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.” This crucial insight runs contrary to the tendency of those who, thinking from the standpoint of capital, blame individuals and their ideas for the failings of capitalism. To blame individuals or neoliberal philosophy for the secular tendencies of global capitalism over the last 40 years is to ascribe a super-human power to individuals, the power to impose their will on a mode of production which has its own autonomous laws that operate behind the backs of producers and politicians.
Voluntarism is the notion that political will determines economic reality in capitalism. Voluntarism stands in opposition to Marx’s method of treating economic actors as personifications of economic categories.
If one holds the voluntarist view that neoliberalism is a stage of capitalism imposed via the policies of neoliberal politicians, then it is just as logical that a New Deal revival can be imposed by fiat, regardless of economic conditions. It is a logic that is reinforced by the myth that the New Deal was responsible for the US economy’s recovery from the Great Depression. In actuality it was the massive destruction of capital that occurred during the Great Depression that set the stage for recovery, not the New Deal. The boom-phase of capitalist growth that followed World War II allowed the philosophy and policies of welfare-state capitalism to thrive where they had previously stumbled.
Today capitalism seems to limp uncertainly along after the Great Recession. It is not clear that any massive boom on the scale of the post-war boom is in sight. This means that it is unlikely that massive social spending proposed by left populists can be achieved without harming capital and thus the economy. The capitalist class also is not faced with a militant, organized labor movement that is forcing it to offer the carrot of social democracy as a concession.
Myth 2: Ford’s $5 Day
An iconic tidbit of left mythology is the story of Henry Ford who, it is said, brilliantly discovered that by paying his workers higher wages, $5 a day, they could buy more Ford automobiles, thus boosting the economic fortunes of the Ford Motor Company. This legend is used to advocate the theory that raising wages, and thus consumer demand, boosts profits and is thus good for the economy.
The story of Ford’s $5 day is mostly a myth, and the claims that accompany the story are all smoke and mirrors. For one, Ford did not raise wages in order to sell more cars. He raised wages to attract a stable workforce. Secondly, it is impossible to raise profits by paying your workers more. Raising wages cuts into profits, even if those workers go out and buy back their own product with their wages.
The more substantial argument implied by the Ford parable is the notion that a general rise in wages, and thus consumer demand, will be good for capital, and that, conversely, decreasing wages will be bad for economic growth. However, this notion is just as false as the Ford parable. Capitalist accumulation is not solely dependent on consumer demand. Capital creates its own demand for commodities, partly through its demand for means of production, or capital goods. In fact, the expansion of production is driven by the expanded production of capital goods, not consumer goods. Capital can create its own demand for capital goods regardless of the level of consumer demand. Profits can be high, and the rate of capital accumulation can rise, without raising wages. Increasing workers’ wages cuts into the profits of capital, leaving less money to plow back into accumulation.
The logic behind the Ford parable is one of class compromise. It furthers the notion that what is good for workers is good for capitalism. It fits perfectly into the anti-neoliberal world view that sees contemporary problems as the result of badly managed capitalism rather than capitalism per se.
It is, of course, important for workers to fight for higher wages as part of their struggle against capital. But it is wrong to argue that such a struggle is also in the interest of capital.
Myth 3. Ideal Deal
The calls for a new left populism often display an overly romantic and optimistic picture of postwar America, exaggerating the extent of this prosperity. While the postwar boom allowed for rising wages, an expansion of the middle class, and generous welfare programs, these benefits were not spread evenly across the population. The commonly repeated tale of prosperity and upward mobility is primarily a tale of prosperity for male workers in certain industries, not the working class as a whole. Further, this subset of workers paid for their rising fortunes by sacrificing their political power as the union movement ossified into a bureaucratic arm of the Democratic Party. As soon as profits were threatened in the crisis of the 1970s, capitalism’s right wing was ready to launch its assault against the welfare state.
Left populists also seem to conveniently forget that the macroeconomic philosophy of the postwar boom, the Keynesian tradeoff between employment and inflation, came into contradiction with reality in the 1970s, when the economy experienced rising unemployment and rising inflation simultaneously. Capitalist states claimed to have stabilized the economy, insulating it from crisis through counter-cyclical monetary and fiscal policies that guaranteed a high employment rate and a low rate of inflation. Neither the theory nor the politicians were prepared for the simultaneous occurrence of rising rates of inflation and rising unemployment in the 1970s. This serious failure of theory and of policy is often ignored and unaccounted for in the contemporary left enthusiasm for the miraculous, stabilizing power of state intervention in the economy.
Myth 4. Off-shoring as the Big Job Killer
Sanders’ “Our Revolution” and others plan to reverse free-trade agreements in order to bring manufacturing jobs back to America. Trump promised this too. Their assumption is that the bulk of the manufacturing jobs lost in past decades were lost due to factories moving overseas. However, while jobs certainly have left the US for cheaper labor overseas, automation has been the biggest job killer in the long run. Many of the jobs that left for overseas have would have eventually been replaced by robots anyway.
The left-populist instinct to blame neoliberal free-trade policy thus contains many dangers. For one, it potentially divides the international working class, as workers compete to be exploited by capital, all the while ignoring the struggle between labor and capital (in the form of machines) in the workplace. It also begs the question of what these manufacturing jobs would look like if they came back to the US, whether they would really be jobs we want, and how long they would last before being taken over by robots.
Myth 5. Social Democracy is Left Politics
Many hold the assumption that social-democratic politics are inherently leftist politics. Even those who criticized Sanders for being too reformist still often shared the assumption that there is something essentially leftist about the social-democratic project he represents. Kshama Sawant has said that Sander’s proposals are “a key part of any socialist program today.”
Venture capitalist and self-described plutocrat Nick Hanauer gave a much better characterization of social democracy in a recent TED Talk. Although Hanauer is a filthy rich-venture capitalist, he has made a public career of advocating a return to welfare-state economics, including support for the “Fight for 15” minimum wage battle in Seattle.
So I have a message for my fellow plutocrats and zillionaires and for anyone who lives in a gated bubble world: Wake up. Wake up. It cannot last. Because if we do not do something to fix the glaring economic inequities in our society, the pitchforks will come for us, for no free and open society can long sustain this kind of rising economic inequality …. The pitchforks will come for us if we do not address this. It’s not a matter of “if,” it’s “when.” And it will be terrible when they come for everyone, but particularly for people like us plutocrats.
There we have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: social democracy is there to save capitalism, not fight it. Marx could not have said it better:
The peculiar character of social-democracy is epitomized in the fact that democratic-republican institutions are demanded as a means, not of doing away with two extremes, capital and wage labor, but of weakening their antagonism and transforming it into harmony.
This sort of enduring mythology serves––despite the counter-evidence––as the basis for the rhetoric of calls for a new economic left populism. The mythology provides the background to the populist narrative that our struggles are the result of the policies of elites who have conspired against us, and justifies the call for us to fight for a mythical society of class harmony, where high wages boost economic growth and governments can forever spend and spend without any problems.
The rise of a new left economic populism seems inevitable, like it or not. We need to think critically about how to engage in the resistance against Trumpism while also critically engaging with left populism. I would like to offer a few places where I think some theoretical distinctions can be of use.
1. Fighting for Concessions vs. Claiming to Solve Capital’s Contradictions
Particular political situations in particular moments may call for supporting and fighting for various reforms of the capitalist state. However, there is a difference between fighting for concessions from the capitalist class on the one hand, and campaigning to run the capitalist state better than the capitalists on the other. Leftists should not be involved in the impossible task of saving capitalism from its internal contradictions. This will only end badly. We need not look too far backward in history to see such bad endings. Syriza’s humiliating capitulation to the European Union, after persuading the anti-austerity movement to leave the streets and channel its energy into electoral politics, illustrates the impossibility of solving such contradictions from within the framework of capitalist production.
The left should fight for concessions from the capitalist class, especially ones that make the working class stronger politically and contribute to the self-development of the working class, never defending our struggles with the false narrative that what is good for the working class is good for capitalism.
2. Don’t Follow a Charlatan Off a Cliff
A new existential question in left politics is how to vote when faced with a three-way choice between a fascist, a centrist “neoliberal,” and a left populist. In last year’s US election and in the recent French vote, strikingly large sections of the left refused to vote for the centrist, preferring to “go down with the boat” with their “Bernie or Bust” bumper stickers. The possibility now exists that the populist left can assist the rise of fascism. It has now become common to even hear defenses of Trump coming from the left, such as Chris Cutrone’s comment that “Anti- Trump-ism is the problem and obstacle, not Trump.”
The populist narrative that blames neoliberalism for all social ills has blinded some on the left to the danger of fascism, indeed blinded some to the existence of a positive content to bourgeois democracy. Convinced that building a left-populist political movement is more important than defeating fascism, these populists now play a dangerous game.
The danger does not just lie in left populism contributing to the electoral win of fascists. There is also a danger if left economic populists win elections but fail to deliver on their promises. When left populism fails, right-wing populists are waiting in the wings to take over.
This sort of apologetics, indeed collaborationism, needs to be purged from the left. Fascism will be far worse for working people, immigrants and minorities than centrist neoliberalism, and it will be a disaster for the left.
3. Ideas are Important
In US mainstream political discourse, polarized partisan fervor stands in inverse proportion to substantive theoretical disagreement. Republicans pursue a political strategy that permeates all politics today: Their politics is a collection of media soundbites crafted to strike an emotional resonance with their base. They are not actively developing ideas and theory with which to craft policy. Rather, their ideas are a byproduct of their marketing.
Left economic populism shares this very same characteristic. Bernie Sanders did not come about his platform and rhetoric as result of a study of the history of 20th-century social democracy. Rather, he rose to popularity with a handful of soundbites that found an easy resonance in people. Although many economists argued that his economic plans were unrealistic and contained egregious mathematical errors, this did not faze his base. His base was already convinced, prior to examining the arguments, that he was correct.
This type of thinking is everywhere in our culture but it cannot form the basis for a real left project that aims to confront the central contradictions of our era and posit a way out of them. Such a project requires the self-development of people, which in turn requires that they take ideas seriously and learn to think for themselves.
 Andrew Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession. London: Pluto Press, 2012, chapter 4.
 Ibid., pp. 23–24, 76–77.
 “Interview with Kshama Sawant. What is Democratic Socialism? Bernie Sanders Popularizes Socialism to Millions,” Socialist Alternative, no. 22, April 2016, p. 4.
 Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852, chapter 3.