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Synthesis/Regeneration 22   (Spring 2000)

A Green Presidential Primary

Beyond Populism

by Joel Kovel

[Joel Kovel is a candidate for the Green Party nomination for US President. –Editor]

Today, one of the most influential models on the left is that of Populism. As the word suggests, Populism stems from the "people," which is to say, the common citizenry, without respect to structural dividing lines like class, gender and ethnicity, who come together to address a mutually perceived social evil, most commonly, concentrated economic power. The term has a rich history in the US, where populist movements became quite substantial toward the close of the 19th century and have continued to play a role in politics right up through the present.

Although these forces were originally concentrated in rural areas, populist movements today encompass very diverse sections of the population. It is this element of diversity and spontaneity, along with the hostility to established power, the search for justice, and the sense of rootedness in American democratic tradition, that leads many greens to consider themselves populists.

There is no question that much good has come out of populism (for example, it played an important role in the passage of antitrust legislation early in the last century), and that many good people have been, and continue to be, attracted to its banner. However, there are also a number of compelling reasons why populism is not in itself an adequate basis for a coherent and comprehensive green strategy.

Populism builds on resentment and anger against abusive power. That is its primary motivating force and a considerable source of its appeal.

The populist has, in effect, a free ticket of entry into the political arena, where he can count on powerful emotions to bring his points forward. That can be all to the good—but it can also have some noxious side effects. We can sort these into two kinds:

First, the politics of resentment can easily turn into the politics of exclusion, scapegoating and demagoguery. That is why, along with the many virtuous people who have marched under the populist banner, have come more than a fair share of dubious characters who, exploiting a charisma that is itself utterly foreign to green values, combine populist virtues with various malignant tendencies. Some of these, like Louisiana’s Huey Long, enacted benefits for the poor, but at an unacceptable cost of demagoguery and corruption. Others, like Father Coughlin, had some profound insights into the evils of finance capital, but ended up an anti-semite and ardent fascist. Others still, like George Wallace, were vicious racists who had a change of heart, but surely not one of character sufficient to make him a model for Green politics. Today, the most successful populists in America are Jesse Ventura and Pat Buchanan: the mix of resentments and good insights will vary, but again, their utter unsuitability as models for Green politics should require no further comment. In Europe, meanwhile, Joerg Haider has slithered into the Austrian government. People call attention, correctly, to his fascist past and potentials, but do not sufficiently draw the implication that Haider (like Hitler) is also a genuinely populist politician, combining charisma and the ability to mobilize mass hostility to a corrupt regime.

Many will now say, well, those are the bad populists; we, the Greens, can get behind a good populism based upon firm democratic values. Now there are plenty of good populists, as I have said. However, so long as they remain populist, they cannot rise above the implications of its basic method, which is to personalize politics. The racism and scapegoating can be restrained, but the need to focus upon some personification of evil remains. In this case, history has thrown a suitable villain into the fray, one capable of representing the personal dynamic of populism: the capitalist corporation, created by a legal sleight of hand as a fictive individual. In this way arises the prevailing populist mythology, that the People against Corporations comprises the main ground of contemporary struggle.

Why is this a myth? Surely, corporations are the principal malefactors in the world today, whether as polluters, the cutters of old growth forests, the bloodsucking HMO’s or indeed the entire corporate apparatus that buys politicians, sets up its WTO’s, and the like. Why should it not be the corporations that are the prime movers of the world’s evil, as economic populists like David Korten, Richard Grossman, Paul Hawken, and Ralph Nader have held?

Breaking corporate power is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the building of a better world...

Clearly, corporations are there to be fought, in all the above roles, and more. But they are to be combated as the currently constituted armies of the system, and not the system itself. When fascism was fought in WWII, the German Wehrmacht had to be defeated, yet we recognized the German army as the instrument of fascism, and not fascism itself.

Similarly, the corporations are the armies, or instruments, or embodiments of capitalism. If capital, which is the moving force behind the current world crisis, is to be defeated, corporate power will have to be neutralized, but as a means to this end, and not as the end in itself. Breaking corporate power is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the building of a better world, a project that will require the construction of a radically different economic foundation of society.

Economic populists, however, see corporations as the problems in themselves, and their restraint as the sufficient condition for a liberated society, and an end in itself. The myth of populism demands this, for since the corporations are the whole problem according to its terms, all we have to do is to restrain them and all will be well.

In the populist myth, corporate power is not to be so much overcome, as checked and regulated.

The myth is patently false, and its implications, while comforting to draw, are politically misleading. This can be seen by a glance at history. Economic populists like to develop a kind of golden age theory of history, in which everything was on the right track until the corporate form was put together, aided by a bad interpretation of the 14th Amendment in which corporations were granted personal status and so became free to act irresponsibly. There is no question that this turn of events, which took place late in the nineteenth century, was an important moment in the history of capitalism. But it was no more than one moment in a very large story. If we are to believe that things only got bad when the modern corporation took shape, then what was Karl Marx writing about in the 1840’s through ‘60’s, before this happened? Was the capitalism Marx studied, with its rampant child labor and devastation of peasantries, a golden age—or was the era of slavery, or that of the conquest of the Americas, all integral moments of the history of capitalism? What Marx did was to draw from the whole mass of the history of capitalism its "laws of motion." He refused to freeze that history in any one time and falsely identify one form with the whole of it.

This is much more than a theoretical debate. In the populist myth, corporate power is not to be so much overcome, as checked and regulated.

A strongly democratic society—what Greens and other progressives are to struggle for—will so bring the corporations into line that they will now be servants of society rather than its masters. And with this, the real market society will arise. David Korten, who is a great admirer of Adam Smith, writes approvingly of "an efficient market…comprised of small, owner-managed enterprises located in the communities in which the owners reside, share in the community’s values, and have a personal stake in its future. It is a market that bears little in common with a globalized economy dominated by massive corporations…" In the populist vision, the good society is a regime of small businesses, presumably covering the earth—as no alternative form of economic activity is given any value.

I would have four major objections to this:

1. Because there was no precorporate golden age, and capitalism is much more embedded in society—and the psyche—than the economic populists hold—the job of overcoming it requires a much more thorough and deep vision of social transformation. A mere change in social regulation of corporations is totally inadequate except as a first step—in which case the following steps have to be anticipated.

....the generalization of the small business model to the whole social body is preposterous.

2. The notion of smallness may be appealing for many—and indeed an ecological society needs to be much more fine grained, intimate, and based on face-to-face interactions than the present. However, the generalization of the small business model to the whole social body is preposterous. There being no point except fantasy of returning to a Jeffersonian or precapitalist model on a world scale, there will necessarily remain in any worthwhile future society, large-scale enterprises, and highly important ones at that—telecommunications networks, for example, or rail systems, not to mention the conduct of global trade in a post-WTO era. If the state is to be merely regulatory, who is to run these enterprises—the small-scale capitalists? If they do, they will become large-scale capitalists, and the cycle will be renewed.

3. The notions of populists necessarily remain nationalist. They are extensions of a bourgeois Anglo-American vision to the whole world.

4. What’s so hot about small business, anyway? Why should we be satisified with a model that represents humanity as it had evolved to the era of Adam Smith, one grounded in hierarchy, exploitation, profiteering, and competition—exactly what generated the present capitalist system?

The conclusion must be to go beyond populism, and its politics of resentment. As Greens, our goal should be to build a better world, and for this, we need to think beyond the boundaries of the present.

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