Saturday, June 25, 2016

Populism and Conspiracy Theory by Mark Fenster

Democratic politics relies on a gap between the public   and its elected representatives that is mediated by established political institutions; populism emerges when this gap constitutes a problem, or even a crisis, and when a movement can plausibly offer some more direct or "authentic" means of representation in the name of the people [Panizza, Populism and the Mirror of Democracy]. A populist challenge to an established political order, then, has neither a necessary content nor a necessary relationship to that order. It could be reformist or revolutionary; it could embrace a seemingly more participatory form of democracy; or it could reject democratic processes entirely.

An ever-present element of political action and a rhetorical move available to mainstream and marginal political  actors, populism challenges and subverts more institutionalized, seemingly "mature" political ideologies. Its ongoing and important role in politics demonstrates the failure of a "consensus" model of politics in which stable political parties solicit support from a rational, satisfied public, an economic free market satisfies all demands and preferences, and a technocratic state (whether in a minimal, "night watchman" form or in a social democratic form) corrects any market failures that arise. Unable to resolve all social tensions and political conflicts, and unable to respond to all of the public's passion and to sound definitely in the moral register the public demands, major political parties and mainstream political institutions face continual challenges from populisms of the left, right and independent sort [Chantel Mouffe, On the Political].  Populism offers up and then plays with what Bonnie Honig has called "remainders," unmet demands that inspire the resistance "engendered by every settlement, even by those that are relatively enabling or empowering," excesses left over from attempts to bring social and political order to human activity.  Populist discourse operates in the "perpetual contest, even within an ordered setting" of democratic politics, and in the inevitable fight over the institutional processes of democratic political and social order [Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics].

In Hofstadter's - and, at times, the left-progressives' - conceptualization of populism, the excess or remainder of consensus, whether of the margins or of leftist activists seduced into conspiracy theory, is a pathological refusal of normalcy  and the result of economic, political and cultural crisis. Understanding populism as a democratic logic, however, re-conceptualizes it as a production of the political itself, an aspect of the "perpetual contest" of democracy, rather than as a troublingly sick exception to the democratic ideal. Movements that rely on this logic may do so to further left - or - right-wing causes.

Populism operates as " a dimension of political culture in general,  not simply as a particular kind of overall ideological system or type of organization [Peter Worsley, The Concept of Populism]. Populism  "plays the role of the awkward guest," at once functioning as an element of liberal democracy by encouraging engagement in public participation and mobilization and expressing the popular will of a segment of the population, while it also disrupts the "gentrified domain in which politics is enacted." It operates through charisma, unfettered majorities and leadership, and an absolute sense of good and right;  it eschews such institutional, republican virtues as checks and balances, representation, negotiation, counter-majoritarian rights, and deferral of the public will. It promises redemption while it threatens disruption, unsettlement and revolution [Arditi, Populism or Politics at the Edges of Democracy].  .  . .

Conspiracy theory, based on the perceived secret elite domination over and manipulation of the entirety of economic, political and social relations, has played a role of varied importance in many, but by no means all, populist movements. It remains an element with a long tradition in American politics and culture that has been appropriated for different causes at different times. Conspiracy theory is a particularly unstable element in populism based on such profound suspicion and fear that its successful and thorough-going  incorporation within a large populist movement  would most likely occur in authoritarian or fascist regimes.  .  .

As a popular discourse and rhetoric within democratic politics, populism's  understanding of state and private  power as an estrangement of the people from the power bloc can be appropriated and articulated in different ways by different political movements and social forces, for inclusive and/or exclusive purposes and to revolutionary, reformist and/or reactionary ends. As a subset of populism, conspiracy theory constitutes  an integral aspect of American political culture, one that has different effects in different historical periods. In its apocalyptic narrative vision and semiotic apparatus, conspiracy theory assumes the coming end of a moment cursed by secret power and a (never-to-arrive) new beginning where secrecy vanishes and power is transparent and utilize by good people for the good of all. It may appear in a righteous jeremiad that would claim to be acting on behalf of divine or human justice, positing a necessary end to history through dreadful but deserved events that will lead to the victory of the fellow righteous; it may appear as an ironic apocalypse, facing an unavoidable end with distance and cynicism; or it may appear as a sublime vision of an infinite power-inspiring awe, terror, and pleasure, enabling regressive authorities to promise repressive protection from the great hovering threat. Nascent in all of these appearances is a critique of the contemporary social order and a longing for a better one. Conspiracy theory ultimately fails as a universal theory of power and comprehensive approach  to historical and political research, however, because it not only fails to inform us how to move from the end of the uncovered plot to the beginning of a political movement, it is also unable to locate a position at which we can begin to organize and respect people in the complex and diverse world that it simplifies.

Conspiracy theories can help break oneself free from the quotidian humdrum of normative bourgeois subjectivity, help expose the official, dominant political ideologies as the banal covers for the  brutality of power that they truly are;  a paranoid hermeneutic may aid critical practice and yield important insights and strong theory,  but it will not necessarily lead to good theory, correct answers, or better practice.  They can lead one to obsess over the hidden and in doing so miss the phenomena and oppression that exists on the surface.

1 comment:

  1. Hofstadter

    Mass culture threatened to destroy boundaries crucial to the success and stability of the postwar culture. Andreas Huyssen has identified the dominant binary in nineteenth century culture as being between, on the one hand, "mass culture" and women, and, on the other ,"authentic culture," the prerogative of men. Although this strong association made by modernist European artists and intellectuals was somewhat less pervasive in American postwar mass culture debates, it remains as a residual element in Hofstadter's argument. Huyssen writes: "The problem [for the modernist artist] is not the desire to differentiate between forms of high art and depraved forms of mass culture and its co-optations. The problem is rather persistent gendering as feminine of that which is devalued."[ Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide, 1986) Hofstadter's brand of modernist politics was based on a series of crucial divisions between the legitimate and the illegitimate, the rational and emotional, and the political and the personal. Retaining the boundary was crucial, and he and his contemporaries worried that McCarthyism, Goldwater, and any 'extremist politics' or irrational political discourse would prove victorious over the legitimate and rational (though such fears were certainly present), and that the order between order and its other would disappear.

    In this sense, Holfstadter's fear of the loss of a clear set of divisions included the fear of secure gendered boundaries as a structuring principle, just as in politics (not to mention the history and political science departments) of his era was based in the exclusion of women and the lesser qualities they would have bought with them had they been allowed to enter the political and historical realms. Extremism is emotional, hysterical, and pathological; proper politics is logical, ordered, pragmatic, and efficacious. . .