Le Colonel Chabert offers a fervent defence of populism–or rather, a fervent critique of anti-populism, which the colonel links to the anti-fanaticism of the war against terror. But it’s an error to conflate populism and fanaticism, or to think that all enemies of one’s enemies are alike. Populism is itself very clearly anti-fanatical. Yes, it mobilizes passions, but only then to demobilize and contain them. Whereas fanaticism seeks immanence, populism re-establishes transcendence.
Populism, especially indeed the neo-populism of someone like Chávez, is the last gasp of the social contract. (What the escuálidos don’t realize is that Chávez is the great saviour of puntofijismo, not its downfall.) As such, it’s a pre-eminent mode of counter-insurgency.
(Update: and now over on Lenin’s tomb we read that “we have to side unflinchingly with populist movements”.)
Here, more from Posthegemony, whose first chapter is devoted to populism (and whose second chapter deals with fanaticism)…
The dream of abstracting some radical impulse from populism’s anti-authoritarian and rebellious sentiments is shipwrecked on the fact that, under the guise of subversion, populist movements only ever construct and consolidate sovereignty, authorizing a people whose rebelliousness never rises above sentimentality.
Populism, as exemplified by classical political movements such as Peronism and contemporary intellectual tendencies such as cultural studies, and as theorized by Laclau, entails a systematic set of substitutions. It presents us with people instead of classes (or multitude), rhetorical gestures instead of analysis (or struggle), morality instead of politics (or ethics), sentiment instead of affect (or habit) socialized identities instead of social forces (or preindividual singularities), transcendence instead of immanence (or quasi-causes), unity instead of multiplicity (or contingency), the body of the sovereign instead of the power of the state (or constituent force). As Kraniauskas observes, quoting Freud on fetishism, in each case “something else has taken its place, has been appointed its substitute, as it were, and now inherits the interest which was formerly directed to its predecessor” (“Rodolfo Walsh y Eva Perón” 113; emphasis in original). Through these serried substitutions, populism constructs a drastically simplified image of social space. What has been substituted is quickly forgotten, erasing also the process that has constructed this falsely simplified scenario of easy dichotomies, crystal clear antagonisms, and well-worn assumptions. It is true that these disavowals conserve some remainder of what has gone, but analysis must move beyond the mere examination of such symptoms.
Above all, populism presents us with hegemony instead of any other conception of politics, and the state’s expansiveness as though it were cultural subversion or a flourishing civility. In the name of a purported counter-hegemony of anti-authoritarian sentiment, populism’s self-erasing state logic permeates and coordinates everyday life. In an article tracing Marxist theories of the state, Laclau himself equivocates on this precise point. He notes that state logic has come to organize society as a whole: “the form of the state defines the basic articulations of a society and not solely the limited field of a political superstructure” (“Teorías marxistas del estado” 54); but he immediately disavows this insight by claiming that “political struggle has passed now to extend to the totality of civil society” (54). This only repeats the populist substitution: the state is conflated with civil society, political struggle with sovereign command. So long, therefore, as political analysis remains confined to the theory of hegemony, as is contemporary cultural studies, it will remain confined to a logic of populism unable either to differentiate itself from the populism of the right or even to recognize and so criticize the transformations and substitutions that populism demands and entails. Moreover, it will be anxiously haunted by the remainder that hegemony contains of what has been lost. Rather, then, than fixating on discursive articulations within civil society, we might do better to re-examine the differential inter-imbrication of culture and state. Or rather, we might again see the state as what has to be explained, in its dependence on but distinction from the affective performativity and cultural habit that sustains it.