Say Goodbye, Wave Hello to Left Populism?


A review of

If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution by Vincent Bevins

The Populist Moment: The Left After the Great Recession by Arthur Borriello and Anton Jäger

The Death of the Millennial Left: Interventions 2006-2022 by Chris Cutrone

In 1982, the English synthpop duo Soft Cell released “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” at a time when British life was on the cusp of, and indeed already in the throes of, a profound change. Three years into Thatcherism, it was already clear that the old social and political consensus was gone and buried. A few years later, Arthur Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers would try and dig up and rehabilitate the corpse—but would soon thereafter be buried themselves, in a graveyard expanded to include all the old working classes and indeed the British Left. Amidst this bleak atmosphere, bands like Joy Division came to epitomize what the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher dubbed “a deep foreboding, a sense of a future foreclosed, all certainties dissolved, only growing gloom ahead.”[1] This condition was certainly not unique to the United Kingdom, but a recognizable phenomenon the world over. At a superficial level, the sonics of Soft Cell could not differ more from those of Joy Division, with the former’s hedonistic but dreamy synths, gloss, and clarity starkly juxtaposed with the latter’s solemn and sparse guitars, distortions, harsh and epileptic vocals, and the like. But both evince a kind of resignation into melancholia, even if their respective reactions differ; a fact evidenced by the fact that Soft Cell’s Marc Almond described “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” as a song “drenched in pink neon and tears.” If we look beyond a strict interpretation of the song’s lyrics—about a fledging relationship between a prostitute and a once-lover—and indulge ourselves a bit, we can ask this question: what was being waved goodbye to in the 1980s if not the certainties described by Fisher, the social democratic consensus greeted only thirty years prior, the last gasp of breath for History’s forward march? There is a hauntological longing not just for the past, but for the future—a future promised and then lost.

For nearly thirty years after the song’s release, our world was built on the ashes of social democracy and socialist struggle, and the neon tears of the classes which it represented, protected, often struggled with, and often disappointed. It was only in the late 2000s that an opportunity for Left revival presented itself, a chance to grab the futures which had been snatched away and fit them to our current age, to reignite the processes of History—or so it seemed. Three recent books take on the challenging task of explaining how this came to be, how the 2010s Left came to live and came to “die,” and perhaps, whether our waving goodbye to it opens the possibility of waving hello to something better, or maybe something the same? Moreover, it prompts us to think more critically about the Left’s relationship to the tendencies that dominated the 2010s. Rather than taking for granted the idea that left populism, in particular,  is somehow the latest iteration of the Left, we need to start thinking more dynamically, something I do in the latter half of this review by drawing some cursory allusions to Marx’s conception of the “sect,” which I find fruitful for thinking about left populism and the road forward.

Two Millennial Lefts: Protests and Politics

Before one can think about the millennial left, the populist left, and whatever else the 2010s left was, it is hard not to draw on the decade’s prehistories, those glimpses of what was to come that can only be comprehended in retrospect. In the more immediate sense, there was the alter-globalization movements of the late-90s and early 2000s, the Battle of Seattle, the anti-Iraq war protests, and the list goes on. But there were also the prehistories that stretch further back, into the 1960s, into the 1930s. These prehistories are informative not only because they provide us clues as to the causes of the millennial left, but also clues as to why it took on the particular form that it did. On the one hand, those movements of the nineties and aughts were brief moments when it became clear—or should have become clear—that there was trouble in paradise, hints delivered a decade-plus before the financial crisis, which typically acts as the opening moment in the histories of the populist decade. On the other, they put on display the organizational forms, tactics, and strategies that remained dominant after their influence had dwindled.

Talking about the particular character that the millennial left evinced, consciously or not, we have to talk of its first phase as a protest left. While the scope of Vincent Bevins’ If We Burn far exceeds the Anglo-American-European experience of 2010s, he is very clear about the general problem of what he calls “mimesis,” which certainly affected the 2010s Western left gravely. This mimesis had reference points in the contemporary and historical world, as Bevins tirelessly shows us, though he is mostly concerned with something closer to simple mimicry than what I would call mimesis, specifically a mimicry of tactics and presentation. Chris Cutrone in his Death of the Millennial Left points to a deeper kind of mimicry, a transhistorical trajectory—a near pathology— wherein the 2010s left was caught up in a kind of cyclical movement of history, repeating in micro- and macro-instances the exact trajectories of previous left failures, most keenly felt by the comparison to the New Left, but so too to the Old Left. That pathology can basically be characterized as follows: a crisis in capitalism produces a burst of radicalism, that radicalism is then faced with its own crisis—self-inflicted from within and imposed from without—which quickly de-radicalizes these brief radicals, bringing them safely back into the fold of mainstream capitalist politics. Cutrone correctly identifies that avoiding this trap would have required a “gamble,” one that the millennial left chose to “shy away from…[falling] back onto the past, trying to re-play the cards dealt to previous generations.”[2]

At the level of Bevins’ attention, Cairo’s Tahrir Square was occupied in 2011 because it had been occupied many times before—it was the “default destination.” The same is true of the Ukraine’s Maidan Square, and of the slogans that were mimicked across borders, so that the Arab Spring became the reference point for a so-called Brazilian Spring, and Brazilian and Turkish protesters could mimic each others’ complimentary slogans, and so on and so forth. This was all interpreted as a kind of solidarity, and indeed it was, but quite a shallow kind. As much as this mimicry seemed in the moment to express solidarity, in retrospect we can see that it was equally expressive of a kind of dearth of imagination, an utter thoughtlessness, and a lack of historical knowledge that proved to be a handicap. Underneath this, at that murky level of desire, there was a truer kind of mimesis at play. What was tangibly expressed in copied slogans and tactics was not a desire to emulate this or that movement, but a deep, deep desire to rediscover a sense of historical possibility, a sense of freedom. The problem is that all the left-wing movements of the 2010s thought that their peers, and the specific actions and tendencies thereof, were the realized object of their desires, when in fact they were all only always mediators. The 2010s left failed because it failed to realize it was making this slip; marching in the street is not freedom, sit-ins are not reigniting history, posting on Twitter is not the revolution. Rather, they are mediations, mirages. 

Bevins and Cutrone are both, rightfully, very critical of thoughtless copy-pasting, with Bevins noting that specific tactics might not work in “radically different national-political and cultural-historical contexts,” regardless of whether or not they even worked in their original context (which they often did not).[3] But the inversion of Bevins’ insight is worth pondering too: tactics and strategies that failed in one contemporary or historical context may work somewhere else. Cutronesuggests exactly this, and it is one of the most valuable insights of his book. Drawing on Walter Benjamin, Cutrone notes that ‘something that happened more recently might not have a more immediate relevance to problems of the present than something that happened long ago…history cannot be a simple matter of an inventory of “lessons already learned.”’[4] Unfortunately, Bevins largely leans into learning lessons, writing in his conclusion that “we have to learn from this decade…step by step, piece by piece.”[5] The relative poverty of this approach can be quickly discerned by looking at who Bevins ends up celebrating and why; it is Chile’s Gabriel Boric, who supposedly learned the lessons that you cannot reject representation wholesale, that you cannot refuse to participate in electoral politics, that you cannot be too dogmatic. But while Boric did succeed in getting elected, he has succeeded in quite literally almost nothing else, as evidenced by two failed constitutional conventions. In other words, learning lessons, without cultivating historical consciousness, quickly folds into the mildest reformism imaginable.

Above all, what Bevins and Cutrone share is an animosity towards an instinctive embrace of past tactics or strategies, not the replication of one or another per se. Running through the core of each of these very different works is a plea to think before you act and to be organized. Should the left embrace old models, it should do so thoughtfully, not atavistically.

What caused the millennial left is a deeper question, and one thoughtfully addressed by Arthur Borriello and Anton Jager’s The Populist Moment. At base, what lies behind the rise of the millennial left is a generalized crisis of representation. This crisis had been nascent for some time, evident in the decline of mass politics, the convergence of center-left and center-right parties around the same policies, the decline of civil society, the outsourcing of decision-making to unaccountable bodies, and the loss of associational life in general. All of this meant that the traditional sociological base of the Left was hollowed out and that its normal arena for political action was too. This exacerbated the effects of a perennial problem for the Left, what Borriello and Jager call the problem of substance and form, i.e., who and what the Left is, and what vehicle it uses to achieve its goals. While left-wing parties had traditionally relied on working-class voters (though not exclusively), trade unions, mass parties, socialist clubs, and the like, this infrastructure was lost as social democracy collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions and gave way to neoliberalism. This also affected liberal democracy itself: the hollowing out of parties, the deference to central banks, international organizations, NGOs and more proved equally as disempowering to the average person as the loss of trade unions and civic clubs. These material wants informed the left’s embrace of first the protest model and then the “populist temptation”[6] and it is easy to see—even to read sympathetically, as Borreillo and Jager do—why the 2010s left came to look the way it did given the constraints it was operating under. Bevins for his part agrees, writing that “representative government and perhaps even representation itself is in crisis…many human beings appear to be more individualistic than we have ever been.”[7] Thus, it is easy to see why populists targeted not capitalism or capitalist democracy, but corruption and “oligarchy,” a topic we will get to shortly. Depressingly, many of these realities have changed little in the past fifteen years, suggesting that our crisis of representation remains, and that the tendencies of the 2010s left will remain the operative mode of politics for some time. While Marc Almond and Soft Cell may say hello and wave goodbye, our petrified political systems can only wave goodbye to performative  protest and populism for brief moments, before inevitably saying hello to them once again. That is, unless we fundamentally change the structures of our political systems.

Thinking through both the crisis of representation and the tendency towards mimesis allows us to address the most infamous characteristics of the millennial left: its horizontalism and spontaneity. Horizontalism, simply put by Bevins means that “everyone is equal, and everyone would do everything.”[8] Spontaneity is mostly what it sounds like. But the combination of these practices is destructive. As Bevins acutely puts it, it is crucial “to not use the explosion in order to form the organization. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, it was the groups that were already there, prepared, that did the best when the explosion came.”[9] In fact, of Bevins’ ten case studies, only three were successful. Which three found success can be correlated directly with the level of organized factions participating in their street actions. The left’s tendency in the 2010s to embrace the particular forms of organization, or lack thereof, that it did was at once the product of the mimesis described above—movements copying one another in earnest or unconsciously—but also resultant of the fact that representative and associational bodies had been undermined, destroyed, and evacuated for the better part of five decades. In this way, the ideological embrace of horizontalism was in fact informed by the material conditions out of which it arose, wherein collective institutions were castrated, and people came to politics not as workers, or peasants, or even shopkeepers, but rather as atomized individuals. Here it is hard to resist the temptation of quoting that too-often quoted line from Marx, but seeing as a better does not exist we can surely say that social existence of course does, if not determine, then limit our consciousness. Nonetheless, internalizing these atomizing conditions—as the protests in the squares did—rather than trying to overcome or reverse them, proved to be an utter failure. Tangible victories were hard to come by at the squares, even as they made a lot of noise, inspired millions of people, and provided a sense of collectivity and warmth that should not be condescendingly looked down upon.

But given these tangible failures, populist parties were supposed to be an answer to the problems of the mass protest tactic, to relate to the squares in the way that incubators relate to children born prematurely. In Borriello and Jager’s words, “these political parties had taken up the slack of the declining movements of the squares,” building on their legacy but “drawing lessons from their instability.”[10] This manifested practically— “while the movements of the squares were torn between horizontal and vertical approaches, the former almost completely disappeared in the political formations that took up their legacy. Excessive horizontality and inefficient decision-making procedures were now prohibited: the purpose was to conquer power.”[11] But while the populist party form was ostensibly meant to overcome the shortcomings of the squares, it could not give up on some of the informality and disorganization that characterized the latter, evidenced in an unwillingness to think seriously about staffing, to create rigid party structures and hierarchies, or indeed a model based on duties, obligations and reciprocity. All of Borriello and Jager’s case studies put this contradiction on display—Jean-Luc Mélanchon combined hyperleaderism with a ‘gaseous’ party model that eventually “evaporated,” Jeremy Corbyn embraced ‘leaderism without leadership’ and decentralized, digital organizing, Podemos put forth a “hybrid model” combining horizontalism and verticalism, and the list goes on. What all of this ensured was that any “surge” by left populist parties quickly faded, in no small part because the stigma associated with leaving Facebook groups or withholding small-dollar donations to populists “is minor compared to having to move out of a neighborhood because you scabbed during a strike.”[12] In other words, “cheap entry costs translated into cheap exits.”[13] While there were genuine attempts at shows of force, there was rarely any effort to really build something lasting. Doing so would have required fostering a thicker kind of consciousness than left populists proved willing or able to do, and so—despite claims of fostering a new kind of consciousness—left populists in practice acted more as congealers than builders, congealing already existing identities into a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of a political subject known as “the people.” However, one may remember that Shelley’s tale ends with that monster ruminating on regret and thoughts of suicide, but perhaps we need not read so much into a metaphor.

The reason for this inability to build—which has been missed in some reviews of all these works—is in my view two fold. First, as much as the protest decade was conditioned by structural phenomena, it was also conditioned by a specific ideology. Horizontalism, leaderlessness, consensus fetishism—these were, to be sure, a result of the decline of mass politics and parties, but Bevins is right to point out that they were also deeply believed, theoretically and practically informed, and willingly, if mimetically, embraced by many participants of the mass protest decade. They were not embraced because they were the only options available, they were embraced because they were, as discussed above, copied from other movements, but also because they were thought to be credible and sophisticated. If the squares’ and left populism’s tendencies were thrust upon them by material forces, they were certainly welcomed with open arms. Or, as Bevins puts it in relation to the squares: “this insistence on rejecting representation entirely, rather than trying to reconstruct it, has appeared to some extent in most of the mass protest explosions…Egypt, Spain, Greece, Chile, Turkey, Occupy Wall Street, and Brazil.”[14]

Secondly, while Borriello and Jager usefully recount left populists’ practical failure to shake off these tendencies, a stronger theoretical critique of left populism is needed to understand what happened in the past decade and a half. Borreillo and Jager draw several times on Chantal Mouffe and her late husband Ernesto Laclau as emblematic figures of the populist left, and indeed they are. But what exactly they represent proves instructive here. Mouffe’s project has taken many names—radical democracy, agonistic pluralism, left populism—but the root has always been a conscious rejection of universalism (and to her credit, individualism as well) and an insistence on recognizing and equalizing all kinds of social antagonism, all kinds of identities, and all kinds of political claims. As she notes in The Return of the Political, this project means apprehending “the multiplicity of forms of subordination that exist in social relation and provid[ing] a framework for the articulation of the different democratic struggles – around gender, race, class, sexuality, environment and others.”[15] She largely takes the same position in For a Left Populism, arguing that the left’s “field of social conflict” should be ‘extended rather than being concentrated in a “privileged agent” like the working class.’[16] Indeed, to the extent that Mouffe thinks about anti-capitalist struggle at all, as opposed to a struggle to reinvigorate democracy, she believes that “there is no reason to assume that the working class has an a priori privileged role in the anti-capitalist struggle”![17] To Mouffe’s credit, she never advocates privileging a new class over the working class, but it is nonetheless this theoretical unwillingness to identify priorities, to privilege some claims over others, that leads directly to a praxis which largely does the same. If left populism’s theoreticians were adamant about constituting an “us” based around a relative equality of socially marginalized identities, it should come as no surprise that the human representatives of those abstract identities, when standing together on the street, or in the meeting, or the party room, would similarly refuse to privilege the claims of one individual or group over another—even if it was strategically sound to do so!—despite the alternative often being disfunction, inaction, or outright failure. Cutrone is right to point out that consciousness is formed in the dialectic of theory and practice, and populist consciousness—to the extent it existed—was an exemplar of bad theory and bad practice.

There are myriad examples of this phenomenon at work but returning to Chile—Bevin’s success story—once again can be enlightening. While there is no denying that by winning an election Boric managed to do something relatively rare for left figures in the 2010s, when it came time to rewrite the Pinochet-era constitution, which was a hallmark proposal of the forces that brought him to power, we see what I have described above on full display. As Juan David Rojas and Geoff Shullenberger have smartly noted, Chile’s chance to bury neoliberalism was blown when the process was derailed by excessive identitarianism, and when the final text of the constitutional draft included provisions on gender equality in public institutions, Chile’s becoming a plurinational state like Bolivia (despite the fact that Bolivia is fifty percent indigenous and Chile, ten), legalized abortion, universal healthcare—over a hundred new rights in total. Behold a Mouffian “articulation of the different democratic struggles”! The only problem? The Chilean people, 62% of whom rejected the constitution. Similar experiences can be found across the world, and certainly in Europe and the U.S.

It will thus be necessary for the post-millennial left to critique the legacy of its predecessor along ideological lines, but more importantly to change material realities and build historical consciousness. Doing so requires the Left to understand its own relationality to left populism in new ways, while recovering and reappropriating older tactics and strategies, ones that may even seem antiquated, exhausted, or impossible—but in fact may be exactly what the moment calls for.

Is Left Populism a Sect?

It is important to hold two things to be simultaneously true. The Left “bet the house on populism and lost,” and yet, left populism—beaten and bruised as it is—isn’t going anywhere. Acknowledging this prompts pressing questions. How should the Left deal with left populism going forward? Must we once again get on board with the “only game in town?” How does populism function in relation to our goal of overcoming capitalism? Increasingly, I have found it useful to think about left populism as “sectarian” in the Marxian sense. This is clearly my own grasping in the dark for a way to make sense of the future, but I find it to be fruitful grasping. If Joy Division and Soft Cell were emblematic of a loss of the future in the 1980s, we seem to be witnessing a new foreclosure of the future, one that was only momentarily available in the 2010s. And so, new-old frameworks are needed to make sense of that fact.

Marx was fairly clear about what he meant by sect: “The sect sees the justification for its existence…not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from it” (Letter from Marx to Schweitzer In Berlin, 1868). In practice, this often means a fetishization of “the program,” the program being that particular, differentiating, shibboleth that counterposes one sect from another. What naturally flows from Marx’s analysis of sectarianism is neither a celebration nor a rejection of the sect necessarily. Rather, he and Engels help us realize that:

  1. The first phase of the proletariat’s struggle against the bourgeoisie is marked by a sectarian movement. That is logical at a time when the proletariat has not yet developed sufficiently to act as a class… The sects formed by these initiators are abstentionist by their very nature — i.e., alien to all real action, politics, strikes, coalitions, or, in a word, to any united movement… To sum up, we have here the infancy of the proletarian movement. (Fictitious Splits in the International, 1872)
  • The development of the system of Socialist sects and that of the real workers’ movement always stand in inverse ratio to each other. So long as the sects are (historically) justified, the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historic movement. As soon as it has attained this maturity all sects are essentially reactionary. (Marx to Friedrich Bolte in New York, 1871)

Marx’s invocation of “sect” presupposed that such groups were (at least ostensibly) revolutionary and committed to the class struggle. For Marx, the problem with sects is that—after playing an initially healthy role in challenging and critiquing faulty theoretical premises—they tend to divide rather than unify the working class, removing themselves from real politics by being too purist. Of course, left populism was not “abstentionist” in the way that Marx and Engels characterized sects to be. It was, if anything, informed by a need to get involved, to do something, instead of just watching the world burn. And rather than a focus, albeit a divisive one, on the working class, left populism was definitionally and intentionally unfocused on the working class, as I articulated above with references to Mouffe. Left populism saw the working class’s “privileged position” on the left as a problem, unlike the various sects of the 19th and 20th centuries which sought to co-opt the working class into their specific sect. But functionally, all of this was very divisive of the working class and, because of the infusion of other goals into left populism, there was a sense of pitting “the good working class” against the other segments of the working classes, especially those with supposedly reactionary views on sociocultural issues.  

Nor was left populism defined by hyper-rigid, ossified, programmatic material in most cases. Quite the contrary. But does this mean that it was not a sect? 50 years ago, Hal Draper identified the tendency to transcend sectarianism by “launching a sect whose distinguishing programmatic point is that it will voluntarily eschew distinguishing programmatic points. This is to be achieved by limiting the program to some minimum socialist (or radical) basis on which ‘everyone’ can agree, i.e., a statement of abstract socialism.” This description sounds stubbornly prescient when we compare it to the protest movements described by Bevins, and the left populist parties that are the subject of Borriello and Jager’s work. There was a desire to reach a lowest common denominator; in Mouffe’s words, “What is in question is not the establishment of a ‘populist regime’ with a pre-defined programme but the creation of a hegemonic formation that will foster the recovery and deepening of democracy.”[18] Mouffe goes on to spell out exactly what that common denominator looks like—the “radical democratic conception of citizenship and a common opposition to oligarchy.”[19]

There is also the tendency towards leaderism, which Borriello and Jager make clear is a defining feature of left populism and of which Marx was particularly attuned to in his various criticisms of Lassalle and the Lassallean sect, most notably in the Critique of the Gotha Program. One of Marx’s staunchest criticisms of Lassalle the man and his sect lies in its “servile belief in the state” and its “democratic belief in miracles.”[20] What was left populism’s living and dying by electoralism, or its suggestion that radicalizing democracy would somehow defeat “the oligarchy” if not this? These comparisons are all reappropriations and rhymes of the defining characteristics of the classic Marxian sect, but they give us something solid to grasp on to while we fumble our way throughout the present darkness.

So one may ask “what can be gained by conceptualizing of left populism as a sect?” As I have suggested, even only cursorily, the framing of left populism as a sect is a reservoir that be drawn on as we think about what to do now. It allows us to see, through the very fact that left populism was as successful as it was in the 2010s, that the working class was indeed, à la Marx, “not yet ripe” for a real working-class politics. Thus, it is not about rejecting left populism per se—doing so would not out of thin air bring into existence a working class subject ready to engage in revolutionary politics. Rather, we should treat left populism as historically justified without being content with its remaining so. The project now must be to build class consciousness within the working classes, an assertion as banal as it is daunting. In other words, it is not incumbent upon us to fight tooth and nail with left populism today—doing so accomplishes next to nothing. Rather, we should save that fight for another day, a day that will inevitably come when real consciousness is developed among the working class, and when left populism therefore takes its reactionary turn. This prompts the perennial question: how to build this consciousness? I certainly do not have the answer, but one thing is for certain: the proliferation of new sects to combat the dominate sect of left populism (as I have conceptualized it here) is counterproductive and must be rejected.

Time to Privilege Class

We are, in other words, in a period of defeat…perhaps we always were, even during the 2010s renewal. We will now have to grope and grasp for new strategies going forward. It is clear that left populism—which was fundamentally a project designed to circumnavigate the difficulties of post-industrial, neoliberal, capitalism—failed. It was unable to overcome or alter the material conditions that justified its existence in the first place. It gives me no pleasure to say so. As a person in my late-20s, my introduction to this piece represents two potentialities for those of us without futures: a spiral downward à la Ian Curtis and Joy Division or a spiral outward into alienating and unfulfilling hedonism, glitter, and glam. It is imperative that we resist these temptations, but how? It sounds trite to say so, but a return to class is in order.

I find this return to class both the most promising path forward and deeply concerning—hasn’t this all been tried before? Isn’t this move emblematic of the problems identified by the works looked at here: atavism, repetition, mimesis? Yes and no. Cutrone himself asks whether we should be ‘conservative’ in our ‘revolutionary’ politics so that we may be genuinely radical. In a piece originally published in 2009, he has this to say: recreating politics ‘will be a very difficult and manifold task, involving the reinvigoration of organized labor as well as the deep interrogation and transformation of consciousness of present social realities on the “Left.”’[21] That was true then, and it is still true 15 years later. If anything the task is more pressing—organized labor is even more immiserated, the left’s identitarian turn more pervasive than ever. And yet I am reminded of the closing line of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism—ironically written at the kickoff of the populist decade—which has become something of a cliché: From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.[22] The birth of class struggle unionism is only beginning, and its early manifestations have shown glimmers of hope and disappointment. There is a dialectic unfolding between the remnants of a briefly hegemonic populist tendency on the left, and the reinvigoration of a class-based left politics, evident in some of the union struggles we have recently seen in the United States. Much has been written about the recent struggles of unions like the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers (UAW), which have become more militant in the last few years. The dialectic can be observed insofar as these unions are pursuing an organized, blatantly class-antagonist, strategy while remaining tied to populist slogans and performance. This is no better epitomized than by UAW President Shawn Fain’s bootleg “Eat the Rich” shirts, which are clearly reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street’s 99% versus 1% sloganeering and the like.

Overcoming populism will require working through these dialectical entanglements, but more importantly will require cultivating a genuinely independent labor movement. Building a new workers movement imbibed with class consciousness is the real challenge and an exceptionally daunting one, but it must be the focus. Pursuing this path will often look like “doing nothing” as it will require resisting the temptation to get involved in every new cause or “struggle” that arises. It requires organization, focus, and maturity, qualities we lack in every arena of our modern lives. Cutrone is exceptionally clearsighted on this, but Bevins, despite his affinity for certain reformisms, perhaps has the pithiest last word: if you cannot carry out a revolution and are not in a position to negotiate reforms, then perhaps it is acceptable to do nothing at all. Better yet, to organize, analyze, and strategize—to put yourself in the best position for the next opportunity.[23]

In the end, what is evinced by waving goodbye and saying hello again to left populism is the perennial specter haunting, the truth that the Left will never die (or will die but be reborn) so long as capitalism lives. For now, the sect of left populism will remain, one among many, because the workers’ movement remains in its infancy and because of the reproduction of a long-term crisis of representation. The Left today should not expend its energies on tearing down this or that sect or attempt to discredit them wholesale—they can and should be thoroughly critiqued, of course—but rather should expend its energies on the positive cultivation of class consciousness, rather than merely the negation of populist consciousness, or other political practices. Cutrone is the most interested in the complete rejection of various deviations, but also leaves us with a more convincing and useful message about the necessity of our sowing historical class consciousness. Doing so, if successful, will eventually prompt a struggle between socialism and populism, but that struggle is, for me, for a different day. The Left and the working class subject it looks to empower should not live and die by left populism. Rather, it should lay the groundwork for a moment when left populism lives, and certainly dies, by it—the sooner the better.

[1] Mark Fisher, Ghosts of my Life, 50

[2] Cutrone, 111

[3] Vincent Bevins, If We Burn, 269

[4] Cutrone, 10

[5] Bevins, If We Burn, 281

[6] Borriello and Jager, The Populist Moment, 36

[7] Bevins, 268

[8] Bevins, 116

[9] Bevins, 284

[10] Borreillo and Jager, 63

[11] Borriello and Jager, 64

[12] Borriello and Jager, 157

[13] Borriello and Jager, 157

[14] Bevins, 198, emphasis my own.

[15] Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political, 7

[16] Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism, 3

[17] For a Left Populism, 49

[18] For a Left Populism, 51

[19] For a Left Populism, 80

[20] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, International Publishers, 21

[21] Cutrone, 228

[22] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 81

[23] Bevins, 285