Digital-Libidinal Politics

JA Smith, Other People’s Politics: Populism to Corbynism

Zero Books, 162pp, £12.99, ISBN 978-1-78279-144-7

reviewed by Ed Rooksby

There is no doubt that the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, closely followed by the election of Donald Trump, delivered a heavy double blow to the liberal order. Leave’s victory, like Trump’s, defied all predictions and thus brought with it a sudden sense of profound disorientation. Literally overnight, as the referendum vote was counted, the liberal centre’s taken-for-granted assumptions about the fundamental solidity of the prevailing order fell apart, producing a sort of existential crisis on the part of a mainstream for whom the coordinates of political normality had been abruptly and vertiginously scrambled. Though still working its way through shock and disbelief, the liberal centre, within a short space of time, settled on an explanation for the precipitous collapse of its former certainties pivoting on the idea that a supposedly ignorant mass of ‘left behind’ and/or ‘provincial’ voters had fallen prey to a seductive form of politics called ‘populism’. Indeed over the last three years this term has become ubiquitous among political analysts seeking to explain the major contours of politics today.

JA Smith’s Other People’s Politics is a critical and original contribution to the debate over populism that seeks to go beyond the prevailing liberal interpretations, insisting that it is a form of politics that is best understood as one of three intertwined social and cultural ‘vectors’ that have given the decade or so since the 2008 financial crash their form. Indeed, embedded within these wider developments, populist insurgency is an expression of fundamental structural social transformations and, as such, is likely to remain a permanent feature of the political landscape. It is for this reason that, for Smith, the left must learn to navigate the new populist terrain.

As conventionally presented populism is understood, as Smith puts it, as a ‘trick of ventriloquism whereby the leaders of a political movement position themselves as insurgent spokespersons for “the people” against elites’. It is also widely argued that, typically, this opposition is presented in populist discourse as a Manichaean binary in which the virtuous masses (‘ordinary people’) confront a corrupt enemy (‘the metropolitan elite’, ‘the political class’ and so on). Clearly Smith feels that there is something to this – especially when it comes to right wing iterations – but he is also scathing about the self-serving, self-exculpatory function that this understanding tends to perform in centrist analyses. For one thing it obfuscates the part in shaping the conditions that have given rise to populist politics played by the accumulated pathologies and inequalities generated by decades of neoliberalism. Further, the prevailing approach conceals an implicit arrogance in which the benighted political views that supposedly characterise populism are always attributed to other people as opposed to the ‘sensible’ views of the observer deploying the concept – for, as Smith puts it ‘populism is almost always other people’s politics: my political ideas are rightly and deservedly “popular”, it is everybody else’s that are exploitatively and mendaciously “populist”’.

Smith proposes that a better way of grasping the core dynamics of populism can be formulated utilising ideas drawn from the psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. Smith’s main argument in this respect is that populism is best interpreted as a ‘politics of desire’ that harnesses libidinal energies. That is, populist discourse articulates promises to fulfil a range of deeply held wants or wishes on the part of those it addresses and can thus tap and mobilise politically a vast well of enthusiasm. In this way engagement in the politics of populism proceeds at the level of jouissance – a kind of enjoyment on the part of the populist subject – with which other forms of politics cannot connect.

Smith also argues that we must grasp how this ‘politics of desire’ has thrived in the context of two other factors, with which it is bound up – austerity economics and the rise of digital capitalism. For Smith, populism has discovered its technological complement in the form of digital media. Social media in particular functions as a ‘medium of desire’ which, like its political counterpart, harnesses libidinal energies in our compulsion to share digital content and, further, to share personal data with various online platforms. Indeed the most successful populist formations are those that produce the most ‘shareable’ messages and that harvest the most data from supporters and potential supporters. Further, these two modes of desire in combination have flourished in the context of a third development: the unmooring of previously fixed symbolic signifiers in the context of austerity economics which has, in particular, destroyed the ideological/political stabilising function hitherto performed by the idea of ‘the economy’. That is to say, the experience of austerity has disrupted the formerly close connection between ‘electability’ on the one hand, and political messaging in relation to promises of ‘economic stability’ on the other. Conventional wisdom during the referendum campaign for example expected Remain to cruise to victory on the basis of its pitch in terms of ‘economic responsibility’ – but for many voters such positioning no longer resonated.

After having set out this theoretical framework in the book’s first half, Smith moves to examine ‘three surprising new political actors who have thrived under these conditions of “new populism”’, in the final three chapters: ‘Trumpism’ and the ‘alt right’; a form of ‘culture wars centrism’ that Smith analyses via the device of a composite figure he calls ‘Pinkerson’ (combining ‘two high priests of the radical center’ – Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson); and ‘Corbynism’. There is much insightful analysis in all three of these more polemical chapters, although the first two do not always seem to cohere with the framework elaborated in the early part of the book – particularly so in the case of the chapter on ‘Pinkerson’ in which it is unclear what many of Smith’s observations (acute as they are) have to do with populism specifically.

The final chapter of this second half of the book is by far the most impressive. Here Smith shows how it is possible for the left to prosper in today’s reconfigured political landscape. Indeed he offers a compelling explanation for the ascendancy of ‘Corbynism’ within the Labour Party, arguing that it has resonated as an embryonic left variant of the politics of desire otherwise monopolised by the right. It is not, however, that this nascent left populism represents some simple mirror image of its right-wing counterpart. On the contrary Smith is careful to point to the qualitative differences between them in terms of the process by which these movements seek to construct the political subject they call ‘the people’. For Smith, right populism projects internal social antagonisms onto externalised figures that are presented as having disrupted an original social cohesion by their intervention in the polity from the outside. Indeed this is why right populism is so dangerous – it pivots, tacitly or not, on the idea that these various outsiders ought to be expelled in some way in order to return to some mythical prelapsarian harmony. According to Smith’s account (drawing on the political theorist Chantal Mouffe) left populism operates on a more open-ended basis in which the process of cohering ‘the people’ is understood explicitly as an agonistic project to formulate alliances among a range of different groups who retain their particular interests and that recognises social antagonism is inherent in society rather than something imported by malign outsiders.

One of the most interesting sections of this final chapter identifies ways in which the Corbyn-aligned activist group Momentum successfully harnessed the ‘desiring institutions’ of social media to mobilise collective jouissance in the 2017 general election campaign. Smith gives short shrift to the idea that this can be dismissed as mere ‘clicktivism’. On the contrary, as he shows, Momentum utilised digital media to empower autonomous engagement on the part of Labour supporters. This campaigning practice complemented the democratising thrust of the party’s emerging thinking on industrial strategy, new participatory forms of economic decision making and in relation to measures like Universal Basic Income. Indeed, Smith discerns in all of this, a vision of a new culture in which all are provided with the time, material security and intellectual confidence necessary to flourish as empowered, creative individuals.

Smith’s inclusion of a poem after each chapter, although in keeping with the spirit of the book, will not be to everyone’s taste. Some readers, too, may be left cold by the book’s Lacanian conceptual framework. However, for me, Smith’s argument has a compelling plausibility and articulates a powerful and useful frame of analysis. As such Other People’s Politics represents, in my view, an important addition to the recent literature on populism and an extremely valuable contribution to the process of elaborating a new left politics that can succeed in today’s conditions.
Ed Rooksby teaches politics at the University of York.