Liberal populism and the glocal politics of precarity

A rise of illiberal populism?

Chinese diplomats have been having a bit of fun with human rights discourse recently, effortlessly batting away US criticisms of the forced assimilation of Uighur Islamic people by pointing to historical and ongoing US abuses of African Americans (from slavery to Jim Crow to contemporary inequality and overcriminalization). To rub salt into the wounds they’ve been using the Trump-favored Twitter as their platform. For Western critics and Occidentalist Chinese, the fact that the platform is banned in China functions an icon of the Communist Party’s abuse of political rights. However, for the Party and many mainland Chinese the diplomatic use and domestic ban of Twitter exemplifies China’s increasing ability to manage not just the message but the medium too.

The language of rights in this time of Chinese ascendancy and Western precarity isn’t what it used to be. We are a long way from the last Cold War in which the US enjoyed great political mileage in using refugee rights as a means of battering the legitimacy of the Soviet Union without and socialism and communism within. Western states are suffering from a rights-credibility deficit. The nationalist anti-immigrant discourse of MAGA and Brexit are pretty much incompatible with the post-war ideological rights game. Alongside transformations in discourse and norms are changes in structures and practice. The US has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights council and made a travesty of its obligations under the Refugee Convention. England’s (read ‘the UK’s’) attempted withdrawal from the EU is strong motivated by a desire to end the extension of residence rights to European migrants (particularly rights-dependent asylum seekers), and its tradition of bashing China for its human rights abuses has been muted if not totally abandoned.

liberal multiculturalism, liberal pluralism, …

So if rights discourse and liberal multiculturalism are becoming dud currencies then who or what is to blame?

Liberal commentators are pointing the finger at myriad forms of retrogressive populism, by which they generally mean anti-elitist popular politics, drawing on people’s baser instincts. We’ll return to the issue of what populism is below. For the moment let’s take the obvious point that politicians like Trump and Johnson are represented as manipulating the resentments of those who feel disenfranchised by an established liberal hegemony and its norms of globalist tolerance. A key part of the way that this is said to work is through an affective transformation in political discourse and performance.

The apparently uncensored character of Trump’s discourse – the tearing down of the ‘fake news’ of ‘political correctness’ – appeals to his supporters in part because it creates a dialogic space for the previously unspeakable. The politician has unleashed, for his base at least, a pleasurably transgressive carnival of misrule with claims that it is time (actually way past time) that ‘we’ should feel free to speak and take action against the undeserving who threaten ‘our’ way of life.

Part of the fun is naming the previously unspeakable (taboo) others.  Immigrants – especially impoverished and Islamic immigrants from ‘shit-hole’ states – threaten from without. Dissenting people of colour, feminists, socialists, liberals and queers threaten from within,1 in part through efforts to facilitate the threats from without. The performance of re-bordering America, appearing to fight to make the US a gated community replete with its own material-symbolic wall is crucial to this discourse of xenophobia and symophilia (love of the ‘we’), along with practices of exclusion, expulsion, adverse inclusion and containment.

Send them home. The iconic moment that many commentators identify as the basis of the president’s 2020 re-election strategy had been trialed with some success against Colin Kaepernick’s bend the knee protests. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback refused to stand for the national anthem, his protest supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and their campaign against police shootings. The president found tweeting that Kaepernick should try to find a country that works better for him energized his base, the negligible liberal accusations of racism feeding into a storm of Blue Lives Matter patriotism.

Send them home. Democrats representatives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.  In early July 2019, they escalated their campaign for improved treatment of migrants by taking part in a Congressional Hispanic Caucus visit to a detention facility at Clint, on the Texan-Mexican border. The CBP (Customs and Border Protection) agency had recently been subject to criticism for its abusive treatment of migrant children at the facility. After the visit, Ocasio-Cortez described the treatment of the detainees as ‘horrifying’,  involving ‘systemic cruelty [with] a dehumanizing culture that treats them [migrants] like animals’. Female detainees told the visitors of staff calling them whores, of being kept in cells with no water and told to drink from the toilets if they were thirsty.

On a Sunday when another round of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids were about to commence, after a week when the progressive Democrats were embroiled in disagreement with the party’s Pelosi-led moderates over issues including funding for the border security bill the president tweeted

Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime[-]infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough.

The squad were targeted for symbolic deportation. The president believed that their prominent criticism of the border regime, their feminism, Congresswoman Omar’s Islamic faith and criticisms of US policy on Israel and the distance of their socialist politics from those of the moderate Democrats could damage the party in the 2020 elections. He chose that particular moment to escalate a campaign of racialized red-baiting because the squad’s house committee testimony resonated with many viewers. Congress had already learned of children separated from their parents and caged in detention camps, of children deprived of sleep, denied access to blankets or mattresses, not allowed to wash their hands or brush their teeth; left alone on cold, hard floors, traumatised, silent and, in some cases, suicidal. Homeland Security secretary Kevin McAleenan complained. Hitherto, the department had emerged from the official reports of mistreatment relatively unscathed, but the Congresswomen’s ‘unsubstantiated’ allegations had ‘created a sensation’.

Trump calculated that the squad’s use of affective politics could be turned against them. Several days day later he stokes the xenophobic passions of a crowd at the North Carolina political rally. The president weighs in on Congresswoman Omar, evincing and endorsing catcalls from the crowd like a modern day Arturo Ui, commentating as they cheered the spectacle of a protester being forcibly evicted – ‘He goes home to mommy, to mummy to get reprimanded.‘ Segues from the live expulsion to the virtual.  Representative Ilhan Omar. Trump pauses for a full 13 seconds of sustained booing. Omar has a history of launching vicious anti-Semitic screeds. Discontented rumblings morph into a chant ‘send her back, send her back, send her back’.  He builds on their theme. ‘[L]et ’em leave. They’re always telling us how to run it, how to do this, how to do that. You know what? If they don’t love it, tell ’em to leave it.” The president looks on approvingly as some chant Send them home, send them home. He equivocates long enough to distance himself from any allegations of racism, then doubles down on the support, calling the chanters ‘incredible patriots,‘ using the media spotlight to further demonize the squad: ‘They’re incapable of loving the US‘.

The culture of targeted hatred Trump orchestrated at North Carolina was well established by the summer of 2019, in part through the administration’s symbiosis with Fox News. Murdoch’s media giant had consistently supported Trump’s xenophobic discourse from the time of their enthusiastic backing of his 2016 campaign scapegoating Mexican immigrants and promising to end Islamic immigration.  Presenter Tucker Carlson contributed to the summer’s escalation with a vitriolic diatribe on Congresswoman Omar: ‘A living fire alarm‘ possessing ‘antithetical values’ and ‘undisguised contempt for the American people‘. The US cannot expect to survive, he warned, if it continues to ‘import large numbers of the people who hate it‘.

Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez encountered some of the culture’s more subterranean social media in the lead-up to the Clint facility visit. Facebook chat among CBP (Customs and Border Protection) staff involved “sharing memes about dead migrants and discussing violence and sexual misconduct towards members of Congress.” One  fake image of the president pressing the congresswoman to a submissive act showed the group members clearly saw Trump as a leader of their pussy grabbing alien hating culture.2 Ocasio-Cortez focused on the implications for the detained migrants. The culture of the staff involved being incompatible with the humane care of refugees.

White House spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway later defended the president and the CBP officers with an aggressive diatribe:

(Conway) He’s tired, a lot of us are sick and tired of this country, of America coming last, the people who swore an oath of office, sick and tired of our military being denigrated, sick and tired of customs and border patrol people, protection people I was with who are overwhelmingly Hispanic, by the way (she smiles) in McAllen Texas, sick and tired of them being —

(Journalist Andrew Feinburg) I understand —

(Conway) No, you don’t understand because you didn’t go, of them being criticized, being doxxed, by a bunch of Hollywood D Listers, who have nothing else to do but sit on their asses on Twitter all day and try to doxx brave men and women who are diving into the Rio Grande to save people who are drowning, who are taking other people’s babies into custody and diapering them and feeding them and looking the other way while people are running across with drugs –that’s happening!

The exasperated, aggressive style worked as part of an affective politics of resentment. It gave emotive resonance to her triangulation between border staff, foreign threats, and border regime critics. Conway represented border staff as heroic and compassionate, patriots protecting American borders regardless of their ‘Hispanic-by-the-way‘ ethnicity. The foreign threats figured as drug and migrant trafficking, the migrants as irresponsible vulnerabilities –  drowning themselves, losing or neglecting their babies, causing officers to have to take them into custody, disabling their fight against drugs. Conway’s vitriol was saved for those who would facilitate the foreign risks, the superficial, unimportant critics of the border protection regime. The spokeswoman later explained the acceptable approach for Americans of mixed heritage is her own. ‘I am proud of my ethnicity, love the USA and grateful to God to be an American’. The denigration of which she, the president and their audience are sick and tired of is unpatriotic, its speakers lacking the virtues of love and gratitude.

Conway’s speech here, consistently with much of the president’s discourse, worked to other the border regime critics via selective rather than blanket cultural racism, rendering them undeserving, illegitimately ethnic Americans. Borrowing from the satirical trope about over-criminalization … found guilty of being Black while driving, we could say Trumpians targeted the squad for the crime of dissenting while being women of colour, and particularly, for putting the interests of foreigners above those of Americans. Conway’s speech works to widen the xenophobic appeal beyond the white supremacist base. Hispanic Americans, Irish-Italian Americans, Americans-regardless-of-ethnicity should love and not denigrate those who serve to protect their American way of life (in this speech CBP and military staff, in Trumpian discourse more generally, the police).

Incapable of loving America. In the president’s discourse of cultural racism and xenophobia congresswoman Ilhan Omar serves as a particular foil for the targeting of Islamic people and particularly Islamic asylum seekers. Trump portrays the Minnesotan Representative as someone who blames the US for terrorist attacks in America, has compassion for ISIS terrorists, and slanders peace keeping American troops. The image of the Representative as an (Islamic) enemy of the state is supported by several American-liberal tropes. Trumpians slate Omar as a freedom hating socialist for her criticism of US policy on Venezuela, and as an anti-Semitic racist for her criticism of the government’s policies on Israel and Palestine. The icing on the demonizing cake is Trump’s claim that the congresswoman practiced incest, and that she did so in accordance with the illiberal un-American culture of her ethnicity and faith.

The North Carolina performance of this scapegoating portrayal of a hate filled extremist built and elicited the now infamous 13 seconds in which the president milked the crowd’s hatred: send her back, send her back, send her back.’ The president quickly made use of his invented demon, Omar a synecdoche for not just the Congresswomen Trump calls Radical Left and Communist Democrats, but for a wider social threat: send them back, send them back, send them back. Ilhan Omar famously defined the source of his fears: I am the president’s nightmare for being part of the diverse mosaic of America’. (fn) Diversity and tolerance then, versus monculturalism and intolerance. Could we say: Liberal democracy versus illiberal populism?

Trumpian politics: populist, illiberal and anti-social

19th Century political theorists had not discovered the term ‘populist’ but the liberals among them would have loved it. J.S. Mill, for example, had a visceral hatred of common people, viewed them as ignorant, irrational and vulgar and greatly feared democracy’s potential for the rule of the mob.

American liberalism is a broad church with a stratifying history and political philosophy. For Ian Hanley Lopez, its consists of freedom from interference by government (negative liberty), freedom to participate equitably, and thus have the conditions that enable participation (positive liberty), and freedom to exclude so that the environment can actually support the practices of freedom (protective liberty). For J.S Mill, the enjoyment of negative liberty required emphasis on protectively positive liberalism. The working class, to take the infra-national example, should undergo the tutelage of education and work in order to raise their capacity (or quality [suzhi]) to a level at which they could participate in liberal society (gaining the franchise, for example). Savages, to take an extra-national example, might need to undergo a period of slavery, learning the lessons of obedience, discipline and work on their longer journey towards sufficient capacity. Like the vulgar mob in their unreasoning passionate natures they could not yet be expected to rule themselves, but had to be ruled by the gentle yet firm hand of government, which would have to be despotic when the passions of the mob or of savages became too heated or violent. Mill’s liberalism clearly involves negative, positive and protective freedom, and its teology works across a continuum of civilizational development, with savages and mob at the bottom and propertied and educated English men at the top. At the very heart of English liberal philosophy we find a combination of what came to be known as racism and elitism.This structure of political belief and practice has been highly influential, forming the basis of not just the English political system, but also those of the Anglo settler colonies, New Zealand, Australia, Canada among others.

The race- and-class phobism of Mill’s political theories was not exceptional among the architects of classical liberalism. Gholam Khiabany (3/282) notes that liberal thinkers were united by contempt for colonial peoples and working class people. Political philosopher Phillip Cole argued that liberalism’s exclusions need to be understood historically. Domenico Losurdo (2011, 20) noted that liberal thinkers including Locke, Smith and Franklin endorsed slavery and the ‘systemic expropriation and practical genocide first of the Irish and then of the Indians’. Classical liberals shared a belief in Anglo-European superiority, and in the superiority of educated and propertied elite men over working class men and women (even when these were also Anglo-European). Racism was cultural and inferiority ascribed to whole groups with abject equivalence. Irish were regarded as little more civilized than African Americans, and the uneducated mob was seen as little better. All of them posed savage or barbaric risks to the civilised  sphere of liberal individualism. Their rule could therefore, as Mill argued, be despotic, and the treatment of such people should be both educative (progressing them towards higher states of civilisation) and expropriating (benefiting the progress of civilised society).

Liberal inclusions were conditional and graduated. Democracy, self-rule and suffrage were limited to those deemed capable of rational participation. Adverse inclusion was endorsed for some groups as part of their tutorage and as a necessary contribution to development. African Americans were deemed to benefit from the benevolent education in work and discipline provided by slavery. White colonial laborers were deemed to benefit from the wages set too low to allow them to set up their own small-holdings, tying them into debt-bondage and the building of profitable colonial economies from which they would, eventually, benefit as citizens. Emancipated West Indian plantation workers were to be prevented from fleeing to their hillside smallholdings in order to ensure the ongoing viability of the sugar industry, no matter how low the wages or poor the conditions. Emancipated African Americans in the US southern states were to be criminalised under the Jim Crow laws, ensuring the ongoing supply of a cheap and docile workforce. Each of these moments of inclusion in the sphere of liberal democracies was posited as a step up on the ladder of civilised life even as those subject found the freedom proffered to be a mirage, and nothing like the individual agency allowed the propertied and educated Anglo-European elites.

The American federation was built on a racialized form of liberalism, in which the frontier sphere of expansion provided a rolling wave of caucasian inclusion in the benefits of liberal citizenship through the genocidal displacement of native American tribes and the enslavement of African Americans. As Greg Grandin argues, the idea and practice of the westwards frontier bordered the line between the civilized and barbaric, between those populations which could be included in the liberal sphere and those that needed to be excluded in order for the sphere to remain liberal.

The socio-economic stratfications of liberalism in practice gave rise to visceral investments and disinvestments in relation to one’s place along the continuum that ran from the abject unfreedom of enslavement to the ambivalence subjectivity of debt bondage through to the agent autonomy of propertied individualism. In the US, emancipation of Afro-American plantation workers brought with it the invention of ‘white’ Irish workers. Irish worker identity was defined by virtue of not being a ‘nigger’ identity. Colonial white Australian settlers defined themselves by virtue of not being the abject Aboriginals and Chinese. White master workers defined themselves as respectable, refining themselves through education, skill and culture as a class distinct from the uneducated rougher sorts.

Clinton and Obama: affective and violent propensities of liberal politics

Populism has become a keyword for the new politics of post-globalist times. It is taken to mean politics by appeal to the crowd’s baser instincts. …

Racism, cultural racism, sexism, xeno, Islam, pink and red phobias. In the liberal logic Trumpians are populists cynically exploiting public ignorance and anxieties, stoking speech, beliefs and actions that can be characterized as illiberal. The appeal of this politics is said to rely on misinformation and irrational emotion, as opposed to credible information and rational objectivity.

The seeds of the Trumpian universe lies in that of the Clintons. Rather than viewing an opposition between nationalist fascism and globalist liberalism it might be better to view these as variations on a theme and oscillations in a pattern.

Trumpian logic leads to violent dichotomies of good selves and bad others, while liberal logic is supposed to leads to to the tolerant co-mingling of diverse groups.

affect and violence

As if liberalism was free of affective investment

Objective, universal position

Not equal but fair, equal opportunity, not equal outcome

Imperative: That things should be fair

Character/quality/capacity

Illiberal populism

The populism of liberalism

Disguised violence through capacity stratification.

Manifold violence, perpetuation of Hobbesian micro-implosions re failures of meritocratic performance

sadistic enjoyment of justice. Kamal Harris, Clinton’s, criminalization, corporate lobby dependent led inequality

Historical example; abjection, working class whites, Indigenous (Australia), African Americans, hierarchies of colour and class.

Biden  Harris Omar for President

affective politics of empathy … Jacinda Arden …Popular affective politics in Western countries does not have to rely on Orientalist othering. The groundswell of support for the politics of the squad has the potential to expand beyond its base. New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Arden’s affective politics of empathy provides one example. …

Endnotes

1. Connolly, 2018. 67/115.

2. Connolly, 2018. 70/115.

References

Connolly, W. 2018. Aspirational Facism.

Hanley Lopez I. Dog Whistle Politics.

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