Left Populist Affect: On the Imperative of Niceness, Part Twenty-Four

The left populist attempts to substitute affect, undergirded by invocations to be excited and a laundry list of community agreements, for material interests.

Left Populist Affect: On the Imperative of Niceness, Part Twenty-Four

Anyone who has been on a Zoom call hosted by a leftist organization or campaign in the last couple of years will have encountered an overwhelming, ebullient, and intimidating enthusiasm. Organizers of these calls are always “hyped” and “excited,” in a constant state of titillation that seems practically drug-induced. They will even take the time to ask why others on the call are also “hyped” through a multiple-choice poll in Zoom, ask everyone to vote about why precisely they are hyped, and then use the results of the poll to express how they’re somehow even more hyped than they were before.

I think I understand the basic thinking behind this ritual: if you’re excited, everyone else will be excited, and our collective excitement will do something, mmm, exciting. In one sense, this is typical campaign operative behavior. But it also feels like there is a crazed aspect that is distinct to the present moment, as if a new form of neurodiversity has sprouted where before we had manic episodes of the bipolar.

I won’t speculate here as to how these kinds of individuals come to be. Let’s be generous and say that, unlike the rest of us, their parents loved them. Like really loved them. Both non-divorced parents smiling and clapping every moment from birth until college kind of love. A developmental joy that will blind you if you stare directly at it.

But why is this kind of affect so common in left populist circles, which I take to be all circles that brand themselves “on the left”? I understand left populism to be the attempt to conjure a constituency (a “people”) by stitching together different oppressed or marginalized identity groups into a political coalition with a meticulously-crafted, anti-elitist rhetoric. What goes by the labels “progressive” and “democratic socialist” today is more often than not left populist in practice.

In For a Left Populism, Chantal Mouffe recognizes the importance of affect to the left populist project, crediting the “lack of understanding of the affective dimension in the processes of identification” as “one of the main reasons for which the left, locked in a rationalist framework, is unable to grasp the dynamic of politics.” She urges the left to see the manipulation of affective energy as “essential for understanding the work of the hegemonic operation. The fostering of a collective will aiming at the radicalization of democracy requires mobilizing affective energy through inscription in discursive practices that beget identification with a democratic egalitarian vision.” Which might simply be to say: a little more seduction with the message, and a little more charisma in the leaders, please.

Fair enough. But I think there is another reason why affect plays such a large role in the left populist project.

For traditional socialists, solidarity is undergirded most fundamentally by material conditions. You ally with the person next to you because you are experiencing the same shitty conditions at work, you are able to communicate to each other that this experience is shared, and you understand that only by working together can you overcome those shitty conditions. The same basic logic works for decommodifying reforms like universal healthcare or free college: the organizing premise is that the vast majority of people, regardless of their particular ideological commitments (which exist in wildly fractured and idiosyncratic forms), race, gender, or ethnicity, will be attracted to a political program that appeals first and foremost to their material and felt needs rather than their values or cultures.

Left populists, on the other hand, in aiming to build a cross-class coalition, cannot maintain a clear program around material interests. They put fighting transphobia on the same level as fighting for Medicare for All, arguing that people are variously oppressed and marginalized today, that class is not the only determining factor. No doubt many working-class people share left cultural values around justice and intersectionality, but many don’t. And what’s more problematic for building solidarity, in practice the left populist will typically express a preference for a professional-managerial class LGBTQ+ person of color to a working-class white person who is bad at remembering everyone’s preferred pronouns.

The important point here is that oppression (defined in non-class terms) and marginalization do not provide the same kind of conditions of solidarity as do straightforwardly material conditions. You might want to murder the person who sits at the desk next to you when he repeats the worst lines from the worst comedy shows on television, but you also know in an organizing drive that his interests are also yours. Importantly, in this scenario, his material interests are straightforwardly yours: no feat of intersectional calculus need be accomplished during organizing conversations. While solidarity can obviously transcend material interests, material interests are nevertheless the foundation on which the socialist program must be built.

In the absence of this clear basis for organizing, the left populist must find another anchor of solidarity, and this is where affect comes in. The left populist attempts to substitute affect, undergirded by a laundry list of community agreements and invocations to be excited, for material interests. Substituting affect for true solidarity is a necessity given the fragility of the left populist coalition. Everyone needs to be infinitely respectful of everyone else, demonstrate care and compassion and excitement at all times. Absent this active commitment to a constructed, emotional solidarity, the coalition will fall apart.

The problem, beyond the historical ineffectiveness and weakness of the strategy itself, is threefold. First, since affect is used as a substitute for shared material interests, the compulsion to be enthusiastic is infinitely demanding. For left populism, there is no such thing as being too excited. This is the only way in which I can understand the normalization of clinical mania in its ranks.

Second, left populist affect might indeed be “exciting” to many, but it will also be positively alienating to many others, especially certain service industry workers whose working lives are structured by the imperative of niceness, which they are likely looking to escape in their free time.

But finally, and most importantly, this affective imperative is positively hostile to criticism and tension, which are necessities in any truly democratic organization. Criticism is treated as a kind of group invasion, something that must quickly be quelled lest it risk fracturing the entire coalition. This is the real reason why left populism is bound to fail: in needing to generate solidarity ex nihilo, it cannot afford the critical thinking which is desperately needed right now on a left that is trying to rebuild itself.

Anselm McGovern is Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor of Practice in the Department of Culture & Cuisine at Walden University Online. He is the author of We Could All Probably Be Better at Oral Sex Than We Are Now: Haiku for Life (Forthcoming).