Source Joel Kovel
Date 00/02/10/14:15


Today, one of the most influential models on the left is that of
Populism. As the word suggests, Populism stems from the "people," which
is to say, the common citizenry, without respect to structural dividing
lines like class, gender and ethnicity, who come together to address a
mutually perceived social evil, most commonly, concentrated economic
power. The term has a rich history in the US, where populist movements
became quite substantial toward the close of the 19th century and have
continued to play a role in politics right up through the present.
Although these forces were originally concentrated in rural areas,
populist movements today encompass very diverse sections of the
population. It is this element of diversity and spontaneity, along with
the hostility to established power, the search for justice, and the
sense of rootedness in American democratic tradition, that leads many
greens to consider themselves populists.

There is no question that much good has come out of populism (for
example, it played an important role in the passage of anti-trust
legislation early in the last century), and that many good people have
been, and continue to be, attracted to its banner. However, there are
also a number of compelling reasons why populism is not in itself an
adequate basis for a coherent and comprehensive green strategy.

Populism builds on resentment and anger against abusive power. That is
its primary motivating force and a considerable source of its appeal.
The populist has, in effect, a free ticket of entry into the political
arena, where he can count on powerful emotions to bring his points
forward. That can be all to the good--but it can also have some noxious
side effects. We can sort these into two kinds:

First, the politics of resentment can easily turn into the politics of
exclusion, scapegoating and demagoguery. That is why, along with the
many virtuous people who have marched under the populist banner, have
come more than a fair share of dubious characters who, exploiting a
charisma that is itself utterly foreign to green values, combine
populist virtues with various malignant tendencies. Some of these, like
Louisiana's Huey Long, enacted benefits for the poor, but at an
unacceptable cost of demagoguery and corruption. Others, like Father
Coughlin, had some profound insights into the evils of finance capital,
but ended up an anti-semite and ardent fascist. Others still, like
George Wallace, were vicious racists who had a change of heart, but
surely not one of character sufficient to make him a model for green
politics. Today, the most successful populists in America are Jesse
Ventura and Pat Buchanan: the mix of resentments and good insights will
vary, but again, their utter unsuitability as models for green politics
should require no further comment. In Europe, meanwhile, Joerg Haider
has slithered into the Austrian government. People call attention,
correctly, to his fascist past and potentials, but do not sufficiently
draw the implication that Haider (like Hitler) is also a genuinely
populist politician, combining charisma and the ability to mobilize mass
hostility to a corrupt regime.

Many will now say, well, those are the bad populists; we, the greens,
can get behind a good populism based upon firm democratic values. Now
there are plenty of good populists, as I have said. However, so long as
they remain populist, they cannot rise above the implications of its
basic method, which is to personalize politics. The racism and
scapegoating can be restrained, but the need to focus upon some
personnification of evil remains. In this case, history has thrown a
suitable villain into the fray, one capable of representing the personal
dynamic of populism: the capitalist corporation, created by a legal
sleight of hand as a fictive individual. In this way arises the
prevailing populist mythology, that the People against Corporations
comprises the main ground of contemporary struggle.

Why is this a myth? Surely, corporations are the principal malefactors
in the world today, whether as polluters, the cutters of old growth
forests, the blood-sucking HMO's or indeed the entire corporate
apparatus that buys politicians, sets up its WTO's, and the like. Why
should it not be the corporations that are the prime movers of the
world's evil, as economic populists like David Korten, Richard Grossman,
Paul Hawken, and Ralph Nader, have held?

Clearly, corporations are there to be fought, in all the above roles,
and more. But they are to be combatted as the currently constituted
armies of the system, and not the system itself. When fascism was fought
in WWII, the German Wehrmacht had to be defeated, yet we recognized the
German army as the instrument of fascism, and not fascism itself.
Similarly, the corporations are the armies, or instruments, or
embodiments of capitalism. If capital, which is the moving force behind
the current world crisis, is to be defeated, corporate power will have
to be neutralized, but as a means to this end, and not as the end in

Breaking corporate power is a necessary but not sufficient condition for
the building of a better world, a project that will require the
construction of a radically different economic foundation of society.
Economic populists, however, see corporations as the problems in
themselves, and their restraint as the sufficient condition for a
liberated society, and an end in itself. The myth of populism demands
this, for since the corporations are the whole problem according to its
terms, all we have to do is to restrain them and all will be well.

The narrative is patently false, and its implications, while comforting
to draw, are politically misleading. This can be seen by a glance at
history. Economic populists like to develop a kind of golden age theory
of history, in which everything was on the right track until the
corporate form was put together, aided by a bad interpretation of the
14th Amendment in which corporations were granted personal status and so
became free to act irresponsibly. There is no question that this turn of
events, which took place late in the nineteenth century, was an
important moment in the history of capitalism. But it was no more than
one moment in a very large story. If we are to believe that things only
got bad when the modern corporation took shape, then what was Karl Marx
writing about in the 1840's through '60's, before this happened? Was the
capitalism Marx studied, with its rampant child labor and devastation of
peasantries, a golden age--or was the era of slavery, or that of the
conquest of the Americas, all integral moments of the history of
capitalism? What Marx did was to draw from the whole mass of the history
of capitalism its "laws of motion." He refused to freeze that history in
any one time and falsely identify one form with the whole of it.

This is much more than a theoretical debate. In the populist myth,
corporate power is not to be so much overcome, as checked and regulated.
A strongly democratic society--what Greens and others progressives are
to struggle for--will so bring the corporations into line that they will
now be servants of society rather than its masters. And with this, the
real market society will arise. David Korten, who is a great admirer of
Adam Smith, writes approvingly of "an efficient market . . . comprised
of small, owner-managed enterprises located in the communities in which
the owners reside, share in the community's values, and have a personal
stake in its future. It is a market that bears little in common with a
globalized economy dominated by massive corporations . . . ." In the
populist vision, the good society is a regime of small businesses,
presumably covering the earth--as no alternative form of economic
activity is given any value.

I would have four major objections to this:

1. Because there was no precorporate golden age, and capitalism is much
more embedded in society--and the psyche--than the economic populists
hold--the job of overcoming it requires a much more thorough and deep
vision of social transformation. A mere change in social regulation of
corporations is totally inadequate except as a first step--in which case
the following steps have to be anticipated.
2. The notion of smallness may be appealing for many--and indeed an
ecological society needs to be much more fine grained, intimate, and
based on face-to-face interactions than the present. However, the
generalization of the small business model to the whole social body is
preposterous. There being no point except fantasy of returning to a
Jeffersonian or precapitalist model on a world scale, there will
necessarily remain in any worthwhile future society, large-scale
enterprises, and highly important ones at that--telecommunications
networks, for example, or rail systems, not to mention the conduct of
global trade in a post-WTO era. If the state is to be merely regulatory,
who is to run these enterprises--the small-scale capitalists? If they
do, they will become large-scale capitalists, and the cycle will be
3. The notions of populists necessarily remain nationalist. They are
extensions of a bourgeois Anglo-American vision to the whole world.
4. What's so hot about small business, anyway? Why should we be
satisified with a model that represents humanity as it had evolved to
the era of Adam Smith, one grounded in hierarchy, exploitation,
profiteering, and competition--exactly what generated the present
capitalist system?

The conclusion must be to go beyond populism, and its politics of
resentment. As Greens, our goal should be to build a better world, and
for this, we need to think beyond the boundaries of the present. In my
next communication, I'll expand upon this idea.

Joel Kovel
Candidate for President, Green Party

To Build an Ecological Society beyond Capitalism
For the People For the Earth

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