The Meaninglessness Of Populism

Glenn Greenwald said something idiotic again, and when Glenn Greenwald says something idiotic. the entire internet hears it. This time, during a recent interview for a podcast on The Daily Caller, Greenwald said the following about the term “socialism” and its use in modern politics:

Obviously, the term “socialism” carries a lot of baggage from the Cold War. It evokes, on purpose, the Soviet Union, or [Fidel] Castro, or [Hugo] Chavez. But I think what you are seeing is this kind of hybrid socialism that really is about nothing more than trying to sandpaper the edges off of neoliberalism.

For the record, I have no idea how “baggage from the Cold War” has caused Americans to associate socialism with a leader who didn't come to power until eight-years after the Cold War ended. But this kind of meaningless word salad has become standard for Glenn Greenwald, so I will forgive it.

Also, what does he mean by “sandpaper the edges off of neoliberalism”? What are the “edges of neoliberalism” and how does one sandpaper over them? This is all meaningless gibberish meant to sound like intelligent political commentary.

And even then, the ideology Greenwald would is talking about in the above quote is not socialism as defined by Karl Marx, it’s simply anti-neoliberalism. Many ideologies frame themselves as “anti-neoliberalism” (in fact, I’d say most ideologies even slightly outside the center do), but that does not make them all socialists.

Hey, here’s a quote from a critic of neoliberalism Greenwald might have heard of:

This third worldization of America is coinciding with the culture of the third world being feminized and analized, as we reach a global norm. Just as modern “neoliberalism” is the worst of capitalism and the worst of communism combined under one system, the new global order that is emerging is the worst of the third world combined with the worst of the first world. That means poverty and a lack of personal freedom combined with state-enforced homosexuality and female social dominance. This is all happening very quickly, but it is important to take note of the details of it.

This is a quote from Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-nazi website The Daily Stormer. Is Anglin a socialist because he’s against neoliberalism? Well, maybe this quote from Anglin can help us figure out the answer to that question:

One thing is definitely not on the table, however — you are not going to see a bunch of darkly-shaded 80 IQ Mexicans and Guatemalans voting Republican. Those people will always vote a majority for socialism, because they’re too stupid to ever make enough money to want to support Republicans.

Yeah, that doesn’t sound like socialism to me. At best, Anglin can be called a critic of neoliberalism — it should also be noted he hates neoliberalism not for the reasons socialists do, but because he feels that it leads to acceptance of minorities and LGBT people.

Now, why do I bring up a literal neo-Nazi (that’s not me insulting him either, Anglin is a self-identified neo-Nazi who named his website after Der Stürmer, the official newspaper of Nazi Germany.) in response to Greenwald’s claim that this new socialism is about being against neoliberalism? To put it simply, to show just how nonsense this idea is the only thing that makes someone a socialist is being against neoliberalism is. Because make no mistake, if Hitler was around today, he would frame himself as being a critic of modern neoliberalism.

It’s commonly debated if Hitler was a socialist or not, but what’s undeniable is that he was willing to use socialist rhetoric to promote his ideology. In a 1920 speech, Hitler outlined his reason for anti-Semitism, directly creating a link between it and his belief in socialism. As he put it:

Socialism as the final concept of duty, the ethical duty of work, not just for oneself but also for one’s fellow man’s sake, and above all the principle: Common good before own good, a struggle against all parasitism and especially against easy and unearned income. And we were aware that in this fight we can rely on no one but our own people. We are convinced that socialism in the right sense will only be possible in nations and races that are Aryan, and there in the first place we hope for our own people and are convinced that socialism is inseparable from nationalism.

He goes on to say:

Since we are socialists, we must necessarily also be antisemites because we want to fight against the very opposite: materialism and mammonism… How can you not be an antisemite, being a socialist!

I know this might seem like an aside, but once again, it shows how nonsensical Greenwald’s definition of socialism is. Greenwald is a man of the left, does he really want his ideology to be associated with anyone who’s a critic of the current system, inculding actual Nazis?

Socialism (an ideology I disagree with) is about workers owning the means of production through democratically run workplaces and decommodification of consumer products, with the eventual end goal of full-on communism. Marx himself believed socialism was a transition point between the capitalism he lived under and the communism he believed would be established. In fact, if there’s one thing that would likely surprise Marx about socialism, it’s that it has gone on to become its own separate ideology.

Greenwald goes on to say:

I would describe a lot of people on the right as being socialist. I would consider Steve Bannon to be socialist. I would consider the 2016 iteration of Donald Trump the candidate to be a socialist, based on what he was saying. I would consider Tucker Carlson to be a socialist.

It should be noted that none of the people Greenwald mentions consider themselves to be socialists.

Now, Greenwald is right that Bannon, Trump, and Carlson could all be considered anti-neoliberalism (although many have argued Trump’s appeals against neoliberalism were nothing more than a smokescreen), but that’s not socialism, that’s just opposition to neoliberalism.

What Greenwald’s talking about could be much more accurately called populism as opposed to socialism. Greenwald even says “you have this kind of right-wing populism,” but he, somehow, comes to the conclusion that this actual socialism.

Mind you, neoliberalism tends to be an ill-defined term that can mean everything from capitalism when Noam Chomsky is criticizing it, to support for LGBT Rights when Stonetoss or Andrew Anglin are criticizing it, to people not believing in aliens. No, I’m not making up the last one. That’s what Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson tweeted on 12/20/2020:

I think reluctance to believe in extraterrestrial life is part of neoliberal “end of history” ism. If the universe is teeming with life we haven’t yet found, but could, it suggests that neoliberal capitalism is not our peak but is in fact a very primitive early historical state.

In the past, I have written critically about the use of the term “neoliberalism,” calling it an ill-defined attack that usually doesn’t mean anything. However, while neoliberalism is the ill-defined Devil of modern politics, populism is our equally ill-defined savior.

The issue is, much like the neoliberal villain, the populist hero is also rather ill-defined. In the United States, both the Tea Party of the early 2010s and the Bernie Sanders movement of the late 2010s were considered “populist” by the media. However, these two movements could not have been farther apart. The Tea Party movement embraced libertarian economic policies and social conservativism, while the Bernie movement embraced both economic and social liberalism. Yet, both of these movements fit comfortably under the populist umbrella, even in spite of their hatred of each other.

The results of this can sometimes be humorous. After many top Republicans stopped backing Trump in late 2020 and early 2021, many Trump supporters proposed creating what they would call the “Patriot Party.” Coincidentally, there was a political party with that same name, which even used the Confederate Flag as its logo, that existed for a brief time in the early 1970s. The party was also far-left and anti-capitalist.

Populism is supposed to be an ideology “for the people” (hence its name). But this raises an important question, who campaigns for public office on being against “the people”? Every politician makes the argument that their policies would benefit the people above any other policy that could be proposed, meaning every politician is supposed to be acting “for the people.” This is especially the case in a representative democracy, where “the people” choose representatives specifically to act in their interests. Basically, in a representative democracy, every politician would be running as a populist no matter what.

But if everyone’s a populist, no one is. Mitch McConnell has never once argued that what he does is bad for the average American. Would that make McConnell a populist? According to other self-identified populists on both the left and the right, he is not.

Populism, to put it simply, is not an ideology. It’s a description of an ideology that applies to many ideologies, many of those ideologies going against each other. This is why what Greenwald said was so ridiculous, because he’s confusing a general term with little meaning with a specific term that means a certain ideology.

As it stands, populism is not socialism, although a socialist can be a populist. Populism is not socialism for the same reason it’s not many things, because populism as a term is rather meaningless.