Dialogue on Reclaiming Populism

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Dialogue on Reclaiming Populism

We live in a political democracy, as imperfect as it is, so why shouldn’t we work in one? We elect the person who has control of the most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world, why shouldn’t we elect the person who signs our paychecks? Democracy in the workplace should be supported by anyone who believes that democracy is the best political system.

Employees should have the right to elect their own bosses and this idea should be at the heart of any political ideology that aims to improve the lives of regular people. After all, many working people have experienced disrespect and low pay for long hours at work.

If employees have a stake in their own companies it seems logical that they would be more productive. After all, if they elect their bosses, in a sense they will own their place of work, and people tend to work harder when they have a sense of ownership.

We can debate precisely how democracy in the workplace would function, but it should be the cornerstone of a political program that aims to overcome racial, religious and petty political differences. Everyone’s lives would materially improve. Employees would be more likely to be happier because they would have greater control over their own lives. They would also be able to exert greater control over their salaries and take home earnings that actually reflect the profit they make for their organizations.

This democracy could take many forms, and its specifics should be debated. Perhaps employees could elect the CEO, but specific departments could elect their own managers. For example, the IT department could elect the head of IT. This democracy could be a mixture of direct and representative; the CEO after being elected could appoint certain positions, perhaps employees could vote on certain propositions for the organization’s business plan and policies. Maybe employees could literally own a stake in the company in the form of a co-op. There are endless possibilities, but the way forward should be clear - democratize!

-Shim Tandowsky

Silicon Valley-powered social media platforms have become our commons, our place of public discourse—what used to be the public square. Now, in addition to extracting our material wealth, they arrogate to themselves the power to control our speech. However, on the left it has become commonplace to call for increasing levels of censorship, which further feeds the consolidation of power by these corporations as this censorship is being carried out by a small number of the richest men on earth with no democratic accountability. They are not only allowed but cheered on as they make opaque decisions about what is and is not acceptable public speech.

The liberal left is destroying itself over purity arguments of identity politics and mandated correct speech. It turns on anyone who does not accept its entire identity package of beliefs. It has discovered a new authoritarianism in cancel-culture, all under the beautiful multi-color banner of inclusiveness and anti-racism.

-Mark White

There is a way to take back our common spaces and work toward genuine democracy and equality. The first step is to understand consumerism as a political act.

Start by imagining the idea of a people’s Silicon Valley… a crowdfunded power center that fuels cooperative alternatives to each of the increasingly monopolistic power centers—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and all the other titans of our tech world. Our consumerism makes them powerful. It is this that grants them their monopolistic mandate. Likewise, it is our consumerism that can take it back.

A longer piece on plebity discusses this here.

Notice how the corporate world has completely adopted the ideas and language of woke culture. And why should we be surprised that they have found it very useful to co-opt a toothless left that is intent on cannibalizing itself in a fratricidal war rather than questioning its corporate masters? In 2008, people across the political spectrum began to unite around the useful slogan of the 99% and the idea of real opposition to the banksters and the oligarchy. Uniting over issues that join us together is genuinely dangerous to the dominant elites. Not surprisingly, the banksters and the oligarchy are perfectly fine with diverting real challenges to their dominance into endless virtue signalling around issues of identity.

There has to be a time when people of genuine good will, who value critical thinking and fundamental ideals of social justice for everyone, are ready to stand up and say enough is enough. Anyone who can find the strength to stand and raise their voice against the mob makes it just that much easier for the next person to find the courage to join this rising chorus.

For those who are afraid of, or have even learned to hate the word ‘left’–let’s agree that as different as we may see the world, most people really do want things to be better for everyone. To the extent that labels get in the way of progress we should all learn to shed the labels. We’re all labelists, and working on that is a job for everyone.

A longer piece about cancel culture and intolerance is here.

-Mark White

When Populism Meant Collective Strength Against a Rigged System

“Wall street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.” -Populist leader Mary Elizabeth Lease (circa 1890)

The word populism gets thrown around these days to mean many different things. But one particular social movement that occurred here in the U.S. and was known as the populist farmers revolt of the 1880s deserves special attention and has many lessons for us today.

In contemporary times we see inequality has only continued to rise and has reached unprecedented levels. Our diminishing and downwardly mobile middle-class, forever unable to ‘get ahead’ in the way that was commonly expected thirty years ago has much in common with the land-owning farmers of the populist revoltof the southern farmers of the 1800s. Labor unions have been destroyed. Gig workers are completely at the mercy of the employers. We pay into a ‘healthcare’ system like the farmers paid the merchants and each year we get deeper in debt until in the end we give over all our assets, just like the farmers handed over the title to their farms. Like them, we pay into the system throughout our whole lives until in the end biology catches up; the system waits patiently for us to inevitably fall ill and in the end it squeezes our last assets out of our hands to pay our final medical bills.

In A People’s History Zinn points out the great advances in productivity that technological innovation brought into the world. Consider this simple fact: “Before the Civil War it took 61 hours of labor to produce an acre of wheat. By 1900, it took 3 hours, 19 minutes.”

This is the sort of fact often highlighted by proponents of capitalism as proof of its success and efficacy. But the question leaps out, where did the benefits of this increased productivity go? The question isn’t whether we have a middle-class that has become marginally or even significantly better off than those at the bottom of the economy. The question is, where has the vast majority of this wealth that has been created since the beginning of the industrial age gone?

The populist farmers brilliantly identified the weak underbelly of the system, and sought to work against it by leveraging their collective purchasing and selling power. Our fundamental problems are not different than theirs. We have the same dilemma and also a way out if we can organize our own collective power as both consumers and workers. We are nothing as individual materialist consumers or atomized gig workers. If we can find common cause and put away the divisive labels we have enormous power.

See the full article here

Populism does indeed have a set of prevailing principles that characterizes it. These principles cut across all political cloths, often garnering support from left- and right-wing proponents. Some of the basic principles include: circumventing power from Wall Street, ending corporate welfare and crony capitalism, ending mass surveillance programs, ending military interventionism and occupation, and opposing corporate trade agreements. These principles don’t describe just one political identity, and that is why they tend to attract a broad following of people from all political persuasions.

Read the full article here.

Monopoly used to be understood in a kind of one dimensional space, how a company may have gained dominance in its industry. However, today’s tech monopolies exist in multidimensions; they monopolize and control our data, they decide when and if to censor our speech, and they purchase government officials, the same ones charged with reigning them in. But our old conception of monopolies is totally inadequate to describe or understand the significance of today’s big tech companies.

The spawn of Silicon Valley shouldn’t just be broken up. This is an old fashioned remedy for a new unprecedented problem. Rather, ownership of the tech companies should be handed over to their workers, and they should be carefully and publicly regulated. This is a potential solution that has no political ownership in the old meaning of left and right. It is central to a new concept of populism reclaimed for the 99%.

Read the full article: Breaking up the Tech Giants is not Enough

9 comments on Dialogue on Reclaiming Populism

  1. J.L. says:

    Great idea. I would recommend a new article by Thomas Frank in the Guardian – “Liberals want to blame rightwing ‘misinformation’ for our problems. Get real” .
    a little excerpt:

    Let me confess: every time I read one of these stories calling on us to get over free speech or calling on Mark Zuckerberg to press that big red “mute” button on our political opponents, I feel a wave of incredulity sweep over me. Liberals believe in liberty, I tell myself. This can’t really be happening here in the USA.

    But, folks, it is happening. And the folly of it all is beyond belief. To say that this will give the right an issue to campaign on is almost too obvious. To point out that it will play straight into the right’s class-based grievance-fantasies requires only a little more sophistication. To say that it is a betrayal of everything we were taught liberalism stood for – a betrayal that we will spend years living down – may be too complex a thought for our punditburo to consider, but it is nevertheless true.

    1. Mark says:

      Great article. And also this interview on theanalysis.news with Paul Jay and Thomas Frank where around 27:34 they talk about the populism of the 1890s in the US which was a movement of farmers that centered around very concrete issues.


  2. Emmie says:

    Hi Plebity,

    Although I think this is a good idea and a welcome project, I question some of the framing around the word ‘left’. Is that the most useful way to pose the issues?

    Over the past 40 years regular people across the political spectrum have been more and more divided over issues of left versus right and now especially by identity politics and woke culture. In 2008 the expression ‘we are the 99%’ caught on like a brush fire and resonated with so many people. Now, with identity politics taking over the so-called left, and a demagogue billionaire having tried to claim the working class ‘right’ we have forgotten all about our common identity as the 99% in a world dominated by an small number of super rich individuals and powerful, monopolistic corporations.

    The overwhelming majority of people around the world belong to this 99%. Can we start to come together over how to improve the lives everyone? I think your articles are already going in that direction. You are talking about democratizing the workplace and fighting against the control of silicon valley corporations. Those are problems all of us share, right?

    1. Mark says:

      Hi Emmie,

      Thank you for this comment which we took to heart. We have updated and reframed our conversation to be around the word populism and the 99%. These issues really affect all of us.

      Mark White

  3. Hamza Watani says:

    I think Populism of the Left fails for three reasons. One, the Liberal-Left has made themselves to be the “anti-American” faction by talking about the war crimes of the USA as if all Americans(particularly white americans) are responsible. They never thought to throw the parties responsible under the bus and play up that the crimes as anti-american and not reflective of the people. Americans (especially the workers) assign a lot of value to America and don’t like hearing it trashed.

    Second, American leftists abandoned white working americans and play black working americans against each other politically. This can be seen by the Liberal Black Bourgeois arguing the need for racial reparations and the racial wealth gap, while being in complete opposition to things like Medicare and minimum wage. By arguing racism is the problem and the wealth gap, Leftists abandoned the class issues for Neoliberal policies or in the case of the Social Justice wing, completely abandon everything for Upper/Middle-class racial politics. For them, tearing down statues and making minorities into “marginalized and oppressed peoples” (whose only value is their victimhood status) that vote Liberal.

    Third, the Left got in bed with the Liberals. That is really the biggest issue of them all. At a certain point every socialist and communist in America became Hypercapitalist Liberals who are more concerned with resuming consumerism than fixing the issues. If one goes back to the debates of Jean-Marie Domenach and Thomas Molnar. Liberalism’s pursuit for greater individual freedoms and capitalisms drive for consumers creates the perfect storm of Bourgeois superficial identities and tears apart the cultures of the societies. In their debate they spoke about how Marxism does not fix the issues as it’s materialism and ideals will end up serving, not opposing, the capitalist order. And as they predicted most Marxists are bourgeois and very much concerned with liberal freedoms of the individual and autonomy. The Catholic intellectual, August Del Noce noted of their argument, which people need to understand is exactly what we are experiencing-

    -If by “right” we mean faithfulness to the spirit of tradition, meaning the tradition that talks about an uncreated order of values, which are grasped through intellectual intuition and are independent of any arbitrary will, not even the divine one; and if by “left” we mean, on the contrary, the rejection not merely of certain historical superstructures but of those very values, which are “unmasked” to show their true nature as oppressive ideologies, imposed by the dominant classes in order to protect themselves, well, then it seems that in no other historical period has the left advanced so dramatically as during the last quarter of a century…. And yet, one has to say that Domenach is right: if by “right” we mean “management technique at the service of the strongest,” regardless of what ideologies are used to justify this management, we have to say that its victory has never been so complete, because it has been able to turn completely the culture of the left into its own tool.- August Del Noce-The Dead End of the Left? | Commonweal Magazine

    We have to admit that the Left itself became nothing more than a tool for the Bourgeois and its values became alien to the very working class that they claim they wish to liberate. Without reexamining why the Left is so utterly repugnant to much of the lower classes, there can be no populism. Today, more Upper-class and Middle-class people call themselves “progressives” and even communists and socialists, yet they do nothing but vote Democrat, empower their class, and push identity politics and culture war, while the class part of the Left has been thoroughly discarded. I think if two men can predict the outcome of the Left back in 1969, then it might be time to put down the old dog, and rethink the enterprise itself.

    Finally, there is one last problem, that of American Culture. The USA may have a history of populism but it also has a hyper individualist streak and a crippling lack of community. The Mask issue is one that shows how little Americans care about one another. Instead of seeing the Mask issue as one of community sacrifice in order to stomp out a viral pathogen much of the American people took it as an affront to their civil liberties. If a people cannot come together in the face a spreading disease then the reality is stark indeed. Don’t mean to be a killjoy, but all these factors have to be discussed before any plan of action can be wrought.

    1. Mark White says:

      Hamza – This is overall a brilliant comment and a valuable addition to the dialogue.

      I want to point out one thing, and that is your use of the word ‘left’. You have correctly pointed out that what passes for the left in today’s U.S. political climate is in reality corporatist, authoritarian and in many ways in direct opposition to what we used to think of as progressive values.

      This is why we call this dialogue ‘reclaiming populism’. For many of us who consider ourselves as life long leftists the current meaning of the word seems like it has literally been hijacked. It belongs more now to Goldman Sachs or Raytheon (recently lauded by woke liberals for its 100% perfect equity score) than to any possible progressive values.

      Occupy Wallstreet, with all its failures did give us a very useful term…the 99%. It is the most accurate, simplified descriptor of the political and economic reality we live in. The majority of the people of this planet have many fundamental shared interests. Organizing around achieving those interests would make lives better for the overwhelmingly vast majority of people. It is no accident that the corporate world loves indentity politics and the way that it keeps the conversation off of class interests.

      Rather than squabble over the labels, we’d like to bypass that intellectual black hole which only divides us all. Let’s move forward and talk about programs and values that we can all support. Are universal healthcare, increasing minimum wage, workplace democracy, breaking up corporate monopolies, working against surveillance capitalism of silicon valley, ending forever wars – are these issues that can unite us?

      I’ll end my comment with a quote from your comment:

      “Today, more Upper-class and Middle-class people call themselves “progressives” and even communists and socialists, yet they do nothing but vote Democrat, empower their class, and push identity politics and culture war, while the class part of the Left has been thoroughly discarded.”

      I agree.

      1. Mark says:

        Maybe it would be interesting to talk about Occupy and why it failed to effect any real change in the end? Or the Yellow Vests in France. Although whether Occupy was rooted in the working class might be debatable, the Yellow Vest movement was definitely a spontaneous uprising of working class people…

      2. Hamza Watani says:

        No squabbles. I think to reclaim populism we have to be more than just economic issues we have to claim the mantle of Patriotism. All of those programs that we want must be wrapped in the flag, presented to the people as their right as Americans, and part of making America great.

        There was a Jimmy Dore show where he basically showed that Conservatives would go for a form of Socialism if it were packaged in what was called “Americanism”. Right now, with all the censorship, Americans are pissed at the Elite. The last polls found the majority of Americans on both sides were completely fed up with the Elites of America. So, an anti-elite, pro-America Left, centered on social programs, and clever branding (Americans love brands). This might be sour to many Leftists but I think a Socially Conservative and Economically Left populist movement would sweep America.

        1. charro says:

          can you define “socially conservative”?

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