- Pierre Bourdieu and Populism:The Everyday Politics of Outrageous Resistance
A quick snapshot of populist politics in twenty-first century America reveals an off-beat cast: Christian fundamentalists, vigilante border patrollers, the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, broad-based community organizers, grassroots ecopopulists, Occupy Wall Street, the advertising duo of John Mellencamp and Chevrolet, and a supporting cast too long to credit. Populist politics has always attracted this cacophony of voices and styles of expression. Yet, scholars debating the future of democracy are often quick to assign populism a fixed refrain.
At stake are competing responses to a nagging question: Can populism in the age of neoliberalism be more than an easily assimilable, or worse, reactionary, form of protest politics, offering the fantasy of popular control in times of increasing vulnerability and disempowerment? For many scholars on the left, the answer depends on whether activists can wrest populism's rebellious energies from the right, and invent savvier, more resilient forms of oppositional politics.1 According to those who sing this tune, populism's strength is its combative rhetoric, which mobilizes the demands of the people against the abuses and failures of established democratic orders. Such energetic critique is crucial, they argue, to mount resistance against the relentless drive of global capitalism, and its tightening grip on the economy, culture, and politics.
A second chorus of scholars and activists insist that populist politics is most effective when it turns down its bullhorn of resistance. In their view, [End Page 194] the work of returning power to the people cannot be done in the monotone register of voicing complaints and demands. Instead, it must be done in the multiple registers of grassroots politics, which attend first and foremost to strengthening people's civic capacities and rebuilding local institutions and spaces of democracy. Advocates of this everyday populism often downplay the lure of headline-grabbing problems, and attend to the persistent work of cultivating viable alternatives to detached, top-down political institutions and processes. In their view, populism's success in transforming democracy will depend on its ability to generate egalitarian, pluralistic relationships among the people, and to experiment with decentralized institutions and practices through which people can wield power.2
Neither of these visions of populism entirely discounts the insights of the other, but they often talk past each other in both theoretical and practical contexts. For those concerned with creating radical democratic alternatives to neoliberal democracy, the stakes of this missed connection are high. Neoliberal democracy, that oxymoronic outgrowth of global corporate capitalism, is well on its way to insulating the institutions and spaces of politics from popular control. Today, market principles shape not only economic policy, but also public decision making on issues as varied as education, health care, city planning, the environment, immigration, domestic policing, and national defense. As a result, the government and civil society increasingly harmonize their interests with the needs of the market, often tuning out the broader spectrum of public opinion and interest. That is, when the people are tuning in. Neoliberal common sense, which celebrates the virtues of productivity, adaptability, competition, and freedom of choice, is by now deeply embedded in everyday life. It invests us in individualistic, passive modes of citizenship, and it reinforces socioeconomic divisions that forestall collective identification and action on a daily basis.3
Neoliberalism thus orchestrates political realities, beginning with its control of broad structures and dynamics, and ultimately weaving its systemic imperatives into the fabric of our routine choices and interactions. In response, populism cannot afford to shout with a disembodied voice, vocalizing the people's outrage at increasingly detached, dangerous configurations of power. All we may remember of populist uprisings is the image of a giant puppet head on a stick, unless protest movements also put in patient, sustained efforts to invest grassroots actors in co-creating alternative forms of democracy. At the same time, efforts to build civic capacities and institutions are bound to encounter resistance from unyielding market pressures at every turn, not to mention the layers upon layers of social [End Page 195] and economic hierarchy that constitute our daily existence. The annals of history will record the...