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Right-Wing Populists and the "Superstition" of the Masses


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At the Verso blog, Asad Haider, author of the recently published Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, turns to Spinoza and Deleuze and Guattari in an effort to understand why “the masses” today seem to desire the rule of right-wing populists like Trump. It’s not simply that they’re being “duped,” suggests Haider, which is too often the explanation offered by liberals; rather, these populist leaders are appealing to the real material conditions of the masses—something that left-leading politicians have largely failed to do. Here’s an excerpt from Haider’s piece:

This long lineage of political thought speaks to a wholly contemporary problem, of distinguishing between collectivities which compose themselves into emancipatory mass movements, or mobs which serve to reinforce existing powers. This is the problem that Étienne Balibar, in his Masses, Classes, Ideas, has summed up in the phrase, “fear of the masses.” The phrase is meant in two senses: “It is the fear that the masses feel. But it is also the fear that the masses inspire in whoever is placed in the position of governing or acting politically, hence in the state as such.”

However, at the same time, Spinoza seems to present us with the possibility of a multitude which can govern itself. The ethical life is one which operates according to reason and overcomes the sad passions that prevent us from acting. Superstition is the barrier to this, and it is entirely social. All people have the capacity for reason, which they are prevented from exercising because tyranny keeps them in a state of ignorance. But there is no natural basis for the belief that only the select few are capable of governing. As Deleuze proposed in his 1968 study of Spinoza, living an ethical life requires extricating oneself “from chance encounters and the concatenation of sad passions, to organize good encounters,” which combine the relations that agree with one’s nature and form a “reasonable association,” in order to be “affected with joy.”

In Trump, we are confronted with a tyrant who seeks to actively maintain his own ignorance, not just that of the multitude. But criticizing Trump is too easy and frankly, self-congratulatory. And explaining Trump in terms of the ignorance of the American voter is an unsatisfactory explanation which remains purely at the level of the imagination.

Image of Donald Trump via today.com.