Explaining the Difficultly with Discussing Populism on the Left

By Kaileigh La Belle

In examining populism across the left-right political spectrum and ultimately comparing populism on both the left and the right, this week’s readings fleshed out the question of populism on the Left. For me, it particularly re-ignited the question: why is it so difficult for us to acknowledge populism on the Left? As authors such as March have highlighted, populism is typically associated with the right; and, especially as Mudde and Kaltwasser add, in a very dichotomous manner. Previously, I had chalked it up to difficulty confronting the reality in our own political biases, preferring instead to associate Populism with historically extreme (usually right-wing) political ideologies, which become more distant to us in the Neo-liberal democratic world. But these readings demonstrated the multifacetedness of this issue. For example, as Firschi indicates, xenophobia is traditionally treated as a defining feature of populism and due to the Right’s usually overt xenophobia and racism, it becomes easier to attribute populism solely to the Right. However, Firschi demonstrates that there are numerous styles of xenophobia, which can be attributed to both the Left and Right respectively. Consequently, by understanding the relationship between xenophobia it becomes evident that part of the difficulty in acknowledging populism on the left could be our narrow definition of xenophobia. Meanwhile, in his analysis of the British populist Zeitgeist, Luke March argues that populism of misused and consequently over-used. For March, the anti-elitist rhetoric on both the left and right could easily be examples of demoticism. Therefore, looking at the examples of demoticism in left parties, he disagrees with Mudde and Kaltwasser arguing that the Left is less populist than the Right. As such, the difficulty of accurately labelling populist movements can also be attributed to the erasure of demoticism in favour of populism in popular vocabulary. Overall, this week’s readings expand explications on why it becomes difficult to label the Left populist; however, many simultaneously demonstrate the importance of nuanced understandings and labelling of both left and right populism.

Pop Culture and Social Media as Political Spaces

By Kaileigh La Belle

This week’s readings focused heavily on media and the transmission of far-right ideas therein. Popular culture and the internet feature heavily in nearly every article. One of the things that I found most intriguing was the construction of popular culture, social media, and the internet as a political space, one which can be connected to but is ultimately distinct from legacy media. The characterizations of the internet/pop culture as flexible, transmissible, and translatable are recurrent in these articles and are, particularly in Doerr’s article, constructed as something conducive to the spread of far-right ideas. While I do agree with these authors that the internet is a space where knowledge can be transferred more rapidly, I nonetheless found myself wondering how these subcultures deal with a ‘containment breech’ so to speak, when these memes/images/narratives are shared outside of their intended audiences and used in ways other than the intended. As these authors highlight, these images/tv shows/memes/etc are manifestations of and situated within particular discourses that are familiar to and therefore legible to a particular person/group. Yet, they are put into a space that is not exclusively occupied by people of that mindset. For example, I was particularly shocked to see the ‘I know the feel bro’ meme in this context, as I have seen similar ones spread in leftist/left-leaning Indigenous online spaces to poke fun at and highlight the irony of settlers panicking about ‘invaders’. While I think the plurality of interpretations can act as a shield from criticism, I do think that the transmissibility of the internet is multifaceted. As such we should consider how it can also be muddling and how that might affect politics. 

Anti-genderism and Conspiracy

By Kaileigh La Belle

This week’s readings focused on defining anti-genderism, both theoretically and in practice. Many of the authors, namely Paternotte and Kuhar as well as Zuk and Zuk, highlighted the parallels between the anti-gender repertoire and the populist repertoire, often noting that these two styles can collaborate. One element in particular stood out to me and that is anti-genderism’s paradoxical nationalism and transnationalism. On the one hand, anti-genderism in Europe is part of a larger international conservative movement against so-called “gender ideology” that builds on dialogues from across the world, like evangelical American Christianity and TERFs in England. Yet, more often than not, these movements react to nation-specific policy and social change. They position “gender ideology” as part of an “international” conspiracy to “erode” at their nation’s “traditional values”. As we saw in the Zuk and Zuk reading, Polish Anti-gender activists, expanding on the traditional Catholic-Pole image, present gender as a “Western Neo-Marxist” conspiracy. They present gender diversity and women’s and LGBTQ+ rights as “manufactured” by elites; some, like the Catholic Church, even imply it is a violent invasion, referring to reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights as “ideological colonialism”. Not only does this demonstrate the populist dynamic of anti-genderism, but it is evident that this can quickly evoke the antisemitic imagery implicit in conspiracies such as “cultural Marxism” and “globalist” conspiracies. Understanding the connection between antisemitic and anti-gender is fundamental to gaining a complete grasp of how these movements are able to, and often do, mobilize against various marginalized individuals, despite not actively claiming to. We tend to side-line transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny as products of far-right populism. However, these readings have demonstrated that, compiled under the banner “anti-genderism”, these features can act on their own accord and collaborate with other repertoires, like populism.

Collective memory and distancing

By Kaileigh La Belle

Like previous videos that we’ve watched in this class, the video on Qanon in Germany interviewed people who were close to or even directly involved with the conspiratorial, Far-Right leaning movement. When individuals were asked why people joined this movement, many outsiders noted the idea of gaining control over uncontrollable circumstances. While I think that there is some merit to the argument that feelings of control/lack of control can be mobilizing factors, I think that there is a deeper issue going on here, especially after reading some of the other readings on the subject of xenophobia and Far-Right Hate. The Stone reading, which highlighted the role of collective memory in dictating responses to current crises, is applicable here. Throughout the video, the anti-vax, anti-mask protesters made numerous visual or oral references or parallels to Germany’s nazi past, presenting COVID-preventative measures as a style of eugenic, authoritarian plot. For them, this is evidently a morally motivated movement that draws heavily on the idea of preventing history from repeating itself. While the idea that these preventative measures are anywhere close to a fascist dictatorship is, as the video makes clear, ludicrous, I think that it represents an attempt to distance themselves from the fundamentally antisemitic conspiracies they push and therefore “validate” their involvement. They see their motivations as being “civic” and hinged on “protecting” people (especially the vulnerable like children) from a shadowy authoritarian government or secret society. In their eyes, this makes their movement incompatible with hate, or, at the very least rationalizes it for them in a sort of “greater good” situation. It prevents them from seeing the antisemitic origins and impacts this movement has and thus they continue to involve themselves in it. Overall, by coupling this sort of moral argument with imagery of preventing another genocide/authoritarian regime, they distance themselves from any type of critical thought about their actions or blame for them.

Prudes, Puritans, and Populists

by Kaileigh La Belle

From bans on LGBTQI “propaganda” to yearly debates about kink at Pride, it is no secret that we are seeing an uptick in popular, transnational conservatism about sex. While much of the responding conservation has focused on protecting the LGBTQ+ community, one equally vulnerable group is often neglected: sex workers. Recent attacks on sex workers include a notable rise in SWERFs [Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists] in England, Spanish attempts to ban prostitution, and votes in Bristol town council to ban strip clubs. However, unlike previous attacks on the industry, these movements are not solely originated from the Right, but also from the Left. As such, anti-sex work movements, grounded in sexist and moralist populist trends, reconstruct Far-Right ‘traditionalist’ views on sexuality and gender, which threaten to bring down the liberation of women, femmes, and queers.

Sexist Populism and the ‘Victim Narrative’

As historian Kate Lister notes, the “Victim Trope”—a staple of anti-sex work narratives on both the Left and the Right—“repackaged [sex workers] as a pitiful victim in an uncaring world” who ultimately need to be saved for their own moral good by non-sex workers. These narratives take on a moral dimension laced with chauvinistic tendencies and situate them within the trend of sexist Populism. Many historians and theorists define populism as a political style that positions the everyday man as ‘pure’ against the ‘corrupt elite’, drawing particularly on emotional reactions against the ‘Other’ and institutions. Yet, sexist Populism takes on a gendered dynamic, presenting ‘traditional’ gender roles as endangered to radicalize ‘the people’, usually with an emotionally-driven paternalistic or chauvinistic flare. ‘Victim narratives’ present (white, female) sex workers exclusively as subjects of male abuse or rescue, upholding a ‘traditionalist’ perspective on gender. In keeping with their Victorian origins, such anti-sex work narratives present the non-monogamous, transactional nature of sex work as inherently ‘damaging’ and ‘abusive’. Therefore, monogamous (often heterosexual) partnerships rooted in love and/or marriage become the safe moral norm, a key viewpoint of Far-Right populism.

When women and girls are placed in this victim role, an abuser must emerge as the “Other” against whom the everyday man must take a stand. It is here that the populist anti-institutional, ‘othering’ process is injected. In modern takes on victim narratives such as this one, consensual sex work is conflated with sex trafficking and, for Dworkin Feminists, rape. In this way, states who have legalized sex work (the majority in Europe) become enablers of abuse who “wash their hands” of blame. Various conspiracy theories have made the rounds on social media, positing that ‘global elites’ are sex trafficking children for “sexual rituals” or “blood libel”. In their evocation of sexual deviancy, ‘deep state’ plots, and blood libel, they push antisemitism. Evidently, the emotionally-charged image of imperilled women and children functions to maintain myths of ‘Otherness’ and weaponize a dichotomy of pure/un-pure.

Populist Threats to Feminism

Many sex workers have voiced concern about this rise in whorephobia. Firstly, they fear that it does not reflect the realities of the industry and ignores sex workers’ critique. For example, many sex workers point out that they are going after the wrong people when making conflations between sex work and trafficking. While, as a high estimate, 1 in 7 sex workers in Europe could be trafficked, sex workers clarify that a total ban would drive the industry further underground, dragging these victims down with it. By ignoring these lived experiences in favour of ‘rescue’ narratives, both Left and Right populists maintain the chauvinistic, sexist populist trend and make things harder for real sex workers and the victims they claim to ‘protect’.

Secondly, these populist narratives endorse ‘purity’-based rhetoric that are fundamentally exclusionary. SWERF narratives often present Suffrage-era feminism as the foundation of the feminist movement. They repeat the First Wave argument that women are morally superior, embodied by the ‘motherly’ image, to men as they’re ‘inherently’ prone to uncontrolled, sexualized violence. Furthermore, in this popular memory, the Sexual Revolution becomes an extension of patriarchy, having “hurt” feminism and women by centring sexuality. With the Sexual Revolution positioned as antithetical to ‘true’ feminism, its emancipatory elements can easily become ‘un-pure.’ Everything—the normalization of casual sex, trans liberation, and especially the acceptance of sex work—becomes a threat to women. As such, by romanticizing earlier, exclusionary periods of feminist history and ignoring the voices of sex workers, SWERFs align themselves with a conservative moral purity argument that has historically been used to deny liberation to those outside the gender-sexual norm.

As these victim narratives leech into the public consciousness through apps like Tik Tok and manifest in mainstream political institutions, we must remember that they do little to protect women. In fact, by identifying the use of populist tropes that misplace anger surrounding very real issues of patriarchal and capitalist violence, we can see how they maintain gender essentialist binaries and drive us towards sexual conservatism. If anything, understanding this process should shed light on why feminism must make room for the voices of all women, regardless of their profession.

Populism and the Other

by Kaileigh La Belle

In doing this week’s readings, I was struck by Cento Bull’s reading on populism and popular memory. In particular, her argument is that the other is consistently used to construct a populist national image. I think that this argument can be applied to other readings from this week. Namely, Molnar’s article on the role of racial anxiety in reunified Germany. Throughout the article, Molnar highlights narratives from reunified Germany in which German citizens suggest that immigration would threaten their country. As such, through this construction of the other, they attempt to call back to a mythic, historic image of Germany, one that is predominately white and Christian. 

The Cento Bull reading also encouraged me to consider why narratives of the other are so successful in creating both an imagined past and an imagined community around which people can rally. Personally, looking at cases such as those discussed in Molnar’s article, I feel that the ‘other’ is often conceptually distanced, but also physically distanced. For example, in his introduction, Molnar highlights a racist letter against immigration written by a man called Lange. In this letter, Lange uses examples of other ethnically mixed countries, namely in Africa, South America, and Eastern Europe, and suggests that this would be Germany’s fate. The physical distance between these countries would enable people to demonize the situation and present a myth as fact as there becomes greater space for disinformation.  

In conclusion, I felt that Cento Bull raised some interesting points about the role of the other in populist myth-making, which I feel carries over to other readings from this week. In considering this subject more critically, I found myself faced with continued questions as to how these processes occur and what makes them so successful in such varied situations.

“Women-as-Other” and Popular Memory of Female Perpetrators

By Kaileigh La Belle

Ruth Glynn’s “Writing the Terrorist Self: The Unspeakable Alterity of Italy’s Female Perpetrators” applies the concept of “Women-as-other” to narratives of violence committed by female perpetrators. For Glynn, these women used recognized socio-cultural discourses to navigate both victimhood and guilt in ways unique from their male peers. While Glynn focuses on how these discourses enabled women to publically express their role in political violence, I found myself wondering if the use of established socio-cultural gender discourses lends itself to the erasure of women from our popular memory of violent politics. As Glynn highlights, many of these representations present women as “token terrorists” or “unnatural killers”, and thus as somewhat enigmatic. Meanwhile, Chrisafris also writes about women’s connection to extreme politics. Chrisafris points to numerous examples of far-right female politicians attempting to legitimize their positions in these misogynistic movements by presenting themselves as “tough-skined warriors”, taking on traditionally masculinized traits. Additionally, Chrisafris points to several examples far-right women presenting themselves as protectors of women who were “pushed” to join movements because inadequacies in the current system. As such, it became apparent to me that this continuation of gendered discourses allowed women to situate themselves in these movements, both as “natural” and “unnatural” political figures. As such, the use of established socio-cultural discourses on gender present both victimhood (particularly associating femininity with vulnerability) and guilt (by presenting women as masculinized warriors), distancing femininity from blame for these actions. Furthermore, I feel that it becomes easier to erase women perpetrators from our popular memory of extreme political violence as the naunce it requires questions the gender binary, which prefers to associate masculinity with violence and femininity with vulnerability. Overall, Glynn’s use of the “women-as-other” concept was quite thought-provoking for me as it can simultaneously be used by perpetrators to situate themselves in popular memory but also encourage us to exclude women from popular memory of these events.

Transphobia, Eugenics, and the Nation State in Britain

Op/Ed #1

By Kaileigh La Belle

Activists march in solidarity with trans people at London Pride, 2010, reclaiming the image of the pink triangle, once used as a symbol of persecution for queer and trans individuals under the fascist and eugenic mission of the Nazis.

“An imported culture war,” decry critics in response to Drag Queen Story Hour UK. Despite the organization’s commitment to inclusivity and literacy, British conservatives, TERFS, and the Far-Right see it as an attempt to “indoctrinate” the youth into foreign “woke” principles. For them, trans inclusion is not only antithetical to the British nation but a threat to the nation’s future, represented here by children. This Far-Right vocabulary is becoming increasingly popular with anti-trans groups across the political and social spectrum, as a recent study by Global Action for Trans Equality [GATE] found. As GATE sees it, the decrease in popular support for trans rights in Britain is driven by mainly Far-Right actors “enmeshing” the two ideologies. However, this perspective fails to account for the innate historical connection between transphobia and the Far-Right. This connection, often surrounding eugenic talking points on ‘moral’ health and reproduction, negotiates the place of transphobia in alarmist, nationalist claims, one that breeds an incredibly fascistic potential. 

Recent queer histories reveal that transphobia, as we know it today, was unfortunately born not long after trans identities were named in western culture and science. Much of this early transphobia was (and continues to be) centred around the western, Christian gender binary; grounded in the biblical dichotomy of pure versus sinful, anything outside of that, particularly non-Christian, non-White gender-sexual constructs, was quickly labelled as “deviant.” In the fascist worldview, trans people remained “deviants” who signalled the moral decay of the nation and represented an “ideology” imposed by ‘liberal elites’ in universities, medicine, politics, etc. It was, and is, in this climate of hate that fascists attacked trans people and systemically destroyed trans culture in the name of ‘tradition’ and ‘morality’. 

Today, anti-trans movements in Britain continue to propagate the image of the “sexual deviant.” When polled, the British public remained divided on many trans issues. In particular, there was less support for the presence of trans women in women’s bathrooms and other ‘women’s only spaces.’ As in earlier Far-Right ideas about trans womanhood, many transphobes present trans women and the trans rights movements as granting “male-bodied people” access to women and girls in ‘intimate’ spaces; they imply that trans women would harm cis women and girls morally or physically. This rhetoric, in presenting trans women as naturally deviant and dangerous, also biologizes vulnerability for cis women. Furthermore, children are often seen as being corrupted by the supposed ‘inherently’ sexual nature of trans inclusion and education. Not only does this present an overt moralist image of imperilled innocence around which people can rally, but it again assumes passivity in children, subtly evoking the fascist image of the paternalistic family. These assumptions ultimately uphold the gendered fascist status quo, as they have done historically. 

Historically, the conflation of trans identity with ‘moral deviancy’ justified the idea that being trans was an “illness” and one that could “contaminate” the nation, which underpins eugenic anxieties about race, reproduction, and the nation. Today these ideas play out in the recent Far-Right obsession with “de-transition” narratives—stories posited by transphobes about young people regretting transitioning and professing the supposed harms that it caused to their bodies. One of the most popular pieces of anti-trans literature, Irreversible Damage: Teenage Girls and Transgender Craze, posits (falsely) that the world has seen an increase in white middle-class teen girls seeking gender affirmation surgery due to “mental illness” and being “groomed” into “thinking” they’re trans. Much like Irreversible Damage, the de-transition narratives that circulate widely in these transphobic circles emphasize the loss of “natural womanhood”, that is reproductive organs like the uterus. In centring the reproductive capabilities of middle-class white girls, these narratives continue the fascist trend of designating women as “walking wombs”. Presenting young trans men as ‘groomed’ by outsider ‘sexual deviants’ and weakening the ability of (white, middle-class) “women” to reproduce, these narratives also prop up white supremacist anxieties about race “replacement.”

Bringing the nation once again into the picture is the eugenic policy enabled by this continuation of historically fascist rhetoric on trans people and reproduction. While past fascist regimes have been more overt in their attacks on trans people, modern Britain practices passive eugenics, namely the denial of safe medical care and preventing immigration. In 2021, one in seven trans individuals in Britain reported being denied medical care; conversion therapy remained legal for trans youth longer than it did for their gay counterparts; the use of puberty blockers, a life-saving procedure in many cases, was banned for minors; trans refugees are routinely denied entry. These systemic policies, not including the numerous attacks and harassment received by trans individuals every day, are dependent on the belief that trans identity is an ‘illness’ that deviates from the “healthy norm” (that is, in their eyes, cis heterosexuality) and poses a threat to the reproductive capabilities of (as they see it, predominately middle-class, white) girls and young women. As such these actions are passed off as ‘protecting’ the nation’s youth, health, women, tradition, future, etc. 

Unfortunately, transphobia is an ideology that is growing, mobilizing alongside its historical companion, the Far-Right. While identifying these historical continuities is not to say that Britain is now fascist or will rapidly become fascist, they make us aware of our blind spots in anti-fascist work. If anything, this perspective emphasizes why we must see supporting trans-inclusive initiatives and the trans community as a distinctly anti-fascist action.

Conspiracy, “Spiritual Racism”, and New Far-Right Discourse

by Kaileigh La Belle

This week’s readings illuminated how the Far-Right has changed its dialogue on race and culture toward what Bar-On described as “spiritual racism.” Pioneered by conspiracies about ‘Hyperboreans’ in the works of Julius Evola, this fascist discourse, like other Far-Right conspiracies, maintains the traditional racial hierarchies but caches it in an obscure language that, at first, seems strange but divorced from fascism. Consequently, these readings had me consider what this shift meant for the propagation of Far-Right ideas. 

Primarily, as Griffin points out, this shift in metapolitics, including away from biological determinism and towards cultural discourse, means that those who attempt to call out their fascist rhetoric are often the ones being labelled hysterical. Reflecting back to Week One’s readings, I think that the use of these conspiracies also enables the Far-Right to hide behind ‘irony’ as a defence. Thinking about the characteristics of these conspiracies, they are so divorced from reality that it would be incredibly easy to simply pass them off as satire. Really, I think we’d all be more comfortable thinking that people claiming that a secret race of ‘Aryans’ discovered Atlantis must be joking, or that their ideas are too far out to have any real bearing on political thought. But, as Tobin’s anecdote about the recent evocation of Evola by Bannon reveals, these thoughts are leaching into mainstream politics. 

Similarly “white replacement” conspiracies put forward by Camus and picked up internationally by the New Far-Right also embody this shift away from overt biologized racism towards “cultural discourse”, profiting off of traditional conservative anxieties about immigration. As immigration has historically been constructed as a political issue, the idea that immigrants “destroy culture” wouldn’t seem so unreasonable to some who might hold more traditional anti-immigrant political beliefs, such as that immigrants “steal jobs”. As such, conspiracies of this type can act as a point of radicalization, maintaining and spreading deeply racist ideas and anxieties. 

As such, the seemingly more covert nature of these new discourses, often centred around conspiracy, deal in very transmissible rhetoric that can play off of both far-fetched conspiratorial thought or participate in more mainstream discussion of historically politicized issues. I feel this makes them more adaptable to modern extreme political discourses. Again, reflecting back on Week One, I am left wondering how this style of metapolitics appears on the internet and how it’s designed to spread.

Experimentation in Popular Culture

By Kaileigh La Belle

Concerning major political shifts, I had often thought of them through institutionalized (often linear) processes. However, the source material consistently used in these articles was predominately popular culture, from Trial At Nuremberg (1961), analyzed in Moller’s work, to the numerous popular autobiography and novels highlighted in Sollor’s work. As such, I found Häberlen’s argument that popular portrayals of politics were a form of experimentation intriguing and it prompted me to consider how this theory might be relevant to this week’s other readings. 

In considering the qualities of this experimentation, Häberlen drew heavily on the idea of non-temporal narratives. I saw a similarity in Fullbrook’s chapter “Discomfort Zones” that highlights how these narratives, while certainly not severed from temporal contexts, are defined by personal experimentations with moral self-distancing and composure that ebbs and flows. Throughout “Discomfort Zones” Fullbrook provides numerous examples of how individuals played with the line between guilt and ignorance and that addressing their Nazi past was not a linear path. Furthermore, in considering what makes popular culture such an attractive space for experimentation, the idea that fiction can simplify the discussion and simultaneously can have a dramatic impact on how people see themselves and the world around them seems central. In his analysis of Trial at Nuremberg, Moeller examines how the directors and producers paid particular attention to what was applicable to their (mostly American) context and perspective and highlighted certain themes that they felt needed to be digested, namely how to address and avoid Nazi violence. As such, the fictional elements allow for experimentation in conceptualizing and measuring hatred, making parallels between American state oppression and Nazi violence. 

Ultimately, Häberlen introduces a very valuable concept which highlighted the various ways in which political shifts can be studied. In placing greater emphasis on intense emotions and lack of structure, we can see how people tried to conceptualize denazification on a more personal level. In applying Häberlen’s argument to this week’s other readings, it became obvious to me that denazification was a complicated and broad process, and, perhaps, one with no definitive end. 

Work cited: 

Fulbrook, Mary. “Discomfort Zones” and “Voices of the Victims.” In Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, 314-336, 361-377. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Häberlen, Joachim. “(Not) Narrating the History of the Federal Republic: Reflections on the Place of the New Left in West German History and Historiography.” Central European History Vol. 52, Issue 1 (March 2019): 107-124.

Sollors, W.“Everybody Gets Fragebogened Sooner or Later’: The Denazification Questionnaire as Cultural Text.” German Life & Letters. Vol 71, Issue 2 (2018): 139-153.