Afterword: The Future of Angry Politics
Jeff Maskovsky and Sophie Bjork-James
In the world today, anger saturates the political scene, seemingly operating as an overwhelming, undirected force. Yet struggling to make some sense of the politics of anger, even if its ends are never fully legible or clear, seems vital if we are to play our part, as academics ought, in imagining, and helping to bring about, a more positive future. In this Afterword, we reflect on the perils and possibilities of angry politics, building on the chapters anthologized in this volume, to consider what might be needed to transform anger from a reactionary to an emancipatory, transforming force.
Let us start with the perils.
In the introduction to this anthology, we make four main points about the nature and scope of angry politics in the world today. First, we argue that neoliberalism’s recent failures, faults, and retreats have opened up new political spaces that have been filled in many instances by new destructive projects of resentment. We are not saying the neoliberalism as a governing project has been vanquished or that it will not continue to hold sway in various forms in many, or even most, contexts. Our argument, instead, is that its hegemonic powers are decisively on the wane, as vastly different people from vastly different social, political and geographical backgrounds experience the disruptions, disappointments, and dilemmas that came about in the name of neoliberalism, despite its promises of wealth, security and prosperity. In this context, retrograde politics around race, class, gender, sex, ethnicity, migration and inclusion have surfaced, as has the unsettling of longstanding governing and political arrangements that freighted representative democracy and cosmopolitan liberalism with capitalism and replaced them with more illiberal forms of governance. (We say more because representative democracy and liberalism have always had illiberal features.)
Our second point is that the term populism is of limited use in characterizing the kinds of political antagonism that we see as in urgent need of critical attention and exploration. We eschew approaches that attempt to characterize these antagonisms in simplistic terms as, say, the unified expression of a global populist wave. Instead, we emphasize the importance of locating the roots of angry politics in specific cultural, political and economic contexts.
This leads in part to our third point, which is about the importance of conjunctural analysis in enabling a nuanced understanding of the emergent political forms of the present. We embrace a conjunctural approach not out of a clannish politico-theoretical fealty to Gramsci, Stuart Hall and other theorists who have embraced and pioneered it. Rather, we see it as vital to tease out the multiplicity of forces, antagonisms, and conflicts that shape politics. These multiplicities matter. And an urgent task of the moment is to explain how they matter so that we have a better understanding of the dismaying political scenes we are observing, enduring and implicated in.
Our fourth point is to identify three kinds of anger that we see as essential in shaping politics today: neoliberal disenchantment, racialized resentments, and the rage of the downtrodden and repressed. We think these kinds of anger are widespread, though they are felt differently in different contexts. Although they are not intrinsically reactionary in their political orientation, they seem better articulated in the current conjuncture by the right than by the left. Indeed, the right has been very effective at articulating anger to the forms of violence, fear, desperation and other affects and atmospherics that have surfaced as neoliberalism faulters.
Ultimately, we see angry politics as playing a decisive role in the consolidation of harder-edged forms of authoritarian populism. As the global political polarity shifts from the post-cold war period to the present, and as neoliberalism wears itself out, authoritarian regimes are surfacing, being pitted against each other, and traveling from place to place. Emancipatory alternatives appear at the moment to have been largely vanquished, or, at the very least, to have disappeared from national political scenes.
Most of the chapters gathered in this volume illustrate these dynamics, locating the roots of new angry politics in shifting global and regional capitalist political economy and in the disenchantment with, and disaffection from, neoliberalism. They also trace the multiple and complex political forces that converge to forge new toxic political alignments and outcomes. An important line of argument informing these assertions is that racialization is essential to the elaboration of right-wing populist rage and toxic politics. Don Robotham, for example, shows how this works on a global sale, as whites in the Global North lash out at the prospects, true or not, that they may no longer be able to take their global hegemonic positionality for granted, especially in the context of a rising China. This sentiment is not disconnected from the entrenched racial ideologies that inform common sense about political and economic power, a thematic that Sophie Bjork James explores in great detail in her analysis of the cultural roots of white supremacist rationality in the United States. She shows how stories about imperiled white families and communities work to shore up alliances between the religious right and white nationalists. (She also shows its fragility and the ideological limits of this rationality as the basis for forging connections between far-right groups.)
It is important also to trace the role of political elites in stoking the flames of political resentment, and in channeling rage into particular political projects and directions. Preeti Sampat and Lesley Gill provide concrete case studies of precisely these dynamics, demonstrating, in the cases of India and Colombia respectively, what happens when elites are successful in exploiting widespread racialized disillusionment. Political economic realignments and widespread repression are two important and interconnected consequences. Sampat shows how Modi in India focused the disillusionment that many people felt as India’s economy liberalized into Hindu nationalist politics. Gill shows how a far-right coalition in Colombia exploited public frustrations with a long-term guerilla insurgency and middle-class disdain for popular social movements to outflank these movements and gain political control. Taken together, these four pieces help us to understand why the anger of the dispossessed and repressed so frequently is channeled to the right. They show the kind of political work that is necessary to channeled popular resentments into nationalist, xenophobic, homophobic, sexist, and racist projects.
It is also important to emphasize anger’s multiple sources and to trace how they converge in the making of political antagonisms. John Clarke shows how the Brexit vote in Britain was multiply motivated by frustrations with politics as usual, anti-globalism anti-immigration and anti-European sentiments. Lilith Mahmud describes the multiple social and political bases of opposition to a constitutional referendum of 2016 in Italy. Some Italians opposed it out of nationalist and xenophobic fervor while others were rooted in concerns over mounting inequality and the elitism of technocratic rule. Ironically, these nuances were, much like those in the Brexit vote, politically illegible. One reason for this, Mahmud explains, was the Italian left’s propensity to label their opponents crudely as fascists. By doing this, they ironically obscure the new roots of nationalist sentiment and anti-immigrant rage.
The ability of far-right protagonists to exploit historical senses of grievance and racialized resentment is crucial to their political success in these multiply motivated political scenes, as is their capacity to invoke a public image of themselves as “strong men” who are uniquely capable of rescuing feminized nations from their enemies. Creed and Taylor use the case of Eastern Europe to show how anti-democratic and anti-immigrant populists succeed by pitting themselves against a variety of political alternatives including liberals whose post-socialist privatization schemes produced a widespread sense of resentment and political disaffection and socialists whose critique of the unequal distribution of resources has been discredited by their own political struggles and failures in the post-socialist period. Jeff Maskovsky shows how Trump exploited widespread white nationalist political sentiments and frustrations with color blindness and multiculturalism to smash the liberal racial consensus that has dominated in the United States in the post-civil rights era. And Noah Theriault shows how in the Philippines, Duterte exploited ecopolitics – specifically popular frustrations with climate-change adaptation, disaster management, and environmental enforcement – to consolidate his authoritarian rule. Taken together, these chapters point to the various ways that rightwing leaders use anger – at multiculturalism, privatization, immigration, environmental destruction, and so forth – to move politics towards illiberal and authoritarian ends.
And now finally to the promises.
The critique of unequal power relations and of new forms of authoritarianism is important, but it is not sufficient. We must consider also what might be needed to transform anger from a reactionary to an emancipatory, transforming force. In our view, the last three chapters included in this anthology are the ones that point most clearly in this direction. Carwil Bjork-James looks at the case of Bolivia, where Evo Morales came to political prominence as part of a leftist anti-globalization movement that demanded material advances and symbolic power for the formerly marginalized indigenous majority. Morales has put off his socialist and plurinational goals but Bolivia remains one of the more durable “Pink Tide” regimes in a region that is moving rapidly to the right. The politically mobilized indigenous majority, whose rage against their treatment by rightwing governments in the past is not easily dissipated, is key to Morales’ political endurance. In a discussion of populist politics in Ethiopia, Jennifer Riggin shows how political anger works against an authoritarian regime. Riggin describes a case in which public anger and protests by teachers forced the regime to roll back its unpopular ethnic educational policy. And in the final chapter in the volume, Nazia Kazi highlights the political effectiveness of the militant forms of popular pro-immigrant activism that erupted spontaneously in reaction to Trump’s “travel ban” in February 2017. In all three cases, we see the deployment of a deeply entrenched kind of anger, popularly felt or at least very familiar to a significant segment of a democratic polity or by the subjects of an authoritarian regime, and animated either spontaneously or by a charismatic leader who can remind their followers of what they have to lose.
The sense of loss in all three cases seems significant to us. The articulation of loss to anger and fear has been an essential feature in contemporary forms of reactionary politics. But loss has also been articulated to righteous and emancipatory forms of anger as well, as, for example, with radical AIDS activism in the United States and worldwide. In this movement, the sense of loss of community, health, lovers, and friends helped to motivate a radical politics of health (see, for example, Gould 2009; Susser 2011; Maskovsky 2018; see also Eng and Kazanjian 2003). As in the past, we think that the accounting of what has been lost, what remains, and what still could be lost, is crucial to the current-day pursuit of justice, equality, egalitarianism, and freedom. Durable political transformations have never relied on anger alone. It has certainly catalyzed the movements that won progressive changes across the world in the 20th century. But other affects or feelings such as joy or hope were needed to transform insurgent action into durable change. Emancipatory and transformative work may also require a defense of some aspects of liberalism despite its significant limitations.
But we should not embrace liberalism too much. In an important set of articles, Nancy Fraser (2017a, 2017b; 2019) argues that neoliberalism is not the solution to the rise of rightwing populism but the root of the problem. We could not agree more. Indeed, it is this position, our sense of the importance of anger in the enactment of xenophobic, racist and ethnonationalist forms of politics, and our concerns about growing economic inequality and the persistence of inequalities around sex and gender, that has motivated us to work collectively to put this anthology together and to use conjunctural analysis in our reading of different cases. We concur with Fraser’s comment, “The sort of change we require can only come from elsewhere, from a project that is at the very least anti-neoliberal, if not anti-capitalist” (Fraser 2017: 64). And we, like Fraser, refuse to limit our political imaginations to the depressing choice between neoliberalism and a more dangerous and exclusionary form of authoritarian rule. For Fraser, the path towards such a project is progressive populism. We see a far broader set of political possibilities, including those that are elaborated as antiracist, queer, and antisexist projects. It is essential to consider what it might take to advance durable forms of more positive, emancipatory politics and to help to create and sustain spaces of political experimentation, even in increasingly illiberal or post-political environments (Swyngedouw 2018). Keeping in mind the lessons learned from the chapters collected here, we have a sense that anger will be key to these endeavors. An angry new global order is not necessarily one sutured together through increasingly hard-edged authoritarian populism, though this is a distinct possibility. We hope that anger can be put to positive political uses.
For invaluable feedback on this Afterword, we thank Don Robotham, John Clarke, and Gerald Creed.
Eng, David L., and David Kazanjian. 2003. Loss: the politics of mourning. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Fraser, Nancy 2017a. The End of Progressive Neoliberalism. Dissent Magazine. January 2, 2017 URL:< https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/progressive-neoliberalism-reactionary-populism-nancy-fraser> (accessed May 14, 2019).
Fraser, Nancy. 2018b. From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump—and Beyond. American Affairs, Volume 1, No. 4 (Winter 2017). URL:< https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2017/11/progressive-neoliberalism-trump-beyond/> (accessed May 14, 2019).
Fraser, Nancy, and Bhaskar Sunkara. 2019. The old is dying and the new cannot be born: from progressive neoliberalism to Trump and beyond.
Gould, Deborah Bejosa. 2009. Moving politics: emotion and ACT UP's fight against AIDS. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Jeff Maskovsky. 2018. Staying Alive: AIDS Activism as Relational Poverty Politics. In V. Lawson and S. Elwood, Eds. Relational Poverty Politics. Athens, GA: U of Georgia Press, pp. 77-94.
Susser, Ida. 2011. AIDS, Sex, and Culture: Global Politics and Survival in Southern Africa. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
Swyngedouw, Erik. 2018. Promises of the political: insurgent cities in a post-political environment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.