An interview with racial justice and labor activist Bill Fletcher Jr. on the phenomenon of right-wing populism, and what it means for an anti-racist left.
BY NATASCHA UHLMANN | FEBRUARY 2, 2017
Bill Fletcher Jr has been an activist since his teen years. Upon graduating from college he went to work as a welder in a shipyard, thereby entering the labor movement. Over the years he has been active in workplace and community struggles as well as electoral campaigns. He has worked for several labor unions in addition to serving as a senior staff person in the national AFL-CIO.
Fletcher is the former president of TransAfrica Forum; a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies; an editorial board member of The Black Commentator; and in the leadership of several other projects. Fletcher is the co-author (with Peter Agard) of 'The Indispensable Ally: Black Workers and the Formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1934-1941'; the co-author (with Dr. Fernando Gapasin) of 'Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice'; and the author of 'They’re Bankrupting Us!: And Twenty Other Myths about Unions'. Fletcher is a syndicated columnist and a regular media commentator on television, radio and the Web.
He kindly took the time to expand on the phenomenon of right-wing populism, and what it means for an anti-racist left.
Natascha Uhlmann for d@w's Coop Talk: Bill, what is right-wing populism? How does it emerge?
Bill Fletcher Jr: Right-wing populism is the "herpes of capitalism." It is a political movement that “revolts against the future.” It is “counter-progressive.” It attempts to reverse the gains of progressive political and social movements. It emerges in a moment when the system is under stress, frequently for economic reasons, and when there is a legitimacy crisis for the State. Right-wing populism focuses on creating an "Other" who is opposed to the interests of the "people." This is frequently cast in racial, ethnic and/or religious overtones.
You note that right-wing populism in America dates at least as far back as the 1850s; this is clearly not a new phenomenon. How does it manage to recur despite massive demographic shifts and social changes?
Because it is not an ideology that is rooted in a particular political party or organization. It is a phenomenon that emerges in reaction to stress but it is rooted, at least in the case of the USA, in a particular racial interpretation of the "American Dream." As Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons note in their must-read book 'Right Wing Populism in America', you need to understand the phenomenon in the context of the construction of the USA as a racial settler state where a specific population identified itself as the legitimate population, i.e., "the people." In the 19th century, this process evolved under President Andrew Jackson who posed as the champion of the average (white male) person against various enemies, including wealthy elites. But he also led the genocidal charge against Native Americans (and defended slavery) in the interest of westward expansion, allegedly in the interest of the common (white male) person. It is important to appreciate that right-wing populism is NOT a coherent ideology with a set of specific principles and a program. It is a political tendency/movement that can be identified when it surfaces.
How is it that we’ve seen populist rhetoric emerge on both the left and the right? How can movements with ostensibly similar goals in theory (workplace empowerment, economic security) reach such different conclusions about how to get there and what people are legitimate?
Populism is a movement that identifies a struggle between "the People" vs. the "elite." Populism then breaks down into various camps, including right-wing populism, conservative populism, but also variations on left populism. In some ways one can understand the distinction by looking at who specific individuals or movements classify as "the People," as well as how enemies or opponents are classified. In Rwanda in 1994, for instance, the Hutu regime demonized the Tutsi minority as "cockroaches" that needed to be squashed in order to remove the burden from the "People," i.e., from the Hutus. In that sense it important to remember that right-wing populism contains a genocidal element and that within right-wing populism one can generally find a fascist current. Left and Right populism can identify the same or similar problem yet come up with different solutions. One of the dangers in right-wing populism is that it frequently uses the language of the Left, thereby influencing the base of left and progressive movements, at least confusing them.
Where should the focus of anti-racist activists be? How can we work to build alternatives to the appeal of right-populism?
In order to defeat right-wing populism one must confront matters of race and capitalism. In other words, the grievances that masses of people have with capitalism have to be identified as not the result of a particular religious, racial or ethnic group, but must be linked to the system itself. It is also critical that the gender aspect of right-wing populism be identified. Right-wing populism, in all of its manifestations, is highly misogynist and seeks the return to a world that never existed, except in myth. Central to that world is the subordination of women to the authoritarian domination of men. This is one of the reasons that the misogynist attacks by Trump on Clinton needed an active response. The issue was not Clinton; the issue was that she was a woman and Trump was, in effect, asserting that a woman could not and should not lead. But you cannot stop there, which is why both anti-racism and anti-sexism are insufficient in order to stop right-wing populism. One must have a critique of capitalism and be prepared to offer radical solutions that resonate with masses of people. Simply suggesting that the status quo is better than the dystopia envisioned by the right-wing populists is insufficient.
You note that the right is not monolithic, but rather multi-tendency. What does this mean for progressive organizing?
It means that within the Right there are different tendencies that have different objectives and visions. Neofascists, for instance, wish an end to political democracy. They wish to radically reconstruct society in order to bring forth a new version of capitalism, frequently by eliminating certain populations. There are other currents within the Right that are conservative but are not prepared to do away with democratic institutions. What this can mean is that there are wedges that sometimes can be driven between different tendencies. It also means that there are certain forces on the Right, e.g., the neofascists, that have no interest in non-violence and are prepared to take swift action against opponents. There are no grounds for compromise with the neofascists.
Natascha Uhlmann is an activist from Sonora, Mexico with the Nos Faltan 43 movement. Follow her on Twitter: @nataschaelena