The rise of anti-immigrant and anti-democratic parties in Europe, along with the election of Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK, have given rise to widespread use of the term “populism,” which loosely signifies a politics, language or logic that organizes the masses against the elites. In this post I want to identify three paradoxes in this usage and then show how the Freudian tradition of mass psychology can help resolve them.

Paradox one: Populism is generally described as irrational, emotional, intolerant of opposing viewpoints, and so forth, yet the main populist insight, namely that the system is rigged against the ordinary person, is correct. On the main question, in other words, populism is far more rational than the putatively rational dominant liberal discourse — pragmatism, austerity, TINA (“There is no alternative”) market determinism, supply side economics, American exceptionalism, and the like. How can this be explained?

Paradox two: The main populist idea, namely that wealth and power has been monopolized by a minority, is essentially a left-wing idea. After all, it was Marx who insisted that the whole of previous history was the history of class struggle and that modern history is the struggle between capitalists and workers. However, while left-wing populism exists — the term is used for Bernie Sanders, Syriza and some leaders of Podemos use it about Podemos — populism generally claims to transcend the distinction between left and right and in practice, as with its frequent demagogues and simplified slogans, generally tends toward the right. How can this be explained?

Paradox three: Populism is a liquefying, dissolving discourse, which tries to wipe out differences and assimilate as many as possible to “the people.” This is why Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau, for example, recommends it as an alternative to class essentialism. However, this unifying, assimilating, incorporating discourse invariably creates new borders or differences — a wall against Mexico, for example. How can this be explained?

To see how Freudianism speaks to these three questions, let us begin by situating the Freudian approach to politics historically. Historian Carl Schorske noted that mid-nineteenth-century Austrian liberals erected a statue of Athena in front of the Parliament in Vienna to symbolize the ideal of the rational individual that self-government required. In the late nineteenth century, however, the masses entered the political process in such forms as crowds, working class strikes, mass demonstrations, mass or celebrity culture, and a new, “populist” — often anti-Semitic — politics. In 1895 a police psychologist, Gustave Le Bon, wrote The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind to show how credulous crowds were, how easily rumors, false prophets, and irrational fears or passions misled the masses. The equation of the lower classes with irrationality is a basic trope of political theory, both ancient and modern, but with the idea of the crowd or mass we have a crucial forerunner of today’s idea of populism.

Freud began his own book on crowd or mass psychology in 1919 by quoting Le Bon approvingly, but added two new elements. The first was the role of the leader or father figure. Freud’s core idea was that a crowd or group forms when its members substitute the image of a leader for their own individual egos or ego ideals. As a result, each member of a crowd comes to have the same ego ideal, which allows the members to identify with one another. Identification is the mechanism that produces a crowd.

Identification, in Freudian theory, is also the earliest tie with another person. This gives us the second distinctive characteristic of the Freudian theory of crowds, the idea of regression. While Le Bon viewed crowds as expressions of degeneration, decadence, or decline, regression simply referred to the backward direction of mental activity, when our controls are relaxed, and did not necessarily imply a moral lapse or pathology. In a crowd, then, we revert to earlier states of mind or primitive identifications. Crowds join dreams and free association as a royal road to the unconscious. How can this approach help resolve our three paradoxes?

We can resolve our first paradox by noting that regression, especially as fostered by a leader, brings preconscious material into consciousness, albeit in a confused and disordered fashion. In particular, the realization that one is oppressed, especially in a system that constantly reinforces the idea of universal equality and fairness, can easily remain unspoken and even un-thought. Both Sanders and Trump facilitated group processes that brought this idea into consciousness, although in Trump’s case this was accompanied by considerably more affect, especially anger. This latter observation brings us to the resolution of our second paradox, the rightward bias of mass psychology.

In bringing into politics the unconscious feelings, thoughts and especially resentments of the masses, both left and right are also awakening primitive longings for authority and protection — indeed, anyone who has participated in mass crowd experiences knows how frightening the crowd can suddenly become. How leaders or parties (the “modern prince” according to Gramsci) deal with these longings illuminates the difference between left and right. The left is an internal critique of the liberal ideal of the individual, whereas the right is a rejection of liberalism. This leads to two different approaches to mass psychology. The left has, or at least should, stand for group or mass organizations that strengthen the ability of the individual ego to resist regressive group pressures; the right stands for conformity to the group and its leader and, at times, to the acting out of primitive fantasies and wishes. The left’s task is much harder in that it needs to resist the crowd pressures that call it into being. In doing so it also rejects the liberal reduction of reason to instrumental rationality and “pragmatism” and thereby to remain genuinely true to the spirit of Athena. That is why nineteenth-century socialists thought that socialism could only be established in developed liberal societies.

Finally, let us consider the third paradox. The crowd experience dissolves differences and promotes what Kristin Ross has called “dis-identification,” namely the dissolution of the psychological underpinnings of the social order, as reflected in such distinctions as rich/poor, male/female, young/old and so forth. In this regard the modern crowd or mass can be compared to the medieval carnival or the ancient Eleusinian mysteries. But carnival and ancient mysteries were contained rituals that sought to defuse, challenge and reinscribe an original hierarchical order. By contrast, in the context of the capitalist system, which denies that there is any underlying hierarchy, the political crowd generally does not play a conservative role. On the contrary, the oceanic feeling or boundlessness generated in a crowd produces an unconscious wish for limits and borders. This not only helps explain how globalization (which itself is in part a crowd phenomenon) helps generate Brexit and Trump. The way the mass crowd experiences of the New Left, interpreted at the time through philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s analysis of primary narcissism — i.e., primitive identification — gave way to an intense commitment to identity politics, above all in the form of feminism and gay liberation, in the period between 1968 and 1972 is another example of this phenomenon.

“Populism,” then, in the form of the modern crowd or mass needs to be understood as an eruption of unconscious forces into a carefully calibrated ideological mechanism, typified by the ever-more fragile statue of Athena. With this in mind, we can begin to contextualize the term as it is used today. It is the updated version of Le Bon’s crowd, adjusted for the post-World War Two moment, when it was used to sustain US liberal hegemony in the global system. Like “totalitarianism,” the concept was adopted in order to marginalize the left by equating it to fascism and to maintain the idea that there was no alternative to a market-based liberalism.

The US, a nation of property-holders and slaves, was perfectly situated for its Cold War role as the world’s promoter of this vision. In the US, mass parties had been created in the 1830s and ’40s in order to keep so-called “moral” issues — which is to say, slavery — out of politics, in other words to foster pragmatic compromises among enlightened, property-owning elites. The US Populist Party of the 1880s and ’90s should not be considered populist in the current sense, even though it fostered the use of the term. Rather, the Populist Party was cast as “populist” — i.e., ignorant, anti-Semitic, racist — by Richard Hofstadter and other cold war liberals in the 1940s and 50s as a way of condemning McCarthyism and Communism. The alternative to populism was the politics of growth, the “vital center” and so-called pluralism — i.e., the rule of capital. This vision was accepted in post-World War Two Europe, because the forces described by Le Bon, and also observed by Freud, had given rise to fascism and communism. The derogatory connotations of populism were applied not only to communism, but also to democratic socialism (e.g. Allende), to middle-class revolutions such as those led by Peron and Nasser, and to nationalism insofar as it threatened imperialist controls. In the process of the “anti-populist” Cold War the meaning of liberalism shifted. The statue of Athena, which had signified wisdom, turned into a piggy bank. When we understand this, we can also see that the current over-usage of the term reflects the fact that liberal hegemony is being threatened.

This post was originally published in History Workshop Online on January 9, 2017; it is reprinted here by permission of the author and HWO.