Detail of still from Cristina Lucas's video La liberté raisonnée, 2009, 4 minutes, 29 seconds,. Courtesy Akademie der Künste der Welt, Cologne. 

The people are a crew of square-jawed construction workers swilling beers at the end of a long day, pressing chilled bottles against their greasy foreheads, pumping quarters into the jukebox. The people are a band of protesters of all colors and creeds, shouting in fury or jubilation, hoisting curled sheets of poster board scrawled with block letters. The people are Midwestern women in raggedy dresses who have fled from drought to California, whose young faces have been made leathery by sunlight and hardship, who regard the lens of Dorothea Lange’s camera. The people are a chiaroscuro of white faces, ghoulish grins, clamped lips, and raised arms illuminated by flames—whether of crosses a century ago or tiki torches last year. 

The people are brandishing the stars and stripes, the hammer and sickle, the German Wirmer flag. The people are as photographed upon arrival at Ellis Island at the turn of the century by Augustus Sherman, the chief registry clerk: Russian men with sheathed ceremonial daggers, Dutch children sporting wooden clogs, and Guadeloupean woman in floral dresses. The people are account managers in polo shirts, grilling burgers in the exurbs, singing along to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”; they are miners wearing sooty overalls, gripping blunt instruments, mouthing the words to the 1931 union anthem “Which Side Are You On?”; they are Dallas Cowboys fans packed into AT&T Stadium, roaring their approval as Hank Williams Jr. howls, “Are you ready for some football?”

These are the people as I believe, want, and fear them to be; as I have seen them on the news and at bars, in magazines and at marches. But even as I summon these images, I know that the people are not a medley of individuals and groups that happen to be bound by the same borders and laws, and whose constitutive differences can be resolved through combination. I know that the people is singular and not plural. I know that the people means “the real people,” in Donald Trump’s parlance—the answer to the question of who can (and cannot) symbolize the nation.

The people are the protagonists of populism, which in various incarnations is challenging or harnessing power around the world. They have been sidelined by elitists, globalists, insiders, so-called experts, and agents of the deep state, not to mention welfare queens and indolent immigrants who nonetheless are taking all the jobs. They are the salt of the earth, the average Joe, and they will be overcome by goodwill for all of humanity if they get decent jobs and a sense of control over their own lives. Yet they are also the data culled from opinion polls, election returns, focus groups, credit reports, Facebook posts, and psychographic research; they are the product, just like us.

 

Which Way the Wind Blows

To me, observing the surge of populism in the past several years has been like watching J. K. Rowling declare that the world of Harry Potter is actually our own, then convince entire populations to select roles and devote themselves to fighting the Dark Lord. Rather than listen and respond to citizens, populists deploy a fiction and persuade followers to identify with the characters. They offer a fixed impression of the people; symbolic and not political representation. This might seem ridiculous in a society where minds and family trees are always changing, much less a pluralist democracy. After all, the point of that political project is flux, discord, and successive claims by those who have been marginalized that they ought to be represented. But populists are set on ending those claims, which they see as providing a cover for unaccountable technocrats, and recovering some organic unity. So they scoff at public opinion, dismiss elections and polls, and insist that they channel the will of the people. “I am your voice,” announced Trump, whose compass came from crowds and not Zogby or Quinnipiac, after receiving his nomination.

The typical response to populists is to propose that we understand and compete with them. We can point out that the people do not exist apart from how they are pictured, voiced, and measured. We can decry all of the messages that foster resentment and recognition by marking those who belong and those who are alien. But what is needed is a formidable opposition to the teams of demagogues, disinformation campaigners, dark-money agents, signal-boosting bots, analytics experts, on-air puppets, and viral-video mavens—such as artists like Édouard Manet, Sergei Eisenstein, and Emory Douglas, all of whom sought to conjure new societies by granting a form to their members.

Most often, these kinds of observations lead to opinion columns and not alternatives. Not so in the work of the Slovakian artist Tomáš Rafa, who for nearly a decade has been scrutinizing the disenchanted Europeans converted by demagogues into powerful masses, primed to fill streets and voting booths, as well as those who have mobilized against them. A selection of his documentary videos were shown at MoMA PS1 in New York this summer as part of his solo exhibition “New Nationalisms,” and are viewable on his website, which hosts scores of dispatches from majestic European capitals that have been infested with neofascists.

The titles of Rafa’s works are descriptive (place, date, actors) and their content is fairly monotonous: skinheads, clad in military vests and T-shirts advertising bands like Nord Division and Power of Thor, march and shout, denounce immigrants and refugees, sip coffees and chat, launch projectiles at police and tackle leftist foes. At MoMA PS1, several videos, playing simultaneously on six monitors in a single gallery, formed a cacophonous and gut-wrenching soundtrack to Europe’s dissolution. Rafa is typically immersed in the action yet unnoticed by the combatants, whose bodies occasionally seem to occupy the same space as his own. Like an appendage to the crowds, his camera loiters, scrambles, surges, blockades, and flees. Rafa abstains from commentary, knits together long shots, uses whichever angles are feasible; the drama of shoving matches and tear gas barrages seems only to punctuate the repetitiveness of the rallies.

Rafa’s work was described by the museum as being in the cinéma vérité tradition, and one video, the omnibus New Nationalisms in the Heart of Europe (2012–17), was projected on a ten-foot-high screen before rows of theater seats—as if viewers were enjoying a Jean Rouch revival, not a numbing compendium of weaponized ignorance. To me, though, the most appropriate portal for Rafa’s work is not an art institution but his website, which organizes the videos by country and presents him less as an artist than as a roving documentarian (and the European equivalent of the Southern Poverty Law Center). Clicking from page to page provides a visceral sense of a continent being consumed by resentment for the guardians of the status quo, as well as the poverty of the populist imagination. 

What do the disaffected white men in thrall to telegenic xenophobes look forward to—besides spreading animus and cathartic violence? They may now be able to recognize each other as the legitimate members of their nations, and coordinate wardrobes accordingly. But instead of a livelihood, they have slogans: Poland for Poles! Hungary for Hungarians! And instead of a future, they have prelapsarian idylls. Rafa captures one in Swiss National Day in Rütli (2011): on a picturesque hilltop, locals celebrate the eponymous twenty-year-old holiday by picnicking, singing patriotic songs, and reenacting the oath that established the Swiss as “a single people” in the fourteenth century. The scene might seem heavenly to those who dream of white children frolicking in Alpine meadows or on antebellum plantations, and alarming to those of us who appreciate that we are products of the incessant circulation of people and goods.

Of course, the people evaporate in a realm of globe-trotting capitalists and artists, lifelong migrants with multiple allegiances and refugees who are allowed none. While Rafa’s videos convey the fierce resistance to such a world, they also include evidence of empathy and solidarity: antifascist demonstrators form human chains and endure the abuse of skinheads as well as police. Activists sledgehammer barriers erected between Roma settlements and adjacent neighborhoods, and work with residents to turn forbidding walls into colorful murals. Drivers honk and offer a parcel of food to Syrian families as they trudge along the road from Greece to Hungary to Germany. German volunteers flock to train stations to greet and aid refugees.

These scenes are reassuring: decency might win the day! But they also evoke the future toward which we are drifting, as climate change shifts populations and alters or eradicates borders. However ghastly the circumstances that have brought them together, the antifascists, refugees, volunteers, and Roma offer an alternative to the people, not just a better version. As they shake chain-link fences and recite their stories for news cameras, the Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan exiles remind us of our common responsibility as well as the identities that hundreds of millions will be forced to shed and adopt. The nationalists and demagogues can bank on the fantasy of time travel, but they cannot chart the future any more than they can control the weather.

 

Voix du peuple

The drive to picture—and, in the process, either freeze or reinvent—the people seems strongest when they are on the verge of fragmentation. In 1793, as the French Revolution devolved into purges and dictatorship, the painter Jacques-Louis David wondered how to represent the people who were supposedly the source and beneficiary of the new order. But the people were peasants, soldiers, bakers, scientists; they were the vanguard and the benighted masses, heroes and victims; they were iconoclasts and devotees of saints and angels. And they were being redefined as factions won and lost power, as values were enshrined and rejected. David proposed a bronze monument made from liquefied cannonballs fired by the monarchy, to be erected on the Pont Neuf, where an equestrian statue of King Henry IV loomed.1  He envisioned the people as a giant with a Herculean club in one hand and symbols of equality and liberty in the other, feet planted on the shards of figures of kings, which had been ripped from Notre Dame Cathedral. In case of any confusion, the character of the people was further clarified by the inscription of “light” on the giant’s forehead, “nature” and “truth” on his chest, “strength” and “courage” on his arms—and by reproductions of the Constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, as well as references to superstitions that had been eclipsed by reason.

Despite David’s diligence—and status as a member of the Committee of General Security—his statue was never erected. Even at the time, it might have seemed less like a rousing embodiment of the people than an illustration in a medical textbook, a cadaver covered with informative labels. The French experimented with various symbols of popular sovereignty—the Phrygian cap, Hercules, a crowned youth—but never settled on one. Instead, at demonstrations, they displayed revolutionary fervor by hoisting flags with quotes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract.

Half a century later, in 1848, France was again upended, this time by the ousting of King Louis Philippe and the ensuing battles between shopkeepers and landlords, manual laborers and factory owners, liberals and monarchists, gun-toting workers and uniformed soldiers. The vision of all of France marching under a single banner toward enlightenment was tarnished, as was the notion of millions of individuals being merged through laws, theories, and statues. Nonetheless, the symbols of the people remained potent, especially to Gustave Courbet and his fellow Realists. They strove not only to connect with the commoner but to become common, by adopting the clothes, hardships, and mind-sets of the farmer and laborer. “In our oh-so-civilized society it is necessary for me to lead the life of a savage; I must free myself even from governments,” Courbet announced in 1850. “My sympathies are with the people, I must speak to them directly, take my science from them, and they must provide me with a living.”2

As T.J. Clark observes in Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (1973), the painter rejected the comforts of bourgeois life (and beliefs) to become a bohemian, a penurious outcast. Whereas David made use of a crisis to advance a facile template for the transformation of the citizenry, Courbet promoted extant (if evolving) archetypes in order to skewer elites and undermine their pretensions. However ridiculous his project of assimilation, Courbet succeeded in creating true likenesses of the people—such as A Burial at Ornans (1849–50), the magisterial but ambivalent portrait, at the scale of a history painting, of middle-class mourners—and not just demographic profiles. Courbet might not have convinced industrialists to become paupers, but, according to Clark, his depictions of fellow bohemians, peasants, and urbanites amount to a feedback loop, with the painter molding his Parisian audience and vice versa. (Courbet’s audience was a source of subjects, styles, opinions, and paychecks; his provincial scenes have as much to do with the attitudes and interpretations of Parisian salon habitués as the lives of farmers.) More remarkable, however, is Courbet’s ability to sustain, if only for a brief period, a “complex dialogue of artist, public, and the ‘ensemble of men and things,’ ” which is how the painter spoke of nature. Clark contrasts the audience, which is present before a painting, to the public, which is like the unconscious; the public forges our thoughts and expressions but has no stable form, being materialized only through the imagination of the artist.

 

Who is the 99%

In What Is Populism? (2016), Jan-Werner Müller asserts that the popular will can never truly be gauged. Surveys can be conducted and votes can be counted, but any greater sense of the nature of the people is illusory. Nevertheless, since Courbet retired his brushes, a panoply of professionals have claimed to conjure (and uncover the preferences of) the people. The imagination of the artist has been surpassed by the techniques of the behavioral economist, filmmaker, advertiser, pollster, lobbyist, data scientist, and social media analyst. And politicians have become mediums through which messages are tested and refined, demographics are established and tweaked.3   

Müller credits Ronald Reagan with manipulating broadcasters in order to achieve “proximity to the people.” The Hollywood actor’s transformation of the presidency into a television program is chronicled in Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez’s The Reagan Show (2017), a film composed entirely of footage shot by the White House and news crews. After being dismissed as an “amiable dunce” by the Washington establishment, Reagan pressed the networks to transmit the images he had constructed, the persona he had crafted: a dignified everyman, a vessel for the people, and the leader of a battle between Western civilization and the Evil Empire. Reagan treated the people as loyal viewers as well as protagonists in the plot. “You . . . are part of the conflict,” Reagan solemnly says to the camera.4

Reagan’s performances are echoed most entertainingly in “Aló Presidente,” the late Hugo Chávez’s marathon talk show, and most desultorily in Trump’s 140-character barrages. A Turkish spin-off stars Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the country’s headman-for-life, whose interests include mass purges, jailing journalists, and sermonizing before thousands of adoring fans. Erdoğan’s catchphrase—aimed at critics but directed to a throng of friendly cameras, which reliably amplify his message—is: “We are the people, who are you?!?”

For two decades, Erdoğan vowed to depose the condescending cosmopolitans in Istanbul and elevate the humble, religious folk of the Anatolian heartland. But only since the failed coup in 2016—which enabled him to vanquish the opposition, criminalize the Kurds, and jail or banish tens of thousands who might challenge (or mildly object to) his despotism—has Erdoğan seemed likely to redefine the nation. Ferhat Özgür, a Turkish artist, seeks to understand the relationship between the leader and the people in Conquest (2016), a two-channel video that documents a massive rally of Erdoğan supporters at a stadium in Istanbul. Özgür wanders around the stadium in advance of the rally and records young men standing and chatting in the sunshine, children playing soccer in unkempt lots, families picnicking in folding chairs. These individuals are on the brink of being transformed into the people: not only in the act of convening, chanting, and waving signs, but in the videos and photographs that will subsequently appear online and in newspapers—evidence that the people are real and Erdoğan is their instrument. 

Özgür’s work was exhibited this fall at Cologne’s Akademie der Künste der Welt as part of “Enigmatic Majorities,” an exhibition devoted to the fabrication of images of the people, and the fabrication of the people through images. We are always being confronted with claims from populists that they speak for the majority, and efforts by self-proclaimed majorities to turn the state into the guardian of their privileges. But, the exhibition suggested, we hardly know who or what the people are—or if they exist apart from representations. In Conquest, as the crowd assembles on one screen,  the other shows Özgür editing footage on his computer, casually splicing together shots of individuals in different settings and excising others, altering the scene in order to achieve a particular effect on the viewer—who might confuse the artifice for reality, and even turn the former into the latter.

Özgür deflates the images of cheering assemblies that are routinely employed by populists, and implies that Erdoğan’s success hinges on the concoction of a univocal mass out of disparate fragments. But the artist does not doubt the enthusiasm of Erdoğan’s followers. The rally, which takes place on the anniversary of the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, encourages the attendees (and those watching at home) to understand themselves as players in another spectacular triumph, fulfilling their historic destiny. In Özgür’s video, shots of attendees are interspersed with footage taken from the Turkish blockbuster Conquest 1453 (2012), which glorifies the Ottoman empire and Sultan Mehmet II’s siege while expunging non-Turks from his army. (Imagine a blatantly jingoistic 300 with low-budget graphics, partly funded by Erdoğan’s allies in the Istanbul city government.) The people filmed by Özgür are noticeably normal and nonchalant: they sit, converse, sip tea, exhibit mild amusement; they wear the same T-shirts and sneakers sold at every mall in the world. Yet they are part of a grand campaign to transform the national consciousness by casting ordinary Turks as the protagonists of an epic drama. 

In his sculpture, David planned to define the people not by their age-old allegiances but by their collective break from the past and by the world they were beginning to construct. Remarkably, the current breed of populists, including Erdoğan and his propagandists, make no effort to describe a future in which the people are anything other (or greater) than what they were in a figment of bygone decades or centuries.

Even if he disdains retrograde nationalism, insipid period dramas, and Erdoğan’s rule, an artist like Özgür, sitting at his computer and sequencing his footage, might envy the productive relationship between representation and reality on view in Conquest. “Enigmatic Majorities” raised the question of whether artists might not only expose the flimsiness of the made-for-YouTube masses but forge an alternative, even turn populism into a force for good. But the six videos on view mostly eschew this possibility. Especially disenchanting was Cristina Lucas’s La liberté raisonnée (2009), a slow-motion reenactment of the scene from Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830): another allegorical pileup, with the bare-chested republican goddess charging past corpses, raising the tricolor, backed by a proletarian cadre. The painting, which celebrates the toppling of one king in favor of his cousin, caused exhilaration in some quarters and condemnation in others. One newspaper favorably contrasted the “rude and calloused hands” of Delacroix’s workers with antiseptic portraits of pampered royals, and advised the new king to mind the newfound power of this class. But another noted, “The working people of Paris is not the people, it is only, like the artist, the shopkeepers, etc., a part of the people.”5

In Lucas’s video, the idealistic depiction of the people appears as not only a category error but an illusion: after the iconic instant, the workers’ expressions gradually morph from resolute to menacing, and Liberty goes from leading to fleeing. She soon stumbles to the ground. The people assail her with fists and blades until she is still, then one raises a musket to finish her off.

 

Obey Everyone

As the shock and devastation of World War I were subsumed by the Great Depression, movements against democracy and in favor of authoritarianism attracted millions in Europe and the United States. Among them were the Ku Klux Klan, which mimicked Hitler and Mussolini, and Father Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice, one of many grassroots groups that fought both corporate power and Communism. Bolstered by the Hearst media empire, which railed against the New Deal, they trafficked in images that defined the people as white, Christian, patriotic, and patriarchal—and foes of conniving foreigners, black men, brainwashed Communists, and the loose women who pine after them. In The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1996), Michael Denning describes how the left responded to this “explosion of discordant ‘populisms’” by appealing less to workers and more to the people. The popular front, a broad multiracial coalition that was linked but not subservient to the Communist Party, remained rooted in organized labor and focused on harnessing the means of production. But many artists and writers turned from Marxist parables to stories of and for regular Americans—dignified, courageous, and plain figures who typically were not oppressed so much as forgotten. 

Denning observes that the works of John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, and Dorothea Lange were not blueprints for a new society but efforts to address a “crisis of representation” that stemmed from the sudden loss of faith in institutions and authorities and that implicated art as well as politics. In Kenneth Burke’s 1935 address to the American Writers’ Congress, the critic spoke of the people as a rhetorical device: “The symbol I should plead for, as more basic, more of an ideal incentive, than that of the worker, is that of ‘the people.’”6  Many kept faith with Soviet communism and the iconography of hoisted fists clenching hammers and muscular bodies pressed against machines, which presented the worker not as a heartwarming symbol but as the basis for a particular political program. In contrast, Burke’s preferred device could be effective in rallying support for New Deal programs to aid migrants and construction workers or to paper over divisions having to do with race, class, and gender in order to achieve a sentimental and simplistic portrayal of the “common man”—which is the role played by Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe (1941), Frank Capra’s film about a homeless man who is paid by a reporter to personify the disenfranchised. This matinee style of populism was parroted by Franklin Roosevelt in his fireside chats, as he diluted the politics of the Congress of Industrial Organizations into vows to fight for “the little man as well as the big man.” 

In the past few years, a spate of books—as well as magazine issues, think-tank reports, exhibitions, and conferences—have grappled with the rise of populism, and many have begged for the creation of kinder, gentler versions to sap the support of Erdoğan, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Rodrigo Duterte, Narendra Modi, and so on.7  They have also suggested that artists and writers enlist in the production of the people, whether in the mode of John Dos Passos or that of Capra, so that we might have our own Roosevelt. Which raises the question of what we owe to the novels and paintings of the interwar period—most of which have long been deaccessioned or consigned to storage—for Roosevelt’s accomplishments. 

Similarly, we might now ask what we owe to Shepard Fairey for the Affordable Care Act. Fairey, a high priest of street art, went from plastering bathroom stalls with Obey Giant stickers in the 1990s to creating the ubiquitous Hope poster, the superlative image of the Obama era, especially in retrospect. The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl hailed Hope as “epic poetry in an everyday tongue,"8  but to me the portrait seemed like the output of a viral-marketing firm charged with compressing a candidate into a religious icon. What was the effect besides the worshippers being satisfied and the image entering the meme hall of fame? 

In January 2017, Fairey debuted “We the People,” a series of posters made for protests. The designs feature declarations of dignity and resilience alongside images of embattled minorities: an attractive Latina with a rose in her hair and wearing a T-shirt with a pre-Columbian eagle; a black youth with impressive dreadlocks and a stern expression; a Muslim woman with gleaming lipstick and an American flag covering her head. These Obama-esque portraits turn minorities into PBS cartoons, and infect pluralism with the rhetoric of populism. An ultimate national identity comprises numerous subordinate, generic identities. And even as Fairey claims to stand and speak for the people, he sends a message, via poster-toting protesters, to red-state living rooms: If you don’t agree with my opinion on police violence and immigration, then you reject this innocent muslim woman and wholesome Latina as American—and so I reject you as American. 

Fairey communicates with slogans, visual clichés, and advertising vocabularies, and he values the circulation and impact of the image rather than its complexity or preciousness. Thirty years ago, his kind of work might have been confined to the streets, or at least to magazines and books devoted to graffiti artists and those who party with them. Respectable institutions would have sneezed at “We the People.” But now Fairey is showing at major museums around the world, creating monumental public murals, and publishing ten-pound monographs, as are other members of the street-art pantheon, like Banksy and JR. As the critic Julian Stallabrass observes, the distaste for “populist art” has subsided as galleries, fairs, auction houses, biennials, and luxe museums have proliferated around the world, whether to satisfy egos or gentrification plans.9  Or, at least, a small number of artists with bankable personas and diffusion-ready imagery have become global brands, and museums have seized on popular tastes. 

Stallabrass equates the rise of populism with the success of artists who acknowledge that they are producing commodities, happily seek publicity, scorn critics, and encourage audiences to engage with—even download and reproduce—their works. The anxiety about museums being overrun by graffiti, Björk videos, and Rain Rooms has to do with the valorization of ambiguity and aura, and, according to Stallabrass, is connected to the allergy to Trump and Le Pen. “The political elite condemn populist movements for their lack of expertise, and their belief that complex problems will yield to simple solutions,” he writes.

 

We'll Marry Our Fortunes Together

Why complain about the elites who are mystified by the populists who complain about the elites? Either for the joy of hate-reading Thomas Friedman or for the lack of anything good to say about the current crop of populists, who are more or less united in their distaste for democracy and pluralism. We might like for artists to generate images that bring the constituency for a progressive savior into view, and so into being. But who can fault the likes of Özgür and Lucas for fearing the prospect of political debate being reduced to clashes between progressive and regressive brands of populism? Who can blame them for fixating on all the toxic representations of the people rather than holing up in their studios and concocting alternatives that are unlikely to travel beyond galleries, museums, and filter bubbles?

And what about Bernie Sanders? As Müller observes, countless journalists and pundits have called him a populist because he attacks Wall Street and acts like a mouthpiece for “working Americans.” But this only signals a failure to properly understand the political phenomenon. Müller’s book-length essay explains why the label of populism is applied whenever a politician amplifies the despair of citizens who believe that the economy is rigged and their voices are discounted, whenever a politician proposes to use a wrecking ball instead of spackle.

According to Müller, populism has some basic characteristics: antipathy for elites, opposition to pluralism, suspicion of institutions, aversion to debate, skepticism of elections, zeal for suppressing dissent, and reliance on patronage. He asserts that populism is a product of the failures of global capitalism and the shortcomings of liberal democracies that no longer seem accountable to citizens. While the frustration of being asked every few years to pull the lever for Coke or Pepsi is nearly universal, Müller singles out the handmaids of European integration for fetishizing the rule of law, which is the mechanism for merging markets, and hardly paying attention to the well-being of democracy in member nations. To hundreds of millions of Europeans, the continent’s brand of liberalism now means little more than the valorization of free trade and whatever follows; Viktor Orbán, the cruel and combative Hungarian prime minister, even boasts of establishing an “illiberal state,” with Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a model.

Of course, genuine fans of unfettered capitalism now tend to reveal themselves only when ensconced in favorable environments, like Davos and Silicon Valley and the Fox Business newsroom, and surrounded by members of their own species. Even Fast Company, the self-proclaimed bastion of the new economy, recently penetrated my feed with “Are You Ready to Consider that Capitalism Is the Real Problem?” (A prefatory sentence assured readers that the article reflects the views of the author and “not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.”) Likewise, the ideological spectrum is now crammed with politicians who pit the people against a nefarious establishment—which is composed of rootless cosmopolitans, bearers of “New York values,” “sick” and “dishonest” members of the “lamestream media,” hook-nosed financiers, and other stand-ins for the Elders of Zion. But, as John B. Judis observes in The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (2016), only right-wingers charge elites with abandoning the majority for those who are marginalized, impoverished, and otherwise seen as sapping society of vitality (and funds). In central Europe, populists simultaneously assail the Roma and the bureaucrats; the Hungarians even have a term that conflates the crimes of “gypsies” and politicians, as if they’re part of the same cabal. Trump has followed the example of his idol, Andrew Jackson, who derided aristocrats as fiercely as slaves and Native Americans—especially during Trump’s birther phase, when he painted Barack Obama as the paragon of globalism and parasitism.

Despite distinguishing between right and left, Judis dismisses taxonomy. He argues that populism is a “political logic” that is available to all; the definition of the people or the establishment might vary dramatically, so long as they’re in conflict. Rather than dwell on the novelty of our epoch, he recalls the nineteenth-century People’s Party denouncing government paternalism, creeping plutocracy, and the greed of bankers. And he identifies Sanders, as well as Trump, as an inheritor of this tradition, because he “assumes a basic antagonism between the people and an elite.”

Perhaps Sanders is misguided and the antagonism is not “basic,” but merely a predictable consequence of much of the population having been ignored by politicians, forsaken by the law, priced out of higher education, etc.—and forced to spend most waking hours on hard and menial work, so that their children can do slightly worse. Even so, Sanders, in his presidential campaign, balanced empirical and emotional appeals, and never suggested that vulture capitalists be hanged by their neckties. His most notorious advertisement, the saccharine “America” video, practically parodies inclusivity. Baristas, farmers, office workers, and parents gaze kindly and intently at one another as the eponymous Simon & Garfunkel song, a cornerstone of boomer nostalgia, swells. The mundane and wordless scenes give way to supporters and volunteers cheering Sanders, who appears among the people, or onstage but at a distance, from an odd angle, never like an authority (or president). The only kinds of American not represented are those who wear Rolexes and bespoke suits. Everyone, especially Sanders, is looking for America; their efforts, as well as their visions of the country, merge in the campaign, which turns “they” into “we.” 

In comparison, the English director Ken Loach’s spot for Jeremy Corbyn, which circulated in the days before his surprisingly respectable defeat in this summer’s British election, evokes a hostage video. A succession of unsmiling citizens tell the camera what “we know” about the value created by workers and the obscenity of inequality. “We’ve had enough,” they announce, before issuing a litany of demands. Even handsome professionals with starched oxford shirts and expensive haircuts condemn bankers; even an endearing teenage girl grits her teeth as she relays her wish to achieve her full potential. Loach begins and ends with a slow pan across a crowd of Brits who are standing as if at a protest but are silent, stern. Some stare at the camera, challenging (or judging) the viewer; others glance to the side, inviting the viewer to regard them and own up to his or her role in deciding their fates. Corbyn announced the advertisement with the hashtag #ForTheMany, but the final frame reads for the many, not the few—and the second clause seems as vital as the first.

 

Whither Majorities?

At the Extreme Center, a conference organized in conjunction with “Enigmatic Majorities” (and named after Tariq Ali’s 2015 book prosecuting the British political class), philosophers and activists talked about how to compete with the spectacular images of the people that are pushed by politicians, underwritten by legions of donors, and disseminated by faithful multiplatform propagandists. They praised Corbyn, who soon would emerge as the torchbearer of left-wing populism, the vessel for innumerable dreams and theories. They proposed Reagan-esque storylines in which the people are defined as caring for human rights, equality, and civil liberties, not as battling the Evil Empire. And they echoed the philosopher Chantal Mouffe, who is a darling of Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, and has been pushing for a “populist frontier” that will mobilize “all the popular classes against the elites and establishment.”

However, through the prism of Loach’s video, this vision seems as harrowing as it does inspiring; the antagonism borders on animus, and the identification of “elites” and “establishment” figures promises to be messy. As the philosopher Ágnes Heller yearned for a “physical manifestation of global civil society,” I wondered if populism can actually be benign and inclusive without being terribly boring. The single work in “Enigmatic Majorities” that unabashedly conjures the people as social-justice warriors was the Indian documentarian Anand Patwardhan’s You Can Destroy the Body (2015), which pays tribute to two slain crusaders against Hindu nationalism. In a drab, underpopulated auditorium, a somber woman sings a paen to those who have sacrificed their lives by combating fundamentalism and bigotry. She taps a hand-drum, wags her hand as if addressing parliament, and sings, “It is the duty of poets to rekindle hope and idealism.” 

Patwardhan regularly cuts to the audience, whose members are slumped in their seats with frozen faces, as if borrowed from a commercial for an anti-listlessness drug. While the singer blames religous fanatics for murderous violence and looks forward to their beliefs being marginalized, photographs of Indian protesters and martyrs materialize onscreen, as do portraits of Galileo, Copernicus, and Martin Luther. As eager as I am for a global movement devoted to “the wheel of progress” and “the voice of reason,” as the song goes, Patwardhan’s cast of rationalists seems unlikely to trend on YouTube, much less vanquish Hindu nationalism.

Where, I wondered, were the viral-video legends and ambassadors from Vice Media? Instead of pros giving tips, the sociologist Saskia Sassen was analogizing “platform capitalism” to the extraction that catalyzed European colonialism. This caused the philosopher Srećko Horvat to decry Silicon Valley as “the reason that Africa is starving to death” (as if Africa were a country, as if the country were experiencing deadly famines). Yet Horvat, one of the founders (along with Greek economist Yanis Varoutakis) of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, also feverishly speculated on apps and cryptocurrencies, which might counter populism by enabling miniscule workers’ cooperatives in Greece and Spain to “scale up.” He and Heller went on to hail the early kibbutz movement—armed settlers expropriating the land of indigent Palestinian farmers—as another viable alternative, one ready to be digitized and diffused.

The concerns of these Europeans and Americans seemed to be rooted in anxieties that are particular to their political systems, even election cycles. They meant well but were oddly unburdened by the circumstances of those who are not—or who do not primarily, or easily, identify as—European or American. Nonetheless, they were pleased to speak for everyone, and they harbored a stubborn desire to export homegrown models, even while declaring them to be wrecked. 

After a while, I was ready to give up on the goal of compressing the lives of millions of individuals into a story or symbol through which they all recognize themselves, and are motivated to act in concert. Why compete with demagogues and state media by coming up with the best flags and dignified expressions? Why not accept the passing—and the defects—of the means through which we associate with one another? Why not ask how to bind ourselves together after nations, how to preserve humanness after humanity?

These questions animate Lawrence Lek’s Sinofuturism (1839–2046 AD), 2016, an hour-long video essay that trades national identity for “a specter already embedded into a trillion industrial products, a billion individuals,” and the people for “a massively distributed neural network.” Sinofuturism is narrated by a text-to-speech program, as if the work has no (human) author. The Chinese are characterized by computing, copying, gaming, studying, addiction, labor, and gambling, and China is described as constituted by images, stories, suspicions, and algorithms. Each of the seven chapters cycles through tessellations of found footage: shots from drones hired by Chinese real estate agencies, patronizing British news reports on the “global factory,” CGI models of perfect cities, interviews with video-game addicts, documentation of traditional garb and herding practices.

Sinofuturism describes a territory that far exceeds the borders of China, and has as much to do with the rule of symbols as governments. The video skewers the paranoid and breathless impressions of China manufactured for European and American audiences, as well as the Chinese idylls of luxury consumption and imperium. But Lek invites those who are named by Sinofuturism to make use of all the ridiculous and lamentable images, rather than pursue an identity, or even a perspective on the present, that might be authentically native. After all, they have been made by history as well as by machines, and the narration indicates that they will vanish with the emergence of a superintelligence, which will void the distinctions that now define them.

As opposed to the emblems of Chinese nationalism, the people of Sinofuturism are flawed and faltering, beholden to traditions and algorithms, marked by dependence and illiberalism. (Lek is not about to become China’s Ken Loach.) Yet the video is likely to foster recognition in innumerable viewers—and, regardless, show that creating the people also means “to change human nature, to transform each individual (who by himself is a perfect and solitary whole), into a part of a larger whole from which this individual receives, in a sense, his life and his being,” as Rousseau writes in The Social Contract. Whether or not we are all assimilated by Sinofuturism, we can acknowledge the inevitability of our own transformation, given that the status of humanity is in question and the future of civilization (or, at least, of the earth) is dimming. And we can recognize the limits of our control, even the illusiveness of our autonomy.