The Absolute and the Unsolved: Community, Difference, and the Seductions of Populism

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 11:30
Oral Presentation
Michael BELL, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA
Why is populism so seductive? Weren’t modern, liberal societies supposed to be done with that kind of thinking? In this paper, I contend that we have been misled by the civilizationist and evolutionist biases of modernism, leading us to misframe the dynamics of community such that we were unprepared theoretically and politically for the re-emergence of populist authoritarianism. It is common to call populism a form of “tribalism,” implying that populism represents the primitive backwardness of jungle life. Such implicit racism is unhelpful. Rather, I argue that populism is a thoroughly modern social form, and equally thoroughly traditional. I do so by reframing an old strand of social theory, most strongly represented by Durkheim’s distinction between mechanical solidarity (solidarity of sameness) and organic solidarity (solidarity of difference), and by Tonnies’s related distinction between gemeinschaft (affective action) and gesellschaft (instrumental action). I offer instead the distinction between absolute community and unsolved community which accepts that Durkheim and Tonnies were not completely off the mark, but rejects their civilizationism, evolutionism, and modernism, and rearticulates their understanding of the motives and logics of community life. Instead of seeing populism as a solidarity of sameness based on affect, I argue that understandings of difference and instrumentalism are equally crucial to it, and for all community forms. What is the decisive difference, rather, is the absoluteness of their boundaries and their resulting moral movement. The moral world of the absolute community, including populism, is that of the difference of samenesses, with sameness within and difference without, and moral motion from sameness to difference. The moral world of the unsolved community, on the other hand, is that of a sameness of differences, of difference within and sameness without, and moral motion of difference to sameness. The social context of modernism, alas, often promotes the former.