Jeffrey C Alexander is Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology at Yale University and co-director of its Center for Cultural Sociology. He is among the world’s leading social theorists with a keen interest in the recent rise of authoritarian-populist regimes across the world. Ajay Gudavarthy, associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, who recently published India after Modi: Populism and the Right are in conversation here on populism and the future of democracy in the United States and India.
You are known to have inaugurated “cultural sociology” as against “sociology of culture”, wherein you stress on performance and dramaturgy as central to how power works and is also resisted. Do you think the current rise of populism has foregrounded performativity in any manner discernibly different from when democracies were not necessarily populist?
There’s been a long intellectual tradition arguing that populism engages in the aesthetics of rule more than democratic power, much less socialism. I think this is deeply mistaken. The reason I created “social performance theory” is to argue against historicist or ideologically specific understandings of the social location of dramaturgy. Performance is part of any social action, everywhere, and it permeates every attempt at legitimate rule, which pretty much covers the exercise of power everywhere at every time. This is not to say, of course, that right and left populist performances are the same. The culture, codes, and narratives of left and right are very different, so the performances that evoke them would differ, too.
You made an incisive point that the Left does not take culture seriously as it equates it with conservatism. But surely Gramsci was a front-ranking political thinker who argued in favour of mobilising culture. How do you think the Left needs to negotiate the question of culture today?
Gramsci was a major influence on my thinking in the early days of my intellectual formation, when I was a radical activist as a “New Left” Marxist. New Left Marxism was always very critical of “economistic” Marxism, the term that Lenin rightly used against the Mensheviks to justify the need for an activist political party to “wake up” the working and peasant classes. Gramsci was deeply affected by Lenin but was much more willing to be explicitly cultural (rather than narrowly “political”) because he was also deeply affected by Antonio Labriola, the very creative and open-minded Italian Marxist thinker who was heavily influenced by Hegel.
When I moved from cultural Marxism to cultural sociology, I brought the thinking of Gramsci, and of course Hegel, with me. But there is a lot more that has gone into creating cultural sociology than Gramsci. There’s semiotics, structuralism, and post-structuralism, especially Foucault; there’s the literary theories of narrative; there’s performance studies and Austin’s performative speech act theory; there’s aesthetic ideas about form and sensibility.
The challenge for the left is, first, to realise that not all culture is “political,” not attached to domination, and to appreciate that. People of all ideologies need traditions, codes, and collective meanings; they need vibrant and powerful material symbols; they need to be engaged, both as actors and audiences, in compelling social dramas.
The second challenge for the left is to build a new utopian culture of an alternative society. Socialism/communism played such a role for 150 years, but it’s utopian power as a transcendental symbol has disappeared, dying in the last two decades of the 20th century. This is not—at all—to say that a heck of a lot more social democracy would be a bad thing! The more the better. It is to say, rather, that the symbol of socialism has been profoundly tarnished, for better and for worse. It’s also to say that “equality” in the socialist sense of Marx, what he himself criticised in The German Ideology as an empty “abstract equality,” is no longer a viable description of a good society.
For me, the new utopia would have to be rooted in ideas about civil society, self-governance, radical democracy—what I call the civil sphere—and in a particular vision of multi-cultural incorporation.
The progressive social movements that exert performative power today are all rooted in these values.
Through the idea of “civil repair” you offer a way of moving towards solidarity between various social groups with the universal as a normative ideal more than anything else. But in today’s politics it is the Right that is able to articulate the ideas of “solidarity” and “universal” better than Black Lives Matter and anti-caste movements in India.
I wouldn’t be that confident in your suggestion that BLM hasn’t been successful in its performance of civil solidarity and multicultural incorporation! As public opinion polling has stunningly demonstrated in the last two weeks, white American opinion has come to support BLM and racial justice by a far higher percentage than in the first wave of BLM protests in 2013. [US President Donald] Trump’s version of racist and anti-egalitarian solidarity is losing support rapidly, and the stage is being set for a dramatic victory of the centre-left in the November presidential elections.
Yes, Trump—and far right populism everywhere—outperformed the left over the last decade, and he was able to ride a backlash against BLM and America’s first Black president into power in 2016. But the regulative (law, voting) and communicative (journalism, polls, civil associations) of the civil sphere stood up against Trump’s right populism over the last three and a half years. Democrats won a tremendous victory in the Congress in 2018, and #MeToo became the most powerful feminist movement in recent history during the administration of America’s most misogynist president.
Both right wing and left wing movements appeal to solidarity. Right movements defined more primordial, localised, kin, race, gender, and caste forms of particularistic solidity. Left movements define and defend broader, more civil forms of (expanded) solidarity. Creating civil repair can be seen as an unsettling “frontlash” movement, led by political and cultural avant-gardes; it always creates backlash and resistance, and this opens the way for conservative, right populism, and even fascist movements to come to power. In my forthcoming book, Populism in the Civil Sphere (Polity, January 2021), sociologists from around the world make use of this theory to explore left and right populism.
I find the ideas of myth and meaning at the centre of how the right in India is mobilising itself. Would it be correct to argue that rather than as a general pattern there are moments in history that are more prone to the “autonomy” of symbols and cultural codes?
While I know your recent work on right-wing Indian political culture, Ajay, and I consider it pioneering, I don’t agree, no, with the suggestion that some historical periods or social formations are more prone to the relative autonomy of culture. It would be like saying are there periods where people like to eat and have sex more than in other times? I don’t think so!
You seem to be arguing that even neoliberalism and capitalism are built on certain kinds of “myths”, and globalisation was itself a trauma response to what transpired during the Cold War. But surely global trade flows and financial capitalism cannot be reduced to a “social imaginary”, even if one agrees that cultural discourses do structure economic transactions.
In fighting against the reduction of materialism, cultural sociology has never sought to create an opposite kind of idealist reductionism in turn. Each sphere of society has its own, relatively independent social processes, especially as differentiation increases over historical time. Capitalism has its own so-called laws, though there’s not like the iron laws of physics that Marx claimed they were in his introduction to the third volume of Capital! The globalisation of capitalism is an example of this internally-logical development: where there are falling costs of labour and land, capital will flow! The financialisation of capitalism in the West is another example. Yet, at the same time, I would insist that capitalism itself requires, and in a sense is built upon, certain cultural codes and performances. This is well explored in Callon’s Actor-Network Theoretical studies, as it is also in Roger Friedland’s work on institutional logics. Without certain powerful understandings of the self, exchange, and reciprocity, contemporary capitalism couldn’t function. The greatest economist of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes, put such non-rational phenomena as “trust” at the centre of entrepreneurialism and financial markets alike.
How do you see the future of democracy in the US in the next decade or so? Do you see the ebbing of authoritarian populism and alternatives to global neo-liberal regimes emerging?
Good social scientists must be aware that historical development is contingent. Marshall Sahlins, drawing on Althusser, spoke about “the structure of the conjuncture.” Look at the extraordinary contrast between the historical essays of Marx, like The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and the systematic theoretical works like Capital. That said, I believe that there are ample cultural and institutional reasons to believe—more than merely to hope—that the right-wing populism will ebb in the US and that, at the same time, more solidaristic and egalitarian policies will be put into place to step the grotesque excesses of what is called (I don’t like the term) neoliberalism. I am not convinced that neoliberalism emerged simply or perhaps even mainly for economic reasons; I think it came out of a particularly effective right-wing performative reaction to the decline of the socialist ideal in the 1980s.
Finally, your thoughts on democracy in India. You were particularly struck by Prime Minister Narendra Modi meditating in a cave. With an economy in recession, will cultural nationalist symbolism hold the same kind of power to generate meaning for representing the “reality”?
For intellectuals and citizens who remain deeply committed to democracy—whether in its republican or liberal form—the fate of Indian democracy is one of the most critical questions of our time. Not only because of concern for the more than one billion people who live in India, but also because China is on the road to becoming a very politically threatening anti-democratic global power. Modern India shows for South Asia, just as Korean, Japan, and Taiwan show for East Asia, that democracy is not civilisationally limited, as the reactionary political scientist Samuel Huntington argued in his deeply misleading book, The Clash of Civilizations (1996). (By the way, I handed out anti-war leaflets inside of Huntington’s lecture class in 1968 while a student at Harvard!)
India is an “Axial Age” civilisation, a concept that my teacher Robert Bellah, and the great Israeli historical and comparative sociologist SN Eisenstadt, took over from Karl Jasper’s interpretation of Weber’s comparative sociology of religions. Despite its egregious caste inequalities, Hinduism has inside of it critical and transcendental capacities and, despite its own egregious racial, religious, and institutional practices, British colonialism added to the critical and democratic capacities of contemporary Indian culture.
Gandhi is a good example of a great Indian leader and thinker who synthesised both, inventing a form of militant non-violence that has motivated “civil sphere activism” around the world. As long as India can maintain—despite Modi’s sometimes sinister desires and actions—some significant autonomy for its communicative and regulative institutions, India will move beyond Modi, his political party, and right-wing populist constructions of reality. When it will depends on what kind of political culture and performances the Indian Opposition can provide.