In recent years there has been a resurgence of populism on both the right and the left in response to the spiralling excesses of neoliberalism. Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and Corbyn’s Labour in the UK have, with varying degrees of success, mobilised the rhetoric of anti-austerity in order to appeal to a majority in Europe that has seen its standard of living fall while that of the wealthiest has remained stable or improved. Meanwhile, the refugee crisis has offered fresh opportunities for right-wing parties and groups to try to blame the fallout from the Global Financial Crash of 2008 on minorities and the marginalised, defending the interests of ethnic majorities as legitimate in the process. Populist rhetoric has also been on conspicuous display in the current US presidential campaign: Donald Trump’s slogan ‘Make America great again’ appeals to a mass of American voters who have lost out to capital’s relocation overseas, while Bernie Sanders has managed to make the word ‘socialism’ acceptable in mainstream American political discourse by focusing on the corruption of elites and a ‘rigged’ system. In a socio-economic climate increasingly dominated by precarity, inequality, and anxieties of all kinds, the politics of populism seem to be the order of the day.
However, despite the trenchant character of recent populist critiques of contemporary capitalism, populism has frequently proven itself incapable of advancing a progressive alternative. The organisers of the Historical Materialism Sydney Conference 2016 therefore invite proposals for papers and panels that investigate the nature of populism past and present, and especially its contemporary relationship to capitalism and prospective alternatives. A number of questions shape our enquiry: are populism and capitalism necessarily opposed? To whom does populism address itself, and what does it reveal about the dynamics of class societies? Is populism an inevitable feature of representative democracies? In a recent piece in New Left Review, Alberto Toscano, paraphrasing Fredric Jameson, claimed that the majority of the left today finds itself in the paradoxical position of seeking to defend social democracy tooth and nail only to prove it cannot work’. With this in mind, we ask whether populism can help us think beyond capitalism, or whether it is part of the logic of the system itself.
As we consider these emerging political formations and trends, HM’s Sydney Conference this year will be joined this year by Esther Leslie, Professor of English and Humanities at Birkbeck College, London. Leslie’s work addresses Marxist theories of aesthetics and culture. Her most recent book is about the art, science and politics of liquid crystals, as a new and fluid phase of matter.
Historical Materialism Sydney is committed to ensuring that the conference is open to all who wish to attend. We have a free online registration option to reflect this. For those with financial capacity to do so, we ask that attendees contribute to organisation costs and the expansion of the conference in coming years. The suggested contribution is $20 concession and $50 waged (plus processing fee charged by ticketing company). All presenters must register before the conference. We would encourage anyone else thinking of attending to register in advance as well, as this will make it easier for the organisers on the day, and will ensure the conference runs smoothly.