Desperate Responsibility: Precarity and Right-Wing Populism

Published date01 February 2022
AuthorPaul Apostolidis
Date01 February 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2022, Vol. 50(1) 114 –141
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720985770
Desperate Responsibility:
Precarity and Right-Wing
Paul Apostolidis1
This essay explores the mutual reinforcements between socioeconomic
precarity and right-wing populism, and then envisions a politics that
contests Trumpism through workers’ organizations that create alternatives
to predominant patterns of subject formation through work. I first revisit
my recent critique of precarity, which initiates a new method of critical
theory informed by Paulo Freire’s political pedagogy of popular education.
Reading migrant day laborers’ commentaries on their work experiences
alongside critical accounts of today’s general work culture, this “critical-
popular” procedure yields a conception of precarity with two defining
characteristics. First, precarity is socially bivalent: it singles out specific groups
for especially harsh treatment even as it pervades society. Second, precarity
constitutes subjects through contradictory experiences of time in everyday
work-life, exacerbated by insoluble dilemmas of moral responsibility.
Antonio Vásquez-Arroyo’s conception of “political literacy” and Bridget
Anderson’s notion of “migrantizing the citizen,” in turn, help us understand
how precaritization blocks workers from developing the critical dispositions
toward time needed for democratic citizenship. This analysis then makes it
possible to elucidate, in dialogue with Daniel Martinez-HoSang and Joseph
Lowndes, how precaritized worker-citizenship facilitates the cross-class and
multiracial appeal of Trumpism’s white supremacist discourse of national
economic decline and resurgence, while normalizing the temporal affects
1London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK
Corresponding Author:
Paul Apostolidis, London School of Economics and Political Science, Houghton Street,
London, WC2A 2AE, UK.
985770PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720985770Political TheoryApostolidis
Apostolidis 115
of shock and violence characteristic of Trumpism, as theorized by Lia Haro
and Romand Coles. Day laborers’ worker centers, I argue, refunction
precaritized time, regenerate political literacy, and migrantize the citizen.
A large-scale alternative to right-wing populism thus could emerge if the
worker center network were expanded throughout the economy.
precarity, populism, time, day labor, citizenship, migration
A loose consensus exists among academic political analysts and journalists
that intensified socioeconomic precarity has driven the worldwide expansion
of right-wing populism. The common perspective holds that especially in the
United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe, parties and civil society
organizations with belligerently nationalist, openly racist, and staunchly cap-
italist policies and rhetoric have enhanced their political fortunes by both
stirring and responding to popular feelings of insecurity and anger as institu-
tional supports for mass economic well-being have been steadily withdrawn.
Many writers have issued dire warnings about long-simmering discontent in
economically depressed, rural, white working-class American communities
to explain the rise of Trumpism and its antecedents. Widespread political
disaffection from neoliberalized party cadres of the center-right and center-
left, others add, has opened opportunities for Trump and authoritarians across
the Atlantic to remold classic right-populist themes to fit the present moment.
Despite the prevalent certainty that socioeconomic decline and political
neglect have bolstered right-wing politics in recent times, a dearth of writing
explores how precarity and right-wing populism relate in ways that treat both
elements with sufficient care and critical sensibility.1 This essay excavates
the mutual reinforcements between precarity and right-wing populism at sub-
stantial depth and with attention to the inter-animating specificities within
each component of this dyad. I first review the critical account of contempo-
rary precarity proposed in my recent research, which reads US Latino migrant
day laborers’ commentaries on their difficult work-lives in conjunction with
recent critical theory on more general circumstances of precarity.2 This exer-
cise in what I call “critical-popular analysis” draws on Paulo Freire’s theory
of popular education to stage an experimental innovation in critical-theoreti-
cal method. The result is a conception of precarity aptly designated by day
laborers as a syndrome of “desperate responsibility,” with two defining

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