Translated by F. Roger Devlin
Illusion, threat, wrong turn, and temptation are some of the words that recur most frequently nowadays in public discourse regarding populism. Having become a genuine foil, standing accused of awakening bad inclinations within the popular classes, and being useful to the dominant classes for stigmatizing those who accuse them of having confiscated power for their exclusive use, populism is systematically presented so as to appear fit only for being “cast out of history, as if it were a phenomenon without roots or real causes” (Alexandre Dorna). Whoever speaks of the people thereby exposes himself to the reproach of “populism,” which consists essentially in “flattering the people’s base instincts” — with the implication that the ruling class has only exceptionally elevated instincts. “Populism,” as Federico Tarragoni says, is a “magical concept which allows anything to be assimilated to it and discredited, and anything to be condemned by being so named.”[i]
We had a perfect example of this in June 2016 after the British people’s decision to leave the European Union, which enraged and nearly stupefied all the Establishment’s representatives. Bernard-Henri Lévy saw in Brexit the “victory of the most rancid sovereignism and the most stupid nationalism,” Jacques Attali the “dictatorship of populism,” and Alain Minc the victory of “uneducated people over the educated.” Daniel Cohn-Bendit belched, “Enough of the people!” Everyone immediately asked how the result of the vote could be neutralized while overflowing with criticism of David Cameron, who was blamed for having wanted to ask his compatriots their opinion. The people must not be consulted; they do not understand anything and will say anything, some observers assured us. We must prevent any repetition of this at all costs, said others.
While the motives for “Brexit” were much more complex than was said,[ii] everyone had his own suggestion. Indignant “that a people can question all development considered irreversible up to that point,” which amounts to “denying the very idea of progress” (sic), Jacques Attali, who clearly believes that history is written in advance, coldly proposed to quarantine certain persons by removing them from the voting process.[iii] The idea (probably mistaken)[iv] that a majority of young British were favorable to the European project since they were more “modern” and therefore “enlightened,” while their elders were hostile served as a pretext for the dubious notion that the vote would lose its value over time. François Fillon even suggested that the young should have a right to two votes while their elders only got one![v]
Criticism was concentrated on referenda, which had long been blamed for allowing the people to appropriate the question. Jean Quatremer accuses referenda of instituting the “dictatorship of the majority” (the dictatorship of minorities no doubt being preferable in his eyes). To remedy the situation, certain observers such as the international lawyer Laurent Cohen-Tanugi advocate quite simply that a ban on referenda be written into European treaties. Others propose that certain subjects be withdrawn from the popular vote on principle, and that certain decisions be treated as beyond challenge, or that a 60% majority be required to overturn them (why not 90%?). Jean-Claude Juncker had already said, “There can be no democratic choice against European treaties!”
Elisabeth Lévy, who amusingly defined populism as “the name the Left gives to the people whenever the people do something they do not like,” writes:
To believe that millions of voters voted without understanding what they were doing and without reflecting on the consequences of their act is, strictly speaking, to take them for fools. . . . In Paris, the narrative that paints the Brexiters as uneducated cattle, narrow-minded xenophobes (and why not inbred while we’re at it?) who should have their voting rights taken away is revealing of the esteem in which a part of the ruling class holds those it claims to govern.[vi]
Thus, it comes to be taken for granted either that the people does not know what it wants or that when it makes known that it wants something, there is no reason to take this into account. So there is no use in asking it before speaking in its name. And above all it is dangerous to consult it because it never votes as expected. The proletarian whose dignity (“poor but dignified”), bearing, and honesty used to be praised becomes a petit blanc, a “hexagonal” and “franchouillard,” a mixture of Bitru[vii] and Dupont-Lajoie,[viii] uneducated, malicious, xenophobic, backwards, and desperately Franco-French. The poor, suspected more than ever of harboring bad thoughts, must be more closely observed all the more. This negative image of the people reveals a contempt approaching genuine class hatred.[ix]
This insistent emphasis on the people’s “lack of education” is especially revealing. During the presidential election of 2002, with the National Front once again winning most of the working-class vote, the political scientist Pascal Perrineau made this comment: “[The NF voters] are people of modest income, but also of modest knowledge. The higher one’s level of culture, the more one is protected against voting for Le Pen.” The same argument has been used against the partisans of “Brexit,” while in the United States it is also among those with the fewest degrees that Donald Trump achieved his best results. Whereas in the 1950s and 1960s no one reproached Communist voters for any lack of educational certifications, we are now given to understand that a lack of education automatically leaves one receptive to simplistic or harmful ideas. Advanced education has become the guarantee of a tendency to adhere to correct ideas — it is hard to suppress a smile. We could just as well consider that the less educated are also less conditioned by the dominant ideology, and that the most “cultivated” are in reality those most given to repeating fashionable mantras and identifying with social conformism. In the popular classes, disbelief is not the result of ignorance but of repeated disappointment. In any case, everyone has always known that intelligence and culture have never protected people against false ideas. We might also remember what Marc Bloch said of the elites of 1940: “Badly informed regarding the infinite resources of a people who have remained much healthier than poisoned lessons have inclined them to believe.”[x] Great historical disasters have more often had their origin in the failure of elites than in the blindness of the people.
Anti-populism has been constructed in three stages. First, protest parties previously denounced as being of the extreme Right have been characterized as “populist,” with “populism” being the “new clothes” of this “new extreme Right.” Later, the critique has gradually been extended in a learned or pseudo-learned manner in order to delegitimize any political option constructed upon an opposition between the people and the elites, such a construction being condemned in principle as apt to “delude the electorate.” This second stage has allowed disrepute to be thrown not only on movements of the “extreme Right,” but also on political formations with very different orientations, all of which are presented as pathological because they supposedly encourage the people to abandon its natural civic mission, i.e. having confidence in its representatives. Liberal representative democracy being posited from the start as the norm from which every deviancy is to be measured, any form of secession from the dominant consensus, any party or movement whose ambition is to articulate the social demands of those who consider themselves excluded from or forgotten by the System in place, finds itself disqualified, usually in a polemical fashion. Finally, in a third stage, by a sort of natural slippage, the stigmatization of populism has mutated into stigmatization of the people.
This stigmatization didn’t just appear yesterday. Contrary to Machiavelli, whose ideal was the free citizen in a free republic, the Enlightenment philosophes already had nothing but disdain for the people they were intent on “enlightening” (“Enlightenment can only come from above”). On the Right, hostility toward the people has often gone hand-in-hand with the rejection of democracy, perceived as consecrating the law of quantity. This still pops up here and there, sometimes reaching the point of utter contempt.[xi] But in fact, in the nineteenth century the Right was divided regarding the people. With Bonald and Joseph de Maistre, who denounced the “tyranny of popular sovereignty,” counter-revolutionary traditionalism radically excluded the people from the calculus of power. For Maurras, the people cannot confer any power because it does not possess any; power can only come from above. On this point, he opposes the Count of Chambord or La Tour du Pin, both partisans of an “organic democracy.” The liberals, without being so radical, do not conceal their revulsion for the “dangerous classes” and seek to neutralize them by means of property qualifications, reserving the right to vote for the wealthiest. Adolphe Thiers, following Voltaire, denounces the “vile masses!” In the best case, one sought to reconcile the social classes by finding a place for the decent common man in the wake of enlightened elites. Legitimists, associated with the social Catholics who reproached the old monarchy with having been corrupted by absolutism, often favor a “popular monarchy” and generally take the lead in defending the world of work.
On the contrary, the Bonapartist Right always privileged the appeal to the people at the same time as anti-parliamentarianism, anti-liberalism, and the plebiscitary tradition. We find this again in Boulangism (1889), which united legitimists, Bonapartists, and republicans in a common movement, and then in Gaullism. Believing the head of State could only derive his legitimacy from the people, de Gaulle instituted the presidential election based on direct universal suffrage. “It is above all with the people itself,” said General de Gaulle, “that he who is their mandatary and guide keeps in direct contact.”[xii] This is also the reason why he always refused to recognize the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECHR) authority: “In France, the only supreme court is the French people.”
In most Western countries, it is the liberal conception of democracy that has won out. This consists of substituting parliamentary sovereignty for popular sovereignty. Liberal democracy is, moreover, an aggregative form of democracy which sees in the political field merely a conglomeration of interests where individuals and groups are supposed to try to maximize their best interest politically without any concern for the common good. Its partisans are obviously hostile to the imperative mandate, as to all forms of direct democracy.
The people being considered irrational while liberalism posits that the individual is above all a rational calculator seeking to maximize his private best interests,[xiii] the tendency within liberal milieus is to limit popular participation as much as possible to the electoral ritual in order to guard to the greatest extent against that ritual’s results. In 1925, Walter Lippmann was already rejoicing over the fact that political involvement was not permanent.[xiv] Seymour Martin Lipset also encouraged abstention and even political apathy on the pretext that it was better to leave concern for public affairs to “those who know.” Cornelius Castoriadis for his part observed that “present-day institutions remove, drive off, and dissuade people from participating in public affairs.”[xv] Everything is done to substitute the management of things, the sovereignty of financial markets, the authority of “experts,” and the government of judges for popular decision-making. Since citizens are no longer able to demand an accounting from their representatives, the system is transformed into an oligarchy which is responsible only to the private interests that support it. Democracy, which normally implies the primacy of politics over economics, becomes a mode of electoral legitimation for the sovereignty of oligarchs, financial markets, and multinational companies. From this point of view, the popular classes must be prevented as much as possible from interfering in politics. Democracy will never be so lovely as when it rids itself of the demos! We are most of the way there now, since the great majority of those who exercise power today are appointed or coopted, not elected. The people, in the end, is nothing but dead wood.
The idea that society should be governed by “those who know” goes back at least to the “philosopher-king” praised by Plato, by way of contrast with the people whom he represents as an immature and incorrigible being and a dangerous crowd, always ready to let itself be charmed by the first flute-player to come along. This idea is the basis of contemporary expertocracy, the constantly rehashed argument being that the people is “incompetent.”
But just what is “competence?” Today it is always pictured as technical expertise and knowledge, whereas competence in politics is something else entirely. In politics competence does not reside in technical knowledge, but in the ability to decide between several possibilities, i.e. in a capacity for decision. Experts are competent to say how to do things; they have no competence to say what must be done. Populism is not mistaken when it proposes removing democratic practice from the professionals in cabinet ministries and electoral rituals, for it has long noted the experts’ tendency to be mistaken. The people is in fact perfectly competent to distinguish what is politically good and bad, what satisfies its aspirations and what disappoints them.[xvi] When it votes it is not to pronounce upon truth, but to indicate its preferences and say whether they are in accord or not with those who govern it. You don’t have the citizens vote on the truth-value of Darwin’s theory or the Council of Trent’s decisions, but to find out what they think politically!
But the idea according to which the best government is that of “experts” does not aim only at dismissing popular sovereignty because of its “incompetence.” It also involves dismissing politics as such. It suggests that political problems are, in the final analysis, nothing but “technical” problems for which there can rationally only be one best solution that it is the business of experts to determine. This is the basis of the liberal idea according to which “there is no alternative” (a formula attributed to Margaret Thatcher), which is also one of the principles of “political correctness” [la “pensée unique”]. One thus creates the impression that politics might be “pacified,” and that antagonisms could be called upon to die out under the peaceable effect of a common “technical” culture. This neutralization amounts in fact to a depolitization, and in the end to the death of politics. Human aspirations being different and in potential conflict, one can only decide between them in the name of normative criteria which can never be reduced to unity. Political decision-making consists in choosing between possibilities, none of which imposes itself “objectively” upon everyone. In politics, there are always alternatives insofar as political decision-making is always liable to make different choices as a function of circumstances and the criteria it employs.
Expertocracy has spread the idea that many negative phenomena are henceforward unavoidable. In the first place, of course, this means the “laws” presiding over the market economy in modern societies, to which is added the uncontrolled rise of technologies obeying their own internal dynamic. On the model of migratory flows, all these phenomena have been decreed inevitable because we have lost the habit of questioning ends and have become accustomed to the idea that it is no longer possible to impose a decision (which is increasingly the case, in fact). The result is a negation of the very essence of politics and its reduction to the level of a mere administrative technique.
Thibault Isabel also correctly remarks that the denunciation of populism “attests to the contempt with which intellectuals have long regarded currents openly hostile to progressivism.”[xvii] The conviction that one is in agreement with the direction of history, in fact, nourishes the idea that “men of progress” must prevent the retrograde popular classes from putting the brakes on evolution. “Those who know” must impose themselves upon the ignorant, andeven prevent them from expressing themselves; the “technicians” and self-proclaimed experts must remove the direction of public affairs from the backward masses. For the experts, “pluralism always results either from a misunderstanding or from a lack of intelligence: on the one hand there are experts who know, on the other individuals who do not. If the latter are rational and well-informed, they will share the former’s opinion.”[xviii]
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[i] “La science du populisme au crible de la critique archéologique. Archéologie d’un mépris savant du peuple,” in Actuel Marx, 54, 2013, 2, 56-70. Cf. also Federico Tarragoni, “Raison populiste, démocratie et émancipation populaire,” in Hadrien Buclin et al. (eds.), Penser l’émancipation (Paris: La Dispute, 2013), 215-234.
[ii] The rejection of immigration played a major role, but does not by itself explain Leave’s success. We must also take into account Great Britain’s peculiar character. Whereas in France, opponents of the European Union are generally anti-liberal, in Great Britain the Euroskeptics, libertarians, or disciples of Thatcherite liberalism blame European institutions for being overregulated and not open to the world enough. The British intellectual Philipp Blond, the theoretician of Red Toryism, who sees in the vote in favor of Brexit “the greatest rejection of globalization which the Western world has seen in the voting booth,” also drew attention to “this paradox: popular classes in search of protection from globalization have followed the libertarians who think that Britain should unilaterally abolish its tariffs! (website Figaro Vox, July 1, 2016). “During the referendum campaign,” observes the Italian political scientist Marco Tarchi for his part, “those in favor of Brexit used mainly sovereignist arguments which partially coincide with populist ideas and suggestions, but cannot be identified with them completely” (“Pourquoi le populisme hante l’Europe,” in Causeur, July-August 2016, 44). Cf. also Jean-Louis Bourlanges, “Un ‘Brexit,’ deux histoires,” in Commentaire, Autumn 2016, 486-490.
[iii] Jacques Attali, “Sanctuariser le progrès,” in L’Express, June 21, 2016.
[iv] This is based on a simple opinion poll carried out one week before the vote, and has not been confirmed by any investigation of the vote’s details. Afterwards it turned out that two-thirds of those 18-25 years old abstained.
[v] Those who used this argument seem not to have considered that in France, increasing the weight of the youth vote would automatically result in a rise in electoral support for the National Front. “But we must remember that in the twentieth century, if we have not always (from a cult of youth [pqr jeunisme]) followed the younger generations’ ideological preferences,” writes Mathieu Bock-Côté, “political liberty would be in a very bad way.” “Mépriser le peuple, le censurer, le déconstruire,” in Le Journal de Montréal, June 24, 2016.
[vi] “Qui a peur du grand méchant peuple ?”, in Causeur, July-August 2016, 32. Cf. also Élisabeth Lévy, “Le peuple, voila l’ennemi !”, website Figaro Vox, July 24, 2016.
[vii] The hero of a series of novels by Albert Paraz (1899-1957). — Tr.
[viii] The title of a celebrated French “anti-racist” film from 1975. — Tr.
[ix] “In just a few years we have gone from defending the ‘people’s cause’ to demophobia, to class contempt, to hatred of what is popular,” remarks Arnauld Imatz (Droite/gauche: pour sortir de l’équivoque. Histoire des idées et des valeurs non conformistes du XIXe au XXIe siecle, 96). “The populists are blamed for addressing themselves to the people. So what!” writes Vincent Coussedière for his part. “Who else should a politician address himself to in a democracy? They are blamed for using demagogy, proposing unrealistic solutions, in short: of flattering the people. So be it. But then one must make an effort to demonstrate how these solutions are unrealistic, which the adjective ‘populist’ excuses one from doing. In short, the usage of this term allows us to spare ourselves the effort of a political debate and lets democracy go to rust” (website Figaro Vox, March 18, 2016, 3). Cf. also Serge Halimi, “Le populisme, voila l’ennemi,” in Le Monde diplomatique, April 1996; and Jacques Rancière, “Non, le peuple n’est pas une masse brutale et ignorante,” in Libération, January 3, 2011, 7.
[x] Marc Bloch, L’Étrange Défaite (Paris: Franc-Tireur, 1946).
[xi] For Henry de Lesquen, President of Radio Courtoisie, “the repression of the Paris Commune was excellent and salutary. Adolphe Thiers is a model” (Twitter, June 25, 2016). He also speaks of the Communards as “criminal scum!”
[xii] General de Gaulle, press conference of September 9, 1965.
[xiii] Nonna Mayer and Pascal Perrineau note on this subject that “the very concept of political rationality is quite relative. The voter faithful to the party which seems to him to defend the interests of his social class or the values of his religion is not less rational than the voter who switches parties; the one who wavers between parties belongs to the same political family is not more rational than the one who crosses the Left/Right boundary” (Les Comportements politiques [Paris: Armand Colin, 1992], 87).
[xiv] Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public: A Sequel to “Public Opinion” (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1925).
[xv] Cornélius Castoriadis, Une société à la dérive (Paris: Seuil, 2005).
[xvi] “If the citizens are not competent and do not have enough distance from their own passions to pass judgement concerning the most important subjects,” writes Emmaneul-Just Duits, “where does their right to decide stop? Do they have enough reason and competence to choose their representatives? Would it not rather be the business of reasonable and ‘competent’ people to coopt or elect one another into a predetermined college? This reasoning tends to send us back to property qualifications. To avoid populism, we are falling back into oligarchy” (“Après le Brexit, inventer une démocratie éclairée,” website Causeur, July 22, 2016, 2).
[xvii] Thibault Isabel, “Christopher Lasch: un populiste contre le progrès,” in Krisis, February 2008, 106.
[xviii] Pierre Rosanvallon, “Repenser la gauche,” in L’Express, March 25, 1993, 116.
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