The following is the text of a talk that was given at the recent Counter-Currents Spring Retreat.
The term populism has been on people’s lips in the United States since Donald Trump’s rise, and its popularity goes back a bit farther in Europe, where it had already gained currency as a kind of curse word for anti-immigration protest parties. Following the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election, books on populism began proliferating in the English-speaking world. I expect many of these were solicited by the publishers, hoping to capitalize on a suddenly fashionable subject. During the Winter of 2018-19, Counter-Currents published a series of reviews of these new titles; I contributed four.
As you might expect, the books were a mixed bag. The authors were generally smart, well-credentialed academics. One of them I described at the time as giving “the impression of a lifelong ‘model student,’ piling up accomplishments through a combination of native gifts, hard work, and an absence of any disposition to challenge the conventional prejudices of his time.” This author was typical. The contemporary academy still attracts ambitious people with high IQs, but also and increasingly functions as a system of social reproduction for the verbalist branch of the managerial class. The young go there to join the dominant elite, and part of this involves assimilating their way of thinking. You cannot expect to find bold challenges to the hegemonic ideology in such places. For certain areas of study, that may not matter too much. For studying the populist trend in Western politics, it matters greatly. Whatever else populism is, it is certainly a challenge to the incumbent elite. Just as you would not consult with the Pope about the most cogent critiques of the Catholic Church, or with Osama bin Laden about the best polemics against Islamic radicalism, you probably should not go to elite academics to learn about the populist challenge to the elites. In retrospect, the shortcomings of such books ought to have been less surprising than their occasional merits.
Most people do not have the time or inclination to study and compare four or more treatments of populism, and it is such readers I wish to address today about The Homeland Institute’s first book publication, The Populist Moment, subtitled The End of Right vs. Left, and written by Alain de Benoist. I had the privilege of translating this work, which is on an entirely different level from most other writing on the subject. It was not commissioned by any publisher to turn a profit on recently fashionable subject matter, and while the author is a gifted scholar, he is no member of the academic guild. He has preserved the freedom of a dissident to go wherever an argument may lead him, even if it requires stepping on the toes of the powerful.
Since I cannot really do justice to a work of over 300 pages in the time available to me, I will focus on just the two matters alluded to in the book’s title and subtitle, viz., the nature of populism and the declining importance of the Right-Left divide in contemporary politics. According to Benoist, the biggest mistake one can make about populism is to treat it as a political ideology analogous to social democracy, libertarianism, or Marxism and unambiguously localizable on a conventional Left-Right political spectrum.
Instead, populism is a political configuration which recurs from time to time when the programs on offer from the political elites fail to correspond to popular demand, and party divisions become less important that the divide between the people and the elites as such. The original American populism of the 1890s was focused on matters such as the power of the railroads and bimetallism. Our own “populist moment” has coalesced mainly around the issues of immigration and national sovereignty. It is the temporary configuration of a coalition of popular interest groups against an entrenched elite that is common to populist episodes, not the content of their programs or ideology.
Benoist notes that there is a characteristic populist style that tends to recur during such episodes. It includes demands for a more direct relation between the people and those who govern, a conception of the people as a homogeneous social aggregate that is the privileged depositary of positive and permanent values (which the elites have either betrayed or lost sight of), an idealization of the national community as an organic and unified whole, a nostalgic reappropriation of values inherited from the past, a call for direct democracy and referenda, and a taste for charismatic leaders in the service of “incarnate democracy.” Benoist is careful to note that not all populist moments display all of these traits, however.
A leading characteristic of today’s populist moment is that the rulers have become at least as alienated from the masses as the masses are from them. The political and journalistic elites of Benoist’s native France have become openly contemptuous of the people whose welfare they are supposedly looking after. He quotes some revealing French reactions to Britain’s decision by way of referendum to leave the European Union, depicting voters as narrow-minded and xenophobic oxen who do not even know what they want and whose wishes ought not to be taken into account in any case. British Prime Minister David Cameron came in for a great deal of criticism for even holding a referendum — i.e., for bothering to ask his fellow countrymen what they thought about an important political question. Some commentators recommended forbidding popular referenda outright, presumably as a threat to democracy. The President of the European Commission stated, “There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.”
Like the Marxists of old, Europe’s current taskmasters see their pet projects as foreordained by history itself. The conviction that they know the direction of history nourishes their belief that it is their duty to prevent the backward masses from interfering with it, even by preventing them from expressing their views. This is known as “combatting disinformation and hate speech.”
The French elite have placed special emphasis on what they consider the typical voter’s lack of education, as if higher studies were a guarantee of holding sounder opinions on public affairs. As Benoist remarks, it is far more likely that ordinary people who have not devoted several years of their early adulthood to management and policy studies are less heavily conditioned by the dominant ideology.
Benoist sees this alienation of the elites as deriving ultimately from the triumph of the liberal conception of democracy. This specifically modern understanding relies heavily on the concept of representation, substituting the sovereignty of the people’s alleged representatives, especially parliamentarians, for direct popular sovereignty as practiced in ancient Athens or, in our times, through referenda and plebiscites. The representative system, contrary to a common misunderstanding, was not instituted in response to the increased size of modern republics. It was understood to be a brake on democracy itself, largely limiting popular participation in politics to voting and the right of petition. Yet, over time this has been forgotten and representative democracy has been conflated in the popular mind with democracy as such.
The people’s representatives are not bound by any imperative mandate from those who elect them, and thus voters have a limited ability to hold them to account. The system of representation therefore easily transforms into a kind of oligarchy responsible only to the private interests which support it, known in America as the donor class. The very concept of the common good is lost, replaced by a mere aggregation of private interests. The people’s alleged representatives thus easily develop a spirit of class and a disposition to protect their own interests before those of voters.
Politics is a matter of deciding between possible courses of action, but liberal democracy tends to substitute impersonal management for clear decision-making. It appeals to the authority of market forces and technical expertise. But expertise is about calculating the most efficient way of attaining a given end; it does not help anyone chose between the different ends that can be pursued. The rise of “expertocracy” thus correlates with a loss of focus on ends in favor of means, and a recasting of political issues as technical problems susceptible of only one rational and optimal solution. Benoist points out that this is one of the sources of “political correctness,” the closest term for which in French is la pensée unique: the one-and-only way of thinking.
It is also the basis of a claim increasingly heard from the political elite that “there is no alternative” to their policies. Benoist attributes this tactic for brushing off criticism to Margaret Thatcher, but more recently it was a special favorite of Angela Merkel, even inspiring the name of the Alternative for Germany political party. Since, as I noted, politics is inherently a matter of deciding between different possible courses of action, liberalism’s substitution of supposedly expert management for difficult and risky decision-making amounts to an abdication of politics itself.
Today’s populism is not, thus, an expression of disgust with politics as such, as some have theorized. It is a protest at the depoliticization of politics by our incumbent liberal political elite. The populists are demanding a return to serious decision-making involving real alternatives — that is, to politics in the proper sense of the word.
For several generations, it has been customary to categorize political alternatives as Right- or Left-wing, but another aspect of our populist moment is the declining saliency of this inherited distinction for voters. During Benoist’s youth in the 1960s, 90% of Frenchmen had no qualms about characterizing their political preferences in terms of the Right-Left axis. By the end of the 1980s, over half considered the concepts Left and Right obsolete. By 2014, that figure had risen to 73%. Whereas whole families used to identify with and consistently support either the Right or the Left across generations, many Frenchmen now vote for candidates from all the major parties over the course of a lifetime, or simply abstain from voting altogether.
This is occurring in the country which gave the modern world the Left-Right distinction in the first place. The terminology supposedly goes back to a specific vote of the revolutionary Constituent Assembly on August 28, 1789 over the question of whether the King ought to have retained a power of veto over the legislature — an issue that does not even have a counterpart in today’s politics. The presiding magistrate asked supporters of the measure to stand to his right, while opponents moved to his left. Yet, it took over a century for this terminology to become genuinely popular. According to Benoist, it was absent from public discussion as late as the episode of the Paris Commune in 1871.
French politics from the Bourbon Restauration of 1815 through most of the twentieth century was, in Benoist’s telling, dominated by a series of three great debates that can be understood as pitting a Right against a Left, regardless of whether those terms were current at the time. The first was a debate over institutions, opposing monarchists to republicans. This debate largely ended with the stabilizing of the Third Republic in the 1870s. Since then, royalism has been pushed to the fringes of French political life, replaced by a republican Right, a concept which would have been considered a contradiction in terms at the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
The second great debate began in about the 1880s, opposing secularists to those loyal to Catholic social teaching. At that time, supporters of the Church were ipso facto on the Right, while support for the republic was generally assumed to imply anti-clerical views. For a time, these debates on the place of religion in public life roused violent polemics and tended to push all other political differences into the background. Yet, for the most part they were resolved in 1905 by the separation of church and state. Since then, most Catholics, including the hierarchy, have accepted and even rallied to republican institutions provided their secular character is understood and affirmed in a neutral rather than an anti-clerical or anti-Catholic sense. For a long time now, one can be a good French Catholic and support the Left, something that was not really possible in the 1880s.
The third great debate concerned what is called the “social question,” meaning the effects of the Industrial Revolution on French society, including the rise of socialism and the workers’ movement. These issues emerged as early as the July Monarchy of the 1830s and ‘40s, and thus overlapped historically with the other two debates. The social debate’s early phase displayed features which may surprise those whose notions of Right and Left are based on the terminology of a later age. The early socialist theorists did not identify with the Left, did not believe in the inevitability of historical progress (something characteristic of liberals in that age), and appealed to ideas of mutual assistance rooted in the practices of pre-Revolutionary France. Following the resolution of the religious debate in the early twentieth century, however, the social question gained new prominence and took on the features more familiar to us, opposing a Right that championed the French nation and capitalism to a Left committed to internationalism and the collective emancipation of the working class through political control of the means of production and centralized economic planning.
This understanding of Right and Left did not survive the collapse of “really existing socialism” in 1989. Already by 1984, the French government of socialist President François Mitterand, having learned from its own economic failures, had abandoned all pretense of opposition to the market. Around the same time, the capitalist Right was abandoning any concern for the nation, and the contemporary era of neo-liberal globalism was born. No fourth great debate pitting Left versus Right has emerged in the years since. Instead, today’s politics opposes disaffected voters to an incestuous and corrupt ruling elite that largely agrees on all the big questions.
To this passing of the great ideological debates of old can be added the effects of what the French call “recentrage” — appeals to the “middle of the road” voter based on the assumption that elections are won in the center, by securing the all-important 50% plus one vote. This generally means appealing to the least reflective minds, those most disposed to follow the herd and who are unmindful even of logical consistency. Not many Frenchmen are actually to be found smack in the center of the conventional political spectrum, so that an excessive concentration on the mythical “middle of the road” voter results in party programs that increasingly resemble one another, yet alienate most of the nation. Thus, Benoist opens his book by citing the result of a 2016 poll according to which 85% of French voters said they would be disappointed with the results of the then-upcoming presidential election no matter what the result. Electoral success is often more a matter of eliciting the enthusiasm of one’s base than of fishing for the elusive approval of the unthinking and indifferent. No French party today rouses much enthusiasm, and the same is true across much of the West.
And so we arrive at our populist moment. The customary contest between political parties and programs has been replaced by a contest between ordinary voters and the political class as a whole. This situation will not go on forever; like the great debates of the past, it will find a resolution somehow. The worst way this could happen would be through the successful suppression of the populist revolt by the incumbent elite. That would require the establishment of a kind of neo-Communist dictatorship powerful enough to protect what they call “our democracy” from all popular challenge. Elements of the elite are hard at work on such a project, fortifying elections, combatting hate speech, and replacing the nation with more reliable foreign clients. But their actions convey more than a whiff of desperation, and I suspect the current crackdown will prove to be the darkness that precedes the dawn.
A successful populist challenge will involve a two-pronged strategy of increasing popular participation in government and replacing the incumbent elite with a new one.
According to Benoist, the central concept of democracy is not elections or equality or the law of number, but participation. The maximum of democracy is equivalent to the maximum of participation by ordinary people in deciding matters that affect their own lives. And it is in the effect of policy on citizens’ lives that we find the best response to the common objection that the people are not competent to determine policy. Yes, modern politics does touch upon complex questions which exceed most people’s understanding. But this does not mean ordinary voters are unable to feel the effects of existing policies on themselves and their families. Even an animal is the best judge of when it is in pain. And the people are in pain due to mass immigration, the offshoring of jobs, and other aspects of globalization. While most are not qualified to design better policies in detail, they are capable of making reasonable choices about their own welfare when given the chance. In recent decades, they have not been given that chance. This is the basis of popular outrage against the current elite, not any delusions of grandeur about their own capacity to rule.
Participation can be increased through the use of popular referenda as well as involvement in local government, such as the recent success of parents’ groups in capturing school boards in parts of the United States. But elites of some kind are inevitable, having existed in every society throughout history. It is important to understand that our populist moment is not a revolt against elites as such, but only against a particular corrupt elite deeply alienated from and hostile to those it governs. Once populism has won a few victories, we are likely to see the emergence of charismatic young leaders able to usher in a long overdue circulation of Western elites. The talent is already there: it consists precisely of those who have been deliberately purged from the current elite by its incumbents. Our task is to organize them and prepare them for their destined role as the renewers of our civilization.
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