A short while ago I quoted the Financial Times on Catherine Fieschi’s book on populism called Populocracy.
The fundamental organising principle of populism is a divide between the people and the elite. The ‘commonality of people’ have an innate sense of what is right, which helps to explain ‘why so much populist politics will short-circuit discussion or examination: because the people’s preferences are innate. And because they are innate, they are just and cannot be argued with.’
The second important component, Fieschi says, is betrayal by an elite, typically one that has a greater sense of allegiance to its own members than to the people or the nation.
The third is authenticity, the leitmotif of Fieschi’s book. By authenticity she does not mean an unvarnished image or consistent beliefs — the magic dust for all modern politicians — but a politics rooted in instinct rather than reason, ‘the politics of the gut’. It allows the populist to dismiss opponents as hypocrites and provides licence to speak one’s mind without limits, to be direct to the point of shamelessness.
Fieschi combines conceptual analysis with real examples to chart the historic evolution of populism. Mr Le Pen was a prototype who began to write the populist manual with his use of the ‘calculated provocation’. ‘Lying as a demonstration of one’s irrepressibly authentic nature: what could be more sincere than that?’ Fieschi asks.
Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, she writes, pioneered ‘entrepreneurial’ but non-ideological populism. Anti-establishment comedian Beppe Grillo broke ground with his blog and web-based ‘democracy’. Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s hard right League, is always available, always accessible, seemingly unstoppable.
…. Her thesis is that digital technology has made us receptive to populism by exalting immediacy, simplicity and transparency. Without complexity, delay and frustration we do not pause for reflection.
I would add seven comments to that helpful summary. ‘Populism’ does not just emerge as a result of a crisis, but…its logic is also to create a crisis.’ (Trump does this on a daily basis; shock jocks live off it. In the old language, they are anti-social; and ‘social’ media encourages them to be anti-social.) As well as being against elites, populists are against diversity or pluralism. They relish their shamelessness. (Just look at Berlusconi or Trump – or Bolsonaro’s promotion of his son.) They look for simple answers and go heavily on scapegoats. They have to face a quandary – how do you drain the swamp without becoming a part of it? They are jealous and distrustful of experts. And finally, the author does not disguise her opinion.
Yet populism’s reliance on disruption, on simplification, on a debased form of authenticity (that is shameless rather than genuine) means that it is inherently corrosive of politics….We are encouraged to leave expertise behind and embrace common sense, to deny complexity, to reject diversity and to choose the short cut of instinct – just as things are possibly more plural, more complex and more delicately balanced than ever before.
The book is very instructive – even for someone who gets unsettled by the term ‘political science.’
There is little that is new in the phenomenon. Pisistratus was an early model in Athens and the Gracchi followed in Rome. The great German historian Mommsen said of Caius Gracchus. ‘On the very threshold of his despotism, he was confronted by the fatal dilemma, moral and political, that the same man had at one and the same time to hold his ground as a captain of robbers, and to lead the state as its first citizen – a dilemma to which Pericles, Caesar, and Napoleon also had to make dangerous sacrifices.’ That is so ripe for most of the jerks discussed in this book.
Catherine Fieschi discusses the role of tabloids in England. Here we have shock jocks who appeal to the same audience – with all the decency of sluts in white boots. Complete ignorance is no barrier. Shock jocks will comment on a trial when they do not know the law and have not seen or heard the evidence. Logic they have not. But they have plenty of front. Hitler was the world champion of the betrayal conspiracy with the knife in the back of 1918, and the followers of Jesus of Nazareth face a different kind of quandary. How can you sustain an Establishment, and a very rich and powerful one at that, on the basis of the life and teaching of a convicted tearaway whose mission it was to collapse the Establishment?
The key trait of the followers appears to me to be insecurity. They cannot stand doubt. They lack what Keats called negative capability.
At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.
Pascal memorably said that, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ (Trump, yet again.) This form of immaturity underlies their intolerance of people outside their tribe, and their blind tolerance of and trust for their leader. Their sense of inferiority leads them to reject experts (unless they need one personally). They get jumpy if you call them out, but if they are represented by those at Trump rallies chanting ‘Lock her up’ or ‘Send her back’, they are as unpleasant as they are stupid. They are nothing if not gullible. Gulling them is as hard as taking candy from a baby. They remind you of those simple minded investors whose greed allows them to be seduced by silly promises of wealth and forget the obvious – that risk rises with returns. This insecurity, this felt lack of status, also underlies their jealous exclusivity about membership of the nation. You can see all of this on show during the French Revolution, especially in the different ways that Robespierre and Marat manipulated the sansculottes.
The result is a kind of blindness and deafness among the faithful. The followers do not see that their Messiah is not one of them. As often as not, he is a paradigm example of the elite, who could not give a bugger about any of them and is there simply for himself. They don’t even complain when the leader looks after his people at their cost. I cannot resist citing Carlyle.
Think also if the private Sansculotte has not his difficulties in a time of dearth!…How the Poor Man continues living, and so seldom starves; by miracle! Happily, in these days, he can enlist, and have himself shot by the Austrians, in an unusually satisfactory manner – for the Rights of Man.
Trump knows precisely how docile and stupid his followers are. He expresses his contempt to their face. ‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.’ Only God knows just how true that is.
There is something sordid about all these Pied Pipers. The current tenant of Number 10 may have gone to Eton and Cambridge, but the mistress he is taking to Number 10 enjoys a relationship that has required the attention of the rozzers, and when he is not engaging in a domestic, he is spreading his seed in a way that may vex the editors at Debret. Any democracy is at risk of succumbing to the lowest common denominator – not least when snake-oil salesmen – and they are all men – gull those with a chip on their shoulder with the aid of sponsored cowardice on social media.
Finally, at least in Australia, there is the added insult of people who applaud or defend populism claiming to be ‘conservative’- one of the most abused terms in our language. Populists are a direct negation of conservatism. They are out to destroy or disrupt, and not conserve. The problem with using the term ‘conservative’ is highlighted by Simon Blackburn in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.
conservatism Originally in Burke an ideology of caution in departing from the historical roots of a society, or changing its inherited traditions and institutions. In this ‘organic’ form, it includes allegiance to tradition, community, hierarchies of rank, benevolent paternalism, and a properly subservient underclass. By contrast, conservatism can be taken to imply a laissez-faire ideology of untrammelled individualism that puts the emphasis on personal responsibility, free markets, law and order, and a minimal role for government, with neither community, nor tradition, nor benevolence entering more than marginally. The two strands are not easy to reconcile, either in theory or in practice.
It is not possible to apply either of those usages to the criteria of populism identified by Catherine Fieschi. And, to the extent that any decent or useful meaning can be given to the label ‘libertarian’, the same goes for it. And all that is without looking at courtesy, decency or integrity, or what Sir Lewis Namier called ‘restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies.’ Restraint is as essential to conservatives as it is entirely absent from populists. The spoiled child syndrome looms large in their chosen ones. Sordid people are beyond restraint.
This book is a very good contribution. It will be fun watching the boys from Eton and Cambridge hopping into the ‘elites’. One objection to them is that while they can afford the cost of their disruption, most of those they lied to can’t. Suckers of the world unite – you have everything to lose, including your brains. And, sadly, there is one born every minute.