Postliberalism, Populism and the Left

An Offering to Athens

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What is the main line of fracture in global politics today? Does it remain one between the now traditional Right and Left, or has a new Populist versus Liberal division supplanted the old one?

For those on the Left, the instinct will be to say that any such supplanting is either illusory or perverse. However, that verdict could represent a triumph of political prejudice over political critique. After all, the Right-Left faultline has existed only since the French Revolution. Originally it denoted a division between those more devoted to the legacy of the ancien régime on the one hand and those in favour of a more liberal and democratic approach, which might have various connotations, on the other.

To understand this genealogy is also to see that in fact it is what we have come to understand as the normative political division that is itself somewhat illusory and perverse. What survives, after all, today, of the conservatism that opposed electoral democracy and was rooted in landed aristocracy, an international dynastic order and the cult of sacral monarchy? Yet this was what originally defined the European Right throughout the Nineteenth Century and even somewhat beyond.

What is more, even the assumption that such a Right represented the true, deep and ancient past is rather suspect. To the contrary, it was in important ways just as ‘modern’ as left liberalism. Where the latter thought that order could only be distilled from respect for the individual and the aggregation of individual votes, the former, conservative position considered that it could only be imposed from a unified sovereign centre. Liberalism was a politics of the Many, Conservatism a politics of the One; but in either case a specifically modern and post-Hobbesian numerical calculus in the face of an assumed natural anarchy was to the fore.

Equally squeezed out by either side, as to a degree noted by a more critical liberal thinker like Alexis de Tocqueville, was a more qualitative politics of the mediating Few. By this I mean a more genuinely traditional politics focussed not exclusively on the problem of order, but equally on the question of positive political purpose. On the pursuit of true human flourishing both collectively and individually, a flourishing taken to include participation in political life and the distilling of rule out of such participation on the part of citizens.

The politics of the mediating Few

This can be considered to be a politics of the mediating Few for two different, but intimately connected reasons.

First, because it refuses an absolutely monopolised sovereignty of the centre, which regards the political whole too easily in what we now know to be the mathematically problematic terms of a wholly inclusive single set. Instead, it allows the natural and social primacy of various diverse sub-sets which are typically local and vocational and cannot simply be considered as ‘parts’ of the whole, nor as taken together as ‘less’ than the whole.

For this vision, sovereignty lies originally neither at the single centre, nor with the dispersed people taken as an aggregate, but is rather inherently plural and dispersed, with linkages of sub-groups also beyond national state borders – in terms of ethnicity, culture and professional interest, for example. A certain political unity arises from this dispersal in a more organic and paradoxical fashion which accords with a more sophisticated mathematical and philosophical understanding. Thus the overall polity, in its chimerical totality, both stands beyond its constituents and yet remains amongst them. The qualitative miracle of political life in excess of mathematical quandary is that from this seemingly doomed aporetic oscillation a certain shared and acceptable culturally mediating spirit – a certain style of republican life – can emerge.

Secondly, a politics of the Few is also, and it would seem more controversially, a politics of the aristocratic Few, of the virtuous few. If politics is more than functional, if it is also a politics of Virtue aimed at the pursuit of genuine human goods, then it needs to be shaped not by the ‘false Few’, by the sophistic manipulators supported by the men of money and raw technocratic power, but by genuine educators, genuinely exemplary individuals who at once pursue excellence for themselves and desire to lead others towards this excellence.

It is only the exercise of this role that can tend to ensure a responsible, hyper-aristocratic and integrating operation of power at the unified centre and at the same time a greater dispersal of virtue amongst the populace at large. Otherwise this Many will tend to operate in the model of a sinister conglomeration and a shared narcissism, not respectful of human divergences or of the rights of minorities to valid differences of opinion.

To speak in this way of the role of the Few rather than of the Many sounds, of course anti-democratic. But this is not so. For one thing, if the true role of aristocratic educators is denied, then one gets instead, not the pure command of the people, but rather the away of the false Few, of sophistic and cynical propagandists.

The person in history who first realised this was the Athenian Plato, whose Laws reveal him to be actually more democratic than Aristotle, more inclusive of women, children and animals in the city and of the possibility of a grasp and exercise of virtue at a more affective and erotic level. This was precisely because, again compared with Aristotle, he more incorporated also the gods in the embrace of the city and therefore saw continuous religious and civic ritual as the key to the combination of popular participation with political virtue.

In the second place, the aristocratic role is of course not necessarily linked to land and lineage, though these may have their part to play in yoking power to responsibility and ecological care. Instead, as with both Plato and Aristotle, it is the onerous and ascetic role of continuous public involvement and constantly debated consideration and conveyance of the truth. As such this role can itself and should be diversified, pluralised and multiplied as much as possible. In every sphere of life it needs to be exercised and at every level. Some drivers of lorries, for example, need to be the mystics of geographical transport and of logistics if this vocation is to retain its integrity and sense of genuine human purpose. Without the interfusing of such vocationalism into every aspect of human life, there exists no possibility of economic democracy. Instead, human beings will be ever more robotised and further considered as cogs in a machine or instants in the operation of algorithmic functions.

All that the current radical Left tends to offer as an alternative to this, following some suggestions of Marx in the Grundrisse, is a complete automation of production that will supposedly leave everyone equally free because equally leisured. Yet this is an ultra-liberal, apolitical vision in which fulfilment no longer lies, as it truly does, in political participation, since the link between individual aesthetic creativity and ethical service to others, between poesis and praxis, would have been broken. Endless leisure would be continuous ennui and mental breakdown, while in reality the automation of everything would be the automating also of humans, the suppression of eudaemonia and the substitution of utilitarian calculations for the maximising of pleasure, or Kantian ones for the maximising of negative freedom. For as with driverless cars, the aspect of unavoidable moral decision-making would have to be programmed-in to automated processes and it is only the false ethical systems, reducible to algorithms, that can be so programmable.

In any case this false utopia cannot eventuate: human managers and menders of machines, would still be required and the number of human operators in the non-automated cracks would necessarily keep pace with the advance of automation (just for the reason that automation can always be further increased and so is never complete) would ceaselessly expand. However, the dystopic factor would also augment: workers would become ever-more constrained by and habituated to it automation which would gradually inhibit their capacities for creativity and contemplation that lie at the basis of any truly fecund life of Greek scholē or Latin otium.

Thirdly, when we consider the aristocratic role primarily as educative, then we see that it is perennially reversible. Pure democracy has an unrealistic spatial bias, which is why it so often appeals to spatialising fictions like autochthony or the social contract. It implicitly imagines that the political process begins with a group of adults assembled at one moment in the public square. Thereby it ignores the always-prior political motion that produces the moment of democratic action: the education of children and the asymmetrical influencing of opinion over the course of time. Yet time is an ontological obstacle to unrestricted democracy as Edmund Burke explained: we are first of all children and have to learn from others; in one dimension we remain forever infants. This is exactly why all the liberal praise of normative adult autonomy is a mode of paedophobia that perhaps lurks behind so many of the seemingly peculiar pathologies of our age. Both the texts of Plato and the texts of the New Testament already seem to isolate and target this phenomenon.

Equally we remain children insofar as we can only explore, refine and criticise from within the biases and choices we have inherited from the past. We can never begin again from scratch, nor adopt towards the past a merely negatively critical attitude. Rather something has to be positively received and perpetuated, something has to be taken on trust and as a trust for the future.

Nevertheless, to live in time is not only to live in the time of inheritance but also in the time of surprise, of a constantly emerging novelty that is linked to dynamic forces which are as equally real as the more static and given ones, as Henri Bergson realised. Thus to educate, to communicate, to pass on, is to expose oneself to the welcome risk of novelty, of the guided, almost from the outset, starting to overtake their guides. This is the democracy that is paradoxically inherent to hierarchy, whose finite medium is always time. Yet without the allowance of hierarchy, there can be no exercise of democracy whatsoever. There will only be a dangerous blend of manipulation and unmediated animal spontaneity that must be less than human and less than political.

In the fourth place, the aristocratic role of the Few in time is inherently linked to the plural role of different semi-sovereign communities in space – the other dimension of ‘fewness’. These communities represent sites of direct, participatory democracy: in the family, in the locality, in a more than human local societas that includes rocks, plants and animals. This is not on the whole a formal democracy of voting; it is much more involved, continuous and interpersonal than that. But how is such participation to be somewhat sustained between these groups and at the co-ordinating centre which governs them all – but should not and indeed cannot, for set-theoretical reasons, overrule them, to be sustained?

The answer is surely in terms of notions and practices of ‘representation’ which were much more developed in the medieval, Christian era than they were in the ancient, pagan one. Representation can mean formal mandation, but this risks disallowing the personal judgments that the representative needs to make in the face of other representations, complex details and arising circumstance. Inflexibility is here not viable, precisely because she here confronts, along with other representatives, the mathematically ‘impossible’ and qualitative task of integrating without totalising the diversely many groupings in terms of an emergent ‘style’ that can only be improvised through the changing course of events and of responses to them.

On the other hand, representation can mean usurpation of the people by a political class acting from thenceforwards in their own sectional interests, or else in the spurious name of a supposed expertise that they have imbibed from bureaucrats and technocrats. This possibility is equally unacceptable.

In order to avoid either alternative one requires some sort of continuity of shared substantive vision in general between represented and representatives and between represented groups and the entire universitas of a polity. In other words, the particular shared values and goals of all the smaller groupings can only be securely integrated if there is also a shared superordinate embrace of goals and values, of a ‘common sensing’, however relatively thin in character. The representative is only more than a delegate on the one hand, and more than a managing controller on the other, if she can symbolise both the parts to the whole and the whole to the parts in a continuously symbiotic fashion.

This symbiotic process requires specifically the representation of groupings with a shared identity and purpose, whether geographical or vocational. For the representation merely of arbitrary aggregates of individuals necessarily suppresses any specifically political conversation and process. Instead, it tends either to a Rousseauian naturalism, a spontaneous expression of the pre-political ‘general will’ of the people, or to a technocratic robotism, such that the task of the representatives is really to mediate the work of the social engineers.

Thus if humanity is neither sheerly pre-cultural animal (and not even other animals are this) nor post-cultural robot, but Aristotle’s ‘political animal’, then the relatively natural and animal level of the political in the local and vocational cannot be obviated. But neither can the more consciously cultural and architectonic task of overall, more specifically political techne. If each dimension is not to either falsely sink or falsely rise to the level of the other, then there must be aristocratic and yet democratic mediators: the ‘representatives’.

Self-rule and representation

To say all this is to defend the ancient Athenian conception of the nature of politics as citizens’ self-rule. Not the modern rule of a state apparatus over-against us, but politics as in continuity with human life and normal interaction, which means politics specifically construed in terms of friendship and as an extended exercise of friendship, as both Plato and Aristotle regarded it.

The objection that this politics is impossible for anything beyond the scale of the city-state can be doubly met. First, already in terms of Plato’s increasing sense of the Greek federation and later in terms of the Roman imperial sense of the role of King and Caesar, the political role of the One can be augmented beyond its understatement in Aristotle, without acceding to any post-Bodin notion of absolute sovereignty, or of the ‘state’ as something extrinsically removed from the people.[TN_i] Second, in terms of the medieval articulation of representation as already described, which was profoundly linked to Trinitarian, Christological, ecclesiological and Eucharistic doctrine, in both the Byzantine imperial republic – surely the truest current of Hellenism – and in the Latin West.

If one links these two things together, then one can see how the new role of representation increases the exigency, as articulated by Plato, Aristotle and the later Greek writer Polybius, for mixed government, for a blend of the One, the Few and the Many, if any viable democracy is to function well. In the case of the three pagan writers, this blend was regarded as essential in order to prevent or at least limit respective degenerations of monarchy into tyranny, aristocracy into moneyed oligarchy and democracy into the irrational and intolerant control of a coagulated and terrorising mass of people. But in modern and post-Christian terms one can additionally see how only this blend, as mediated by representation, is able to sustain citizens’ self-rule at all beyond the very intimate level.

My contention then, is that since the time of the French Revolution and in fact earlier, an over-quantified politics is divided between a conservative politics of the One and a progressive politics of the Many. Yet both are equally modern and at times it can be the Left that argues for a politics of the One and the Right that argues for a politics of the Many. Indeed, one could say that Twentieth Century politics has involved just this reversal, with politics split between state socialist advocacy on the one hand, often in the name of science and technology and atheism, and so-called ‘conservative’ advocacy of a market-dominated individualism on the other, perhaps obviating the need for the political function altogether.

The association of this mode of being ‘right-wing’ with religion and social conservatism is often adventitious – an attempt to disguise substantive modernism with a traditionalist gloss, or more specifically to conceal the marketisation of culture and the kitsch aestheticisation of the market with an apparent adulation of tradition. Yet in reality every tradition, including sexual, family, local and natural ones, are deliberately overridden by the market-processes which the modern ‘Right’ encourages. Increasingly, even the Disney-fied sentimentalisation of culture gets recast in more pluralistic terms, as the liberal advocacy of free choice on the one hand and of the technocratic rearrangement of nature on the other are evermore fused together in the joint interests of market profit and state control. The virtual ‘computer-game’ evermore invades the real.

In these ways, the inherited Right-Left split is in any case not what we usually take it as being. This can be further revealed if one additionally considers the more economic dimension. Already the ancien régime had tended to subordinate land to money, aristocratic political participation to a debt-funded political class and national purpose to mercantilist ones. The Nineteenth Century Right mostly inherited these biases. In the case of the Nineteenth century liberal Left, an individualist economism could often be qualified in terms of a neo-classical and medievalising constitutionalism, historicism and organicism. Yet increasingly at its defining core lay an ultimate basis in isolated individual rights, inherently linked to a primarily economic expression of supposedly basic needs, fears and incomprehensions. By the dawn of the Twentieth Century this understanding of liberalism was more firmly in place and has increasingly come to undergird on the left both a cultural libertarianism, that covertly links negative freedom to technology, and a welfarist and interventionist approach to the economy supposed to secure fairer outcomes as between essentially isolated individuals.

Considered in these terms it becomes clear, as Jean-Claude Michéa has argued, that the more original, non-statist and mutualist conception of ‘socialism’ did not think at all in modern terms of the predominant One or Many and so did not, before 1900 or so, after which it entered into an alliance in France with liberal Republicanism, think of itself as either Left or Right.[1] Rather it was already a ‘third way’ focused on reciprocal self-aiding groups of the Few, either drifting in benign political anarchy, or politically coordinated in ways that were corporatist with regard to the political role of economic bodies and pluralist and subsidiarist with respect to the interlocking of levels of sovereignty – as for example with the political thought of Emile Durkheim.

It is however arguable that just at this point the role of representation has on the whole been under-theorised by socialism as a necessary linkage between various groups of ‘the few’ and central political unity. But once one has said that, it raises the question of whether socialism has always needed more to emphasise a ‘conservative’ moment – the need for the few aristocratic mediators at every level as I have described.

And to speak of the need for the transmission and development of tradition in the course of time is to speak also of all those traditional values and practices that are inherently immune to being commodified. If capitalism is to be resisted, then what else can the non-commodifiable be but that those things that have come down to us with the aura of the sacred? Is this the simple but deep reason for the failure of socialism hitherto? A contradictory alliance with a materialism, scientism and progressivism which always prove to be far more strongly espoused and understood by its capitalist enemy which advances under cover of the cloak of the past which it only dons in order to divide, cheapen and sell to the lowest bidder, yet always secretly derides as superfluous.

What I have said hitherto is supposed to intimate how, today, we need a new, postliberal, neo-classical and neo-medieval, anti-modern socialism that would be beyond Right and Left, integrating a certain conservative moment, just because it would seek to conserve and deepen its defining anti-capitalism.

False accusations against populism

One should simply face-down accusations of soft fascism at this point, because not one of respectively personalism, virtue-politics, corporatism nor pluralism are inherently fascistic, unless they sustain the political atheism of their liberal enemy and fill these originally non-fascist categories with a xenophobic, racist, future and state-worshipping content that remains firmly within the modern quantitative axis of the unmediated One and Many.

But how does this intimation relate to our current global political circumstance? To revert to my opening question, it seems that today the Right-Left axis is being displaced by a Populist versus Liberal one. Populism overwhelmingly takes so-called right-wing forms – only in the case of southern Europe and arguably the qualified successes of Corbyn in the UK and Sanders in the US does it take left-wing ones.

The reason for the former exceptions is in part local economic circumstance. If one defines populism in general as a sense of the unity of all the people against an elite, then in the circumstances of the German-led European Union’s imposition of austerity on almost the entire populations of the European South, populism can readily take a left-wing form. Its idioms tend to be the use of social media and enhanced party-control, bypassing the local and vocational groupings of the Few and its advocacy is often of formal direct democracy and of referenda, in a Rousseauian fashion. These latter characteristics are to a degree true also with Corbyn and Sanders. But their movements tend to be middle-class ones, sometimes giving a populist tinge to liberalism itself, such that the politics of identity, including things like the #MeToo movement and ‘Trans-Right activism’, becomes one of mass assertion of the supposedly obvious, an articulation of victimhood at the hands of various elite others rather than being about rational democratic debate or argument. In this context the claims for recent progress in the areas of the emancipation of various minorities often becomes a progressivist alibi for endless retreat in terms of poverty, inequality and environmental damage. In order to paper-over this crack, a recycled social democracy or Keynesian statism is additionally advocated – like a sort of surrogate populism that it is hoped the working-classes will buy into, even though they so far mostly do not do so.

Far more dominant is so-called right-wing populism. This is now espoused by an estimated one in four of Europeans and one scarcely needs to mention the USA and Brazil. All too often, the Left wishes to regard this phenomenon as an aberration. The usual arguments are that for far too long the social democratic left espoused the central nostrums of neoliberalism, which it barely qualified. As a result, the working and lower middle classes have become alienated from social democracy which is everywhere in decline. Since their economic needs have been neglected, they are readily prey to quasi-fascistic exploitation of their fears, which are falsely directed towards aliens and immigrants, rather than to their real economic and nationally political oppressors.

In this analysis, only the excoriation of the Blair-generation of social democrats, now disastrously perpetuated by Macron, is true. Otherwise, all the best expert analysis shows that it is false. As the Brexit vote demonstrated, the working-classes are often as equally concerned with more intangible cultural issues as they are with material ones. I have already suggested that the link between socialism and materialism is a fundamental and self-defeating mistake. But after the New Left had taken the magically mystical road of post-materialist concerns with personal self-presentation and its defence in the face of often contrived and imagined oppressions,[TN_ii] any espousal of campus-Marxist materialism tends to become a mode of condescension. Yes of course for them it is those basic things that matter!

But then, in further ironic exposure of New Left illusion, it turns out that whereas their own post-materialism was only comprised of negative liberties, which might ontologically mean merely the absence of material blockage and positively at the most the licit admission of novel chemical flows… the sustained non-materialism of the plebeans is far more archaic, substantive and collective. It concerns a sense of inherited identity, of unity with place, both natural and cultural, a valuing of sexual fidelity and the normatively heterosexual base of the family along with a sense that the family, not the isolated individual, is the true basis of social order. In this way it is revealed how the working classes might once have naturally espoused socialism but have never shared any natural affinity with left-liberalism.

It follows that if the Left betrayed the workers to economic liberalism, then they also betrayed them to cultural liberalism, as the devastating effects of the loss of traditional gender-norms amongst the working classes goes to show. For however resistant to permissive values the proletariat might be, they are not immune to them – especially in the case of working-class men who have imbibed, along with the loss of stable jobs, the sense that they are no longer primarily responsible for women and children.

But what of the values and policies that so-called right-wing populists are espousing and the ideology they espouse? Are these not fascistic? It is important to say here that there is a clear historical distinction between populism and fascism, even if the two can readily overlap.

First, populism is a defining possibility of liberal democracy itself. Bearing in mind my earlier remarks, political representation has often been regarded as an aberration from a modern point of view, or at best a regrettable necessity. Many of the early English whigs and then both the Girondins and the Jacobins during the French Revolution espoused various modes of formal direct democracy. There is therefore nothing inherently conservative about populism at all. To the contrary, its sense of a ‘natural’ will of the people concurs exactly with Rousseau’s modern sense of an unmediated general will that represents a supposedly undistorted natural and innocent coordination of the will of each with the will of all others, resulting in the will of all.

In the case of the American Revolution likewise, there was much advocacy of direct democracy and referenda at the outset. This populism later recurred at least twice in the course of the Nineteenth century and was at first directly linked with the ‘Democratic’ rather than ‘Republican’ understanding of the American constitution – the latter involving far more of an aristocratic and representative dimension, though for essentially distorted, capitalistic reasons.

Secondly, populism, not altogether unlike industrial proletarian self-consciousness as identified by Marx, tends to be a sentiment of those who are near the social bottom of the pile and yet also relatively quite secure. So sometimes what specifically defines populism, as with Poujadism in Nineteen-Fifties France,[TN_iii] is the link to small independent owners – businessmen and shopkeepers for example. One could then argue that one reason for the much wider growth of populism in our own time is the fact that, with the collapse of an industrial economy, the mass of people now much more identify with their family, their houses and their neighbourhood above all else. The increasing removal of financial assets from most people, along with the shockingly increased enclosure of all forms of public land (including parks and playing-fields) and the general leaching away of symbolic value from ordinary territory means that ordinary people, ever more reduced to the material and to a threatened material at that, are likely for good reasons to cling on to the spiritual values that are inherently linked to this fragile patrimony.

In both these ways one can see that there is nothing necessarily fascistic or even right-wing about populism in the past or even populism today. But what about the latter’s specifically espoused policies? Here again, the same verdict must often apply.

Nothing in the typical populist programmes of today is all that irrational.[2] There is indeed a pervasive suspicion of elite expertise. But one has to understand this against a background of increasing social division between the college-educated and those who have received no higher education whatsoever. It has become evermore the case, as the British sociologist Michael Young first identified in the Nineteen-Fifties, and the American commentator Christopher Lasch has confirmed, that the members of a ‘meritocracy’ are more arrogant than older elites of inheritance by token of their sense of self-worth and desert. In addition, they less associate their privilege with a sense of inherited role or responsibility. Instead, they tend to milk public position for all it is worth and to cream off social and political capital into financial dividend.

In this sense they constitute a false Few, a pseudo-aristocracy. And the popular intuition that much if not most of their supposed expertise is in reality sophistry and not wisdom, is surely correct. As Thomas Piketty has said, we now have a right- voting ‘Merchant elite’ and a left-voting ‘Brahmin elite’. But both groups are liberal, and in reality the Brahmins are marketing their cultural products along merchant lines and helping the merchants to gild their products with the gloss of cultural seduction.

In the face of this analysis, for the mass of people to think that they are confronted with a single elite block is not a fantasy of conspiracy, but rather a discerning diagnosis. And to read elite discourses with suspicion is not wrong either. For many of these discourses are a self-serving of either the ‘new class’s economic or its narcissistic self-interest, decked out by a truncated university education and a little light reading.

Both modes of self-interest encourage the construal of human history and society in supposedly ‘scientific’ terms of mechanical cause and effect, blind ‘influences’ and ‘probabilities’, which physics, chemistry and biology now tend to doubt even applies all that well to nature. Thus the suspicion of supposedly irrefutable knowledge is surely not displaced and not to be too-readily confused with the ‘post-truth’ dominance of social media expression and rumour which is itself a kind of populist ‘alt-liberal’ phenomenon. Indeed, as Tristan Garcia has argued, it is the very reduction of truth to mere ‘fact’ which ensures the possible weakening of truth, since any mere fact can be qualified through further contextualisation, comparison and stress on its inevitable penumbra of uncertainty.[3] Intuitively, many people discern a certain lack of inherited, developing and communicated wisdom based on consistently developing thick ‘judgements’ (combining inseparable fact and value) in which they could truly share.

Populism, therefore, is not a sort of manifested and newly-licensed ignorance. Nor is it fundamentally a mode of prejudice. Many indicators (the rates on intermarriage, for example) suggest that the real sentiment of racism has been dying almost everywhere for some time and continues to do so. Thus populist fears of immigration, very often shared by earlier immigrants themselves, and across any colour-spectrum, is infrequently racist. It is rather in one respect coherently economic: concerned about the houses, jobs, wages and welfare of the indigenous who are indeed often pushed to the bottom of the pile below incomers by suburban liberal politicians. Nor has the net of European immigration and migration effect been economically beneficial as is so often claimed – the contrary is true, because of the relative poverty and indigency of a large number of incomers.[4]

It is of course also here crucial to say that most immigration exists to exploit the incomers and very often does so. But in another respect popular fear of excessive immigration are legitimately cultural or even ethno-cultural (given a correct refusal of a total nature/culture duality) – a fear that one’s area and local atmosphere, which one cannot afford to leave, will be ineradicably changed and even altogether lost, especially if the incomers are Sunni Muslims, given the increasingly rigorist and self-forgetting drift of modern Sunnism. Nor is it in any way irrational to worry about the effects of both immigration and globalisation on the entire character of the country in which one lives. Is regional and national self-determination in the realm of culture totally beyond the purview of democratic self-determination in every sense? And if it is, then what price democracy? That is the rightfully populist question.

There is little on the whole ‘rightwing’ in the sense of neoliberal about espoused populist economic policies in the case of Europe. To the contrary, the bent is towards reinvented government intervention and strengthened welfare, as in the case of Italy whose current government is in fact a right-left populist alliance, even though it gets routinely described as ‘rightwing extremist’. One could validly speak of a lack of originality here, save perhaps with respect to family policies, especially in the case of Hungary. For all the debatable excoriation of the Hungarian regime, its success rests above all on a new relating of work to family that is much more radical and feminist than that attempted say in liberal Spain, with higher child allowances, no penalisation of big families, very long maternity leaves and powerful guarantees that women can return to jobs at the same level they left them.

Finally, the accusation of totalitarianism against some Eastern European regimes certainly points to dubious imperfections and seriously worrying tendencies, but takes little account of the understandable desire to retain cultural integrity, besides the real problems of still powerful ex-Communist cadres, of politicised judiciaries inherited from the Communist era and of a press readily suborned by foreign liberals of both Left and Right.

However, my overall point in conclusion is not that populism is straightforwardly the vanguard of postliberalism, even though it is to be hoped that it is its harbinger. For I have argued to the contrary that in many ways it is merely a mutation within the governing modern liberal-democratic paradigm. This is shown above all in its penchant for direct democracy and its tendency to invoke a strong central national state as the cure for populist ills.

The postliberal alternative

Thus in three ways populism remains pivoted between the One and the Many. First, it tends to suppress the role of the mediating Few in the case of the role of representatives which is necessary, as I have described, for the operation of ‘republican’ citizens’ self-rule in the modern context. This is of course relevant to the whole Brexit referendum debate, in which an eventual triumph of the Brexit cause – now thrown back into serious uncertainty – would risk a distortion of the mixed British constitution, making it now appear to be unilaterally founded upon popular sovereignty, which hitherto it is not.

Secondly, it tends not always to emphasise the role of the Few also in terms of the needs for more local and economic participatory democracy.

Thirdly, this deficit with respect to the primacy of association between people as opposed to the vertical relation of top to base extends also to its conception of international order. Here it tends, albeit understandably, to retreat to the national level for the sake of popular protection, disregarding the unavoidable need for an internationally political and democratic inhibition of global capital, crime and terroristic operations, besides positive collaboration in the ecological sphere. We cannot now revert to the ‘Westphalian’ order of mere diplomacy between sovereign nations, in the face of more neutral features of globalised complexity which cannot really be undone. Nor is this desirable in so far as this order tended to suppress the Burkean primacy of cultural linkages sustained across borders by all the groupings of the Few (educational, artistic, vocational, regional) which ‘diagonalise out’ of their merely political carapace.[5]&[TN_iv]

Such a retreat to the nation-state should not – as with Costas Lapavitsas, in his nonetheless penetrating book The Left Case Against the EU – be underwritten by appeals to a mode of Marxism which argues anachronistically that the main site of economic contestation is the class struggle inside each nation.[6] For one thing, the naked Capitalist drive to profit and financialised abstraction formally pre-exists the battle with Labour that is only instrumental in this respect. For another, both the accumulation of capital and the contestation with workers has always and still more today works across borders, and can only ultimately be opposed across borders. Merely national resistances to capital and financialisation will always be outplayed by their inherent mobility.

It is at the three points of political immediacy, centralisation, excessive and sometimes xenophobic nationalism that populism can exhibit certain features that are, after all, somewhat consonant with fascism and can, after all, rapidly harden into racism – as may already be occurring.

Ηowever, their overcoming would not involve a liberal tempering. To the contrary, there is another dimension in which today we sometimes witness liberal-populist fusions and actually the more one gets these fusions, then the more the fascistic drift is augmented and not mitigated.

Here one can instance first the way in which the French Front Nationale or the ‘Far Right’ in the Netherlands combine mass nationalist populism with a defence of an alt-liberal political correctness now seen as part of an ethno-cultural patrimony. This fusion only tends to increase the sense that many things lie beyond debate and go to compose the unquestionable volonté générale.

Secondly, the way in which in both the USA and now in Brazil populism takes the economic form of external protectionism with, at least for the moment, an internally augmented liberal free market. In some ways Trump’s excoriation of external unfair trading-practices can be supported, when it involves child labour, reduced standards, a lack of reciprocity as to trade and information, the progressive stealing of Western expertise and the extension of totalitarian norms abroad through Chinese-owned operations. And in general a measure of protectionism is always desirable for the sake of social cohesion, especially if it can be pursued on an inter-governmental mutual basis, as once established by the Bretton Woods accord. But the internal sustaining of neoliberalism in terms of deregulation and tax-cuts reveals a real and disturbing hybridity in Trump’s America. It seems to exist in part because it is hoped that a protected internal market can stimulate demand in a way that debt-funding failed to do or did so all-too dangerously. But in part also because capital can actually escape some international regulation by retreat to a hospitable country in a vast extension of its retreat to offshore tax-havens.

In any case, as Lapavistas articulates, the freeing of money from the gold standard always ensured at once that money was now a more freely-tradeable commodity and that it was also in a seemingly opposite fashion mere fiat-money, a direct expression of national political power through monetary creation and control. At this point the truth of all liberalism is the armoury that stands behind the currency, ultimately securing it. Thus it is consistent for capital, with and yet beyond neoliberalism, to retreat to the protection of this armoury in the end, especially in the face of the economic and military rise of Asia.

So in the one French-Dutch case one sees an alliance of populism with cultural liberalism, in the American case with economic liberalism. When one looks to China one can see how a liberal plus economic populism combined with a post-Democratic digitally-enabled state absolutism, further linked to nationalist ideology, could eventually arise in various mutations almost everywhere.

In this sense the task is not merely to discover a third-way between liberalism and populism – which can certainly not be restricted to the usually-received left remedies, for reasons I have tried to outline. It is more to try to discover an alternative to the continued aporias of liberalism and its partial mutation into populism or into a liberal-populist fusion which by that very token tends to become ever-more fascistic.

I tried earlier in this essay to indicate the lineaments of the real, postliberal alternative. It involves a revival of an older, original and mutualist socialism but one more conservatively attentive to the question of the proper role of elites at every level as being paradoxically the only way to halt the increasing terrible impact of bad ones, since the notions of merely constraining them through democracy is a naïve and hopeless answer, if it is thought of as an adequate rather than partial one. At the same time, this question of the legitimate role of the aristocratic Few can alone serve to link plural and dispersed forces of the Few with the One political centre without suppressing them. In that way the unmediated circle of the One and the Many, between liberal individualism and an overbearing market state, can alone be broken and so the collusion between liberalism and the populist insurgency.[TN_v]

This offering to Athens should be a matter, as we say in English, of ‘bringing coals to Newcastle.’[TN_vi] But I still hope that it might not quite be so.

Notes

[1] Jean-Claude Michéa, The Realm of Lesser Evil (Cambridge: Polity, 2009). | TN: See also in French: L’ Empire du moindre mal: Essai sur la civilisation libérale (Paris: Flammarion-Climats, 2007).

[2] For the best guide, see Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, National Populism: the Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (London: Penguin, 2018).| TN: See an excerpt of the book (here) and a video-presentation of Matthew Goodwin (here).

[3] Tristan Garcia, Form and Object: A Treatise on Things, trans. Mark Allan Ohm and Jon Cogburn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014), 331-355. |TN: See Contents and Introduction (here).

[4] See Douglas Murray, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018).

[5] See Adrian Pabst, Liberal World Order and its Critics: Civilisational States and Cultural Commonwealths (London: Routledge, 2018).

[6] Costas Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against the EU (Cambridge: Polity, 2019). Despite his convincing case that the EU has become a means of German neo-mercantilist and neoliberal domination, Lapavistas comes short of necessarily advocating Brexit or other exits and admits the need for Continent-wide political mechanisms. Since the EU for all its faults already provides a unique international framework that is political rather than economic, reform and not total recommencement seems the sensible course. Populist insurgency provides the possibility of achieving that.

Greek Translators’ Notes

[i] The term “post-Bodin” refers to Jean Bodin (1530–1596), French jurist and political philosopher, best known for his theory of sovereignty.

[ii] E.g., Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, 1956).

[iii] It refers to Pierre Poujade (1920-2003), initiator and leader of Poujadism, a mass social and political movement by French small business owners against taxation in the mid-1950s.

[iv] “Diagonalisation” is a term coming from the matrix theory in mathematics. One can speak of a “diagonal matrix” and of the “diagonalisation” of a matrix. This should not be confused with the concept of “diagonal argument” or “diagonal lemma”, a very special inductive method of reasoning used in mathematical logic (see G. Cantor, B. Russell, K. Gödel, A. Tarski et al). J. Milbank uses this term here in a rather metaphorical sense, borrowing it out of the matrix theory, in order to somehow describe a complex situation in which the various groupings of the Few of all nation-states coexist and interact, forming a new, common framework of coexistence and interaction beyond their particular national frameworks. For example, we can imagine a two-dimensional matrix, having its first dimension (e.g. the rows) covered by the various types of groupings of the Few (educational, artistic, vocational, regional), while the other dimension (the columns) is covered by the series of all national states. Each element of the matrix corresponds to a particular type of grouping for a particular state, so that the matrix as a whole covers all types of groupings of the Few in all states. To “diagonalise” this matrix means to transform it – i.e. to recompose its elements – in such a way that a new “diagonal” matrix occurs: that means a matrix equivalent to the first one, with the same two dimensions, where most of its elements will be converted to zero, except of the elements of the main diagonal. Thus we will have an eclectic-synthetic of the various types of groupings filtering in an international level (taking the best of every type, or the one that functions best as a point of reference for the others of its type, or something like that).

[v] The term “market-state” is introduced by Philip Bobbitt in his book The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2002). It describes the new type of state, that, according to Bobbit, is going to replace nation-states in the 21st century. See also here and here.

[vi] “Bringing coals to Newcastle” is an English idiom describing a pointless action. It is equal to the Greek saying “bringing owls to Athens.”

 

This essay is the original text of John Milbank’s lecture at Megaron, Athens Concert Hall, on 28 November 2018. It is posted on antifono.gr together with the Greek translation (see here), made by Nikos Manolopoulos and Vassilis Xidias. A slightly shortened version of the English text is posted on the web-page Jacobite (Jan 2019).

John Milbank (right at the photo) is an Anglican theologian, known as the founder of the movement of “Radical Orthodoxy”, influencing both theology and political theory. He is the author of, most notably, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Wiley-Blackwell, 20052, 19901). He is the President of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy, as well as Professor Emeritus in Religion, Politics and Ethics at the University of Nottingham.

The event was presided by the Greek theologian Vassilis Xidias (at the left of the photo). The speech was held in the framework of a series of lectures with the general title “Theory in Megaron: philosophy, critique, history”, organised in the period 2016-19 by Costas Dousinas, Professor of Law at Birkbeck University of London and Director of the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities, Syriza’ MP at that time.

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