The nonsense of populism

Abstract: Populism, as a reversal of the organizational arrow from the multiple to the global, is political nonsense. It is actually defined as the stiffening of a social circle within others, and can concern any social circle, including the “People of the Haves”, also affected by populism.

No commonalty in anarchy

Democracy is the government of the commonalty, while in anarchy it cannot govern since it do not exist. No collective entity in anarchy, only a collection of individual interests dialoguing through simple rules, quickly outdated when reality becomes complex. The only fair argument for anarchy against democracy, stated by Proudhon, is this: democracy is a government of the commonalty but not of citizens as individuals. Direct democracy destroys individual freedom under the weight of numbers. It is only a tiny fraction of the final decision. Insignificant in fact, to the point that an individualist today will no longer vote.

This criticism should make us reflect on the desire for general participatory democracy that drives many of our contemporaries. Do we think we are truly gaining individual power? Do we believe that taking power away from the authority figure will give it back to us personally? No, it’s illusory. We are only taking it away from the most expert authority on the subject —if the appointments worked well. The only effective participatory democracy is when we elect the village mayor. The one who will regulate the affairs of our tribe…

Tribes on all levels

There are many tribes today, and of multiple kinds: professional, scientific, cultural, religious, gendered, moral, etc. They intersect and build a composite society. Everyone can climb the floors and participate in its management. As long as you understand the language spoken there. Equal rights are not enough. You must demonstrate your competence, otherwise you risk weakening the quality of management.

Paradoxically, participatory democracy is cronyism of the worst kind, because it appeals to all citizens without exception. The populists have understood this well. “Give me your voice, it will be heard!” It doesn’t matter whether their speech is relevant or stupid, its value is the same. The populist buys votes by distributing large amounts of value. Unfortunately, by being so careless about investment, capital will be wasted on poor policy. The populist close to her voters impoverishes the nation, as history systematically demonstrates.

Management is to say ‘no’

The good manager of a democratic society is the one who knows how to say ‘no’. Consider a company like Apple, huge and complex enough to be compared to a small nation. Its observers base its success on the fact that its CEO knows how to say ‘no’. Successful management comes from thinking about all possible directions, but not committing to them all. How can we gather resources if we have them scattered?

An effective hierarchy is a bi-directional organization, the two directions not being equivalent: one level proposes, the underlying feedback controls. Individual proposals, the desires of employees or citizens, climb the hierarchy. A crowd of “Yes, I want…” goes upstairs. The role of the manager in this area is not to say ‘yes’ but to let certain ‘yes’ pass and oppose a collective ‘no’ to others. Please note, this is not a ‘no’ opposed individually to each of the other ‘yes’. It does not target people. It is indeed a ‘no’ from the collective on this level, the collective being the general interest, the need to satisfy as many ‘yes’ as possible.

A machinery to satisfy collective desire, not individual desires

In the end, very few ‘yes’ from the bottom reach the top of the hierarchy. Most will have encountered a collective ‘no’. If I don’t understand the reason for this ‘no’, I feel poorly taken into account in governance. A too individual ‘yes’ never reaches the top of the hierarchy, unless I make a career with this goal. However, if the stages function correctly our grouped ‘yes’ will have been taken into consideration. The rule is, level after level, to try to satisfy as much as possible. But the rule sometimes becomes incomprehensible to the initial desire. The better we understand it, the less we equate ‘no’ with a refusal. Politics should ultimately make the economy a machinery for satisfying our individual needs, and government should therefore remain property of the people as a collective, rather than of the mechanics of the system.

Even when this ascending principle is not respected, for example in economic ultra-liberalism, it is not the hierarchy that is in question but its direction. Management initially becomes top-down and no longer bottom-up. Retro-control replaced by control, by an economic ideal which has nothing ontological in it. The objective no longer belongs to the people but to a mechanism to which neither soul nor infallibility has been provided. The revolt is brewing. But let’s not confuse this leadership problem with hierarchy itself. To attack the building is to risk its collapse, a disaster for all individual interests, as humanity has experienced terrible ones, too quickly forgotten.

The hierarchy is no longer sufficiently protected. Incompetent populists easily invade it because it is disintegrating. The leaders look exactly like their voters, a flattering observation for the latter, not the former. No brain is truly large enough to accommodate all the tasks of a president, but if we designate the narrowest…

Populism makes no organizational sense

Anarchy and populism are adversaries, as we have seen, since the first refuses all government while the second imposes that of the people. But how can a people govern? How do you make a hierarchy work in reverse, giving power to the bottom rather than the top?

“Government of the people” is indeed an oxymoron, sterile nonsense, since it would like to reverse the direction which defines the very principle of an organization. Organizing means connecting a multitude of elements through common rules, not asking a single element (society) to generate a multitude of particular and contradictory rules (individuals). This is diversification, and Nature has already taken care of that. With conflicts to boot. The effort in the opposite direction, organizing, can make it productive. But therefore, unlike anarchy, populism makes no sense as a political organization. It is a manifestation, that of a particular desire, around which the most similar come to group together.

The populist is just a demonstration leader

How does populism manifest in politics, since it’s not really an organization? It does this through a symbolic representative: the leader. This is supposed to faithfully translate the “will of the people”. Again the nonsense shines through in this sentence. What does the base include? All voters, and their heterogeneous demands? No. The populist leader in reality symbolizes a desire sufficiently caricatured to unite the citizens sharing it, and this group is called “the People”. Populism stems from a clan desire, never a real popular consensus. Populism unifies an influential group but divides the population at large.

Multiple definitions have been given to populism, depending on the nature of the group of which it symbolizes. It can refer to the working class against the bosses, to citizens claiming land rights against foreigners, to peasants against city dwellers, to employees against the elite of senior executives, to small employees of work against annuitants of the capitalism, etc. This versatility is taken up by politicians of all sides, which leads to populism being classified as “left” or “right”.

Populism wants to seize the hierarchy, not destroy it

What ultimately connects all these definitions? The common point is the stiffening of a social circle. The circle in question defends itself against the attempt at assimilation by a larger other, which neglects its specificity. Populism stands out, aims to reinforce the idea of belonging to a circle, and of not belonging to what is foreign to it. It wants to be a company focused on the interests of the circle. However, it is rebellion against what dominates rather than what competes. This is not a struggle between rival clans, but a hierarchical conflict, of social circles competing for their scale of importance. Which places it at the heart of the main theme of this book.

Unlike anarchism, populism does not seek to destroy hierarchy. It wants to move the levels, bring its people up and the elite down, or even reverse the positions in its fascist derivative. The hierarchy persists but is no longer self-organized. It is under the orders of a social circle that has until now been reverse-controlled. The populist leader often has no alternative management program and is surprised when asked about it. For her, it is enough for the existing administration to complete the transfer of power and satisfy populist desire.

A wave of populism in every circle?

Bringing the definition of populism back to the stiffening of a social circle helps explain the wide variety of its manifestations. A big family covets power in a village? It’s clanism. Do the workers want to participate in the management of the company? Unionism. The first arrivals claim priority over emigrants? Nationalism. Workers demand to raise their interest above that of the shareholder? Communism. In each case, it is not really a question of a social reorganization but of a defined social circle which closes and wants to change hierarchical level. Populism concentrates and expresses this desire.

Contemporary democratic anarchy is populism. Contrary to the precepts of Proudhon, the democratic anarchist does not want to abolish the government but to invert the hierarchy, to operate an ultimate government of the People over the executors of the collective organization. Millions of wills would like to preside without knowing how to merge. Populism nonsense. How do we all move to the top of the hierarchy and work backwards on its structure? Self-organization only works in one direction. The only effect of democratic anarchy is to destroy the existing structure. Self-organization will pick up from the rubble and propel the more aggressive and cohesive clan to the top. It is despotism which sanctions the failure of democracy.

From the Oligarchy to the Illuminati

Why are populism, and its derivative democratic anarchy, so popular today? Certainly because the existing top of the hierarchy functions too clannishly. It is supposed to represent the collective interest. Certainly it must emancipate its particular rules from those of the other levels. But this does not emancipate the interests of managers, on a personal basis, among other citizens. If the circle of Capital begins to function as an oligarchy of power, it is in fact another form of “populism”. The People, in this case, are the ultra-rich.

The effect of the populism of the ultra-rich can be as deleterious as working-class populism on social self-organization. Decisions are made in a closed circle, independently of any feedback that characterizes a fluid hierarchy. This type of sectarianism, when it becomes too apparent, gives rise to fantasies about an occult leadership of the planet (Illuminati, Jewish capitalism, etc.).

Whether the People are the bosses or the workers, it is enough to belong to them to deserve promotion. It is in this absence of questioning that populism resides. The circle has closed, and the belonging of its members must be evident. Snobbery is the hallmark of populism.

How can we lower drawbridges and ease movement through our social circles? Not by tearing down their walls but by multiplying them, adding so many enclosures around them that we will no longer close the doors. They will be less massive, less impassable, while still indicating that we are crossing something, that we are entering a circle where new rules operate.

Dry individualistic thinking

I admit to being sorry to read young philosophers who praise, in a big blind package, individual freedom, rebellion against hierarchy, demonstrations, referendums and participatory democracy. Their thoughts are far from the belvederes where their elders reached. Who have lived the desires of the street, instinctive and immutable. Who remember the wars triggered by these unleashed desires, then the demands that became more measured among those who went through them. The great post-war resurgence of collectivism has built all our solidarity structures. They are suffering today from its drying up, from the ebb of an ocean-collectivism which exposes individual reefs, each in its reserved place, darting its needles, refusing to be stepped on.

But a reef cannot resist a bomb. The ocean takes it better…


1 thought on “The nonsense of populism”

  1. Good piece, JeanPierre!!
    Earlier this morning, I scanned an advisory from another blog. Something about what a US elected official(allegedly)introduced in congress. The proposal/bill has to do with basing public policy on Nazi party wisdom.(I use the word, wisdom, tongue-in-cheek). It reminded me of a phrase, used once or twice, some months ago: authoritarian populism. The phrase evaporated from public discourse, less than forty-right hours after first uttered. I found a definition, though. Creepy, eh?


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