‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ Students of pop song will know this pathos-ridden refrain from the 1970s hit song, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’. Of course, the lyrics actually describe the life of a drifter: drugs, panhandling … the usual stuff. But for me it has always had a certain resonance of something wider—the eternal lament of those at the bottom of the heap in wealthy democracies, those with no advantages, few skills and less money. They have, pretty much, a lot of nothing. But they have a vote …

The literature on the fascinating and eternal subject of democracy is vast, but at bottom much of it boils down to the problem of the vox populi. This is now normally interpreted as the opinion of the majority, but it also has a flavour of the Roman plebiscita, which eventually won the right with the Lex Hortensia (287 BC) to pass binding legislation on all citizens without the Senate’s veto. Our democracies today do of course rest upon the equivalent of a Lex Hortensia, but the new patricians are skilful in circumnavigating it. Arguably, they have got more skilful by means of the digital revolution and powerful lobbying. The vox populi has grown correspondingly more resentful. Democracy is at a weak moment in its histor y through both external (geopolitical) threat and internal dissension.

In Aristotle’s Politics (written between 335 and 325 BC) you will find a very fair description of ‘democracy’, which he vehemently disapproved of, as follows: ‘Its protagonists claim it as the only system that guarantees that men can share in liberty, that it is based on numerical equality rather than equality of merit’ so ‘the poor have more sovereignty than the rich’, that there are regular elections and fixed terms of (salaried) office, tenure of which is not dependent on the property qualification, that jury service is open to all and generally that ‘birth, wealth and education are the defining marks of oligarchy, so their opposites, low birth, low incomes and mechanical occupations are regarded as typical of democracy’.1Quoted by David Held, Models of Democracy (Polity, 2006), 16–17. He cites Aristotle’s The Politics
(Penguin, 1981), 362–4.
More than two and a half centuries later the great Roman orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, praised one of the earlier kings of Rome, Servius Tullius, who allegedly introduced the first census to Rome for obviating rule by ‘the rabble’: ‘He divided the people in this way [i.e. according to their assets] to ensure that voting power was under the control not of the rabble but of the wealthy, and he saw to it that the greatest number did not have the greatest power—a principle we should always stand by in politics.2However, in On the Republic and On the Laws (trans. David Fott, Cornell University Press, 214),
Cicero takes a less reactionary-sounding line and is concerned that there should be popular support
for governance. In particular, he advocates that Senators should be elected by the people rather than
magistrates. See Stephen Patrick Sims, ‘Cicero’s Populism’, in Patrick N. Cain, Stephen Patrick
Sims, and Stephen A. Block, eds, Democracy and the History of Political Thought (London: Lexington
Books, 2021), 107–116.
Plato and Aristotle were, so far as we know, the first great minds to think systematically and philosophically about how to set about constructing a stable political dispensation. Their objections to democracy (basically that it led to anarchy) prevailed at least until the French Revolution, but more precisely until the introduction of universal suffrage (mostly after the First World War). How could you expect a society to function, it was argued, if it was subject to the whims of the rabble, der Pöbel, les sans-culottes, what Shakespeare describes as ‘the mutable rank-scented many’? (In modern language: ‘smelly people, because poor, who are prone to be swayed by demagoguery’.) Hillary Clinton was more direct in referring to Trump supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’, an appellation some may think justified when a bunch of deplorables tried to stage a coup after the 2021 US election. Popular democracy is not for the fastidious. Indeed, Stalin was so fastidious that he ruled out free elections on the entirely rational grounds that their outcomes were unpredictable. (What he actually said, according to the memoirs of a senior comrade, was: ‘The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.’).

What I am suggesting is that many objections to democracy are entirely reasonable, or, if not reasonable, logical. Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann both believed that the end station for the Euro-project was rule by enlightened technocrats immune to wrong-headed populism, because governance would be operated by philosopher kings, highly qualified, but somewhat above the fray of directly elected populists. As an ex-president of the European Commission, Jean Rey, remarked of the 1975 referendum on whether the UK should join the EEC: ‘A referendum on this matter consists of consulting people who don’t know the problems instead of consulting people who know them. I would deplore a situation in which the policy of this great country should be left to housewives. It should be decided instead by trained and informed people.3Roger Eatwell and Matthew Godwin, National Populism. The Revolt against Liberal Democracy
(London, 2018), 98–99, quoting Vernon Bogdanov in the Financial Times, 9 December 2016: ‘After
the referendum, the people, not parliament are sovereign.’
The EEC/EU has at least been consistent in this matter, exhibiting considerable hostility to any challenge to its power emanating from referendums ever since.

There are many people who believe strongly that Monnet, Schumann, and Rey were right and that the type of rule they advocated would banish nationalism and the other calamitous ‘isms’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as imperialism and colonialism. Francis Fukuyama was clear in his celebrated essay on ‘The End of History’ that his model for the definitive version of democracy was indeed the EU. Nevertheless, as I believe Aristotle makes clear, this is not the view of a democrat. It is indeed nearer to that of Plato, whose influence down the ages has been just as great as that of his one-time pupil.

Against this background, I would like to unravel the current meaning of ‘populism’, a word invariably accompanied by an inaudible sniff when used in the liberal press. Merriam Webster defines a populist as someone belonging to a political party claiming to represent the common people; and further, ‘a believer in the rights, wisdom or virtues of the common people’. That is pretty much the opposite of those who believe in technocracy, juristocracy, or transnational governance by global bureaucracies. The populists supported the People’s Party in 1890s America, and today the Austrian Conservatives call themselves the People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei). The American populists supported policies such as an eight-hour working day, a graduated income tax, and, particularly, an anti-trust act. In each of these concerns, they were proved prescient.

Today’s populists perceive a similar indifference to their interests through globalization, the rampant power of tax-dodging international finance and corporations, inequality, and what they perceive as unbridled immigration. Depending on your political leanings, you may or may not consider these concerns correctly focused, but the fact is that they exist, numberless people with a vote share them, and the old liberal consensus has failed to adequately address them (the ideological difference between Social Democrats and Angela Merkel’s CDU in Germany has become vanishingly small). As one German political commentator has pointed out, 70 per cent of those voting in Germany’s most recent election did not vote for the current Chancellor or his party. Mudde and Kaltwasser characterize current discontent on two continents as follows: ‘In a world that is dominated by democracy and liberalism, populism has essentially become an illiberal response to undemocratic liberalism …’ They point to the fact that ‘unelected bodies and technocratic institutions such as the ECB and the IMF have established control over the power of elected politicians’, who thereby exploit such bodies as a way of ‘depoliticising contested political issues’. On the other hand, the post-Marxist Ernesto Laclau argues that populism fosters a ‘“democratization of democracy” by permitting the aggregation of demands of excluded sectors’.4Cas Mudde and Cristobal Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press,
2017), 79.

Let me here pose some awkward questions the disillusioned ‘populist’ voter might ask: How has the West got itself into a position where it appears it can easily be blackmailed by Putin’s Russia and communist China? Why does globalization, which has overall reduced the number of people globally living below the poverty level to 10 per cent, leave so many in the West on lower incomes with the impression that it has made them relatively poorer? Why are the relatively prosperous countries unable or unwilling to control mass migration despite repeatedly promising their electorates to do so? Why has the denigration of Western civilization, its history and culture (theories of white privilege and its attendant dogmas), been able to get such a hold on academia in the Anglosphere (do not worry, it is coming to you soon); and why is there no adequate pushback to it from an apparently cowed academic and political establishment? Why are those who caused the financial crash of 2008 through greed and fraud overwhelmingly neither in jail nor visibly poorer? (Incidentally, a former governor of the Bank of England made the most quotable remark about 2008, namely that ‘the banks turned out to be global in life and national in death’.) They had pulled off the dream of every unscrupulous businessman—privatization of profits, socialization of losses.

In The Theory of Communicative Action (1981), Jürgen Habermas, the last icon of the Frankfurt School, raises serious objections to the workings of contemporary democracy. The process of modernization has become dominated by economic and administrative rationalization. Our everyday lives, in the Habermas view, are increasingly governed by the exigencies of the welfare state (which merges state and society), corporate capitalism, a captive press, and mass consumption. Boundaries between public and private, the individual and society, the system and the ‘lifeworld’, as he calls it, are being erased. Habermas is on the left, but some of his analysis echoes a famous book by a Trotskyist turned ultra-Conservative, James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution (1941). George Orwell drew on it for his dystopian novel 1984 and in a long article he summarized its predictions as follows:

The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham, under the name of “managers”. […] The new “managerial” societies will [consist of] great super-states grouped round the main industrial centres in Europe, Asia, and America. […] These super-states will fight among themselves for possession of the remaining uncaptured portions of the earth, but will probably be unable to conquer one another completely. Internally, each society will be hierarchical, with an aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semislaves at the bottom.

For my part I believe that surveillance capitalism (data mining, manipulation, etc.), coercive bureaucracy, and expanding government, all linked to the digital revolution, will not disappear. Ultimately, a revolt of consumers and of voters in protection of their lifeworld is potentially far more effective than passing endless new laws of restraint and imposing new taxes. The combined US tax code and its necessary commentaries for practitioners allegedly runs to some 70,000 pages; but the UK one, at more than ten million words, is the world’s longest. Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu is the longest novel ever written. The UK tax code is eight times longer—and considerably less readable. This is a world built for managers, who can afford expensive lawyers and accountants. Nevertheless, it is still far less evil than the system in China, obliging citizens to carry a smartphone that awards social (which is to say political) credit or debit points for your behaviour 24/7. Even George Orwell never conceived of such efficient totalitarianism.

  • 1
    Quoted by David Held, Models of Democracy (Polity, 2006), 16–17. He cites Aristotle’s The Politics
    (Penguin, 1981), 362–4.
  • 2
    However, in On the Republic and On the Laws (trans. David Fott, Cornell University Press, 214),
    Cicero takes a less reactionary-sounding line and is concerned that there should be popular support
    for governance. In particular, he advocates that Senators should be elected by the people rather than
    magistrates. See Stephen Patrick Sims, ‘Cicero’s Populism’, in Patrick N. Cain, Stephen Patrick
    Sims, and Stephen A. Block, eds, Democracy and the History of Political Thought (London: Lexington
    Books, 2021), 107–116.
  • 3
    Roger Eatwell and Matthew Godwin, National Populism. The Revolt against Liberal Democracy
    (London, 2018), 98–99, quoting Vernon Bogdanov in the Financial Times, 9 December 2016: ‘After
    the referendum, the people, not parliament are sovereign.’
  • 4
    Cas Mudde and Cristobal Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press,
    2017), 79.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email

More
articles

THE TURN OF THE CONCEPTUAL BASE
OF SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT

New Dimensions in EfficiencyPart II INTRODUCTION Sustainable development encompasses three dimensions of welfare—economic, environmental, and social issues—that involve complex synergies and trade-offs. The social dimension emphasizes the importance of well-functioning

THE PROBLEM WITH EXPERTS

Science and Scientism in the ‘Post-truth’ Age For the last five years, we have heard frequent reference to the idea that we live in a ‘post-truth’ age. Certainly, in this

VOX POPULI *

‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ Students of pop song will know this pathos-ridden refrain from the 1970s hit song, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’. Of course, the

EUROPEAN UNION
OR THE NEW TOWER OF BABEL

‘Reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do.