Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Democracy and Fantasy

For Tocqueville, democracy was a system of government based on "the dogma of popular sovereignty." Though Tocqueville had the greatest respect for religion, his use of the word "dogma" in this passage of Democracy in America was not without irony. A dogma is a firm tenet of belief, but it is also an unexamined assumption to which people devote blind faith. The people are indeed sovereign, Tocqueville thought, but it was best if they remained un roi fainéant, leaving the arcana of government to ministers better versed in the affairs of the day than the average voter. Participation was a fine thing on the local level, where the people understood the details of their own business. But as the scale of government increased and the art of government came to require higher and higher levels of technical competence, democracy functioned best, Tocqueville thought, in nations where the popular sovereign grasped the need to delegate authority to competent elites.

"Populism" is not an easy term to define, but with Tocqueville's dictum in mind, we might venture to say that populism describes a situation in which the popular sovereign fails to recognize the limits of its competence and presumes to pronounce on all manner of things beyond its ken. Populism is of course an inevitable and constant feature of democratic government. Without it, elites would tend to become autonomous, not to say autocratic. Hence a certain dose of populism serves the useful function of keeping elites honest and responsive to the broader concerns of the population. Populist outcries are loudest when elites become most rapacious and self-serving. Thus in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, the U.S. saw its most potent populist uprising, provoked in part by the ravages of robber-baron capitalism.

And so it is again in this latest Gilded Age, at the end of an era of growing inequality, reduced social mobility, elite consolidation and closure, and the extraordinary rapacity of some of the best and brightest. Populism is on the march across the United States and Europe. In the U.S., for example, we have Rand Paul, an outspoken opponent of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, assuming responsibility for Senate oversight of the Fed. Populist parties have arisen in many European countries as well. In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has led the Parti de Gauche in a populist direction, attacking elites in blunderbuss fashion (his book is entitled "Qu'ils s'en aillent tous," despite the often Mandarin quality of his rhetoric) and accusing the IMF of "organizing famine, disorder, and dismantlement of the state." Olivier Besancenot's NPA has wrapped a core of Marxist doctrine in a fanfare to the common man, ably trumpeted by the golden-tongued postman himself. And Marine Le Pen, as Laurent Bouvet reminds us, has moved her party from racist xenophobia toward a less pestiferous set of populist economic themes, focusing in particular on the same IMF that is Mélenchon's preferred target.

Bouvet also analyzes Mélenchon as an exemplar of what he sees as a "new populism," defined primarily by an anti-Islamism grounded in fidelity to republican laicité but fueled by popular fears of a dilution of the national cultural identity (one sees similar fears in classic 19th-c. U.S,. populism as well). Bouvet echoes the point that I've been trying to make here, that these various manifestations of populism can be ignored only at considerable peril:

Ces mouvements néopopulistes servent ainsi aujourd’hui de signal d’alerte et de symptôme démocratique. Ils avertissent les « élites » que le mal-être du « peuple » doit impérativement être mieux compris et mieux pris en compte qu’il ne l’est. Où l’on voit que le populisme est sans doute le mal nécessaire de la démocratie.

The question, then, is how to respond to the populist cri du coeur. Although it is tempting to dismiss Rand Paul by assuming that the electorate is well-informed enough to imagine what would happen if the Fed were dismantled tomorrow or to counter Mélenchon by asking if he really believes that the IMF has "organized famine and disorder," the reality is that the selective designation of scapegoats for the errors of government can be a potent rallying point of mass movements that open the door to unsavory politics of many varieties. The danger is most acute in the United States, where the Republican Party has been infiltrated and taken over by radical populist elements. In France, populism is weakened by internal division and comes in left and right variants. In any event, the prospect of seeing populist fantasies empowered, even to a small degree, is something that should concern responsible democrats everywhere. But what to do about it?

12 comments:

Tom Holzman said...

With the American electorate, I would assume nothing. I do not believe most of them have a clue how the financial regulatory agencies saved the financial system or the country during the last crisis. At least no more of a clue about that than they have about whether or not the government runs Medicare.

Tom Holzman said...

With the American electorate, I would assume nothing. I do not believe most of them have a clue how the financial regulatory agencies saved the financial system or the country during the last crisis. At least no more of a clue about that than they have about whether or not the government runs Medicare.

brent said...

First, a small correction: I believe it's RON Paul, father of the new senator, who will chair the HOUSE committee that oversees the Fed. Rand Paul will be able to do less damage in the Senate, given his limited seniority.

More substantively: While Mélenchon's 'populism' has become a cause celêbre (and yes, he has chosen to embrace the term as he defines it), it's a bum rap--and a vicious one in Plantu's slanderous cartoon. Even Bouvard is unable to assimilate JLM to the 'neopopulist' model, which remains a right-wing phenomenon despite its 'gauchiste' economic tendencies. JLM is an old-school Marxist whose tenuous link to the right-wing populists is two-fold: 1) he is critical of certain manifestations of Islam, but only (in Bouvard's analysis) in laïc terms recognized by nearly everyone as 'republican' in inspiration; and 2) he opposes the EU in its current neo-liberal orientation, cites the 'non' vote, and advocates for a certain economic nationalism--but in the cadre of a broad internationalism (he frequently visits Latin America) and a refusal to scapegoat immigrants. The latter, if nothing else, separates him absolutely from every other politics called 'populist.'

Given the actual abyss that divides JLM from Marine Le Pen and similar right-wing populisms throughout Europe, I would say that the charge of populism in the case of JLM amounts to a slur, directed at his opposition to Capitalism and to the elites of both major parties who feed at its trough. Any serious attempt to critique Mélenchon as a 'populist' in the dangerous sense will have to find stronger ground--or else admit that it operates at the demagogic level of Plantu's indefensible amalgamation.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Brent,
"Opposition to capitalism," when it takes the form that Mélenchon's does, is in my book both "populist" and "dangerous." Consider his attack on Strauss-Kahn: http://www.jean-luc-melenchon.com/2010/12/strauss-kahn-et-larnaque-socialiste/
The brutality of the language, the half-truths, the distortions, the outright lies--does one have the right to call these out without being accused of a "slur" or "feeding at the trough" of "Capitalism" with a capital C? JLM says that DSK blames Europe's growth problem on the 35-hour week and fails to see the error of "les politiques démentes de contraction de la demande imaginée par ce petit génie." But the IMF has favored expansionary policies, not contractionary ones, and has played an important role in preventing a disastrous credit freeze in Europe. Does Mélenchon believe half of what he says, or does he say it because he basks in the applause it elicits? I agree that his brand of politics can be distinguished in many respects from right-wing populism, but it remains, by my definition, populist. And I see it as dangerous because it substitutes anti-elitist vitriol for critical analysis. The screed against DSK is all too typical.

brent said...

Art,
It's hardly my intention to deny that JLM's mode of speech, hyperbolic to say the least, raises legitimate questions and causes him a load of trouble. In that light I find it useful to transpose in my head: e.g., 'IMF organizes famine and disaster'='IMF's emphasis on global trade produces food insecurity in vulnerable economies.' On the issue of contraction: 'IMF'='austerity policies imposed on Greece and Ireland' (and is it wrong to associate those policies, which JLM also refers to as "the politics of cruelty,' with the IMF?)

In the post you cite, JLM's greatest indignation is reserved for DSK's proposal that national budgets be reviewed at the EU Commission level before going to their national parliaments. Now this question frames beautifully the Tocquevillian issue you began with: are budgets (which are the crux of legislative action) too complicated for 'the people' or their representatives, and must therefore be regulated by elite technocrats as removed as possible from popular suasion? With Lincoln's "Of ... by ... and for the people" ringing in my American ears I have to feel with JLM that what others would call 'populism' is really just democracy--and DSK's vision of a consolidated EU is something else, namely an oligarchy of elites.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

The IMF didn't impose austerity policies. The IMF extended emergency credit to Greece to enable it to meet immediate obligations. Greek government profligacy, supported by its "people," many of whom benefited handsomely from extremely generous pensions and credits for all sorts of construction, was itself a consequence of the "populism" that can too easily be equated with democracy. The austerity imposed mostly at the behest of Germany was a response to the angry populist outcries of German taxpayers, who refuse to subsidize Greek irresponsibility. The "people" can be as feckless and greedy as the "elite," and to play the one off against the other is the height of irresponsibility, which is what I want to call JLM to account for.

Anonymous said...

why is the role of the banks in this mess not even mentioned?..the banks were the equally irresponsible partners with borrowers..it was the banks who refused to take any losses which necessitated the governments to recapitalize them and to keep on doing so as the banks recklessly speculate in commodities which will bring on famine in all the developing countries where the IMF has required that in order to have loans extended they must turn themselves into export economies and give up their own broad-based sustainable agriculture and so many other "populist" ideas...art, your own elitist tendencies are fully on display here

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Yes, my elitist tendencies are on display, and I make no apology for them. That doesn't mean that I'm a supporter of the banks. I concede, moreover, that governments as well as the IMF have tried to keep banks afloat. In this sense they are indeed props of "the system," or as Mélenchon would say, "capitalist tools." But the alternative, to allow the banks to collapse, would be ideal only if you believe that the system is so rotten that it would be better to allow it to collapse in chaos than to attempt a rescue, despite the imperfection, immorality, and injustice the rescue has entailed.

Mark said...

I'd like to hear Mr Goldhammer's view of public anger with the international financial system - strangely this is not at the centre of US populist discourse that likes to focus its ire on government. Haven't bankers often defended the notion that the urge to regulate is fundamentally misplaced because it's inherently beyond the ken of would-be regulator folk to comprehend the complexity of the financial system? Surely such falling back on the notion of unique expertise is egregious and self-serving? And is it not characteristic of technocratic governments in general that they tend to become self-serving and self-protecting? To me this is a problem. And, on the side of the people, isn't one necessary safeguard to such detached and aloof elites the forming of a public that isn't on the one hand so deferential and disinterested in good times and on the other so rancorous in bad? The twin of populism is the period of complacency often following periods of popular enragement. On the side of the elites, isn't it urgent to reform them so they are no longer susceptible to the siren call of narcissism instilled seemingly from birth in the institutions in which they spawn and which is too often cultivated unchecked forever after? In short, yes populism may sometimes be dangerous, but it is necessary. And my word aren't the elites - who like to preach to us that they must commandeer the Titanic's few lifeboats after eviscerating the ship because without them the art of navigation will be lost forever - more dangerous still?

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Try another metaphor: intoxicated elites having driven into a ditch, they sober up and attempt to pull the car out only to have the wheel seized by passengers who never bothered to learn to drive. Out of the ditch and over the cliff.

Mark said...

Good! :-) but isn't it rather that they're back at the wheel still drinking having convinced the highway patrol (with a nice tip) that with enough practice there's no way they can't make this drinking and driving thing work out, while we, the passengers, scream "pull over" helplessly from the backseat.

FrédéricLN said...

A very interesting topic and angle, thank you. I agree very much with Art's opinions on this page - but also with Mark's last comment!

I attended recently, with a friend, a meeting of high-ranking executives of various French firms. When we get out of the room and exchanged views, our first feeling was the same: "Ben-Alism…"

(Meaning, the denial of any probability that the economic elite may be wrong and the people may be true, that the "social usefulness" they claim may also include some "menace2society", that they may be overpaid indeed compared to what they bring in, and so on).

Are we "populistes" ? a populist kind of intellectual elite, maybe…