Selective populism

A faith in the expectation that coordinated public action is possible appears to be in decline. This is a discussion about some dimensions of this problem.

In England, the US, Italy, France, and seemingly around the globe, there appears to be a disintegration of public will. Polarisations and low voter turnouts combine and make for extreme outcomes in electoral sceanrios that challenge many taken-for-granteds. Xenophobia, racism, misogyny, class division, and other such negatives – although they never went away – appear revitalised following voting outcomes from England’s Brexit poll, and the incredibly divisive US presidential campaigns. ‘The will of the people’ in this context appears to be conflicted, obscured, regressive, and destructive. According to one study, democracy itself may be seen as part of the problem,

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.


New York Times

Why might this be the case – that freedom of choice in governance could be seen as a problem?

If anyone can, Jacques Lacan

Wanting choice for choice sake can have a pathological edge, at least if Jacques Lacan is to be believed. What’s the point in a choice? we might ask. What makes it matter, choosing between former and latter? From a Lacanian perspective, wanting to have choices rests on the idea of an individual divided within themselves because the search for choices is never ending – we don’t want choice as in, say, 10 or 100 choices. We want choice. Why is the subject divided within themselves? Because within the rapture of the eternal position of one-that-would-have-choice there are the choices we have and make. As soon as we pick, the matter’s closed, the choice is lost. Choosing contradicts choice.

The form of freedom that we are often led to understand is represented in democracy is choice. In the freedom of choice, however, all action must presume that things could be better. The ‘now’ is not enough. For why would a choice be of value if it could not produce a better present-to-come?

The act of choosing contains the idea the now could have been otherwise. A choice made confirms the negation of an alternative. It also contains the negation of the previous now. When we change through choice the conditions we inhabit, we say no to the world we have known. The world we inhabit is the sum of our decisions. We say no to ourselves every time we choose. So the drive to choose finds its feet in self-negation.

When we choose we affirm that there are alternatives to shun. When we choose we say no to ourselves. But what is the point in a choice? In the end the chosen end is supposed more valuable than the shunned alternative because the decision between the two was made. But this means that either end was possible. Every choice is a foreclosure on possibility and rests on the idea that things could be otherwise. But when the choice is made, we affirm the present as it is. At the centre of choice, then, is contradiction.

Maybe this is a little abstract as an explanation of current happenings. Nevertheless there are familiar themes within it. The idea that ‘nothing ever changes’ despite political change is a mantra for many. The idea that ‘elites’ do as they will despite the ballot box is a clear fear at present. These at least resonate with the questions from Lacan about the value of choice, about its power to change for the better.

A flight from choice seems apparent at any rate. In its place, a desire for certainty. From the Lacanian view, this might be seen as the natural outcome from the contradiction in freedom of choice: from the tangle of self-negation and contradiction hidden within the concept of free choice comes the urge not to choose. The ultimate negation of choice. From the chance of negotiating public coordination via democracy comes the resolve to hand authority to one partner. Populism results.

Vox Populi?

Populism  in politics has a negative connotation not least because it implies a sense of playing to the crowd that doesn’t lead or govern responsibly. It suggests power has been sought for power’s sake. It suggests the citizenry is pandered to, indulged, and loses integrity thereby. The ‘tyranny of the majority’ is expected, and normalised, as politics becomes a zero-sum game, with winners requiring losers to cement their own status.

Coordination among the populace ought to be the site of political action, but here it is bypassed. There are answers to the questions of society, populism asserts, and they are something clear and simple. Nuance is shunned, as it muddies the populist division. This results in an ideal of consensus shattering. Its legitimacy is packaged as this shattering.

Normally, the public following of a rule as a rule worth following can be expected to engender faith in the expectation that that rule will be followed generally. “No photos in the theatre” as a rule not only prohibits photography in the theatre, but it sets a context in which no-one ought to have to think about case by case examples. The following of the rule builds this expected consensus — it permits a faith in the expectation that the rule will be followed. The faith in the expectation is akin to a ‘linguistification of the sacred’ whereby,

…socially integrative and expressive functions that were at first fulfilled by ritual practice pass over to communicative action; the authority of the holy is gradually replaced by the authority of an achieved consensus

Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action, Vol II, p. 77

This permits a social mode of behaving such that a coherent context for action can emerge; A background, or a base line to reasoning in public action. However, the power of this stabilising effect has a symmetrical opposite. If one breaks social convention just because it is social convention, the faith in expectation is removed, exploding the plausibility of a shared context for action. The linguistification of the sacred is distorted too, as justification for transgression is the transgression itself. This is a gesture toward irrationalism in the overt bypassing of discourse, replaced by action for action’s sake:

Irrationalism [] depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.

Umberto Eco, Ur-Fascism

Without the linguistification of the sacred, otherwise mediated sacreds are free to re-emerge, not all of which might be particularly useful. Nevertheless, they will be powerful. ‘Traditional values’, as Eco notes of pre-war Italian fascism, are such powerful and non-useful sacreds.

A perennial problem for a discursive account of political action is the idea of justification. How ought the force of the better argument bear upon a social group? One version of an answer is that it ought to be thought of as having to maximally persuade a hypothetical audience. The maximal condition ensures that the persuasion is based on reasons, that the argument is rationally compelling, rather than simply appealing to the mores of a group. The hypothetical nature of the group ensures their mores aren’t known in advance.

But this again is turned on its head where it is assumed that a self-selecting, small group – where a selective populism – is at stake. The persuasion of this group is done through the simple sort of action for action’s sake just mentioned. What’s more, this sort of de facto justification of action through action emboldens the selected group within itself. Being, doing, and irrationalism are the basis for the group’s collective action. These are its mores and sacreds, and they are their own medium.

… the people

Because this scenario is so closely predicated on us and them, the importance of being ‘us’ is intensified. Again, Eco describes this with great clarity,

…individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People.


The question arises: is this swing to be mirrored with a return? Do ‘The People’ reified in their own eyes eventually demand to assert their will? Maybe there is hope that the backslide into populism contains the seed of its own reversal. ‘The People’ as such ought at some point to realise their interpreter requires something to interpret. ‘The People’ surely must once again at some point act and insist upon the negotiation of power in governance.

For a movement moored in irrationalism, analysis will do no good. For ‘The People’ material demonstration is required. Once the powerlessness of ‘taking back power’ is shown to be inescapable, we the other people have to hope that a rejuvenated democratic zeal will return. Hopefully before everything has been broken.


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