The Strange Topology of Populisms

I belatedly stumbled on this from Nick Land. It reminded me of something that I haven’t thought about in a while – the strange topology of populisms on the Right. I haven’t thought about it in a while because I mean to (meant to?) deal with it in the series of essays I introduced with Disruption Is Easy and continued in Recipe for Reaction — and in a sense, this series also includes my Social Matter piece on virtue signals, which began as a subsection of the intended fourth essay but took on a life of its own. But I kept putting off the third piece because everyone gets so gosh-darned tribal about ideological labels, so I was expecting that the debate over the next few pieces in the series would be extremely unedifying.

Anyway, it’s worth throwing out my thoughts on this issue as they stand now for feedback, since I happen to have been contemplating the question this evening. (I have a hunch that as intricate as these interlinked concepts appear to be, the territories occupied by the various factions of the Right are the image of a much simpler field of positions.)

It will be easiest to illustrate different conceptions of populism by contrasting them to the form of non-populism which they oppose. It is spectacularly easy to make someone else’s populism or anti-populism look foolish by the device of calling attention to a particularly appealing or particularly unappealing conception of populism, but I am less interested in polemic here (don’t worry, Nick Land, you’ll get yours some day) than in dissecting the possible positions in a clean way. (Then the next question is: how much tension is there between these concepts, and is it possible to hog all of the most desirable forms of populism and the most desirable forms of anti-populism in a single political stance?)

A. Populism as Constitutional Form: versus Authority or Authoritarianism

In one sense, populism is a theory about how to run a state, or what a state is. This connotation is closely linked to Orwell’s notes on the semantic extension of democracy to mean “anything I like” and fascism to mean “anything I don’t like”. Constitutional populism is the view that the people rule the state, or ought to rule it. In a few rare cases, this position corresponds to a demokratia of the classical type, where the mob assembles to approve laws, condemn criminals, and generally conduct the business of government. In practice a demokratia is rarely distinguishable from an oligarchy of orators by anything but its unruliness and caprice, but there is no sense in being too grouchy about it: a shareholder meeting is a shareholder meeting.

However, when people refer to the will of the people in 2017, typically they are not talking about the Pnyx. In the modern world, “the people rule” is just a lie. It is a particular class of lie Moldbug called “demotism”, and it is used systematically to obscure the fact that the officials who are supposed to administer certain domains of public policy do not actually have the discretion to rule over that domain. There is no sovereign; no one is charge; policy is an uncertain mixture of animal cunning and blind idiotic blundering across a thousand times a thousand unseen veto points.

I think most people on the Right are authoritarians of one form or another. They don’t believe the people currently rule and they don’t think it makes logical sense to pretend they ever will. However, how right-wingers feel about participating in the rhetorical contest of a demotist state, and how closely the contents of their rhetorical quiver match their actual political convictions, will be closely tied to the stance they take on the other aspects of constitutionalism.

B. Populism as Theory of Meaning: versus Elitism

In a second sense — or rather, a triplet of senses — populism is about significance. In a sociological sense one might believe that elites have all the power and influence, all the agency; or, one might deny it. Elitism and anti-elitism are, in this sense, dueling views about explanatory significance. The elitist thinks the elites hold all the cards in the all-night poker game between the classes, and that when something big happens you ultimately need to look for a great man or a cabal of great men to explain why it happened. The anti-elitist looks about the crowd, the masses, popular trends, public pressure. Obviously elites respond to public pressure and the public to elites, but, to quote Humpty-Dumpty, “The question is which is to be master, that’s all.”

But as significance is ambiguous, so is the elitist position; elitists and anti-elitists squabble not only about how to explain human events, but also about how much elites and their peoples matter. It is perfectly consistent to have a Carlylean admiration for the Great Men of past centuries while still viewing even their greatest efforts as a frantic breaststroke against the onrush of an irresistible popular torrent. In such a framework, the Great Men made of all of the important contributions that are worth noting, but when it comes to causal explanations we must return to the facts of mass society.

Conversely, one might believe that the ordinary folk of past generations were too predictable, to malleable, to downtrodden to do anything other than follow the path set out for them by their elite, but still believe their diligent labor created the foundation for everything good about our present society. (This is the “You didn’t build that” debate, in other words.)

These first two theories of elite and popular significance bleed naturally into a theory of the relative dignity and worth of each side; here, elitism is the theory that elites are more deserving of our goodwill, and more worthy the good things of life, whereas anti-elitism takes the opposite position.

Again, it is possible to have exquisite and bizarre permutations of views on these three questions about significance. But there is an elective affinity between the three elitist positions and the three anti-elitist positions.

C. Wait now, what’s an elite again?

I almost slipped that one by you, didn’t I? Of course, there are many different conceptions of what makes someone elite or common, and these feed into a kaleidoscopic array of different versions of elitism and anti-elitism. In some contexts “elite” refers to talent, ability, and accomplishment. In others it refers to membership in an authentic, formally recognized aristocracy. Elite can also refer simply to whoever has the most power, or the highest status, or the most comfortable lifestyle. It can refer to membership in a ruling class (thus excluding the greatest members of the subordinate classes, but including vile and irrelevant members of the ruling class), and this “class” can be defined in either socioeconomic terms (“the bourgeoisie”) or psychosocial terms (“the priestly caste”) depending on what theory of class and class-dominance one espouses.

I often talk in the most contradictory ways about elites myself. When the context is the Beltway and I think it’s clear that “elite” refers to congress-critters and lobbyists and their ilk, I use “elite” in that way and thus have an entirely different set of theories about what the elite is and how it functions than I would in other conversations.

D. Populism as Statecraft: versus Cosmopolitanism

What is a more valuable asset for a state: a population which can’t be moved, or a whole set of human capital, cultural capital, financial capital and even physical capital (which can follow those financial flows quite easily) that can be? If you think that the Congo could be a lovely place to live if you could just get a few hundred of your Less Wrong ™ friends to join you there, you’re probably a cosmopolitan. (You have probably also thought seriously about sea-steading, haven’t you? Admit it!) If you think that a demographic reservoir like the Swiss people is a large part of what makes small, successful states so damn charming, you’re at least halfway to being a nationalist which, yes, is a form of populism.

Cosmopolitans and nationalists may also have very different ideas of what a good life looks like, which in turn give them different instincts about why states where a good life is possible are functioning so well. They also have different political goals, and in particular different worries about the damage that progressively will do to civilization as Cthulhu swims ever leftward. (These different political goals also give them different strategies and opportunities, which is why the “techno-commercial” i.e. cosmopolitan reactionaries stay so close to the virtue signals and pieties of the reigning Brahmin class.)

E. Populism as Popularity: versus Esotericism

Nick Land and his friends quite literally dabble in kabbala, but that isn’t what I mean by esotericism. If a memeplex does poorly compared to another, similar memeplex and reacts by telling its hosts that its inability to find new hosts is an advantage and shows how great and unique everyone hosting the unpopular memeplex is, it’s esoteric.

More thoughts to come…

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7 thoughts on “The Strange Topology of Populisms

  1. Populism can very much be cosmopolitan, if the populist speaker believes in some form of proletarian internationalist solidarity and uses the historical-materialist definition of class to rail against his idea of the who elites are. Most forms of anarcho-communism, anarcho-syndicalism and related movements are such cosmopolitan populist movements, indeed the expression of the popular will against class rule sometimes becoming so potent that they resort to political terror and expropriation, as in the case of the narodniks, Russian nihilists, and of French illegalists like the Bonnot Gang.

    Indeed, most populist economic debates outside of the right don’t fit the “population mobility” schema well.

    Nor should elitism necessarily be defined in relation to any greater intrinsic moral and economic worth of the elite. As Zippy Catholic points out: “The basic purpose of an aristocracy is to preserve its inheritance, including the common good of the community of which that inheritance is an integral part, and otherwise not screw things up. So aristocrats need proper indoctrination in how wealthy and powerful civilized people must behave for the common good: a good aristocracy, that is, requires not genius or intrinsic greatness in its human raw material, but proper civilized cultivation.” Therefore, a middle-of-the-road aristocracy is fine and natural.

    Nor is elitism necessarily related to the Great Man theory of history. Indeed, I find it rarely is today. It more often seems to be based either on Filmerite or Schmittian theories of necessity for someone to stand atop a hierarchy (from the pro-elitist side), or of some adaptation of the non-Marxist historical materialism from James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution that Sam Francis took out and filtered (from the anti-elitist side). Besides a more explicitly biopolitical emphasis, the left and right criticisms of globalization are highly similar, hence the possibility of syncretism and collaboration as in the case of American Affairs Journal and the French Nouvelle Droite. IMHO, this combination of biopolitics with Naomi Klein-style rhetoric is the worst of both worlds, but so be it.

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  2. Modern discourses of the Right of any kind are always anti-Brahmin, and to the extent that they are dissident by definition find themselves at cross purposes with those who run the place, and are thus at least a little populist. But the new ones *take the part of the common man*, as opposed to arguing that the common man *ought to rule*; you could call it a game of high-low against highest.

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