Populism and Technocracy in Twenty-First-Century Europe

European elections with clear policy alternatives on offer might help to save us from an anti-pluralist universe in which there is only space for populism and technocracy.

Europe is witnessing an inflationary use of the term “populism.” The most surprising and perhaps contentious application of “populism” in recent years has been to new left-wing political parties and movements such as Syriza, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and Podemos. These actors are not in any obvious sense nationalists, but another group of politicians who are regularly labelled populists clearly are: figures like Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Nigel Farage, all of whom articulate a fundamental critique of the EU, or in fact advocate the abolition of the Union altogether. But what is it that supposedly makes them all populists irrespective of any divisions between left and right? Their policy prescription, as Jan Techau of Carnegie Europe suggests, when he argues that “in the populist Europe of 2016, simplistic solutions to complex problems are in high demand, both on the right and on the left”?

Something else has been striking about the political languages employed to describe Europe’s troubles in the early twenty-first century: the rise of the term “technocracy.” The charge that Brussels is populated by bureaucrats (and technocrats) is hardly new; what is new is that technocracy is seen as a kind of regime in its own right, which has become dominant in the EU as a whole. Not by chance did Jürgen Habermas, still Europe’s most influential intellectual, title his latest public intervention The Lure of Technocracy (the original German Im Sog der Technokratie is even stronger, implying that Europeans are “being sucked into technocracy,” as if at the mercy of quasi-natural forces).

The prominence of both “populism” and “technocracy” are a sign of deep political anxieties. And they all have something to do with democracy. Put very schematically: liberals worry about democracies populated by increasingly illiberal citizens, while democrats are more and more exasperated with what they perceive as undemocratic or even outright anti-democratic “liberal technocracy,” in which popular input for policy-making is seen as prima facie undesirable. In the first nightmare scenario, we see masses mobilized in favor of irresponsible policies and trampling on minority rights; in the second case, anything resembling politics is replaced with the supposedly rational administration of state and economy by elites.

Yet populism and technocracy, when properly understood, have more in common than first meets the eye. Both, I want to suggest in this essay, are anti-pluralist and, ultimately, anti-political (if we take politics to mean the legitimacy of contained conflict): for the populist, there is only one authentic vox populi; for the technocrat, there is only one correct policy. However, a response to their twin threat cannot amount to a simple call for more politicization. Many well-meaning critics of contemporary European politics have seemed to assume that more contestation will automatically generate legitimacy for the EU. But all too often, the demand for politicization presumes what politicization is meant to produce in the first place: namely, a sense of something like a shared democratic framework, in which losers are willing to consent to decisions, and winners will refrain from taking it all.

What Is Populism? What Is Technocracy?

In today’s Europe (the situation is different in the Americas), liberals associate populism primarily with irresponsible policies or some form of political pandering (sometimes demagoguery and populism are used interchangeably). As Ralf Dahrendorf once put it, populism is simple, whereas democracy is complex. Populism is also frequently identified with a particular class, especially the petty bourgeoisie or what in France is known as the couches populaires. This might seem like a sociologically robust theory (classes are constructs, of course, but they can be empirically specified in fairly plausible ways). However, such theories usually come with a much more speculative account of social psychology: those casting their ballot for populist parties are said to be driven by “fears” (of modernization, globalization, etc.) or—the feeling most frequently invoked in talking about populists—“resentment.”

None of these perspectives, and seemingly straightforward criteria, is helpful for clearly identifying populism. The focus on particular socio-economic groups is empirically dubious and results from a largely discredited set of assumptions from modernization theory. Prima facie, it is peculiar to conflate the content of what after all is an “-ism”—that is to say: a political belief system—with the psychological states of its supporters. It is true that in surveys many voters of anti-establishment parties register their sense that the country as a whole is declining (an assessment that does not necessarily depend on their personal economic situation, as a number of studies have shown); and it is empirically verifiable that many feel elites are “robbing” them of their own country. But all this is like saying that we best understand Social Democracy, if we keep re-describing their voters as workers envious of rich people. The profile of supporters of populism obviously matters, yet it is patronizing to immediately reduce all they think and say to “resentment” and explain the entire phenomenon as an inarticulate political expression of the supposed “losers of modernization” (once more, the diagnosis here is intimately tied to modernization theory; after all, people are said to experience resentment in reaction to modernization and then long to retain or return to a “pre-modern” world). Finally, it is difficult to deny that some policies really can turn out to have been irresponsible: those deciding on such policies did not think hard enough; they failed to gather all the relevant facts; or, most plausibly, their knowledge of the likely long-term consequences should have made them refrain from policies with only short-term electoral benefits for themselves. Such concerns are not just the products of some neoliberal fantasy world. But they do not serve to delimit the phenomenon of populism. There is in most cases no clear, uncontested line between responsibility and irresponsibility, and, often enough, charges of “irresponsible populism” are themselves highly partisan (and it just so happens that the “irresponsible policies” most frequently denounced almost always benefit the worst-off).

So, what then, is populism? Populism is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world which opposes a morally pure and fully unified people to immoral and corrupt elites (and, in rightwing versions, other minorities who are put outside the authentic people). But that’s not enough: it is crucial that populists claim that they—and only they—properly represent the authentic, proper, and morally pure people. Criticism of elites is thus a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for populism. Otherwise, anyone who has a major problem with the status quo in, for instance, Greece and Italy, would by definition be a populist—and, whatever else one thinks about Syriza and Beppe Grillo, it’s hard to deny that their attacks on old elites were often justified.

In addition to being anti-elitist, then, populists are always anti-pluralist. Populists claim that they, and only they, represent the people. As, for instance, Reccep Tayyip Erdogan put it at a party congress, addressing his critics in Turkey: “We are the people. Who are you?” Other competitors are just part of the immoral, corrupt elite, or so populists say when running for office; when in government, they will not recognize anything like a legitimate opposition. The populist logic also implies that whoever does not really support populist parties, might not be part of the proper people to begin with. The latter is by definition morally pure and unerring in its will (which the populist leader claims just to implement, as with an imperative mandate).

Populists in opposition obviously have to explain why, if their core claim to representativeness is correct, they are not in power already. This is where the virtually inevitable appeal to the “silent majority” comes in: if the majority were not silent or in some way oppressed by the currently powerful elites, the populists would have long won (this also explains the penchant among populists for conspiracy theories). When they lose elections, populists often question the existing political institutions, which are obviously producing the wrong outcome, or even accuse the winners of fraud, as Donald Trump did after the Iowa caucuses this year. At the very least, they tend to distinguish an empirical and a moral outcome of a ballot: think of Victor Orbán claiming after losing the 2002 Hungarian elections that “the nation cannot be in opposition.”

Critics of populism today make it too easy for themselves if they assume that populism is just nationalism, or even some form of ethnic chauvinism. Populists can rely on the notion that there is a distinct common good, that the people can discern and will it, and that a politician, party, or movement could unambiguously implement such a conception of the common good as policy.

It is here that populism and technocracy all of a sudden converge. To be sure, while some actors in Europe, like Marine Le Pen and Orbán, actually call themselves populists (since, they claim, they really work for “the people”), hardly anyone self-identifies as a technocrat. Yet the label seems applicable to all who insist that there is only one correct policy solution, even when experts in fact disagree, for instance, about the implications of different economic theories. Where populists see a single unerring popular will (which they supposedly just have to implement), technocrats assume the existence of a single rational policy (which they supposedly just have to implement). In both cases, there is really no need for debate, which is to say: no need for discussions in civil society or lengthy back-and-forth in parliaments. Disagreeing with populists is just a sign that one is part of the morally corrupt elites; disagreeing with technocrats demonstrates that one is irrational.

In recent years, populism and technocracy have sometimes traded attributes: technocracy has become moralized (“You Greeks etc. must atone for your sins!”—i.e. profligacy in the past); whereas populism has become business-like (think of Berlusconi and, in the Czech Republic, Babiš’s promise to run the Czech Republic like one of his companies, with the citizens as “shareholders,” or the Austrian entrepreneur Frank Stronach’s idea that the government is the same as a “management team”). It is a plausible—but empirically difficult to verify—hypothesis that technocracy and populism will encourage each other.

Now, one strategy by left-wing theorists to oppose technocracy has consisted in calling for a distinct leftist form of populism. Many of these attempts are inspired by the Argentine thinker Ernesto Laclau, who argued that “constructing a people is the main task of radical politics.” Examples are Chantal Mouffe putting the people into opposition to “neoliberal forces,” or the German social scientist Wolfgang Streeck portraying today’s main political conflict as one between the people (the “governanced”), on the one hand, and the “market people” [das Marktvolk] of investors, the de facto governors, on the other. The hope seems to be that by selectively drawing on the populist imagination, one can better mobilize citizens, direct their passions to progressive projects, etc. There is little evidence to think that such a strategy will work. Syriza and Podemos have been successful, because corruption and incompetence discredited established parties, not because they claimed that they represented the people as a whole.

What is the alternative? An approach that seeks to bring in those currently excluded—what some sociologists call “the superfluous”—as well as those risking permanent exclusion because of the impact of austerity; while at the same time, so to speak, keeping the very wealthy and powerful in. This is really just another way of saying that a new social contract for the people as a whole is needed. Broad-based support is required for such a new social contract in Southern European countries, and that support can only be built through an appeal to fairness, not just fiscal rectitude. To be sure, lofty appeals are not enough; there has to be a mechanism to authorize such a new settlement. It might come in the shape of a grand coalition actually empowered at election time (so not just contingent and reluctant support of technocratic figures like Mario Monti through the major parties). Alternatively, societies could officially re-negotiate their very constitutional settlement—as Iceland and, in a much less dramatic way, Ireland, have been trying to do (without, to be sure, much success in either case so far).

For the European Union as a whole, politicizing decisions—as opposed to assuming that there is always only one right answer—is a plausible direction. But politicization presumes a common political space where majority decisions are accepted by losers (instead of the latter simply seceding from the common space). It is not obvious to what extent that common shape exists today. What seems reasonable enough, however, is the widely-discussed notion of a European Commission with increased competences and resources (on the basis of a financial transactions tax, for instance) that can address major problems in the eurozone, without thereby becoming something like a federal government. Thus, European elections with clear policy alternatives on offer might help to save us from an anti-pluralist universe in which there is only space for populism and technocracy.

Jan-Werner Müller

Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of politics at Princeton University. His most recent books are Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth Century Europe and Where Europe Ends: Brussels, Hungary, and the Fate of Liberal Democracy.

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