The Logic of Technopopulism
Two recent books explain the technopopulist phenomenon and assess whether it will be upended or strengthened by Covid’s havoc.
by Michael Burleigh (Hurst, 152 pp., $15.95)
by Christopher J. Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti (Oxford University Press, 256 pp., $100)
We are now, seemingly, entering a new era in global politics. “What comes next?” is a question being asked with increasing frequency. The Covid-19 pandemic is creating or accelerating deep-seated change in states across the world. Two books that deal with the actuality of politics now and the possibility of politics in the future have been published this year. The first is Populism: Before and After the Pandemic by the historian Michael Burleigh, senior fellow at the London School of Economics’ think tank, LSE Ideas. The second is Technopopulism: The New Logic of Democratic Politics by political scientists Christopher J. Bickerton of the University of Cambridge and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti of the City University of New York.
Both books deal with technocracy and populism, two contested terms that have been used with increasing frequency in academic and journalistic writing since the early 20th century. Burleigh gives “the identification of the people as an organic and uniquely virtuous whole” that is “ignored or malignly divided by corrupt and oligarchic elites” as a definition of populism. Bickerton and Accetti define it as
a mode of political action that involves: (i) an ideational component, which construes society as divided into a ‘pure people’ and a ‘corrupt elite’ … [and] (ii) an organizational component, consisting in a claim to exclusive representation of the people by a personal leader, validated through plebiscitarian means.
Burleigh’s Populism is an argument against populism that nonetheless admits the importance of the frustration and misplaced confidence that push people to vote for populist causes; “something must be driving ordinary French people to spend their weekends camped on miserable rural roundabouts discussing issues like green fuel taxes or the negative impacts of the gig economy on their children’s futures.” Burleigh makes an effort to describe movements like the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) as symptomatic of a wide range of problems rather than as causative events exposing the innate moral ugliness of Western society. He also notes global developments such as the “empower[ment of] indigenous peoples excluded by Hispanic elites [and] the coaxing of lifelong non-voters to the ballots” as positive consequences of populist politics.
Burleigh identifies two factors commonly discussed today behind the rise of populism: those who are left behind by economic inequality, and nationalism spurred on by nostalgia for empire. Burleigh also manages to explore how history is used by today’s populist actors. His description of how various statues routinely disappear and appear in Budapest, on the orders of Viktor Orbán, puts the debates about controversial monuments in the United States and the United Kingdom into a less toxic perspective.
The second half of the phenomenal equation requires defining as well. Burleigh refers to technocrats as those, such as Giuseppe Conte and Angela Merkel, who “know what [they are] talking about.” Bickerton and Accetti’s Technopopulism offers a more systematic definition of technocracy as “a mode of political action involving (i) … the claim to a particular type of competence … that presumptively entitles its successor to legitimately rule over others; and (ii) an organizational component which involves a direct relationship of trust.”
Bickerton and Accetti claim that political competition in the West has, for the last thirty years, been governed by a synthesis of populism and technocracy—technopopulism. The authors suggest there is “a new logic, whereby candidates for office compete primarily in terms of rival claims to embody the ‘people’ as a whole and to possess the necessary competence for translating its will into policy.”
You can spot this pairing of populism and technocracy, for instance, in Boris Johnson’s public promises to “level up” and “get Brexit done” by respecting “the will of the people.” Privately, Johnson has admitted to something like technopopulism in a little-viewed video interview with the biologist Denis Noble, emeritus professor at Balliol College, Oxford, where he says, “[the] terrible truth about politics and human nature is that ... you can probably make a good case for almost any course of action … the most important thing is to do it.”
Bickerton and Accetti point out that promises to “act” and “do” are the bread and butter of technopopulism. They argue that even those who occupy significantly different positions on the political spectrum play the same game. Indeed, in his first election manifesto, Emmanuel Macron wrote, “The French people are less concerned with representation than action. They want politicians to be efficient, and that’s all there is to it.” For Burleigh, on the other hand, Johnson and other populists are merely elite charlatans playing with popular passions: “the class-obsessed British have always been suckers for articulate toffs, like Johnson or the absurd Jacob Rees-Mogg.” But, by the standards of Bickerton and Accetti, Johnson is not a great man or a fraud but simply a politician operating under the current political logic.
The British prime minister joins a colorful cast of politicians and parties who also fall under the technopopulist umbrella. Tony Blair and his New Labour project are an example of “technopopulism through the party,” Macron and La République en Marche embody “technopopulism through the leader,” and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement is an example of “technopopulism through the base.” Indeed, even Podemos on the radical left and Lega Nord on the far right are grouped within the technopopulist fold of Bickerton and Accetti.
Technopopulism’s use of New Labour as an example par excellence of a technopopulist party opens up the question of whether perhaps there was shock about the “populist” electoral triumphs of 2016 because of an inability to recognize as truly populist that which falls within the mainstream center-left to center-right spectrum. Under this assumption, Blair’s appeals to “the people” are merely rhetorical flourishes, while Jeremy Corbyn’s and Johnson’s words of “the many not the few” and “the people’s will” are seen as a direct danger to liberal democracy. It might be argued, as a corollary, that only those within the ideological mainstream are recognized as “technocrats,” while radicals with technocratic tendencies, like Dominic Cummings or Tony Benn, go unnoticed.
The more complicated truth is that successful technopopulists are found across the political spectrum, while also transcending it. In the short term, technopopulists can act as both a bulwark and a corrosive to liberal democratic norms. Many technopopulists, such as Macron, project themselves as saving liberal democracy from opponents on the radical fringes. Although, as Bickerton and Accetti argue, all technopopulist actors eventually damage the intermediate connecting pillars (such as unions, mass parties, civic organizations, and the church) necessary for functioning democracy. This is because political elites claiming to speak for the people will increasingly want direct access to the source of their power unmediated by corrupt bureaucrats, officials, middlemen, and party cadres. Politics, therefore, “becomes a competition between parallel claims to represent the social whole that are de facto unmoored from specific interests within society.”
Bickerton and Accetti argue that we are still in the epoch of technopopulism—which continues to be the enduring political logic of Western democracy. However, as they admit, this era may be coming to an end as it is defined: “In his Philosophy of Right, Hegel observed that the owl of Minerva flies at dusk … we reflect on the forces and pressures that may take us beyond technopopulism.” Technopopulism seems to be competing with, but not yet defeated by, other ideas that are emerging in the new post-pandemic era. Bickerton and Accetti argue that these competing political logics do not spell either “the ‘end’ [or] the ‘death’ of democracy but rather a transformation in the logic of political competition within existing democratic regimes.”
For Bickerton and Accetti, technopopulism has partly replaced the previous dominant logic in Western democracy: partisan mass party politics grouped around ideological commitments. They argue that a revival of party democracy would require technopopulism, in turn, to be replaced with “a more explicitly ideological sort of politics” revived by “the ethical questions raised by the coronavirus” that might “serve as the building blocks for new ways of thinking about social life.” However, the authors also suggest that the coronavirus could “exacerbate” the technopopulist logic or spell a “break with democratic politics tout court.”
Burleigh, however, argues that the pandemic has lent itself to a revival of sensible center-ground politics: “[o]ptimists claim that now is the moment for liberals to fight back after a decade of being battered by a so-called national populist wave. Enough of the charlatans, entertainers and showmen; seriousness is sexy again.” Perhaps seriousness is sexy again, but the electorate seems to assume seriousness on behalf of whomever is in power rather than to those who occupy a certain space on the political spectrum. Burleigh does not answer why, for instance, centrist politicians like Sen. Joe Manchin (WV) or Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), both known for their stunts, are more serious than Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) or the late Sen. Mike Enzi (WY).
The pandemic has allowed us to collectively start rethinking the liberal democratic project: should we preserve it, extend it, critique it, or abandon it for a better model? From within the Western tradition, there have been notable arguments to return to the confident democratic model of the Cold War; to pursue a form of democratic socialism that relies on an immanent critique of liberal capitalism; to govern through a “common-good constitutionalism” that rejects the preeminence of individual rights and moral presentism for transcendent notions of “human dignity.” From the outside, the authoritarian state-capitalist model of China has prompted talk of a “Carl Schmitt moment” when the executive will take on extreme levels of power in reaction to emergencies.
We do not know what will come after the pandemic, but both Burleigh’s Populism and Bickerton & Accetti’s Technopopulism will help the discerning reader ask, and then answer, “What comes next?”
Samuel McIlhagga is a journalist based in the United Kingdom. He writes on political thought and theory, UK politics, and foreign affairs.
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