Populism, Oligarchy, and the Circulation of Elites | Ugo Stornaiolo S.
In my experience with the world of politics, there seems to be one word that causes deep division in every space of any political leaning, even if they’re homogenous and keep a defined line in their discourse. Populism is the eternal antagonist of formal politics, demonised by all who want to try to make a living as respectable candidates, officers or thinkers within the Establishment. They are right to do so: populism, as a concept and as a movement, is their enemy, since they are the very elites any populist might want to overthrow.
Of course, populism is not an easy concept to describe, and not even the best political philosophers of our time have managed to describe it in an extensive way.
Nonetheless, they agree with some of the elements defined by Chantal Mouffe and Ernest Laclau that indicate that populism is a trend, not particularly ideological, but naturally inclined to some nationalism, invariably characterized by the presence of a strongman acting as its leader, who promotes a rhetoric in which he tries to connect with the people as its true representative, and who tries to confront a disconnected oligarchy that only looks for their self-interest in detriment of those of the people.
For that very reason, populism rejects deliberation and democratic mechanisms beyond elections, as it considers they are already corrupted by the actions of the oligarchy it fights.
With that picture in mind, when one reads or listens the p-word, and given all the work done by the mainstream media to paint it in a negative way, the automatic response tends to be thinking about right-wing and conservative strongmen, such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or Viktor Orbán, instead of thinking about former Ecuadorian and Bolivian presidents Rafael Correa and Evo Morales, who rose to power during the Hispanic American Pink Tide using a populist strategy.
However, I think we should not care about the ideology of these politicians, but about their perspective and style for leadership, which I believe is the key for an effective populist strategy, as this phenomenon could have not worked as well as it did if it weren’t for certain conditions on which they capitalized efficiently.
The most distinguishable of these conditions may be the presence of an oligarchy, markedly different from the rest of the population, who keeps power, both formally and informally, holds a large part of economic resources, and monopolizes the human element on the media industry and on academia.
However, this oligarchy is not a cohesive group, and its members usually have dissimilar and competing interests that create internal clashes between them, although their common aspect is that they invariably follow the same trend and have the same ultimate goal, which is to preserve their power and status.
For that very reason, their actions create a political system in two levels, or as Curtis Yarvin puts it, a two-story regime, who operate parallelly, within formal and material elements.
The formal story of the regime is based on Enlightenment liberalism and democracy, and the myth of progress, whereas the material truth of its power and its existence is due to the legal, economic, and social structures the oligarchy has designed and keeps for their own benefit.
For that reason, all changes in formal and electoral politics, instead of answering to the supposed political formula of popular elective sovereignty, answers to the needs of the ruling class, meaning all turns to the liberal right mean an expansion of finance capitalism, and all turns to the left mean the appeasement of the masses with an expansion of the welfare state. In the two-story regime, no policy ever will ever consider popular will, as the elites and the people are disconnected one from the other.
Another constant in the political behavior of elites, aside from their preservation of power and resources, usually is their promotion of the formal story, that is, of the myth of progress, liberal individualism and the conquest of social rights by liberal activism, from feminism and gay pride or ecologism and Critical Racial Theory, to open border and WEF’s ‘stakeholder capitalism’, in what many people, and most particularly, Twitter anons in the digital sphere of the Dissident Right have simply called as ‘globohomo’.
Contemporary history has shown us that when the goals of the oligarchy align with those of the population, politicians are popular and maintain good acceptance rates, institutions are strong, and nations get to prosper economically, usually with an opportunity cost of losing local traditions, but the recent policy successes of the Orbán government in Hungary, praised by the North American paleoconservative and Christian Right may suggest otherwise.
But history also shows that when the elites are disconnected from the population, there is a development of conditions for a revolutionary uprising, in which disenchanted and disenfranchised masses, guided not only by their social discontent but also by a sense of envy over the secret privileges of the oligarchy, try to confront them directly to strip them of their benefits and ultimately overthrow them.
This is better illustrated by what Alexis de Tocqueville himself said in his Recollections of the Revolution of 1848 and Its Aftermath, that “society was cut in two: those who had nothing united in common envy; those who had anything united in common terror.”
Under these circumstances and by force of reality, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law get pushed aside to give space for the true dynamics of power, where its obtention, its exercise and the benefits it gets are the only thing that matter.
Consequently, there should be no coincidence that the main contemporary populists are conservatives, since conservatism, as noted by Edmund Burke, as well as many others, is a doctrine of empiricism and reality, as it understands society and politics as they are: a struggle for virtue and a struggle for power.
Thus, the first political reality both imminent populists, as well as actual oligarchs must understand is that power, in the current liberal order, is exerted the way it was described by Bertrand de Jouvenel in his book On Power, that is, up and down against the middle: elites influencing lowlifes to act on their behalf against the middle class, the former creating increasing pressures on them by the means of wars, laws, taxes and monetary policy, as well as by news, education and religion, and the latter through crime and societal decay, which is happily tolerated and even promoted by the ruling oligarchy.
This was also recognized by the brightest minds among libertarianism, such as Murray Rothbard, who also identified that there is a common ground between elites and crooks, as both groups hold and exercise power against the citizenry, for which their goals are guided to the same ends.
From these elements, we can also deduce the first exploitable elements for a populist strategy: division and confrontation.
If the oligarchy and the scoundrels produce constant aggressions against the middle class, then these groups are meant to be considered as enemies of the middle class, which happens to be the largest group in the whole of the population, the people itself, then these two, the elites and the lowlifes, can be directly considered as enemies of the people.
The people’s disconnection with their antagonists is easily exploitable when marking their differences: on one side high criminals and oligarchs have impunity for their actions, while on the other, the people suffer the obligation to bear the full weight of the law, paying high prices for the lesser offenses, producing what Sam Francis christened as anarcho-tyranny: the “Hegelian synthesis when the state tyrannically or oppressively regulates citizens’ lives yet is unable or unwilling to enforce fundamental protective law”.