Populism, Oligarchy, and the Circulation of Elites – Part II | Ugo Stornaiolo S.
Another symptom of the disconnect between people and the elites of today is that they, deluded and alienated in their ivory towers, toy with ideas and policy proposals that have nothing to do with the day-to-day reality of the people and often impact them negatively.
Still, another thing to take into consideration is that, for better or worse, elites are invariably needed to guide any kind of human group, as not everyone, contrary to the egalitarian ideal, has the directive capacity or potential to fully guide others when some cannot even guide themselves. In the realm of elite theory it has been proven that all kinds of organisation – all kinds of society – from the most minuscule and simple, such as a nuclear family, to the most structurally sophisticated and complex such as the State itself, has a group of leaders that compose its ruling class.
In his renowned book The Machiavellians, Defenders of Freedom, James Burnham said that this class encompassed not only politicians but also businessmen, university professors, journalists, bureaucrats, and the whole of the professional class in the higher echelons of society. All of the people who belong to these groups will try to preserve and increase their share of power and they may internally cooperate or compete to achieve it. Even if all of the elite are guided towards the same end, there might be some that will deny their belonging to it as their competition for power did not achieve the results they expected.
Populists usually belong to this group of renegade elites, called the resented nobility by Donoso Cortés, and they are the first to ask and get the favour of the masses to exert pressure on the group they formerly belonged to. This tends to be a huge advantage for the populist cause, as it gives the unsatisfied middle classes a leadership they can rally around, which can guide them in their conquest of power.
Some examples of this are quite recent, like Donald Trump himself. He went from a beloved billionaire and socialite, well connected to the North American ruling class, to their main opponent and public enemy number one after he was elected to office. Another classic example of this are the old French nobility at the end of the Ancien Régime, where some members of the royal family, such as the House of Orléans, decided to ally themselves with the Jacobin revolutionaries to depose their Bourbon cousins in an attempt to replace them. Some failed spectacularly, like Phillippe Égalité, who renounced his title as Duke of Orléans but ultimately ended up decapitated after voting favourably for the execution of Louis XVI. Others succeeded, such as Louis-Phillippe, son and heir of the former, who was crowned King of the French after the Revolution of 1830.
At this point, the leadership principle and the theory of the partisan (both developed by Carl Schmitt) tend to be useful as they explain some complex conditions for the populist phenomenon. These include the need for direction – concentrated in a caudillo-like figure as a leader who presents himself as a man of action ready to take all necessary measures to achieve his and his movement’s goals. Also, the need for loyalty makes his followers devoted to his cause and orderly follow his instructions, demonstrating high levels of discipline and mobilisation capacity – from street demonstrations to elections themselves.
The third element of populism is derived from this and may be summarized in the following way: populism and revolution (or reaction, depending on the populist’s leanings) looks to depose an elite and impose another and for that, it uses the immediately subordinate class as a pressure tool to achieve that goal.
The first to have realised this was Donoso Cortés who reasoned that all revolution was essentially a process by which the elite in which the sovereign is supported decides to depose him using the subordinated middle class as their ground troops, with this process repeating itself with all lower classes until there is no other replacement elite, in what NRx blogger Spandrell has called ‘bioleninism’. The historical examples that support Donoso Cortés’ vision are the French Revolutions of 1789, de 1830 y de 1848. In the first, the nobility deposed the sovereign (the Crown) using the bourgeoisie. Then, that very bourgeoisie in turn used a lower class for revolution, the proletariat, and finally, the proletariat deposed the bourgeoisie in their turn, but with them using the lowest class left, the peasantry.
Naturally, in each revolutionary process, there is the presence of a leader who personifies the spirit of their times and of their people in open rebellion: first, we have Napoleon the First, the Corsican from the lower nobility, who rose to become an Emperor from his sheer military talent and personal charisma. Then, we have Louis-Phillippe d’Orléans, the Bourgeois-King, who was elected as the symbolic leader of the bourgeois Revolution of 1830, and finally, we have Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the first Napoleon, who capitalized on his antecessor’s fame and popularity among peasants to present himself as a socialist and become the first democratically elected President of the French Republic.
Populism, as one may already suspect, is a vectorial phenomenon that uses the representative ideology of the people (or just the middle class of a particular moment) to mark the friend-enemy distinction and thus identify the elite to depose.
This vectoriality is very interesting because it allows populism to be adaptable to any political situation the renegade elite might find themselves in. Guided towards noble goals, populism can be a legitimate tool for the restoration of natural order and tradition in Western politics and society. The Right-Populist Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán has repeatedly shown that it’s possible to openly confront the diktats of the European Union, particularly on those that go against the institutions of family and the Christian spirit of the Hungarian people, such as the legalisation of abortion and gay marriage, and trying, on the other hand to develop public policy of focalized liberalisation and welfare that promote higher marriage and birth rates.
Populism, however, is also a double-edged sword. The postmodern left has shown from time to time, and most particularly in Latin America, where it has promoted an even deeper division in the population, openly using criminals, both national and foreigner, as first line ground troops, destroying the middle class’ means of living, reminding us more of the Jouvenelian model of power as up and down against the middle than of Donoso Cortés’ view of a resented nobility using the middle class to depose the sovereign.
But this should not be a cautionary tale for the Right, as all examples of right-wingers using populism around the globe turn out to be as efficient as they are successful. We currently have the right conditions for populist uprisings in the West, which, guided adequately by good-willed renegade elites, could mean the re-establishment of public manifestations of faith and true unity in diversity economic freedom for all, not just for corporations, a family-centric welfare state and real representation of individuals and intermediate bodies in society.
The problem of leadership could be easily solved by recognising our potential caudillo figures among rogue businessmen such as Peter Thiel and in conservative media personalities like Tucker Carlson (who is reminiscent of veteran paleoconservative populist Pat Buchanan) as well as in the growing number of openly defiant academics who have left their institutions in protest of the rising cancel culture directed against them.
All of them, as notable and sound professionals, conscious of their reactive and counter-revolutionary mission, could allow for a healthy circulation of the elites and the establishment of a new political order that restores natural order against the imminent and factual menace of globalism, which is contaminating all aspects of society. A populist alternative must be considered imperative as soon as possible, although in a cautious way, since it is possible that it’s political opponents may already have realised its potential and so a coming crash of populisms may be on the way.
It is also necessary to remind ourselves that populism is not a doctrine to rule but only a method of gaining power and its exaggerated use in government will become counterproductive sooner or later. The first priority of any populist who gets elected to high offices is to build a framework of institutions that respect human dignity, order freedom for good, truth and beauty, centralise moral authority for legitimacy and decentralise power for effective policy implementation.
This alternative is still actual, even with a change of circumstances, and the Right must adapt to whatever the populist century throws at it. It must educate its own elites in the right ways and must create an efficient body to win elections and flood institutions in the near future. Only a thoughtful and strategic elite, deeply rooted in faith and family, composed of free agents may recover power to use it for the common good, to finally be recognised as a legitimate and rightful authority in a society aligned with natural order.
Maybe we can be that elite. The future will tell.