Chris Bickerton defines the concept of technopopulism. He is the author, alongside Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, of Technopopulism: The New Logic of Democratic Politics.
That tension between the politics of the whole and the politics of the part, that tension between the politics of generality and the politics of particularity, is really at the heart of party democracy. What we are sort of trying to capture, I suppose, with technopopulism is to think of a form of politics where that tension has simply gone.
The global pandemic elevated the role of epidemiologists and immunologists into the political consciousness. This singular event demonstrated the value of specialized, technical knowledge. Note it was not simply the medical community who took center stage, but specialized scientists within this community who offered answers and plans for the pandemic.
Nonetheless, the polarized political environment in the United States turned this expertise into controversy. President Donald Trump and his supporters have challenged the caution of experts, while others have embraced the meme “I believe in science.” More than any other political moment, the pandemic has brought out the tensions between the technocratic and populist approaches to governance.
But Chris Bickerton argues the approaches of the technocrat and the populist have much in common. Indeed, these two political tendencies long ago merged into a single political logic he calls technopopulism. Chris Bickerton alongside Carlo Invernizzi Accetti are the authors of Technopopulism: The New Logic of Democratic Politics. Chris is a reader of Modern European Politics at the University of Cambridge. You might recognize him from the podcast Talking Politics where he is a regular panelist.
Chris argues modern politics has undergone a transformation away from ideologies toward a new logic based on common interests and solution oriented policies. Political disagreements are not defined by alternatives to technopopulism, but the way technopopulism is approached. Our conversation will introduce examples from Europe like the Five Star Movement in Italy and New Labor in the UK, but also discuss former American Presidents Donald Trump and Barak Obama. So be prepared for a new way to think about our current political era.
But before we begin I want to remind you the Democracy Paradox is a part of the Democracy Group network of podcasts. I want to highlight a podcast from our network, Let’s Find Common Ground. It’s sponsored by the Common Ground Committee, an organization that aims to reduce polarization in American politics. They have a virtual event coming up on April 14th on the New Economy featuring John Kasich and Julian Castro. So look for that. But the podcast features conversations with people who find ways to reduce polarization and find common ground across the political spectrum. So check out Let’s Find Common Ground.
But now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and learn about technopopulism. So, here is my conversation with Chris Bickerton…
Chris Bickerton. Welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thank you very much for having me on Justin.
Chris, your idea of techno populism feels very novel. I’ve never heard of anybody trying to put together the concepts of technocracy and populism. It’s a complex idea to try to link together these two concepts that feel as though they’re at odds. So rather than defining it, why don’t we start out with a description of a paradigmatic case, the Five Star Movement? I think that is probably the most ideal example that you give in your book of what you describe as technopopulism. So, can you describe what the Five Star Movement is and explain it within the context of how it exemplifies technopopulism?
So, let’s begin with an example, as you said. The Five Star Movement, this was a political movement that broke into Italian politics in a very dramatic fashion at the time of the Euro Crisis . If we go back to 2008, 2009 there was an embryonic movement in Italy that was beginning to emerge known as the Five Star Movement. It was characterized by the extensive popular appeal of its leader, a comedian called Beppe Grillo, who’s since stood down. And the Five Star Movement has in recent years changed in lots of ways, but going back to the way it was when it first began, it was led by this very public face of Grillo, very funny person according to many people. And he does have a great way of coming up with names that put down some of these big politicians. And he had a very strong antiestablishment rhetoric.
One of his big focus points for his movement was about the corrupt quality of political representatives. The numbers of those who had some sort of criminal record who were actually sitting in the legislature. That these were crooks and they had to be all kicked out. There was a really strong antiestablishment message there. And it was in many ways a grassroots movement. It excluded itself from becoming a political party by statute. So, it stated very clearly in the rules, if you like, of the movement itself, that it was not a party. So, it was a very anti-political party in that sense. And it began at the very local level by putting people in local elections.
And after Grillo had managed to build a really considerable following, a national following, across Italy, on what was then the most prominent forum for the Five Star Movement which was his blog. So, already we get a sense of when it emerged, because blogs now are still popular, but they’re not quite as central to maybe the workings of the web as they were some years ago. So, it emerged as a blog and then it became slowly more involved in politics. And then really in the space of just a very small number of years, it broke into national electoral politics. It became a national political force. So it was a bottom-up movement, attracted a lot of people disenchanted with the mainstream parties that had this public face of Grillo, an antiestablishment populist.
But it also had this very fun commitment to what could be achieved by mobilizing through the internet. And another co-founder who was the less prominent figure, who also co-founded the Five Star Movement was an internet guru called Gianroberto Casaleggio. And his theory of the internet, some of them had sort of conspiratorial elements, but one of his theories was that it was a way of harnessing collective knowledge. And that by bringing people together through the web, you could bring the knowledge of all the supporters. And here we’re talking about not expert sort of specialist knowledge that we associate with that term, but really the everyday knowledge of doctors and nurses and engineers and teachers. And that they could bring what Gianroberto Casaleggio saw as real knowledge together and then solve some of the big collective problems facing humanity: poverty, hunger, those kinds of things.
And that really was the Five Star Movement. It was an upstart antiestablishment movement that had these ideas about how to transform democracy. A more sort of direct form of democracy attacking the political system. Animated by this idea about how you could bring a form of collective intelligence into politics through the web and then became this big electoral force in Italian politics and was involved in, how it’s been over the last few years, in various coalitions at the national level. So, it became a governing force in Italian politics.
There’s a quote in your book that I think helps us understand how something like the Five Star Movement or really just the concept in general merges together the ideas of technocracy and populism. You write, “Ordinary citizens are not apprehended as bearers of subjective interests or values, but rather as carriers of a specific competence or expertise, which can be put in the service of the rest of society through the means of the web.” The idea of ordinary citizens having this competence or expertise, I think it’s at the heart of both what technocracy brings as well as populism in that they think a lot in terms of ideas of knowledge.
Technocracy thinks in terms of a deep, specialized knowledge, but I feel like populism thinks in terms of a very broad, generalized knowledge. The sense that everybody should know certain things so the solutions become obvious. How is technopopulism able to bridge the divide between these two different logics of information, of wisdom, of knowledge between technocracy which is a specialized knowledge versus populism that’s almost a more generalized knowledge?
So, there are different ways of thinking about the synthesis and really the point about the concept of techno populism is that it draws our attention not to the mere coexistence of these two phenomena. There are long histories that have been written about the idea and the practice of technocracy. Very interesting histories that usually have a pretty long time span. And interesting about the way in which we would celebrate in the earliest of instantiations of 19th century technocracy. The engineer and then it moved on in the course of the 20th century perhaps via the engineer through to the economist. And today we have different maybe associations of technocracy that may cover Silicon Valley and sort of tech utopianism and all these things have changed.
And those histories have been told. And the work on populism is, as I’m sure you know, and many people know, is extensive and many people are working on it. These phenomena exist. And so, what we’re trying to sort of identify is not the fact that they are simply there or that they exist in parallel, it’s that they really come together. They are synthesized in certain points. And so, the nature of that synthesis is really important. The way you put it Justin, is about different conceptions of knowledge and in some ways we might say different conceptions of techne. That is to say this notion of skill or expertise that can be deployed in the exercise of political authority and making decisions that are classified as properly speaking political decisions.
That’s not really what we do in the book though. I mean, this is an interesting idea. And I’m just thinking about it as you said it. What we say in the book is that in fact, the point of synthesis, and in some ways to put it in a more sort of everyday sense, what is it that they have in common? What brings them together? We described that as being a certain shared conception of politics as a kind of truth game. It’s about truth. Now these are not the same sorts of truths.
In the case of technocracy and the technocratic appeals to expertise, the truth lies in what you just said, which is a certain sense of the right policy, the right way of doing things based on being able to combine the available evidence and to deploy against that evidence skills that one has acquired as a specialist in the field, as an expert in the field. If you think about a technocratic approach to politics, what we don’t mean is to take decisions out of politics and invest them in independent institutions. This is the electoral landscape we’re talking about. If you appeal to people on the basis of expertise, you’re giving the impression that you can in some way get to that right point, that right answer. You can deliver the right solutions. Those solutions exist and you can achieve that.
So that’s a certain kind of truth. And the truth lies in the policy itself. The right policies for the populist, it’s also a politics of truth, but it’s not the same sort of truth. The truth there really resides in the people themselves as a category and the ability of populist leaders to know what the people want and to articulate what it is that the people want. What I think we find is that there is then this affinity, this strong affinity between populists and technocrats, because what they share is this vision of politics as being essentially about the discovery of these truths.
Now what they then clash with is – what we at least think of as a very different sort of politics – the kind of politics you have to imagine, which is much more about worldviews, ideologies, different ways of creating a hierarchy of values. You know, you may value equality above many other things. And I may value Liberty and my individual freedom much more beyond more kind of collective understandings of equality. We have different value sets. We can argue, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really make sense to say you are right and I am wrong. In an epistemic way, we just disagree. And, what populism and technocracy are together, what really brings them together, is that they both have this conception of politics as truth.
And that means that they then lie outside and clash with a form of ideological politics where truth is in some way neither here nor there. It’s not that you are right or more right than someone else. You just have a different set of values. And the only way to come to some agreement is through a decision-making rule, like majoritarianism or some sort of electoral rule. So that’s the point of synthesis, I think for us. What you were saying about conceptions of knowledge though, is, is really interesting. One of the ways we differentiate different types of technopopulism is by the kind of technes that they mobilize. And there, I think the Five Star Movement has this kind of everyday sort of techne it’s interested in. What they would call “legente,” the normal people.
And there was a famous phrase by Beppe Grillo, an observation he made, when he was criticizing the then prime minister Mario Monti, which is, he said, “If you want to have somebody running the finance ministry, who knows what they’re doing, put a housewife in there. What he meant, I mean, it was a slightly sexist thing to say, but what he meant was put somebody who has the knowledge of budget, who actually knows what it means to balance the books at the end of the week. Don’t put a politician in there because they don’t have that sort of practical knowledge. But other technopopulists mobilize around a different conception of techne.
I was reading today about Emanuel Macron, the president of France, the leader of the movement En Marche. That Emanuel Macron has spent the last few months informing himself greatly about the nature of the pandemic. And one of his spokespeople declared that Emanuel Macron now knows everything that there is to know about COVID and he is therefore able to make decisions that are for the interests of everybody, but are rooted in the science. And this has obviously created a lot of derision – ‘How can he be so arrogant?’ But his conception of techne is different. One, it’s himself that is the best student in the class, and Macron was always the top student in the class. And somebody like Beppe Grillo is like the person who trashes the class. He always breaks up the lesson. He never listens to the teacher.
So, you have two different types. And Macron has also mobilized the scale and expertise of the French state as a whole. So in order to differentiate between different kinds of technopopulism, the kind of knowledge that they invoke and that they mobilize around is I think very different.
Macron is a good example of the way you just described, the idea that a single person can kind of understand the big picture of what everything’s about. Because a technocrat is valued because they know something so deep and so esoteric that nobody else would bother to know. So, when a problem comes up that requires that expertise, that person steps in and they’re the only one able to answer it.
And the reason why I’m thinking in terms of these ideas of knowledge is because one of the things you mentioned about the Five Star Movement that I struggled to get my head around was how they feel very technocratic and populist at the same time. But one of the ideas that they’ve gravitated towards is this anti-vax concept, this anti-vax policy. And it comes across as very anti-technocratic.
The only way that it makes sense to me is in thinking that the deep specialized knowledge that people are beginning to learn, the idea of somebody going into graduate school or getting a doctorate, isn’t relevant. The type of knowledge that we’re looking for is something that anybody can comprehend. The sense that it’s technocratic, but to the extent that the common person can understand it. The way that you mentioned Beppe Grillo emphasizing that the housewives should control the budget, the idea that this is common knowledge that anybody should understand as opposed to a specialized knowledge that only a few people can grasp or comprehend.
I think that’s an interesting point, I think in order to understand the Five Star Movement that is quite important and it’s precisely as you say. People did say, ‘How can you really think of them as technocratic,’ because they have this kind of an anti-science position. The way to think about it, I think, is to put it in the broader frame of Grillo’s own biography. And Grillo, most of his career, I mean, he’s very well known for being a comedian, a performer if you like, and would attract lots of people into fairly small kind of theaters around the country where we’d have these intimate performances with people.
But what was striking about these shows was that a lot of it was taken up with his outrage at the state of things around it. And then he would attack various kind of public figures. But also, what he did is that he would be involved in uncovering scandal. And you know, there’s some kind of famous scandals in Italy that he was involved in where he was actually brought in as a sort of an expert witness. Somebody who marshaled together what he would say is the fact, the truth, to expose the corrupt qualities of the powerful.
And I think what’s consistent there, if you kind of tie it together with the sort of anti-vax theories and other things is that there’s a certain skepticism to a kind of establishment type knowledge. It’s not against knowledge per se. I mean, it would be entirely wrong to present Grillo really as a post-modernist who denies that fact have any sort of meaning. If you think of Grillo saying some of these kind of classic postmodern phrases about big events having never actually happened, that’s not his approach at all. He has this forensic approach to uncovering what he sees as the truth.
So, there is definitely a strong commitment to a certain kind of techne, but it is just very critical of what we might tend to establish, what we tend to associate with technocracy, which is, I suppose, the bureaucracy, the state, these kinds of sort of meritocratic structures. These are the kinds of things that the Five Star Movement can be very critical of.
You already mentioned the way that technopopulism tries to move beyond the classic interest-based politics that doesn’t claim one side is right and the other side is wrong, but rather that there’s different interests that we need to balance within society. In your book, it emphasized how Tony Blair is almost the first real example of a technopopulist, or at least the earliest one that you mentioned in your book. And I’ve never thought of him as a populist, but the phrase that you use to kind of bring the point home is when Blair describes the Labor Party as the political wing of the British people. And he’s trying to say that he represents all of the British people, rather than just the labor movement or a specific segment of society.
So, I’d like to know does technopopulism, is it striving towards something of a common good style politics, more of a 19th century politics then, that says we’re try to focus on the best policies for all the people, rather than the negotiating politics between the people?
Yes. I think that’s a nice way of putting it. One phrase that we have in the book is we described it as the politics of generality as opposed to what we might call the politics of particularity. Over the course of the history of what we might think of, broadly speaking, as modern democracy, this sort of politics that emerged in the wake of the big revolutions, the American and the French revolution. And we rest our assessment quite a lot on people like Pierre Rosenvallon and others who’ve written about this. I remember reading his book and being really taken by the way he describes the concept of popular sovereignty in France.
As he says, the late 18th century had this abstract notion of the people. This kind of empty cry, sort of an empty signifier, if you like. And over the course of the 19th century, there were attempts to, in some way, give it a social content, but fairly aborted into a difficult effort, but eventually it sort of happened. So, there was a process, of sociologically filling in this abstract concept. And you get to then, what we sort of think of as the late 19th century, early 20th century politics of interest groups as you put it. That’s where sort of work on groups and politics and interest groups really, really takes off. And it’s also the birth of what we call party democracy.
And the phenomenon of the party is really interesting for us because the party, if you think about the term, the party, and where it comes from, Partita to divide. There is something intrinsically divisive about the party. It’s the part, not the whole. But at the same time political parties have mobilized their base, their group within society, but they’ve also been involved in what the historian Charles Mayer has called the partial legitimation of the common good. And that’s the kind of crucial phrase in the name of a particular group of society, but there is also clearly an attempt to frame that partisan interest in some way consistent with a general interest. And that is a not an easy thing to do.
And so that tension between the politics of the whole and the politics of the part, that tension between the politics of generality and the politics of particularity, is really at the heart of party democracy. What we are sort of trying to capture, I suppose, with technopopulism is to think of a form of politics where that tension has simply gone. It has disappeared. The reason why it has disappeared is that the vehicle of the mass party as an institution that sits between civil society and politics and the political sphere, structured, if you like, social life in a way that it combined the general and the particular.
But if the institutional existence of the mass party has given way to political parties that haven’t disappeared at all, but exists very much in the political realm and have a very distant and fairly speculative and hostile relationship to civil society. These are just electoral vehicles that try and campaign to get votes, but are not really embedded in society. This is what we described as the separation of society from politics. What you then get within the political sphere is precisely this politics of generality. Political actors appeal to the people as a whole, because there is no specific social constituency that they are drawn from or originate from.
And at the same time, they also unsurprisingly look for other kinds of generality to appeal to. And the one that is particularly prominent in our view is this appeal to competent governance, to expertise, where again, you’re not helping anyone in particular. You are trying to help everyone by doing things well, by being a good governor. So technopopulism as a political logic fits within this political sphere that has been cut a drift from society. And society and politics can contemplate one another as two separate and fairly hostile realms.
It reminds me of Max Weber’s plebiscitarian democracy. It both has the charismatic leader who’s in charge like Blair and Macron, especially in the case of France and Britain, more so there than Italy.
Yeah. Weber’s kind of an interesting figure for us. He sort of hovered over this idea in some ways, I think, because what you have for us, at least when Weber’s writing, we would instead really think of that as one of the kind of important periods in the history of party democracy. This is really at the heart of an ideological logic of politics. But the way we described it in the book, this ideological logic of politics has two phases to it. One phase is a very unstable phase. It’s the phase of civil wars between the right and the left. It’s the collapse of Weimar. This is the emerging politics that Weber is describing and is very pessimistic about.
But there is also within the framework of this same ideological logic, the post 1945 era of a much more stable, but nevertheless an ideological form of politics where mass parties operated and did exist in this space between the state and civil society. So, Weber’s a kind of a, sort of a pessimistic, if you like, vis-a-vis what we are much more optimistic or more positive about as a form of politics, which is this ideological logic. But the kind of dynamics he describes, though is a kind of squeezing out of party competition too. Yes. You have the sort of the direct relationship to the people through this plebiscitarianism. And then the leader who emerges as this charismatic personality. And yes, these are tendencies, certainly present within party democracy, but contained, I think, by the structure of the party itself.
And as that sort of structure begins to fall away, reflecting the decline of organized interests in society. It seems unsurprising that within democracy, as you begin to have plebiscitarianism, the focus on individuals. And that’s fairly well documented. What’s less sort of documented, maybe more surprising, is that comes at the same time as a focus on competence and expertise, which from a Weberian framework is not so surprising because you think of modernity as being really characterized by this process of rationality and rationalization that doesn’t suddenly disappear. That becomes actually a core part of what political competition is about.
So, you mentioned reading a paper this morning that gave you some insight. I was reading a paper this morning as well. And I didn’t expect it to have anything to do with technopopulism, to be honest. It was about the Czech Republic. It’s by Seán Hanley and Milada Anna Vachudova. It’s called, “Understanding the Illiberal Turn: Democratic Backsliding in the Czech Republic.” And the quote I want to read, it’s a little bit long, but I’m going to work my way through it.
“ANO,” that’s the political party in the Czech Republic, “depicts itself as a citizens’ movement of non-politicians championing the interests of the people against a cabal of corrupt and inefficient “traditional parties” led by professional politicians. This has been described as a “centrist,” “managerial” or “technocratic” populism. And it promotes an anti-political technocratic view of government as the search for business-like efficient solutions, embodied in Babiš’s promise to run the Czech Republic like a firm.” And then the final sentence that they have later in the page is, “This adds up to a rejection of pluralism and contains the seeds of authoritarianism.” Is there a risk that techno populism can undermine democracy?
Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s also a nice quote from a good paper and it’s interesting that Andrei Babiš and the ANO party is one of the objects of analysis of people working on technopopulism and that have been working on this for a while and we discussed or we sort of cite at least in the book that are doing really interesting work. So, it’s definitely been there as an example, as a case. And there’s some very recent published work on this. Our starting point, at least in the book, is that we are much more skeptical about this idea that it is Eo Ipso connected to the decline of democracy or the emergence of some sorts of authoritarianism or this phenomenon of democratic backsliding.
I suppose the reason why is that we sort of felt that we were observing a lot of trends, interesting trends, to do with the emergence of new political actors sometimes or the transformation of mainstream parties, changes in party systems, big political changes. And that was happening at the time that you had a lot of discussion around, you know, the end of democracy, or the death of democracy, or the decline of democracy and a lot of concern and sort of hand-wringing about that. It always felt to us that what we were really observing was a transformation of democracy.
Now it’s not to say that we are particularly sanguine or complimentary about the phenomenon of technopopulism. I mean there’s a big chunk of the book where we try and develop a deep critique of technopopulism as a form of politics. But we do suggest that what we’re really describing here and trying to understand is change, not disappearance or decline. And I think, to be honest I mean, that’s probably still our position. That said populism and democracy are conceptually separate from one another. Technocracy and democracy are also conceptually quite separate and also historically, at least, fairly odds with one another. So, it’s entirely plausible that you can have some elements of the convergence of populism and technocracy outside of a democratic setting. It’s not what we are trying to describe which is really about the nature of electoral politics.
And there, I think the Czech Republic is kind of an interesting case because ANO was a kind of a good case of the emergence of technopopulism. And Babiš sort of, definitely, I mean, there were some comparisons that were made to Berlusconi. People talk about Babišconi. He was trying to do a little bit what Berlusconi did. Being very rich and sort of run the country like a business. And, Berlusconi, I think, has many technopopulist traits. The kind of managerialism that he emphasized has this quality of being able to deliver, be able to provide solutions.
But now you see in the Czech Republic, there’s now a further iteration about what’s going on. I was reading something else, which was talking about the prominence of the Pirate Party in the Czech Republic and the extent to which they may even, in the forthcoming elections, potentially be able to form a government. This Pirate Party has really mobilized as the key anti-Babiš opposition. All of this has to do with not just the way Babiš has governed during the pandemic, which has generated some opponents, but also a lot of corruption, sort of allegations and things that have been sticking on him for some time. So, you have this coalition of people against the government in the Czech Republic being federated by the Pirate Party.
And the Pirate Party is one that we sort of thought about a bit in the book, but we never really discussed it. It just seemed too marginal as a phenomenon, but it definitely has this combination of, you know… There’s the authenticity of them, the anti-political nature of them, and then this commitment, interest, faith in a certain vision of technology and what technology can achieve and what it shouldn’t be made to do. So, what’s interesting about the Czech Republic is the point about technopopulism for us is that it’s not something that attaches itself to a particular actor. It’s not a property of an actor. It’s a structure for the political field as a whole. It’s a logic. Therefore, it will chop and change.
And, the synthesis of populism and technocracy as a political offer will move across different parts of the political spectrum. So, it seems to me entirely unsurprising that in opposition to a particular instantiation of technopopulism, you have another one, which is a different one, the Pirate Party, which combines this broad appeal to the masses with a certain kind of technocracy, and it’s just a different kind of technopopulism. So, whenever you find examples of technopopulism, I’m interested in who’s mobilizing against them and on what grounds and to what extent are they themselves using the same political appeal of technopopulism, but just done in a different way. So, the Czech Republic is a really good, interesting example.
So, you describe it as a political logic, and you just repeated it just then, which to me feels very much like a form of political communication. It’s a way of describing the political situation, the political events, a way of describing who you are. It’s a way of campaigning, a way of discussing things in elections, which can oftentimes be very different than governance. Now I know that a lot of the examples are from Europe and the United States can be very different. But you do mention Donald Trump in your book as an example where he both campaigned as a populist, and also kind of as a technocrat to the extent that he said, ‘I can fix it.’
You don’t mention Barack Obama, but I see him as someone who campaigned a lot as a populist. ‘Yes, we can.’ He definitely tried to mobilize large groups of people together into one big campaign, yet he governed even more so as a technocrat. Technopopulists at the end of the day, when they get elected and they have to govern, do they have to make a decision between whether to be a populist or a technocrat?
I don’t think so. No. I think the two are more integrated than that. Some of the earliest references to technopopulism were in relationship to Barack Obama. There was a piece in the London Review of Books quite a long time ago now by David Bromwich where he was saying that Obama sort of cultivated two different tones in his political rhetoric. One was a very folksy tone which he called a sort of populist tone. And this was in an audience where the audience were people that were sort of on the stump kind of campaigning, you know, ordinary sort of people. That’s how he would talk. But when he was addressing what he would consider a more highbrow audience, it was a very different tone. It was the arch technocrat that he used.
And so, he was able to alternate between these two things, extremely skillfully. And so part of his political offer was actually to operate at these two different registers. The problem though is to kind of think of them again as these two parallel tracks, if you like, and the politicians in a strategic way can maneuver their way between them to some extent. Yes, that can be the case, but I think if you want to govern as a populist governor, as a technocrat or campaign as a populist or campaign as a technocrat at some point you find that you will trip up because it’s precisely the combination, not the parts that are important.
So, just to give you an example. In France, we have the right-wing leader, Marine Le Pen, inheritor of the National Front. She ran in 2017 as herself, really, as a leader of this party. And she fell, partly because there was still the taboo of voting for her, but it’s also because she demonstrated her manifest incompetence. There was this catastrophic presidential debate of the second round of the presidential campaign where she really gave the impression that she just didn’t know what she was talking about in terms of France’s membership of the Eurozone. It was really a car crash. Macron, on the other hand, was able to combine these two things much more successfully.
Now she will presumably, people sort of expect her to run again next year. It is very clear that one of the things that she’s doing as carefully as possible is to create an image and an aura of competence around her. She now can do things that in the past, she was maybe a bit wobbly on. So. Marine Le Pen lost because she was not technopopulist enough. And clearly that lesson is being learned. And I think when it comes to sort of after a campaign and when it comes to governing again, I think, there is a slightly sort of difficult to grasp, but nevertheless, seamless interpenetration of these two elements.
If you think about the way a lot of governments have governed during the pandemic, it’s become very prominent that science has been central to policymaking. But not in the sense of having devoted and devolved decision-making authority to independent scientific bodies. That’s not really what’s happened. In most instances we’ve seen scientists become prominent public figures, standing alongside heads of state, prime ministers. Ministers giving advice, commenting on the figures, commenting on the patterns. But they have been brought into politics. It’s not that politics have been sort of taken out and given over to science. We’ve had this politicization of expertise. And we’ve had, often figures who people had sort of dismissed really, as just populists very much embracing this approach.
Now the actual pattern of sort of successful failure has been tempered by trying to control a very difficult virus. But I definitely sort of observed this fusion so, I think, , it’s tempting for us to maintain the opposition between the populist way of governing and the more technocratic way of governing. And one of the reasons why it appeals to us is because it maintains this idea that the populists are not interested in policy. And I think for people who’ve kind of generally been very critical of populists, it’s convenient that populists have nothing to say about policy because in the end that’s a way of suggesting that the people who vote for them are also not interested in policy.
And I’m always a bit suspicious of that. I think that’s just too convenient for people who are great believers in a meritocratic society to just kind of have a bit more faith in the technocrats and think that the populists are just empty in a policy sense. No, I think, it’s the two really are fused and I think the pandemic has fused them as well. So, there are choices that are made when you govern, but I don’t think any populists are as vacuous in terms of policy as some people would make out. And I think also interestingly, the technocrats then, and here we’re starting to have a great sort of development, which is really interesting.
Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, is now running the Italian government. A technocrat is moving straight into politics, really into the heart of politics. We have in the US this similar trend manifesting itself. We have Janet Yellen going from running the Federal Reserve, going into the treasury. We have former central bankers and central bankers are always the arch-technocrats, way, sort of out of politics, de-politicize monetary policy. We now have these figures coming in to run political administrations, being political figures. How are they then going to adapt their governing style in order to have this broader public appeal? They will also change. So, I think, the figures who we think of as really populist or really technocratic are also in various ways, are experiencing the need to combine these two elements.
At the end of the day, your book is not necessarily flattering towards technopopulism. You kind of pine for the traditional type of politics or hope for some new form of political logic. So, because I think of technopopulism as very much a way of political discourse, not just a way of thinking, but a way of communicating about politics. Does political discourse then need an entirely new ideology to be brought to the forefront or do we simply need to return to the old ideologies, the old interests, ways of thinking of politics in the past?
So, I think the answer to that is no. You know, I’m a sort of a, I suppose a believer in that famous dictum by Heraclitus. You never step into the same river twice. I think you can’t really go back. The principal reason that you can’t is that ideologies in the past, for quite a long period of time, were not just forms of political communication or rhetoric. They were a body of ideas that were also embedded in society and had a very strong structuring effect for society as a whole. Societies were structured around these ideas. Where you’d go for your beer, the football club that you would support, the newspaper that you would read. Some of these day-to-day decisions were themselves encompassed in these ideological life worlds. Society was structured around that.
That gave a lot of power to these political parties and their ability to mobilize. It also explains why sometimes you could even go to extensive forms of violence in the defense of certain ideas. It makes no sense to go back to the old ideas when there is no corresponding social form. Societies are not structured around these ideas in the same way. So, I think, that’s a mistake and I think you see it. I mean, I think one of the mistakes of the British Labor Party was that you had, in some way a figure from the past, you know, Jeremy Corbyn. Some of his ideas were certainly ideas that were pertinent to the present, but in some ways there was an attempt to recreate an older kind of pre-Blair Labor Party, an older Labor Party.
But some of these ideas about socialism and trying to transform our relationship to the means of production, when you try and do that in a society that is simply cut off from politics and where there is no real social sort of basis for it, you get a bubble. A bubble of party members. And there was just no real correspondence between the kind of intense excitement and focus of the Corban activists and the rest of British society. The big gap and that gap, I think, was manifest probably most of all in the 2019 election where he did very badly. So, I don’t think you can go back and try and recreate these things.
I think the only thing that you can do, we talk about in the book, about the ways in which we can transform political parties. I think to be more open to contemporary society, what we call this more cognitively mobilized society. I think that’s one thing. I also think that we have on a day-to-day basis, we have conflicts and clashes and divisions between people. We don’t live in harmonious societies.
And I think the task is to mobilize out of these actually existing conflicts. Just take them for what they are and to try and build out of them some sort of political movement and that will necessarily be around different questions. It will be different concerns. These are different societies. In many ways these are much richer, more kind of prosperous societies than the ones that gave rise to the ideologies of the left in the late 19th century, in the early 20th century. So, these are different times. I think we need different forms of politics. I just don’t think the technopopulism as a logic, may be a good way to win elections, and certainly if I had to become a strategic advisor to politicians, I would advise them to be technopopulist. That is a successful strategy, but I don’t think it’s the right sort of politics that we want. And so, I think we have to organize around what we have today, rather than thinking back to some of these ideas of the past.
Thank you so much for talking to me today, Chris. This is a really brilliant book. What a way to start out talking about democracy in 2021. So thank you so much.
Thank you, Justin.
Technopopulism: The New Logic of Democratic Politics by Christopher Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti
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