The Triumph of Techno-Populism

Technocratic appeals to expertise and populist invocations of ‘the people’ have become mainstays of political competition in established democracies.

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Udo Keppler, "A noisy mob - but the sound money police are closing in on them," (published by Keppler & Schwarzmann, 1896; Library of Congress)

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s most recent book, Mad World, War, Movies, Sex published by OR books

The madness evoked in the title of this book is not meant just as the everyday expression we often use but as a more precise indication that we live in an epoch in which we miss what Fredric Jameson called “cognitive mapping,” a global orientation of where we are and where we move. Years ago we were dreaming about a post-ideological world—now we have it, and the absence or irrelevance of explicit ideologies makes things even worse.

How did we come to this point? The main shift is that the opposition between center-Left and center-Right parties as the main axis of our political space has been replaced by the opposition between a big technocratic party (standing for expert knowledge) and a populist opponent with anti-corporate and anti-financial motifs. However, this shift underwent another surprising turn. What we have witnessed lately is something one can only call techno-populism: a political movement with clear populist appeal (working for the people, for their “real interests,” neither Left nor Right), promising to take care of everyone through rational expert politics, a matter-of-fact approach that doesn’t mobilize low passions or resort to demagogic slogans. Academics Bickerton and Accetti write the following on techno-populism:

Technocratic appeals to expertise and populist invocations of ‘the people’ have become mainstays of political competition in established democracies. This development is best understood as the emergence of techno-populism—a new political logic that is being superimposed on the traditional struggle between left and right. Political movements and actors combine technocratic and populist appeals in a variety of ways, as do more established parties that are adapting to the particular set of incentives and constraints implicit in this new, unmediated form of politics.

What once seemed the ultimate antagonism of today’s politics—the struggle between liberal democracy and Rightist nationalist populism—has miraculously transformed into a peaceful coexistence. Are we dealing with some kind of “dialectical synthesis” of the opposites? Yes, but in a very specific sense: the opposites are reconciled through the exclusion of the third term: political antagonism, or the political dimension as such. The unsurpassed model is Mario Draghi in Italy, endorsed as the “neutral” and efficient prime minister by the entire political spectrum (with the significant exception of the extreme Rightist neo-Fascists who are saving the honor of politics), but elements of techno-populism are also recognizable in Emmanuel Macron and even in Angela Merkel.

This reconfiguration puts (whatever remains of) the authentic Left into a difficult position. While techno-populism is the very form of today’s establishment, of the apolitical “neutralization” and political antagonisms, it should nonetheless sometimes be strategically supported as a lesser evil when immediate catastrophes (le Pen, Trump, etc) pose a threat.

The embarrassing paradox we are compelled to accept is that from a moral standpoint, the most comfortable way to maintain one’s high ground is to live in a moderately-authoritarian regime. One can oppose the regime (softly following the unwritten rule) without really posing a threat to it, so that one can be assured of their upright moral stance without risking a lot. Even if one does suffer disadvantages (some jobs will be out of reach, one can be prosecuted), such minor punishments only provide the aura of a hero. But once full democracy comes, we all enter the domain of disorientation—choices are no longer so clear. For example, in Hungary in the mid-1990’s, the liberal ex-dissidents had to make a difficult choice: should they enter into a coalition with ex-Communists to prevent the conservative Right from taking power? This was a strategic decision where simple moral reasoning was not enough. That’s why many political agents in post-Socialist countries long for the old times when choices were clear. In despair, they try to return to the clarity of the past by equating their actual opponent with old Communists. In Slovenia the ruling conservative nationalists still blame ex-Communists for all present troubles. For example, they claim that the high number of anti-vaxxers is the result of a continuing Communist legacy. At the same time, the Left-liberal opposition claims that the ruling conservative nationalists govern in exactly the same authoritarian way as the Communists did before 1990.

The first gesture of a new politics is to fully admit disorientation and to assume responsibility for difficult strategic choices. So how will the new techno-populist power deal with the enormous problems that lie ahead? And how can we move beyond it (since it ultimately cannot deal with these problems)? In this book I try to provide some answers, but mostly I deal with three facets of our global situation: the Ukraine war; popular culture (Hollywood) as a machine that registers (and mystifies) our social and ideological deadlocks; and different aspects of our global political situation, from China to today’s desperate attempts to create artificial scarcity. My hope is that this collection will help at least some readers to think and search for solutions. We can no longer count on the logic of historical progress, we have to act on our own because, left to its own immanent logic, history is moving towards a precipice.

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Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek, Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, is International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London and the author, most recently, of Heaven in Disorder (OR Books, 2021) and Surplus-Enjoyment: A Guide For The Non-Perplexed (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022).

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