POLITICAL philosophy seldom sets conservative pulses racing. Typically it’s the domain of Left-wing college lecturers. Still, the title of Neema Parvini’s new work, The Populist Delusion, caught my eye. A jaundiced eye, as it transpires, mistakenly seeing effrontery: a denial of populism’s very existence. Please, any insult but that.
On the contrary, Parvini not only acknowledges but tacitly agrees with the Little People. He empathises with Brexit and Trump supporters who rose up so memorably in 2015 and 2016, unleashing a tidal wave of grass-roots conservatism soon labelled ‘populism’. (Like Puritans branding Crown supporters ‘cavaliers’, the Establishment didn’t mean it as a compliment.)
But the author does have a bone to pick, and it’s a rather large one. Here’s his central thesis: however well-intentioned, populism as a means of gaining power is painfully, inexorably naïve. The populist or democratic delusion is that ‘people are or ever could be sovereign’. In short, Parvini takes steady aim at one of the largest sacred cows still standing: Western liberal democracy.
For a growing number of readers he’s pushing at an open door. In this world-turned-upside-down, our once-inviolable political system finds itself under ever-closer scrutiny. And these days, not just from the usual suspects on the authoritarian Left (for whom the illusion of democracy actually works quite well). Recently interviewed for UnHerd, Curtis Yarvin, for example, has proposed that the US become a monarchy, with Elizabeth I, not II, the model.
What’s refreshingly new here is the formidable intellectual scaffolding Parvini erects to build his case. A veritable roll-call of elite theorists heaves into view, including Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels, Carl Schmitt, Bertrand de Jouvenal, James Burnham and Paul Gottfried, their works spanning the late 19th and early 21st centuries.
Leaving aside the more colourful political leanings of these writers, this immediately tells us something: our much-vaunted democratic structure has provoked an older, more respectable tradition of scepticism than is commonly understood. Churchill’s famous statement (curiously absent from the book) that ‘democracy is the worst form of Government except for all the others’ wasn’t made in a vacuum.
Mosca, writing in 1895, gets us under way with his theory of the ‘rulers and the ruled’. Power can never reside in ‘the will of the people’ when, as history shows, a hundred organised men will always defeat a thousand-strong rudderless throng. The enthusiastic but inchoate Yellow Vest movement, likewise the ‘insurrectionist’ crowds in Washington DC on January 6, 2020, offer contemporary supporting evidence.
For Mosca, the most generous tag for our revered representative system is ‘elected oligarchy’. For on close examination an elected official’s claim to be the mouthpiece of the majority proves fallacious: wealthy people influence opinion-forming news media in favour of their preferred candidates, who are themselves pre-selected by organised minorities (powerful mainstream party machines).
The ‘choice’ we’re offered on our ballot paper is bogus, the argument goes. The system is designed so that any result suits the ruling elite. Only a few short years ago this was a fringe view; in the Uniparty era of interchangeable politicians it continues to gain traction, and rightly so.
Space allows only glancing reference to some of the other theorists surveyed. Complementing Parvini’s unblinking focus on realpolitik, Pareto’s The Mind and Society (1935) exposes a sobering top-down reality: ‘The character of a society . . . is above all the character of its elite’, and ‘History is a graveyard of aristocracies’.
Michels’s ‘iron law of oligarchy’, published in Political Parties (1911), holds that representative democracy is necessarily a myth, since in any organisation power is vested in leaders, who are ultimately unaccountable. The genius of the Left’s Long March is that it never needed to persuade most people, only to capture the leadership roles. Chiming with events since March 2020, the masses’ ‘pathological need to be led’ facilitates the coup.
Carl Schmitt, writing in the 1920s and 30s, saw no difference between absolute monarchy and parliamentary systems with their apparent separation of powers. In neither case is popular sovereignty manifest: ‘We the People’ is merely an empty slogan. Indeed, liberal democracy is ‘marked by its intolerance and spectacular inability to imagine any worldview that is not its own’ (recent Western military interventions, anyone?).
Jouvenel’s On Power (1945) contends that, far from being immune to the centralising state, democracies are ‘the broadest highway to tyranny that has ever existed’ (once, I would have bristled). While Burnham, as long ago as 1941, wrote a tour de force on the managerial class, and how, plus ça change, its self-interestedness strangles the life out of populist sentiment. Today, of course, we see this reflected in the proliferation of labour-intensive Diversity and Inclusion programmes, and in the Civil Service’s obstruction of Brexit.
Gottfried’s Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt (2002) builds on Jouvenel, showing how the same managerial regime, far from transforming itself to serve the people (as democracy requires), seeks to transform people to further its ‘system of atomised corporate consumerism’.
On balance, and until a more effective political system – perhaps a benign dictatorship or Council of State) – arises or re-emerges to clear up the mess, I’m sticking with democracy. Nevertheless, reading this by turns unsettling and affirming study has only further weakened my faith in it. Which prompts an urgent question of the Great Optometrist in the Sky: how many more scales remain to fall from conservative eyes?