Representative Democracy, Populism and Technocracy

31 Jul

On TCM and elsewhere, we often use the terms “technocracy”, “populism”, and “(representative) democracy”, without necessarily explaining what these terms mean. It’s worth clarifying them now because it helps clarify the problematic nature of calls to invoke Article 50 immediately. In short, it is a populist demand that threatens to dissolve a democratic moment into a technocratic process.

Democracy denotes the rule of the demos – the people. In representative democracy, the people are sovereign and self-determining. However, it’s not assumed that the popular will can somehow directly translate itself into concrete political outcomes. Nor is society unified in its beliefs. A process of representation is required to concretise the popular will, and to mediate between individuals and groups and the actual process of governing. Political parties form to appeal to different social groups. The parties develop policy platforms, based on different worldviews, that seek to combine the interests of different constituents but also to influence their views. Democracy consists in the process of two-way dialogue between the people and their representatives, which gives specific content to the abstract notion of popular sovereignty.

By contrast, technocracy denotes the rule of technical experts – technocrats. It arises when issues that were once matters of political and ideological contestation get turned into technical questions, either because contestation becomes muted, or because issues are defined as so technically complicated that ordinary people cannot understand them. Technocracy is undemocratic because it removes decision-making from political institutions subject to popular influence. For technocrats, policy objectives are taken-for-granted. ideology and politics are dirty words and the only relevant question appears to be how to achieve  pre-given objectives with maximum efficiency – a question best left to technical experts who understand the intricacies of these things.

Obviously, European integration has been a highly technocratic process. It has converted matters previously the subject of political debate in national parliaments, between parties representing competing worldviews and social forces, into a set of technical matters to be resolved in private discussions among likeminded experts. Contemporary political parties across Europe are also increasingly technocratic entities. As ideological contestation between the parties has declined,  they have increasingly approached social, political and economic problems as technical issues requiring technical solutions. Becoming detached from the social forces they once represented, their policy platforms converge around promoting market efficiency.

Populism is a reaction against technocracy, or any form of elite rule that seems unresponsive to the popular will. Unlike representative democracy, populism does not recognise the multiplicity of societal interests requiring representation through parties. Populists appeal directly to “the people” en masse, mobilising them against “the elite”, and claim that the popular will can be channelled directly into political outcomes, most often through an individual “tribune” (Trump, Perón, Chavez, and so on). They do this, and mask real divisions among “the people”, by using what Ernesto Laclau calls “empty signifiers” – slogans that are so intrinsically meaningless that many people can load their very different grievances into them. For instance, “Make America Great Again!” is not a concrete policy platform, but a way of attracting support from people who are simply disaffected, for myriad and possibly contradictory reasons. Populism thus circumvents the process of dialogue and interest representation that gives substantive content to the popular will. It also weakens democratic accountability, because this very hollowness permits populist leaders enormous latitude to act arbitrarily, in the name of “the people”; anyone who opposes them is necessarily an “enemy of the people”. This is one reason why populist government is so often characterised by erratic, irrational policies that threaten individual liberty.

In the present context, “Invoke Article 50 Now!” is a populist demand. The slogan appeals to “the people” against “the elite” and the technocrats, who are assumed (not entirely baselessly) to wish to thwart the popular will. It also assumes that this will can somehow translate directly into a desired outcome. While it urges a concrete political step, it offers no other end except “leaving the EU”. That demand, like the Leave campaign’s “Take Back Control”, is itself devoid of substantive content. One can leave the EU in myriad ways, from “Lexit” to “Little Britain”, from maximum autonomy to “Brexit in name only”. The question of which will prevail does not seem to matter, nor does the process or strategy by which this is to be attained. At a recent public meeting, “Invoke Article 50 Now!” campaigners described such questions as “worrying about the paperwork”, “tiny details” and “minutiae”. Article 50 campaigners seem completely disinterested in the representative processes that are required to concretise the popular will for Brexit into a specific post-Brexit future.

The irony is that capitulating to their demand would swiftly convert a democratic process into a technocratic one, and sideline the people entirely. As we have explained, post-Article 50 negotiations will involve expert negotiators hammering out the technical details of Brexit on the basis of broad objectives defined by their political masters. If Article 50 is invoked tomorrow, given the lack of substantive demands for an alternative programme, the deal sought by Theresa May’s government will most likely be “Brexit in name only” – preserving much EU regulation, budget contributions and perhaps even, in the long term, freedom of movement, in exchange for access to the single market. Article 50 campaigners will likely call this a “fudge”. But it won’t be – Britain will have left the EU, and right now that is all these campaigners are actually demanding. In the absence of more substantive demands, it will be impossible to show that the government has actually betrayed the people.

The EU referendum result exposes the long-running crisis of representative democracy. Where it has been hollowed out in favour of technocracy, the gap between rulers and ruled leave people prey to populism. The solution to this crisis is not to embrace populism, but to rebuild representative democracy. Given four decades of rot, this is bound to be a slow, painful task. But the only way to restore accountable government and true popular sovereignty is to insist that political leaders represent our interests when governing the state. We can start by formulating concrete demands about the kind of society, economy and politics we want to attain through Brexit. But that is far harder than clinging to abstract notions of “democracy” containing no concrete political substance.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

10 Responses to “Representative Democracy, Populism and Technocracy”

  1. greygossling (@greygossling) August 1, 2016 at 9:56 am #

    The problem with your analysis is that the Brexit campaign was inherently populist, as many in the Remain camp argued. You can’t make a representative democratic result out of a populist moment and campaign.

  2. Peter Ramsay August 3, 2016 at 9:28 am #

    The Brexit campaign was dominated by populist rhetoric. But there is nothing inherently populist about Brexit. On the contrary, the vote to Leave exposed the breakdown of representative politics lies at the heart of our current political impasse. It poses a crucial problem for the coherence and authority of the state and for the survival of democracy. It. The populist moment, as you call it, put the question of representative democracy back on the agenda. However that question will not stay there unless a lot of people are willing to keep it there. Keeping it there is one of the things we are trying to do at TCM.

    So you are correct that a populist campaign will not by itself result in a democratic movement. But to stop there is simply to evade the problem. There will be no democratic movement if we are not willing to identify the obstacles to creating one, among them the toxic coupling of technocracy and populism that accompanies the EU’s thin cosmopolitanism.

  3. James Heartfield August 24, 2016 at 5:31 pm #

    I think ‘populism’ is a pretty nonsensical concept, tbh. It is only ever used by people as a scare category to demonise democracy (witness ‘authoritarian populism’ in the left’s retreat from majoritarian democracy in the 1980s).
    You are wrong about Article 50. Clearly the right thing to do is to invoke article 50. That was the outcome of the referendum. In the government document sent to every household in Britain, they undertook to invoke article 50 at the point that the referendum passed.
    Invoking article 50 is the opposite of what you say. It would begin the process of withdrawing from Europe, which is what people voted to do. Hanging about, prevaricating, is just kicking the problem into the long grass, letting technocrats dither and dissipate any feeling about it. The instinct to hold off pressing the button is technocratic. It is all about holding the question in the hands of experts away from the masses.
    The argument that the question is far too complicated for a rushed response is just stupid. No doubt there are questions about international standards that are too boring to tax anyone but civil servants with, like how many pins on your plug, and so on. But they are incidental, and technical, and not a problem. The real question is whether to withdraw from the EU. The referendum decided that question. Every day that the decision is not acted on will tend to dissipate the decision, and to reinforce a sense of disengagement and helplessness in the public.

    • Peter Ramsay August 30, 2016 at 7:35 am #

      James – you write that populism is a ‘nonsensical concept ‘ that ‘is only ever used by people as a scare category to demonise democracy’. But you write this in response to an article that gives the concept a very specific meaning and does not use it to demonise democracy.

      The specific meaning that we give to ‘populism’ is that it is the political approach that directly invokes the will of the people without recognition of the partisan conflicts of interest that comprise the people politically. We object to populist politics not because we object to democracy. We have strongly supported Brexit. We object to populist politics because they fail to give sufficient political substance to the popular will. The result of populism’s limitations in the current context is that it risks leaving what Brexit actually consists of to the technocratic elite.

      You are right that it would be ‘stupid’ to suggest that the ‘complicated’ character of Brexit is a good reason to delay invoking Article 50. But we haven’t argued that complexity is the reason. We have argued that the issue is political accountability for the political choices required by implementing Brexit.

      The populist instinct is to evade political differences among the people. It is apparent when you imply that the degree of free movement that Britain permits to foreigners who want to live and work here is an ‘incidental’ and ‘technical’ problem like the question of how many pins we have on our plugs.


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