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