Technopopulism: The New Logic of Democratic Politics, by Christopher J. Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti (Oxford University Press, 256 pp., $100)

Technocracy and populism are important concepts in the democratic West, but most consider them in opposition—popular passions as a reaction to technocratic control. Some welcome the populist reaction. With the traditional seats of political decision-making vacated by the financialization of the economy or the emergence of supranational institutions, the argument goes, populists seek to restore democratic accountability and give people power over their own destiny again. Others see populism as unpromising, even irrational. In a world of ceaseless change and complexity, it is said, the people in charge must be competent and technically capable. Elected leaders must rely on technical expertise, as governing without it is simply impossible in an era of ever-expanding rules, codes, and regulations. From this perspective, populism cultivates a false hope that the people can exercise political power without the guidance of experts.

Populists and technocrats themselves tend to reinforce these conflicting views. Consider how each talks about the other: the populist as the bastion of resistance against hubristic bureaucrats, the technocrat using his expertise to quiet the rowdy talk of ignoramuses. But in a perceptive book, Christopher J. Bickerton, a professor of modern European politics at Cambridge, and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, an associate professor of political theory at the City College of New York, suggest that populism and technocracy are not so different.

Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti’s argument proceeds in two parts. First, they point out that the crucial claims to legitimacy of populism and technocracy—the need to give voice to the people beyond the formalities of liberal democracy, and the possession of some kind of expertise as a prerequisite for governing—often coexist rhetorically. “The most salient differences between the main protagonists on the contemporary political scene do not lie in their substantive ideological profiles but rather in the specific way in which they combine both populist and technocratic traits with one another,” they write.

Perhaps the best case in point is French president Emmanuel Macron, to whom they devote a good deal of attention. They quote French historian Pierre Rosanvallon, who observed that Macron “stands for an ‘elegant version of populism,’” and discuss the symbolic undertones and the organizational structure of En Marche, the movement that the French leader built in mere months, causing havoc in the nation’s politics—similar to Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in 1994. As with all parties built around the ambitions and personality of a single leader, En Marche called not on the keywords of an established ideology (socialism, liberalism) but “sought to mobilize a growing feeling of dégagisme across France: a seething sense of dissatisfaction with the political class.”

On first sight, Macron, himself a technocrat, seems the opposite of a populist. And indeed, the French president answered the populist challenges of Marine Le Pen (against whom he is pitted in the nation’s runoff election, to be decided this weekend) with sharply different policies than she proposed. But Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti contend that, while populism is not characterized by a distinctive set of policies, its language is pervasive in contemporary politics. Even members of the establishment, like Macron, tends to present themselves as its foes.

The authors’ second, and more important, argument extends beyond political rhetoric. Populism and technocracy share philosophical roots:

Even though appeals to the popular will and to competence are often rhetorically deployed against each other, there is also a deep affinity between them, which consists in the fact that they are both unmoored from the representation of specific values and interests within society and therefore advance an unmediated conception of the common good, in the form either of a monolithic conception of the “popular will” or the specific conception of political “truth” technocrats claim to have access to. This sets both populism and technocracy at odds with the traditional conception of party democracy as a system of “regulated rivalry” between competing social interests and values that are all in principle equally legitimate.

Consider countries where populism is stronger, such as Italy. Both the Five Stars Movement and the Northern League—which, under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, courted the populist camp by making opposition to immigration its most viable political message—have made much use of anti-European polemics. The European Union, the technocratic body par excellence, was seen as standing in the way of the genuine interest of Italians, who had to swallow unnecessary “reforms” in the name of European integration and sounder public finances. Competent Eurocrats were portrayed as deaf to the genuine needs of the people.

Yet the Five Stars Movement mostly refused to talk about politics, a term that, in the vocabulary of its founder, Beppe Grillo, “is systematically associated with ideas of ‘corruption’ and vain ‘ideological disputes.’” Political ideas are the fog that makes it impossible to see things for how simple they really are, populists say. What the country needs are solutions to problems, not overarching systems of ideas, and such solutions are best found if honest people are put in charge.

Ever since we have had power struggles among political elites, newcomers have denounced the corruption of incumbents and recommended themselves as happily untainted. Such a theme has been part of Italian politics since the early 1990s, when the so-called “Clean Hands” investigation swiped away an entire political class. Before Grillo, others, including Berlusconi, benefited from the idea that the best qualification for a politician is having never been a politician before. Grillo and the Five Stars Movement pushed this idea to the extreme, coming, in a highly consequential turn, to endorse direct democracy against representative democracy and pushing whatever technological evolution could make the second better resemble the first. For Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti, the populist “conception of politics” is “primarily epistemic in character—that is, about finding the ‘right’ answers to common problems.”

The principal difference between European technocrats and their Italian challengers was not a grandiose battle on how to understand politics but a mere skirmish over how best to select the proper personnel. Both groups believed that it should not be provided by corporate bodies such as political parties, which tend to create the dreaded figure of the “professional politician.” In fact, a century ago, in his pathbreaking book Socialism, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises remarked that “Like any other profession in the society dividing labour, politics demand the entire man; dilettante politicians are of no use.”

Populists and technocrats each assume that politics is an inferior and detrimental profession. It accustoms its practitioners to strike deals and come up with compromises, but true solutions need to be pristine—free from political influence. “Both populism and technocracy,” write Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti, “dispense with the dimension of political mediation because they claim to have direct access to the ultimate ground of political legitimacy itself.” Each shares a conception of power as a technique that can actually solve social problems, if only it were entrusted to honest and competent people. “Populism relies on the cultivation of a direct relationship of ‘embodiment’ between the populist leader and his or her electoral base,” they add, “whilst technocracy is based on an informal relationship of ‘trust’ between the technocrat and those he is supposed to govern, rooted in the assumption that the former possesses a specific ‘competence’ or ‘expertise,’ tied to his or her personal qualities and professional qualifications.”

This explains why populism and technocracy converge in dismissing the possibility of reasonable disagreement on political issues. There is no liberal, conservative, or socialist solution informed by sincerely held values—only right or wrong solutions, the latter typically corrupted by vested interests or ignorance.

The current debate resembles an older tradition, which claimed that ideologies have come to an end. In the mid-twentieth century, some theorists celebrated the disappearance of ideological politics with relief, as it implied the disappearance of the risk of a totalitarian involution of the West. For these thinkers, such as Raymond Aron or Daniel Bell, the end of ideology was a good thing, since it marked the retreat of fanaticism. Bell was convinced that “the tendency to convert concrete issues into ideological problems, to color them with moral fervor and high emotional charge,” would eventually end. Aron celebrated the fact that “neither Marxism-Leninism, nor fascism, nor liberalism awake the faith which moves mountains any more.” Since ideology had meant a politics concerned with perfecting human beings at gunpoint (and eradicating the imperfect ones), it’s understandable that its alleged death was met with relief.

But Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti see the end of ideology having different implications today. They reason that “politicians claiming to stand for an unmediated conception of the common good are less likely to recognize the democratic legitimacy of their opponents, compared to politicians claiming to represent a particular interpretation of it.” Polarization and reciprocal delegitimization are common traits of liberal democracies in our allegedly post-ideological times. The demise of organized systems of ideas has not eradicated fanaticism; it has simply given it new clothes. The perfectionism of old ideologies that strove to shape man in their image gave way to a quest for solutions no less ambitious—promising to solve such global problems as climate change and inequality—but focusing on power-holders rather than ideas.

Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti suggest that polarization in liberal institutions owes not to the intensity of political passions but rather to the weakening of political institutions. Technocracy and populism thrive on political parties’ exhaustion, while the authors of Technopopulism would like to revitalize parties by increasing competition within them. This should allow for parties to internalize conflicts that would otherwise burst out into society, and perhaps to attract people who would otherwise challenge them from the outside. Declining but alert establishments always seek to embrace their adversaries before they become lethal enemies. It could be argued that something similar happened in Spain, where traditional parties succeeded in surviving a populist outburst. In the Anglo-Saxon world, instead of being besieged by populists, traditional parties welcomed them. The results of such a strategy are not always uplifting, however.

For those among us who are neither technocrats nor populists, not all problems have solutions. But if their proposals leave something to be desired, Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti have nonetheless made an important contribution to our understanding of contemporary democracies.

Photo by PASCAL GUYOT/AFP via Getty Images


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