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Populism is not another word for democracy. It is, however, a word for a crude kind of majoritarianism which the market-oriented right finds very attractive. Unfortunately those leftists who have abandoned universal aims and class politics feel a similar attraction.

Concern over democracy descending into a crude head count is certainly not new. Since the development of mass democracy there has been a consistent fear of what a majority might do, possibly harming a minority or overriding individual rights which have been progressively established. There are two responses to the fear. One is to limit democracy. The other is to enhance democracy by accentuating its usually ignored feature, deliberation.

And there’s the jump-off point for today’s concerns over populism. The will to democratise has always rested on a belief that citizens will be informed, thoughtful and deliberative, that they will participate in the affairs of their republic not merely as volunteers, community activists and the like or as self-interested members of pressure groups but as people who will talk, argue and participate in public discourse.

Of course no democrat could ever have been confident that all citizens would be participants. There would always be those who would opt out, having no active interest in the direction of the republic, no interest in politics, or who would be excluded, lacking resources of income, leisure, education or ability.

This then gives the most basic division in a republic between, let’s call them, passive citizens and participative citizens. The latter want public discourse, the former want leadership, simplicity and promises. Both can vote.*

It has long been possible – perhaps even necessary – to be elected by offering services, goods, promises or even a focus for anger to citizens who have no participative interest. What has dawned in recent years is a full realization of the size and political potential of passive citizens. These are citizens who don’t want to hear and discuss contending arguments but who want reassurance and deliverance. They want leadership and there are leaders and parties with simplicities who are anxious to compete for their support, populist leaders. Again, it’s not new but it has been growing for two reasons. Firstly, potential leaders have increasingly sought out data about what people want to hear so that they can patronise rather than convince voters. Secondly, passive citizens – previously content – have lost faith in a political system which they thought catered to them at least adequately.

The fear now is that meaningful democracy will be reduced further in the direction of crude majoritarianism. Before looking at how passive citizens lost their faith, it would be sensible to set down the characteristics of populism. Nowadays they are all too familiar.

Populism: its familiar features

There is an essential belief that society is composed of two antagonistic but internally homogeneous sections:

a) The “establishment”, undifferentiated but including the rich, business, banks, media, elected politicians, state officials intellectuals and experts;

and b) The “ordinary people” who are more wise and virtuous than the “corrupt establishment”.

Populists have an uncomplicated approach to democracy. They seek strong and charismatic leaders who will reflect the will of the people. They also like direct and majoritarian democracy, favouring referenda and plebiscites over representative democracy whose checks and balances might give undue attention to minorities and thwart the will of the majority.

They are strongly nostalgic, looking back to what they consider better, simpler times both economically and culturally, when industrial employment gave a basic prosperity and the prospect of inter-generational improvement, and before cosmopolitan values, multiculturalism, “political correctness” and feminism made life less certain. This can lead to expressions of support for isolated nationalism and for crude misogyny to the point of foul-mouthed sexism.

The passive citizen’s loss of faith

There is no point in pretending otherwise, things have changed for very many people who are passive/disengaged but who were formerly more or less content. Their employment is gone, their expectations are undermined, their understanding of family, gender, community and race now seems incongruent. And yet, it is clear to them that others are flourishing in the new circumstances. They feel as though they’ve been left behind and are in need of rescue, restoration, deliverance, a leader, even something familiar in which they can have faith.

When this is theorised there tends to be two approaches. One talks about economic insecurity, emphasising the low pay consequences of declining industrial production and the attendant increase in unskilled and semi-skilled work which rarely leads to promotion. **

The second talks about a cultural backlash, an objection to the progressive value changes and increased migration that were concomitant with the loss of industrial jobs.

Austerity and the decline of the left

The rise of populism is frequently contrasted with the decline of Socialism, social democracy and Labourism. The conventional argument is that people are angry over left involvement in business and especially in the defensive cuts to pay and welfare (austerity) thought necessary to stabilising – even, saving – the capitalist system.

It is true that for the greater part of the 20th century socialists were complicit in a deal with capitalism which saw the system encouraged and promoted in return for relatively good pay, conditions and systems of welfare. It is equally true that right wing as well as left wing elements were deeply unhappy with this arrangement. Right wing dissent took the form of neo-liberalism which wanted a reduced role for the state and an increasing resort to markets, especially labour markets. Left wing dissent saw participation in the management of capitalism as a sell-out. They claimed a monopoly on the term, socialism, while social democracy became a term of abuse applied to socialists who operated within representative democracy.

The early 21st century economic crash was a happy day for both sets of dissenters; clearly the deal they hated could no longer deliver. Worse, the establishment – including socialists – moved to save or stabilise the system by rescuing banks, investors and industry, and cutting wages and welfare provisions.

At this point, according to conventional argument, people were no longer convinced that those who ran the deal and did well out of the deal – the establishment – would protect them, and they turned to alternative leaders who offered deliverance.

The flaw in this conventional argument is located at that word, “convinced”. The thing is that when considering populism it is a mistake to think in terms of a Demos comprised of thinking citizens who no longer hold with the argument behind the 20th century deal, who no longer agree with what has been termed social democracy. Rather, it is more accurate to think in terms of passive people who were never convinced of anything.

The truth is in a range of criticism appearing over the greater part of the 20th century which was concerned with citizen abandonment of appraisal, analysis, discussion and judgement, i.e. participation. That old fear of mass society crackles across the thoughts of democrats from Marxist alienation, through the “descent into a vast triviality” to just at the birth of the web, “The Culture of Contentment”. Then a decade and a half later there’s Barack Obama, “… in politics and in life ignorance is not a virtue”. Now it’s opposition to populism but it’s the same old fear: democracy stripped of citizen deliberation. Democracy reduced to brutal majoritarianism. ***

Leaders of the passive

The right will seek power by trying to manipulate passive citizens. A revolutionary left could try the same. A left which has, however, abandoned revolution but wants to lead the masses faces a dilemma: oppose right wing demands even when expressed by “ordinary workers” and lose their support or agree with them and go over to the other side. ****

What to do?

Democrats – as opposed to majoritarians – know that without deliberation the whole point of the democratic project/tradition is lost. It would be undesirable – as well as unlikely – that liberals, socialists and some conservatives elide their differences and come together but as democrats they must always be aware that populism is a common foe. To be blunt, political controversy whether arguing individual freedom, equality or class conflict is part of the establishment that is now threatened.***** Fortunately, there remain citizens who are amenable to argument. They must be addressed. They must be encouraged to speak up, to participate as they wish. No democrat should ever patronise passive citizens; that’s partly what led to this crisis for democracy.

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On alienation and later:

descent into a vast triviality.” Neil Postman (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death, p.6

Contentment sets aside that which, in the longer view, disturbs contentment; it holds firmly to the thought that the long run may never come.” – J.K. Galbraith (1993) The Culture of Contentment, p.173

John Waters, Amused to Death,

Barack Obama:


***** Anti-establishment is no longer a matter of opposing the entrenched position of the rich or the structure of inequality. It has more or less changed sides. It is now a matter of opposing the established way of doing things, the slow processes built up over many years on which reform and progress, depend. This anti-establishment is no place for a socialist. Indeed, socialists must resist the temptation to strike a faux-revolutionary pose and oppose the thoughtless barbarism of the new anti-establishment.


Reaction to Russell Brand’s manifesto in New Statesman* has been almost exclusively of three types: supportive, dismissive, or patronising. Because the level of support for his position is so large the dismissive and patronising reactions will not do. What is needed is engagement with his perspective. It needs to be examined and subjected to the level of critique due to all public arguments.

New Statesman is attracting a great deal of criticism for publishing Russell Brand (RB) and allowing him to edit an entire edition. This is not deserved because the journal has performed a service in giving this political perspective space, respect and above all attention. The political perspective offered by RB is not at all uncommon. It would appear to be shared by at least a significant minority of people and possibly by a majority. It is the perspective which dominates mass media and social media. That it has been expressed by Russell Brand should neither increase nor decrease its importance.

His presentation of the position goes something like this.

He builds a case for casting aside the whole Westminster model including representative democracy. The starting point is “most people” and the observations that they don’t give a fuck about politics, view all parties and politicians as the same and hold them in equal contempt. He reckons that all political “agencies” are irredeemably and totally corrupted by big business. The conclusion is that “the current paradigm” should be renounced.

He holds a particular contempt for the Conservative Party and the smaller more extreme right wing parties but contempt for their opponents is only marginally less. Paradoxically for someone with such strong anti-state/anti-politics (ASAP) views, he has a positive attitude to leftist values, and leftist figures and achievements of the past.

He lists very real inequalities, poverty, deprivation and exclusions from decent living. Things are so bad and reform so impossible that only a revolution will do, a spiritual revolution. Now, he is not alone in using “spiritual” in relation to revolution; Rosa Luxemburg, the late 19th – early 20th century Marxist philosopher, does so too. However, he is quite explicit that the revolution is not about the overthrow and replacement of institutions and that “spiritual” refers to individual rather than collective change and to some kind of conversion rather than persuasion by argument.

He holds that media, public relations and polling combine to delude the people, keeping them apathetic rather than angry.

There are problems with all of this but first it is necessary to deal with those who would patronise him and those who share his views. RB has defenders on the left who appreciate the publicity he has given to the scale of the problems we face and to some of the issues that they too might prioritise. Moreover, they may share his view of the importance and wisdom of “most people”. They say that because he is not a politician, practiced in argument or particularly well-educated or informed, he cannot be expected to offer any solution or be subjected to analysis. Now, RB himself tries to exploit this (Indeed, he invites patronising admiration.) by saying that because he knows so little, little can be expected of him. In this position and that of his supporters who seek to patronise him there is acceptance of elite authority – a reliance on one’s betters (Yes, very likely the same betters already rejected as complicit in the problems.) to devise a solution. It is a rejection of the ordinary citizen’s involvement in great debates. It is a rejection of the notion that anyone may express a view in public and when they do, they invite criticism and counter argument. The patronising of RB’s views is an example of a modern form of censorship in which, “everyone is entitled to an opinion” has come to imply that a speaker’s opinion should not be questioned. It is tolerance turned on its head and made to mean the opposite. RB’s views deserve the respect of being challenged, particularly so because those views are commonplace, shared by so many people.

The overriding problem with the perspective now associated with RB is that it is for the greater part right wing. There are three important overlapping right wing perspectives which dominate. Firstly, though it might seem daft at first sight to associate RB with right wing dogma – given his apparent hostility to the establishment and in the UK to the Conservative Party – he is embracing an old and familiar approach to citizenship. Opposition to the state, and rejection of ideologies and of traditional forms and accepted norms for public debate signal opposition to the republican or participative model of citizenship. This is a model with which most leftists would identify and support. He opts instead for a variation on the liberal model of citizenship which cares little who is in charge or what is done as long as a level of comfort is guaranteed.** It should be admitted and then emphasised that a level of comfort is increasingly denied to many, many people and they are sorely, justifiably aggrieved.

Secondly, the ASAP thrust is meat and drink to those whose views can be loosely identified with the highly individualistic Freeman movement. Because of its anti-state, anti-tax, pro-property and standing-up-for-the-little-guy approach this is particularly attractive right now. In Ireland its largely bogus attempts to prevent debtors’ property – especially houses and lands – being seized are proving attractive because so many people in debt are in need of some relieving faith.*** These same characteristics give it credibility at protests and either confuse leftists or tempt them to turn a blind eye to the reality of a political perspective which in other circumstances they would oppose.†

Thirdly, it is plain that “New Age” thinking or what is frequently termed Mind, Body, Spirit (MBS) approaches are central. Indeed, for the edition of New Statesman which RB guest-edited he invited Deepak Chopra – among others – to write a short piece about revolution. Moreover, he talks admiringly of “sacred knowledge” in various pantheistic myths and seems to think that these myths were killed off because they were “socialist, egalitarian and integrated”. Clearly he believes at least some of the huge range of MBS doctrines. He may also realise the importance and influence of the New Age/spiritual/MBS constituency among his supporters. It is this that provides the quickest line of retreat from ordinary understanding of revolution into the radically individualist notion of a spiritual revolution.

It is worth returning to his view that the media are to blame for deluding the people. He may well be right but the delusion supports rather than hinders his perspective. To be fair to RB, it is true that journalists are generally loud in their condemnation of rioting and violent protesters and that they seek out examples in order to make a largely peaceful demonstration newsworthy. It is also true that what little analysis of disorder there is takes place months later in documentaries aimed at a small, more thoughtful audience. However, for decades the media have been deriding both politicians and politics,†† presenting an overall view that is remarkably similar to that of RB and – significantly – to that of the majority of citizens. It may be very hard for many of those accustomed to condemning the “mainstream media” to grasp the extent to which routine media output supports the denigration of politics, the acceptance of an elite political class, the reduction of the citizen to supplicant seeking favours, and the rejection of a demos in favour of minorities competing for resources at each other’s expense.††† It is a view which is incompatible with leftist thinking but many leftists decline to tackle it and instead either make common cause with its adherents, attempt to lead it or patronise it by asking no questions.‡

RB has performed a service in underlining the extent to which there are problems beyond the competence of any one state. The world, organised in competing states and federations and pinning almost all hope of a better life for citizens on economic growth, faces an existential threat in Global Warming. Moreover, within and across developed states there is a refusal to face two looming issues. Firstly, not only are there more people now but they are living much longer. The very idea of a pension rests on the assumption of employment until 65 and death soon after. That is plainly not how things are. Secondly, almost all policy assumes that a good society has full employment in decent jobs. The enormous productivity wrought by technology means that plainly this too is not how things are.

Russell Brand and the huge numbers who think similarly are disappointing not only because they are right wingers under their socialist fleece but in rejecting reform in favour of a vague hope they bring to mind a hoary old joke told too many times in Ireland:

A tourist stops and asks a local for directions to be told, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here at all.”


I was never in favour of abolishing the Seanad. My reasons were to do with mass political communication which many would dismiss with one of censorship’s favourite labels: “academic”. Now, however, there is a more pressing reason to vote No.

I won’t go on too much about the communication aspect but some explanation is required. My interest is political communication and the information – i.e. data and argument – that a citizen requires to participate in public controversies. One of the requirements is access to a range of viewpoints. The Seanad wasn’t designed with this in mind but in its design there was a suggestion of comprehensive debate, something rare and something that could be altered to do the job.

Election to the Seanad is by way of some universities and by way of industrial panels – agriculture, labour and the like. Commentators have pointed to the quality of Seanad speakers delivered by the universities but also to the exclusion of any particular industrial component to the panel elections which came to be dominated by routine inter party competition. There have also been nominations by Taoisigh which sought to recruit particular perspectives. In summary, the Seanad is designed for the most part to institutionalise and deliver sectional perspectives but this simply hasn’t happened.

Had it happened, it would not have been a great success for political communication – or rather for the kind of political communication which the republican or participative citizen needs. It is corporatist thinking. The assumption is that all political debate is based on self-interest and competition for resources. It is the traditional Fianna Fáil way and has become the standard media perspective in Ireland. It has indeed an appealing democratic veneer. Its notion of representation is that voices must be heard from regions, classes, industries, NGOs, lobbies etc. The problem of course is that they may all be saying the same thing: “Me! No, me! No, no, me, me!” This is an intensely conservative position which can often give the appearance of radicalism as when a bit of extra resources for a “deserving” group is championed.

It could be different. Think about this as a specification to be handed to the designers of a new Seanad: It is required that the Seanad reflect not the interests of select groups but that it publicly and fully thrash out all issues on which it deliberates. In summary my long standing position on the Seanad is that it has a promising design which needs to be changed.

Enough of that. We are facing a referendum to abolish the Seanad. The reason we are facing this now has nothing whatsoever to do with arguments put forward over the years that the Seanad is elitist, undemocratic or unnecessary. No, this is happening because the Taoiseach and his advisors can see clearly that there is a growing, right wing, anti-state, anti-politics constituency and he has decided to feed it by sacrificing the Seanad. The cusp of competition for political support now is this large group (There’s no knowing its size yet.) of angry people. It is certainly odd that FG which prides itself on defending democracy should now be prompted in this direction. With the exception of revolutionaries seeking a crisis which might be exploited, the desire among leftists to attach to – even to lead – such people borders on incomprehensible. It seems to be based on a belief that anyone or group opposing austerity and willing to take part in protest is progressive – even socialist. In other words, the very people that might be expected to stand in the way of a populist move to the right are competing to lead it.

Two things remain to be addressed. Firstly, a no vote might be equally attractive to a member of the anti-state/anti politics (ASAP) grouping; “no” would be a rejection of a government proposal. However, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on the No side canvassing support on this basis.

Secondly, ASAP may be nothing of consequence. My concern with it grew slowly. I watched Occupy and spoke to some of its adherents. I attended anti-property tax meetings. I live an ordinary social life and take part in conversations. On this anecdotal level ASAP gives cause for concern in terms of what they say, the aggressive stance taken and their numbers. There’s more, however. Published polling data shows firm support for right wing parties, that parties seek ASAP support suggests the existence of data that make that course worthwhile and the utter dominance of the ASAP perspective in the media all combine to support a case for treating ASAP very seriously.

The Taoiseach has reduced this referendum to a question of for or against cutting the number of politicians. That proposal is close to the hearts of the ASAP people. In these particular circumstances people who have been in favour of abolishing the Seanad for other reasons should consider voting No. A Yes gives encouragement to an extremely individualist brand of politics and many of those that I’ve heard advocating abolition of the Seanad over the years certainly don’t belong on that side.