Colin Wilson, “Michel Foucault: friend or foe of the left”

Although this blogger is not enamoured of the IST/ SWP tradition — and notes that the SWP’s own approach to Marxism is odd, since it treats 99% of all existing Marxist movements, like Communism, the USSR and the rest as not “really” Marxist, and therefore cleans its Marxism of the legion of crimes of  actually-existing Marxism– the article overall is pretty good.

Extract (full paper below): “Foucault’s [ambiguous] ideas worked well as a justification for such a shift [from revolutionary class politics from the 1970s]. His belief in a plurality of struggles, a plurality of revolutions or a revolution that need not involve the destruction of the state—all of this lent a gloss of sophistication to the new pessimism. His rejection of Marx and his lack of interest in class were all too appropriate to a decade characterised by workers’ defeats, in which leading intellectuals of the left proclaimed the working class dead or incapable of fighting… if Foucault now speaks to people moving to the left, he has spoken in the recent past to people moving to the right. The fact that he can do both shows the ambiguity and lack of clarity in his ideas. And finally, this is what matters, because what people find appealing, even inspiring, in Foucault is not so much his detailed analysis of texts concerning particular topics, as his general approach. That approach, while giving rise to some fascinating and inspiring insights, remains fundamentally flawed.”

Michel Foucault: friend or foe of the left

International Socialism

Issue: 118

Colin Wilson

The French historian, activist and intellectual Michel Foucault remains politically significant some 20 years after his death. Antonio Hardt and Michael Negri’s book Empire, one of most influential works of the anti-capitalism movement, argues that “the work of Michel Foucault has prepared the terrain for…an investigation of the material functioning of imperial rule”. On the pro-war left, Nick Cohen cites Foucault as a crucial source of the malaise affecting the rest of the left—the gutless relativism which, he argues, prevents us from attacking Islamists.1

Foucault’s ideas have also gained considerable authority in history and the social sciences, particularly in areas such as cultural studies and sexuality. His work is enormously influential in the recently developed academic field of queer studies: one American academic has gone so far as to write a book entitled Saint Foucault, arguing that Foucault should be seen as the exemplary gay intellectual.2

Foucault is, then, both influential and perceived to be a radical of the left. How should we assess his ideas?

Foucault’s life and ideas


Kjetil B. Simonsen, “Conspiracism and Violence”

From NEW COMPASS, a Bookchinite journal, here

Conspiracism and Violence

Image of bombing of government headquarters in Oslo July 22nd

Do the terrorist organization Al Qaeda and Anders Behring Breivik – the perpetrator behind the terrorist attack on the government headquarters in Oslo and the massacre at Utøya that killed 77 people on July 22nd 2011– have anything in common? At a first glance they seem to be very different. With the exception of their use of similar means – mass murder of civilians – their perception of reality and ideological motives appears highly divergent. The world view of Al Qaeda rests on a militant-fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, with a sting toward the Western world and a notion of a Jewish world power as an explanatory model for an imagined moral decline, growing disbelief and cultural decadence. Breivik, on the other hand, views himself as a soldier in the struggle against “multiculturalism” and “the Islamic influence.”

A more thorough analysis of the ideological universes of Al Qaeda and Breivik nevertheless reveals clear structural similarities between the two. One common denominator is their embrace of conspiracy myths. For both undesired developments and events are thought to be staged by a powerful group of conspirators who covertly operate to achieve their undermining and nihilistic objectives.

The Characteristics of Conspiracism

What characterizes conspiracy thinking, or conspiracism as it is often called in academic circles? In short, conspiracism can be defined as a way of talking about and understanding the world that has its basis in the notion that the key events in and the historical course of society are covertly and systematically directed by a group (or groups of) conspirators. Furthermore, these forces are thought to promote values and goals that are diametrically opposed to what the believers perceive as the “true” and righteous social and moral order.

According to historian Geoffrey Cubitt this mode of thinking consists of three overall features. They are dualistic , in the sense that they make a sharp division between “good” and “destructive” forces. They are intentionalist, in the sense that they portray negative events and developments as a result of systematically planned intrigues. And finally they are occultist, in the sense that they believe that social development is shaped behind the scenes, and that the “true power” is placed outside the public purview. As a fourth feature, it can be added that conspiracism is distinguished by the belief that nearly everything is connected. Non-related events and historical developments are tied together in absurd ways and ascribed to the same cause.

A good example of Al Qaeda’s conspiracism can be seen in the Letter to America that was published by British Islamists in 2002 and apparently authored by Osama Bin Laden. The letter listed a series of charges against American society and the U.S. government, and thereby sought to justify the terrorist attacks against the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11th 2001. The accusations dealt with everything from U.S. support to Israel and its remaining foreign policy, to the alleged immorality and decadence of American culture. All of these phenomenons were traced back to one common source – the Jews:

You are the nation that permits Usury, which has been forbidden by all the religions. Yet you build your economy and investments on Usury. As a result of this, in all its different forms and guises, the Jews have taken control of your economy, through which they have then taken control of your media, and now controls all aspects of your life […] Your law is the law of the rich and wealthy people, who hold sway in their political parties, and fund their election campaigns with their gifts. Behind them stands the Jews, who control your policies, media and economy.

Breivik and the Eurabia Myth

In the months following the terror attack on the government headquarters in Oslo and the cruel murders at Utøya on July 22nd 2011, much has been written and said about Anders Behring Breivik’s background, political bearings and ideological views. One thing is certain: the atrocities were not accidental. Although serious questions have been raised about Breivik’s mental state – he was recently declared psychotic in a highly controversial report written by two officially appointed forensic psychiatrists – there is no doubt that his actions had ideological and political dimensions. Shortly before the bomb was discharged in Oslo, Breivik e-mailed a 1,500 page document entitled 2083 – European Declaration of Independence to more than a thousand recipients.

The document is a hotchpotch of the murderer’s own thoughts and texts authored by his own political idols – assembled by the cut and paste method. Still, as Norwegian journalist Øyvind Strømmen points out, the “manifesto” – together with Breivik’s posts on different websites – gives a clear picture of the murderer’s political views. Breivik was inspired by a so-called counter-jihadist internet community, where a grandiose conspiracy narrative centered on the fear of Islam and the multi-cultural society serves as an ideological basis. As Strømmen writes:

This is a milieu that upholds an ideology that hardly can be called Neo-Nazism, but definitely can be called right-wing extremism. It is a milieu with ties to European Neo-Fascism. And it is a milieu where conspiracy theory reigns: Europe is becoming Arabia – islamized and arabized. This is a conscious policy, a policy to which central politicians, media persons and academics are complicit.

The conspiracy myth Strømmen refers to, as it runs like a red thread through Breivik’s document, is often called the Eurabia-theory. The concept of Eurabia was originally coined by Egyptian-born British writer Bat Ye’or (pseudonym for Giséle Littmann) in her book Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, which appeared in 2005. Ye’or’s conspiracy narrative is centered on The Euro-Arab Dialogue (EAD), which she believes to have been created by an association of Arab and European politicians and bureaucrats. The aim of this supposed dialogue is to enslave the Western world under Islamic supremacy.

A whole Eurabia-genre has emerged in the years following the publication of Bat Ye’or’s book. Among the central adherents to this idea-complex are the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, author Bruce Bawer, Robert Spencer (who is behind the American blog Jihad Watch), and the Norwegian blogger Fjordman (pseudonym for Peder Are Nøstvold Jensen). It is especially Fjordman who emerges as Breivik’s great political idol. As many as 38 of the blogger’s articles are reproduced in their entirety in the “manifesto,” and the title A European Decleration of Independence also stems from one of his essays.

The Enemy Image

A quick look at Breivik’s compendium – both the sections the killer has written himself and the ones he has picked from his ideological comrades – emphatically demonstrates that conspiracy thinking is a basic component of the murderers world view. In Breivik’s thought universe all undesirable features of social development are “explained” as a planned and secret plot orchestrated by a Eurabian coalition. His way of thinking follows, in other words, Cubitt’s definition point-device – it is dualistic, intentionalist and occultist.

Select examples clearly render Breivik’s conspiracy narrative. Already in the initial chapter of the compendium, the history of the West from the 1950s until the present is described as a process of decay that has led to the disintegration of national and European values. Behind this disintegration is a collation of politicians and intellectuals influenced by “culture-Marxism,” as well as bureaucrats of the European Union (EU) and Islamic leaders. In one of Fjordman’s articles reproduced in the “manifesto,” the forces against native Europe are thus described as a three-headed internal and external enemy:

I’ve suggested before that native Europeans face three enemies simultaneously when fighting against the Islamisation of their lands: Enemy 1 is the anti-Western bias of our media and academia, which is a common theme throughout the Western world. Enemy 2 are Eurabians and EU-federalists, who deliberately break down established nation states in favor of a pan-European superstate. Enemy 3 are Muslims.

Islamization and the introduction of multiculturalism – and the consequent destruction of European culture and traditions – is portrayed as planned and intended. For example a passage about the EU reads:

The EU is deliberately destroying the cultural traditions of member states by flooding them with immigrants and eradicating native traditions. This is a gross violation of the rights of the indigenous peoples across an entire continent. Europe has some of the richest cultural traditions on the planet. To replace this with sharia barbarism is a crime against humanity. The European Union is currently the principal (though not the only) motor behind the Islamisation of Europe, perhaps the greatest betrayal in this civilisation’s history.

A couple of pages later it is asserted that the EU has camouflaged itself as a peace project, while the true purpose of the institution is war. In other words, the subversive forces are hiding their intentions:

Proponents of the European Union claim that it is a “peace project”. But the EU is not about peace, it is about war: A demographic and cultural war waged against an entire continent, from the Black Sea to the North Sea, in order to destroy European nation states and build an empire run by self-appointed bureaucrats.

In line with classical conspiracy myths, Breivik also asserts that the Eurabia-coalition and its “culture-Marxist” marionettes control knowledge-production and the spread of information. In another instance, for example, Breivik claims that 95 % of all journalists, editors, and publishers – and 85 % of all Western politicians – support multiculturalism and the introduction of Islamic rule in Europe. Similar attacks on the academic establishment and mass media recurr throughout the entire document.

A Cry for War and Murder

The struggle between these destructive forces and the opponents of this conspiracy are consequently portrayed in a dualistic manner – as a battle and ongoing war. It is asserted that Islam has been behind a holy war against non-Muslims for 1,400 years and that this jihad has claimed 300 million lives. Furthermore, Western “cultural-Marxist” politicians and intellectuals are characterized as pro-Islamic traitors. In one of Fjordman’s articles included in the compendium, it is said that these collaborators should fear their future destiny:

The political elites implement the agendas of our enemies and ignore the interests of their own people. They are collaborators and should be treated accordingly. The problem is that they currently feel quite comfortable and secure. They fear the reactions of Muslims, but despise their own people. They view us as sheep, existing only to provide them with champagne and nice cars and to be guinea pigs in their grandiose social experiments. Change will only come when they fear us, and the consequences of their own betrayal, more than they fear Muslims.

Breivik himself divides the followers and hangers-on of “culture-Marxism” into fours traitor-categories: A, B, C and D. “Category A-traitors” encompass the leadership in politics, culture, economy and the media. “Category B-traitors” consists of everyone from politicians from “multiculturalist” parties, via media persons, writers and several other groups of professionals, to central figures in the antifascist movement. According to Breivik, persons in these categories shall be punished by death. This constitutes the ideological rationalization of the killings at Utøya. During police questioning on July 25th, Breivik admitted to having committed mass murder but still refused guilt. According to the murderers’ opinion, the killings of future politicians in the Norwegian Labor Party was a necessary act, which would help deliver an indigenous war against multiculturalism and Islam. They were, in other words, an act of self-defense.

Conspiracism as Political Violence

So what then are the connections between conspiracy thinking and politically motivated acts of terror? Is the mythologic conspiratorial thought-universe, found in both Osama Bin Laden and Anders Behring Breivik, an accident? It must be pointed out that conspiracy thinking does not automatically lead to acts of violence and murder. In Eurabia-believing circles there has been demonstrated distancing from Breivik’s misdeeds, even though this has often been coupled with attempts to transfer part of the blame on to current immigration policies and the political establishment. Breivik’s motives also have to be found in non-ideological factors – among them his personal and social background, his personality, and in the radicalizing dynamic that often arises with hate-rhetoric on the internet.

It is out of the scope of this article to discuss Breivik’s sanity or evaluate the report which was written by his forensic psychiatrists. Still, if Breivik is insane, it is important to point out that paranoia in a clinical sense does not necessarily contradict paranoia in a political sense. Rather it shows what fatal consequences there can be when the latter world view is adopted by the former type of individual.

Historically there is a close connection between conspiracy fantasies, terrorism, violence, and outright mass murder. The most well-known and discussed is the Nazi’s murder of the European Jews, which gained much of its ideological nutriment from the myth that the Jews represented a powerful and international conspiracy that threatened the way of life and existence of the “Germanic race.” But conspiracy thinking was also an integrated part of totalitarian, so-called Communist, states, such as the Soviet Union, the Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, and Hoxa’s Albania. Conspiratorial world-views have also been an underlying motive behind political violence and terrorist acts in recent times, even if we look away from Al Qaeda and Anders Behring Breivik. The perpetrators behind the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which resulted in 168 deaths, were inspired precisely by the right-wing extremist Zionist Occupied Government mythology.

The danger of conspiracy thinking is that it replaces sober analysis of social and political problems with images of a powerful and diabolic enemy. They rest on a notion that everything that goes wrong in the world can be ascribed to evil intrigues, rather than social structures and historical circumstances.

In their absolute consequences, conspiracy fantasies are therefore hate ideologies. They foster the demonization of a group of people – Jews, Freemasons, Catholics, Muslims, or “Culture-Marxists” – who are perceived to break down the “desired” social and political order. Furthermore, conspiracy myths nearly always contain a strong crisis-consciousness in the form of the belief that the world – at least how it should be – is at the edge of a cliff. According to such a perspective even the most despicable acts, such as terrorism and genocide, can be justified as a “self-defense” against “evil” and “disintegrating” forces.

At the same time, conspiracy myths often appear attractive by offering a (false) compass in a complex world that is rapidly changing. On the one hand they create artificial connections between complex developments and events, and on the other they give the driving forces behind what is feared and unexpected a face. This is why a real danger exists that conspiracy myths can re-flourish on a mass-scale, especially in times of crisis. This is exactly why we must demonstrate a crystal-clear distance from such misconceptions.


Marco Rosaire Rossi, “Neither Conspiracy Theorist Nor Technocrat”

From NEW COMPASS, a Bookchinite journal, here

Neither Conspiracy Theorist Nor Technocrat

By Marco Rosaire Rossi

The perils of both conspiratorial social movements and technocratic rule can be avoided, but they require a more nuanced view of both democracy and science. A powerful leftwing movement does have the potential to turn the tide on both these trends, but only if it is willing to take the necessary steps. First, the Left needs to revitalize a lost appreciation for rationality. For whatever reason defending rationality has become out of fashion among many Leftists who seem to find greater solace in postmodern philosophies, environmental mysticism, communist cults, lifestyle anarchism, pseudoscientific posturing, and conspiratorial fear mongering. This turn away from rationality has been a huge mistake. It has derailed social movements by creating a toady atmosphere among Leftists that eschews self-criticism and independent thinking, and has allowed for the existence of certain “radical” subcultures that mimic all the deprivations of the Right. If the only thing the radical Left has to offer people is another ideologically driven social movement that replaces standards of evidence and diversity of opinion with meaningless neologisms, then working class people are right to stay away..
Neither conspiracism nor technocracy

While the exact processes of “modernity” are still a matter of debate, it is undeniable that both democracy and science have played beneficial roles in creating our modern world.

The nearly universal positive associations that people have with both democracy and science have elevated them beyond the realm of the mere descriptive, and into the realm of moral principles. Democracy and science are not seen as means, but as ideals. It is the better angels of our nature, rather than the devil on our shoulder, that practices them, and we all should work to practice them more perfectly if we want to create a better world.

This idealization of democracy and science has often meant that people treat them as intimately linked, and, indeed, they are. Bertrand Russell rightfully recognized that democracy and science are both “open” methods; each is dedicated to the pursuit of truth through the application of reason as opposed to force. According to Russell, the essence of each was “not in what opinions are being held, but how they are being held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.”[1] For democracy and science, the emphasis is on the how, and not the what; the focus is on the means, and not the ends.

While it is true that democracy and science share this common philosophical root, there is a danger in conflating the two too dramatically. Paying too close attention to the similarities between democracy and science can lead to a neglect of an important distinction that is beyond the questions of how and what. Specifically, it is the question of who; that is, who should make decisions in democratic or scientific arenas, and, most importantly, who should make decisions in a political area that strives to be democratic when the nature of the decisions requires a sophisticated and educated understanding of certain scientific facts?

Democracy appeals to the masses. It assumes the “will of the people” is the best means of governing, and that the best way to determine the people’s will is through a majoritarian system. Mass participation is essential. In science the process is flipped. A scientific consensus is not determined by a general vote, but by a general agreement among experts in a given field. What people strive for is not majority rule but the lowest common denominator of agreement among those who are most educated to evaluate the evidence. When issues are contentious in science, scientists win support for their view by appealing to their level of education and the quality of their work, not their popularity. In this way, too much democracy can be a threat to science, and too much science can be equally threatening to democracy. How then are these two ideals to be realized in our modern world without endangering the other?

This article will not attempt to answer this question, but it does emphasize that the question cannot be ignored. The failure to seriously address the question of the who in science and democracy has produced two conflicting social trends, each one, in their own way, antithetical to the philosophical openness that democracy and science value. The first is the various grassroots conspiratorial social movements that include not only an egregious misunderstanding of who has power in society but also a dispensation toward pseudoscientific proclamations. These movements use a mix demagoguery and popular protest to delegitimize scientific and scholarly expertise, especially if that expertise challenges their conspiratorial worldview. In these examples, ideologically driven mass participation is used against democracy by stifling independent thinking and open debate. The second is the rise of technocratic governments. This second trend—which has become frighteningly more common in Europe in the context of the sovereign debt crisis—champions scientific knowhow, but it does so at the expense of a disengaged public. Technocrats claim the mantel of science, but their zeal for using scientific knowhow for all decisions has actually threaten science as a social value. As the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin astutely observed, technocratic governments are another Uroboros that gradually turns against a scientifically literal public: “A scientific body to which had been confided the government of society would soon end by devoting itself no longer to science at all, but to quite another affair … its own eternal perpetuation by rendering the society confided to its care ever more stupid and consequently more in need of its government and direction.”[2]

These two trends are perhaps the greatest threats to freedom in the modern world, not because they are the worst of all possible outcomes, but because they are the most likely to succeed. This is partly because they are threats that the Left is generally unprepared to deal with. Leftwing social movements, especially those of the democratic or libertarian variety, despite all their faults, have been the stalwarts for freedom in modern world. If these movements are to continue they must find creative ways for dealing with these complex threats, and find answers to the difficult questions of power so that their dreams of a libertarian socialist society will eventually become a reality.

Rise of the Conspiracy Theorists

In his work on nondemocratic regimes, political scientist Juan Linz describes totalitarian states as having three essential characteristics: one, a centralized and monistic power structure; two, a dogmatic and intellectually elaborate ideology; and three, mass participation and actions in the service of the regime’s leaders and ideology.[3] The elements can, and often do, reinforce each other, but the existences of modern conspiratorial social movements (that is, characteristics two and three: elaborate ideologies and mass participation) exist outside and even in opposition to a centralized and monistic power source. If anything, one of the defining features of conspiratorial social movements is that though they have dogmatic ideologies that are immune to scientific evidence and critical inquiry; they have no singular power structure that reinforces this ideology. Rather, the ideology is perpetuated through a particular subculture that exists in a decentralized and spontaneous social terrain. Their uniqueness is in being able to congeal a series of disparate and often conflicting ideas—9/11 was an inside job, vaccines cause autism, the existence of a global “New World Order,” fluoridation and “chemtrails” are used for mind control—into a general framework of analysis without any particularly priesthood doing the congealing.

This does not mean that conspiratorial social movements do not have their own intellectual authorities. In her work The Origin of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explains that totalitarian social movements rely on a class of “paraprofessionals” that “created a world of appearances in which every reality in the nontotalitarian world [is] slavishly duplicated in the form of humbug.”[4] Conspiratorial social movements use this same technique of duplication in order to unsettle people’s trust in science, through the elevation of their own paraprofessionals to a status that is equal to, and sometimes well beyond, that of actual experts. The difference, however, is that there is no single government, party, or agency organizing these experts. Rather, the strength of these movements is in their ability to recreate themselves through their own mystique as the victimized rebel, by refusing to be identified with a single entity or group. A perfect example of this is Alex Jones’s own personal media empire. Jones has transformed himself from a marginal radio host involved in fringe issues, into a celebrity of conspiratorial thinking. Despite his climb to fame, Jones has never attempted to form his own political party or grassroots organization to further his conspiratorial agenda. Instead, his influence remains purely cultural. He wins supporters through his dominance on the Internet, his prodigious production of documentaries, and willingness to involve himself with popular celebrities.

The cultural influence of conspiratorial media personalities like Jones may appear as a soft power coup for the irrational, but it is important to recognize that the power of conspiratorial social movements is often not as “soft” as it first seems. Because paraprofessionals and their followers are dedicated to their own particular “humbug,” they cannot succeed through the merits of their scholarship and research. Instead, they must rely on reframing the parameters of scholarly and scientific debates. Conspiratorial social movements recast scientific debates as social struggles where believers of the conspiracy theory are recognized as heroic victims standing up to a ruthless all-powerful cabal. For them, the scholarly rejection of their views is a form political repression, and their feelings of being repressed are played out in order to gain sympathy for themselves and their cause. Once those sympathies are won, a community will form around a particular belief, creating its own identity and sense of inclusion, of “being in the know.” This network makes it nearly impossible for people to change their minds or to question the ideology without experiencing an existential crisis. Their beliefs become a matter of who they are, and they are unable to question them without also questioning their sense of self-worth and integrity.

However, the road to mass popularity for conspiratorial social movements is a precarious one. Sympathy is only effective if the conspiracy theorists can legitimately portray themselves as misunderstood rebels unjustly excluded from society. This portrayal is difficult to maintain if the same people are also riding a wave of popular support. The only way this dissonance between victimization and triumphant heroism can be harmonized is through the constant demonizing of any opposition. The sympathy for the movement can only continue if the fear of the opposition is always present. As Karl Popper pointed out, conspiratorial social movements are always in need of new enemies who are planning even more fiendish conspiracies in order to excuse away the fact that their utopian promises have not materialized.[5] In this way, conspiratorial social movements are forever defined by the conspiracies that they promote. If the all-powerful cabal is ever truly vanquished, then so is their purpose.

This analysis of conspiratorial social movements is common knowledge for much of the Left, but the use of this knowledge is too often only applied to the Right. Its true value is guarding against internal rather than external “humbug.” For example, despite the large scientific consensus that the World Trade Center buildings collapsed because they were hit by airplanes, and not because they were exploded through planned demolition, a sizable portion on the Left believes otherwise. Unfortunately, many members of the Left find kinship and affiliation with the 9/11 Truth movement, with some proud members among their ranks. This is very problematic. Not only does the 9/11 Truth movement deny the scientific consensus regarding the collapse of the buildings; in order to prove that the terrorist attacks were an “inside job” they explain away so much evidence—including Bin Laden’s own admission—that they create a conspiracy of unimaginable proportions. Indeed, the conspiracy that 9/11 “truthers” have constructed elevates the events on September 11th to a position that is beyond history. In their minds, 9/11 is a mythological event whose incredibleness could only parallel the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea. The reality is that although the 9/11 attacks were tragic, in the grander scheme of international crimes, the destruction was marginal. The elevation of 9/11 to such exulted importance that only an all-encompassing conspiracy could have caused it is a roundabout way of implying that American lives are more important than the lives of people in other countries who experience far worse suffering with no active conspiracy on the part of any government.

The Legacy of Technocracy

For some, the latent possibility for totalitarianism within social movements that reject science for ideological based thinking means that society should treat the masses with a degree of suspicion. For them, the solution is to support a more Platonic form of government that keeps the tools of government in the hands of an educated class. In this case, the ideal form of this government is a technocracy that emphasizes scientific expertise over popular will.

The entire concept of a technocracy is based on the belief that the Weberian notion of “instrumental reasoning,” which is so essential to industrial production, can be easily applied to governing people. It is the belief that the hierarchical organization associated with factory management, in particular Fordism, can be transferred to political institutions. In a factory setting, successful businesspersons view their workers as extensions of the machines they operate. The emphasis on “technology” within any technocratic regime indicates not only an appreciation for science, technology, and efficiency but also a dehumanization of workers. It is not only that people with technical knowhow should rule, but also that the ruled should behave as if they are machines.

This governing people as if they are machines means that citizens must become indifferent to their own political destiny. The idea that totalitarian regimes are simply extensions of authoritarian ones is somewhat accurate, but believing that the two exist on a simplistic continuum ignores the unique characteristics of each. Returning to Linz’s taxonomy, whereas a fundamental characteristic of totalitarian regimes is an active population who is ready to sacrifice itself in the service of an ideology, a fundamental characteristic of authoritarian regimes is the creation of a politically apathetic citizenry. Authoritarian regimes actively seek the demobilization of their populations so that they will not interfere with the machinations of elites. In this way, technocratic governments, despite sometimes having democratic provisions, more closely resemble authoritarian regimes than actual democracies. Both authoritarian and technocratic regimes rely on passivity, rather than active support, as the basis of their rule.

In Western nations, the privileges of elites have been maintained within a technocratic framework. In these societies, the public is not necessarily excluded from the government as much as its energies are directed away from mass political participation and into private consumption. The result is an extremely lethargic citizenry, but a very active consumer economy. However, this redirection can only be maintained if the majority of citizens believe in the inherent goodness of their consumerist society. The citizenry must identify with a capitalist ethos and have enough prosperity to make the unlimited access to consumer goods a plausible reality, in order for the technocracy to function.

The irony is that even though a capitalist ethos and material prosperity are ideologically interwoven concepts, the two actually have a tense relationship. The grand purchasing power and economic mobility in the West has been more of an outcome of the struggles against a capitalist ethos, which often emphasizes stinginess in an effort to make us into rational misers, than its celebration. As Marx correctly recognized, the basis of a socialist society is not only in an end to exploitative social relations but also in the creation of material prosperity through technological advances. For this reason, a technocratic government that tries to pacify its population through increasing material wellbeing and supporting technological innovation is in constant conflict with itself. The modern consumerist society was born in the aftermath of the Second War World, when a social democratic consensus engulfed the western world. These societies were capitalistic in their overall structure, but they had many socialistic elements that helped raise the living standards of their populations. The welfare state, with its social safety net, enforced labor laws, and strict financial regulations, forced wealth downward, and this collective sharing of wealth provided people with a prosperity and an explosion in technological innovation unseen in history.

This eventually created a problem for Western technocracies. The more prosperity and leisure time the citizenry had, the easier it was for them to mobilize resources toward political participation. The material prosperity initially used to demobilize the public ended up aiding its mobilization once the appeal of endless consumerism broke down. In many ways, the explosion of radical activism throughout the 1960s and the entire creation of the New Left was a product of this tension. The postwar prosperity provided people with the material means to make social activism possible and a sense of alienation that made it desirable. This combination resulted in the spasmodic social seizures against the consumerist societies. In response to this radicalism, elites sought a doubling down of the capitalist ethos while pursuing structural changes that would trim the material prosperity of the citizenry.

The much discussed “rise of the technocrats” to deal with the political chaos created by Europe’s sovereign debt crisis is frightening, but only for its nakedness. During the crisis the field of economics did not suddenly become so arcane and advanced that only a small handful of specialized bureaucrats and academics could grasp it. Economics, like any other field, does have its technical aspects, but setting the overall priorities of a nation is something that will always be a nontechnical issue. What did change is the willingness of people to act like impassive machines. The French Socialist president Francois Hollande’s dire warning against “dangerous populist excesses” was essentially a rallying cry for European elites to get the rabble inline.[6]

Unfortunately, like with conspiratorial social movements, the inherently problematic nature of technocratic rule remains elusive for parts of the Left. After the death of Margaret Thatcher the popular Slovene social critic Slavoj Žižek wrote an article in the New Statesman calling for a “Thatcher of the Left.” In the article, Žižek quotes Walter Lippman’s Public Opinion that, true to technocratic form, advocated for rule by a “specialized class” that could reach beyond the so-called parochial interests of the masses. Žižek, in his apologetics for political passivity, tries to make the case that most people, including Žižek, actually crave political indifference, thus making proposals for participatory democracy both counterproductive and inherently inchoate.[7] Never mind the fact that the very existence of the article proves Žižek’s desire to be politically engaged, true impassivity does not bother to write for the New Statesman. The fact that for many leftwing anti-capitalists technocracy is only an evil as far as the Right practices it demonstrates the degree in which a capitalist ethos has subverted a democratic one in our society. Even in its opposition, a technocratic mindset rules.

What Is To Be Done

As stated previously this article does not offer a clear answer to determining the question of the who for all situations involving democracy and science, but this does not mean that certain loose principles cannot be established. The perils of both conspiratorial social movements and technocratic rule can be avoided, but they require a more nuanced view of both democracy and science. A powerful leftwing movement does have the potential to turn the tide on both these trends, but only if it is willing to take the necessary steps. First, the Left needs to revitalize a lost appreciation for rationality. For whatever reason defending rationality has become out of fashion among many Leftists who seem to find greater solace in postmodern philosophies, environmental mysticism, communist cults, lifestyle anarchism, pseudoscientific posturing, and conspiratorial fear mongering. This turn away from rationality has been a huge mistake. It has derailed social movements by creating a toady atmosphere among Leftists that eschews self-criticism and independent thinking, and has allowed for the existence of certain “radical” subcultures that mimic all the deprivations of the Right. If the only thing the radical Left has to offer people is another ideologically driven social movement that replaces standards of evidence and diversity of opinion with meaningless neologisms, then working class people are right to stay away.

Second, the Left needs to have a more sophisticated understanding of democracy. Mass participation is essential to democracy, but it is not its sole feature, and the Left should resist attempts to make it into a fetish. The belief that mass participation is the only way to make decisions is a very shallow notion of democracy. Far from challenging all forms of authority, it is a conception of democracy that implicitly gives authority to people who have the best oratorical skills, the most time to attend meetings, and the most willingness to rely on demagoguery to advance their agenda. Complex social organizations retain their democratic nature by realizing the complex nature of democracy. In order to guarantee that all voices are heard, it is necessary to not use mass participation alone, but also have clear rules, a separation of powers, checks and balances, due processes, and, at times, a reliance on expert knowledge.

Understanding and appreciating rationality and the complexity of democracy are essential to forming institutions that can make use of technical expertise without promoting elitism, and support democratic rule without degrading into mob rule. Deepening out understandings of each can help save the Left from itself, but more importantly, it can help solve the question of the who in democracy and science. Doing so will not only create a better Left; it would also be an important and critical step in creating a better world.


[1] Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 15.
[2] Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State (New York: Dover Publications, 1970), 31-32.
[3] See Juan J. Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2000).
[4] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), 371.
[5] Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, (Oxon: Routledge Classics, 2011).
[6] Quoted from Marco D’eramo, “Populism and the New Oligarchy,” New Left Review 82 (July-August 2013).
[7] See Slavoj Žižek, “The Simple Courage of Decision: A Leftist Tribute to Thatcher,” New Statesman, 17 April 2013.


UDF – Isizwe v 7 n 2 (1986)

Journal of United Democratic Front (South Africa) from 1986. While in the board ANC tradition, sectors of the UDF expressed a radical, “people’s power,” bottom-up strategy of prefiguration, for a South Africa radically transformed economically and politically – with one, non-racial, nation to be forged on justice, of all races.

Articles in this issue include a classic statement on “Building People’s Power.”

The PP strategy was at odds however with another UDF tent: a “national democratic” alliance of all “oppressed” and “democrats” against apartheid, on the broadest possible lines. Obviously this meant the survival of capitalism and the state, since only trough concessions to capitalists and state managers could such an alliance include the (oppressed) black and (progressive) white bourgeoisie.

Two articles in this issue outline this NDS approach.

get the issue: Isizwe – UDF – v 7 n 2