Technopopulism and the Left


The neoliberal counterrevolution resulted in a reorganization of the system of nation-states, whereby “[the state accepts] responsibility for managing its domestic capitalist order in [a] way that contributes to managing the international capitalist order.”[1] This reconstitution of states as structurally subordinated units of global capitalism was fundamentally carried out through the relatively free cross-border movement of finance capital. Prabhat Patnaik writes:

If any state’s policy differs from what finance capital considers appropriate, then it leaves the shores of that state en masse precipitating a financial crisis. Nation-states in other words have always got to make sure that they “retain the confidence of the investors,” namely are on the right side of globally-mobile finance capital, by pursuing policies that are palatable to finance.

Neoliberal globalization’s abridgment of national sovereignty translated into the conversion of the state into a purely administrative structure, serving as a facilitator for international legal and policy harmony, which requires negotiations, conditionalities, and treaties. In other words, neoliberalism transformed the state into an arena where regulatory and transnational agencies bureaucratically pursue the objectives of capital. As the state became wholly beholden to the agenda of global finance capital, liberal democracy’s ability to maintain ruling class hegemony declined. With little latitude left for the arbitration of class concessions, political parties adopted pro-neoliberal economic policies, unwilling to challenge the dominance of the financial oligarchy.

The inter-party consensus on neoliberal orthodoxy reduced electoral competition to a process through which people could choose slightly varying promissory propagandas, all geared towards imposing austerity packages. Aijaz Ahmad called this phenomenon the emergence of “mature liberal democracy in the neoliberal age” in which competing parties “function as mere factions in a managing committee of the bourgeoisie as a whole.” Since parties no longer harbored any substantive economic vision, they started focusing on their capacity to govern “responsibly”; they pursued a new technocratic rationality. In this way, conflicts over distribution and production were replaced by “a technocratic search for the economically necessary and uniquely possible.”

Wolfgang Streeck notes that technocratic politics is “eventist”: “responding to particular events rather than taking an ideological position, oriented to the present instead of a hoped-for future, dealing with one crisis at a time, unencumbered by principle or precedent… No large plan, no holistic approach can be of help in such a world, only fast and flexible responses to dangers as they may arise.” Such decontextualized and event-driven politics is “legitimized by expert opinion rather than agreed through public debate and negotiation, with deep structural problems treated as superficial political ones.” This kind of politics is concretely expressed through a model of transactional welfarism, consisting of a depoliticized arrangement of service-delivery-based governance. In this way, the project of the state of rendering society dependent upon it was substantively overhauled under neoliberalism.

The entrenchment of such a model as the central mode of economic appeasement corresponded to a transformed and heightened process of serialization, in which a passive collectivity is forged whose members’ situational interaction is defined solely by the orientation of diverse existences and actions around a common set of material objects and forces. With the restructuration of political parties as transactional operators of technocratic welfarism, subalterns no longer participate in politics as actively-organized citizens. Rather, they become powerless individuals, abstracted from the praxis of the democratic group, whose only involvement in the political process consists in confronting the parties as service-consumer blocs. Individuals face the parties as something external to themselves, functioning without their participation. As such, political parties cease to exist. In the words of Antonio Gramsci, “It becomes a mental apparition, a fetish.”

As parties transitioned from being the articulators and mediators of social differences to transmission agents between the state bureaucracy and the people governed, their legitimacy fractured. The intensification of exploitation brought about by neoliberalism promoted feelings of insecurity, powerlessness, and worthlessness, as well as fears of losing status and established living standards. This gave rise to actual or anticipatory shame in individuals unable to live up to the standards of hyper-competitiveness. Technocratic parties could find no resolution to this situation without upsetting the ruling class. In their political grammar, citizenship was always imagined as individualized, power as properly contained in ossified bureaucracies, and popular sovereignty as restricted to the act of voting. This socio-political framework of subjectivation left unaddressed the anxieties generated by the commodifying logic of neoliberalism.

Across the developing world (but not only there), right-wing populism broke the political deadlock by adopting an anti-elitist rhetoric against the cartelized parties of technocrats. This has gone hand in hand with the electorally productive usage of the widespread sense of personal failure generated by neoliberal society. The populist Right represses and redirects shame into anger, resentment, and hatred, aimed at out-groups, such as refugees, immigrants, and minorities. The channelization of shame into xenophobia results in simultaneously petrifying and degrading nationality, ethnicity, religion, language, and traditional gender roles. However, this “cultural politics” aimed at emotionally representing the “people” in no way signifies the subversion of technocracy in terms of policy-framing. On the contrary, right-wing populists actively support Silicon Valley solutionism, according to which all problems have a technological solution. Technocracy survives the transition from neoliberalism to what comes after. This manifests itself in the approval of post-democratic forms of techno-authoritarianism, conceived as the first stage in the march to a techno-totalitarian surveillance state.

The embrace of digital authoritarianism is part of a wider technocratic imagination that combines faith in technology with state power. Achieving economic growth through capitalist rationalization, managerial competence, and a narrow problem-solving becomes an important goal of this mode of politics. Ajay Gudavarthy comments that the right-wing populist leader is expected

to deliver, and make administration effective, even if he is aggressive, autocratic and concentrates power, since these might be necessary to make the “system” efficient. Any debate on ideology and the values involved in pushing the system look like a drag, and less important than the pressing need for things to get done.

The new lash-up between technocracy and populism reveals these two modalities of hegemony’s deep affinities with each other. Both “appeal to the popular in its raw and undiluted form.” While technocrats champion the popular demand for instant benefits and gratification through the language of scientific expertise and “transparency,” right-wing populists combine “good governance” with the majoritarian instinct. The claim made upon the resources of the state is contingent upon being worthy, of dissolving the individual into a necessarily exclusionary and homogenous “identity.”

The betrayal of the public sphere in and through the present-day “information” flood eroded the bases of collective solidarity in two ways. First, it personalized the causes of suffering into individual trauma that can be self-managed. Second, it relentlessly regurgitated the supposed importance of a unique, authentic, individual-mass identity, thus weakening the foundations for the formation of individual judgment as well as shared experience. These neoliberal transformations narrowed to the vanishing point the terrain of class struggle. On the economic front, traditional institutions and mechanisms of the welfare and development state were substituted with a market-centric horizon of microfinance and poverty alleviation. This carried normative implications. Daniel Zamora and Niklas Olsen write:

Against a vision in which social institutions and political deliberation would be placed at the core of the idea of equality, through the socialization of wealth and generous public services or social security, a new perspective arose, centered on ways to redistribute wealth while preserving the price system as the central tool for allocating resources in society.

On the cultural front, parochial identity politics were installed as the most prominent mode of symbolic recognition, identities that have since been weaponized in campaigns of outright majoritarianism. Neoliberalism led to a politics of ressentiment which, as per Wendy Brown, serves a threefold function – “‘it produces an affect (rage, righteousness) that overwhelms the hurt; it produces a culprit responsible for the hurt; and it produces a site of revenge to displace the hurt (a place to inflict hurt as the sufferer has been hurt).” In reaction to these conjunctural alterations, left-wing populism has tried to construct a project of unification by discursively foregrounding the “elite vs people” division, which is said to possess a radicalizing potential.

In Technopopulism: The New Logic of Democratic Politics, Christopher J. Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti remark that

both [technocracy and populism are] 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.[2]

The fusion of technocracy and populism gives rise to “contenders for public office [who] compete primarily in terms of rival claims to embody the ‘people’ as a whole and to possess the necessary competence for translating its will into policy.”[3] Transforming while preserving neoliberal atomization of individuals, the new instrumental rationality is wielded by “an experienced leader with a strong capacity for improvisation” who discursively adjudicates how the bureaucracy relates to society, thereby betraying even such universalism as neoliberalism promised.

Technopopulism is foundationally based on a strategic orientation that – to use Jean-Paul Sartre’s words – constitutes subalterns as “passive material for other-direction.”[4] It never acts alongside the subalterns for their liberation. Instead, it acts for them, arriving from outside to shape and dominate inert social material. This renders technopopulism inherently unstable. It does not claim to distill objective historical possibilities into a coherent political program. Instead, it considers action as an immediate index of its doctrinal success. The correctness of this mode of politics is not dependent on the validity of its propositions. Rather, it generates a dynamic of pure immanence, in which tactics – transactional welfarism and extra-institutional mobilization – serve as enacted values instead of transitional stepping-stones toward a defined normative ambition.

Technopopulism provides few specifics about its political vision. It forcefully acts of itself, declaring and sustaining itself through concrete action. Proletarian consciousness is betrayed before it can form through subjection to a prefabricated capitalist politics detached from all concrete potentialities of change. The result is an anti-democratic political formalism in which “the party functions as a discrete ‘political’ instance of an organization besieged on all sides by the anarchy of the associative ‘social.’”[5] In the face of this, the socialist Left has to evolve new political methods that emerge organically from the social terrain and become the organized expression of its diverse complexity. For this to happen, we cannot simply counter right- with left-wing populism. The lessons of the Left’s betrayal over the past many decades, its complicity in the rise of neoliberalism, demand to be learned even as they lose their relevance.

Left-wing populist politics delivers to the ruling class the excluded exterior of the laboring people’s consciousness. In this way, politics enters into a “logic of equivalence” that constricts internal differences and enforces identity through a relation of exteriorization. But according to Ernesto Laclau, in a discourse trying to redefine itself according to an equivalential chain, “each difference expresses itself as difference; on the other hand, each of them cancels itself as such by entering into a relation of equivalence with all the other differences of the system.” Parts of that discourse are constitutively split and are afflicted by an inherent ambiguity. Only now that tension is politically sutured through the people’s pseudo-mobilization on behalf of the elite, a process the Left in crucial ways innovated, therebyrendering itself obsolete. In turns out that the Right does right-wing politics better.

Left-wing neoliberalism reduced hegemony to mere political propaganda or generic influence. Contra this perspective, Peter D. Thomas emphasizes that “hegemony involves the articulation of different modes of social, cultural and economic leadership into the form of an overall political project. It involves active and continuous agitation and organization on the widest range of fronts, from the explicitly political, to the social, to cultural and religious practices, conceived in a broad sense as common ways of thinking and seeing in a given socio-cultural formation.” This comprehensive sense of hegemony is captured in the notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which, as Louis Althusser says, designates “the whole set of economic, political and ideological forms by means of which the proletariat has to impose its politics on the old dominant, exploiting class.” If proletarian class domination is to exist, it must do so “in the forms of production (nationalizations combined with a more or less extensive market sector, self-management, workers’ control over production, and so on), in political forms (councils, represented in a National Council by their delegates) and in ideological forms (what Lenin called cultural revolution).”

Considering the totalizing dimension of hegemony, Thomas writes that the party of the Left “represents the production of the ‘coherence’ of diverse elements, which are engaged in relations of reciprocal translation that enriches, rather than reduces, each of its constituent elements.” Such a project of leading class society in all its fragmentation is very different from the logic of left-wing populism. To borrow Frederic Monferrand’s words, while the populist Left stated that “the anti-capitalist struggle is. . . an already constituted type of struggle, existing alongside other types of struggles such as anti-racist or anti-sexist ones, to which it should then be articulated,” the socialist Left insists that “anti-capitalism is transversal to all social conflicts, overdetermined by them and polarizing them in return, so that the politically relevant question is not ‘what kind of struggle should be given priority to?’ But ‘how to promote an anti-capitalist standpoint in each and every social conflict?’” This reorientation of ideological perspective represents the expansion of politics, the concrete interlinkage that has to be formed between popular classes across the social landscape. The “people” can’t be formed through their simple juxtaposition to the ruling class. Instead, they need to be painstakingly constructed through the party-laboratory that tries out different democratic experiments and wages mass movements to concretize a historically conscious class solidarity. Lacking this viewpoint, left-wing populism confines the political to a technique of gaining power, a project that, in the end, only reinforces the legitimacy of the ruling class.

Since left-wing populism does not incorporate the totality of society into its political thinking and presupposes the discursive unity of anti-capitalist economic subjectivity, it comes to understand the economy as a completely and clearly demarcated sphere of strictly economic structures with its own terrain of discourses and struggles. Thus, economy becomes a factual agglomeration of the technological conditions of material production. This conception of economy as an invariant structure of coercion — part of the general understanding of reality as a collection of objects — ignores its inherently antagonistic and relational nature. The economy does not exist in isolation from the historical effectivity of various relations, contradictions and practices of the social whole. It manifests itself only through the superstructure and can’t be untethered from the displacements of historically discrete events. This means that the economy is not a passive combination of externally related, abstract elements; it is an ensemble of relations, a provisionally stable complex of contradictions and social practices reproduced through the material apparatuses of the bourgeois class.

The political implications of a relational conception of economy are far-reaching. The universal economic subject, or the “people” proclaimed by left-wing populism, can’t be politically created unless cultural identities are also considered. In fact, the subject of a genuinely post-neoliberal politics does not truly exist. Instead, the economically oppressed subaltern is always culturalized and religiocized. As Himani Bannerji elaborates:

The actual realization process of capital cannot be outside a given social and cultural form or mode. There is no capital that is a universal abstraction. Capital is always a practice, a determinate set of social relations — and a cultural one at that. . . Any social organization rests on intersubjective relations of bodies and minds marked with socially constructed difference on the terrain of private property and capital.

Insofar as mediatory forms of consciousness must obtain for the economy to operate, any project for the construction of an economic subject must pass through these significatory codes. Such a passage involves the fact that the universal economic subject has to be created upon the foundations of mutual recognition. Left-wing populism’s empty strategy of discursively manufacturing the people leaves us with a stream of disconnected struggles, each waged against a different enemy, united only externally and verbally in the form of superficial slogans invoking the people. Its abstract assertion of the people vs elite contradiction privileges artificially articulated homogeneity over concretely produced heterogeneity. As a result, unable to activate the militancy of the subaltern, it relapses into the technocratic-welfarist management of the economy and also finds itself incapable of substantively bridging cultural differences. It is imperative that we combat this left-wing version of populism by building a socialist political culture.

[1] Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, Global Capitalism and American Empire (London: Merlin Press, 2004), 42.

[2] Christopher J. Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, Technopopulism: The New Logic of Democratic Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 3.

[3] Ibid., 24.

[4] Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1—Theory of Practical Ensembles, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith (New York: Verso, 2004), 654.

[5] Peter D. Thomas, “Toward the Modern Prince,” in Gramsci in the World, ed. Robert M Dainotto and Frederic Jameson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 30.