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Populism
In the last post, part 1 of this article, we reviewed Michel Foucault's insights into disciplinary biopolitics, with its machinery of power which molded useful subjects through the detailed regulation of bodies. I argued that the oddly irrational vigilance, even fanaticism, about enforcing virtually useless, and indeed likely - economically, socially and psychologically - harmful social strictures of the COVID regime, such as lockdowns, social distancing and masking, are probably best explained as exercises in the very kind of disciplinary biopolitics revealed by Foucault's analyses. As I'd mentioned in that early post, though: to fully appreciate what was involved and at stake in the COVID regime's exercise of such disciplinary biopolitics, we need to draw upon another sadly deceased and largely neglected thinker. Paul Piccone's analysis of the objective objective of the new populism allows us to close the circle in this analysis.

Despite his familiarity with the work of Sam Francis, Piccone doesn't seem to have picked up on the conceptual value of the idea of managerial liberalism1, as the complex ideology of the managerial class (see, here). Still, he did understand that this class - what he called "the New Class," with its technocratic ethos - did arise out of the specifically idiosyncratic transmutation of liberalism over the course of U.S. 20th century history. So, the points made here about the objective enemy (in the Schmittian sense of the word) of the new populism, certainly references an existential tension with classical liberalism, and its tendency to erode communal life, but likewise acknowledges a dramatic escalation of those dynamics under its extreme elaboration into managerial liberalism.

In recent years there have been several high-profile books providing such conservative and communitarian grounded criticisms of classical liberalism. There are as well a number of classic works arguing along such lines. I'm going to though draw upon the article that first really alerted me to the challenges of liberalism, and one to which I've had to continually return over the years: Paul Piccone's "The crisis of liberalism and the emergence of federal populism."2 Though only about half as old as Foucault's Discipline and Punish, Piccone's article I also have found to be impressively prescient.

A key lesson from the work of Paul Piccone that I want to flesh out of his argument in the remainder of this post is that populism's objective (noun), it's goal or aim, has a direction which is objective (adjective) in its threat to the ruling class — which is to say, "not subjective." Whether specific populists appreciate or understand this objective, or how objective it is, is irrelevant. This objective objective is intrinsically incompatible with the logic of managerial class rule. Of course, Piccone's not saying that about any phenomenon that ever has been called populist across history - some scholars have observed populism in the movement of the Gracchi brothers in the Roman Republic. However, under the prevailing material conditions that have emerged over the last hundred years, the implications of populism's objective objective has taken on a new relevance and resonance. There is something new about the implications of populism today.

Piccone argues that, while well back into the 20th century liberalism had transmuted into what I've called managerial liberalism, for many decades this chameleon technocracy had been disguised and vaguely legitimized by the perceived necessity of pulling out all the stops to defeat the Soviet Union in the life-and-death struggle of the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, though, just when liberalism (really, of course, managerial liberalism) was expected to take a victory lap, in reality - deprived of the veil of national emergency - it was suddenly revealed for its true nature in the contemporary world. As Piccone, writing in 1991, put it:
Unable any longer to conceal within the Defense Department budget and Pentagon procurement practices the central planning it pretended to reject in principle, "liberal democracy" now has to deal with the re-politicization of previously technocratic decision-making processes and allocations which, for vague but widely accepted national security reasons, had been quietly removed from broad public scrutiny and turned into the administrative prerogatives of experts and professionals.
Piccone saw as a result of this sudden reconfiguration of the political landscape, a resurgent populism:
The end of rapid growth in the 1990s brought about by the obsolescence of military Keynesianism, combined with the realization of the cultural devastation wrought by consumerism and Americanization, has contributed to a disenchantment with liberalism and the revitalization of the submerged but never entirely obliterated populist political tradition.
For Piccone, the long tradition of populism, in America and Europe, was a specifically anti-liberal movement, insofar as it sought to vindicate and conserve local values and community norms which were constantly under attack from the diversity and pluralism eroding individualization-fetish of liberalism. That erosion found its fullest realization in the consolidation of power by managerial liberalism, a tendency which Piccone characterizes in his article as instrumental or formal rationality.
Although liberalism has been defined in a number of different ways, its overprivileging of individualism — possessive, abstract or otherwise — necessitates the deployment of an increasingly powerful state, independently of whatever particular crises may have historically precipitated the actual centralization of power. Thus liberalism is terminally statist. Since the individual cannot be the source of a morality it already presupposes, and as inherited social norms are systematically eroded by the instrumental rationality of a modernity unable to legitimate anything not immediately redeemable at the marketplace of operational ideas, liberals have had to resort more and more to the state as the agency entrusted with externally containing an indeterminate collective behavior no longer internally regulated by traditional moral codes. But in the long run state intervention only compounds the problem by extending and generalizing instrumental rationality, thus undermining the preconditions for its own continued intervention.
That last sentence feeds back into the discussion of the paradox of artificial negativity addressed in the last couple of posts to this substack.3 In this post, though, I want to take the analysis in a different direction. Piccone argues that there is an objective conflict between what I've called here managerial liberalism and the contemporary populist insurgency:
Contrary to both liberal and conservative conventional wisdom, today's growing interest in populism in the US has very little to do with any backlash against the civil rights movement, a resurgence of traditional prejudices, racist resentment of welfare and other redistributive policies or simply with poor leadership. Rather...it has a great deal to do with the grass-roots rejection of the technocratic state developed by the New Deal and institutionalized with the subsequent war mobilization — a rejection which received its first political articulation when this technocratic state began to run into a crisis in the early 1960s.

This crisis of technocratic liberal democracy manifests itself first and foremost as a crisis of ungovernability, whose most obvious symptoms are inefficiency, corruption and counterproductivity. It is not a particular problem with this or that government but an inherent feature of all representative institutions unable to establish strong feedback mechanisms guaranteeing accountability and, within a democratic context, legitimacy. Populism comes about as a response to this modern predicament: the result of the realization of an unbridgeable gap between real needs and official policies, lived informal norms and an increasingly remote formal rationality.
The managerial class's social engineering agenda requires the expansion of the administrative state in size and nature. Such expansion first colonizes, then bureaucratizes, civil society (though Piccone hated that term) leading to the displacement of organic community values and norms by administratively imposed substitutes: e.g., equality of outcome, commercialization of public space, sexual hedonism, bureaucratized welfarism, affirmative action, familial fragmentation, and official multiculturalism, eventually leading to the endorsement (even mandatory celebration) of queer aesthetic, gender fluidity and trans fundamentalism, "anti-whiteness," and the Holy Month of Gay Pride.

The reader may be left to ponder how many organic communities would have welcomed (even tolerated) these norms and values, in their schools, community centers, libraries, churches, and workplaces, in the absence of a continuous onslaught of managerial liberal policy and propaganda, through the social engineering and bureaucratic paternalism of the administrative state and the managerial class - unflaggingly backed by the regime's reality-curating mass media. All of this eats away at the integrity of communal bonds. The resulting erosion of community values, norms, and integrity leads to a vicious cycle of atomized individualism, in which increasingly deracinated individuals, faced with such erosion of mediating community institutions and family, become even more reliant for material support and emotional belonging on the administrative state and the managerial class's social engineering and bureaucratic paternalism.

The result is the deterioration of community, family, faith, and hope. Compounded by the managerial class's economic globalism, emptying the heartland of family-supporting waged-jobs, this deterioration of morale has been manifested in the spread of poverty, depression, drug addiction and suicide across middle America. The contemporary populist movement is directed precisely against these conditions that have destroyed their communities, families, and lives. They may conceive, subjectively, the object of their movement differently. This subjective objective may be conceived as rebuffing capitalism, corporations, Champagne socialists, arrogant coastal elites, latte liberals, the welfare state, the deep state, the military-industrial complex, Marxism, postmodernism, the bankers, the Jews, the Illuminati, and the list could go on. However, objectively, the objective of populism, the only hope it has of reconstituting organic communities, values, and norms - producing integrated, rather than atomized and deracinated, individuals - is to rebuff the managerial class's social engineering agenda as expressed through the bureaucratic paternalism of the administrative state.

Piccone's analysis — more than a quarter century before the meteoric rise of Donald Trump, MAGA, America First, and all the recent talk about middle American populism — was that populism constituted a rejection of managerial liberal assumptions about community, human nature, and the socio-economic order. The populist aspiration to regain organic communities, norms and values, requires the elimination of managerial class social engineering. As such, it would be accurate to say that populism today constitutes an existential threat to managerial liberalism - the core ideology of the present ruling class. The new populism is not just a threat to the interests of the ruling class (that's usually true of populism), but a threat to that class's values; its self-identity as bureaucratic paternalists, endowed with the god-like wisdom of divine expertise. If Piccone's analysis is correct - a prospect I'll be exploring further in future posts - populism is an objective, existential threat to the managerial class and its regime. The two cannot co-exist. This is a true Schmittian friend-enemy dynamic.

So, while I don't presume to read minds, and am always careful to avoid the unjustified positing of agency, however deliberate or emergent it all may have been, it seems fair to speculate that the subjects that the machinery of power, or disciplinary biopolitics, were aimed at molding - through the regulating of bodies, characteristic of the COVID physical strictures - might be called specifically anti-populist. In numerous moving passages of her book, appropriately titled The Bodies of Others, Naomi Wolf describes the damage done to human emotion, community, and relationships by these apparently irrational COVID physical strictures.4

The disciplinary biopolitics of the COVID strictures was to accelerate into overdrive the very individual atomizing forces which managerial liberalism had long employed to destroy the organic communities of those outside of their class, laying the conditions for such people to become increasing vassals of the managerial class's administrative state. If though we marshal the insights of these two, sadly now deceased thinkers, and consider how prescient they were about their anticipation of the world to come - in which we now live - it strikes me reasonable to interpret those physical strictures, imposed by the COVID regime, not merely as measures to mold good subjects of managerial liberalism, but as measures to specifically mitigate the emergence of populist subjects: their objective, Schmittian enemy.

When you consider how obviously the COVID regime was weaponized against the Trump administration5 (see, here), the current public avatar of middle American populism, Piccone's analysis starts to provide much more sense to what happened during COVID - especially when viewed through the insightful, prescient lens of Foucault's analysis of disciplinary power. Was this done deliberately? Was it the spontaneous order of manifesting class preferences? In the end, does it really matter? Whether some influential cabal of the ruling faction of the managerial class was smart enough to understand how their COVID strictures undermined their Schmittian populist opposition (or even that Trump's supporters constituted such an opposition) or whether this Foucauldian discipline was merely the product of emergent coordination driven by the natural confluence of shared class values and interests, is ultimately irrelevant.

History happens in the reality of action. Whether deliberate or not, the COVID regime does seem to have been weaponized to debilitate the populist uprising of the previous decade, of which Brexit and MAGA were only the most salient manifestations. The full story of this weaponization remains to be told. There was a very real danger that it could have succeeded. Events of 2022, though, from the Canadian trucker's convoy, through to the current uprising of European farmers, reveal that that success remains elusive. The story is not yet complete. And understanding the Schmittian friend-enemy tension at the heart of the irreconcilable conflict between the technocratic imperative of managerial liberalism and the objective objective of the new populism is essential to understanding those world events and what they presage. That's what future posts to this substack will be exploring.

References
1 Samuel T. Francis, Leviathan and Its Enemies: Mass Organization and Managerial Power in Twentieth-Century America, ed. Fran Griffin, 1 edition (Arlington, VA: Washington Summit Publishers, 2016); Michael McConkey, The Managerial Class on Trial (Vancouver, B.C.: Biological Realist Publications, 2021). Francis spoke at populism-themed Telos conferences on at least one occasion. As chief editor of Telos, Piccone not only attended, but organized those conferences.

2 Paul Piccone, "The Crisis of Liberalism and the Emergence of Federal Populism," Telos 1991, no. 89 (September 21, 1991): 7-44, https://doi.org/10.3817/0991089007.

3 See here and here. As well as my article: Michael McConkey, "Paul Piccone as Libertarian? A Canadian Proof and Rothbardian Critique," The Independent Review 16, no. 4 (Spring 2012), http://www.independent.org/publications/tir/article.asp?a=878. It's worth pointing out in this context that in the ten years since the publication of that article, slowly but surely Piccone has won me over much more to his side on the critique of liberalism, as is obvious in the text of this post and those forthcoming.

4 Naomi Wolf, The Bodies of Others: The New Authoritarians, COVID-19 and The War Against the Human (All Seasons Press, 2022).

5 This was certainly part of the messy story told by one Trump-sympathetic insider, Scott W. Atlas, A Plague Upon Our House: My Fight at the Trump White House to Stop COVID from Destroying America (New York: Bombardier Books, 2021). However, though I haven't yet read the book, apparently just such sabotaging is openly acknowledged by another insider, very much non-Trump-sympathetic, Deborah Birx, Silent Invasion: The Untold Story of the Trump Administration, Covid-19, and Preventing the Next Pandemic Before It's Too Late (New York, NY: Harper, 2022).