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The Cunning of Unreason

Critics of populism lament the rise of “emotion-driven” politics. But instead of asking why politics has become so “irrational,” we should ask why people are so angry in the first place.

"The Political Windbag" by Bernardo Ferrándiz, 1866.

In October 1949, the German philosopher and social scientist Max Horkheimer boarded a plane for Germany. It had been more than fifteen years since he last set foot in his home country. Horkheimer had emigrated to America in 1934, after the offices of his employer — the Frankfurt Institute for Social Study — had been closed down by Nazi squads. In the meanwhile, the philosopher’s mother country had been ravaged by twelve years of Nazi rule.

In his travel bag Horkheimer carried notes for a book he had been working on in American exile, published as the Eclipse of Reason in 1947. In a foreword to the book, the philosopher sought to explain his intentions for writing. “Whenever nature is exalted as a supreme principle and becomes the weapon of thought against thinking,” Horkheimer wrote, “thought manifests a kind of hypocrisy, and so develops an uneasy conscience.” Science and expertise, he saw, had lost their luster to a humanity threatened with nuclear apocalypse. But neither did Nazis’ “destruction of reason” offer a desirable alternative. Humanity thereby found itself in a double-bind. On the one hand, more facts could not lead to increased freedom and only furthered “man’s domination over man.” On the other hand, the Nazis’ “flight towards feeling” would remain powerless in an increasingly administered world run by experts and functionaries. Progress had ended in a cul-de-sac.

Reason’s Decline

There are notable similarities between Horkheimer’s work and a recent book on the topic of “politics” and “emotion” published with Norton press. In his Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason (2019), the English sociologist William Davies wages an explanation of the ten-year involution of the liberal order, and the rise of “emotions” as a register in our political life.

Reflection on the topic seems urgent. In May 2015, for instance, the British politician Michael Gove proclaimed that “the public had had enough of experts”, while his colleague Nigel Farage claimed that “there are some things that matter more than money.” All of this, Davies claims, speaks in favor of the idea that “democracies are being transformed by the power of feeling in ways that cannot be ignored or reversed.”

Davies is no newcomer to the topic. A veteran scholar of neoliberalism, he has drawn on a wide set of genres — history, philosophy, political science, medicine — to explain the “decline of reason” register in the title of his book. At first blush, Davies’s book reads as the story of a double abstraction. In the seventeenth century, a twin set of abstracted languages were born: the abstract system of signs set up by modern science and the system of “abstract” representative government. Each of these moments has its own protagonists in Davies’s book. Thomas Hobbes, William Petty, René Descartes, and Francis Bacon, for instance, personate the age of reason, as inventors of the modern state, agriculture, the subject, and modern science. Then there is the anti-rationalist camp, in which we find Friedrich Hayek, Sigmund Freud, Gustave Le Bon, Napoléon, and Donald Trump, who together initiate the much-lamented “decline of reason.”

It is here that the real trappings of Davies’s historical story reveal themselves. Exemplified by the friendship between Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, modernity’s twin system of representation (modern science and the representative state) has seen a dramatic loss of legitimacy in the last thirty years. Science has lost its glow and has retreated into a citadel of expertise. Party-politics and parliaments, in turn, have lost their attraction, with decreasing memberships and increasing popularity for referendums from populists. The result is a two-pronged “crisis of representation,” both on scientific and political fronts.

The Emotional Frame

Framing today’s populism in terms of “emotions,” however, is also a risky enterprise. Popular uprisings like France’s recent Yellow Vests protests are consistently derided as “emotional,” “raging,” and “vengeful,” the stirrings of an uncontrolled mob. This has long been a trope in conservative historiography as well, in which popular sentiment can only be typified as “irrational” unless channeled through a leader.

The question, of course, is not whether the people in question are not agitated — that is what one tends to be at a protest. Rather, it is the reduction of these political events to mere public expression of emotion that speaks to the cunning of centrist reason. Is it true that protests like the Gilets Jaunes are simply about “emotion”? If we really live in the “age of anger,” why are people so angry in the first place?

Davies does realize this danger at a certain point. In a central chapter of the book, he claims that “the deeper truth, and sometimes the darker one, is that people don’t simply desire more pleasure.” The key insight of modernity’s great anti-rationalists, he claims, is that “what some people most yearn for is a means of bringing their pain or trauma within their control — of making it theirs.” Davies gives the example of drug addicts who prefer to stay on the streets rather than go into rehab, or people’s acquiescence with horrendous working conditions.

Davies rarely applies this insight to his own story, however. While his previous book on The Happiness Industry stood out by its stubborn refusal to define human flourishing in terms of bodily comfort or ‘well-being,” he seems to have returned to a narrowly carnal reading of the political turmoil we’ve witnessed in the last ten years: the intrusion of the “body” into the sphere of “mind.”

It is not clear, however, whether this is an exhaustive (let alone plausible) reading of the last ten years. Take a slogan like the Brexit campaign’s “take back control.” Rather than a mere conflict between facts and feelings, that slogan implies that today’s real problem seems to be the lack of control people have over their own lives. Today’s diminished democracy then has far less to do with an overabundance of expertise or a lack of “feeling.” Instead, the issue seems to be that the expertise that guides decision-making is completely detached from popular control. The knowledge used for central bank policy, for instance, is determined in tight-knit think tanks, not open public assemblies. Institutions that could foster this kind of public knowledge, such as parties or parliaments, have seen a dramatic decline in the last thirty years. Slogans such as “take back control,” demonstrate that people might indeed yearn for a form of “public reason,” to use a term by Immanuel Kant.

Private Reason and the Politics of Feeling

It is precisely such an ideal of “public reason” that has acutely declined in the age of neoliberalism. One of Davies’s central players in this story is the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. A contemporary of Horkheimer and himself a castaway of Europe’s old empire, Hayek was one of the earliest voices to recognize the distinct role emotions play in our economic lives. In Hayek’s view, if one wanted “to understand economic and social changes,” one was “far better off consulting the people who actually make the changes happen — the consumers, entrepreneurs, managers — than experts looking at these events from some presumed position of neutral objectivity.” Politics, in this sense, had to be replaced with the spontaneous interplay of feelings on a market.

Davies’s claim is that this new “politics of feeling” is not only visible on the Right. Movements such as Black Lives Matter, he claims, adhere to a new “politics of the body” that mobilizes “around vital needs and demand” rather than rational demands for freedom. “The central claim of Black Lives Matter,” he notes, “is brutally simple: the American Leviathan does not deliver on its function of protecting all lives equally.” Instead of a cry for freedom, this left-wing body-politics is more a variation on the following theme: “Stop, you’re killing us!”

The Hayekian Frame

Davies is, of course, critical of this Hayekian perspective. Yet, in a strange and at times eerie way, his own interpretations of the last ten years of populist explosions owe a lot to the Hayekian frame. This reading casts the last decade as an emanation of neoliberalism’s innate populist drive, mainly in its distaste for “experts” and “planners.” In Davies’s eyes, populism is nothing but the radicalization of neoliberal reason, or a doctrine in which the hatred of statistical knowledge and representation culminates in a vision of “the market” as the only arena for democratic action — where, as Hayek puts it, consumers vote on a daily basis by choosing products.

There is certainly a lot of truth to this story. The populists that have rocked our planet’s democracies in the last five years are often themselves creatures of the neoliberal age — think of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, Boris Johnson. A figure such as Nigel Farage, in turn, seems the perfect incarnation of populism’s neoliberal lineage. Farage was privately educated, then an investment banker in the City, only to become a people’s champion afterwards.

The problem with this view, however, is that it also extrapolates from an extremely narrow set of actors to a general judgement about our age. Unlike the fascist parties of the 1930s, today’s far-right politicians are not tools for mass mobilization. Farage’s UKIP was never a large party, and a Johnson is as much the symptom of Tory decadence as he is of the party’s internal decline. The Conservatives have seen their membership plummet in the last thirty years, and increasingly turned towards PR gurus to reach out to a base. Divorced from any constituency within parties, politicians have to ascribe wishes to a citizenry they can’t possibly reach out to. In a word, they have to speculate — whether that is in a central bank, polling bureau, or newspaper column.

To call these people “populist” might also be a perilous move. It implies that Farage and Johnson’s access to media channels equals a real claim to social support. This tacitly relies on an extremely top-down vision of representative politics, which casts it as the dark arts of persuasion, consisting on the Right of PR, and on the Left of “hegemony.” Both share one assumption: the complete demobilization of the demos.

Representation vs Mobilization

A lot of this can be tracked back to an idea at the heart of Davies’s book — his equation of “representation” with “demobilization.” As he notes in the middle of his treatise, either there is “is no representation” and “just mobilisation, with an authenticity of emotion that technocrats and elites apparently lack.” On the other side we find representation, described as the attempt “to create the most accurate records and images … with immense care,” in which “the physical mobilisation of vast numbers of people” is rendered “outdated or irrelevant.” To represent, in this story, suggests an act of passivity: we transfer our power to a sovereign and give up our political involvement in exchange for expertise.

This opposition also informs the solutions Davies puts forward for today’s populist malaise. “Existing centres of elite power,” he claims, “must now open their world view to understanding some of the processes that they’ve dismissed as ‘irrational’ or ‘post-truth’” and “throw their considerable influence behind a different social and economic settlement.” One page later, Davies offers some hints at what such alternatives might look like. “Had governments introduced a policy of ‘helicopter money’ instead of quantitative easing in 2009,” he claims, “this would have seen the sum in every individual savings account increase by a set figure” and “would have had a populist quality with valuable symbolism.”

Here we get to the kernel of the problem. The prime question, after all, is whether such policies would actually have decreased the feeling of helplessness Davies diagnosed at the root of the populist rebellion. Take something like cash transfers. Such handouts might well be given to a precariously employed Deliveroo-driver, whose own dependence on the market might be (temporarily) alleviated by it. At the same time, these transfers do little to increase that driver’s power over his employer — nor do they break the power of the central bank handing it out.

It should come as no surprise that helicopter money was favored over increased social security systems by neoliberal thinkers such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. Instead of increasing working-class power, they merely create new markets by pushing workers to look for fresh places to spend their cash. In this sense, they cushion the neoliberal blow by offering mobilizing without representation.

Representation Without Demobilization

But what if this was a false dichotomy all along? Davies’s equation of “representation” with “demobilization” was far from self-evident for twentieth-century and nineteenth-century thinking, for instance. It was precisely through organs such as parties, parliaments, and unions that representation made possible a form of power that was both delegational and active: it allowed citizens to check their representatives while also engaging with them on an equal basis. In July 1917, for instance, a group of pro-Soviet workers tried to unseat the existing Provisional Government that continued to wage war on Russia’s Western front. After an angry crowd had surrounded a meeting of the Soviet group in Saint Petersburg, a representative of the faction was sent out to calm the crowd. He was angrily held up by a worker, who told him to “take power you son of a bitch, when it’s given to you!”

Such examples hint at the fact that “representation” and “mobilization” need not be conceived as mutually exclusive, even in Davies’s timeline. In the 1970s, for instance, the House of Commons counted 150 teachers, 20 engineering workers, and 30 miners amongst its MPs. Most of these rose up through the ranks of the Labour Party and shared a trade union background. This also gave them a way to mobilize through representation, joining action on the level of society (such as strikes) with activity on a state level (legislation). During the 1972 Miners’ Strike, for instance, the British Prime Minister Edward Heath walked into negotiations with miners to be greeted by a union representative with the words “Well hello, sailor!”

A similar thing can be said about the stark demarcation Davies draws between expertise and popular sentiment in his book. Historians like Mike Davies have long noted how the greatest inventions of the industrial age were themselves working-class innovations — the first electronic motor, for instance, was built by a Vermont blacksmith, while the spinning mule was conceived by an English spinner. As the American socialist Eugene V. Debs put it, if people would work through the “party and the power of the ballot,” the “march of economic progress” would

succumb to the socialist system of industry for human happiness, and the factory … would be transformed into a temple of science, and the machine, myriad armed and tireless, will be the only slave.

The socialist party inhabited by Debs functioned as a mass factory for expertise: a form of counter-knowledge that could prepare the masses for self-government. Unsurprisingly, the philosophical heroes of Debs’s Second International were all outspoken rationalists: Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d’ Alembert, Maximilien Robespierre. On a banner for the 1893 German SPD’s election victory, for instance, Charles Darwin and Georges Danton adorned the same portrait as Karl Marx and Ferdinand Lassalle.

This socialism was also far more than an attempt at “body politics” as we’ve come to know it today. As the Belgian socialist Jules Destrée put it in 1910, if socialism would be limited to asking for “the improvement of the material condition of the manual workers” it “would not rise on the world like a new dawn.” In his eyes, socialism was “not born of the sole distress of hollow stomachs, or a matter of appetites” but offers a “new ideal that arises and asserts itself” “vis-à-vis the old world.” It was about freedom through reason, not besides it.

Against the Emotional Frame

These examples point at the possibility that we might need a starker break with the paradigm of “emotions” proposed by Davies, both strategically and intellectually. Davies is duly critical of centrism and its complacency in the face of democratic decline. Yet he himself seems to succumb to so many of its tropes by conducting discussion on the “populist explosion” in exclusively emotional terms and refusing to investigate how previous mass movements negotiated the tension between “facts” and “feelings,” expertise and popular sentiment.

This was also a problem that stalked later generations of the Frankfurt School. Adorno and Horkheimer feared that psychological readings of fascism as a mass politics would obscure the fact that Germany was a “betrayed people,” as the novelist Alfred Döblin put it. Both theorists thereby wrote with a specific era of missed opportunities in mind: the 1918–1919 German Revolution, characterized by the uprising in Kiel, Munich, and Berlin. In all these cities, workers occupied factories equipped with the latest means of technical knowledge and tried to coordinate production with help of party officials. “Had things gone otherwise 1919,” they wrote, revolution would “with great probability have influenced developments in Russia.”

No Alternatives

This sense of alternatives is wholly missing from Davies’s account. He simply casts a steady road from Hobbes and Bacon to the combined age of populism and technocracy. Although he has a convincing story to tell of how politics has acquired such an emotive streak in recent years, there is little room for organizations that once served as mediators between information and feeling, mind and body — let alone convincing ways out of our impasse.

At the end of his book Davies refuses “the rationalist mind” which equates progress with “more things: more life, more prosperity, more pleasure.” “Fear, pain and resentment,” he claims, “can never got eliminated altogether, nor can they be silenced in the long run.” They rather offer “an opportunity to listen and understand these features of human beings” instead of “either more data on the one hand” (technocracy) or “more lies on the other” (populism).

Yet Marx and other socialists hardly were opponents of the “rationalist mind” — let alone “more things,” or “more life” or “prosperity.” They thought that the world prepared by capitalism offered real possibilities, if harnessed in an emancipatory direction. This meant refusing the utilitarianism that equated progress with increased accumulation (“more data”). Yet it also meant refusing an empty celebration of spontaneity (“more lies”), which could well have ushered in humans comfortably sleeping in Matrix-vats. As Adorno once put it, when hunger is “conceived of as a natural category,” it may equally “be satisfied with locusts and mosquito cakes.” In his eyes, “inwardly everyone knows, whether they admit it or not, that things could be otherwise. People could not only live without hunger and probably without fear, but as free beings.”

It is this kind of knowledge, overall, that is so sorely lacking today.