Saturday, November 21, 2009

Modern Jacobins: What Elite? What People?

“The movement conservatives of our time seem the heirs of the French rather than the American Revolution.”
       —Sam Tanenhaus, The Death of Conservatism

We’ve become used to it, over the past year, this spectacle of The People Enraged. Red-faced or tear-streaked, they shouted down their elected representatives in town hall meetings across the nation. Flags and homemade banners waving, they stomped angrily through D.C., denouncing the treachery not only of the government but of the very media that exaggerated the protesters’ numbers and kept them at the center of public debate. It isn’t just the current political administration and the government apparatus that The People Enraged denounce, either: they consign government and media elites to the same circle of hell where they would hurl academic elites, scientific elites, and experts of all kinds. The spectacle in front of us is one in which the outraged populace rebels against the legitimacy of authority. That their most beloved representative, Sarah Palin, is reviled by these elites for her ignorance, her lack of curiosity, her inattention to rigor in thought or fact in argument, merely increases the fervor of their support. Palin’s legitimacy comes not from the respect of these elites: it comes from embodying, or seeming to embody, the ethos of The People Enraged.

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review as well as that paper’s “Week in Review” section, certainly qualifies as a card-carrying member of the media elite, and it is small wonder that, in his book The Death of Conservatism, he looks with some alarm on the spectacle of public outrage. While the enragés tend to wrap themselves in the trappings of conservatism and American patriotism, Tanenhaus sees their true ancestors elsewhere, in French radicalism. For him, The People Enraged are modern Jacobins. There is a profound sense in which he is entirely correct: like the Jacobins, The People Enraged seek to delegitimate powerful elites in the name of the people. But there is another sense in which Tanenhaus’ claim is misleading. When we look at just what is being challenged in the name of the people, and just who invokes the idea of the people to make the challenge, we find we are dealing not with Jacobins but with something else entirely.

The wave of radicalism that washed over Europe in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth century drenched the continent in a rhetoric of popular legitimacy. The radicals of the time looked on the old regime, with its privileges reserved for heads that wore crowns or bishop’s mitres, and scoffed at the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the old versions of authority. Against the supposedly divine source of the sovereign rights of popes, emperors, bishops, and kings, the radicals invoked a new source of legitimacy: the people themselves. And just who were the people? The English man of letters William Hazlitt gives a sense of what his fellow Jacobin-inspired radicals meant in the opening paragraph of his 1818 essay “What is The People?”:

And who are you that ask the question? One of the people. And yet you would be something! Then you would not have the People nothing. For what is the People? Millions of men, like you, with hearts beating in the bosoms, with thoughts stirring in their minds, with the blood circulating in their veins, with wants and appetites, and passions and anxious cares, and busy purposes and affections for others and a respect for themselves and a desire for happiness, and a right to freedom, and a will to be free. And yet you would tear out this mighty heart of a nation, and lay it bare and bleeding at the foot of despotism: you would stay the mind of a country to fill up the dreary aching void with the old, obscene, driveling prejudices of superstition and tyranny: you would tread out the eye of Liberty (the light of nations) like ‘a vile jelly,’ that mankind may be led about darkling to its endless drudgery, like the Hebrew Sampson (shorn of his strength and blind), by his insulting taskmasters: you would make the throne everything, and the people nothing, to be yourself a very slave, a reptile, a creeping, cringing sycophant, a court favorite, a pander to Legitimacy…

We have met The People, and they are us. And what opposes us? Entrenched privilege, hereditary despotism, and the mindset that grants unwarranted legitimacy to a hierarchical system of traditional authority. The choice in the great political struggles of the era seemed clear enough, to the radicals: we, the people, against the intellectually and morally bankrupt representatives of traditional elitism and their sycophantic lackeys.

The radical notion that sovereignty lay with the people, and equally radical notion that the intellectuals who read writers like Hazlitt were one with the people, did not go unchallenged. Consider the words of one of the master-statesman of nineteenth century European counter-revolution, the Austrian Prince von Metternich in a secret memorandum sent to Russia’s Czar Alexander in 1820. “Kings have to calculate the chances of their very existence in the immediate future,” wrote Metternich, for “passions are let loose, and league together to overthrow everything which society respects as the basis of its existence; religion, public morality, laws, customs, rights, and duties — all are attacked, confounded, overthrown, or called in question.” Metternich, though, is quick to add that revolution is not inevitable, as the great mass of the people remain indifferent to politics, and yearn only for “a repose which exists no longer, and of which even the first elements seem to be lost.”

If not the people, who, then, sought to undermine the old order? “The presumptuous man,” said Metternich, the man who would question long-established traditions of “religion, morality, legislation, economy, politics, [and] administration.” “Faith is nothing to him,” Metternich snarls, for the presumptuous new man “substitutes for it a pretended individual conviction.” For Metternich, the easy identification of intellectuals and populace united against privilege — the identification assumed by writers like Hazlitt — is a fiction. The people, far from being sovereign, are an indifferent mass, wanting only to be left alone. Agitation comes from an emerging intellectual elite that is rootless, arrogant, and without respect for the stabilizing influence of tradition.

August Comte was one of the relatively few political thinkers who transcended the debate between radicals like Hazlitt and the Jacobins, on the one side, and defenders of the old order like Metternich, on the other. Hazlitt and Metternich merely articulated political positions: Comte, the founder of Positivism and the grandfather of modern sociology, envisioned the evolving history in which these positions played a part. In doing so he saw further into the idea of “the people” and their position vis-à-vis elites than either Hazlitt or Metternich could.

Looking around at the aftermath of the French Revolution and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Comte came to the conclusion that society was in the process of evolving. In his 1822 Plan of the Scientific Operations Necessary for Reorganizing Society, Comte argued that society had emerged from what he called a Theological Phase, in which legitimacy had been based on a notion of God, and on authority — such as the divine right of kings or the apostolic succession that underwrote the power of the Papacy — based on notions of the divine. It had accomplished this emergence by entering what Comte called the Metaphysical Phase: the philosophical phase of revolutionary thinking in which old forms of authority were made to seem illegitimate by the idea that the people themselves, not god-sanctioned kings, were sovereign. The difference between Comte and a thinker like Hazlitt is that Comte saw the idea of the people as an abstraction, not as a reality. You can’t, after all, meet with the people, nor is it possible to reduce such a heterogeneous bunch to a single entity with a single opinion. In many ways, the idea of “the people” is an illusion. But they are a powerful illusion, capable of stripping away the aura of legitimacy surrounding the old order.

For Comte, such a stripping-away is really all that the Metaphysical Phase, with its belief in the people, can accomplish. Appeals to “the people” can tear down old authority, but aren’t a practical way to establish new authority. Even if we could assemble the people, we would still face the problem of competence in the various areas of government. “Let the mass of men become as highly instructed as possible,” says Comte, and we still have problems, because “it is evident that the greater part of the general conceptions currently received can only be accepted by them on trust and not as the result of demonstration.” The people cannot govern directly, nor can public opinion (if, in fact, it can be accurately measured) guide us in the highly technical issues of a modern, complex society. For that, we need experts: experts in economics, in the sciences, in the management of large organizations, in the administration of the law. Such people were, for Comte, the heroes of the emerging phase of civilization, the Positive Phase, in which the theological and populist forms of legitimacy are to be replaced by the legitimacy of expert knowledge. With Comte, the idea of the modern technocratic state was born.

So the Jacobins, and generations of radicals they inspired, were against traditional authority and inherited privilege of elites who grounded their authority, ultimately, in notions of god. But what of the new popular anger? Tanenhaus is right in calling them Jacobins in that they present themselves as representing the anger of the people at elites. But his analysis is inexact, because the kind of authority, and the kind of elite, to which the modern populists object is entirely different from the theologically-sanctioned authority and traditionally-established elite to which the Jacobins objected. What the modern populists object to, really, are the elites and modes of authority Comte saw as belonging to the Positive Phase of society: it is the elites of expertise that are under attack.

It is not, of course, the case that we are ruled by an elite entirely composed of experts in the various fields of human endeavor. Most power in our society resides in the hands of those who control capital: if, for example, the energy industry were controlled by experts on energy policy, we’d be working a lot harder and a lot faster at getting ourselves off the diminishing supply of environmentally unsafe fossil fuels. Clearly, vested capital interests are the most powerful faction in our elites. But there is another faction of the elite, composed of what sociologist Alvin Gouldner called “the new class”: people whose power derives not from capital but from expertise. These are the people who staff government agencies, who fill the universities, who work with nonprofit organizations, who form the ranks of the professions and, sometimes, find their way into high-level positions in some political administrations. They are often at odds with the elites of capital, seeking to curb or regulate (though not to eliminate) the otherwise unbridled power of capital. When the new populists line up behind Sarah Palin to attack the elite, it is this particular branch of the elite they have in mind. The other branch of the elite — the elite of capital, rather than the elite of expertise — is not just exempt from much of movement conservatism’s populist outrage: often, it sponsors that very outrage.

So, in the end, we do not have a new Jacobinism in which an entrenched elite is undermined by a popular movement. Rather, we have a pseudo-populism, in which resentment against one part of the elite is harnessed by a competing part of the elite. This is a far cry from Jacobin radicalism. It may well look, to paraphrase Metternich, like passions have been let loose, and league together to overthrow everything you and I (yes, fellow junior members of the elite of expertise, I’m talking about us) respect as the basis of social existence — science, tolerance, economic regulations, civil rights, and intellectual diligence. But in the end, The People Enraged who are so relentlessly pushed into our consciousness by the right-wing media are more spectacle than grassroots force. And they are as much instruments of the capital-owning elites (insurance companies, say) as they are manifestations of any program that could conceivably benefit the population at large. Which does not, of course, mean they aren't dangerous. It just means they aren't what they seem to be.


  1. The media select which people crying out for change that they want you to see. They cast idiots in the role, like Palin, so that you don't actually see the one's who are committed, passionate and motivated by love of their fellow humans.

  2. This is the best overall analysis of this topic, and its history, that I've run across. I want to take it out and frame. I've passed on the URL to some folks who will enjoy reading your views.


  3. Many people like to take jabs at the powers that be and for those in position they know this all too well. They feel entitled and they better work together.

    Nadim Kassar