Populism versus Elitism
Mark Wegierski provides an historical perspective
It could be argued that liberalism, as a world-historical tendency, almost always begins among elites who have become corrupted by an easy life without duty and religion, and is imposed by force on a reluctant populace which clings to “the old verities”. The triumph of the Conservative Party in Britain after the extension of the franchise to the working-classes in 1870, in an “aristocratic-worker alliance” consciously promoted by Disraeli, is a good example of “the conservatism of the common person”, as against the liberal bourgeoisie. John Stuart Mill (who considered Conservatives “the Stupid Party”) urged voting weighted according to property precisely because he saw it as a guarantee of liberal ascendancy. Much of the nineteenth-century fear of “mob-rule” was based on a Whiggish-liberal fear of a conservative “mob”.
In relation to traditional aristocratic societies such as that of Sparta, there is something repellent in the concept of the suppression of the helots (with secret police to monitor them and a season of “lawful war” waged against them). Theoretically-speaking, the modern Sparta would give every citizen of the state a chance to compete under a strict discipline, and those who made it to the top would then become the unquestioned “masters”.
The Ançien Régime of pre-Revolutionary France was evidently rife with Enlightenment ideas, so that the Revolution, in some senses at least, represented a healthy upsurge of the people against a corrupt elite. Who could support a system that the ruling classes themselves did not believe in? It was arguably the skepticism and libertinism of the Enlightenment that engendered the greatest abuses of noble privilege. The Marquis de Sade, for one, was saved from almost certain execution for his sexual crimes because of his aristocratic status.
In his book Leftism, reissued in 1990 as Leftism Revisited, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn reminds us that the Marquis de Sade was himself a political thinker of the Left. Indeed, the illuminism in the political thought of de Sade is instructive apropos the “negative nihilism” of the Left and some of its social and psychosexual obsessions, notably, “the killing of the Father”. Like the radical feminists, de Sade sought the abolition of the family. Far from celebrating “eros”, he consciously sought to sever sexuality from fecundity, celebrating the sterility of homosexuality. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn was himself a classical “aristocratic liberal”, who felt somewhat at home amongst American neoconservatives, and who stood in conscious opposition to “the mob” and its “atavistic” impulses.
The extent to which the ruling class of pre-Revolutionary France was suffused with Enlightenment ideas is partially demonstrated in Robert Darnton’s The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 1979), which traces the diffusion of that massive work amongst France’s wealthiest households. The Encyclopédie, although antithetical to the Ançien Régime, was a “bestseller” among these households, making enormous fortunes for its printers and distributors, who effectively circumvented royal censorship. Indeed, Malesherbes, the royal censor, was a not-so-secret admirer of the Enlightenment, and personally prevented the work’s effective suppression. The Encyclopédie, consisting of several handsome volumes, cost well over a thousand livres, at a time when the average daily income of a Parisian worker was less than a livre!
In the aforementioned book, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn argues that in 18th century France, there was a powerful liberal cultural establishment (the initial blaze of Enlightenment), which effectively suppressed anti-Enlightenment trends and ruined the careers of its opponents. Voltaire, after all, was the toast of the salons of Europe. It was only in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries that a Romantic counter-tendency could painfully emerge. Although the Nineteenth Century was “the Age of Industrialization”, it was also the age in which conscious nationalism became paramount, as never before in history.
Another mark of the Ançien Régime‘s corruption is afforded in the very first chapter of Albert Sorel’s L’Europe et la révolution française (1885), where he describes the sordid perversion of the principle of raison d’état as providing carte blanche to a-national or anti-national dynastic sovereigns in the period of so-called “enlightened despotism”. Joseph II’s reforms in the Austrian Empire, and those of other “enlightened monarchs”, were directed largely against the customs and traditions of their peoples. Sorel dilates at length about the hypocrisy of the powers partitioning Poland – an old, historic kingdom – between themselves.
And where today, if not among ordinary men and women, those with the least formal education, do we find opposition to the sexually polymorphous and ethnically heterogeneous society that is being imposed on us? Even in the most liberal societies, one still finds large majorities supporting severe punishments for criminals, a tendency which liberal elites are always fighting against with their promotion of therapy. And, as society founders on these unnatural liberal prescriptions, liberals call for yet more “therapy”, and yet more “education” (i.e. more effective indoctrination). Elitism now constitutes a dead-end as far as meaningful social change is concerned. Conversely, the much-maligned populist approach opens up definite possibilities.
Sociologist Mark Wegierski is a Toronto based researcher