“by the end of the twentieth century, the era of party democracy had effectively passed: although parties themselves remain they have become so disconnected from wider society and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form” (Peter Mair, Governing the Void, 2013)
So what logic, if any, is governing today’s void so eloquently described in Peter Mair’s classic?….
It is the ‘epistemic turn’ that is fast becoming the ascendent political paradigm of our age. Manifestations of this new logic operate at every level of power from national political parties at the apex of electoral success to the back alleys of the internet spawning progressive evidential art and activist networks bubbling alongside sulphuric conspiracy cults and much else besides.
This relatively new political grammar is founded on a growing consensus on the need to give a central place to ‘knowledge’ in what we take democratic politics to be. But there are in play very different understandings of what constitutes knowledge or truth for the structuring polarities of today’s politics: *populism* and *technocracy*.
Although populists and technocrats are often seen as pitted against each other Chris Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti (1) have persuasively argued that the populist and the technocrat have an underlying affinity in that both associate politics with a kind of truth. For the populist truth lies with ‘the people’ in popular common sense, in folksonomies, in the wisdom of the crowds, frequently channelled through leaders who claim to know what the (ordinary) people think and believe. Whilst for the technocrat the truth is located in the evidence, expertly interpreted in order to arrive at the appropriate policy outcome. It is this underlying affinity that allows populism and technocracy to fuse into ‘technopopulism’. This recent synthesis paradoxically claims to simultaneously represent ‘the people’ whilst also draping itself in a mantle of superior technocratic competence. Macron’s En Marche, the Italian 5Star movement (M5S) and Boris Johnson’s freshly purged Conservative party are all contrasting examples of the way the technopopulist paradigm is playing out in electoral terms. It is this form of politics that currently governs the ideological vacuum at the heart of societies typified by fragmented, individualised and weakened class affiliations.
It is not enough however to see this new logic only in terms of the hollow superstructure of electoral politics. The sustaining vitality of the epistemic turn originates in a wider set of prevailing social processes that can be brought together under the umbrella term ‘cognitive mobilisation’. We return to this aspect of the story later.
The Spring is Still Silent
What gives these questions so much urgency is that it is by no means clear that our current democracies are capable of rising to the herculean challenge of tackling the climate emergency. Particularly when autocratic regimes, most notably China are challenging the West by selling themselves as pragmatic alternatives to the chaos of liberal democracies.
To get a comparative sense of where we currently stand its useful to contrast today’s environmental politics with the political impact of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ published in 1962. As is well known this was an account of an imaginary community afflicted by environmental calamity. Although a fiction the narrative drew on detailed evidence from events that had already actually happened in a number of separate incidents. Carson had simply and brilliantly drawn these threads together into a worst-case scenario.
Amazingly within a short time ‘Silent Spring’ had come to the attention of Kennedy who referred her conclusions to the Presidential Advisory Committee on pesticides in 1963. “Their report eventually found that Carson’s warnings were largely sound [… ] and a decade later the use of DDT was banned.” Another land-mark moment occurred in 1970, when during Richard Nixon’s first term the Clean Air Act was passed in the Senate by a vote of 73-0. Unanimity on any issue, above all an environmental one, is almost unimaginable in the current climate”.2 This obvious case of deterioration in liberal democracy is starkly underscored by the salutary fact that Richard Nixon was able to achieve more in environmental policy than Obama.
Anyone today who is looking hopefully towards the Biden administration will not be reassured by recent interviews with climate czar, John Kerry making it clear that too much of the administration’s strategy is being premised on technological fixes that do not yet exist. In some ways more insight into the problems and possibilities of today’s environmental politics can be found in the situation unfolding in France.
At the time of writing the future of attempts to revitalise democracy in ways that go beyond elections and empower citizens is playing out in France (at the time of writing) as tens of thousands are marching to demand that the policies agreed in a Citizens Assembly convened by Macron himself should be implemented as promised.
Macron and his party En Marche! represent the paradigmatic version of technopopulism channelled through Macron who as hyper-leader likes to style himself as the “people’s problem solver” But in 2018 his En Marche project began seriously unravelling under the impact of the Yellow Jacket uprising. And his increasingly desperate attempts to hold his movement together culminated in 2019 with the so called ‘Grand Debate’. A series of mass consultations that Macron advertised as giving citizens a voice in decision making. Among these assemblies was the ‘Citizens Climate Convention’. Unwittingly he had set in motion an alternative concept of ‘techne’ that was neither populist nor technocratic but deliberative and genuinely participatory. The Convention recently submitted its findings and recommendations for consideration by Parliament or to the people in the form of a referendum “without filter”. Well at least was what was promised by Macron in June 2020.
In theory this assurance gave the assembly some teeth. At least in comparison with the UK’s equivalent Citizens’ assembly on Climate which has been effectively ignored by the Johnson government. But Macron had backed himself into something of a corner. His on-the -record public assurances that the recommendations would be implemented could not so easily be buried or obfuscated. Predictably he has indeed rowed back on his commitments, severely watering down the recommendations of the Convention. “I’m not” he declared in a press conference “going to say that because 150 citizens have written something it’s the Holy Bible or the Koran”. As Macron’s diluted bill comes before parliament there is of course mobilisation and push back from all quarters including the members of the Convention itself.
There is nothing surprising in the fact that Macron’s autocratic leadership style could not accept a genuine expansion of democracy beyond its current rigidities. It was inevitable that he would not relinquish patrician control. But what is instructive is what the current unfolding of events tells us about what happens when the more autocratic mode of technopopulism collides with new experiments in direct deliberative democracy based on new understandings of popular sovereignty through citizens’ assemblies.
It raises the question of whether the climate emergency requires something as focussed and resourced as today’s “pandemic politics” and accompanied by a cognitive revolution resulting in something more holistic than the hyperpartizan paralysis of today? Is it perhaps here that we see the potential to go beyond the one-dimensional politics of ‘technopopulism’ towards something approaching a deliberative knowledge democracy.
The epistemic turn in democratic politics is inseparable from a much wider social process captured in the notion of ‘cognitive mobilisation’.
The term was originally coined in the late 1960s by political scientist Ronald Inglehart who used it to “capture a variety of complex social processes” including the “effect of increasing education levels and public exposure to new forms of mass media”.(3) Writing much later Russel Dalton claimed that “because of cognitive mobilisation, more voters now are able to deal with the complexities of politics and make their own political decisions” he went on to argue that “more cognitively mobilised citizens would be less likely to participate in traditional forms of partisan activity due to the inherently hierarchical bureaucratic nature of partisan organisation”.(4)
Although the origins of a cognitively mobilised society lie in the global telecommunications revolution of the 1960s we are currently witnessing the latest in a series of radical intensifications of this trend as the dynamics of social media combine with a generation shaped by gaming culture to form anonymised participatory sub-cultures. They range from toxic conspiracy fantasists such as QAon through to forms of progressive investigative activists such as Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture that make up the wider movement of ‘Evidentiary Realism’.
Who Will Bell the Cat?
If one were tasked with imagining an idealised manifestation of a cognitively mobilised citizenry it would be hard to find a better example than Bellingcat, the legendary collective of on-line investigators, who in a few short years have notched up an impressive series of scoops from confirming Russian involvement in bringing down MH17, Malaysian Airlines aircraft through to identifying the Russian FSB operatives who attempted to assassinate Alexai Navalny.
In the remarkable book ‘We Are Bellingcat’(5) the organisation’s founder, Elliot Higgins, reveals how it really did all begin with Higgins sitting at home as a bored out of work administrator from Leicester watching an endless stream of Youtube videos from the Syrian civil war and gradually turning himself into an expert on deadly munitions based on information gleaned exclusively on what was in the public domain on the internet.
Higgins’ culminating epiphany was the realisation that “if you searched on-line you could discover facts that neither the press nor the experts knew.” And his greatest strength lies in an unlikely combination of high ambition and methodological modesty that stemmed from his early realisation that his niche “was the detail”.
In his many thousands of posts Higgins never attempts to tell the complete story, as a news reporter strives to do, he describes how ‘I unearthed nuggets that others might use. This simple ambition was more important than I realised.” […] “I had no personal connection to the Arab Spring, and no partisan views.” “Plenty circulated but plenty was false. My focus became valid information. I sited all my sources, making it clear where information derived from, always acknowledging the limits of my knowledge. This approach developed into what would become the guiding principle at Bellingcat: the response to information chaos is transparency.”
Like the conspiracy fantasist followers of QAnon, Higgins acknowledges that an important part his success is owed to the years spent immersed in intensive gaming, when he led a group of forty players adding that “Social media offers a refuge to the disenchanted and frustrated and this benefited some; you could consider Bellingcat a product of this development.”
Higgins is fully aware that the capabilities he celebrates are equally likely to give rise to the destructive dimension on-line communities spreading lies, provoking violence and dividing societies.
Recognising that from the outset his life in gaming was full of glaring disparities starting from the fact that of the forty players in his on-line gaming group 39 were male. Interestingly he also points out how the” on-line misogyny related to Gamergate and all the Trumpian toxicity that was to follow in its wake emerged at exactly at the same time as Bellingcat was founded in the Summer of 2014”. (Higgins 2021 P218-P.219).
Narrative maybe one of the “large categories or systems of understanding that we use to negotiate with reality” but it is not the only one and increasingly it is having to compete with a rival epistemic category; the game.
The author, prankster and activist Wu Ming 1 in conversation with Florian Cramer (6) argued that calling toxic narratives such as Pizzagate, The Great Replacement etc, ‘conspiracy theories’ is a serious category error that runs the risk of de-legitimizing investigations into the many actually existing conspiracies. He prefers instead the term ‘conspiracy fantasies’. Importantly though he takes an important step further by arguing that it would be equally foolish to simply debunk these fantasies as however wild they invariably cluster around a kernel of truth that must be acknowledged and understood. It is futile to dismiss these ideas through techniques of fact-checking and the like which Wu Ming characterises as ‘primitive rationalism’.
Later in the conversation Cramer suggests that there are two types of knowledge claims at work here. We are not simply dealing in truth claims framed as stories to be understood with the traditional analytical tools of semiotics and narratology. They are also, crucially, about ‘decoding’ and analysis. Not simply ‘truth telling’ they must be understood within the logic of gaming, particularly alternate reality games. A genre in which revelations emerge iteratively through clues that encourage followers to ‘do their own research’ to ‘go on-line and find out for yourself’. It is this combination of story and game that makes these movements distinctive. Cramer describes it as a process in which any particular narratives are rapidly superseded and transformed from basic story telling “into an apparatus for generating conspiracy myths”
Wu Ming 1 goes so far as to describe the electorally successful Italian populist 5Star Movement (M5S) as also having its beginnings as an on-line cult before becoming something else. The interweaving of technopopulist logics operating at different levels of interpretation is illustrated by this trajectory.
The Italian populist 5 Star movement (M5S) like all successful technopopulist enterprises is not merely undefeated by its contradictions, it is defined by them. Of all the electorally successful technopopulist projects M5S remains the most complete articulation of the popularisation of the ‘Californian ideology’ and an expression of how the industrial and post- industrial age has sought to “recast the meaning of technocracy in a way that tied it more closely to the liberating potential of modern technology.” (7).
In 2013 speaking at an international conference in Cernobbio, on the edge of Lake Como, the co-founder of M5S Casaleggio said the following words: ‘We are far from Athenian democracy; the story took a different turn…[However], maybe the Internet can help to regain that inspiration, in that it makes us equal in being smart (cited by Mosca 2018)
The formulation of ‘equal in being smart’ is the core of the technopopulist synthesis operated by the M5S. The language of citizenship and popular sovereignty is using a conception of politics that is primarily epistemic in character- that is, about finding the ‘right’ answers to common problems. This sets it apart from other “digital parties” such as Pirate Parties whose concerns are primarily around ‘rights’ rather than knowledge. (8)
Focus Group Politics and Beyond
One of the foundations of modern party political technopopulism was the UK’s New Labour party of the 1990s. Tony Blair’s populist credentials are often overlooked but it was clear from the outset when he made the radical assertion that “New Labour was the political wing of the people as a whole”. This statement was an early signal of his aim to go beyond a partisan class-based politics and draw the sting from the ideological struggles of left and right. It speaks to a holistic view of the society. The epistemic configuration New Labour sought most often to draw on was that of the pollsters. In the Blaire, Mandelson and Campbell coalition we see the emergence of focus group-based politics that though primitive by today’s standards is much closer to the Dominik Cummings model of technopopulism than the techne of either Macron or 5Star.
The obvious predicament of the technopopulist paradigm is that for a variety of reasons very little of these offers contain any trace of the genuine cognitive empowerment we need to transform our polities into knowledge democracies? As leading scholar of deliberative democracy James Fishkin argued focus groups merely ask “..what we think when we don’t think..” That is why it is precisely in the field of experiments in deliberative participation through Citizens’ assemblies that we locate the possibilities transformation. When properly configured (as in the case of the recent climate assembly in France) they offer a far more powerful epistemic foundation.
As Fishkin famously asserts in genuine and seriously configured citizens’ juries and assemblies are a way of discovering ‘what the public WOULD think had it a better opportunity to consider the question at issue. (9). Or as Graham Smith argues it enables us to “bring the considered judgement of citizens into the political process”9 and “recast the traditional relationship of power between citizens and experts […} to an extent we can understand mini publics as a mode of democratising expertise.” (10). It is here where through public deliberation in collaboration with experts and stake holders that facts can be transformed into ‘public facts’.
1. Chris Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti Technopopulism, Oxford University Press 2021
2. David Runciman How Democracy Ends, Profile Books 2018
3. Ronald Inglehart Cognitive Mobilisation and the European Identity Princetown 1977
4. Russel Dalton 1984 Cognitive Mobilisation and Partizan Dealignment in Advanced Industrial Democracies, The Journal of Politics 46
5. Elliot Higgins – We Are Bellingcat Bloomsbury 2021
6. Disruptive Fridays https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bD9U9bQUlSs
7. Chris Bickerton The Rise of the Techno Populists New Satesman 2020 October
8. Lorenzo Mosca. Democratic Vision and online participatory spaces in Italian M5S 2018 Sited in Chris Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti Technopopulism Oxford University Press 2021
9. Fischkin J. 1997. The Voice of the People. Yale University Press (P162)
10 Smith G. 2009. Democratic Innovations. Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation. Cambridge University Press p.88