Left and Right

How the World Works: Neema Parvini and The Populist Delusion

By Keith Preston May 12, 2023

The Populist Delusion by [Neema Parvini]

Available from Amazon

Neema Parvini’s The Populist Delusion appeared in April of 2022. I know very little about Parvini except that he is a British scholar of Persian ancestry, a specialist in Shakespeare, and often appears in social media under the moniker of “Academic Agent.”  The Populist Delusion is an overview of right-wing elite theory, of which Parvini is a fan. While he tries to present this set of ideas in a value-neutral and non-ideological manner, it is clear that Parvini is sympathetic to the populist-right in Europe and America, even if he ultimately regards populism as a “delusion.” He also indicates neo-reactionary influences as illustrated by his favorable reference to Curtis Yarvin, perhaps more widely known as the blogger Mencius Moldberg. Parvini begins the book by describing what he considered to the “four myths of liberalism,” which are 1) the impossibility of the separation of the state and society; 2) the impossibility of a politically neutral state; 3) the impossibility of the “free market” where the state and the economy are separated; and 4) the impossibility of the “separation of powers,” meaning that all societies are ultimately ruled by an interconnected oligarchic elite. At this point, anarchists, libertarians, and not a few others would probably be inclined to dismiss Parvini as just another statist villain. But to do so is to deprive one’s self of many interesting and important insights.

Parvini’s book is remarkably lucid and refreshing for a right-wing work, probably because he is a non-American of non-Western heritage. Those who have been marinated in the American right-wing will be surprised and, in some cases, pleased to know that The Populist Delusion is free of conspiratorial thinking, reverence for the American “founding fathers,” parchment worship (“But the Constitution…!”), and what might be called “bourgeois economism” (“Let the free market take care of it!”). Nor is there even a hint of religiosity in this book. The Populist Delusion is a serious discussion of basic concepts in political science. Parvini reviews the ideas of eight thinkers whose work appeared at various points during the past century in order to establish a fairly comprehensive body of political theory.

The first thinker to be discussed is the Italian political scientist Gaetano Mosca, who published a right-wing theory of the ruling class in 1923. According to Mosca, all societies are oligarchies ruled by a minority of elites. Contra modern liberal democratic theory, it is impossible for “the people” to rule. All efforts to overthrow an existing ruling class result in the creation of a new ruling class, and often a ruling class that is more intolerant and repressive than the one that came before. Indeed, this insight was at the foundation of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin’s critique of Marxism, following the split between the anarchists and the Marxists in the First International during the 1870s.  Mosca divided societies into three basic layers: governing elites (the ruling class proper), non-governing elites (functionaries for the ruling class), and the masses. According to Mosca, all societies maintain this same basic structural framework irrespective of their institutional, cultural, or ideological differences.

While it is certainly true that ruling classes are sometimes overthrown and replaced by new elites, the revolutionary process functions as what the second thinker covered in the book, another Italian sociologist named Vilfredo Pareto, called the “circulation of elites.” As soon as one ruling elite is displaced, a new elite forms.  However, different types of elites might exercise different styles of rule. The two main types of rulers identified by Pareto are “foxes” (those who rule primarily by guile and deceit, which is an apt description of the ruling classes in present day “democracies”) and “lions” (those who rule through coercion and violence, most obviously the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century and primitive dictatorships in the underdeveloped world).

Parvini also cites the work of yet another Italian, the German-born Robert Michels who was a contemporary of Mosca and Pareto. Michels developed the idea of the “iron law of oligarchy,” a concept which postulates that any organization of any size is going to be an oligarchy where a minority leads the majority. Pareto advanced a similar concept known as the “80/20 principle,” which argues that in any organization approximately 20 percent of the members will perform 80 percent of the work needed to sustain the organization. It is this 80 percent that will comprise the organizational elite.  Like Pareto, Michels also suggested that elites rule primarily by deception and persuade the masses to accept policies and mandates that are not in their rational self-interest. An example would be the ways in which the masses seem to irrationally embrace jingoistic “patriotism” during the outbreak of war even though it is they or their kin who will be sent to their deaths and not the rulers.

Also surveyed is the work of the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt, a figure which I have written about extensively elsewhere. Schmitt’s thought is vast but the essence of his approach to law and political theory involves the “friend/enemy” distinction. Writing during the chaos of Weimar Germany, Schmitt argued that the foundation of politics is the presence of armed collectives (“states”) who engaged in existential conflict with each other, and with the possibility of lethal violence. Schmitt was dismissive of the liberal notion of “rule of law,” arguing that “sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception,” meaning that the “law” is ultimately what those with power say it is.  Schmitt was equally dismissive of the claims to legitimacy advanced by liberal states such as the “social contract” or “popular sovereignty.” Instead, legitimacy is subjective and can only be achieved through “acclamation,” meaning the sympathy of most subjects of the state. Schmitt’s theory was ironically similar to that of the Renaissance era writer Etienne de la Boetie, who in his “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude” argued that rulers retain power merely through the acquiescence of their subjects, a conceptual framework that is similar to that of Schmitt’s notion of acclamation.

Parvini devotes a chapter to the “high-low middle mechanism” idea developed by the French political economist Bertrand de Jouvenel in the middle part of the 20th century. Jouvenel argued elites often attempt to portray themselves as patrons of the lower orders in order to form an alliance with the lower classes against the middle class (which multiple right-wing political commentators have called the “top-bottom coalition”). The elites typically regard the middle class as their most immediate competitors. Certainly, conventional politics in present day Western democracies exhibits elements of Jouvenel’s analysis.  For example, the American journalist and social commentator Bill Bishop has pointed out how, contrary to past norms, the majority of upper-middle and upper class people in the United States now vote for the Democratic Party, while the majority of lower-class and lower-middle class Americans now vote for the Republicans. Such a trend, what Bishop calls the “Inverted New Deal,” emerged during the two elections featuring former President Trump as the Republican candidate.  However, the outliers in this electoral data are the traditional out-groups. As Peter Zeihan observes, the most loyal Democratic Party voting blocks at present are African Americans, single women, the “LGBTQ” umbrella coalition, environmentalists, and self-identified socialists.

The last three thinkers profiled in The Populist Delusion are Americans. The first of these, James Burnham, was a former Trotskyite and, indeed, a one-time personal friend of Leon Trotsky. Burnham eventually became a conservative in the same Machiavellian tradition as the Italian elite theorists, whose work he helped to popularize in a book called The Machiavellians, published in the 1940s. However, Burnham’s most influential work was The Managerial Revolution which argued that classical bourgeois capitalism of the 19th century had become obsolete, as had classical socialism, due to the emergence of a new kind of society in industrialized countries in the early to middle 20th century. Burnham attributed this revolution to economic growth and development, the emergence of mass societies through urbanization and population growth, and technological expansion. The result was a rule by permanent impersonal bureaucracies which dominate all institutions. According to Burnham, the ownership and management of capital had been divided. While shareholding capitalists might technically own the “means of production” the real decision making authority had been transferred to the hands of their managers.  Burnham argued that the managerial elite are dominant in liberal, communist, and fascist societies alike.

Samuel Francis, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 57, built on Burnham’s theory to argue that the managerial elite has allied itself with political Left in the manner suggested by Jouvenel’s “high-low middle mechanism theory.” Indeed, the evidence for this thesis is even stronger now than it was in Francis’ lifetime, as evidenced by the class voting patterns in US elections identified by Bishop. One need only think of the present day phenomenon of “wokeness” where corporations, government agencies, universities, the public educational system, the media, and even the military are embracing concepts such as “white fragility,” “critical race theory,” “sensitivity training,” “diversity training” (now expanded to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging), celebrations of Gay Pride, support for Black Lives Matter, and other kowtows to the socio-cultural Left and fashionable liberal opinion. It is the traditional working to middle classes who are unacceptability un-progressive that the new “woke” managerial class regards as its primary enemies.

The final figure profiled is the only one who is still alive, Paul Gottfried, an intellectual historian who refers to the present “woke regime” as a “secular theocracy” whose overlords are akin to religious crusaders. Gottfried utilizes the term “therapeutic state,” a concept also popularized by the late maverick psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, to characterize ideological inculcation and indoctrination disguised as therapeutic in nature, and where therapeutic values are utilized as a framework for the exercise of social and political control. Witness the hysteria that was exhibited by most of the political establishment, media, and political Left in response to those who questioned “public health” orthodoxies during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Likewise, thoughts and attitudes deemed sinful by progressive elites, such as racism and sexism, are thought to be diseases or mental illnesses of which an individual must be cured through correct instruction administered on the therapeutic model (so-called “sensitivity training,” for example).

For anarchists like me who reject the state’s claims of legitimacy, multiple important lessons can be learned from the thinkers surveyed by Parvini. First, all organizations are oligarchies. This principal is just as applicable to leftist political parties, labor unions, guerrilla armies, cooperative enterprises, and activist organizations as it is to other organizations. Second, in any type of organization the 80/20 principle will apply. The 20 percent of organization members who do 80 percent of the work necessary to sustain the organization will be the de facto “elite” within the organization. Ideology and specific political values and objectives are irrelevant. Third, the collapse or displacement of any particular set of elites will be followed by the emergence of new elites, which explains why revolutions typically end in dictatorships that are more repressive than the regimes they replaced. The classic historical example of this was the French Revolution of 1789, along with the 20the century totalitarian revolutions like those in Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain, China, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, and countless other places.

Historically, even “mild” revolutions have resulted in the erection of a new ruling class. The ink on the United States Constitution was barely dry when the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed. The collapse of the Eurasian Communist expanse at the end of the Cold War witnessed the replacement of the older Communist elites with the dominance of neo-liberalism exported from the West, the rise of capitalist oligarchs, and eventually, right-wing authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin. This also explains why former out-groups who become powerful are typically just as abusive or authoritarian as the former in-groups they replaced. This process is currently being repeated in Western democracies where traditional social conservatism, which is typically characterized by various forms of chauvinism and out-group repression, is being superseded by what I have elsewhere referred to as “totalitarian humanism” or what is commonly referred to as “woke,” “politically correct,” and other such labels.

The work of Carl Schmitt ultimately affirms the anarchist view that the foundation of the state is the maintenance of a monopoly on violence. The foundation of law is the possession and effective exercise of power. Political legitimacy is subjective and has its practical foundation in some combination of acquiescence and acclamation. Popular state figures rule by acclamation and unpopular ones rule by acquiescence. When acclamation and acquiescence are withdrawn, the existing ruling class collapses, as did the former Communist ruling classes of Russia and Eastern Europe. The insights of Betrand de Jouvenel are particularly important to the current situation in the West, where Jouvenel’s “high-low middle mechanism” concept is being illustrated on a rather profound level. The emerging ruling classes rooted in the digital revolution are becoming the dominant forces within the managerial elite that was identified by James Burnham as endemic to technologically-driven modern mass societies. Samuel Francis described how these new managerial elites, now synthesized with the newly emergent tech elite, are gradually displacing the older industrial capitalist elites. The new elites seek self-legitimization by presenting themselves as the champions of the historically marginalized and oppressed, all the while creating a class system that resembles that of the Gilded Age or the present day Global South. Paul Gottfried provided insights into the ideological superstructure that is emerging in the process, and which is essentially religious in the sense of sacralizing the values of totalitarian humanism.

The thinkers profiled by Parvini might be considered to be the “elite of the elite” among conservative thinkers of the past century. Their thought indeed provides penetrating insights into “how the world works.” By stripping away the pretentious pieties that accompany ruling class machinations and unmasking the state for what it is, the exercise of naked power for its own sake, the right-wing elite theorists, like their ancestor Machiavelli, are inadvertently some of the best anarchists there are. Anarchists ignore their work to the detriment of anarchism.

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  1. I find it interesting that radical libertarians and the reactionary right both consider normie conservatives to be low IQ goofballs.

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