The Pragmatic Radicalism of the Multitude’s Power: A Critical Eye on Fuller’s Return to Pareto, Adam Riggio

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Independent Scholar and Writer,

Riggio, Adam. “The Pragmatic Radicalism of the Multitude’s Power: A Critical Eye on Fuller’s Return to Pareto.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 7 (2016): 54-62.

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Image credit: Ben Chapman, via flickr

You cannot understand Brexit with a single narrative, which means you cannot understand it with a single essay. Brexit as a social-political phenomenon includes too much for a single narrative and overall theme to comprehend. A list does the job better, even though the event rapidly makes all summaries obsolete.

There is a tendency to think of the event as an instant, a decisive moment where what is not converts to what has happened. Brexit demonstrates that events have duration—they are long and enormously complex. The event of Brexit is unfolding as we speak—this essay is part of it, as are Steve Fuller’s many essays and videos on the subject, to which my essay replies. 

Democracy’s Guiding Ideal: Power to the People

Since I can only comment on one aspect of the infinitely-tentacled madness that the word “Brexit” names, the remit of SERRC draws my focus quite nicely. The power of knowledge. This includes the brute power a person can achieve through manipulating public knowledge, but also the capacity for people to use knowledge to reshape the framework of power in Britain and, by implication, the globe.

The greatest ideal of democracy as a concept is that all the people can contribute to the progress of history. All lives are consequential, at least potentially so, and can contribute through their action to shaping the future of human civilization itself. Achieving the ideal of democracy means that our society would be structured so that all people have such power. This is quite possibly unattainable as a practical goal, but an ideal should function like an attractor—that which we will never reach, but progress toward it remains good.

The core problem for democratic theory and practice at all levels of human life is fundamentally a problem of desire. As Spinoza said in the genesis of this modern tradition of political thinking, people all too often fight for their slavery with such dedication and zeal as if it were their liberty. People’s knowledge—what a person knows and how she understands that knowledge’s effects and purpose in her life—guides and shapes their desires. Change how someone understands the world, and you change how they act in it. They will believe they are freeing themselves when they are really binding the chains tighter.

Elites: People Who Hold Power

Regarding the relationship of power, democracy, and knowledge, the lynchpin of Fuller’s reflections on Brexit is his “Long Road Back to Pareto.” That essay argues for a return, in the sociological-theoretical-philosophical analysis of Brexit, to the ideas of Vilfredo Pareto. Fuller’s particular focus is Pareto’s analysis of political change as the circulation of elites. And Fuller’s reasoning hits a bullseye here—the Brexit referendum would never have happened if there were not an ongoing battle, over the last decade or more, in the elite circles of British conservative politics.

The Establishment Elites (the Lions, in Pareto’s philosophical poetry) were the pro-EU aristocrats and leaders within Britain’s lucrative London-based banking and finance sector, and the politicians beholden to them. Led (in name only) by David Cameron, they are traditional conservative neoliberals, implementing a political and economic agenda of deregulating those state institutions that keep wealth from concentrating in the relatively closed circles of financial elites. These are the conservatives whose austerity agenda crushed the people of Greece, punishing them for their own OXI referendum. Cameron and George Osborne brought the same attitude of austerity as an alleged solution to economic crisis to the UK, along with all the resulting human misery.

The Brexiteer Elites—Pareto’s Foxes—make up what Tom Ewing called a bizarre alliance. He identified six different ideologies among Brexiteers, but only two matter here. One, led by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Andrea Leadsom, are those Thatcherite new liberals who believed that even the devastation of EU and Cameron-Osborne austerity models did not go far enough in stripping wealth and dignity from the working people of Britain. Or in their Hayekian terms, restoring full economic freedom to the country. Only full sovereignty would allow them to pull Britain away from those regulations that kept the last skeleton of the welfare state in place.

The Self-Destructive Power of Resentment

Which brings me to the second ideology of the Brexiteers: political racism. Its leader in the referendum was Nigel Farage, but the real power of this movement was in creating the image of Brexit that was marketed to the British people. Fuller, near the end of his “What Is Brexit?” video, correctly identified the conflict that will likely tear Britain’s pro-Brexit camp apart before anyone can even invoke Article 50.

Both Cameron’s (and now Theresa May’s) Lions and Johnson’s Foxes, when negotiations come due, will prioritize access to the EU’s single market. Without EU market access on something like Britain’s current terms, the entire British economy really would collapse. The London financial sector is dependent on its single market links to function at all.

But the campaign’s messaging played to a different concern—border control. The key phrase of pro-Brexit messaging was “Take Control!” Popular outreach played to people’s fear and hatred of immigrants, especially those from Eastern European countries like Poland and Romania. Brexit campaigning played to popular racism in many forms—from sublimated economic fears of “immigrants taking our jobs and stealing money from our welfare services” to Nigel Farage’s open hatred with his “Breaking Point” poster and Mr. “Death to Traitors! Freedom for Britain!” who mutilated Jo Cox in a public street.

The Leave campaign played to these popular prejudices and hatreds to succeed. They repeated these messages that Brexit meant sovereign control over the UK and the power to restrict who could enter the country, until those messages were such a ubiquitous part of the public imaginary that they were widely believed to be true. Simultaneously, Leave’s “Project: Fear” messaging and Gove’s contempt for any kind of expert knowledge delegitimated any attempt by Remain advocates or non-racists to introduce the actual facts of the matter meaningfully to the political conversation.

These facts included: immigrants on the aggregate, take fewer state welfare benefits than citizens-by-birth; the British economy depends on free trade and free movement of labour with the EU. An additional fact underlying the fundamental problem with Brexit messaging is that racism is the core ideology whose real-world political action transforms inclusive democratic civic nationalism into the mass-violence of fascism, imperialism, militarism, and genocide.

The Power of Parliament

Pareto’s Foxes championing Brexit were an elite group whose hardcore neoliberal economic and political values opposed them to the EU’s last defences of the old British welfare state. Many of those who constituted the Leave-voting mass were ordinary people disenfranchised economically and politically by neoliberal politics, but who blamed their poor positions on a racialized scapegoat. The Brexit Foxes stoked this racism with their explicit and implicit messaging to motivate them to the polls.

But why give so much legitimacy to a referendum in the first place? Legally speaking, any British referendum guides, advises, and informs, but does not replace the decision-making authority of parliament itself. This is not the United States, where legislative and budgetary questions at the state and local levels are put to public referendum with every biannual voting cycle. Nor is it my country, Canada, where the constitution explicitly states that any edits or major changes to the country’s nature must be ratified by a public vote or other large-scale open consultation in the relevant constituency.

Fuller, along with many other UK subject-matter experts who nobody listened to, is correct that parliament, and not the people as a whole in any direct expression, is the sovereign body of Britain. The more cynical analysis would conclude that the purpose of the Brexit referendum’s anomalous weight was a falsehood that both Paretian Lions and Foxes perpetuated for their own reasons. Cameron’s Lions wanted to rally public acceptance of a Remain victory to silence and marginalize the Euroskeptics in Britain’s right wing for at least a generation. Gove’s Foxes wanted to bind parliament in a mass-scale rhetorical straitjacket to prevent them—in their proper constitutional sovereignty—overturning an inconvenient Leave victory. This is all correct, but as with all discussions of Brexit, it is only one aspect of a more complex event.

The Multitude’s Alienation from Power

The principle of parliamentary sovereignty fits a Pareto-inspired vision of politics as cycles of elite inclusion and exclusion. Where all immediately consequential power is vested in parliament, the ultimate goal of political action becomes a conquest of parliament—and therefore a conquest of the state. Only a few people can control the state as an institution: bureaucrats and politicians, and in Britain’s case, a class of aristocratic nobles and royals. Becoming a bureaucrat is an individual achievement: you train for a particular expertise, are successful in a job application, and build a relatively stable career in the institution. Becoming an aristocrat is mostly a matter of lucky birth, though you can earn an aristocratic title through royal favour.

Becoming a parliamentarian is a much more complicated and volatile form of elite circulation, and the only one necessarily bound in any genuinely democratic processes. The vote for a representative is the only place in the parliamentary process where the actions of a multitude have direct causal influence. Contesting a parliamentary seat requires a materially consequential stand in a popular election for that seat. For your stand to have material consequence, you need the apparatus of a political party: money to fund communications with potential voters, volunteers and professional organizers to canvass, promote on a candidate’s behalf, and get out the vote on election days.

Deciding who any particular candidate is rests with an elite group. It may be the elite of a party leadership, as when a candidate is parachuted into a district by fiat, or the elite of the district association’s dedicated members and volunteers. But it is still a small group of people with deep and established institutional connections with the party. The key democratic question here becomes a matter of legitimacy. What makes these elite decisions legitimate for the multitude of people who are barely involved in this process that is their central causal link to the governance of the state?

Freedom and Power: Modernity’s Disjunctive Synthesis of Politics

According to a long tradition in modern Western political philosophy, that causal link is representation. The concept’s innovators in the 1700s—Rousseau having the foremost legacy in our times—conceived it as the only mechanism to maintain stable government over the large territories of republican European states. Intellectual opponents of democracy during its modern philosophical formative period correctly saw it as a danger.

If the people were truly to govern themselves, the institutions that maintained the unity of a state the size of, for example, France would fall apart. Rousseau writes in The Social Contract, “If there were a nation of gods, it would be governed democratically,” but the cruelty and caprice of ordinary humans must be held in check. By this point in the West’s philosophical history, a century of democratic thought had at last been able to respond to the challenge of Hobbes’ Leviathan: that a republic was impossible because humanity’s essential cruelty must always be subject to the brutal control of a sovereign government, whether a king or a more impersonal state institution.

Yet the principles of modern republican politics could not allow the multitudes to continue living as slaves to the unquestioned and unquestionable authority of states and monarchs. Representation was the mechanism that would scale democracy from the genuine self-organization of consensus government among small communities to the mass scale of millions spread over thousands of square kilometres. How these mechanisms would work was a central debate of The Federalist Papers. The eventual form of American government depends on representation: a federal system of multi-level governments linked to each other and their people through representative votes, offices, and communication.

But a central conclusion of The Federalist Papers was that representation stood in the way of democracy. Antonio Negri writes in Multitude, “The Federalists agree that representation is an obstacle to democracy—to the universal, equal, and free rule of everyone—but support it for that very reason! . . . Representation has to be distant enough to hold the dangers of democracy at bay, and yet not so distant that representatives have no contact with the represented. It is not necessary that the representatives have detailed local knowledge of the represented (Federalist no. 56); rather, what is most important is ‘to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of society.’”

When representation mechanisms funnel the wisest and best community leaders into positions of state power, they connect citizens to their government while simultaneously holding them distant from it. There is accountability, transparency, and communication of leaders to the multitude. But those multitudes remain separate from the real levers of their government, despite having the aggregate power to determine their leadership. The republican project of modernity was a step toward democracy, but not its fulfillment. Representation stops at the creation of an elected aristocracy—creating the class of political party activists and functionaries that amounts to a faster-churning elite that must occasionally answer to the multitude’s anger.

The Paradox of Democratic Governance

Far from governance by a publicly accountable elite of the wisest, representative democracy in the land of The Federalist Papers eventually became a reviled system of ‘machine politics.’ Elected representatives remained answerable to their citizens through accountability mechanisms, but the career elites of their political parties did not. The American Progressivist movement developed the referendum as an antidote to the corruption of the elected aristocracy. But just as the elected aristocracy fell to the corruption of machine politics, the direct democracy of policy-by-referendum has likewise taken about a century to complete its corruption.

There is no better example of such corruption than Brexit, for all the reasons set out at the beginning of this essay. I described the contingent aspects of that referendum’s corruption, which all depend on the singularity of contemporary Britain’s situation. But the abstract aspects of the corruption of referendum-style direct democracy are clear, and they all have to do with that all too typical style of electoral campaigning that manipulates the multitude’s knowledge.

The solution to this impasse requires one practical program, and a specific moral value underwriting it. The practical program is a restoration of truthfulness to politics—a fidelity both to 1) the intelligence of the multitude and their universal potential to overcome their cruel instincts, and 2) understanding the real singular nature of each decisive political moment. The underwriting moral value is that real, material political power flowing from and returning to the multitude constitutes genuine democratic legitimacy. I do not mean the fact of legitimacy—that is simply the popular recognition of those in power being in their proper place. I mean the real achievement of democracy as a political and moral ideal.

Yet this value, put into practice, results in a seemingly insoluble paradox. Pareto’s shadow returns to us. Democracy’s ideal is that power must flow from and go to the people, but the actual governance of states requires a relatively stable elite. We need machine politics to run our countries smoothly. When millions of ordinary people are empowered by the direct democracy of referendum politics, governance is vulnerable to manipulation and demagoguery. Even the smooth reassertion of elite authority after the Brexit vote—Theresa May’s appointment as Prime Minister and core Foxes receiving their Lion’s garb—has come alongside an upswing in public racism and violent acts against immigrants and minorities across Britain. The Leave campaign’s demagoguery used the racism of popular resentment as its fuel for a battle among elites, but that energy still crackles across the country.

Chaos following elites losing their direct grips on power over the multitude is not restricted to Britain. Such popular anarchy is currently peaking in the United States as well. In the American case, as Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institute diagnoses, innovations that directly empower the multitude instead open governance institutions to demagoguery and deadlock. He lists limits on political parties’ campaign spending, primary elections for nominees replacing caucuses of committed party activists, dismantling the strong seniority norms of legislative committees, vilifying pork barrel politics, and submission of complex legislation (like Brexit) to popular referendum as policies that, in the abstract at least, bolster democracy.

But these plans actually encourage the extremist hijacking of political processes, so that too many people who would rather see government grind to a halt than compromise with any opponent end up in power over institutions of governance. I have already discussed in detail the dangers of referendum politics. Limits on party campaign spending encourages private, unaccountable donors to pick up the slack and the influence over government policy. Primary elections allow the excitement of extremists to trump the experienced brokerage of career politicians. An end to seniority results in committees dominated by extremists uninterested in its deeper responsibilities. Pork-free politics removes a representative’s means and obligations for accountability to all his constituents, so he instead cultivates only his most fervent base.

Political party machines and their operatives can talk to each other not as ideologues, but as people in the business of running government. So they can approach the day-to-day work of governance with a clear head, keeping the lights on and the paychecks coming to workers while the foundational philosophy and policy issues are debated in public. So democracy is our ideal, even as it is undercut by the necessity of a stable cadre of elites to maintain all that government provides to make our democratic society possible.

The People’s Knowledge Grounds Their Power

Populism is the most crude and brutal form of people power in politics. Its surface hostility to established elites like party machines gives populism a democratic heart, but most often, authoritarian elites use it as their tool. Rage at Foxes and Lions alike becomes the fuel of a new Leviathan. Populist forms of political participation like primary election insurgencies and referendums likewise have a democratic heart because they aim to break through the disjuncts that Negri identified as holding people apart from power over their governance.

But referendums are not only vulnerable to demagoguery—they still enforce a disjunct of the wills and desires of the multitude from real, material power. This disjunct is not the many physical and communication barriers of the party machine. It is instead a disjunct in thought itself, where a complicated issue like Brexit is expressed in the stark simplicity of an either/or choice with no possibility of compromise or negotiation. Remain or Leave?

That expression is inadequate to the real complexity of the event. The referendum ballot becomes a promise of false simplicity, where the simplicity of knowledge masquerades as actual understanding. But there need be no catastrophe here, because the solution to this problem of populism as false democracy is in front of us right now. It is the program of restoring truthfulness to political activism. Regarding Brexit, this fidelity project is the work of the hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic new Labour Party members that Corbyn’s first leadership campaign signed up.

Get Them Woke: Building a Network of Truth

Fuller described these new members as little more than Jeremy Corbyn’s fan club. This is especially so, given the outsized weight that the UK constitution of parliamentary sovereignty gives MPs over ordinary members. But that dismissal overlooks what the Millennial Corbyn Fan Club can actually do. They are an enormous network of volunteers for door-to-door canvassing and countrywide get-out-the-vote pushes. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and the Momentum political organizing body did more than recruit a bunch of entryists or disaffected complainers.

He recruited enough new on-the-ground Labour Party activists to fill a small city. These are people who can, at the level of individual interactions, can start literally millions of personal conversations with people across Britain. The face of another person will call on you—literally knocking on your door and asking for a few moments of your time—to rethink your situation. They can bring information directly to people, in the slow but effective method of physically bringing information to people. This can enable the country’s population to do what never happened in the actual Brexit campaign—thinking through the implications and strategies of this enormously complicated phenomenon.

Person-to-person political activism across all the many channels of communication that exist in our exponentially saturated media environment is potentially a more powerful expression of democratic ideals than representative government or policy referendums could ever be. It would constitute a shift in who holds power and how that power flows. The typical conception of power has a model of dictation and authority—the power to act and to control the actions of others as your instruments. Anti-elite populism is motivated by contempt for authoritative power. Populism often considers all elites to be authoritarian, even while populism itself is a product of authoritarian manipulation, to which referendums are especially vulnerable.

But the power of authority is only the semblance of power. Genuine power is not the ability to force people directly into action, but control over the possibilities for action, control of the conditions for action and even the ability to imagine action. This is the real function of institutions and ideologies, not giving orders but silently constituting the barriers of action. Power is not the force of a river’s flow, but its banks. When common sense conceives of power only as the authoritarian model of giving and following orders, governance becomes an institution of dictation and we conceive the power of the multitude as referendums and votes that issue simple univocal orders to elites.

Knowing the Right Time to Act

Changing the conditions of popular knowledge, by contrast, changes the multitude’s conceptions of its own possibilities for action. The conversations of political activism encourage massive numbers of people to think critically about their situation, empowering them with real knowledge of how complex their political situation is as well as their own powers to change that situation. These changes to the multitude’s knowledge, and their common sense conception of their own knowledge and power, changes the conditions for the possibility and likelihood of their own actions. This has been my conclusion in another forum, and no matter the context, it still holds true.

Talking, thinking, and organizing among themselves has the potential to liberate people from the self-interested manipulations of corrupt party machines, whether Lion or Fox, and from the planned hysteria of demagoguery. It is an entirely ordinary activity whose transformative potential has long been ignored. The only reason such organizing so often feels ineffective is that its ability to achieve its greatest material power is often beyond its control. The events of the wider world must align for activism’s historically transformative impact. Act and world in perfect harmony—this is the highest good in much of Daoist philosophy, what Antonio Negri calls kairòs.

Such harmony is the moment when the cognitive dissonance of the activist disappears, when our ideals become possible in our world. It such a moment, there is no longer a need for manifestos calling for radical change, because all the complexity around us aligns to make what we thought impossible possible. Our ethical and political ideals are often so separate from the field of material possibility that their distance often appears immeasurable.

Corbyn supported remaining in the EU because his idealism’s possibility never converged with the material affordances of reality during the Brexit campaign. But that distance was why his support for Remain was so lukewarm, at best advocacy for staying in the EU to reform it. This massive dissonance is why Lexit failed. British and wider European politics featured progressive insurgencies against the neoliberal status quo, but each of these were either crushed (ex. Veroufakis being forced out of Greece’s Syriza) or working in opposition (ex. Podemos having re-aligned the Spanish left but still losing the general election). In Britain itself, the Brexit period is dominated by a sometimes violent nationalism. Any strike to achieve a progressive ideal in such a circumstance would be a disastrous failure, a waste of effort and resources.

But passivity and silent patience is not the proper response to the typical impossibility of achievement. When the time is not right, you can still work to bring the right time about. You can figure out how to create the material reality where you can achieve your ideals, and work, slow and plodding though it might be, to build those conditions. This is the practice of politics, all those conversations across the country of your dedicated volunteers with people who think differently—for now. This is the production of a new reality from conditions to achievement to consolidation. Negri calls it “pragmatic radicalism.”

An idealist might call it the potential for revolution.

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