Populism and the Crisis of the Knowledge Elite
When the French Revolution abolished the Estates General and appeared to usher in the Enlightenment virtues of egalitarianism, the accepted liberal historical view was that the age of absolutist and clerical elites had been confined to the dustbin of history and the universal march to democratic egalitarianism and economic prosperity was beginning. While the absolutism… The post Populism and the Crisis of the Knowledge Elite appeared first on VoegelinView.




When the French Revolution abolished the Estates General and appeared to usher in the Enlightenment virtues of egalitarianism, the accepted liberal historical view was that the age of absolutist and clerical elites had been confined to the dustbin of history and the universal march to democratic egalitarianism and economic prosperity was beginning. While the absolutism of the past was replaced by varieties of liberalism and representative democracy, the overriding problem of democratic legitimacy has never been solved. Far from a linear development, the modern liberal democratic diaspora has evolved in a cyclical fashion through varying forms of elitism that replaced older groups of elites. Furthermore, the present liberal elitism is represented by the knowledge class, which is inherently more statist than any previous elite group, is more volatile and more exploitative than before and has transcended traditional concerns of communal existence, local traditions, and a sense of identity behind in the dustbin of history as well in its acceptance of the only legitimate worldview to hold: a consumeristic knowledge-based understanding of the world and life.
The reality of the statism of the knowledge elite is visible in the dialectic it has produced where liberal democracy, understood now as the management of the knowledge elite over constitutional and parliamentarian structures of government, is ultimately consumed by its opposite: populism. Liberal elites reform and devour themselves whatever the ostensibly political packaging: whether the transition is from Tsarism to the nomenklatura of the soviets or from anarchic industrial liberalism to statist bureaucracies redistributing the fruits of industrialism and capitalism.
Liberalism has changed due to the economic circumstances, it has moved from a rationalist individualism envisioned by Adam Smith to one of welfare collectivism where the knowledge elite, those who supposedly know economics and social policy, predominate and control the bureaucracies of power. This, in turn, also reflects the technological turn from industrialization to technological infrastructure with collective ramifications rather than individual ones (for example, an individual factory from the nineteenth century didn’t have the global reach of contemporary technology).
At the pinnacle of these sectors of the new liberalism are the knowledge elites as previously mentioned. “All societies,” wrote James Burnham, “including societies called democratic, are ruled by a minority…the primary object of every elite, or ruling class, is to maintain its own power and privilege.” This knowledge elite in the new liberalism is actively seeking to eliminate or reduce the influence of those whom they see as competitors, the small-town, suburban, business owner or shopkeeper. The result of this liberal hegemony, however, has been a resurgence of populism, a largely middleclass phenomena that includes the working middle-class and the small-business entrepreneurial middleclass which often employs the working middleclass who share a common culture and often live in the same neighborhoods.
The role of this new elite, through media domination, is to assume collective knowledge and power for itself at the exclusion of its competitors. Yet the nature of the elite knowledge class is also peripheral, as outlined by Christophe Guilluy who shows the divergence of elites from ordinary working/agricultural concerns in the countryside.[1] He also applied this analogy to the rise of Donald Trump as a populist response to the overburdensome influence of the knowledge elite who represent and advocate the interest of a small minority of national populations (and global population) at the expense of the broader populace. The nature of populism, then, is a by-product of the breakdown of middleclass interests who are awakening to their alienation and socio-cultural-economic decline and seeking defenders or advocates of their plight and values which are neglected by the knowledge elite.
In all realms of society—including social and cultural, judicial, media, government, corporate—the middleclass has been usurped and excluded. The populist response is a reaction to this sense of homesickness and uprooting brought on by globalization and the consolidation of power by the knowledge elite who promote policies based on “data” without much concern for factors like culture, family structures, or working-class traditions. The knowledge elite is floating in an international managerial, corporate, borderless utopia because knowledge transcends all borders whereas culture, a sense of community and its history, along with localist business concerns are, by nature, parochial. The middleclass, in their milieus of culture and community, with all the history and tradition behind them which is rapidly vanishing, now find themselves in the midst of an emerging wasteland. As certain American politicians have said, “learn code.”
The globalization of the 1990s seemed to herald in a new world order of international cooperation, free trade, and relatively inexpensive consumer goods. Economic knowledge and bureaucratic data asserted this would be good for people. This positive spin, however, hid huge structural changes that had been occurring because of Cold War integration, technological change which made the world more compact, and deliberate policies that moved economic industries overseas in return for political cooperation with the ambitions of this new knowledge elite. This invariably led to the large-scale reduction of industries, mass unemployment, and the “managed decline” of industrial cities which became a new problem for the knowledge elite to fix.
The managerial elites, who are the knowledge elite, have not been able to resolve the problems of the last 50 years of economic, technological, and political changes. The solution that they have come up with, which is currently failing, is the collective public bureaucratic service industry to “help” despondent people while remaining married to mass immigration and globalization which has caused part of the crisis with which they are dealing. The knowledge elite now use the public sector civil servant hegemonies to elicit funding for a wide platform of liberal projects, NGOs, and state sector consultancy to continue advancing its global, collective, technological policies while presenting itself as a healer of middleclass woes.
This is another win-win on the elite merry-go-round as they have discovered an even easier way of extracting funds than traditional capital investment pools: the state. A rise in state sector funding has a large negative effect on investment and productivity. Research has shown[2] how rent seeking, rather than profit seeking, has a negative impact on economies and economic growth. Monies from taxation are siphoned off to rent seeking consultancies and civil servants, thereby diverting government expenditure from productivity, industry and investment in technologies etc. Max Weber had predicted this: as well as the bureaucrats replacing the revolutionaries, the equality funding is whittled away on bureaucracies. At the same time real wages for workers has fallen. In the midst of the structural crisis along came the COVID pandemic and the Ukrainian war which negatively impacted the already declining small business middleclass as well as the inexpensive energy of the past decade adding more woes to an already beleaguered population forcing new knowledge solutions to grow the bureaucracy of the knowledge elite.
The real nature of populism is a reaction to the consolidation of power by the knowledge elite, the bureaucracies of managed decline which do little to help the suffering middleclass while benefiting the knowledge elite who fund and draw support from those bureaucracies, and the continued socio-cultural uprootedness wrought by mass migration and globalization. The reason why populism has assumed recent importance is because it incorporates a sense of concern that the knowledge elite and their bureaucracies have ignored like federalism, regionalism, and localism. Again, knowledge and technology know no boundaries and is universal in application which causes the knowledge elite to have no care for these populist concerns.
This is compounded by the fact that the middleclass has existed in ersatz consumer bliss, subsumed by brands and technology which in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s seemed promising and comforting. The 2008 Financial Crisis made many realize the hollow emptiness of this purely consumeristic and knowledge-based vision for existence. Populism is warning us that there is more to life than the data-knowledge weltanschauung but the knowledge elite have responded with derision and scorn. Until the genuine problems of middleclass populism are redressed, populism will remain a force to reckoned with in western politics for decades to come. The knowledge elite, however, haven’t shown a willingness to do that. In fact, they seem to scorn and scoff at such concerns and problems.


[1] Guilluy, C. (2019). La France périphérique: Comment on a sacrifié Les Classes populaires / Christophe Guilluy. Flammarion.
[2] Buchanan, J.M. (1980). Rent seeking and profit seeking. In J.M. Buchanan, G. Tullock and R.D. Tollison (Eds.), Toward a theory of the rent-seeking society, 3–15. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

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