Populist Expectations (or: The Dead Expert)

The economic and political turbulence of the past nine months is not a throwback to the 1930s, it’s a throwback to the 1530s—then, print capitalism shook the world to its core and brought modernity.  Today, print capitalism is being replaced by digital finance. Expertise is out, populism is in.  Can our institutions take it?

Can this autumn bring relief after the frightening, volatile summer  that came after the violent but hopeful spring?  The Greek protests, the Norwegian killings, the 11th hour American budget deals and downgrading of the US economy, the News of the World scandal, the DSK affair, the English riots—all of these against a backdrop of crashing markets, spiralling debt crises, the Arab ‘summer’ and, for good measure, the usual hurricanes.  And this list doesn’t even take into account the drip-drip of banal cataclysms that didn’t make the front pages.  Don’t get your hopes up—it’s not over.

In fact, the ushering in of this autumn comes with reminders and memorials of the events of 9/11 ten years ago. These stand like a strange, lone book-end. They mark no real beginning of course, but an inflection point that seemed to raise our collective consciousness to the fact that things were not as we thought, that they were more complicated, and about to become even more so.

The accelerated spiral of events over the past 9 months, feels like a part of this comet’s tail, much as the rest of the past decade does.  The events are not necessarily related to 9/11 in their causes (though some clearly are), but they were in the nature of our experience of them: interconnected, domino-like in their inevitability whilst paradoxically often unforeseen, cinematic in their proportions and their mediatisation.

These more recent events have often led to a lazy rhetoric of broken societies, moral decay and hasty comparisons with ’89, with the 1970s or the 1930s.  Mostly they have led to panicked pronouncements that blame a mix of corrupt characters, ‘feral youths’ and dark economic forces.

But this is no way to explain our collective condition; and it is certainly mistaking symptoms for causes.   Our societies, interlinked as they are, are undergoing a transformation of civilisational proportions.  And while families, communities, financiers, politicians, bureaucrats, despots and media moguls are all actors we can blame, hate or ridicule, their actions however lacking or reprehensible are not satisfactory explanations

This is a big bang theory of the birth of our era and the modern self.

From ‘print capitalism’ to digital finance

In 1983, the British-American political historian Benedict Anderson wrote what is perhaps still the most cogent and detailed explanation of the transformations ushered in by what he called ‘print capitalism’ 1. Print capitalism, he argued, is what made ‘imagined communities’ possible.  In other words, it enabled human beings to think of themselves as connected despite time and distance.

Laying the blame for the development of national consciousness (and modern nationalism) squarely on the doorstep of the printing press, Anderson traced all of those transformations unleashed by the latter: the circulation of ideas in cheaper and faster ways, the creation of communities of thought, the emergence of national languages and the development of secular allegiances which came to be seen as the defining features of modern times.  This is a big bang theory of the birth of our era and the modern self.

Equating the transformations of the digital revolution with those of Guttenberg’s press has become common place: Much as the printing press represents a break with the traditional order, so the internet is the next step in that access revolution, delivering transformations on the same grand scale—an even faster circulation of ideas, a new form of commodification of information and the creation of new forms of community and community organisation 2.

But like the those brought in by the printing press, the metaphysical transformations are the ones that count: the destruction of hierarchical barriers, the further compression of time and space, and the final and complete emancipation of transactions from actual goods—to the extent that trading is dominated by either the trade of negative goods (debt), or exchanges based on fluctuations too subtle and too rapid for humans to perform or even to detect.

These are revolutionising, in the true sense of the word, our world and our experience of it.

Yet while we bandy about the expression ‘digital revolution’ our capacity to make a systematic and sustained connection between ‘it’ and what is happening in the world around us deserts us the minute events occur.  We’re just about capable of saying that Facebook had something to do with the Arab Spring, or that citizen journalism is a challenge to print media but that’s about it.

Yet it makes no sense to acknowledge the power of technological transformations, marvel at our digital, liquid, accelerated, permeable condition in one breath—and reach for hackneyed explanations about broken societies, law and order or regulatory tweaks the next.

This is about the growing gap, the immense chasm, between the order that is being created by the digital revolution on the one hand, and our creaking social, political and economic institutions on the other. The clearest and most profound long-term consequence of the digital revolution is the agonising, embattled death of expertise—something that (regardless of its positive and negative qualities) is shaking the very foundations of modern institutions.

The twilight of expertise and the death of authority

Professionalism has long been pronounced dead3.  But the transformation in which we are all embroiled goes much further than that—it is about the wholesale questioning of the notion of expert knowledge.  As such it’s not one century’s worth of habits, values and institutions we’re going back on, but at least three.

Building on the notion of progress linked to expertise has arguably been the basis for post-Enlightenment institutions across much of the Western world (and regardless of how close or how far we remained from this ideal, the ideal served as the foundation for an established social, political, commercial and scientific order).

Whether this is about the emergence of a new conception of expertise, or whether this is about the birth of an entirely new category is not yet clear; but the notion of expertise as we know it, and as it has served us, is on its way out.  Both because of its growing inadequacies, but also because of the spectacle (and public use) we can make of these inadequacies through digital communications.

Speed of communication, access to information, open source code and social networking have not only given rise to social activism, citizen journalism and cool geeks devising games and encyclopaedias in their garden sheds.  They have also created a planetary culture in which the availability of information and its lightning-fast circulation have overtaken traditional gatekeepers (good and bad) and quality control (legitimate and illegitimate).

That’s not to say that quality is not out there—just that it is out there with a lot of rubbish.  And in this relatively flat, a-hierarchical system it is sometimes difficult to tell the two apart given the support and echoing that either can attract.  The breaking down of the barriers and the kicking out of the gate-keepers is a victory for democracy and for access, but it is also a nightmare for those trying to make sense of complex issues.

How do we know who to trust when access and speed have created swathes of self-proclaimed experts (as well as experts stridently disagreeing) while simultaneously sounding the death knell of expert status? The answer is that we don’t know who and what to trust—hence the past 20 years of brightly coloured power point presentations illustrating the steady decline of our trust in all kinds of institutions and people.

So far, so what?

These are hardly ground breaking statements or new facts.  My point though, is that for statements that have become banal to the point of cliché, we seem unable to take in their consequences for our world and our lives.

The fundamental shift happening in our world is fuelled by the spectacle of debacle: of governments that no longer know how to govern; regulators who no longer know how to regulate; leaders who no longer lead, and an international press in thrall to all those hapless powers, as are the police. Political parties as vehicles for representation no longer represent, banks no longer lend, scientists no longer predict (or worse: their disagreements resonate across chat-rooms and blossom, like Climategate, as conspiracy theories).

And in a bizarre, though rather jubilatory, turn of events even despots and corrupt media editors seem to be losing the plot somewhat.  The breakdown of authority based on expertise and professionalism, combined with the spectacle of apparent ineptitude flashed across the world, have led to the shunning and ridiculing of experts and resulted in a vacuum of authority across all sectors.

Institutions are not so much crumbling as vanishing–thinning out like ghosts of their former selves as their contours grow dimmer and dimmer.  And as confidence in expertise, their once solid justification, is gradually replaced by doubt and cynicism.  In part this is simply because they are no longer able to perform some of their functions (maintain stability, regulate, regenerate the existing order). But mainly it is because no one believes in the idea that those who run them are particularly qualified to do so.

The answer is that we don’t know who and what to trust.

This collapse of hierarchies, the suspension– quite literally – of the order and relevance of things is a change similar in magnitude to that identified by Anderson and brought about by the print capitalist revolution.  Its consequences will be just as profound as those of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.  They will be just as exhilarating and just as painful—as reformation-moments also give rise to counter-reformations and progress also unleashes new forms of barbarism.

The downgrading of expertise as a fundamental regulator of power is neither inherently positive nor inherently negative.  It just is—its consequences can range from the wonderfully life-enhancing and empowering, to the promotion of the worst kind of lowest denominator in thought and behaviour.   However, in the immediate context it is having one major and hugely destabilising political and social consequence: the growth of populist politics and, more broadly, the populist rationale.

The rise and rise of populism

Populism always grows best in the shade of democracy: there has to be some democratic promise for populists to develop their claim that they are the true representatives of that democracy, and that theirs is the voice of common sense and of ordinary people.  More to the point, there has to be a democratic promise for there ever to be a sense of betrayal and disillusionment powerful enough to give rise to a populist sentiment or movement.

The digital revolution and its access to information are the newest and most potent incarnation of that promise.  And in political terms the vacuum of power and authority resulting from the death of expertise fuels the kind of conspiracy theories, distrust and cynicism at the heart of populist politics. Populists never trusted experts or the institutions they created—and now they seem to have been proven right.

Look, say the populists, the media, the bureaucrats, mainstream political parties and every other hallmark of the professional political class and the professionalization of politics, policy and economics are finally revealed for the useless usurpers they always were: not so much experts as a clique of intellectuals in it at the expense of ordinary folk and along for the ride for as long as it lasted.  But it isn’t just the politicians and bureaucrats whose expertise  (and authority) is called into question—it is that of anyone who has been marked as an expert in one field or another.

First in line for the downgrading are scientists and researchers, a little further down are specialists of any sort.  This populist impulse, or its apparent vindication, gives rise to all sorts of reactions: from a generalised cynicism in the face of any proposed technocratic or institutional solution to the Euro-zone crisis or to environmental challenges, to the hijacking of the American political process by the so-called guardians of the ‘real’ American interest, to the freak-show that is the Republican race for the presidential nomination laced as it is with Tea Party politics, to the rise of the True Finns and the other xenophobic populist parties of Western and Central-Eastern Europe.

Perhaps even more alarmingly it legitimates an anti-intellectual, grass-roots discourse of pseudo-morality that seeks to justify increasingly authoritarian and parochial policies in an effort to control social and political reality.

Populism is often attached to certain parties and movements as an ideological label, but we need now to understand it also as a process.

The rise of ‘says who?’

The rise of populism has profound consequences that go beyond the rise of unsavoury parties.  It can also create a generalised self-righteousness, a permanent ‘says who?’ scowl that easily moves from cynicism, to conspiracy, to xenophobia and, in fine, to a much more radical and noxious attitude.

The protests across Europe, the riots in London, the killings in Norway are vastly different events, but whatever else they are evidence of (desperation, frustration, alienation, delusion and old fashioned psychopathy in the case of Breivik) they also illustrate a growing willingness of individuals and groups to absolve themselves from any accepted principles of living together because these are seen to be regulated by institutions that no longer have any sway for a growing number of people.

These institutions are indeed in need of reform, they have to change, they are inadequate, in some cases utterly broken—no doubt about it.  But their re-invention needs to come from the creative powers of the digital revolution, not its populist potential. Expertise, and authority, can and must be challenged, but not thrown out wholesale. And right now, by not addressing the role and fate of expertise effectively, we are letting populism win the day.

Populism is often attached to certain parties and movements as an ideological label, but we need now to understand it also as a process.  In this sense, the populist process is a vicious, under-handed, self-fulfilling prophecy that wrecks the bargain between us and the any institution we attempt to create or re-create, by shattering the necessary belief that those who are involved in institutional creation are there because of their skills and expertise.

The ease with which we can share, produce, consume but also falsify information, the facility with which we can abuse trust (with which financial institutions can abuse the rules, but also with which a hundred rioters can coordinate the sacking of a neighbourhood), all of these are inherent to the radical democratic promise of the digital revolution.  We just need to be better at understanding these consequences in order to make the most of its positive aspects.

Transitions and revolutions

Thomas Kuhn’s name and his major work on The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is too often taken in vain: every slight shift is heralded as a paradigm shift.  Yet it is clear that Kuhn’s conception of paradigm shifts is relevant here.  Importantly though, people tend to forget what is at the heart of Kuhn’s argument and perhaps crucial for our own understanding of our era: that no matter how numerous the anomalies, no matter how obvious the crisis, a paradigm will only be abandoned once a credible alternative emerges—and this requires what Kuhn calls revolutionary thinking.

The revolutionary thinking to which Kuhn refers is made up not of adapted theories, slight variants or ‘best practice’ but of new world views: what he called, the ‘tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science’.

Allowing ourselves to be led by the populist process is an enormous cultural (and therefore determinant) risk—it is the risk of counter-revolutionary rather than revolutionary thinking.  It is the risk of reviving old paradigms, old habits (of corruption, cronyism, of ‘bureaucratism’, of exclusion) and letting the wrong kind of institutionalism hold sway, when in fact what we need is to support those new fledgling forms that can help us transition forward.

This is about mapping where people’s new interests and capacities are and creating incentives that help them develop those into positive institutions. It is about re-creating forms of education, employment and welfare that lock onto where the 21stcentury citizen lives, socially and politically—and the new territory that this covers.  It is about realising the potential of digital by allowing ourselves to think about how this profoundly changes not just how we see the world, but how and where we see ourselves.

Go down the populist route and we won’t get the new institutions we deserve and that the changes we are living through can deliver. We will instead get the parochial, cowardly ones of cynics and scowlers. Take it from an expert.

Catherine Fieschi, 2011


Catherine Fieschi


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