The Poetry of Populism
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
– T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (1922)
Charles Moore, the distinguished English editor, journalist, and official biographer of Margaret Thatcher, doubtless knows his Eliot. So does Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for North East Somerset and head of the European Research Project, and so does Boris Johnson, a former mayor of London and one-time foreign secretary who is on friendly terms, personally and politically, with President Trump and who now serves as prime minister. All three men have supported Brexit from the start, and all are open, to some degree or another, to other aspects of what the Western elites disdainfully call “populism.” How to explain this apparent contradiction, if not by suggesting that “populism” reflects certain concerns that preoccupy Western sophisticates and un-sophisticates alike?
Artists, intellectuals, the great British landowners and their dependents, the British working classes, and the churches were the first to apprehend the unnatural and inhuman consequences of the new industrial system and the world it was creating. It has been said that the poets are the first to register the earliest tremors preceding the seismic cataclysm of social transformation, and so it was in this case: the Romantics toward the end of the Age of Reason in the second half of the 18th century and the Modernists at the end of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th centuries. All of them recognized the reality of what Eliot called the waste land that modernity was creating, and that less sensitive, intuitive, and reflective people celebrated as the triumph of science and practical economics promising a utopia of unlimited wealth, prosperity, health, comfort, and convenience: the fulfillment of the Serpent’s promise that men could become like unto gods. Now, a century after “The Waste Land” was published, something as astonishing as it is unrecognized is happening. The lower-middle and even the lower classes, though continuing to lack anything that qualifies as a true education and delighted still by the cheap baubles with which industrial economies succeed in entertaining, satisfying, and distracting them, are beginning to experience the cultural and spiritual desolation that the thinking class has deplored for two and a half centuries. The masses appear to be discovering the Waste Land for themselves, though they may be consciously aware neither of their discovery nor appreciative of the new understanding they have found. But they are forming an inchoate sense of it and beginning to experience its reality; something they needn’t have read Eliot to do, as indeed they probably haven’t done. The result is an enlightened discontent that explains better than anything else the phenomenon called “populism,” a thing many writers and other commentators deny means anything at all.
H.L. Mencken claimed that what we commonly call common sense is the quality least to be found among common people. Chesterton, in his warm, generous, and Christian appreciation of humanity, said the opposite. And the 21st century is proving him right. God created the universe in all its glorious diversity. Postmodern liberals are determined to reduce it to a man-made uniformity and their agenda is not going unnoticed, nor its results unfelt, by the “ordinary” people whose variety they are trying to suppress and steal for the purpose of making them all “the same” and therefore “equal.” “Ordinary” people tend to have a developed sense of reality that, though not often “poetic,” is nevertheless real: Theirs is a felt sense, not an intellectual one. This instinct for reality allows them to see that difference and variety are the essence of the created world, and that things that differ in appearance differ as well in fact and in truth. Men are different from women in ways essential to their being. So do the various races and ethnic groups differ among themselves, likewise nations and cultures. In the matter of the sexes, science is incapable of engineering the impossible by removing the metaphysical divide between male and female that C.S. Lewis said amounts to a basic principle of the universe. Racial and ethnic differences, on the other hand, can be mitigated by selective breeding that liberals since 1945 (though not always earlier in the 20th century) have recognized as wicked. And the histories of the socially and politically developed societies, in particular the nations that began to be constructed in the late Middle Ages, show that people have an instinctual affinity to group themselves among their own kind.
Ordinary people accept uncritically and uncomplainingly the laws of nature and the fundamental and insurmountable limitations they set to the human condition. For liberals, who have agreed with Francis Bacon since the 17th century that nature is an enemy to be subjugated, exploited, and ultimately transcended, the program of mobilized rationalism this ambition requires is reasonable and acceptable. But it is irrational and intolerable to non-liberals, especially as they are the same people whom liberals, obsessed with psychology and psychological health, view as anti-social individuals in need of therapeutic treatment and reeducation to convert them to liberalism. One of the most famous liberals of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes, was in this respect a distinguished exception. “[The] pseudo-rational view of human nature [before 1914],” he believed, “led to a thinness, a superficiality not only of judgment but of feeling….The attribution of rationality to human nature, instead of enriching it, now seems to me to have impoverished it.”
Keynes identified this grave intellectual error as having been a major cause of the Great War when he likened his generation to “water-spiders, gracefully skimming, as light and reasonable as air, the surface of a stream without any contact at all with the eddies and currents below.” John Gray, writing recently in The New Statesman, compared this sublime naivete in the years immediately preceding the war to the utter inability of contemporary British elites to comprehend the meaning of the results of the national referendum three years ago on whether the United Kingdom should remain within the European Union or withdraw from it. Liberals today, he asserted, cannot grasp the fact that the post-Cold War era is over and done. “If a majority in Sunderland continues to support Brexit despite the threat it poses to Nissan [which operates a plant in the vicinity] the reason can only be [in the eyes of liberals] that they are irrational and stupid. The possibility that they and millions of others value some things more than economic gain is not considered.” Gray added, “Persistently denying respect to Leave voters in this way can only bring to Britain the dangerous populism that is steadily marching across the European continent [and that Remainers insist on ignoring, seeing the EU as a noble dream of mankind].”
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, liberals have been insisting that liberalism is the future of democracy. Francis Fukuyama even famously argued that liberal-democratic capitalism represents the end of history. Alain de Benoist, the French political philosopher, says the opposite. Liberalism and democracy, he thinks, in fact are incompatible, as the first endows the second with an agenda that commits democracy to a mission having nothing to do with the restricted practical task it was designed for. Modern liberalism is not a creation of political philosophy. It is a religion that has developed a body of religious law that elevates administration over politics, an inversion that another French scholar, Pierre Manent, has also noted. Since democratic politics is a matter of popular involvement, while administration is the business of trained specialists, it is unsurprising that the end, or eclipse, of politics should be a major contributing cause of “populist” rebellion. This movement away from politics does not end there. As political activity diminishes and the administrative sphere expands , the rule of law—of lawyers and judges—takes its place. Lawyers and judges are human beings. The most successful of them, in liberal societies, are liberals as well. And because so much of law has become discretionary, in liberal societies the law is chiefly liberal law. In point of fact it isn’t really law at all but, as Joseph Sobran remarked decades ago, only bad philosophy by which judges discover “penumbras” of meaning in legal documents and the inalienable right of individuals to determine their own reality for themselves—and afterward impose it on society at large through the courts.
So politics is replaced by administration; administration reinforced or displaced by law; and law succeeded by bad law based on personal whim. The result is that an increasingly narrow space remains in public life for ordinary citizens, often aggrieved ones—the “populists”—to play a part in the res publica. Their absence, of course, is conspicuously unregretted by “egalitarian” liberals. Significantly, the single demand liberals never make on behalf of “inclusiveness” is that uneducated people be represented proportionately at the higher levels of society with educated ones, the stupid along with the clever. Yet competency in politics has never been dependent on technical expertise. Many highly effective, brilliant, even great politicians have been uneducated people or persons of mediocre intelligence for which they compensated by talent and innate shrewdness.
Benoist, a brilliant writer insufficiently known in the English-speaking world, attributes the prevalence of “expertocracy” in part to the idea that many “negative phenomena” are also inevitable ones. Among these are undesirable and destructive advances in technology, which (it is argued) answers only to a logic of its own, and global migration, considered by Western technocrats and political “experts” to be unstoppable and irresistible. These things, Benoist says, “have been decreed inevitable because we have lost the habit of asking ourselves about goals, and because we are accustomed to the idea that it is no longer possible to defend a decision (which is effectively more and more the case).” Whence comes this negativity, this defeatism?
The answer seems clear enough. The “elites,” as the upper directing (and owning) strata of the Western world are known, have not lost their will. That is confirmed by their insistent unflagging pursuit of their globalist-technocratic project and by their relentless determination to impose it on all and sundry who disagree with it. What they have lost is faith in themselves; not of course as the ruthless omnicompetent titans of their imagination but as descendants of the greatest civilization known to history, of the tradition that nourished this civilization and allowed it to develop, and of the religion that formed the basis of that tradition. They have lost their faith in the God Who is left no place in their system, as the decision made by the European Union to exclude any reference in its founding documents to Europe’s Christian origins and traditions makes agonizingly plain. Nevertheless human nature is naturally conservative; and while a large proportion of the comfortable Western peoples have doubtless grown lazy, fat, materialistic, careless, conformist, and cowardly, the fact remains that in order truly to disbelieve one needs to deny belief explicitly and affirmatively, and this the majority of Christians in the West have not done. They are lapsed, not apostatized, from their faith. Similarly, polls that claim to show that such-and-such a percentage of the population have no religion, no church, and no belief in God cannot determine the number of those who “feel” in some vague and indeterminate way, even if they do not “believe.” Nor can they assess in what proportion the popular classes have retained their acceptance of the world as God made it, and of the natural law that men may deny and defy, but not alter. What the common people lack in the way of formal knowledge they make up for by common sense, aided by unreflective experience. Unlike Bishop Berkeley, but exactly like Dr. Johnson, they test and affirm reality by kicking the rock in their path. Unlike Christoper Hitchens too, but just like T.S. Eliot, they have become conscious of the stony rubbish, the dead trees, and the dry stones that comprise the environment of the barren world—a world in its unmaking—that surrounds them. They may not be able to express this consciousness in poetry but they feel it much as the poets do, though perhaps less keenly than a developed intellect allows for.
Populism is not, as a contemporary French lumiere has opined, the victory “of ill-educated people over the well-educated,” nor, in the estimation of another representative of the Second Age of Enlightenment, “a denial of progress itself.” It is something just as simple, but infinitely more basic and healthy. It is the unlettered but true apprehension that the old familiar world is being turned upside down, roundabout, and inside-out by the people who have seized control of it and are beavering away at their task of destruction; a process that in their minds is rather one of reimagination to be succeeded by the glorious recreation of the original inferior thing.
Chilton Williamson Jr. is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture and the author of many books, including fiction and nonfiction. His latest novel, The Last Westerner, is due soon from Perkunas Press.