In 1848, as Marx and Engels famously pointed out, communism was the specter haunting Europe. Today, populism is the specter haunting everybody. In Italy, Hungary, the United States, Brazil and other countries, some variety of populism has risen to power or, as in France and Great Britain, seriously contended for power.
The phenomenon first came into its own with the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Given that it has already lasted the better part of a decade, it is likely here to stay.
This new populism is particularly notable for its bipartisanship. While right-wing populism has proven more electorally successful, left-wing populism has not been idle. Brazil’s old-new president Luiz Inácio da Silva is as populist as his right-wing predecessor Jair Messias Bolsonaro. Bernie Sanders is as populist as the Trump he despises. Jeremy Corbyn proclaimed his hatred of the establishment with the passion of a Steve Bannon.
The immediate causes of the phenomenon are fairly clear: The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2008 economic meltdown, and the ongoing migrant crises in both Europe and the United States, among others.
Any one of these events would have shaken the prevailing consensus. Taken together, upheaval was inevitable.
The defenders of the status quo have done themselves no favors. They have almost all been establishment figures, effectively proving the populists’ point. The only place where there has been substantial grassroots pushback has been in Israel, where mass demonstrations have sought to defend the judicial status quo against the reform efforts of the largely populist government led by Benjamin Netanyahu—who is not quite a populist himself but is willing to become one when it plays to his ideological inclinations.
Populism, in some form or another, is nothing new. Revolts against elites are a historical constant. The elites who are the object of today’s revolt, moreover, have been around for a long time. They emerged at the end of World War II, when technocracy and managerial elitism took the commanding heights of most national and especially international institutions like the U.N.
In effect, what occurred in the wake of WWII was the construction of a new aristocracy. Not in the vulgar sense, which refers to rule by the richest members of society, but rather in the literal sense of the ancient Greek term aristokratia, meaning “rule by the best.” That is, a government of the wisest, the most moral, and the most adept members of society.
Obviously, such a paradigm is an unattainable ideal. German-born Italian sociologist Robert Michels’s “Iron Law of Oligarchy” always holds true: “Rule by the best” inevitably descends into rule by a privileged but by no means deserving few.
Nonetheless, the aspiration to an aristocratic government is not by definition a bad thing.
Indeed, the new aristocracy had certain positive aspects, and it retains some even today. Many of its members are indeed among the world’s most intelligent, educated and skillful leaders. One can despise technocrats on principle but they are often very good at what they do, they know how to fix things, and they can be quite effective at managing crises and collapses when it becomes necessary to do so. They are also expert at maintaining the basic institutions of society, thus creating the balance and stability essential to social and sometimes international peace and prosperity.
Nonetheless, the new aristocracy suffers from the same vices as any other aristocracy. It is a cloistered establishment and thus inevitably loses touch with those it rules either formally or informally. It is a closed shop, its members produced by, at best, a few dozen institutions of higher learning such as Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge. It is made up of personal, political, and financial networks that are completely inaccessible to anyone outside the aristocracy. It expends great energies perpetuating itself and its ideological biases even as the world, which is in constant flux, renders those biases obsolete.
Under such circumstances, decadence is inevitable. The aristocracy becomes not so much corrupted as enervated, alienated from its constituencies, and finally incompetent. While enervation and alienation can be survived incompetence cannot, and once the aristocracy proves itself unable to serve the good of those it rules—or at least manages—collapse cannot be far away. This Iron Law of Decadence is as powerful as Michels’s Iron Law of Oligarchy.
Today, the new aristocracy appears to have entered its decadent phase. It has proven not simply unwilling but unable to tackle such issues as massive economic equality, the discontents of unchecked immigration, the threat of terrorism and theocracy, and a general sense of malaise and unease throughout the West. This incompetence was evident in, for example, the botched 2020-2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan and the failure not only to prevent but even to anticipate the 2008 financial meltdown. Under such circumstances, a growing rage among the masses that threatens the aristocracy should not come as a surprise.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the aristocracy’s decadence, however, is the growing prevalence of antisemitism among its members. Usually, but by no means always, cloaked by the code words “Zionism” or “Israel,” the aristocracy’s loathing for the Jews is not simply a sign of moral degradation but one of impending collapse. As the ruination of Germany and the perpetual dysfunction of much of the Arab and Muslim world prove, modern societies cannot survive antisemitism. Its emergence is the sign of an unconscious desire for self-immolation, its destructive impulse directed outwards but ultimately destined to implode.
Antisemitism, of course, is not confined to the aristocracy. Both far-right and far-left populism, to varying degrees, embrace it as well. This places the Jews in an uncomfortable position: Aristocratic antisemitism is currently more powerful than its populist equivalent, but this could easily change should the populists succeed in their plan to overturn the world. Given that, in any likely scenario, the new aristocracy will either survive or a new-new aristocracy will be formed, the path for the Jews may well be not to embrace the destruction of the aristocracy but to fight for a better aristocracy—one that is at least worthy of the name.