On demagogues

The lovely dullards again and again
Inspiring their bitter ambitious men.

W. H, Auden, “Danse Macabre”

Presumably due to some administrative lapse many years ago, I received the education of a gentleman, which included a study of the classical languages. (I suppose some unfortunate gentleman of the same name was sent to a Secondary Modern to get a CSE in Woodwork; I can only apologise.) This puts me ahead of the game when it comes to words like demagogue.

Now a pedagogue is a teacher, and the ped- root refers to children, as in paediatrician (and indeed paedophile). The dem- root in demagogue refers to the common people, as in democracy. Often this root demos is translated as mob, which tells you something about the translator. Certainly its meaning includes the proles, or hoi polloi (literally “the many”, as in Shelley’s famous phrase, “Ye are many, they are few”). So we can conclude that a demagogue is someone who does to the common people the same sort of thing that a teacher does to children, which presumably means to educate them.

You may be asking yourself how this is a bad thing.

Well, it clearly is, according to President Joe “Is is time for my cocoa now?” Biden, who has just given a rousing address claiming that supporters of Donald Trump are anti-democratic, or at least opposed to the US constitution. It has to be said that the optics for this speech did not help it appear pro-democracy.

Clearly this man is in no way a fascist. No sir.

Demagogues are considered a Bad Thing because they persuade people to vote The Wrong Way. This is populism, and that is evil; it’s a well-known fact. When the people of Chile voted for Salvator Allende in 1970, for example, they had clearly voted The Wrong Way, and they had to have General Senator Augusto Pinochet explain the error of their ways to them, often using thoughtfully-applied electrodes for this purpose. Democracy is only good, after all, when people vote The Right Way. That stands to reason.

So long as people vote The Right Way, however, those who persuade them to do so are not demagogues. Of course they aren’t. They are merely the exponents of truth and reason and goodness. Right.

Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

Sir John Harington, Epigrams, Book IV, Epistle 5.

Or, to put it in the form of an irregular verb: “I am a thought leader, you are an influencer, he is a demagogue.”

Now Biden’s speech is an ephemeral thing, and he has already begun claiming not to have said some of the things he said, which is pretty quick work even by the standards of modern politics. But it was an odd speech to make if your shtick is that you want to unite the country, as distinct from the divisive stance of your opponents.

Then again, at this point is there any realistic possibility of uniting the allegedly United States of America? Certainly there is not much prospect of this in the allegedly United Kingdom, now that we have a Prime Minister who has made it clear that she favours the rich over the poor and isn’t even prepared to give the Scots the time of day. I wonder how many of the “developed” countries will avoid disintegrating into their constituent parts over the next few years. Metternich’s famous remark that Italy is no more than “a geographical expression” looks prescient, and the same might be said of Spain.

When the established order is failing to address the concerns of the majority of the population, as is happening now in many places, it can be said to have lost what the Chinese call the Mandate of Heaven, This means that it is likely to be replaced by some other order, and the prophets of that order will be what are now called demagogues. I am in no sense a cheerleader for many of these figures. If Donald Trump does manage to pull a Grover Cleveland and get himself re-elected President of the United States of America, I will not be cracking open the Krug. But it is not hard to see where this impulse is coming from.

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I don’t subscribe to the view prevalent amongst many on the Left there is loads of stuff available and we could all be enjoying Fully Automated Luxury Communism were it not for our evil overlords. On the contrary, I believe that there is less stuff than there used to be, and that the pie is shrinking. But at the same time, what is left of the pie is being distributed in an increasingly inequitable manner. If yesterday you had a 20% share of $1000, today you have only a 10% share of $500, and tomorrow that will be a 5% share of $250.

Beyond a certain point, you can’t really con the mass of the people into thinking this isn’t happening. People are already noticing that they can’t live the way they used to, seeing that prices are going up and incomes are going down. None of the existing political parties are addressing this; they are set up in such a way that they couldn’t address it, even if it could be addressed. (Spoiler: it can’t, because this way of life is predicated on cheap fossil fuels, which are going away. Sorry, but there it is.)

Anyone who claims to be able to fix this is going to have a massive short-term electoral advantage. It’s only going to be short-term, because it will be apparent soon enough that it can no more be fixed than a ghost shirt can repel bullets. Nevertheless, I suspect it will be long enough to dismantle much of the governmental and psychological apparatus that we currently take for granted. The Berlin Wall, after all, was permanent, until it wasn’t.

A more equitable redistribution of the smaller pie is no bad thing, although it may come about through unpleasant means. A less equitable redistribution is also certainly certainly on the cards, and that will also come about through unpleasant means. Frankly, much of the industrialised world can look forward to a lot of unpleasantness and a lot of instability over the next few years.

I have no words of wisdom to offer here beyond these: dig in, make common cause with those around you, try to provide for yourselves as far are you can, and be lucky. Some people always are, as evidenced by the fact that you and I are still here. I hope you will be in our uncertain future.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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