Populism and the Separation of Knowledge and Power

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 17:30
Oral Presentation
Brian SINGER, Glendon College, York University, Canada
Ernesto Laclau in his book On Populist Reason claims that a proper comprehension of populism provides a key to the intelligibility of democracy. And yet populism appears to trouble democracy. This is not so much a matter of its content (the claim to represent those who see their concerns as derided by an established elite) as a matter of form resulting from the torsion of characteristics central to democracy’s symbolic order. Drawing loosely from Claude Lefort this torsion can be examined under four rubrics: the division of political representation between representatives and represented; the institutionalization of internal conflict; the separation of power from law and knowledge; and “the dissolution of the markers of certitude.” Most analysis of populism concentrate on the first two rubrics: the populist leader seeks to close the division between representatives and represented by claiming to embody “the people,” as constituted through the externalization of internal political debate. In addition, there is considerable discussion of populism’s attempt to reduce the separation of the law from power as it seeks to overcome the limits placed by the former on the exercise of the latter. Much less has been written about the separation of power and knowledge, and the problem of uncertainty. With the campaign and election of Donald Trump, however, we are now faced with a “post-truth” world, and what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine.” Having established this theoretical framework, I wish to turn to a brief look at the relation of power to knowledge. Does it make sense to speak of “populist reason”? Does Trumpian populism have a relation to any form of knowledge beyond expressions of indifference or hostility? Can Trumpian populism be described as post-modern? Can we speak here of an “ideology”? And what are we to make of the resort to “conspiracy theories”?