A Thought on Populism of the Leader.  By Alberto Moreiras. 

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 At the end of “Politics as a Vocation” Max Weber invokes the Lutheran “Here I stand; I can do no other” as a supreme example of the “ethics of responsibility,” just before talking about “the polar night of icy darkness and hardness” that is ahead of us (127; 128).   He has praised a “trained relentlessness in viewing the realities of life” (126-27) as necessary for the true politician, which is the virtue that leads Weber to praise, following Machiavelli, “those citizens who deemed the greatness of their native city higher than the salvation of their souls” (126).   A politician is someone who must harness violence, indeed someone who must command the machine of “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (78).

Politics is, therefore, always already domination, that is, the work towards domination.   The political leader (which means, strictly, he or she who follows the calling of politics in the name of her or his own charismatic legitimation [“Here we are interested above all in the second of these types (of legitimation; the other two are “traditional” and “legal”): domination by virtue of the devotion of those who obey the purely personal ‘charisma’ of the ‘leader.’ For this is the root of the idea of a calling in its highest expression” (79)]), is a seeker of domination and force.  The political leader is after power, for only power can accomplish political results.  And we should not be blind to the fact that this power is anything but non-violent: “politics operates with very special means, namely, power backed up by violence” (119).  The politician must have attempted to attain the impossible knowing all along that only the possible will result (“The final result of political action often, no, even regularly, stands in completely inadequate and often even paradoxical relation to its original meaning” [117]).  He or she is clear-sighted and ruthless on an ethics of responsibility that understands very well that a price, a soul price, must constantly be paid.   And those thus endowed are political leaders and heroes, and no one else:  “to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the world” (128).

So the issue of a populism without leaders (what we have called posthegemonic populism) is really the rejection of the figure of the hero and of its charismatic legitimation as politically desirable.  There is of course political legitimation always and everywhere, for without it nobody would be given consent for his or her use of violent power.  But political legitimation is far from being political legitimacy.   In the absence of traditional markers of legitimacy, in plebiscitarian democracy there is only the legitimation that comes from political support, from what Weber calls “the following.”   For Weber, it is clear that the field of the political is the field of the various leaders competing for violent power and their respective following.   The key problem of populist politics today is whether it should structure itself on a charismatic-heroic basis, or whether a different structuration should be sought and defended.   If we are to pursue the latter, it would also be on the Weberian terms of an “ethics of responsibility” against an “ethics of ultimate ends,” which means: accepting the autonomy of politics as such.

In other words, the problem is not that of accepting or rejecting the coldness and distance that comes with understanding that politics is about the seizure of power, the “trained relentlessness” of a political maturity that understands the realities of (diabolical) life.   The problem is rather whether, in political action, we ought to transfer the heroism and jouissance of an “ethics of responsibility” to the political leader—whether it is strictly necessary to do so, or not.   There is no doubt that the opportunity to exercise such jouissance is one of the effects of domination by the leader over the following, if not the primary (and pathological) goal of the leader in every case.  There could be a way, in democracy, of leaving heroisms aside.

Must Weber’s “passion, responsibility, and a sense of proportion” (115), which are the three “pre-eminent qualities” of the politician by calling for Weber, be necessarily assigned to a leader which, in that case, is always already a potential hero, performatively turned into something other than just another worthless creature by the heroic charisma of leadership itself?  Passion is service to a cause, and responsibility is the ability to harness the passion in correct political action.  Proportion is of course the relationship between passion and responsibility.   But with this issue of “proportion” the path is opened and leeway is given to heroic behavior, that is, a behavior, in a decisive sense, already drastically beyond properly political parameters.   What I am suggesting, as it seems important to me, is that the gap between “ethics of responsibility” and “ethics of ultimate ends” in Weber is negotiated too much in the pulsional service of the leader, who is the only ultimate arbiter of his or her own proportionality: “No ethics in the world can dodge the fact that in numerous instances the attainment of ‘good’ ends is bound to the fact that one must be willing to pay the price of using morally dubious means or at least dangerous ones—and facing the possibility or even the probability of evil ramifications.  From no ethics in the world can it be concluded when and to what extent the ethically good purpose ‘justifies’ the ethically dangerous means and ramifications” (121).

Weber was quite aware of the problem, and he made a choice.  This is the statement of the problem: “there is only the choice between leadership democracy with a ‘machine’ and leaderless democracy, namely, the rule of professional politicians without a calling, without the inner charismatic qualities that make a leader” (113).  Weber opts for the charismatic leader, which he finds preferable to what he terms “the rule of the clique” (113).  Those uncharismatic professional politicians who take it upon themselves to run the administration of the public thing are apparently bereft of the charismatic-heroic dimension that alone could endow them with the right of pursuing proportion between means and ends.   Only the leader could do that.  But is that truly the case, or is Weber to that very extent still the representative of a conception of power thoroughly entangled in modern premises concerning subjectivity?

In my opinion, the latter is the case.   Tying the notion of popular hegemony to the function of the leader is definitely to reassert that politics is always necessarily the pursuit of domination—a situation in which the subject of domination thrives on the fallen subjectivity of the dominated, which becomes the end of politics tout court.   But this is a radical limit of democracy.  If populism is meant to defend “more democracy,” then a populism of the leader is inconsistent with itself.   And no amount of “realism” can compensate for the theoretical and practical flaw in the political logic.


(Weber quoted from From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology.”  Translated and Edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, New York: Routledge, 1998.  77-128.)

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