A quiet coup for technopopulism? The anti-politics of the 2022 election

Amid the slightly muted jubilation about a long-awaited change in government, certain similarities between Greens insurgents, ‘teal’ independents and, to a lesser extent, hard right fringe parties have received less careful analysis. Without wishing to smear progressives, these point to a shared anti-establishment, anti-corruption populism that, in almost every instance, articulated itself in terms of a ‘scientific’ consensus on either climate change or health policy.

As Jeff Sparrow comments, the election’s main story was the decline of the major party vote. Despite the smugness of some Labor figures, their party’s victory was not a convincing one. This phenomenon is reflected in global politics. As Christopher Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti comment in their Technopopulism: The New Logic of Democratic Politics (2021), ‘many long-established parties are in terminal decline.’ Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti argue that contemporary political movements are required to articulate themselves in terms not of ideas, or the interests of particular classes, but of their faithful representation of the ‘people’ as a whole (to which dissenting parts must be subordinated) and of the sanctification of different kinds of knowledge. As one ‘teal’ candidate put it, the task is to ‘keep the faith with the communities’, and engage in ‘education rather than evasion.’

The relative stability of Australian politics (albeit reduced to the level of a postmodern simulacrum and propped on both resource exports and various financial bubbles, as Guy Rundle noted prior to the election) disguises its participation in broader political shifts that are not easily narrated in terms of left or right. Sparrow is also correct to say that the ‘teal’ candidates are ‘not in any way left-wing.’ Daniel Lopez and Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn aptly label Climate 200’s brand ‘elite ecopolitics.’

However, the negatives—the crises, absence of policy, lack of trust, dissatisfaction with inaction—are easier to pin down. As one summary puts it, 2022 was an election in which ‘Australians overwhelming voted for the end of politics as usual.’ By contrast, what is missing is what positive content the election’s result is supposed to represent.

This is obviously hard in a context in which the apparent ‘signal’ of voters has been rejection. Wins for both Labor, in Western Australia for instance, or for the ‘teals’ were the result not of mass political organising or struggle but highly localised efforts such as those supported by the astro-turf campaign of Climate 200.

What is striking is that the two major policy demands of the ‘teals’—alongside their symbolic appeal in fielding women as candidates—are shared by the Greens. Climate action risks becoming de-politicised by the convergence between the demand by Greens and protest movements like XR to ‘tell the truth’ and the centre-right demand for a ‘science-based response to climate change’ as Simon Holmes à Court, the extremely wealthy businessman convener of Climate 200, put it. Thus the teal fill a so-called ‘centre’ evacuated or ‘abandoned’ by the Coalition since Turnbull was ousted, according to Holmes à Court’s narrative.

Also noteworthy is how a broad ‘anti-corruption’ demand cuts across almost every minor party platform. Despite not making gains in either house (except a Senate seat in Victoria), hard-right fringe parties like the United Australia Party and One Nation actually saw their proportion of the vote rise. One Nation’s primary vote almost tripled nationally from 1.8 per cent to 4.9 per cent, partly due to running significantly more candidates.

Among the reasons Benjamin Moffitt lists for the failure of these two parties to gain representatives are that their right-wing policies were shared by Coalition candidates anyway, and, more revealingly, that their ‘anti-corruption’ or ‘anti-establishment’, ‘anti-elite’ rhetoric and positioning were shared across the near-entirety of of the political spectrum, from socialists, Greens and Labour to the all-important ‘teals’. Although attempts to disrupt the electoral process along Trumpian lines made little impact, the election reflects the ‘transformation in the logic of political competition,’ as Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti contend.

Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti name this specific transformation ‘technopopulism’, focusing in particular on European politics. Yet the tendencies they describe are identifiable in Australian politics as well. Their analysis unites apparently paradoxical political tendencies: the anti-elite stance of populism, with the embrace of administrative or managerial anti-politics. Technocracy requires populism to legitimate itself as representative of a broadly defined ‘people’, while those who disagree are defined out of existence. Although the election could signify ‘opportunities for a very different political conversation’, as Sparrow argues, technopopulism’s grip on political discourse threatens to derail genuine political action.

The term ‘technopopulism’ unites the apparently opposed tendencies of populism and technocracy, and cuts across right and left ideologies and movements. Indeed, as George Hoare, Philip Cunliffe and Alex Hochuli argue in The End of the End of History (2021), anti-corruption populism often represents an anti-political move, delegating the task of political struggle to judicial institutions, like an integrity commission, or simply replacing one set of financial elites with another, more authoritarian set, as in Brazil or Hungary. Technopopulism substitutes the charismatic populism of the likes of Rodolfo Hernández, who is contesting the Columbian presidential election in a runoff in June against leftist candidate Gustavo Petro (both of whom The Economist calls ‘erratic’), with a managerial style of individualised knowledge worker from a professional background.

The Italian Five Star Movement, with its combination of anti-ideological populism and technocratic use of online decision-making tools, has no clear analogue in Australia, although the ‘participatory networks’ that Guy Rundle associates with the ‘teals’ localised movements bear comparison. But Bickerton and Ivernizzi Accetti’s two other examples—Emmanuel Macron’s centre-right La République En Marche and the progressive Podemos movement in Spain—can be likened respectively to the ‘teal’ movement of business-friendly ‘moderates’, and the Greens progressive anti-establishment platform.

While the Greens have arguably matured beyond their founding concerns and figures, their ideological positioning remains somewhat inscrutable. Jonathan Sri’s summary of the political appeal of the Greens deploys phrases like ‘a lot of people are fed up with the political status quo, and love seeing someone who stands up to the political establishment,’ as well as a phrase popularised by Richard Nixon, the ‘silent majority’. These definitions imply both the radicalism of a minor party and the broad appeal to a unified majority.

Sri articulates the appeal of left populism against the ‘hollow centrism’ of other Greens candidates, demonstrating Bickerton and Ivernizzi Accetti’s contention that parties face ‘a powerful set of incentives to adopt some combination of populist and technocratic forms of discourse and modes of political organisation.’ Sri’s analysis is vindicated by the shift from Liberal to Greens in Brisbane, indicating that the ‘teal’ wave was not limited to independents. Both Greens and ‘teal’ victories were attributed to demographic shifts, which bears noting not necessarily because it reflects different demands but because it is a hopelessly apolitical strategy, as the 2020 American election demonstrated.

If the populist tendency is more evident in the Greens, the teals illustrate more clearly the shared technocratic platform of ‘climate action’ as a generic slogan. However, anti-corruption plays a central role in populism’s distrust of the (current) political establishment. Yet Hoare, Cunliffe and Hochuli note that the political establishment is generally defined as broadly bureaucratic and public service, rather than as rich elites. While a Federal integrity commission may address corruption in government, it leaves obscure the vast corruption, secrecy and exploitation by businesses and large corporations. The spectre of Federal government corruption provides excellent cover for private mismanagement and theft.

This is in tune with the teals’ climate agenda. The technocratic slogan of a ‘science-based climate policy’ is joined by publicity touting its 11,000+ donors, calling itself ‘crowdfunded’ despite a lack of transparency in their own donations, including $100,000 from a former coal company director to Zali Steggal’s campaign in Warringah. What the number of donors, and claims that the ‘majority’ of donors gave as little as $5 disguises, is the proportion of money that came from wealthy donors. Similarly, GetUp!, a left-wing equivalent of Climate 200, lists average donations to even out the extent to which the wealthy disproportionately influence policy agendas. Donations are not memberships in a political party, nor gifts. They come with ‘expectations’—Holmes à Court concedes—but, like private capital, are allocated by experts in the interests of capital.

Founded by the son of a ‘corporate raider’ billionaire, Climate 200 is also backed by such business luminaries as ‘tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, businessman Nick Fairfax and his wife Sandra, and tech entrepreneur Simon Hackett.’ These shining lights—‘lighthouses’ in Holmes à Court’s phrase borrowed from Cannon-Brookes—join the teal candidates themselves as visionary entrepreneurs of a future you never knew you wanted, until it’s sold to you as a shiny, ideally internet-connected commodity.

The pro-business platform is only cemented by what Sparrow calls ‘the victory of girl-boss feminism’ among the teals. Zoe Daniel, a former ABC journalist, described her support for a 50 per cent emissions cut by 2030 as an incentive for investment, which would ‘flow through to our broader prosperity.’ She explicitly called for the de-politicisation of climate policy, claiming it had been ‘weaponised as a moral issue.’ Fortunately for Daniel, the CEOs now recognise the business case for climate action on an economic calculation based on nothing but keeping up their profits. Daniel noted that she showed her support for Malcolm Turnbull by voting for the now-ousted Liberal candidate Tim Wilson in 2016.

Anti-corruption and pro-business policy unite under the banner of ‘clean’, reflecting a desire to rise above the dirty politics of everything from environmental justice, inequality and energy transition. Just don’t mention capitalism or class. This general retreat from political struggle as the primary locus of change is a symptom of the embrace of technopopulism. Populist ‘broader prosperity’ or the ‘silent majority’ alongside technocratic ‘science-based policy’ and ‘truth-telling’ as a determinate of policy leave little room for political contestation.

Political theorists from Melissa S Williams, Bonnie Honig and Wendy Brown, to more recently Katrina Forrester have long recognised the de-politicising tendency of liberalism. With liberal politics on the decline, market-friendly, socially progressive movements are trying to find similarly de-politicised ways to advance their agenda and maintain their interests. The teal wave represents a longing for the loss of what Rundle calls ‘social liberalism’, a reactionary attempt to put climate politics back in the realm of technocratic management, as Michael Mann and Malcolm Turnbull’s triumphalist op-ed illustrates. Moreover, the success is attributed to the mechanics of the parliamentary voting system, rather than the ‘people power’ Mann and Turnbull draft in at the end to rubber stamp the electoral coup.

Politics is, as Hannah Arendt insisted, always unpredictable because it depends on human action. Technopopulism, like other administrative solvents to politics and like a science-based business strategy, involves mitigating risk by shutting down the space for politics to intervene and limiting action to the ‘merely’ social sphere of the representation of identities, and the ‘purely’ scientific sphere of economic management.

The technopopulist tendency in global and Australian politics reflects a desire to restore respectability—or social license to operate or ‘social capital’, to use the appropriate corporate jargon reflected in Holmes à Court’s Saturday Paper sum-up—to professional managerialism.

On issues of both climate and ‘integrity’, which, in the absence of substantive policy programs, served as the talking points for the election, teals, Greens and increasingly the major parties represent the interests of constituents divorced from mass politics or political movements. On the right and centre, their class interests are property owning, and business-friendly policies that enable the corporations able to symbolically perform good behaviour to profit from a legislative agenda that protects their interests. What teals on the right share with some Greens and other progressive independents is the desire for an administrative state to guide society in the absence of major political action or significant upheaval. The change in government should not conceal the persistence of anti-politics.

Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a casual academic, unionist and writer, published in Overland, MeMo Review, Arena and demos journal.

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  1. The recent election, it seems to me, was more about anti arrogance than anti politics.
    The Neo Cons and their MSM cheer squads shot themselves in both feet.
    Especially when it came to the female voters.
    Australians have a low tolerance for arrogance and compulsory voting is a convenient way to vent one’s spleen.

  2. So a future politics sans the politics.

    Need to coin a name for that if it wants to run, alongside those ‘visionary entrepreneurs of a future you never knew you wanted, until it’s sold to you as a shiny, ideally internet-connected commodity.’

    We’re in the right place then.

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