Democratic malaise, political disarray and panic: a year after Francois Hollande’s election, things aren’t looking good. Jacques Rancière and Pierre Rosanvallon, two major thinkers and theorists of democracy, attempt to understand our moral and political predicament.
From the 7 May 2013 print edition of Le Monde
Jacques Rancière is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris-VIII. His books include On the Shores of Politics, Short Voyages to the Land of the People, The Nights of Labor, Staging the People, and The Emancipated Spectator. His next book, Aisthesis, is out in June by Verso.
Pierre Rosanvallon is a French center-left thinker, previously involved with François Furer in the Fondation Saint-Simon. His books in English include, amongst others, Democratic Legitimacy: Impartiality, Reflexivity, Proximity; Democracy Past and Future; and The Demands of Liberty. In 2002 he founded the République des Idées.
How did you make democracy and equality the central axes of your political concerns, inquiries and research ?
Pierre Rosanvallon: I became a full timer for the CFDT [union federation] when I finished at the HEC [business school] just after May ’68. At that time I began to read an enormous amount on the history of the workers’ movement. I had made contact with a publisher, Léon Centner, who had issued an impressive collection of hundreds of pamphlets on the building of the workers’ movement, Les Révolutions du XIXe siècle [‘The Revolutions of the Nineteenth Century’] in 48 volumes. Having got the CFDT to buy the lot, I dived into reading them. From that point on, I knew well that it is impossible to understand the tasks of the present – the project of self-management then being central – without a long-term perspective on the questions in hand. I wanted, besides, to understand the disorderly phenomena of democracy. To know why the structures of collective organisation did not work as well as expected. All these questions on the organisation of democratic life made for my first field of studies.
With the global economy in a protracted crisis, and workers around the world burdened by joblessness, debt and stagnant incomes, Marx's biting critique of capitalism — that the system is inherently unjust and self-destructive — cannot be so easily dismissed. Marx theorized that the capitalist system would inevitably impoverish the masses as the world's wealth became concentrated in the hands of a greedy few, causing economic crises and heightened conflict between the rich and working classes. "Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole," Marx wrote.
A growing dossier of evidence suggests that he may have been right.
Writing in Libération, Jacques Rancière talks about populism and French politics today.
The People Are Not a Brutal and Ignorant Mass
Not a day goes by without the risks of populism being denounced on all sides. But it is not so easy to grasp what the word denotes. What is a populist? Despite various fluctuations of meaning, the dominant discourse seems to characterize it in terms of three essential features: a style of speech addressed directly to the people, bypassing representatives and dignitaries; the assertion that governments and ruling elites are more concerned with feathering their own nest than with the public interest; a rhetoric of identity that expresses fear and rejection of foreigners.