Europe: The Return of the People, or of Populism?


This interview with Jacques Rancière about the European Union referendum in Britain was conducted for France Culture, by Guillaume Erner.  

Guillaume Erner: ‘Is democracy, all things considered, a good idea’? After seeing the outcome of the Brexit referendum people have been asking questions about that. Of course, that is not what I myself think, I am quoting a phrase we have all heard since Friday 24 June. In the attacks on populism there is also a certain distrust toward the people. That is a theme the philosopher Jacques Rancière has long reflected on, and he now joins me.

If you had voted, would you have voted yes to Brexit on June 23?

Jacques Rancière: I cannot answer that since I am not English, I am not in England. I know English people who I consider advanced, intellectual people, who say they are rather pleased that it was a Leave vote. I think you absolutely cannot simply reduce the Remain side to progress and universalism and the Leave side to backwardness. I think that you have to understand that with this type of vote there are lots of reasons why people might have voted for it. There is a reaction against foreigners because they are foreigners, but then again there are two very different aspects to the European question. There is the part that is about European power, the excessive power that is accountable to no one. We can speak of a denial of democracy, a denial which the European bureaucracy itself embodies. Then there is the aspect that is about relating to the other, relations with foreigners. So I think that in this situation there are two totally different kinds of question. I think that having this kind of referendum is to mix these questions up, in a rather systematic way. But of course it was not the people from below but the government and Mr. Cameron who did that, trying to divert, we might say, a democratic aspiration into an identitarian one.

You wrote a number of texts on the European Constitutional Treaty [rejected by French voters in a 2005 referendum], and during the Brexit referendum I thought about how your texts are still just as useful then as now. Ultimately what you were attacking was a certain type of media commentary that amounted to wanting to get rid of the people. In one May 2005 article you asked what is the importance of these simulations of votes, these mass surveys, enormous works of interpretation that governing politicians, experts and journalists dissect to show the sovereign population that it must be crazy if it thinks it can really choose and thus adopts the suicidal position of rejecting reality. Do you have the sense of living through the same scenes all over again?

It is a little bit different in that I think the stakes were different then. In the 2005 referendum it was clearly a democratic question and that was in the forefront. It was a constitutional question about the type of power and its relations with what we call the people, the citizens. So I think it was a rather clearer conjuncture. I think the Constitutional Treaty was truly a kind of monster, where you are governed by people without even knowing who chose them. I think what was also specific about that vote was that there was a kind of democratic process and discussion. People turned into jurists, and they began to speak without worrying about having the right qualifications or diplomas. So what was interesting there was that we saw what I would call a kind of popular intellect, a democratic intellect, as opposed to the official one. The official one is the one which says ‘Well, reality is this, there’s no other choice and you have to understand that’. And on that point there is a kind of grand coalition of the governing politicians, the media, the intellectual class. They think that there’s this path of progress and universalism, and if you do not follow it, that must be because you are a bit ignorant or backward. Revolving around itself, this discourse ends up surprised when it realises that reality is something contest.

Indeed, you underlined the contradiction of this politics that consists of saying that there is no choice, but then also offers one…

Yes, but this is in a sense typical of this kind of governmental exercise, seeking a dual legitimation. It says, we are elected by the sovereign people – so that is a kind of legitimacy the governing draw from their election by the people. But at the same time there is this other legitimacy they confer upon themselves, or have conferred upon them, on account of their knowledge of what is called political science. Usually they try and combine the two a little, paying homage to the sovereign people, but simultaneously thinking [that they are in the right because] they are trained for it. So they always try and navigate between the two. But there are moments when they make mistakes and are more or less compelled to allow the people who legitimise them to speak. That is when they realise that their legitimacy is not in fact guaranteed. And that of course brings us to the question of what exactly is this ‘science’ that legitimises them.

So there are questions over political science, and underlying those questions there are yet others regarding the vocabulary to be used. They include questions regarding the term ‘populism’ – today central to political commentary. Do you get the impression that this term is necessarily misleading? Or do you think that in cases like the referendum organised in Britain we are indeed dealing with populism?

I think that the term ‘populist’ is very much part of this arsenal used by the intellectual world, the world of the dominant. ‘Populism’ refers to the people who, yes, are nice enough to vote for us – thanks for that – but they are ignorant, backward, obedient to the very basest impulses. Beyond its more precise political usages – like how it has been used in defining certain governments in Latin America for quite some time – the term ‘populism’ belongs to a kind of nineteenth-century vision, faced with the rise of the workers’ movement. It is a reaction that constructs a kind of psychology of the crowd as something dangerous in its ignorance, always prone to listening to troublemakers and fraudsters. Effectively the term ‘populist’ is something that our rulers use to say that they are in the know whereas the rest of us are imbeciles. And indeed what is interesting in this case [the Brexit vote] is that this referendum was put forward not by some populist leader, but by a politician making a manoeuvre within the terms of these games that politicians get so stuck into. Mixing a little personal malice into what he considered incontestable political realities. So I think that with this referendum, the term ‘populism’ can refer to nothing other than the excuses our rulers make for themselves.

There is another referendum in the news, the referendum over the plan to build an airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. What do you think about that vote? [The referendum conducted the day before this interview saw 55% of locals vote in favour of the airport, but the site is still today occupied by ‘Zadiste’ direct-action activists, as it has been since 2007]

The complicated thing there is I think that we can see another kind of clash of legitimacies. There is a kind of legitimacy that comes from elections, putting the question to the people – but the people still, ultimately, in an electoral form. And then there is what I would call a popular-democratic process. In the case of Notre-Dame-des-Landes and certain focal points like that it is telling that this kind of democratic process is created, somewhat crossing the boundaries between different groups and particular interests. There is the creation of a collective intellect, collective invention, a collective decision. In this kind of situation there is a clash between the legitimacy that comes from a living democratic process and then the one which comes from a vote. There is a problem, there. We really see something unbalanced. But politics lives off imbalances!

It lives off imbalances… Are you also saying that it lives off excesses, or more precisely that it lives off the idea, inherent to some people’s conception of the democratic system, that ultimately it is necessary to curb democracy’s excesses? The problem with democracy, it is often said, is that it is too democratic. That is something that we have heard since Brexit, and very much so in the French media, including with the idea that the English are regretting their vote. Underlying this is the idea that it necessary to take a certain set of precautions to curb democracy. Tell us how particular this is to our own era.

Well, it is very particular. But at the same time this goes back to the very first discussion of democracy, which represented it as an impossible form of government. In his Laws Plato makes a list of all the possible, all the legitimate forms of government. Evidently there was already the authority of those higher-born than others, the authority of the richest, the authority of the most learned. Those who are better than others, in different ways. And then he comes to what is left, that government which is chosen neither by gods or luck: democracy. And ultimately he considers that this is not a legitimate form of government, precisely because it means government with those who have no particular qualification to govern, any more than to be governed-over. So for him it is a kind of monster. But at the same time we might say that the monster is politics itself. For when it is the divinely-appointed or the old or the rich or the learned who govern, we are not talking about politics. Politics only begins when it is a matter of the power of those without any particular qualification – those who are not rich or nobles or the learned. I think that is what is interesting. And fundamentally that is what democracy means, it does not mean government by the ‘big animal’ or even majority votes. Fundamentally it means the power of those who have no particular qualification to hold it. That is why there is politics, in general, because there is a political subject. Aristotle says the citizen is he who has no more reason to be governed over than to govern. And indeed there is a kind of hatred of politics that hides behind the hatred of democracy, from those with their mates, their experts, who think they know, and they wonder ‘who are this lot, they have no competence [to govern]’. That hatred always recurs. Fundamentally it is not so different from what happened right from the beginning, for these arguments against democracy could be heard even in Athens in the 4th century BC.

So does that mean that politicians might have a tendency to destroy politics?

Fundamentally yes, they live off that. They live off destroying the very idea that those without any particular competence are competent. Fundamentally, the people we call politicians are those who try to destroy the very idea of politics.