‘The Political Line of a Publishing House Is Its Editorial Line’: An Interview with Thierry Discepolo
Interview with Thierry Discepolo by Laëtitia Riss
**NB: This interview originally appeared in Le Vent se lève on 18 September 2021.
Thierry Discepolo is a member of the group that founded Agone in 1997, following on from the eponymous magazine launched seven years earlier in Marseille. The publishing house has contributed to the renewal of the critical intellectual landscape after the ice age of the 1970s and 1980s, which Nicolas Vieillescazes of Éditions Amsterdam talked about in a previous interview. The Enlightenment legacy, people’s history and media criticism are the major themes that guide their catalogue, reflecting an editorial line that aims to provide tools for a political project of emancipation. Author of La Trahison des éditeurs, Thierry Discepolo also provides a portrait of the publishing world caught between the logic of capital and the vicissitudes of independence – an analysis that is all the more indispensable in the wake of Vincent Bolloré’s takeover bid for the Lagardère group. This would give Bolloré control of Hachette, after already owning Éditis, thus further subjecting the publishing world to the interests of billionaires. Interview by Laëtitia Riss.
Éditions Agone ‘responds to a political project’, to quote a phrase from the house’s self-presentation. How do you see the relationship between editorial line and politics?
The political line of a publishing house such as Agone is its editorial line. Since we are not structurally affiliated to any organisation, our way of doing politics is precisely to do publishing: to build up a catalogue. Obviously, not everything was planned in advance; things were often worked out in the course of meetings. But a few fundamental themes have been favoured since the foundation of the house. Among the important legacies, let’s start with the least political: the tradition of French rationalism, which Jacques Bouveresse associates with analytic philosophy in the wake of Wittgenstein, and which we find in particular with Pascal Engel, even without the Anglo-Viennese philosopher. Better than a political reference, this intellectual anchoring has allowed us to follow various paths leading to the authors most representative of Agone’s editorial line.
Thus, through Bouveresse, we were led to Karl Kraus, the Austrian journalist and satirist who was the first to formulate a radical critique of the media, in the early 20th century, in addition to his moral condemnation of war and having been a precursor of ecology. This approach is reflected very well in our editorial work, leading us to analyse, among other things, the concentration of the media in the hands of a handful of large conglomerates, their social, economic and professional effects, and their role in the subjection of democratic regimes to capitalism, imperialism and war-mongering.
Starting from Bouveresse’s philosophy, we were also led to a critique of the irrationalist tendencies of the avatars of ‘postmodernism’ which plunged the left into a suicidal critique of reason in the late 20th century. If the Enlightenment legacy should indeed be questioned for what has been done with it, its deviations, abandoning reason is an error fraught with consequences: it means leaving the enemy – the capitalists and the classes that serve them – the most powerful tool, indispensable to the reconstruction of the contemporary left, which has been damaged by the abandonment of the universalist ambitions that were inherited from the French Revolution but dissolved with the embourgeoisement of democracy and the abandonment of any project of an egalitarian society.
In the last analysis, the production of knowledge should not be independent of its social utility, which lies at the heart of the Enlightenment. Rather than a conversational talking-point, a media performance or an academic career, knowledge should, in one way or another, serve social emancipation. This is by no means enough, of course – we should not fall into the illusion of the inherent power of a true idea – but it is a good place to start. This brings us to another field that Editions Agone has inherited: the history of the workers’ movement and other social movements. To sum up, we have here the essential themes of our intellectual and political line, constructed and expressed in book after book: rationality, emancipation, social criticism and history.
As you point out, media criticism is one of the historical pillars of Agone. Your catalogue includes the essayist and journalist Serge Halimi, the American linguist and anarchist Noam Chomsky, and the French philosopher and communist Paul Nizan. Is today’s media landscape still the same as the one they criticised? Do you think the proliferation of ‘alternative’ information media is changing the balance of power?
Any forecasting is a difficult exercise; it’s better to remain cautious when asked about what’s going to happen. On the other hand, what we can say is that despite the considerable changes, notably technological, many books published along the lines of a ‘radical critique of the media’ continue to find an echo today, as shown by their regular reissue. Thus, Paul Nizan’s Les Chiens de garde, which appeared in 1932, was republished thirty years later by Maspero. It was forgotten again, then reissued by Agone in 1998, a year after Serge Halimi updated its title in Les Nouveaux Chiens de garde (Raisons d’agir). This highly significant expression can thus found twice on the shelves of many private – and public – libraries! Not to mention the eponymous film that translated these analyses to the screen, the second part of which is already scheduled.
If our reissue of Nizan’s essay did not sell more than ten thousand copies, Halimi’s Nouveaux Chiens de garde has sold more than 273,000, a substantial figure. It should be noted that, for most social science publishers, an essay that is neither topical nor written by an author known to the general public will have a print run somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 copies. When sales exceed 5,000, it is already a success – all the more so when the subject matter does not paint the powerful and the media that serve them in a good light. But a small publisher can do better: to give an order of magnitude, our two biggest sellers have been Howard Zinn’s Une histoire populaire des États-Unis and Gérard Noiriel’s Une histoire populaire de la France. To come back to Nizan, it was a matter of course that Serge Halimi should write a preface to our reprint. The ‘editorial cuisine’ is often illustrated through the choice of prefaces: Halimi is going to publish – or re-publish – with Agone almost all of his other books, including Le Grand Bond en arrière (2012) and Quand la gauche essayait (2018); but also, to remain on the subject of media criticism, L’opinion ça se travaille (2014), reissued six times. The first editions, written with Dominique Vidal, analysed the media reception of the Balkan conflicts during the 1990s, and the following ones (with Henri Maler and Mathias Reymond) the reception of the ‘just’ or ‘humanitarian’ wars waged by the United States and its vassals, where the media played the role of fifth column. To these critiques of the media by Serge Halimi we have those by one of his co-authors, Mathias Reymond of Acrimed, with Au nom de la démocratie, votez bien! on the media treatment of the presidential elections of 2002 and 2017. This is complemented by the publication of other great texts in the same vein, such as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s La Fabrication du consentement. De la propaganda médiatique en démocratie (1988).
It is difficult to imagine that these books published in the last century, before the digital age, would be so widely read and cited if their contents were not of interest for analysing contemporary phenomena. You don’t read Herman and Chomsky’s portrait of the American media of the 1980s as a historical document of the press before ‘dematerialisation’ and the demultiplication of media, but because it continues to be relevant for understanding the media of today. When these authors demonstrate the filters that structured the American press of their time, including anti-communism, but also ownership, etc., they show how the dominant media and the powers they serve construct their enemies and their allies. Nowadays, if ‘communism’ is no longer demonised, though Russia certainly is, this old enemy has very quickly been replaced by a new one as the media filters are renewed: Islam, in both geopolitics and domestic affairs. In the same vein, the history of American populism, from the 1890s to the present day, is also the history of the fabrication of an internal enemy by the media in the service of the educated classes to which these journalists belong, making no secret of their distrust of the people and of democracy as soon as it no longer blocks the expression of the interests of a dominated social group that refuses to stay in its place. Whether printed or digital, the mass media – and not just the press – in the hands of big bosses create consent to the established order, then as now.
In a different register, we have Karl Kraus, mentioned above, who wrote at the time when the mass-circulation press was developing and whose primary concern was the protection of language as the only guarantor of thought. For him, the press was the ‘great corrupter of language’, regardless of its organisation, ownership or political commitment, because of its industrial relationship to the production of information, thought and writing; because it was subject to the absurd idea that the same volume of information must be produced every day. For Kraus, there were days when journalists should write nothing – because there was nothing important to say. This analysis has lost little of its topicality with the contemporary proliferation of news media. And Kraus’s critique of the corruption of language by the press already seems to be a critique of the elements of management-speak, long before this existed.
In your own book Le Trahison des éditeurs (2011), you point out that the publishing world is subject to the same economic logic as other media: concentration and privatisation, difficulties for independent publishers in the face of competition, etc. How does this approach allow us to better understand the book industry?
One of the observations that led to this book is that publishing is largely forgotten by media criticism (radical or otherwise). Publishing is a largely unknown world (few readers notice the publisher of the books they read), whereas ‘the media’ belong to our daily lives – not to say that our daily lives belong to the media. It is as if books did not enter the chain of information production, despite being partly supplied by the same actors – journalists or academics, themselves authors of press articles fed by books. Not to mention the ownership of the media and publishing companies themselves. In December 2016, Le Monde Diplomatique published quite an edifying organisation chart under the title ‘French media: who owns what?’ When you collect the same data for publishing, you end up with something essentially the same, a very comparable form: many imprints, but few owners – and sometimes the same ones! – like the Lagardère and Bolloré groups.
The history of buyouts and sales, of the concentration of capital in publishing, is the red thread that runs through La Trahison des éditeurs. There are other filters, of course, such as competition, political clientele or even seniority and family history, so important in this world of heirs; or the relationship with the state, which, for example, has long overdetermined the Hachette group, the degree of autonomy, the internationalisation of production, etc. Pierre Bourdieu gave this kind of overall analysis in ‘Une revolution conservatrice dans l’édition’, an article that dates back to 1999 but remains essentially relevant. By insisting, above the other filters, on the ownership of capital and concentration, it seems to me that we can see better, not only the effects on the evolution of the trade itself – and its partners, including booksellers, a weak but central link in the book chain – but also on the role of editorial production.
The increase in the size of publishing groups is, for example, dynamically linked to the creation of new houses. It is because there is concentration that there is proliferation. This has both positive and negative effects. The standardisation of production, economies of scale and submission to the rules of profit drive out publishers who no longer find it profitable. But, while this spin-off produces diversity and allows the profession to survive in small virtuous structures, the success of some of these only duplicates the dominant industrial production. Les Arènes provides an admirable example here, having gone without transition from François Xavier Verschave’s fight against Françafrique to Valérie Trierweiler’s collection of gossip, and from media criticism to the dream life of trees.
Sometimes, of course, for one reason or another, after having innovated and produced a catalogue under often difficult conditions, notably those imposed by the large groups, these small publishers have no choice but to sell themselves to one group or another, thus participating by way of their catalogue in the concentration and renewal of these groups. One of the ways of making a career in publishing, therefore, which has proved its effectiveness, begins with the creation of a house, where a few key titles allow you to gain visibility as a brand and establish a reputation, displaying personal investment and innovation, and surfing on causes that are may well be radical chic but are quite compatible with neoliberalism.
The relevance of this approach, highlighted by the scale of the phenomenon in the 1990s, has been confirmed by an acceleration since 2002, when the takeover of increasingly large companies was joined by the merger of groups. So much so that the last essay I wrote on this subject in Le Monde Diplomatique, ‘Le livre, une sacrée valeur’, is both confirmed and outdated. While waiting to see what the collapse of Hachette-Lagardère and the gluttony of Éditis-Bolloré will do to us, it is Gallimard that provides the best illustration of this model and its concealment under the banner of ‘independence’. After having absorbed the empty and flailing intellectual shell of the Flammarion group ten years ago, we now have Éditions de Minuit, a true symbol of independence, about to be dissolved in the Madrigall holding. Here we can again see the destructive effects of the concentration of capital on professions and on the quality of all editorial production – a logic at work here as in other media, which are no more immune to it than are other cultural fields.
A publishing landscape like this has given rise to a market in radicalism where critique is decorative rather than substantial. Can authors escape the financial and symbolic recuperation of their work?
We can make the hypothesis that certain breaks have a cost that authors must evaluate. On the one hand, any author of a book that criticises the dominant media, for example, will have a bad start in their media career. This does not prevent some extraordinary successes, such as Halimi’s Nouveaux chiens de garde, which relied on a few solid allies and a very effective activist network, in the context of a critical renaissance. But that was in the last century. In any case, generally speaking, non-indulgent media criticism is a genre that is not very crowded and not very conducive to good business.
On the other hand, for any author, refusing to publish a book under the big brand name of a large group is not only to deprive oneself of a prestigious symbolic capital but also of a powerful mechanism, a hegemonic distribution and a favourable balance of power in relation to booksellers and the media. This is something that many authors concerned with the actual effectiveness of their political criticism can legitimately invoke – without being able to differentiate this demand from their need for recognition, which is known to be ‘impossible to satisfy’. Thus, there has been no shortage of anti-capitalist, anti-militarist, etc. authors who have published their anti-capitalist, anti-militarist, etc. criticisms under all kinds of imprints, even in an ‘alter-globalist’ collection labelled Attac by France’s largest media and publishing multinational, Matra-Hachette-Lagardère, which is an arms dealer into the bargain.
In La Trahison des éditeurs, I quoted an author who, in the name of political efficiency, published their rather good book against the social, economic, urban, ecological and human nuisances of supermarkets under the imprint of a large group that makes a significant part of its book sales in those very supermarkets. More recently, one of the most radical social critics published their critique of the injustices of capitalist social organisation under the Éditis label – then owned by the boss of French bosses, Lagardère – which, after transforming the legacy of the Maspero anti-imperialist tradition into support for decolonial thinkers, now publishes these under the same imprint of La Découverte, now owned by Bolloré, heir to French imperialism in Africa.
There are several points to be made in response to authors who decide that the dissemination of their critical work must depend on the pillars of the world they criticise. First of all, even before being a question of political coherence, it should be made clear that any work that deserves mass distribution will find its audience just as effectively if it is published by an independent publisher, even a modest one. Among other examples, of which there is no shortage, to take only those already mentioned in the field of political essays, we can cite L’insurrection qui vient published by La Fabrique.
Secondly, you don’t have to be a great intellectual to understand that a certain coherence between a critical statement and the alliances on which its dissemination depends is a prerequisite for any effectiveness. What significance can a critique of industrial and financial capitalism, or the colonial order, have if it is published by a publisher whose owner’s rapacious practices in the business world and in their African affairs are public knowledge? Unless one sees this as a deliberate form of self-censorship in a critique that carefully spares the boss, given how infamous Bolloré is for systematic legal attack and arbitrary dismissal?
This kind of incoherence not only has counterproductive political effects. After all, the jovial baron Ernest-Antoine Seillière de Laborde could claim to be quite liberal by letting the agitators of La Découverture run amok in his house. In the meantime, the most important thing for any boss is that the goods their employees produce are transformed into profit, and thus into an increase in their power to act. Hence the importance of independent publishing houses which, as far as possible, ensure that the financial and symbolic value of books working to change this world does not reinforce the financial and symbolic importance of the powerful who run it.
Now, the question of independence does not solve everything. As we have seen, it is under this banner that France’s third largest publishing group is growing and expanding by pulling off a sleight of hand that is impossible for any of its peers: increasing the overall ‘independence’ of publishing with each new publisher it absorbs. While waiting to see how Madrigall will digest Minuit, Gallimard has pulled off the same kind of trick that La Découverte, an imprint of Éditis, did with Zones, a series of La Découverte. But whereas the latter could at least rely on the idea of a Maspero legacy and a vaguely left-wing anchorage to play at calls for insurrection and general strike, what is the basis for publishing a collection like ‘Tracts’ from the Gallimard mansion? With a sense for neutrality that is above all good business sense, which enabled it to emerge as one of the real winners of the Second World War, this venerable house has happily published ornaments of pure literature, militant anti-Semites, early collaborators and late resistance fighters, official fascists and accredited anti-fascists, Stalinist communists and right-wing anti-communists – as well as, by the way, Gabriel Mazneff’s childish memories when they were viewed as literature.
Let’s with politics: what word is more emblematic of on-the-ground activism and commitment to lost causes than ‘Tracts’? At least we can count on a renowned sociologist to succeed in the logic of diversion. In her own Gallimard ‘Tract’, surfing on a version of ‘axiological neutrality’ that is both right-wing and hypocritical, Nathalie Heinich chides scholars who go astray by putting the results of their research and the weight of their reputation on the wrong side in the class struggle.
The biggest lesson, in the end, when you look at the dysfunction of publishing, is the visible disintegration of the left. No political organisation is able to offer the necessary recognition to its activists, especially the most ambitious ones who, in publishing in particular, have nothing else to sell but a soluble form of political criticism, and launch it on the market under the brands that count. That’s a whole process that needs to be reversed!
Translated by David Fernbach
 This is the subject of a forthcoming book by Thomas Frank: Le populisme, voilà l’ennemi! Brève histoire de la haine du peuple et de la peur de la démocratie, des années 1890 à nos jours.
 Thierry Discepolo, ‘Fourniture en gros et mi-gros de la concentration éditoriale’ (2011).
 Thierry Discepolo, ‘La mule du baron à la découverte du marché de la consommation contestataire’ (2009).
 See Antoine Gallimard’s presentation of this collection.
 Thierry Discepolo, ‘La Pléiade, une legende dorée, Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2021.
 Nathalie Heinich, Ce que le militantisme fait à la recherche (2021). On this point, it is interesting to read Isabelle Kalinowski’s definitive demonstration in her ‘Leçons wébériennes sur la science et la propagande’, in Max Weber, La Science, profession et vocation (Agone, 2005).