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How can Democracy be Rejuvenated? Ideas for Transforming a Still-Oligarchic Society

21 May 2013

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 PoliticsShort Voyages to the Land of the PeopleThe Nights of LaborStaging 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, ProximityDemocracy 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.

The second revolved more around the kind of social conflicts typical of the early 1970s, conflicts that painted a new landscape of struggles and called for a reformulation of the terms of individual and social emancipation. In my first work,  Hiérarchie des salaires et luttes des classes [‘The hierarchy of wages and class struggles’], published under a pseudonym, I addressed myself, for example, to the differences that could be allowed at work. What was the maximum tolerable wage gap between a worker and the CEO ? How should the minimum wage be defined ? And to these were added further questions concerning the institutions of solidarity, and understanding the conditions in which they began to lose their legitimacy in the mid-1970s. These three pillars of my work were erected starting from questions born of my own experience as a trade unionist as well as of my reading on the history of the workers’ movement – and also of the travels I was able to make, in order to study the kibbutzim and the self-managed enterprises of Yugoslavia.

Jacques Rancière: In 1968, we saw questions that had been thought already resolved – that is, the workers’ movement, the class struggle, and so on – again activated. To take stock of this, I threw myself into a work of archaeological research, looking back as far as the 1830s to ‘40s. I became conscious of the fundamental role of the affirmation of democracy in working-class history, far from the Marxist critique according to which democracy was nothing but a mask for exploitation. This was a time when wild revolt was much-celebrated. What struck me, though, was the workers’ sense of procedure, the manner in which the strike was historically born, rationally constructed by people who not only demanded better wages and living standards, but also wanted to be considered as people capable of thinking, speaking and decision-making. This was an essential element of my conception of democracy, the working class’s statement of its capacity to think and not simply to fight. The workers affirmed their share of our one common world; they freed themselves of their imposed working-class identity in order to grasp community, a new workers’ collectivity. This marked my conception of democracy and emancipation: the people on the other side do not simply exert a claim over their share, but over their whole capacity as human beings, with all that implies. I was a philosopher, but what became Proletarian Nights was neither a philosophical nor historical thesis, nor even a thesis of political science. It was a singular juncture which forced me to break with the academic model of information, which you amass and then subsequently engage with. The workers’ texts were no longer a vehicle for information on the working-class condition, but rather a thinking-in-action that it was up to me to extend and to share.


Have we entered into a post-democratic Europe, as the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas holds ?

JR Today, they would have us believe, the world’s problems have become so important that it is no longer possible to entrust them to the people’s decision-making. Take the second vote on the European Constitution : President Sarkozy claimed that it was too important a matter for the French people to vote on. What is at play, here, is not simply a question of constitutional rules, but rather the relationship between opposing ways of thinking. It is an irreversible split between two different worlds.

PR When Jürgen Habermas speaks for the tendency for the idea of democracy to be disseminated into simple forms of management and regulation, he picks out one of the essential dimensions of the crisis of modern democracy. Today something called ‘governance’ has developed, a form of the ‘dissemination’ of politics. We could speak, in this sense, of a ‘technical’ depoliticisation of democracy. This could be justified in some fields, to the extent that it sometimes corresponds to the demand for ‘objective’ regulation to impose limits on partisan politicisation/power-grabbing. But the problem is that there has been no inverse movement of authentic repoliticisation with regard to the essential questions of how people live together. As such we simultaneously witness a slow erosion of the democratic model, more and more reduced merely to the moment of elections. The problem is that insofar as it is fetishised, the election ends up sucking in and using up the very essence of politics. Yet democratic life presupposes a space of deliberation for constructing some common redistribution, equality, justice, and management of differences. And the fundamental question of the organisation of the citizens’ authority remains – and this is not limited to organising the delegation of power, but rather implies forms of control, vigilance and evaluation that operate actively and permanently.


What is the nature of the crisis of democracy and of the depoliticisation at work today ?

JR In my view, what exists is not a dissemination of politics, but rather its confiscation and centralising appropriation by the state. The question is : what do we consider primary to the idea of democracy itself? Democracy seems to me to be above all a practice that makes a popular subject exist as such, independently of the people that is represented at the level of Parliament and the state. Democracy and representation are not naturally linked concepts, and at root even stand in perfect counterposition. It is necessary to bear in mind that ‘representative democracy’ is a contradiction in terms, and as such it would be mistaken to expect the regeneration of democracy by the electoral process, least of all the election of the President of the Republic. The presidential institution is clearly intended to be antidemocratic, having been created in France in 1848 to prepare a return to the monarchy, and then recreated by Charles de Gaulle in order to counterbalance the popular ‘shambles’. It is a monarchical institution grafted onto the Republic.

PR There can be no democracy if there is no sharing of forms of knowledge and information and if there is no living deliberation over everything that makes up a world held in common. Rejuvenating democracy must take place, today, principally by way of what I have called a counter-democracy. Not all citizens can exercise power, but all can be attentive and participate in the public debate.

Counter-democracy is not the opposite of democracy, but its strengthening. It is necessary to put an end to the illusion that it would be possible to create some simple mechanism that would be fully representative, where the people’s wishes would be perfectly transmitted to transparent intermediaries thus bringing about good decisions. This is an idealist vision ! There have to be counter-authorities, instances of control, pressures for recallability and the recovery of powers. It is no chance thing that in ancient Greece they elected as many people to monitor as to govern. Disorder runs throughout all democracy. And for it to progress, we have to complicate it and break with the old mechanical conception, which at heart serves nothing but the interests of the political class, being an engine for mistrust digging the trench between discourse and reality.

It follows that representation does not only mean delegation, but also giving life to realities and making existences known. Lives that are not recounted have no dignity. There is a whole social action that can be waged in order to produce a different representation, a whole, autonomous social life that can be organised to reanimate democratic political discussion and debate.

Are the Socialists, who have taken over almost all governmental authority, up to the task of this crisis of representation ?

JR There is no crisis of representation in France. While the protestors in Madrid said to the candidates ‘You do not represent us’, here there was a great fervour for the Socialist Party’s primaries, renewing the illusion that the presidential election is the beating heart of democracy, when it is instead but the last figuration of the monarchy, the man whose person incarnates the collective. These famous ‘primaries’ are not at all a ‘renewal of democracy’. There is no democracy if it is identified exclusively with the forms of power distribution organised around the parliamentary and presidential system.

Democracy is not the choice between different offers, but the power to act. It is the power belonging to anyone, to those who have no title – whether by wealth, birth, knowledge or anything else – qualifying them to exercise authority. The power of the state never ceases to weaken this power. It is therefore more and more necessary that there should be autonomous democratic forces who have their own agendas and their own types of expertise, evaluation and control in order to arm people to resist the current forms of domination. Karl Marx said one hundred and fifty years ago that our states are nothing but the executive committees of international capitalism. It was an exaggeration at the time – but perfectly true today ! We have forms of the state that are completely enslaved to capitalist logic. You can’t expect that the parties who play the parliamentary game will break from this logic – rather, it is this logic that makes them exist, and they are incapable of imagining anything else. The problem of democracy is also a problem of imagination. There have been workers’, communist and social-democratic parties that were able to create powers counter to the authority of capitalist society, intellectual, political and economic means of exercising the collective intelligence. This is all totally gone. People accuse our Socialists of being social-democrats. But they are well beneath that.

PR The problem is that the French Socialists have nothing social-democratic about them, in the authentic sense of the term. They weren’t social-democrats when they should have been, and now it’s too late. Social democracy is not only another name for reformism, but the name given to the historical project of a joint management of the welfare state by the forces of labour and capital, as well as of the organisation of a compromise between classes. Concretely, it seeks to tame capitalism and to rebalance the relationship between its industrial and financial forms. This class compromise would have to be totally reinvented in the age of globalisation and innovative capitalism. On the terrain of politics itself, I cannot today see any programme that is truly pushing things in this direction. Some may contain excellent reforms, but they are limited, like the accumulation of offices. It is necessary to look beyond perfecting the representative electoral machine.

A progressive party must give new meaning to democracy, and allow the blooming of all these forms of counter-democracy, and citizen monitoring, control and evaluation of which we have spoken. It is necessary to give life to society’s self-expression and, above all, to put into action a politics of equality – which we so cruelly  lack today in Europe. What must be invented is a new type of socialism, a socialism whose primary task is to promote the ideas of democracy and equality.

How, then, can democracy be regenerated ? By stopping the professionalisation of political life and people holding multiple offices?

JR To establish democracy in the functioning of the state, it is necessary to rethink representativeness and finish with these meetings of local notables, these MPs who represent only particular interests even though they are tasked with defending the interests of the nation. It would be good to stop people racking up offices, but what must be rethought is the whole process of attributing these mandates. If these posts are not given for life, then nor must they be renewable! Democracy demands a much more significant degree of rotation of positions, such that there are as few professional politicians as possible. The problem is that the reforms advanced do not intend fundamentally to rethink the representative system. So yes, everything that reduces such power-grabbing is a good thing, but the efforts made to reduce it are so minimal that not much can be expected of them.

PR The professionalisation of politics is a troubling and global tendency in our democracies. On the Left, many representatives never had any job after finishing their studies apart from as parliamentary aides, party full-timers or as UNEF [national student union federation] employees. But how can we fight this ? We could indeed hope that representatives stay less long in their posts, but I think that it is more effective to develop new, post-representative political forms than to look to some utopian perfection of representation. The problem is not only a matter of responding to the defects of institutions. We cannot put all our eggs in the basket of reforms in this field. A political and democratic life independent of representative electoral institutions is essential.

Is it time to bring back drawing lots?

JR We must use drawing lots everywhere we can. Drawing lots is an apt means of choosing people who do not embody some specific capacity, but rather our common capacity. And we must renew the idea – long considered both normal and correct – of putting in power people who have no desire for power or personal interest in exercising it. Today it is considered normal to place in authority those who want power most. The Sarkozy era was its peak ! We must bring a bit of precariousness back to politics. The parties that, in principle, bring together activists equally devoted to the common ideas they incarnate could perfectly well select their candidates by drawing lots. If not, it is because they think they only have a small circle of competent men, and the others are cretins – but if that’s the case, they should clearly say so ! It is not a matter of imitating representative electoral institutions with participatory ones. That would but create a new category of professionals. We must attribute more place to mechanisms that give us ‘whoever’.

PR Drawing lots is an apt means of choosing ‘whoever’, perfect if no matter what person is considered up to the task (the jury for a trial, for example). Elections are a means of selection which explicitly proposes that we apply the criteria of choice (expertise, governing ability, political positions and so on). As such it is not only a matter of imitating electoral representative institutions with parallel participatory ones. The goal must be to repoliticise what the election is about, and at the same time give more place to means that give us ‘whoever’ (with regard to deliberation, monitoring and judgement). There is also, in this regard, a problem of the ‘ever-diminishing returns’ of democracy. Today we can note the enormous energy that must be expended within a political party in order to reach a result, due to personal and factional rivalries. Personally, I prefer to devote my energy to other things.  I prefer to contribute more energy to the progress of democracy outside a party than within it. If there has been a professionalisation of politics, this is also the case because, for many people, too much has to be invested in a party and with diminishing actual returns.

The Cahuzac affair [Budget Minister
Jérôme Cahuzac lying about his Swiss bank account and being forced to resign] has in some places been termed a ‘crisis of democracy’. In what sense does this scandal reveal the malaise of our confidence in politics ?

PR Confidence is linked to the fact of being able to hypothesise as to the future behaviour of a person or group. It is therefore undermined by any broken commitment, like unfulfilled promises : and it is the problem of political language in general that is here in question. It is ever more diminished by each revelation of duplicity or a structuring lie. The problem is that confidence is built slowly, via an accumulation of proofs, while it is destroyed abruptly. Just like reputation. To reduce this mistrust, it is also necessary to recover the notion of political responsibility, that is to say, to recognise the reality of the generalised failure of those in charge of regulating the system, even if they are not themselves at all ‘guilty’. In the Cahuzac affair, it is clear enough for me that [Finance Minister] Pierre Moscovici ought to have resigned, because it was a minister under his purview who did wrong. 

JR It is amusing that people see a ‘crisis of democracy’ in the fact that an oligarchy makes use of its positions to serve its personal enrichment : the confusion between wealth and power is the very principle of oligarchy. In any case, the Cahuzac affair is just collateral damage from the system of symbiosis between economic and state power that governs us. From this point of view, those who do the most harm are the honest politicians who carry out – getting their own hands dirty – a policy dictated by the big financial institutions.

Do the measures aimed at transparency and fighting conflicts of interest seem up to the task ?

PR You would be fooling yourself if you made transparency an objective and a value in itself. If the transparency of institutions is indispensible and must be developed without limit, the transparency of individuals is necessarily very limited. A liberal conception of the world rests, in effect, on the separation of the public from the private. Exposing the private sphere (and thus someone’s assets) has no sense in politics except if it is a necessary means to guarantee objectives like impartiality (absence of conflicts of interest), morality (people’s behaviour) and the dignity of public offices. But it is not just the facts, but citizens’ perceptions of them, that count. It is necessary, then, to redouble preventative measures and so assuage suspicion, this poison for confidence and for democracy which so nourishes populisms.

JR The question is knowing what is at stake, here. If it is a matter of restoring the image of our rulers, such measures could have a certain effectiveness. If it is a matter of destroying the grip of the forces of finance, it is clear that they have no chance of doing so, because our rulers have not the slightest intention of this happening.

Interviewer:  Nicolas Truong

Translated by David Broder