The philosopher Jacques Rancière reviews the causes of the identitarian (and more particularly religious) drift we are currently seeing France. This is a catastrophe that must be fought with politics. Interview by Éric Aeschimann, published in L’Obs 28/01/16, translated by David Broder.
One year after the Charlie Hebdo shootings and two months after the attack on the Bataclan, how do you see the state of French society? Are we at war?
The official discourse says that we are at war because a hostile power is waging war against us. The attacks perpetrated in Paris are interpreted as the operations carried out by detachments executing acts of war for the enemy, in our own country. The question is one of knowing who this enemy is. The government has opted for Bush’s logic, that of a war that is simultaneously both total (aimed at the destruction of the enemy) and circumscribed to a precise target, namely the Islamic State. But according to a different response, related by certain intellectuals, Islam has declared war on us, and is implementing a global plan to impose its own law across the planet. These two logics converge insofar as in fighting Daesh the government has to mobilise a national feeling, which is an anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment. The word ‘war’ itself speaks to this conjunction.
What is Daesh? A state? A terrorist organisation? Is it not legitimate to fight it, in either case?
Daesh exercises its authority across a territory, and has at hand certain military and economic resources, and thus possesses some of the attributes of a state. Nonetheless, it remains within the logic of armed gangs. The formation of its military power, on the basis of Saddam Hussein’s army, is an effect of the American invasion. But its capacity to recruit volunteers who identify with its fight on our own soil does concern us directly. This is part of the global logic of the present-day world, which tends toward there being nothing other than states and criminal gangs. Before, there were ‘great collective subjectivations’ — for example the workers’ movement — that allowed the excluded to secure their inclusion in the same world as the people they were fighting against. The so-called neoliberal offensive has crushed these forces and now criminalises the class struggle, as we have again seen in the Goodyear dispute where trade unionist were recently prosecuted for “boss-napping”. The excluded are rejected, pushed away toward identitarian subjectivations of a religious type, and toward criminal and warlike forms of action. What we have to combat here is this hateful drift toward identitarianism. If crimes are dealt with by the police, the response to hatred lies in politics. To say that we are at war with Islam is again to mix up crime and hatred, police repression and political action, in one and the same logic, and thus to feed hatred. We see this in the absurd affair over cancelling people’s French nationality, a measure that has no capacity to prevent crimes, but is effective in nourishing the hatred that engenders them.
What do we have to do, in order to avoid falling into this confusion?
We have to take seriously the fact that part of the population is in a state of virtual dissidence, liable to transforming them into combatants. This implies challenging the discourses and the procedures that have engendered hatred; seriously fighting unemployment and inequalities and discrimination of all kinds; and rethinking the ways in which people who do not live and think the same way can live together. That’s a difficult task for everyone. Ideally, only the reconstitution of strong ‘collective subjectivations’, beyond so-called ‘cultural’ differences, could provide a remedy for the situation we currently have. But in the immediate, at a minimum we have to break out of the discourse of a war of religion.
Here are you talking about so-called ‘republican’ discourse?
This discourse has greatly contributed to the climate of hatred. We have to draw the consequences from this. But here there is a far-reaching piece of work, incumbent on everyone. The populations that identify as Muslim also have to say how they want to live with others, how they want to make up part of the world, and invent forms of political participation. In my past work, I took an interest in the nineteenth-century proletarians who were relegated to a world apart by the dominant form of representation. They were there to work, and sometimes to shout out and rebel when they were not content — but not to think and speak as members of a common world. And then, one day, some of them decided that they were able to reflect and speak. They wrote pamphlets, strike manifestoes, workers’ papers and poems. In their words and in their struggles, they let it be known that they belonged to the same world as the others, even making them representatives of those ‘without a share’. We will break out of the logic of secession and hatred when those who are today on the margins of the national community invent such forms of polemical participation in a common world. That is something that goes beyond the idea of integration — an idea that itself still belongs to the logic of segregation.
Some analysts have interpreted the power of attraction that jihadism has for some young people — including those with no link to Islam — as the symptom of a West that has destroyed any possibility of an absolute. Isn’t it time to reinvent some ideals?
The ruination of ideals is an old theme, already present even in the Communist Manifesto. The bourgeoisie, Marx said, ‘has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation’. In Hatred of Democracy I showed how this has become a reactionary, stigmatising theme. We have painted the youth in the suburbs as simultaneously both victims of the nihilism of commodity consumption and manipulated by the Islamists in the name of spiritual values. These analyses, starting out from the capitalist ruination of ideals in order to arrive at fanatical crimes, leave open — in their overly-broad explanatory framework, lacking precise points of application — a void, which is filled by hatred and stigmatisation. And I do not think that we lack for ideals. We are surrounded by people who want to save the planet, head off to treat the wounded in all four corners of the Earth, serve meals to refugees and fight to revitalise deprived neighbourhoods. There are a lot more people committing themselves today than in my own era. We do not lack for ideals, but for collective subjectivations. An ideal is what incites people to concern themselves with others. A collective subjectivation is what makes all these people, together, constitute a people.
What do you have to do to constitute a people? Is this necessarily ‘national’ in scale?
A people, in the political sense, always constitutes itself as something apart from the state form of the people. To that end, it needs egalitarian symbolisations open to everyone and which — beyond specific themes like refugees, ecology or the suburb — allow those ‘without a share’ to be included. But a people also constitutes itself locally, in relation to a given domination, which in general is exercised in a national space. The 15 May movement in Madrid [the indignados] built itself around a break with the logic of the parties who monopolised public power; the Taksim Square movement in Istanbul, built itself around a space open to everyone, which the state wanted to transform into a commercial space. Even if capital is global, we first act at a point of emergence. The nation is a collective symbolisation and, like any symbolisation, it is the stakes of a permanent struggle, in France as elsewhere. It is in this perspective that we ought to consider the offensive over French identity since the early 2000s, the culmination-point of an intellectual counter-revolution that has gradually purged the French nation of its revolutionary, socialist, working-class, anticolonial and Resistance inheritance, reducing it to a matter of France, the white, Christian nation.
Does the omnipresence of the theme of insecurity belong to this same ‘counter-revolution’?
It, too, tends toward the constitution of a regressive collective identity. The current government is following Bush’s lesson; those who govern us best rally support when they act as war leaders. Faced with unemployment we have to invent solutions and confront the logic of profit; and when we put on the uniform of the war leader, it is suddenly much easier, above all in a country whose army remains one of the best trained in the world, despite everything. Those who govern us are best able to manage not security, but the feeling of insecurity. That is something very different, and often even the opposite. In November 2005 it would perhaps have been possible to avoid the weeks of serious clashes [the riots mainly concentrated in the suburbs — the banlieues] if the then Interior Minister [i.e. Nicolas Sarkozy] had been a bit less concerned to make the feeling of insecurity the platform for launching programme for the presidency, and a bit more concerned to seek the forms of appeasement and dialogue appropriate to ensuring security on the ground.
Manuel Valls [current French prime minister] has denounced the search for ‘sociological explanations’ for terrorist attacks, which he sees as a means of excusing those who authored them. How would you analyse this argument, given that you, too, have levelled certain critiques — not the same as Valls’s! — against Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology?
The ‘culture of making excuses’ is a simple straw man waved around in order to prove an a contrario proof that only repressive measures work. But this is a rather dubious piece of deduction. Certainly, the sociology of a disadvantaged section of the population will always be powerless to explain why ten or twenty people from this milieu become jihadists, and stop them in their tracks. But it neither encourages nor excuses them. We cannot say the same about this securitarian cacophony. Its threats can only frighten those who have known of harsher repression. Indeed, they feed the culture of expiation, of which jihadism is the extreme form. It is this culture that we have to combat. We have to be able to convince Arab college students — and not by invoking any scholarly help — that they shouldn’t take out revenge on a Jewish teacher for the crimes of the Israeli state. But for that to be possible, we also have to stop turning protests against Israel’s crimes into an illegal act of anti-Semitism.
As a thinker you are often labelled ‘radical Left’, and thus anti-capitalist. But in your analyses you are keener to question political and intellectual authority than economic forces.
There are people who think that being left-wing is about reducing everything to capitalist domination. This ‘left-wing’ position ultimately engenders a morose resignation, faced with a systemic law. It is in the political space that the forms of community fulfilling or opposing capitalist domination become organised. Banks and finance do not themselves fashion the forms of public opinion that create a people, at their own convenience. It is politicians, intellectuals and the media class who do this work. In that sense, I stand apart from a certain Marxism that considers the political symbolisations produced in the field of public opinion and institutions to be mere appearances. This is a real terrain of struggle. If we say that nothing will change so long as capitalist domination endures, then we can rest assured that things will stay as they are, until the end of the world.
But all the same, is the transformation of human exchange into market relations – which now seems to prevail across the whole world — not dispiriting?
There, too, the direct reduction of ideology to economics sidesteps the political question. This theme has often recurred. In the ‘20s people attacked the cinema, where the popular classes went and had their minds dulled by the big screen; in the ‘60s, people accused the washing machine and the bookies’ of diverting the proletarians from revolution… Today we fetishise consumer commodities as all-powerful, as if the mere presence of the latest iPhone in the shop-window alone sufficed to swallowing up people’s consciences in the belly of the beast. Today’s political impotence does not result from the hypnotic power of the latest gadget. It comes from our incapacity to conceive a collective power able to create a world better than the existing one. This powerlessness has been fed by the failure of the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, by the collapse of the USSR, by the disappointment of the democratic hopes opened up by this collapse, and by globalisation and its effects on France’s industrial fabric. It was not commodities that demoralised progressive forces in France, but socialists in power.
In France, maybe, but at the world scale? Is the middle-class Chinese or Indian person, who consumes as we do, not the victim of the same disenchantment?
At the world scale there are varying sets of diagnostics. The new Chinese management-type who watches TV on a big screen in his luxurious jacuzzi represents only a tiny fraction of his country. For the vast majority of the world population, the problem is not the supposed nihilism engendered by late capitalism, but the advent or restoration of wild forms of exploitation and the systems of industrial concentration proper to primitive capitalism.