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We, the People...

We, the People...
May 10, 2006

For better and for worse, the American reception of contemporary French thought has often followed a script that frames everything in terms of generational shifts. Lately, that has usually meant baby-boomer narcissism -- as if the youngsters of '68 don't have enough cultural mirrors already. Someone like Bernard-Henri Lévy, the roving playboy philosopher, lends himself to such branding without reserve. Most of his thinking is adequately summed up by a thumbnail biography -- something like,  "BHL was a young Maoist radical in 1968, but then he denounced totalitarianism, and started wearing his shirts unbuttoned, and the French left has never recovered."

Nor are American academics altogether immune to such prepackaged blendings of theory and lifestyle. Hey, you -- the Foucauldian with the leather jacket that doesn't fit anymore....Yeah, well, you're complicit too.

But there are thinkers who don't really follow the standard scripts very well, and Pierre Rosanvallon is one them. Democracy Past and Future, the selection of his writings just published by Columbia University Press, provides a long overdue introduction to a figure who defies both sound bites and the familiar academic division of labor. Born in 1948, he spent much of the 1970s as a sort of thinker-in-residence for a major trade union, the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, for which he organized seminars and conferences seeking to create a non-Marxist "second left" within the Socialist Party. He emerged as a theoretical voice of the autogestion (self-management) movement. His continuing work on the problem of democracy was honored in 2001 when he became a professor at the Collège de France, where Rosanvallon lectures on the field he calls "the philosophical history of the political."

Rosanvallon has written about the welfare state. Still, he isn't really engaged in political science. He closely studies classical works in political philosophy -- but in a way that doesn't quite seem like intellectual history, since he's trying to use the ideas as much as analyze them. He has published a study of the emergence of universal suffrage that draws on social history. Yet his overall project -- that of defining the essence of democracy -- is quite distinct from that of most social historians. At the same time (and making things all the more complicated) he doesn't do the kind of normative political philosophy one now associates with John Rawls or Jurgen Habermas.

Intrigued by a short intellectual autobiography that Rosanvallon presented at a conference a few years ago, I was glad to see the Columbia volume, which offers a thoughtful cross-section of texts from the past three decades. The editor, Samuel Moyn, is an assistant professor of history at Columbia. He answered my questions on Rosanvallon by e-mail.

Q:Rosanvallon is of the same generation as BHL. They sometimes get lumped together. Is that inevitable? Is it misleading?

A: They are really figures of a different caliber and significance, though you are right to suggest that they lived through the same pivotal moment. Even when he first emerged, Bernard-Henri Lévy faced doubts that he mattered, and a suspicion that he had fabricated his own success through media savvy. One famous thinker asked whether the "new philosophy" that BHL championed was either new or philosophy; and Cornelius Castoriadis attacked BHL and others as "diversionists." Yet BHL drew on some of the same figures Rosanvallon did -- Claude Lefort for example -- in formulating his critique of Stalinist totalitarianism. But Lefort, like Castoriadis and Rosanvallon himself, regretted the trivialization that BHL's meteoric rise to prominence involved.

So the issue is what the reduction of the era to the "new philosophy" risks missing. In retrospect, there is a great tragedy in the fact that BHL and others constructed the "antitotalitarian moment" (as that pivotal era in the late 1970s is called) in a way that gave the impression that a sententious "ethics" and moral vigilance were the simple solution to the failures of utopian politics. And of course BHL managed to convince some people -- though chiefly in this country, if the reception of his recent book is any evidence -- that he incarnated the very "French intellectual" whose past excesses he often denounced.

In the process, other visions of the past and future of the left were ignored. The reception was garbled -- but it is always possible to undo old mistakes. I see the philosophy of democracy Rosanvallon is developing as neither specifically French nor of a past era. At the same time, the goal is not to substitute a true philosopher for a false guru. The point is to use foreign thinkers who are challenging to come to grips with homegrown difficulties.

Q:Rosanvallon's work doesn't fit very well into some of the familiar disciplinary grids. One advantage of being at the Collège de France is that you get to name your own field, which he calls "the philosophical history of the political." But where would he belong in terms of the academic terrain here?

A: You're right. It's plausible to see him as a trespasser across the various disciplinary boundaries. If that fact makes his work of potential interest to a great many people -- in philosophy, politics, sociology, and history -- it also means that readers might have to struggle to see that the protocols of their own disciplines may not exhaust all possible ways of studying their questions.

But it is not as if there have not been significant interventions in the past -- from Max Weber for example, or Michel Foucault in living memory  -- that were recognized as doing something relevant to lots of different existing inquiries. In fact, that point suggests that it may miss the point to try to locate such figures on disciplinary maps that are ordinarily so useful. If I had to sum up briefly what Rosanvallon is doing as an intellectual project, I would say that the tradition of which he's a part -- which includes his teacher Lefort as well as some colleagues like Marcel Gauchet and others -- is trying to replace Marxism with a convincing alternative social theory.

Most people write about Marxism as a political program, and of course any alternative to it will also have programmatic implications. But Marxism exercised such appeal because it was also an explanatory theory, one that claimed, by fusing the disciplines, to make a chaotic modern history -- and perhaps history as a whole -- intelligible. Its collapse, as Lefort's own teacher Maurice Merleau-Ponty clearly saw, threatened to leave confusion in its wake, unless some alternative to it is available. (Recall Merleau-Ponty's famous proclamation: "Marxism is not a philosophy of history; it is the philosophy of history, and to renounce it is to dig the grave of reason in history.")

Rosanvallon seems to move about the disciplines because, along with others in the same school, he has been trying to put together a total social theory that would integrate all the aspects of experience into a convincing story. They call the new overall framework they propose "the political," and Rosanvallon personally has focused on making sense of democratic modernity in all its facets. Almost no one I know about in the Anglo-American world has taken up so ambitious and forbidding a transdisciplinary task, but it is a highly important project.

Q:As the title of your collection neatly sums up, Rosanvallon's definitive preoccupation is democracy. But he's not just giving two cheers for it, or drawing up calls for more of it. Nor is his approach, so far as I can tell, either descriptive nor prescriptive. So what does that leave left for a philosopher to do?

A: At the core of his conception of democracy, there is a definitive problem: The new modern sovereign (the "people" who now rule) is impossible to identify or locate with any assurance. Democracy is undoubtedly a liberatory event -- a happy tale of the death of kings. But it must also face the sadly intractable problem of what it means to replace them.

Of course, the history of political theory contains many proposals for discovering the general will. Yet empirical political scientists have long insisted that "the people" do not preexist the procedures chosen for knowing their will. In different words, "the people" is not a naturally occurring object. Rosanvallon's work is, in one way or another, always about this central modern paradox: If, as the U.S. Constitution for instance says, "We the people" are now in charge, it is nevertheless true that we the people have never existed together in one place, living at one time, speaking with one voice. Who, then, is to finally say who "we" are?

The point may seem either abstract or trivial. But the power of Rosanvallon's work comes from his documentation of the ways -- sometimes blatant and sometimes subtle -- that much of the course and many of the dilemmas of modern history can be read through the lens of this paradox. For example, the large options in politics can also be understood as rival answers to the impossible quandary or permanent enigma of the new ruler's identity. Individual politicians claim special access to the popular will either because they might somehow channel what everyone wants or because they think that a rational elite possesses ways of knowing what the elusive sovereign would or should want. Democracy has also been the story, of course, of competing interpretations of what processes or devices are most likely to lead to results approximating the sovereign will.

Recently, Rosanvallon has begun to add to this central story by suggesting that there have always been -- and increasingly now are -- lots of ways outside electoral representation that the people can manifest their will, during the same era that the very idea that there exists a coherent people with a single will has entered a profound crisis.

One of the more potent implications of Rosanvallon's premise that there is no right answer to the question of the people's identity is that political study has to be conceptual but also historical. Basic concepts like the people might suggest a range of possible ways for the sovereign will to be interpreted, but only historical study can uncover the rich variety of actual responses to the difficulty.

The point, Rosanvallon thinks, is especially relevant to political theorists, who often believe they can, simply by thinking hard about what democracy must mean, finally emerge with its true model, whether based on a hypothetical contract, an ideal of deliberation, or something else. But the premise also means that democracy's most basic question is not going to go away, even if there are better and worse responses.

Q:Now to consider the relationship between Rosanvallon's work and political reality "on the ground" right now. Let's start with a domestic topic: the debate over immigration. Or more accurately, the debate over the status of people who are now part of the U.S. economy, but are effectively outside the polity. I'm not asking "what would Rosanvallon do?" here, but rather wondering: Does his work shed any light on the situation? What kinds of questions or points would Rosanvallonists (assuming there are any) be likely to raise in the discussion?

A: It's fair to ask how such an approach might help in analyzing contemporary problems. But his approach always insists on restoring the burning issues of the day to a long historical perspective, and on relating them to democracy's foundational difficulties. Without pretending to guess what Rosanvallon might say about America's recent debate, I might offer a couple of suggestions about how his analysis might begin.

The controversy over immigrants is so passionate, this approach might begin by arguing, not simply because of economic and logistical concerns but also because it reopens (though it was never closed!) the question of the identity of the people in a democracy. The challenge immigrants pose, after all, is not one of inclusion simply in a cultural sense, as Samuel Huntington recently contended, but also and more deeply in a conceptual sense.

In a fascinating chapter of his longest work, on the history of suffrage, Rosanvallon takes up the history of French colonialism, including its immigrant aftermath. There he connects different historical experiences of immigrant inclusion to the conceptual question of what the criteria for exclusion are, arguing that if democracies do not come to a clear resolution about who is inside and outside their polity, they will vacillate between two unsatisfactory syndromes. One is the "liberal" response of taking mere presence on the ground as a proxy for citizenship, falsely converting a political problem into one of future social integration. The other is the "conservative" response of of conceptualizing exclusion, having failed to resolve its meaning politically, in the false terms of cultural, religious, or even racial heterogeneity. Both responses avoid the real issue of the political boundaries of the people.

But Rosanvallon's more recent work allows for another way of looking at the immigration debate. In a new book coming out in French in the fall entitled "Counterdemocracy," whose findings are sketched in a preliminary and summary fashion in the fascinating postscript to the English-language collection, Rosanvallon tries to understand the proliferation of ways that popular expression occurs outside the classical parliamentary conception of representation. There, he notes that immigration is one of several issues around which historically "the people" have manifested their search for extraparliamentary voice.

For Rosanvallon, the point here is not so much to condemn populist backlash, as if it would help much simply to decry the breakdown of congressional lawmaking under pressure. Rather, one might have to begin by contemplating the historical emergence of a new form of democracy -- what he calls unpolitical democracy -- that often crystallizes today around such a hot-button topic as the status of immigrants. This reframing doesn't solve the problem but might help see that its details turn out to be implicated in a general transformation of how democracy works.

Q:OK, now on to foreign policy. In some circles, the invasion of Iraq was justified as antitotalitarianism in action, and as the first stage a process of building democracy. (Such are the beauty and inspiration of high ideals.) Does Rosanvallon's work lend itself to support for "regime change" via military means? Has he written anything about "nation building"?

A: This is a very important question. I write in my introduction to the collection about the contemporary uses of antitotalitarianism, and I do so mainly to make criticize the recent drift in uses of that concept.

Of course, when the critique of totalitarianism activated a generation, it was the Soviet Union above all that drew their fire. But their critique was always understood to have its most salient implications for the imagination of reform at home, and especially for the renewal of the left. This is what has changed recently, in works of those "liberal hawks," like Peter Beinart and Paul Berman, who made themselves apologists for the invasion of Iraq in the name of antitotalitarian values. Not only did they eviscerate the theoretical substance on which the earlier critique of totalitarianism drew -- from the work of philosophers like Hannah Arendt and Claude Lefort among others -- but they wholly externalized the totalitarian threat so that their critique of it no longer had any connection to a democratic program. It became purely a rhetoric for the overthrow of enemies rather than a program for the creation or reform of democracies. In the updated approach, what democracy is does not count as a problem.

It is clear that this ideological development, with all of its real-world consequences, has spelled the end of the antitotalitarian coalition that came together across borders, uniting the European left (Eastern and Western) with American liberalism, thirty years ago. That the attempt to update it and externalize that project had failed became obvious even before the Iraq adventure came to grief -- the project garnered too few allies internationally.

Now it is perfectly true that the dissolution of this consensus leaves open the problem of how democrats should think about foreign policy, once spreading it evangelistically has been unmasked as delusional or imperialistic. A few passages in the collection suggest that Rosanvallon thinks the way to democratize the world is through democratization of existing democracies -- the reinvigoration of troubled democracies is prior to the project of their externalization and duplication. Clearly this response will not satisfy anyone who believes that the main problem in the world is democracy's failure to take root everywhere, rather than its profound difficulties where it already is. But clarifying the history and present of democracy inside is of undoubted relevance to its future outside.

Q:There are some very striking passages in the book that discuss the seeming eclipse of the political now. More is involved than the withdrawl from civic participation into a privatized existence. (At the same time, that's certainly part of it.) Does Rosanvallon provide an account of how this hollowing-out of democracy has come to pass? Can it be reversed? And would its reversal necessarily be a good thing?

A: One of the most typical responses to the apparent rise of political apathy in recent decades has been nostalgia for some prior society -- classical republics or early America are often cited -- that are supposed to have featured robust civic engagement. The fashion of "republicanism" in political theory, from Arendt to Michael Sandel or Quentin Skinner, is a good example. But Rosanvallon observes that the deep explanation for what is happening is a collapse of the model of democracy based on a powerful will.

The suggestion here is that the will of the people is not simply hard to locate or identify; its very existence as the foundation of democratic politics has become hard to credit anymore. The challenge is to respond by taking this transformation as the starting point of the analysis. And there appears to be no return to what has been lost.

But in his new work, anticipated in the postscript, Rosanvallon shows that the diagnosis may be faulty anyway. What is really happening, he suggests, is not apathy towards or retreat from politics in a simple sense, but the rise of new forms of democracy -- or counterdemocracy -- outside the familiar model of participation and involvement. New forms seeking expression have multiplied, through an explosion of devices, even if they may seem an affront to politics as it has ordinarily been conceptualized.

Rosanvallon's current theory is devoted to the project of putting the multiplication of representative mechanisms -- ones that do not fit on existing diagrams of power -- into one picture. But the goal, he says, is not just to make sense of them but also to find a way for analysis to lead to reform. As one of Rosanvallon's countrymen and predecessors, Alexis de Tocqueville, might have put it: Democracy still requires a new political science, one that can take it by the hand and help to sanctify its striving.

Bio

For further reading: Professor Moyn is co-author (with Andrew Jainhill of the University of California at Berkeley) of an extensive analysis of the sources and inner tensions of Rosanvallon's thought on democracy, available online.  And in an essay appearing on the Open Democracy Webs ite in 2004, Rosanvallon reflected on globalization, terrorism, and the war in Iraq.

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

 

 

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