Sophia Rosenfeld replies to her readers

13 June 2019

This is the follow-up to our book forum on Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth: A Short History.


Is it odd to begin by saying that I am thrilled with the serious critiques that this impressive group of scholars has leveled at Democracy and Truth: A Short History? I am, of course, also delighted that they found merit in the basic argument, as well as style, of the book. But I am especially pleased by their questions and criticisms, because this book was intended to inspire debate, not to be the last word on the subject.


To that end, I won’t belabor what this collection of readers approve of in Democracy and Truth. All four provide eloquent, pithy, and quite different summaries of the book’s main themes, including the precarity of any claims to truth in democratic states, the inevitable tension between knowledge elites and ordinary people in the democratic truth-determination process, and the ways that traditional tensions around truth in democracies have been exacerbated by recent developments in technology and media culture, as well as in the global economy. Even more happily for me, all four respond to the book as I hoped readers would: as a thought piece, rooted in historical claims, but as much about the present and even (tentatively) the future as about the past.


However, not surprisingly, the two (French) historians and the two (American) political theorists who participated in this forum see different kinds of theoretical problems emerging out of Democracy and Truth. A few identify real weak spots in what I do say; others focus on important lacunae. I will, therefore, take up each in turn not in the mode of self-defense but rather because I see each of these questions as precisely the sort that scholars and citizens alike, tackling this subject matter in months or years to come, would be well advised to ponder.


Let me start with our political theorists, Jonny Thakkar and Lisa Wedeen. Thakkar says I might make a good case for why democracies need some form of truth, but I don’t really explain why we should fight to preserve democracies in the first place—or even if it is possible without falling into pure myth-making, given that fact that what we call democracy is actually so far from our lived reality at the moment. In short: yes. I am in full agreement that articulating an effective defense of democracy is a serious project for contemporary political theorists, as well as for actual policy makers. I try, briefly, to suggest that it is the revisibility of democratic decision-making as well as truth-seeking that, in principle, constitutes one of democracy’s great strengths. That, and its potential for promoting pluralism without physical violence. But this may well be weak gruel in the present culture of oligarchy, as Thakkar calls it.


To that end, I also agree with Thaakar that the goal of apologists for democracy should not be propping up or restoring the old system, with its strikingly undemocratic features born largely of the inequities of modern capitalism, but should instead be looking for a new model that will serve a critical, as opposed to ideological, function. That is one reason that I don’t spend a lot of time in this book, as many of the sky-is-falling-since-Trump commentators do today, calling for a return to “norms.” After all, norms, by definition, tend to serve a conservative function; even if we concede that politics requires rules, talk of norms, like talk of civility, works at present mainly to encourage a return to whatever counts as the status quo. Ditto some of our most cherished metaphors, like “marketplace of ideas,” which has become so far from a true representation of today’s public sphere that it has, I believe, turned into a form of obfuscation of its own.  But I am also quite sure that we do not yet have good substitutes, that is, a persuasive image of a new political order that takes what’s best of the Enlightenment tradition but is not wedded to it and that doesn’t keep us from confronting a world of billionaires (!), instantaneous digital communication, AK-17s, drones, sexual liberation, and a host of other global developments, good and bad, that would have been unrecognizable to the eighteenth-century Europeans and European-Americans who, in all their own wisdom and parochialism, devised the general outlines of the political systems under which we still operate.


Wedeen too is more critical of my diagnosis of the present and my remedies for the future than she is of my explanation of how we got into this mess in the first place. On the historical front, I stand by my claim that resolving political crises has become more complicated over time, though Wedeen is, of course, right that the colonialism of earlier eras entailed intricate political operations that cut across enormous swathes of peoples and space. But my claim is not really that political issues are inherently more complex than they used to be; rather, it is that the explosion of “expert” kinds of people, with specialized functions and knowledges, speaking in arcane ways and often across national boundaries and different legal jurisdictions, has made the political realm feel that much more impenetrable practically and intellectually to ordinary citizens.


That feeling, I think, is also an important variable, along with economic dislocation and more measurable phenomena such as declining purchasing power, in explaining the resurgence of populism of late. But I also agree with Wedeen that I might have said more about why populist movements so often come smothered in racism. I see it as a byproduct of the imagined indivisibility and homogeneity (intellectual, moral, cultural and, ultimately, ethnic and racial too) of the concept of “the people” that lies at the heart of most populisms; pluralism of every kind is anathema to populists, as I try to make clear. And I also find myself in agreement that we might well see the conflicts critical to democracy as products of the contradictions of capitalism rather than vice versa (though certainly less for the eighteenth century, when capitalism was only nascent, than for later moments). I try to suggest as much for the twentieth century insofar as I claim that the explosion of bureaucracy under modern democracy stems largely from the fact that relatively new democratic states were left to cope with the problems, like an exploited labor force, that capitalism engenders.


But Wedeen’s most vital insight, I think, is that neither the rise of technical-managerial elites, nor popular pushback to them, is specific to states that can reasonably be called democracies. She urges me—or, really, all of us—to look at similar patterns in the “global south,” where capitalism, nationalism, and other forces have created many of the same social tensions around knowledge without requiring anything like democracy in the northern European or North American mode. Indeed, her most thought-provoking suggestion is that, in the last few decades, what we in the West have been witnessing is much less the global spread of capitalism attached to representative democracy, imagined to be the inevitable by people like Francis Fukuyama after 1989, than the inverse: the evolution of the so-called democracies of the northern hemisphere towards the kinds of political cultures traditionally associated with the global south. This is also where I wish Wedeen, a specialist on the Middle East, had said more—or will go on to do so, including offering some bibliographic suggestions. She is entirely right that, given this condition, it would have been beneficial for me to have engaged more with “artists and theorists from the ‘global south’ whose knowledge of [both] the seductions of authoritarian rule and the contradictions of Enlightenment thought are longstanding and imaginative.” But here again, I hope her comments will serve as a nudge to those with different areas of expertise from mine to help us all out. Certainly, as epistemic and political patterns are emerging that increasingly link the US and UK with Brazil, Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines, among other states, we should be reminded that it is as dangerous as ever to build models only on the example or the thought of the so-called democratic “West.”


Nathalie Caron, a historian of the US based in France, emphasizes the importance of paying attention to differences even between the two western nations whose examples, eighteenth century to present, lie at the center of Democracy and Truth. That’s an important message when it comes to describing the nature of the problem today, but also to analyzing the response–among intellectuals, among policy makers, or among the grand public. Like Antoine Lilti, Caron points to the divergent traditions of “free expression” long cultivated in the US and in France that have resulted in very different legislative responses to the problem of “fake news.” (Americans, from outside, can seem crazily absolutist, as if freedom of speech should trump every other value, including disinformation, no matter the consequences, while the French, from outside, can seem perpetually willing to curtail the speech rights of some subset of the population in the misguided name of protecting what are perceived to be greater virtues or principles.) Caron also draws our attention to a distinctive emerging French discourse, much of it quite philosophical by US standards, focused on democracy and, increasingly, the problem of truth.  That extends, in her account, from Marcel Gauchet’s four volumes on L’Avènement de la démocratie, which has not been much read or commented on (yet?) in North America, to Myriam Revault d’Allonnes’ La Faiblesse du vrai. Ce que la post-vérité fait à notre monde commun. The latter appeared too late for me to respond to it in Democracy and Truth, but it takes up, as Caron points out, many related themes, albeit with greater philosophical range (Aristotle to Ricoeur!) and less historical specificity.


Caron also asks the important question as to what happens to my story if I were to incorporate the widely reported-on protest movement of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests), another phenomenon that just post-dates my analysis. My hunch, from what we’ve seen so far, is that this live example only strengthens the claim that what we are witnessing today is not a full-scale break with the past, but the culmination of longstanding patterns within democracies in which truth—and especially who gets to define it and according to what methods—is a critical battleground. Just as Emmanuel Macron has attempted to situate himself neither on the right nor on the left, ruling instead from an epistemic position that might be described as technocratic liberalism, so the Gilets Jaunes have, since their emergence on the scene, also claimed to be ‘ni droite-ni gauche,’ united primarily in their opposition to Macron’s way of approaching the world. Popular hostility to a fuel tax increase that started the movement in fall 2018 was never purely economic, though certainly it took place in a landscape of growing inequality, especially as those in the bottom half of the economic divide in France saw their relative position decline. Opposition was also, more generally, to a regime that seemed so removed from reality as to be unable, or maybe just unwilling, to see it through the eyes of ordinary people, most of them located outside the centers of French power. The Gilet Jaunes’ demand for a series of referenda to decide national policy also follows longstanding populist norms of trying to reassert the power of the (real, true) people—directly, collectively, and based on their own perceptions—to say what direction the world ought to go in. Meanwhile, the media continues to fight over its own representations of the movement and its meaning. Surely this is not entirely an effect of Facebook or Twitter.


Finally, Antoine Lilti, a historian of France and media culture, poses the toughest question of all: what can an author hope that a book like Democracy and Truth can accomplish today? Very politely, he asks if I am not, for all my deliberate efforts to adopt an informal tone, simply preaching to the choir, persuading only the already persuaded of the virtues of a certain vision of truth. Indeed, he wonders if this problem is intractable and if a book like this one, because of this built-in readership issue, simply cannot have any meaningful impact on the situation it attempts to describe. And I fear he is right—to a degree. Certainly, I don’t see accounts of democracy by academics, any more than fact-checking by well-trained journalists, as suddenly persuading those who are already dead-set against the claims of academia, or who perceive journalism as nothing more than “fake news.” For this reason and others, I also don’t see either gesture as anything like a means to a solution to our current troubles. But I will say that the very fact of getting people like Lilti himself, not to mention Thakkar, Wedeen, and Caron, to join the fray and offer their thoughts on these questions to scholars and citizens alike seems to me to be valuable. For only if we collectively “think what we are doing” in these trying times, to borrow Arendt’s words from The Human Condition once again, and hone our own arguments in response, can we be prepared to even begin to fight this battle. Thank you to all four of these superb interlocutors for thinking with me.


Photo Credit: Sophia Rosenfeld, Democracy and Truth: A Short History [Cover], Fair Use.

Photo Credit: Josh Rose, via Unsplash.


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