Jean-Claude Monod: “After the totalitarian experience, we can recover the emancipatory leader”

Jean-Claude Monod
22 January 2018


Jean-Claude Monod is a research director at the CNRS and professor of philosophy at the Ecole normale supérieure. In Qu’est-ce qu’un chef en démocratie? [What is a leader in a democracy?], he attempts to discover what forms of charisma and authority are consistent with democratic leadership. Five years after its original publication, the book reappeared in 2017 with an updated afterword. Jean-Claude Monod discusses here with Jacob Hamburger why today it is as important as ever to understand the personalization of power in democratic politics. This interview follows last week’s exchange with Wendy Brown in a series of conversations on democracy, neoliberalism, and contemporary developments in the transatlantic world.


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Jacob Hamburger: There’s an evolution between the original 2012 preface to Qu’est-ce qu’un chef en démocratie? and your afterword to the reissue this year. When the book first came out, you saw in then-candidate François Hollande’s campaign claim to be a “normal president” the signs of a broader atmosphere of depoliticization. In 2017, do you think this depoliticization has been reversed?


Jean-Claude Monod: I didn’t intend for the book to be a polemic against this idea of the “normal president,” and Hollande began using this sort of language after I had already begun writing it. But this idea was an interesting one. It appeared at a moment where, on the one hand, the “hyper-president” Sarkozy was saturating public discourse. On the other hand, there was the presumptive Socialist candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was both an international figure as head of the IMF, but also someone who had a dark side—as we all discovered soon enough—and who was in his own way an excessive personality. So to call oneself a “normal president” was strategically interesting in this context of men who were so utterly lacking in self-control. But “normal” relative to what? Did this mean returning to the norm of the Fifth Republic, sharing more authority with the prime minister? Or did it mean that the president would present himself as an equal of ordinary citizens? This latter sense is what Pierre Rosanvallon meant when he took “proximity” as a character of democratic legitimacy. With François Hollande, we never got an answer to this question.


My book was less about these questions in particular than the broader notion of charisma. I began with Weber’s question of whether charisma is antidemocratic and authoritarian, or whether it can be thought of as an instrument for strengthening democracy. In 2012, the right had latched on to a culture of leadership without committing itself to a deeper democratic project. Meanwhile, the left was uncomfortable with the notion of leadership as such. This often led it to contradictory positions, starting as far back as Mitterrand, who began as a theorist of the “permanent coup d’État” and ended up as quite a “presidential” president. Hollande’s effort to present himself as a “normal” leader never took on any substance, and he was always seen as incapable of embodying the presidential function.


In 2017, Macron clearly exploited this weakness on the left, its incapacity to face up to the necessary verticality in the exercise of power. The institutions of France’s Fifth Republic assume a certain presidential charisma, so French politicians have to either change these institutions, or be charismatic. Macron was not my candidate, but he understood this far better than people like Benoît Hamon, who kept insisting he was not a “Messianic figure” or a Cesar—as if anyone thought he was!


What more can we say about this idea of “depoliticization?” You describe it at times as a primacy of the economy over the political sphere. When your book came out, left-wing movements like Occupy Wall Street were vocally critical of the political role of economic institutions, but these movements often explicitly shunned verticality. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is perhaps an example today of the radical left’s rediscovery of leadership. Do you see in these transformations on the left a reconceptualization of the role of the political leader in today’s context?


It’s true that in 2012, especially with what was going on in Greece, one often got the impression that a segment of the European elite had given up on the notion of popular sovereignty. I certainly had in mind while writing this book the neoliberal domination of economics over politics.


But these “leaderless movements,” however important they have been, have discovered some of the limits of what they took to calling “horizontal” organization. In their book Assembly, Negri and Hardt observed recently that there is a great richness of these movements, especially on social media, but a poverty of organization. During Nuit Debout in France in 2016, for example, many participants described a feeling of moving in circles, spending hours deliberating over the conditions of deliberation. I think these movements have played a positive role in reviving democratic thinking, but they’ve come up against the limits of leaderlessness.


Mélenchon occupied a sort of middle ground. On the one hand, he recalled thinkers like Mouffe and Laclau who have argued for the necessity of leaders in shaping political action. He chose to forgo parties and organize a movement, the difference being that the latter is structured around a single person. But at the same time he integrated new participatory forms into his movement: “citizen platforms” and the like. Macron’s En Marche! claimed to do the same. Both movements are interesting to the extent that they embraced the personal dimension of politics while at the same time invoking participation. This movement structure is much more characteristic of our time than the traditional parties, whose structure of offices and hierarchies is in crisis.


The 2017 election in France was in this sense a laboratory for thinking about the figure of the leader in a democracy. But the American case might provide some important counterexamples: Trump, the charismatic leader who took advantage of a depoliticized public; Sanders, the un-charismatic leader of an insurgent movement; etc. How well does this story of de- and re-politicization translate outside of France?


It’s true that my book relies heavily on French examples, but I should point out that few of these French examples are positive ones! At the same time, the book was inspired by a German theorist, Max Weber. Without going as far as to claim that it has universal or transhistorical validity, I think that Weber’s analysis is very widely applicable, and not just in a Western context. Weber’s historicity of charisma is not easy to understand. On the one hand, he wrote that charisma has taken the place of religious belief in the selection of those who govern. It relies on the “belief in the extraordinary character” of a person. But charisma also has an almost revolutionary status. It is a powerful sort of transformation outside of both tradition and legal rationality. It is the transformation that takes place when a certain person, say Jesus, simply opens his mouth. In periods dominated by tradition, this is perhaps the only sort of revolutionary force there is. Finally, Weber also believed that the structures of mass democracy foster the charismatic phenomenon, especially mass media. Newspapers, radio, television, and the like led to a profound emotional transformation of democracy, and Weber was trying to grasp this without falling into the discourse on mass psychology. None of this theory is particularly French, and in fact Weber saw France in his day, during the Third Republic, as a sort of outlier, an “acephalous” political system.


Now, looking at the United States, I agree that charisma can work in favor of the dominant interests, or join forces with neoliberal depoliticization—especially when you have an authoritarian personality who emerges from the economic world, like Trump or Berlusconi. With Trump, economic domination combined with a certain form of entertainment to play the worst kinds of popular demands: those of the xenophobic and jealous ethnos rather than the demos. This is a very contemporary pathological form of charisma.


But is it the only possible form? My book was an attempt to push back at the knee-jerk reaction against charisma on the left that sees it only in this pathological sense. Here, America confirms my suspicions in the form of Barack Obama. Sure, his legacy is complicated, but I must admit that during his campaign, I was rather impressed by his success in bringing back people who had felt turned away from or uninterested in democratic politics. He also succeeded in embodying the very ideas of possibility and democratic progress, while also overcoming important historical barriers. So I think Obama is a sort of example of a democratic leader, no matter how disappointed one might be given the excessive hopes that were placed in him.


Let’s come back to the Weberian questions at the heart of the book. You cite at one point Raymond Aron, who dismissed Weber’s fear of the de-personalized forces of modern bureaucratization with the following words: “We have learned to fear the promises of the demagogue far more than the banality of rational organization.” From today’s standpoint, whose vision is more relevant?


It’s too simple to say that Aron or Weber was simply right or wrong. Aron is speaking to a historical experience that took place after Weber’s death. More specifically, he says that “we have learned” to mistrust charismatic personalities and their irrational adventures, more so than banality, as a result of the experience of totalitarianism. I think today, however, that the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and we see now what Aron, liberal that he was, did not see in his time. What he saw were the dangers of populism and charismatic men who promised to break the norms. Today I think our experience is actually closer to Weber’s. We’ve seen that if you remove from politics all personal elements—decision, incarnation, emotion—you can end up with a technocratic bureaucracy that has no need of a direct embodiment. It can exert its domination over a de-politicized landscape without recourse to authoritarianism. We’ve seen a decoupling of liberalism and democracy that the optimistic liberal Aron likely wouldn’t have recognized, realized to a large extent during the last several decades of neoliberalism.


I was initially uncomfortable using the word chef. Part of this has to do with linguistic connotations. Yves Cohen has shown in a recent book how the vocabularies of leadership differ in several European languages. In English, for example, the word “leader” is generally unproblematic, and no one sees a contradiction in the phrase “democratic leader.” The two notions go relatively well together. In French, chef brings to mind a military hierarchy. It’s a word that if anything belongs to Napoleon, and later to the Gaullist right—to a history of the passage between the military and politics. But I was interested in looking at how philosophers have understood the notion of the chef. Rousseau distinguished between the chef and the master, the former being the leader that the people choose for themselves. I tried to trace this notion from ancient Greece up through the republican résistants like Marc Bloch, who opposed the republican chef to the totalitarian chef. My conclusion is that throughout all this history, there is another type of figure: the emancipatory chef, the leader of the slave revolt, the résistant. The totalitarian experience has taught us immediately to equate the charismatic leader with the Führer. But I think we can nonetheless recover this emancipatory leader.


Qu’est-ce qu’un chef en démocratie? is a book on political philosophy, but what about the leadership figures outside of the political sphere in a democratic society? How do you see these figures—in the family or in industry, for example—evolving in today’s democracies?


My main concern is indeed the political sphere, but your question leads me to a central philosophical contradiction I discuss in the book. On the one hand, I wanted to investigate what Kojève referred to as the irreducibility of political leadership to other forms of authority. Kojève believed he had discovered this irreducibility in the work of Aristotle, who argued—against Plato’s homogenizing account of authority—that one can’t take the household or the family to be the same thing as the city. The political leader is essentially one among equals, while the head of the household rules over his inferiors. So we cannot think political leadership with these models in mind. This is a critique that we see once again during the Enlightenment, a critique of the medieval analogy between God, the King, and the Father: a paternalist political theology. Modern democracy was born from the idea that a political leader is neither God nor father, nor a pastor for that matter. Democracy involves a separation of spheres.


On the other hand, we see a transformation—Hegelian, perhaps—in which these different spheres are in constant interaction and reinvention, largely without our knowing. For example, the challenge to masculine domination over politics cannot be separated from the challenge to the patriarchal structure of the family. This is a shockingly recent development. Until the 1970s, a woman had to have her husband’s permission to open a bank account, and French private law still bears the signs of a paternal power that gives unequal rights to fathers and mothers. But when we undo these hierarchies, this inevitably translates into politics, and so at the same time we see a gradual “feminization” of the political sphere. As women are elected, we start to see a change in the paradigm for thinking about politics. We see in Butler or Derrida the extent to which our previous political conceptions had been “phallocentric.”


You describe your book as a “descriptive” work of philosophy, but you nonetheless outline normative concepts: notably that of the “democratic leader” and “progressive charisma.” You argue that these concepts demonstrate that democracy is not a rejection of authority, but rather its reconfiguration on egalitarian grounds. How do you understand this reconfiguration in today’s world?


I tried to be cautious with the concept of authority. I do not want to get into the controversies over the “crisis of authority” which we read about so often in French media. Foucault taught us that it’s rare to see any sort of emancipation movement that leads to a complete liberation from authority. I am therefore something of a Foucauldian in the sense that I believe that we’re always dealing with a mix of liberation and subjection. You see this in many workplaces today, where labor sociologists have often observed transformations that seem less authoritarian on the surface, but that allow stark power relations to persist. Power is less apparent—it no longer takes the form of the Father or the Boss—but it remains in subtle form.


But even if I remain within the anti-authoritarian traditions of the 1960s and 1970s, I am well aware that at a certain point we can’t simply be content with a rejection of authority. There are many situations, for example in education, where it is simply an illusion to think that all authority is inherently violent. We need a sort of authority in order to maintain a transmission of ideas. We can be progressive, but we have to recognize that we don’t start from nothing, and that in order to have progress, we need to have transmission. And if we had to be constantly in a position of defiance against what came before us, I think that would be a nasty situation to be in, a constant state of paralysis. So that’s why I think we need to try to think in a positive sense about what these relationships could be, with neither naïveté nor nostalgia.


Photo credit: Gnotype – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


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