Marcel Gauchet: “There has been an absolute victory of the democratic principle”

29 January 2018

(From 2018) Marcel Gauchet is a philosopher and historian. He is an emeritus director of studies at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, and editor in chief of the journal Le débat. He is the author of Le désenchantement du monde (1985), and most recently the series L’avènement de la démocratie, whose four volumes are entitled La révolution moderne (2007)La crise du libéralisme (2007), A l’épreuve des totalitarismes (2010), et Le nouveau monde (2017). In a conversation with Jacob Hamburger, he explains why beginning in the 1970s, Western democracies have entered into a “new world.” This interview follows conversations with Wendy Brown and Jean-Claude Monod in the Tocqueville 21 blog’s series on neoliberalism and democracy.


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Jacob Hamburger: Let’s start by discussing the motivations underlying this project. In La révolution moderne, you write of a “banalization” of liberal democracy in our time. What do you mean by this, and to what extent are these four books an attempt to “de-banalize” democracy?


Marcel Gauchet: The fundamental reason for this banalization is the fact that modern democracy has its legal definition in constitutional texts. Viewed through this angle, democracy is an ensemble of relatively simple general principles that appear obvious and unlikely to evolve over time: popular sovereignty, individual rights, etc. When we speak of democracy in this sense, however, we lose sight of the historical meaning of the democratic phenomenon. The first “de-banalization” I’ve aimed to achieve is to bring out what is historically specific in modern democracy. Second, I have attempted to demonstrate the highly improbable, or unintuitive nature of the combination of properly democratic traits with properly liberal traits, as well as the phenomenon of representation. The true name of our modern regimes is representative liberal democracy, and we have to show the complexity of this composite. The sovereignty of the people demands a form of authority that is not necessarily in harmony with personal liberty, and in the eyes of many citizens the representative character of democratic regimes is a merely temporary imperfection that must be overcome. And finally, the third dimension deals with the fact that the more the juridical definition of democracy is seen to be stable, the more the actual functioning of democratic regimes continues to evolve. Between the democracy Tocqueville saw in America and democracy as it functions today in Western countries, there have been spectacular transformations whose meaning needs to be accounted for.


In short, the democratic phenomenon appears in an utterly different light when we present it in terms of its general historical significance, which I call the autonomous structuration; second, when we reveal the composite and contradictory character of democracy as a mixed regime; and finally, when we address the dimension of its evolution, in which the resolution of each problem creates new ones. These three dimensions allow us to re-problematize democracy.


You claim that the period that is most analogous to our own in the history of modern democracy is what you describe as the “crisis of liberalism” between 1880 and 1914. What do you see as the resemblance?


There is a parallel between the two periods, but at the same time an opposition that makes the parallel all the more significant. This first crisis was one of frustration with democracy’s promises. It came at a moment when universal suffrage had become absolute law, when some even began to regard it as the very definition of democracy. In other words, it was a time where the masses entered into politics. But at this moment, there was a radical disjunction between the reality of society—i.e., class divisions, capitalist antagonisms, etc.—and the “mendacious” liberal parliamentary regime, judged as such for its inability to resolve the social question. This powerlessness of democracy to fulfill the promise of sovereignty, awakened by the institution of universal sufferage, led people on both the far left and the far right to seek solutions to the question of the good regime outside of parliamentary democracy. Hence the radical contestations of “bourgeois” democracy that led to the rise of totalitarian movements in the aftermath of the First World War.


Today, we see nothing of this sort of revolutionary spirit. Post-1945 democracy succeeded in resolving and absorbing the social question. It has of course resurfaced from time to time, but only partially. The fact remains that there has been an absolute victory of the democratic principle, and an evacuation of ideological extremes. Everyone is in favor of democracy, but we nonetheless see today a disappointment regarding the way in which it functions, a disappointment whose content is difficult to identify precisely. Another difference has to do with the global context of this first crisis of democracy, which took place during the era of colonial imperialism, the first globalization. In our own time, the West has entered into a second, liberal globalization. In the place of Western military domination over subject peoples, we see a general opening of societies to one another under the banner of trade. In spite of these differences, however, we see the same situation in which the principles and values of democracy do not provide a sufficient response to the question of how human communities can govern themselves.


In what sense has liberal democracy won an “absolute victory”? And if indeed its solution to past crises was so successful in the middle of the twentieth century, why has this solution broken down today?


I am convinced that we cannot understand the reality of democratic regimes today if we do not see them as a response to the challenges posed by the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century. This is a crucial point that is too often overlooked in the literature on democracy, which I find, shockingly, has largely forgotten the notion of totalitarianism. The challenge of totalitarianism was, first, a political challenge for the parliamentary regime, the identification of the latter’s deficit of leadership. Second, it was a social challenge. How can the working classes be integrated into the national community? Finally, there was the administrative challenge of how to regulate the chaotic market economy. Democratic societies successfully addressed these challenges in the thirty years following the Second World War. We too often reduce the period immediately following 1945 to a period of social welfare as a result of economic growth. This is of course true, but should not lead us to ignore the political miracle that occurred at the same time: a re-foundation of democracy in the industrial world. We should not forget how many thinkers in the 1930s took seriously the idea that democracies might not survive the totalitarian threat. They not only survived, they did so spectacularly.


You go even further. Not only did democracy triumph over the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century, but in so doing, they fulfilled a long historical process of “autonomization.” This is the central argument of L’Avènement de la démocratie, but also potentially its most contestable. We can imagine that for many observers today, the victory of autonomy over heteronomy is far from apparent. Conservatism, religious extremism, and authoritarianism remain very much present and dangerous. In this context, how is democracy’s victory also the victory of autonomy?


There are two points of clarification here, concerning first the historical framework of analysis, and second the meaning of the word “autonomy.” I am speaking about the Western world—mainly North America and Europe—in other words the crucible and furthest advance of the democratic invention. I do not believe that authoritarianism and religious extremisms are particularly prosperous in these countries. They exist and are quite powerful elsewhere, and I believe my analysis can help understand why. But they do not constitute an objection to the dynamics we see at work in the West. The problems here are of another order.


As for the form of autonomy I am concerned with, I have named it “structural autonomy” in order to distinguish it from mere intellectual autonomy—giving oneself one’s own law. The question to ask is that of what conditions make giving oneself one’s own law possible. The answer involves a transformation of the basic apparatus of political communities, the form of legitimacy that governs their organization and the manner in which they regulate their historicity. It is at this level that we can speak of a victory of autonomy, in the sense that it has taken over what little traces remained of heteronomy not only in people’s minds, but in the social mechanism itself. I have tried to show that the difficulties and transformations of contemporary democracy are profoundly caught up in this most recent reorganization of autonomy.


In this respect, aren’t there clear differences between the American and European experiences?


Yes, quite profound ones. North America remained largely immune to the seduction of the totalitarianisms that so deeply shook European societies. These divergent trajectories have very old roots. On this point, Louis Hartz’s thesis seems to me to have retained all of its force. The problem that for so long made Europeans appear to be behind in terms of democracy was the fact that they had to deal with an Ancien régime and all of its royal, clerical, hierarchical, and aristocratic legacies. The Americans were able to put aside these things relatively quickly thanks to, among other things, a religious pluralism that allowed for a space of collective deliberation. My claim is that the Ancien régime in Europe truly died in 1945. It has become conventional to place this date in 1918. There are many good arguments for this interpretation, but I believe that it ignores the traces left by the Ancien régime on our models of authority, as well as on the weight of doctrine and ideology and on the persistence of hierarchy. These heteronomous traces were extremely powerful, and helped form the foundation of totalitarianism. They gave rise to the project of reconstructing modern societies with the implicit model of religious societies. This project was undertaken along radically different pathways on both the far right and far left, but both followed similar logics.


1945 saw the defeat of the idea that it is the role of religions to provide the general framework of society. This was a defeat in the realm of the “theologico-political,” and it led to a sort of cultural rapprochement between Europe and America. Europeans for the first time experienced a form of democracy that had been foreign to all but a few enlightened spirits, Tocqueville not least among them.


Only thirty years later, in your telling, we see another “theologico-political” turn no less important than the first. What exactly happened around 1975?


First, the decade between 1965 and 1975 was a sort of preparation. This was the beginning of the society of abundance, which was a shock for many European ways of thinking, particularly the mentality of scarcity typical of agrarian societies. European societies became industrial and urban societies, and in the process traditional cultural elites, particularly in the military and the clergy, began to lose their power to shape social life. The paradox in Europe is that at the same time there was a surge in hedonistic and individualistic modernity, there was also the last great reactivation of the revolutionary idea. This was a moment of balance between the novelty of autonomous society, and the force of the ancient heteronomous structure that remained capable of inspiring unconscious nostalgias.


But if one had the impression in 1968 that the tide was turning in favor of socialism, this turned out to be socialism’s last moment. Modernity won out over nostalgia. The idea of revolution collapsed in the West, and not only in the West: the same phenomenon occurred in the Soviet Union, and later in China. The key moment here was the Chinese conversion in 1979 after Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Japan and the United States. The end of the revolutionary idea was also the moment when the first Soviet oligarch sent his children to study economics, “bourgeois” economics, at Harvard. The socialist idea lost its credibility even in the highest circles of Soviet leaders.


At the same time, the construction of a new economic and technical world was underway. As Japan joined the first ranks of the industrialized nations, the system of Keynesian regulation was being dismantled, and new innovations in digital technology were beginning to transform the social landscape. Around 1975, the tension between the old and the new was dissolved. The new won out, and consigned all of the systems of social representation of the heteronomous world to the past. The religious structure of society is now unthinkable, and most Europeans no longer understand what such a society once was. It is this erasure that has allowed the full deployment of the autonomous structuration.


In your description of this Nouveau monde, you employ two terms that have already seen a long history as tools to describe the present era: “neoliberalism” and “postmodernity.” What do you mean by these two words?


I do not treat them in the same fashion. I am critical of the notion of the “postmodern,” since it does not tell us what modernity is. When one actually defines modernity, one sees that what is called “postmodern” is in fact ultra-modern. I am less interested in the conceptual value of the term “postmodern” than in the fact of its emergence. In the late 1970s, we see in the writings of a great many skilled observers of social life the impression that a new world has begun. Hence the need for a new word. This impression was accurate, but the word used to describe it is deceptive.


Neoliberalism is another story. It is incontestable that the economic transformations that have taken place since the 1970s—from the end of the gold standard to the Monetarist policy of Volcker to the rise to power of Thatcher—have done so under the banner of liberalism. What we call liberalism is in part a new economic system that displaces the functions of the administrative and regulatory state onto the market. But the novelty that allows us to speak of neo-liberalism is globalization. The principles of neoliberalism are fundamentally the same as those of Ricardo or Smith, but the framework in which these principles operate has been totally changed. Rather than a number of markets within nation-states, we are dealing with what Thomas Friedman called a “flat” world: a world where the same market rules apply everywhere independently of the national framework.


What I’ve tried to add to this discussion is to say that neoliberalism is not merely a matter of economics, but of social life as a whole. Neoliberalism has two poles: an economic and technical pole, to be sure, but also a juridical pole that has to do with an understanding of individual rights. This second pole is the origin of the contemporary notion of democracy as equivalent to the rule of law, which marks a profound shift from the notion of democracy as sovereignty of the people. Democracy becomes in the neoliberal framework the regime that guarantees the “fundamental rights” of individuals and citizens (a substitute for the notion of the “rights of man”). This is a fundamental change in the meaning of the democratic process, where what is important is no longer the decision that arises from this process, but rather merely the manner in which this decision is made, i.e., respect for procedure and the rights of all involved.


We can therefore easily understand the frustration that goes along with this new conception of democracy. For it is quite possible for individual rights to be respected while the capacity for collective decision remains quite alienated. There has been a weakening of democratic power linked to the liberty given to each individual. Those same individuals who are very content to benefit from increased liberty now feel powerless in shaping the course of their societies. This does not render them hostile to democracy, but rather susceptible to being disappointed by it, demoralized by its inefficacy. Hence the populist phenomenon that is disrupting democracies today.


This populist phenomenon does not appear in your books—the last of which was finished before the British and American votes of 2016—but it does bring us back to the same critique we addressed earlier. Even if we accept the interpretation of autonomy you present in The Disenchantment of the World, why shouldn’t we see the rise of authoritarian populist movements as part of a reversal of this general trend towards autonomy?


I believe this an error, since even these recent electoral revolts have taken place within the framework of autonomy. They do not contest this framework, but rather some of its effects. But that being said, this is a critique that should be taken seriously.


We also need to be aware of the contrast between the populism of today and the totalitarianism of yesterday. Populism is a reaction to the powerlessness of democracy, but does not challenge or reject democracy. Totalitarianisms were also a reaction against this powerlessness, but they sought to replace democracy with an authoritarian and ideocratic regime. Though we do see authoritarian aspirations in today’s movements—authoritarian posturing for the media that is often quite cartoonish—the populists want to use authoritarian means to make democracy more effective. They may end up having a gravely destructive impact, but they do not threaten democracy as a regime. Just like in the age of totalitarianisms, I believe we are in a period where democracies will have to find a response to the populists. But this response will be easier to produce.


To return to neoliberalism, many analysts of this notion—particularly thinkers on the left such as Wendy Brown, recently interviewed on this site—have described it in a sense as a loss of democratic autonomy. In this sort of view, neoliberalism is a dismantling of the kind of political action that gives power to the people. In your work, however, neoliberalism is rather the current stage in the evolution of democracy understood as the process of autonomization.


My problem with these critiques has to do with their understanding of the meaning of the word “autonomy.” What I am interested in, once again, is “structural” autonomy, an autonomy that works at the deepest level of the structuration of society. It is not false to say that there have exist today forms of what we might call “functional” heteronomy, as a result of the rule of financial markets and the development of inequalities. These things impose themselves upon us, and deprive us of power over many fundamental mechanisms of collective life. But do these things represent heteronomy in the rigorous sense of the term? No. There is no possible return to regimes of structural heteronomy.


Some of these theorists of neoliberalism believe that it would suffice to seek the construction of socialism, or some other social regime, in order to change the foundation of our collective reason. I believe that we should not intentionalize social processes that escape our grasp by their very nature. The further we venture into the democratic universe, the more we discover how difficult it is to manage this universe. Marx said that mankind only sets itself such problems as it can solve—nothing in the history of ideas has ever been more false! The more we understand the human character of the political institutions of collective life, the more we discover how complicated it is to make them work in accordance with their fundamental values. It should also be added that structural social autonomy would be paradise on earth. Democracy takes work; it’s not a sedentary end of history.


To conclude, globalization is at the center of your telling of contemporary history. But at the end of the day, L’Avènement de la démocratie is about Western history, and European history in particular. It is in an explicitly Eurocentric project, which you defend: “The key to the new world is to be found on the Old Continent”…


And that’s provocative, I know! The history I write is the history of the modern invention, which is continuing, and is continuing in a European framework. I have often said, and believe more than ever to be true, that what we need today is an American Tocqueville to come to Europe in order to observe, sympathetically, not democracy in the process of creation, but a classical world that has ceased to be classical: a mature democracy advancing towards new horizons, and encountering new problems that Americans have not encountered yet.


There is of course another history of the entry into modern democracy, through globalization, of civilizations that did not develop it from within, but who appropriated it from without. It is a fascinating history to follow, one in which we see the creation of democratic worlds that are very different from those we see in Europe. How does one build democracy in India, for example, with a tradition of castes and such a diversity of languages? As for myself, however, I do not have the means to write this history. My knowledge of history, culture, and languages is insufficient. I have attempted to privilege in my work what I know the best. Perhaps I should have called this series of books Democracy in Europe. But that title would have been far too pretentious, even though I think it is crucial to try to continue to expand the scope of Tocqueville’s analysis.


Photo Credit: Eric Spiridigliozzi, Parti socialiste, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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