Conversation with Edwy Plenel

Interview, The Eyes #3


Democracy: a plural crisis



Interview de Edwy Plenel par David Marcilhacy

Illustration de Fabrice Pellé


As illustrated by the electoral crises in Europe in spring 2014, our societies seem to be facing a decline in the living-together, as if the pact that ties individuals to the community was reaching a breaking point. Are European societies experiencing a crisis of power? Or is this highlighting a far deeper problem affecting the essence of our democracies? Edwy Plenel, founder of Mediapart, examines the origins of this crisis, relating it to a period of deep political mutation. As a counterpoint, The Eyes reflects upon the venues where power poli- tics are embodied and staged through the eyes of the Swiss photographer Luca Zanier.


We wanted to discuss with you about the issue of power and democracy in Europe in light of the current situation both in France and in Europe. The European elections in May 2014 revealed an expansion of the political crisis affecting Europe at large and notably France. To what extent is this a sign of a disenchanted Europe whose citizens seem to be more and more disheartened?


As always with transitions, we cannot point to one single cause. It is an interaction between different events converging and crystallizing in several ways. But we should never forget that History is never written ahead. there is much public debate about a crisis: economic crisis, financial crisis, social crisis, and we could even add environmental crisis. the term ‘crisis’ translates a sense of fatality, as if it had just fallen upon us. But the debates should be about transition, movement, metamorphosis, to make it clear to people that whatever comes out of it also depends on us.


So, what are the underlying objective realities? three at least are linked to the crisis of political representation and democracy. the first relates to the changes introduced at the end of the twentieth century by the third so-called digital Industrial revolution; it proceeded from the electrical revolution a hundred years prior, and from that of the steam engine in the 18th century. these technological mutations always bring along political mutations with unpredictable perspectives, in a process involving in turn progress and “regress” – a word borrowed from Elisée reclus to remind that so-called progress implicitly implies regress: it destroys as it creates. As with any industrial revolution, our contemporary digital technology is changing our social, commercial, cultural and geopolitical reality.


The second objective reality, related to the revolution in our modernity, is the end of a multi- secular cycle that lasted over five centuries, a cycle in which Europe was the world’s leader: for better or for worse, no culture, region, or space could escape its goods, values, culture, priests, or armies. It is now over, and we are experiencing the end of a cycle initiated with the invention of the occident through the columbian “discovery” of America. ù


As for the third objective reality, after the so-called glorious three decades the last thirty years have been a counter-offensive, a counter-revolution thriving to act regressively upon the gains of the preceding democratic, social period. therefore it is an ultraliberal offensive determined to dismantle collective solidarity, encouraging values of competition, rivalry and infighting.


So the three realities are an industrial revolution, the end of Europe’s primacy over the world, and a liberal counteroffensive, and what does this entail in the political sphere? In my opinion, three challenges.


The first one is universal. confronted to a reality that wraps us with a feeling of fatality and resignation, faced with seemingly unwavering complex and interdependent phenomena, we are forced to reflect upon our democratic satisfaction. this is the point of Belgian intellectual David Van reybrouck’s latest book, Contre les élections [Against Elections]. In spite of a misleading title, it is not an anti-vote statement, but a reflection about the poorness of a democratic fantasy that has reduced democracy to the mere selection of its representatives by vote. In fact, he demonstrates that this is what it is all about: what has worn out is our willingness to trust a reality that lets the common good be grabbed by political professionals. He points to the notion of bi-representation, reminiscent of the Athenian drawing tradition. But it could be claimed that the underlying idea is that we might very well be experiencing the prehistoric age of democracy: after all, its principle is rather recent in our modernity – two centuries isn’t much time. Democracy is not just about choosing representatives; it is about new deliberation and participation methods.


The second point is Europe. Europe knows no rhyme or reason: it was built and gained momentum on the assumption that it had to be a political reality allowing for dialogue, discussion and negotiation in order to avoid war. so how come Europe, presumably conceived as a political reality, has turned into an economic constraint for its citizens? Here I am referring to political choices that were made in the context of the above mentioned liberal offensive, as illustrated by the Euro zone’s response to the 2008 economic crisis: by virtue of the independent status of the European central Bank, rescuing failed banks generated debt because unlike the United states or china, European states could not exercice their monetary sovereignty. so here, and it is clearly the central issue about Europe and its real reorientation, we are talking about a Europe whose economic and financial construction leaves its citizens disheartened. I am European and I do not believe in national withdrawal. I do however think that there is a real battle to fight in Europe, a battle in which the peoples can assume their role in order to radically reverse the terms of the balance of political powers.


Finally, I think that the third point is a challenge for France. this brings us back three decades: in 1984, the year I published L’effet Le Pen [the le pen Effect], the Front national, a translation of the far-right and old ideological family in our political landscape, emerged electorally with two and a half million votes in the European elections. the ongoing ascent of the Front national is typically a French story. our country has been the intellectual laboratory for the far-right, a political family that theorized inequality through identity, in opposition to the dynamics of democracy and human rights whose essence, lever, ideal and horizon is equality. Identity against equality. Against the equality of rights and the all possible.


Charles Maurras and perhaps even Maurice Barrès represent the fundamental essentialism of identity in the name of the notion that we are indeed born unequal, rather than free and equal in rights. our democratic ideals were always forged against this notion. And such conceptions will always exist.


The fact that they could be translated into active political forces is tied to a renunciation of two other political families, the republican right and the social left, to confront past challenges. the republican right has constitently stepped back, until lifting all barriers under Sarkozy’s presidency. national identity, the Roma, stigmatization of Islam, etc. A door left open by the radicalization of the right.


As for the governing left, it is caught in the nets of a famous statement made in 1984 by then prime Minister laurent Fabius: “the Front national is asking good questions, it brings the wrong responses.” For thirty years we have passed immigration laws and brandished security as the core issue – individual rather than collective security – and therefore also made all kinds of laws to deal with these issues. And the results? rising unemployment, increasing precariousness in working class neighbourhoods, sense of living together, solidarity, well-being of a society sharing common goods…none of these issues have been resolved. so, for me, in the case of this global crisis, I believe that the weakest link in Europe is France: its democracy is the most fragile, because it is a democracy of low intensity, notably because of its presidentialism. And all the more so since the two political families that ruled the country within a republican framework have, either through radicalization or rightward leanings, ceded territory to powers that benefited from the absence of responses to the great challenges lying ahead.


Precisely, could confronting this political crisis mean that a renewal of the modes of power representation and democratic revitalization imply to overstep the traditional link tying citizens to the State and to power, a mostly vertical link aspiring to a form of transcendence, to infuse it with a more horizontal interaction of citizens and peoples?


You are completely correct. I think that what the digital revolution makes obvious is horizontality; communication without borders; a participative reconnection between the individual and the collective; horizontal relational politics. It is ‘everyone’s logic’, as might say Edouard Glissant, based on relation-identity versus root-identity. France has a distinctive problem of democratic culture. this is why we should not blame only our elected officials, our representatives, but also ourselves, unknowingly bathed in a biased, corrupted democratic culture. French presidentialism, emerged from a long napoleonic culture and its various inflections – Boulangism, pétainism, state Gaullism – rests upon the same limitation of the popular will to a single entity high above, as if one individual could have all the answers. For me, this personalization of politics around a single person is a necrosis.


I do believe that France has a real problem of democratic culture that requires the invention of a democratic ecosystem comprising revitalized counter-powers. And this becomes all the more urgent as the digital revolution is making blatently available liberating potentialities that are not spontaneously liberating – wires are not liberating in themselves – but whose social use will either pull them toward a more democratic, transparent, and participative collective appropriation, or toward a misappropriation by the states to spy on us, or by merchandising to trick us. this is the battle. I believe that the digital revolution calls for a democratic revolution in the original sense of the word “revolution”, which designates the occurrence of an event that reshuffles the cards, rethinking modernity while preserving the better tradition.


As a conclusion, I would like to say that sometimes it is necessary to move off center, to the border to consider ourselves, inside-outside. When speaking with, any journalist citizen of a democratic nation, they are amazed by our French use of power. our power arenas seem otherwise heavy, locked-in venues when considered from the perspective of temporarily occupied rule. We have adopted a system that generates more than in any other country, this sense of infinite political life, never- ending careers. this should be a real cause for alarm: there is indeed an economic oligarchy that relies on an unacceptable, disproportionate, scandalous misappropriation of the collective wealth by a few. And what corrupts public affairs is that this business oligarchy supports a political oligarchy whose notion of power is patrimonial. But the world as it is cannot last; it is dying before our eyes because it is not able to respond to the challenges lying ahead. And there lies the problem: what will come out of it? As citizens, we cannot passively contemplate this demise from which, as Gramsci suggested, monsters could suddenly emerge. Faced with this challenge, are we going to let monsters sneak in? or do we have the capacity, in this race against the clock, to reinvent a world whose two magical words – and I fully assume these in spite of a sometimes pervasively cynical environment – should be beauty and goodness?


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