Democracy is sick and those who make the evil worse are far more numerous than it seems

Atlantico: Supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro, opposed to Lula’s return to power, invaded and ransacked Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace in Brasilia on Sunday January 8. After similar events at the Capitol (Washington) two years ago, how can these antidemocratic phenomena be explained? How can one explain that reasonable but disgruntled people end up associating with minorities storming places of power?

Chantal Delsol: Democracy demands a very civilized mind: accepting to lose. Look at the difficult apprenticeship that is imposed on the child so that he does not roll on the ground after having lost in a game. It is a state of mind that includes the notion of opponent, different from that of the enemy, which looks at the good and the true in those who do not think the same. Who undertakes a process of objectivity, in other words: who puts himself outside himself. It is a process of civilization. Also, there are very few peoples who are democratically mature. The Athens of Pericles was. Or England today. But France, surely not: look at what happened in the 2002 presidential elections when Jean-Marie Le Pen passed the first round: part of the left took to the streets, and some teachers even took their students ! What democratic denial!

Stephane Rozes: Political chaos is spreading in the world for deep reasons. Brazil, the first Latin American power, and the United States, the first Western power, are breaking up politically from within. The paradox is that it is in the name of democracy – the power of the people by the people and for the people – that the electorally defeated populists invest after an election the places of power of their representative institutions. They do it in the same way within two powers that are culturally, politically and economically different.

Elsewhere the chaos takes different forms. I give a precise explanation of it in my last book. Societies are falling apart because there is growing challenge to their institutions responsible for holding them together. With economic, financial and digital globalization, governments have left control of the course of things to neoliberal governance bodies. This destabilizes the imagination of each people, their habits and customs and the political institutions that held them together. Populist entrepreneurs, usually from the right or far right, take advantage of this. These are spectacular occupations to say that “the people are us”.

How can we explain that reasonable but disgruntled people come to support figures like Bolsonaro or Trump who, by their outrageousness, provoke situations where a minority storms places of power?

Stephane Rozes: Peoples are driven by collective unconscious, their imaginations, long-lasting ways of being and doing that go back a long way and take individuals on board. When international and national institutions no longer conform to human communities and essential national interests, peoples withdraw and regress to the archaic nature of their imaginations. This is done in a chaotic and violent way by seeking what is first within each people.

In Washington, Sao Paulo and elsewhere, the places of power today seem to them to be emptied of all legitimacy and therefore of symbolism. Democratic taboos are broken. The populists then occupy the places of power in a spectacular way. The crisis of representativeness is based on a crisis of representation and sovereignty.

The political impotence felt because of institutional or sociological blockages pushes people either into abstention and withdrawal, or into radical activism. Is the absence of real political action the only cause?

Chantal Delsol: It is true that today we have an additional problem: a democratic breathlessness which translates into the impotence of those in power, mainly due in my opinion to their lack of courage to carry out the necessary reforms. Citizens are tired of voting for rulers who are one or the other, and whatever their color, incapable of responding to the problems. This generates revolts which are sometimes very legitimate. Why do rulers lack courage? They are just people of their time, armed with gentleness and benevolence, not wanting to offend anyone, afraid of displeasing. Courage is not the main quality of an era that has lived for so long in comfort, peace and freedom.

Stephane Rozes: The absence of political action indexed on the people is the main cause. Whatever the political regime – liberal democracy, authoritarian regime, religious or political totalitarianism – people want to decide their future. It is sovereignty. This sovereignty has two related dimensions. On the one hand, popular sovereignty, good relations and the control of the governed over the rulers. On the other hand, national sovereignty: the fact that the rulers in their decisions depend on their nations from the point of view of their imagination, their way of being and doing and their vital interests. The circumvention of national sovereignty by neoliberal globalization dries up then dislocates popular sovereignty. The peoples then fall into depression, some withdraw from the institutional political game, others make jacqueries, like the Yellow Vests, revolt or wish for a revolution.

Attention, the people cannot support the confrontations within them very a long time, the war with the other nations or empires is often the way out of the crisis of sovereignty and absence of control of their destinies.

In France, the government seems to praise any official word – true and unmistakable – and demonize any dissenting word. Isn’t there a problem of political credibility, which tends to dilute political legitimacy and public speaking? If we often underline the dangerous impacts of populists on democracy, do we too often forget the responsibility of the elites, of the ‘circle of reason’?

Chantal Delsol: Our rulers, French and especially European, think that government is a technical or scientific affair, led by specialists: there is therefore only one policy possible – that’s what Thatcher said: there is no alternative. With this kind of certainty, those who do not think within the circle of reason are devils and fools, to be discarded. It is a profoundly anti-democratic view, which explains the popular anger against it.

Stephane Rozes: You are right. We emphasize precisely this in the book. In the global chaos, France is the eye of the storm. We are the most pessimistic in the world not for economic and social reasons but for political and cultural ones. Our imagination is universalist and projective. To hold France together, we need political visions that stem from common political disputes.

However, the European Union, relayed by the State, on the contrary asks the nation to respect economic disciplines and decision-making procedures, justifications for structural reforms. This neoliberal way of doing things is contrary to our way of being and doing and in line with the ordoliberal German imagination. For us, preventing debate and common political dispute is undermining democracy. In reality, it is the circumvention of national sovereignty or the pretense of overcoming it through supranational and technocratic European institutions that undermine popular sovereignty and the effectiveness of the republican promise. This is the reason for our economic decline and collapse in all areas.

How to explain that no political majority succeeds in integrating the dissatisfaction of the population with regard to democracy?

Chantal Delsol: For this, the so-called populist currents would have to be able to give themselves intelligent, calm and understanding leaders. This is not the case: they are generally taken in hand by excited people who utter nonsense, even by madmen. It is on this that we should reflect: why does this current fail to be correctly represented?

To what extent do social networks have their share of responsibility in protest movements?

Chantal Delsol: Social networks are technical means that allow this contestation, because information advances quickly and everywhere, and because anonymity makes it possible to indulge in abuse of language. It is obvious that the networks allow revolts to spread more quickly in broad daylight. In the past, they would have taken longer.

Stephane Rozes: Social networks are not responsible for what happens, but are the illustration of the period and the amplifier of mobilizations. Neoliberalism and postmodernity are dislocating traditional solidarities and the democratic character of our societies.

The individual unfolds horizontally on social networks freed from the old political verticalities with intermediary bodies and representative institutions. He informs himself, expresses his emotions, displays his convictions and mobilizes in all parts of the world: from anti-globalization movements to the Arab spring, through the movement of yellow vests or ecological mobilizations. But they are always unconsciously animated by different imaginations.

Powers and institutions can disintegrate vertically, individuals can deploy horizontally according to apparently the same technical processes, but they are always moved unconsciously by their differences in investment which proceed from perennial imaginations.

Democracy is sick and those who make the evil worse are far more numerous than it seems