Populisme, les demeurés de l’histoire

by Chantal Delsol

Paris: Éditions du Rocher, 2015

A professor of political philosophy at University of Paris-Est and a member of the Institut de France, Chantal Delsol is undeniably one of France’s most remarkable contemporary scholars. Her latest volume—on the controversial subject of populism—reveals much of her character. It shows her to be a member of an intellectual elite, who has mastered both political theory as well as the French language like few others have; at the same time, it demonstrates her willingness to defend the legitimacy of the voice of the people.

In the past decade, all European countries have seen the rise of populist, anti-establishment parties. For a long time, Germany was the exception; but even there, the migration crisis has now started to challenge the structure of the political parties. The problem is that populism is a controversial and rather undefined concept. It is used by European elites as an insult against those who would defend the interest of the people. But in a democracy, all parties claim to do just that. As Delsol puts it: “The contemporary obsessive fear of populism becomes the most pernicious aspect of contemporary thought”. Indeed, she adds, “[t]here is a certain strangeness in defining a political trend by its imbecility—especially in a democracy, where pluralism and tolerance, in theory, reign despite diverse opinions”. She then asks: “[W]hy do our democracies recuse themselves from their founding principles?”

Going beyond this apparent contradiction, Delsol delves into a well-crafted study of contemporary populism. And in doing so, she teaches the reader a few things about the importance of roots (enracinement), emancipation, and the search for truth.

The idiotès

To better grasp the current populist phenomenon that now seems to be spreading on both sides of the Atlantic, Delsol begins with a careful examination of what the Ancients thought about similar popular movements. According to the Greeks, “someone who belongs to a small group and looks at the world solely from his own perspective, lacking objectivity and distrustful of the universal”, is an idiotès. In such situations, the demagogue chooses to flatter the idiotès, finding ways to nourish the base passions of ‘the many’ instead of aiming at the higher good. In contrast to this, the real citizen “gazes at society according to a common [shared] point of view”.

Plato identifies ‘the many’ with chaos, mediocrity, and the whims of the crowd. Instead, he argues for the superiority of ‘the few’, for which critics have accused him of elitism. Aristotle, in turn, bases his idea of government on phronesis—that is, prudence—which takes into account popular wisdom. Delsol argues that Plato’s apparent elitism is quite similar to the contemporary view of populism. Indeed, she says that “today, a unique [universal] moral truth determines the ends of politics”, while those “who would defend ‘particularisms’ against such an imposed universal” are considered idiots. Thus, like Plato, today’s elites make no distinction between ‘the many’ who reject the need to pursue the common good, and on the other hand, ‘the many’ who are, in fact, guided by prudence, but dismiss the possibility of a priori knowledge—of a “truth provided in advance”

Enlightenment ideology

Delsol then addresses the powerful shift in thinking that occurred with the Enlightenment. Under the influence of Kant, a new understanding of reason acquired the force of absolute, universal truth. The fleeting, questioning reason of the ancients became Reason itself—a so-called truth without any real questioning. In other words, both ideology and abstraction prevailed.

The Enlightenment made “universal and absolute reason triumph in the general will [of the people]”. This was unprecedented. Even Rousseau still thought that the general will was produced by particular interests that were neither universal nor absolute. According to Delsol, Kant went further: he promoted the existence of a universal truth that could be directly grasped and reached by all citizens together—without the mediation of particularisms. There is no longer any mediation between the universal and the particular; the universal is called down from Plato’s Heavens into the actual world.

Delsol concludes that offering a “transcendental dimension to the truth as discovered by the general will bring particular truth down to the level of ontological villainy”. As a consequence, the citizen is no longer one who cares about the common good—something which is necessarily particular to the polis (πόλις)—but rather one who adopts the universal ideology of reason.

Whereas the Ancient citizen sought the interests of his polis rather than of his own private interests, the post-modern citizen must seek the interests of the world rather than those of his own polis. Thus, thinkers in the 18th century made liberation from particularism the new absolute. The Enlightenment can thus be seen, as Delsol convincingly argues, as having invented the ideology of emancipation. Emancipation that is, from the particular, historical, and local.

Populism expresses a reaction against the development of such universalist concepts. “[T]he ideology of emancipation”, she says, “… speaks for all men in time and space, dismisses separations, crosses borders, despises circumstances … it is a vast rationalist enterprise which, if necessary, demolishes the diversity of mores to extend its law as far as possible”.

Intellectuals hubris

“Fed with abstract ideas”, Delsol says, the intellectual elite lives in a world of illusions. Thinking they can liberate people, they take actions but cannot grasp reality. Unsurprisingly, they end up feeling betrayed by the people.

The Soviets experienced this feeling a century ago. Hoping to eradicate misery and build the world anew with the help of revolutionary cadres, Lenin was confronted instead with a people who simply aspired to have a decent way of life and preserve their customs. These desires, according to Lenin, were merely a reflection of bourgeois ideology. But according to Delsol, they were actually the reflection of a simple human need: to be rooted in the reality of life. But too often for intellectual elites—who are blind to such concepts—“reality has no legitimacy”.

Most people cannot accept such ideological experiments. As Delsol writes, “[o]ne does not know of a people who prefer abstraction over the reality of existence. That is why their natural reaction is often rebellion … against the doctrines of the Enlightenment”.

Populist speech

Wanting to understand populism on its own terms, Delsol analyses rhetoric across Europe. In doing so, she reveals the true spirit of populism. Defining populism is a highly challenging undertaking. First of all, populism is never impartial or objective; rather, it denounces and takes sides. Delsol also emphasises the natural tendency of elites to keep power to themselves. Populism becomes attractive, she says, because “[t]he people do not always have the feeling that they are defended by a democracy, although it is meant to do so”. Hence, populism often appears in societies or regimes which are perceived to have what contemporary political scientists call “democratic deficit”.

Populism also appears to be a way of being. Moreover, because populist leaders oppose abstract concepts and are often supported by culturally impoverished people, leaders are often seen as an example of a “living theory”. This can be dangerous. Populists, according to Delsol, also “do not conceptualize their convictions—and that is why one can easily think they have emotions and no convictions”. They proclaim “common things without trying to root them in a body of doctrines or justify them with some philosophy. They have no ideology to present and, even more so, no systems”. Populists believe in some principles but not in the kinds of concepts that would indicate what to do in every circumstance.

Delsol also points to populist criticism of modern individualism, in addition to populism’s antipathy to the “omnipotent state”. “[I]t is logical,” she says, “that criticism of the omnipotent state and criticism of individualism go hand-in-hand since the first engenders the other while answering it”. Thus, while the elites are perceived as “responsible for moral perversions, corruption, and political chicanery”, populists celebrate the individual. Populists, therefore, promote family values and civic virtues at the broad individual level. They grasp onto the concept of identity and belonging, and condemn the homogeneity and uniformity caused by, for example, globalization.

Emancipation and enracinement

Still, Delsol does not entirely dismiss emancipation. She recognizes that it is desirable but difficult. It requires strength—as well as an effort to become more ‘rooted’. “[I]t is no surprise that we see a defence of enracinement [rootedness] among people feeling fragile against the powerful ones”, she says.

However, she regrets both the destructive tendency of emancipation and the paralyzing tendency among popular classes who often resist the advance of progress. This is often expressed in their fear of experimenting and trying new things. “Both temptations are excessive and lead to the absurd”, she says. In her view, communism appears to be the “monstrous conceptualisation of the Enlightenment’s emancipation”, while Nazism is the “monstrous perversion of enracinement in particularism”.

Indeed, this enracinement can become a radical closing off to the koinos (the common). The idiotès can “idolize particularity to the point of loathing difference [or otherness]. This is the specific perversion of Nazism”. Because of Nazism, “Europe currently rejects with horror any idea that opposes individualism and limitless emancipation … and describes ‘identities’ as fundamental human requirements”.

The idiotès is highly resistant to time and space: He is both “against progress” and “against globalization and Europe”. Resentment stems from this resistance. According to the “all powerful ideology of emancipation, it is in the nature of man to deploy himself on these two levels”. But he who cannot, “cannot be happy”, she says. Delsol does not entirely dismiss this language; but she still argues that the populist is an idiotès—in the Greek sense (not an ‘idiot’ in modern parlance).

Nevertheless, Delsol gives more credit to the idiotès. Indeed, she says, “one cannot say, like in ancient Greece, that the popular element leans toward its own private interest, while the elite gives priority to the common interest. Everything is more complicated and is even often inverted”. In my view, we may go further than Delsol on this point: The individualism that has been promoted by liberalism decisively contributed to the destruction of the sense of responsibility among the elites. With such an ethos, it is no surprise that the elites have lost sight of the common good.

From the polis to truth

Delsol’s insights are remarkable. First, she says that in the “popular milieu, people believe that the citizen is not a universal individual living in some abstract country but rather a man incarnated in space and time”. These serve as “bedrocks”, she says, “on which man can lift himself up towards the common good”. At a time of “limitless emancipation”, the people can provide the elites with common sense. Thus, the former should engage with the latter, instead of insulting them. This debate should carry on in mutual respect since “none of the two tendencies—the love of our roots and the appeal of emancipation—is meant to win people over”. In Delsol’s mind, both terms are equally essential and “the West was created with emancipation as a new dogma”. She concludes that “[a] well-ordered political regime should “educate people to work towards emancipation and educate the elites to work towards enracinement—giving to both what they lack”. Such a regime could do this, for instance, “by convincing people of the barbarism of the death penalty”.

All this requires that people seek the truth in the manner of the Greeks—that is, without ideology. In this way, it becomes a personal and philosophical quest, rather than a collective and political one. All political communities are by their nature particular. Because the absolute is always hard (if not impossible) to reach, intellectuals should make an effort not to give in to an excess of emancipation. One should realize that particularisms can point towards universal truth—and that citizens should devote themselves to the good of their own political community. In this, Delsol, who explores all these ideas with verve and nuance, is an excellent guide.