Guillaume Travers is a professor of economics at various business schools and a contributor to Éléments. He is the author of several books focused on mediaeval economy and guilds. He sat down for an interview with Livr’Arbitres to talk about politics, political practices, and what history can teach us.
Courtesy of Institut Iliade, we are happy to reproduce this interview in English for our readers.
How would you define the term political?
Let’s take a look at the etymology of the word politics. It comes from the Greek polis, a term that encompasses all aspects of the existence of communities. Therefore, politics is concerned with everything that connects us to our province, our people, and our civilisation. Carl Schmitt argues that politics is defined by the division between friend and foe. As soon as one recognizes that each man is a member of a community, one has to accept as a consequence the multiplicity of human communities. The question of the boundaries between communities and their stability is crucial. In this context, the distinction between friend and foe is often misunderstood. Schmitt points out the difference between friends and foes in the private and the political spheres. Private friendship or hostility is politically irrelevant: these are bred of subjective emotions based on individual feelings. On the contrary, friendship and hostility in the political field are built upon the acknowledgement of the multiplicity of communities and peoples.
One shows his political behaviour by stressing the fact that each nation has its own interests to stand for. Political friendship comes from the temporary alignment of interests between two peoples. This same principle applies to political hostility. When that is understood, it becomes immediately clear that the political enemy is never an absolute enemy. Today’s foe may be tomorrow’s friend.
Let me add two other ideas, which are also often misunderstood. First, using Schmitt as a reference, many would like to rank decision making or the ability to make decisions as the primary criterion of politics, which counters those who would reduce political activity to managing technical and administrative matters. That does not sound satisfactory to me, simply because those decisions can be just as easily in favour as they can be against the essential interest of a people. Only when a decision fits within the framework of the friend and foe distinction can it be qualified as political. So it is that kind of decision, and not the decision by itself, that forms the foundation of political activity.
Second, a point that is particularly relevant in the light of the recent outbreak of war in Europe, a right understanding of what politics stands for is essential in order to defuse tension. One must admit that each political community has legitimate interests to defend. A political body must never aim to totally squash another; on the contrary, it should be open to differing points of interest. Only on this basis can an equilibrium be found. Peace can only be achieved by striking a balance between two sides and their interests.
Who do you think are the great characters, historical and contemporary, who best embody and serve the notion of politics?
A great political leader is capable of asserting the interests of his people, without trying to impose it universally. Take colonisation as an example; those two ideas were in conflict with each other in this period. On the one hand, there was a universalist vision, championed by the French Republic, among others; on the other hand was a rightly ordered political vision defended by Hubert Lyautey, who said, “The Africans are not inferior, they are others.” Finding examples amongst more recent political characters is not easy, because, at least in Europe, universalist—and therefore apolitical—ideals have become so popular that very few men in power have not joined to support their implementation.
In the post-war period, we can find examples of those kinds of characters in non-aligned countries: men who had a balanced vision of the world order and refused to submit their countries to either Soviet or American imperialism. This line was difficult to hold, and many non-aligned countries eventually drew closer to the USSR. In the present time, we can look to those nations that are resisting globalist values. In Europe, the best example seems to me to be Viktor Orbán.
What is the difference between politics and political practices?
Political practices are the processes used to designate the officials for public assignments. The unprecedented fact in our times is that many people can spend their careers engaged in political practices without ever serving politics. They are satisfied with carrying out day-to-day management in line with the demands of the market or with universalist morals. They are unable to make decisions that commit positively to the identity of their people or of their community.
Are there major political stakes in a presidential election, or is it a fool’s game?
We shouldn’t expect too much from elections for two reasons. First, because there are powers more powerful than our elected politicians—e.g., corporate powers. They will not be changed by the election. Second, the existing system has an outstanding ability to wipe out whatever might represent a threat. However, it would be a mistake to totally underestimate the elections. They can provide an opportunity to push forward certain themes in public opinion and to elevate the ideological front line. Most of the time, political groups and associations are heard only by a minute part of the population. The presidential election offers the advantage that, for a couple of weeks or more, important themes can be developed on a national scale.
Politics seem to be almost everywhere, present in ecology to economics. What areas of human life remain beyond the political sphere?
I think we should be careful to agree with the claim that art, ecology, and other activities have become political. The opposite is true. As I mentioned, politics strictly speaking is concerned with the community and what is deeply rooted in certain peoples. In this world, everything is political. Music reveals a person’s soul; art reveals their own esthetic sensibility, and so on. When someone today states that “everything is political,” we understand the exact opposite. Modern art, for example, represents nothing particular. It limits itself to carrying out abstract universalists or humanitarian messages, which are therefore disconnected from a people’s specificities. In other words, what is today called political ecology is most of the time the exact opposite to politics in the classical sense. It is a rootless ecology, with no connection to national life.
I would like to add one more point. In our movement of ideas, it is frequent to speak for the autonomy of political matters, so as to separate it from economics, justice, religion, morals, and so on. That seems to me to be a huge mistake. What we must claim is the superiority of politics (i.e. the distinction between us and them) and its connection with all the other fields of human activity. In a world of communities rooted in their homelands, the morals and the laws predominant in a land are not separated from politics, but live a harmonious and common existence. Insisting on the separation of politics from the rest of human life is dangerous and few seem to be aware of that. If politics could be totally dissociated from economics, for example, we could have politics deeply rooted, and an economy totally separated from a nation, which is absurd.
I note that Carl Schmitt, who is often associated with this idea of separation, seems to have seen its limits towards the end of his life, particularly in his books about Hobbes. Let us, on the contrary, integrate various aspects of human life under the umbrella of politics.