Knowledge and democracy
I would like to start by saying how pleased I am to have been able work with Albert Ogien and Sandra Laugier for a long time now. We clearly have a common purpose, namely the attempt to link sociology and philosophy, being persuaded that, in the current state of affairs, much of the renewal in political thought – something widely deemed necessary in our field – depends on this undertaking.
In our latest book Cyril Lemieux and I have nevertheless sought to tie the two disciplines together in a different way, on different bases, leading perhaps to different conclusions. There are some points where your book shares our initial diagnosis, and others where there is some distance between us. I am going to start from your undertaking as I understand it. And first of all, since the title of this evening is “socialism and democracy”, I note that your book says little about socialism, and a lot more about democracy.
It addresses democracy in terms of what challenges it, by which I mean the forces working against it. Antidémocratie is literally an apology, a defense of democracy. It is a defense against forces of two different orders. First, forces that could be called nationalist, even fascistic, that the book tackles under the two dominant themes of sovereignty and identity. Second, elite or elitist forces, let us say elite neoliberal forces, that use the disqualifying category of “populism” to better re-establish or reinforce a government by the elites, in order to pursue liberal or more precisely neoliberal policies. Let us note that the reason it is more appropriate to speak of neoliberalism is because a defining characteristic of the forces encountered on this side of the picture is the need, if liberalism is to be fully realized, to go beyond it. That is to say, to bring itself about it needs to go beyond the political liberalism of subjective rights, and beyond the classical figure of the liberal subject (by adopting strategies that Foucault clearly foreshadowed in his lectures on the birth of biopolitics).
We therefore have a configuration based on three terms: democracy opposed to nationalism and neoliberalism. And this set-up functions to the detriment of democracy, as an anti-democracy using populism as an operator. Populism is an accusation wielded by neoliberalism in order to disqualify democracy, or the democracy camp – what we could define as democratism. I will be using this category in what follows, for I believe it provides a fairly accurate definition of your position. Thus your defense of democracy needs to show that populism is a category that may be used to falsely encapsulate two contradictory elements, to melt down nationalism and democratism in a false synthesis, thereby denying the specificity of democratism. That explains why we may observe a to-ing and fro-ing between nationalism and neoliberalism, a reciprocal reinforcement, in which both feed into the other. The more nationalism grows, the more justified neoliberalism is in its accusation of populism – and the more democracy, or democratism, disappears from view, weakened and stifled by the polemical category deployed.
But your book goes beyond this initial, ultimately negative observation. It puts forward a second diagnosis, namely that democratism is not in fact invisible, that it cannot in fact be so – regardless of all the forces working to disqualify it. Your attention is drawn to the “political turmoil” to be found amongst movements for freedom and equality, materializing on all sides. You situate these in several places. The plane of reference you assign, and consequently on which you base your analysis, is that of “civil society”, in that it is the seat of the “people”, not of populism. These movements mark the emergence and constant reinforcement – despite everything counteracting them – of a trend towards democratisation in taking charge of common matters. I quote a passage that strikes me as particularly significant in this respect:
Everyone feels that there is a direct relationship between a demand for freedom, equality, and justice, and the fact that it be publicly voiced by a group of people who are clearly in a dominated, or minority, position. In other words, the accusation of ‘populism’ does not apply to those who defend a cause endowed with a legitimacy it is hard to deny1.
This passage brings out a basic presupposition of your approach. It shows that the point of departure for democratism is the democracy of rights, which is fundamentally rooted in the right or the demanded right of those in a dominated or minority position. Herein lies the “legitimacy it is hard to deny” in a democratic society, or one imbued with democratism. I admit I stumbled over this formula. I understood “hard to deny” from the point of view of common opinion deemed to be healthy. However, there is no anchoring provided for this common opinion, no description of the norm on which it is regulated. For the time being, let us simply remarked that, from your point of view, in a society such as ours the legitimacy of demands resides ultimately on the demand of those to whom rights are refused or denied. The reason these demands need to be is heard because they are voiced from a dominated position, covered by the majority positioned within institutional legality. Hence the second passage that I quote because it complements the first, while also radicalizing the proposition, as it compels us to distinguish between two meanings of the word democracy:
Democracy as a form of life and force for democratization is increasingly employed as a resource to transform ways of acting in politics. This desire to transform and improve democracy is, in turn, continually resisted by democracy as an institution2.
Consequently, true democratism occurs in a state of tension that borders on opposition to democracy as encapsulated in the institutional order. I used democratism to describe the political tendency, but it would be more accurate to speak of democratizationism, however unwieldy the word might be. This is what continually washes over the barriers thrown up against it by the factual alliance, or to-ing and fro-ing, between nationalism and neoliberalism armed with the false category of populism as its main ideological operator.
I agree with the first part of the diagnosis. I believe that the reconstitution of the political problem as a trihedral, as three tendencies structuring our experience, is absolutely correct, and illuminating. Debates about opinion tend to make the mistake of dividing politics into two terms. But adopting the perspective afforded by the social sciences allows for due analytical complexity, allowing us to apprehend a dynamic in which three terms are in conflict, with all the variable configurations and reversals that this makes possible. Modern politics cannot be analyzed correctly without using this type of schema. Cyril Lemieux and I have also sought to describe the general situation along similar, tripartite lines. Only we do not define the three in exactly the same manner. Let us start with where we agree. Overall, your diagnosis overlaps with our diagnosis in that we posit that the two ideological currents constitutive of modernity are mutually consolidating, and highlight the urgent need to strengthen a third current channeling a genuine democratic impulse. Furthermore, we can also agree on the fact that this third pole is not as diminished as it is reputed to be, since it cannot in fact collapse, and may be observed empirically. It cannot disappear because it constitutes a basic tendency of our political condition and political history.
The difference arises when we come to describe this more precisely. For it is directly, and not secondarily, that we name this third current socialism. We too link it to democracy, but in a way wholly different to democratism or democratizationism. And the major sign of this difference resides in the link we seek to bring out between connaissance – or savoir, we could even say intellectuality – and democracy. [Translator's note: French naturally distinguishes between things that are known directly, that one is acquainted with (connaître), and facts that one knows (savoir). This distinction maps out towards their derivative nouns. Connaissance refers to any (general body of) knowledge, savoir refers to intellectual constructs, and is associated with the idea of scientific inquiry. This distinction was developed by Foucault, for whom connaissance refers to particular disciplines of knowledge, whereas savoir refers to the discursive conditions necessary for connaissance, and as such is the precondition for connaissance.] The implications of this link may only be properly understood if socialism is posited as the principle of democracy and democratization. In other words, it is a very specific democratic form that the socialist perspective is destined to bring into view, and that is what I feel is missing in your description. But that supposes that we consent to a difficult move, namely that we do not – or not too hastily – take the democracy of subjective and even minority rights to be the principle of socialism. This is the great difficulty, and we may hypothesize that the diffidence you insist upon is not in fact the most important one. You speak of the “disinclination on towards democracy”, the hidden mechanism generating the polemical category of populism. By that you mean a diffidence towards the idea that politics is everybody's business. But who is this “everybody”? It is when we ask this question that the focus genuinely shifts. The “everybody” of a democratic society is primarily the “everybody” who seeks to have self-knowledge, placed at the disposal of self-regulation. But in the wake of our analysis, as opposed to yours, we tend to suspect that there is a disinclination or resistance even towards socialism, leading to an erroneous conception of democracy. A conception that plainly comes laden with liberal prejudices, even when it declares itself opposed to neoliberalism.
Conversely, we hold there is a clearly visible path to removing this resistance, namely rebuilding the true link that holds between disciplinary knowledge (connaissance) and democracy. To schematize, this link must involves the social rehabilitation of a sociological mode of thought. Let us the clear, it presupposes repositioning the novelty and insights of this mode of thought at the centre of our ways of thinking about and interpreting reality, of according it a centrality that is currently disputed in the way our societies function, and particularly in the way political problems are configured. Were we to set off down this path, let me note in passing, it would establish a different relationship to what we mean by institution. So I wholly disagree with the second quotation I read out. For me, the institutions of democracy matter not for absolute reasons, but for reasons relative to the centrality of the social sciences in our collective consciousness and our capacity to think and elaborate common norms. In other words, they matter insofar as democracy is that of a society that thinks about itself, and undertakes to know itself sociologically. By extension, a society that knows itself sociologically cannot but become ever more democratic, that is to say make its norms ever more and better justifiable in the eyes of and by all. The institutions produced by such a society, informed by the social sciences, are understood as mechanisms not only for legal action, but also for linking up collective action in meaningful, justifiable ways. Perceived in this way, our relationship to them undergoes transformation.
Your vision and the one I am trying to sketch out converge in at least one place. The present situation lies along the line where three major ideological currents intersect. And modernity interprets itself using disciplinary frameworks and constructs that display varying degrees of affinity with the major ideological currents of socialism, nationalism, and liberalism. But we need to appreciate what sets this trihedral in motion, an impulsion which is both political and intellectual. There is no point in trying to escape this movement, insofar as there is no point in wanting or hoping one particular current to win out and erase the positions expressed in the other two, which necessarily arise in different places and different times of social evolution as political problems emerge and need addressing. But within this trihedral it makes perfect sense to wish to establish the hegemony of one ideology. Political modernity needs to be analyzed in what could be termed a Gramscian mode (which, for that matter, if understood in these terms, fully conforms to the way sociology apprehends political debate). It is a matter of introducing hegemony within an ideological structure in which we are in any event immersed.
But what we also need to note is that what triggers this structure, what explains its formation in sociological terms, is nothing other than the upsurge of liberalism. We depend on liberalism in that we are modern and it cannot be eliminated from social differentiation and from progress in how our societies are structured – indeed, it is virtually a prime aspect of this. It is also characterizes a movement that individualizes and simultaneously disembeds from the economy. By this we need to understand a movement that is equally, and as a corollary, a differentiation of activities, of actors, and of how actors perceive their activity as generated by themselves in their capacity as individuals. We must not neglect any of these three aspects. This explains the major phenomenon attributable to the upsurge of liberalism and, it is true, inseparable from any genuine, sociologically analyzable democratization. For actors de-anchor themselves from subgroups, including the collective body regulating the existence of individuals, without having any purchase over these rules so as to examine them, question their meaning, and thereby envisage their transformation.
This is what gives rise to democratization. It proceeds from free examination, and its principle is thus bound up with what we call criticism, or the actors' critical faculties. And its emergence is inseparable from the upsurge of liberalism, an eminently modern phenomenon, in which social classes are formed endowed with a certain self-awareness, and where the normative power and absolute legitimacy of the old states, corporations, families, and status organizations are called into question. But this upsurge brings risks, and does collateral damage, for it is an individualizing phenomenon, with a dimension that dissolves regulated relationships, something that modernity confronts as its specific challenge. It corresponds to the dynamic of differentiation, triggering a series of reactions from society overall, reactions which signal its recomposition in tune with norm-legitimizing principles other than those undermined by criticism. What makes this reaction all the stronger and more imperious is that liberalism presents itself as a credo in which society is reconstituted as a “market society”, grounded exclusively in inter-individual agreement on private interests.
The two reactions to the upsurge of liberalism are conservatism and socialism. There are therefore two ways of responding to the socialization required by liberal individualization and its subsequent ramifications. The strength of socialism, in comparison to conservative nationalism, is that it is an eminently modern reaction – pro-modern, not anti-modern – in that it consists in looking for new rules within democratization itself. But it does this by redefining democratization as the condition for a new totalization of society by looking into detail and examining differentiation and the new rules it calls into being. That is where its internal link to sociology transpires. For we need to set about understanding this social differentiation in order to tease out the inherent rules to which it is susceptible – the new relationships of justice it conveys and which cannot be reduced to satisfying the individual interests –, to be known. The inherent strength of socialism is that it internally binds politics and disciplinary knowledge (connaissance), or at least a certain form of knowledge. Its strength is that it steers free examination in a certain direction, seeking out the just relationships moderns are capable of in so far as their societies are different and are thereby configured in new ways. This bond between differentiation and knowledge necessarily triggers the creation and emergence of the scholarly framework (savoir) of sociology, or the social sciences.
In your book, you seem to broadly subscribe to this idea. But you do not unpack it and it all its consequences, because you are too dependent on a liberal blueprint to describe democratisation, namely subjective rights and the individual point of view of subjects wronged by incomplete, insufficiently reflexive differentiation. It seems to me that this provides insufficient leverage for re-endowing socialism with its centre of gravity. Besides, this fits a dominant conception of democracy in political philosophy, anterior to the rupture wrought in it by the social sciences. This transpires in several ways.
First, allow me to repeat that it prevents the link between knowledge and politics from being rebuilt in all its signification. In tackling this question, you place yourself in the orbit of pragmatism, pragmatic rationality, and the spontaneous formation on the rocks of liberalism of a community of questioners. This you oppose to an abstract and dogmatic theory of knowledge (connaissance). To my mind this opposition is in itself too abstract. Pragmatism clearly has far-reaching implications in sociology, particularly in current developments in the sociology of action. But it is, precisely, a method for scientific inquiry (savoir). In this instance, its contribution is in the sociology of democratic practices. But it should not be taken to resolve the relationship between knowledge (connaissance) and politics societies need if they are to develop along socialist lines. That conflates the pragmatic method in sociology and pragmatist political philosophy. The theories of participatory democracy you expand upon flit from one to the other. And I doubt that theories of participatory democracy can reach the point needed to defend the singularity of a socialist politics, together with the specific type of intellectuality it presupposes and promotes.
The sociological step constitutive of socialism, its specific rationality, is inseparable from adopting a holistic point of view, a perspective of totalization, in that it is a reaction to liberalism. That is what makes this form of rationality a difficult cognitive move. Knowing in this case is completely redefined in the light of this necessary step, based on laws specific to the structure of a group, of a society that is always composed of subgroups and not just individuals. The reason the social sciences differ from political philosophy on this point is because they take as their starting point socialized individuals, and thus reason using the principle of groups, of class relationships if you prefer to adopt Marxist vocabulary. Knowing as a socialist, knowing in a way that enables socialism to become hegemonic, involves making it possible for this type of knowledge to be brought about, establish institutional frameworks within which it can progress and be increasingly actualized.
It may be objected that this engenders a technocracy, a government of scholars, cut off from the ordinary frameworks of knowledge (savoirs) used by actors. But that is wrong. It is one thing to say that a genuinely democratic society is driven by a demand for scholarly understanding of social relationships, and strives ever harder and more successfully to guarantee the place and dissemination of its enquiries throughout society. It is quite another to place experts in power. For in this case the scholars are, precisely, not political officeholders.
I want to be clear about this point, for it may be that it is the nub of entire disagreement. Your book argues forcefully against the idea of government by experts, and quite rightly so. But in its place you instigate what could be called democratism by judgment. You return to this on numerous occasions, asserting that countering the disinclination towards democracy entails admitting that all citizens are inherently, as citizens, sufficiently qualified to take part in the legislative process.
I believe this to be false. It is not all citizens as citizens who are qualified. As citizens they are justified in criticizing the injustice of the law using all the means at their disposal, and in reference to the spirit presiding over its constitution, in this instance human rights and thus the principles of equality and freedom. That is how I understand the formula I stumbled over in the first passage I quoted from, the legitimacy that “everyone feels […] it is hard to deny”. It is not because everyone feels it that everyone therefore understands it, that is say understands what an injustice represents for society overall. Admittedly, that in no way contravenes the emergence of criticism. If you mean that all citizens, as citizens, are justified in voicing their criticism, you are right. That is the political meaning of their action. It is the absolutely essential “ordinary advocate” function of the modern citizen. The ordinary advocate partaking in criticism is a pillar of democracy, and a pillar of socialism. But that does not imply a contribution to politics at the level of deliberation, at the level of the circuit of knowledge to which deliberation is subject once it operates within a socialist vision of modern society, and if we want this vision to truly differ from liberalism and nationalism.
"Croquis pour servir à l'histoire de l'éloquence", painting, 1910, Albert Eloy-Vincent.
This contribution involves several orders of mediation, involving the crucial relationship between knowledge and politics, as a relationship between specialized producers who are themselves the product of social differentiation. Once societies engender sociological self-awareness – something that socialism shows to be necessary – mechanisms are built up that link opinion, knowledge of social processes, and political institutions, but without conflating the three. This no doubt all rests on the educational facilities of a given society. Socialism, and the democracy it gives rise to, therefore starts with reform to the education system, connecting these educational systems to the generation of specialized scholarship (savoirs) enabling us to reflect on and analyze shared rules. Unlike conservatism and liberalism, socialism takes education and inculcating a form of intellectuality that encourages the emergence of sociological knowledge as the principle guiding its policy. It is true that politicians exist, and are for that matter legitimately subject to the criticism of the ordinary advocate, of the citizen of state. But whatever these politicians do, they are subject – and this is the specificity, the prime discrimen of a socialist politics – to the prime requirement of fostering a certain type of education angled towards thinking about the legitimacy and justification of norms, in all those spheres of action in which actors are involved. That is what we may rightly call social democracy, in that it is distinct from the democratization of liberal-style subjective rights.
A final gap in relation to what you say in your book is the way in which you treat nationalism, and the problem associated with the polemical category of populism.
I agree that the nationalist reaction arguably represents the greatest peril currently facing us. We may rightly see in the return of fascism a very present danger in Europe and throughout the world. A fascism, for that matter, which has the good conscience to guarantee – to those it selects, that is – all the benefits of liberalism, or rather of neoliberalism, which is compatible with fascism since it has cast itself free from the classical form of egalitarian liberal humanism. But this diagnosis, however justified, obscures the possibility of building the right holistic argument against its nationalist captation. This presupposes addressing the classes inclined towards nationalism, and for that matter towards socialism, that is to say the classes that are moved to react (which does not at all mean that they are reactionary classes). This needs to be done without losing sight of the fact that these classes are first and foremost individuals. It enables individuals to constitute themselves within these classes, reflect on their rights, and demand them as part of an overarching society on which they necessarily have a particular perspective. The issue, in short, as have already said, is not to tackle the disinclination towards democracy, but the resistance towards socialism.
Merely opposing the democracy of rights to nationalism will not take us anywhere. It does nothing to dismantle the actual alliance between the seeming opposites of nationalism and liberalism. Nationalism is a reaction, just as socialism is, we said in our book. This has a consequence. The urgent sociological need is for a sociology of the resistance to socialism. For this resistance results in reaction tipping only one way, due to a lopsided way of thinking about what a national society truly is in a globalised world in which there are both states and nations.
Answer by Sandra Laugier and Albert Ogien : Expertise versus the ordinary
The reason we suggested calling this discussion “rethinking democracy and socialism” is because the analyses set out in the two books we have just published – Bruno Karsenti's Socialisme et sociologie and our Antidémocratie – are a major stage in our long-running conversation on the place of the social sciences in the public sphere. Both books observe that traditional political organizations are no longer able to carry forward the project to establish a society that would foster emancipation, and that this project needs to be entirely rebuilt. Bruno Karsenti’s and Cyril Lemieux’s analysis therefore seeks to reformulate the idea of socialism, whereas ours is based on the observation of the democratic practices implemented by citizen groups outside the official bodies of representation. Karsenti's highly interesting interpretation of our work brings out a few of the points of difference between our respective critical engagements with the current political situation.
In this reply to the criticisms raised by Bruno Karsenti, we will go over the three main points in our debate: the relationship between democracy and liberalism; the distinction between socialism and democracy; and, lastly, acknowledging the political capacity of ordinary citizens.
Democracy and liberalism
The first charge Karsenti lays against our analysis is that it is based on a “liberal” conception of democracy, leading us to advocate individualization and lose sight of the totality of the social order. According to him, our overreliance on a liberal blueprint prevents us from “describing democratization”. But this charge is based on two ideas we have sought to dismantle in our works, not only in our recently published Antidémocratie but also in Le principe démocratie3 which offers a thorough explanation of our position. The first misunderstanding consists in considering all demands for democracy as expressing the “individual point of view of subjects wronged by incomplete […] differentiation” which is thus “insufficiently reflexive”. The second proceeds from adopting a concept of liberalism predominantly deduced from a scholastics prioritizing individual freedom (leaving aside a whole range of liberal thought, especially the defense of rights). This selective reading reduces liberalism to an ideology of personal merit and effort, leading in only one direction, namely the atomization of society through competition and through the individualization inherent in the distribution of subjective rights. Such a definition does not apply to what we have been studying over the past ten or so years, namely new forms of political action.
Our way of thinking about democracy and democratization has in fact been built up on a wholly different level to that of Karsenti and Lemieux. Together with many others whose work invokes at times differing forms of pragmatism, we focus on concrete, everyday experiences of democracy in regimes long endowed with mechanisms of representative government. For us, this experience – in which members of modern nation-states are immersed – stems from the to and fro motion between what we call democracy as regime (institutions and the law), and democracy as form of life (the aspiration for a collective life rid of all forms of domination, together with the defense of multiple ways of being). As shown in Le principe démocratie, it is this incessant dialectic which binds the demands of the governed to the decisions of those who govern which gives life to the democratic public sphere.
In this realm, claiming a new right is never an individual undertaking, for this right always concerns a group of individuals struggling to obtain it, and is generally called for in the name of a universal principle (such as equality, freedom, justice, or dignity). The same holds for the demand for “real democracy”, or the full realization of democracy that has been at the heart of the political turmoil affecting numerous societies around the world since 2011, whether they belong to the West or not. The slogans, indignations, and desire to oust outdated leaders have been the same. Claiming democracy, or that its broken promises be kept, denouncing the way finance dominates life, aspiring for non-distorted forms of representation, calling for corrupt politicians to be sent packing, demanding an end to austerity policies and a decent treatment of migrants, calling for greater citizen control over how policy is defined and applied – in none of this do we see anything resembling “subjective rights” which, if obtained, would lead to society dissolving into individualism.
Like us, Karsenti sees in this turmoil the emergence of what he calls "tendencies towards democratization". But he refuses to admit that these actions are genuinely political in nature, in that their apparent indetermination means they can just as easily be taken up by nationalism or liberalism. And for Karsenti, it is only in deliberately adopting a "socialist" perspective that these initiatives could claim to make any real contribution to some form of democratization. Where does the difference lie? It lies in the significance granted to democratization.
Socialism as a mode of knowledge
Karsenti defines socialism as
an eminently modern reaction [to conservative nationalism] – pro-modern, not anti-modern – in that it consists in looking for new rules within democratization itself. But it does this by redefining the latter as the condition for a new totalization of society by deepening and examining differentiation and the new rules it calls into being.
In a word, socialism is an undertaking whose object is to have knowledge of social differentiation so as to found a more just society. For him,
this bond between differentiation and knowledge necessarily triggers the creation and emergence of the scientific knowledge produced by sociology, or by the social sciences.
This conception of socialism strikes us as pretty mysterious. Karsenti and Lemieux's socialism is an activity of knowledge that a society undergoing a process of differentiation – the shift from mechanical solidarity towards organic solidarity, as Durkheim would put it – produces about itself in order to fulfill a need for totalization. They make the further bold hypothesis that without such knowledge this need cannot be satisfied – a statement that will perplex many anthropologists and sociologists. Such a definition is based on a theory of modernity in which societies are inevitably subject to the “reflexive” obligation of having to know themselves if they are to prevail and legitimately reproduce themselves. It carefully avoids the fact that, in ordinary speech, the idea of socialism is quite simply associated with a political doctrine advocating the transformation of the order of domination imposed by capitalism. It also shuns any reference to the political organizations (parties and trade unions) that structure their activities around this doctrine, defending – in parliament and on the streets – the most exploited and oppressed fringes of the population, and organizing the conquest of state power to put an end to this oppression denounced on the grounds of equal rights. So why use the word socialism? Things become even more troubled once we realize that nothing in this definition specifies the nature of the totalization effected by socialism (is it purely intellectual, or is it practical, and why not authoritarian ?). Nor are we told what should be the internal structure of society thus reconfigured (is the class hierarchy modified, and if so to what effect?) or the types of action to be used to reach it (is it a matter of revolution or reformism?). Until these answers are spelled out, socialism, absorbed in reflexivity, is emptied of the “political” ambition embodied in a project for social change.
Karsenti and Lemieux thus argue that socialism is a matter of “intellectuality” as it allows to found the organization of society on knowledge of the effects of social differentiation. And this intellectuality is directly linked to the production of a sociological knowledge. This is a delicate construct, in that it has more to do with a research hypothesis (the emergence of a scientific discipline made possible by the social circumstances in which it has been elaborated, and reciprocally to a political proposition anchored in such an intellectual construction) than with any true shared use of the word socialism. As we observed in Antidémocratie, however tempting it may be, it is pointless to legislate, especially as intellectuals, on common usage of words which people make us of independently of our definitions. “Socialism” retains its party-political meaning and its rallying power. This is no doubt why, since the advent of neoliberal ideology, it has been designated a scapegoat – something Karsenti and Lemieux laudably seek to counter. But for all that, it still articulates a hope for concrete social transformation. It is surprising to read in their work that the distinctive characteristic of socialism is to establish “sociological knowledge as the principle guiding its policies”, rather than, say, fighting inequality, injustice, and discrimination in the distribution of wealth and power that favor a minority of the population and deprive the majority of the benefits of progress. Of course, one could imagine that the goal of sociological knowledge is indeed to initiate some such policy. But what conception of democracy is implicit in the idea that sociological competence is the sole criterion for thinking about the political?
Without yet getting involved in this debate, which is at the root of the divergence between us, we may briefly pause to consider the conclusion they draw, namely that education reform is the central guarantor of democracy. Karsenti points out that he and Lemieux too associate socialism to democracy, but differently from “democratism” [which according to him would be our option]. And he sees the major sign of this difference in the kind of link we draw between knowledge and democracy. According to him, “the implications of such a link may only be properly understood if socialism is viewed as the principle of democracy and democratization. In other words, it is a very specific democratic form that the socialist perspective is destined to bring about, and that is what I feel is missing in your description”. But what is this thing we are said to have missed?
We need to follow Karsenti's reasoning a little further:
once societies engender sociological self-awareness—something that socialism shows to be necessary – mechanisms are built up which link opinion, knowledge of social processes, and political institutions, but without conflating the three.
This is based on the “educational facilities of a given society”. Socialism “and the democracy it gives rise to” start by reforming the school system and connecting educational systems to “the generation of specialized knowledges enabling us to reflect”. The principle of socialism is thus “education and inculcating a form of intellectuality that encourages the emergence of sociological knowledge”. In short, the acquisition of sociological knowledge is the precondition for any form of democratic education.
Karsenti clearly sees the charge this idea is open to:
it may be objected that this engenders a technocracy, a government of scholars, cut off from the ordinary knowledge used by actors. But that is wrong. It is one thing to say that a genuinely democratic society is driven by a demand for scholarly understanding of social relationships, and strives ever harder and more successfully to guarantee the place and dissemination of its enquiries throughout society. It is quite another to place experts in power. For in this case the scholars are, precisely, not political office holders.
This assertion needs to face two objections. Do the governed need this knowledge to democratize democracy? And who will be in charge of applying this knowledge, once produced, and “guarantee[ing] the dissemination of its inquiries throughout society”, and under what forms?
If truth be told, we do not believe it is still feasible to require schools to answer the political question raised by democracy, that of a regime in which the principle of universal suffrage establishes formal equality between all its members, and thus equal political capacity. It is not possible to countenance that prior authorization be required, or some knowledge condition met, in order for the members of a democratic society to enter politics. In other words, it is unlikely that (even the worst) authorities would introduce a permit for voting and for public speech reserving these rights to the most qualified citizens, even if this expertise is defined solely in terms of the sociological capacity integrated within a school system connected to “reflexivity”. And not, for example, on discovering the democratic power of literary texts, as advocated for example by Martha Nussbaum in Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities4. For her, the requirements a democracy places on its citizens are participation, open-mindedness and independence of thought, qualities that can only be obtained by acquiring the empathetic and critical faculties which, she argues, are developed and cultivated by the arts and humanities – not particularly by sociology. For us, it is not a matter of disputing the value for democratic education of one discipline over another, but simply of questioning the epistemic privilege accorded to sociology, even understood as reflexivity. Without mentioning the education that experience and the outdoors may provide, as Dewey said.
In any case it is not clear how another schooling reform could solve the pressing problem of the relationship between ordinary citizens and experts, elites (of scholarship and power), and political avant-gardes. Continuing in Karsenti's register, these trivial questions are related to a very old quarrel over method. What type of teaching leads to the production of an active, conscious, and vigilant citizen who would make it possible to realize the promises of emancipation bound up in the concept of democracy? Elitist civic education at the school of the republic? An education based on freedom as advocated by Dewey, Decroly, and Freinet? Or an education that would perfect sentiment and expression, along the lines set out by Emerson and Nussbaum? Karsenti appears to place himself in the orbit of the first type of teaching, based on “scientific” knowledge of social mechanisms from which a model of society may be deduced. We would more readily subscribe to the two other types, based around the inquiry and experimentation of a body of citizens who work to solve by their own means a problem concerning all of them. Karsenti rightly sees the influence of Dewey in this preference. And he justifies his criticism of this perspective by positing that the
contribution [of pragmatism] is in the sociology of democratic practices. It should not be taken to resolve the relationship between knowledge and politics that societies need if they are to develop along socialist lines.
But how are we to be sure that what Karsenti calls the “sociology of democratic practices” leads to the political? And who can claim to provide definitive knowledge about these democratic practices which are diverse and infinite in number, and about which we know nothing? What we are arguing against is precisely this top-down view of “democratic practices”, as if any expert could produce a “sociology” of them.
Hence Karsenti's most fundamental criticism, of what he calls “the theories of participatory democracy” that our works are said to “expand upon” and which “flit” from the description of practices to the noble “resolution of the relationship between knowledge and politics that societies need if they are to develop along socialist lines”. We do not in fact claim to know what “societies need”, a methodological difference that no doubt resumes the others. Second, we do not defend the “theories of participatory democracy”. Karsenti quite rightly doubts that such theories “can reach the point needed to defend the singularity of a socialist politics, together with the specific type of intellectuality it presupposes and promotes”. But who said there was any need to reach this point in order to defend what we all happily agree to defend?
Citizens’ political capacity
Once again, it is a matter of whether one defines democracy in a radical manner or not. To our mind the issue of democracy is that of extending the right of organized groups of citizens to intervene in affairs and decisions concerning them. What we call “autonomous political practices” (those emanating from what is too leniently referred to as “civil society”) and which form the subject matter of our books – be it civil disobedience, democratic practices in the public sphere, or political movements emerging independently of parties – suggest there is no need to “know as a socialist” or attain any type of intellectuality in order to democratize society. All that is required is to get organized and act in a way conducive to radicalizing democracy. And the reasons these practices are grounded in (pertaining to the environment, education, health, the economy, institutions, science, agriculture, energy, and other subjects that grass-roots movements are currently involved in today) draw their legitimacy from the degree of expertise these groups may acquire or put forward. Yes, it is also a question of education, and of knowledge. But this “knowledge” is not strictly speaking “socialist”, though it amply fits the definition provided by Karsenti.
From this point of view, what counts in current public debate is not so much “participatory democracy”, which we regard as a redundant and fairly meaningless expression, but the very question of how individuals contribute to the production of knowledge which is directly related to the way Karsenti accounts for the relationship between knowledge and politics by anchoring socialism in sociology. It is here that reference to Dewey's analysis of what he calls the “constitution of the Public” is primordial. Dewey accepts that all members of society have equal responsibility and competence in the collective work, which consists in taking care of the matters of public interest confronting them (or specific groups among them) which they are obliged to solve. The singularity of Dewey's thought resides, first, in that he does not consider equality as an attribute of individuals – which would beg the question of how they could use it – but rather presents it as a property of the collective action deployed in the democratic public sphere. Second, in that he does not think of emancipation as a state to be conquered through political practices, even were these socialist.
For Dewey, though individual autonomy is built up in primary education, it continues throughout an individual's existence. This is because life in society perpetually demands that each and every one of its members adopt an experimental approach, consisting in collectively dealing with the questions of general interest that arise in the ordinary course of existence, be they political or not. In short, our conception is inseparable from an idea that is dear to Karsenti, namely that of democracy as “inquiry”, requiring the practical and epistemic involvement of all those who feel concerned. For Dewey, it is the “logic” specific to the inquiry that constitutes the “collective intelligence” whence issues the informed solution to the public problem raised.
This is the idea that Antidémocratie directs against all the crude or more subtle and justified forms of denial of the political capacity of citizens. Dewey passes no judgment on the intrinsic qualities of individuals. He merely apprehends them as members of a society unavoidably called to conduct collective inquiries following the ordinary rules of rational deliberation. In The Public and its Problems5, admits that the fact of entering into association does not in itself produce a community. In order to make a society, he says, there has to be a “common interest”, that is say “a concern on the part of each in the joint action and in the contribution of each of its members to it”, and a method “that develops based on reciprocal relationships between observable facts and their results”. And Dewey names this method: democracy. The word is thus not associated with a political regime or with a vague idea of participation. It describes the very nature of the experimental procedure. Dewey admittedly recognizes that the problems raised in politically and technologically developed societies are increasingly complex, and that the decisions that need to be taken call for scientific knowledge. It is thus a relief to discover that Dewey shares an idea advocated by Karsenti and Lemieux:
when men have an idea of how social agencies work and their consequences are wrought, they at once strive to secure consequences as far as desirable and to avert them if undesirable.
Nevertheless, Dewey’s argument emphasizes the advantages of using the method of democracy, and points out that ordinary citizens are always party to the administration of public affairs.
And while we are busy enquiring learnedly into citizens' capacity for judging what is good for them politically, things continue to advance on other fronts, such as their involvement in elaborating scholarly knowledge. The question of citizen participation in understanding is controversial because it contests a symbolic frontier, questioning the hierarchy between profane and learned that bestows on the latter a legitimate monopoly on the production of learning, even though the very idea of democracy tends to make the distance between political professionals and ordinary citizens less rigid. In both cases, however, disputing the border is based on a demand, that presents knowledge AND politics as specifically public goods.
The democratic argument is thus also an epistemic argument. Our work merely illustrates the discoveries known as “point of view” epistemologies, to which feminist and decolonial epistemologies paved the way. The fact of being affected is instigated as a source of authority that may be invoked to demand the right to influence the relevant decisions. The development of ordinary citizen interventions in understanding and in politics results from changes to the concept of the public. This no longer designates an ignorant mass whose fears need to be laid to rest, but groups capable of appreciating issues and incorporating collective intelligence. The sum of these autonomous practices, in understanding as in politics, confirms the scale and relevance of the knowledge (savoir) distributed within society, providing lessons in democracy we suggest it is time to take on board.
If we wish to place education inside democracy, we must first gauge the social dynamics actually at work once profane take part in the production of knowledge. This provides another way of thinking about the knotting of disciplinary knowledge to the political that lies at the heart of Karsenti and Lemieux's thought.
Expert democracy and ordinary democracy
The confrontation between democracy and socialism is currently topical, because the lively demand for democracy is in direct competition with what until recently pertained to a “socialist project”. Karsenti places this rivalry at the level of politics. That is what he suggested in stating that
relationships if you prefer to adopt Marxist vocabulary. Knowing as a socialist, knowing in a way that enables socialism to become hegemonic, involves making it possible for this type of knowledge to be brought about, establish institutional frameworks within which it can progress and be increasingly actualized.
The struggle for hegemony only has meaning within the arena of power. We would prefer to place our analysis in the realm of the political. That is why in Antidémocratie we take up a suggestion already made in Le Principe démocratie and which strikes us as fundamental. All members of a state society possess, by the sole fact of being a citizen, a sufficiently relevant political capacity to justify being granted shared responsibility for decisions which have bearing on the future and destiny of the collectivity in which they live there daily life. Many view this as iconoclastic. Karsenti declares it to be quite simply wrong. Why does he do so?
Karsenti starts from the postulate that politicians are always
legitimately subject to the criticism of the ordinary advocate, of the citizen of state. But whatever these politicians do, they are subject – and this is the specificity, the prime discrimen of a socialist politics – to the prime requirement of fostering a certain type of education angled towards thinking about the legitimacy and justification of norms, in all those spheres of action in which actors are involved.
are justified in criticizing the injustice of the law using all the means at their disposal and in a reference to the spirit presiding over its constitution, in this instance human rights and thus the principles of equality and freedom […] If you mean that all citizens, as citizens, are justified in voicing their criticism, you are right. That is the political meaning of their action. It is the absolutely essential ‘ordinary advocate’ function of the modern citizen. […] But that does not imply a contribution to politics at the level of deliberation, at the level of the circuit of knowledge to which deliberation is subject once it operates within a socialist vision of modern society, if we want this vision to truly differ from liberalism and nationalism.
For Karsenti, in arguing that politics is everybody's business, we substitute “democratism of judgment” to the principle of knowledge. But for him, this “everybody” means those who can exercise their capacity for “knowing” so as to establish the rules of a just society. Logically, Karsenti concludes that
a society that knows itself sociologically cannot but become ever more democratic, that is to say make its norms ever more and better justifiable in the eyes of and by all.
In a word, it is the experts who guarantee democracy and
in the wake of our analysis, as opposed to yours, we tend to suspect that there is a disinclination or resistance even towards socialism, leading to an erroneous conception of democracy.
The analysis we offer in Antidémocratie starts from a wholly different observation. The system of representative government based on universal suffrage has lost much of its legitimacy, in that what was miraculous about this system – the fact that those who won elections could say: “you voted for us, so you have to accept what we do in your name” – is now a bit eroded. Like many others, we observe that the governed are less and less inclined to grant blind consent to those who govern. Election results are contested ever more frequently and ever more rapidly. This ingratitude of the “sovereign people” may be interpreted in two different ways. Either as proof of infantilism or irrationality on the part of an inconsequential population, or as an extension of citizens’ vigilance and their desire to demand that those who represent them live up to what they expect of them. Which does not necessarily equate to respecting the promises made during an election campaign, for the judgment of citizens is capable of subtleties unsuspected by politicians.
Our study provides an account of the many forms of political expression of all members of a state (elections, deliberations, and claims), and not solely those produced by an elite or avant-garde indicating what “sociological self-knowledge” might mean. The development of citizens' “autonomous political practices” alarms many commentators and analysts, who are convinced that excessive vigilance on the part of citizens is intolerable, and needs straightening out so as to “let the government govern”. Others conclude that the increasing mistrust of governments reflects the dead ends, pathologies, exhaustion, or “crisis” of democracy. The analyses presented in Antidémocratie show that we have no reason to believe such prophecies. Because rather than focusing on the disenchantment, indifference, or disgust people voice about politics, it looks at the way people act in order to get the broken promises of democracy accomplished by putting forward a dual claim: enabling everybody's voice to be fully heard in determining the present and future of the group they belong to, and winning the power to oversee the action and behavior of the ruling “elites” by assessing them in the light of the criteria of justice, equality, freedom, dignity, and honesty.
These practices do not necessarily strive to transform the way of living in democracy (changing government, improving representative institutions, altering how power is exercised), but seek more generally to appropriate ways of experiencing democracy in their daily lives. This is what we argue once again in Antidémocratie, this time in analyzing the reasons put forward by ruling elites, and seemingly an increasing number of theoreticians of the political, to justify why they refuse to countenance that citizens could take collective decisions respecting equality, justice, and dignity of all. The book examines the ways this reluctance – which is not the prerogative of democracy's sworn enemies – transpires whenever we hesitate to grant individuals a new freedom, are afraid to let them express their judgment, limit their participation in public life, or reject the definitions they give of political phenomena such as sovereignty, citizenship, the integrity of politicians or democracy.
The locus of the political no longer lies exclusively within the closed field of politics defined as conquering power in a national framework – with competing political parties, electoral rivalry, manifesto commitments, and personal ambitions as means to do so. Nor do we think it lies in “socialist knowledge”. This is because a shift has occurred with the emergence of organized political action by grass-roots movements who are perfectly cognizant of public affairs and have chosen to act together politically outside the official institutions of representation. Every day these groups display a greater mastery of issues than that of the government and their experts, and no doubt of theoreticians of politics.
Our work thus shows that the challenges to existing powers are no longer the prerogative, as antidemocratic thought repeats it over and again, of a “people” of moaners, losers, and incompetents, whose knee-jerk behavior imperils democracy by inspiring them to vote for nationalist, supremacist, or xenophobic parties. Without denying the existence of some such fringe to the electorate – and without depicting the realm of citizen activism as better than it is – we still argue that citizens' autonomous political practices actualize the spirit of democracy, drawing on a political knowledge which at least as appropriate as that of the elites claiming to own exclusive competence in the matter.
One of the major points of convergence between our work and that of Karsenti is that we both hold the crucial question in the current political situation to be how to link knowledge to democracy. But we think of this link differently. We agree with him that building up this link
presupposes repositioning the novelty and insights of this mode of thought at the centre of our ways of thinking about and interpreting reality, of according it a centrality that is currently disputed in the way our societies function, and particularly in the way political problems are configured.
However, the key question here is ascertaining what the content of this thought is, and who is entitled to deploy it. Those whose training and status enable them to avail themselves of it? Or those who apprehend the functioning of society using their ordinary conception of politics and democracy? This is an old debate within the social sciences, opposing the proponents of scientific knowledge to the proponents of commonsense knowledge. In fact there is no way of settling this debate. One has to choose sides. Ours is that of the ordinary (citizens' practical knowledge), whereas Karsenti opts for the knowledgeable (the skilled competence of experts and of the rulers who follow their well founded advices).
These are the two ways of linking up knowledge and democracy which are currently competing in the democratic public sphere. And amongst the various questions this rivalry forces us to examine, there is that of knowing where the difference lies today between a political project that asserts its socialism, and the project which simply voices a claim for democracy.
Sandra Laugier, Albert Ogien, Antidémocratie, Paris, La Découverte, 2017, p. 34.
Sandra Laugier, Albert Ogien, Antidémocratie, Paris, La Découverte, 2017, p. 29.
Sandra Laugier, Albert Ogien, Le Principe démocratie. Enquête sur les nouvelles formes du politique, Paris, La Découverte, 2014.
Martha Nussbaum, Les Émotions démocratiques. Comment former le citoyen du XXIe siècle?, Paris, Flammarion, 2011.
John Dewey, Le Public et ses problèmes, Paris, Gallimard, 2010.