[Translated from Le Monde diplomatique]
"Voters' revolt," "scum," "epidemic of populism"
COUNTERREVOLUTION IS IN THE AIR
By Alain Garrigou
** A "conservative revolution" is being deployed in intellectual media milieux. Its chief aim: denouncing a people in revolt. Its apostles are experiencing anew the social concerns of the century of revolutions, and are reconstituting the alliance between "good society" and faux savants. The spectacle of a counterrevolution without a revolution brings back memories of the return of the little lords of Koblenz, the trembling of "honest people," and the "Great Fear of the bien-pensants." **
Le Monde diplomatique (Paris)
Voters don't speak, they shout; they don't express themselves, they spit. And they don't know how to think, of course. Discouragement took hold of editorial writers on the evening of the referendum of May 29, 2005: "tsunami," "catastrophe," "impasse," "fiasco," "major crisis." That the "No" won called for a powerful explanation: the voter's lack of ability. Their votes? "It was cries of pain, fear, anguish, and anger that voters on the left pushed into the ballot boxes" (Serge July, Libération, May 30, 2005), it's an "unhealthy outlet where people misuse the rules of the referendum game in order to vituperate against those in power" (Claude Imbert, Le Point, March 31, 2005). Caught off guard, commentators spontaneously rediscovered the 19th century's visions of the psychology of crowds, those of Gabriel de Tarde, Scipio Sighele, and Gustave Le Bon: the people are characterized by "impulsiveness, irritability, inability to reason, absence of judgment and critical thought, exaggerated feelings." [Note 1: Gustave Le Bon, La Psychologie des foules ('The Psychology of Crowds') (Paris: PUF, 1963 , p. 17.] Our current analysts do not fail to return to this vocabulary of pathology as they stigmatize the "rage to protest" (Claude Imbert), "masochism" (Serge July), the "epidemic of populism" (Serge July), "acute paranoia" (Franz-Olivier Giesbert). A less extravagant style thus replaces the syphilis and alcoholism that obsessed the 19th century.
A few months after the European referendum, the "criminal crowds" of the *banlieues* replaced the "electoral crowds," according to Le Bon's categories. In situations that challenge our ability to explain things, our pretenses often give birth to a rationalization of our prejudices: "After the social thrombosis, the 2002 crash of civil society, the voters' revolt of last May," Nicolas Baverez explained in Le Point of Nov. 10, 2005, "the urban riots of the fall of 2005 constitute a new illustration of France's national crisis and the decomposition of the social body." And once again behind the portrait of chaos arose the specter of the mental illness of rioters whose "crazy violence," Claude Imbert stated, "has causes that are more psychological than political."
The violence and the social origin of the rioters lessened inhibitions a little more. The ghost of General de Gaulle was needed to authorize an editorial writer's tossing off this pre-electoral warning: "You have to watch out for the French, those 'cows' that sometimes with no warning turn into bulls" (Denis Jeambar, L'Express, Mar. 21, 2005). With the uprising of the banlieues, barbarians and raging beasts reappeared, just as in the insurrections of yesteryear. In June 1848, an historian tells us, "all 'honest citizens' had on their lips or under their pen those animal names, no matter how cultivated they were: Mérimée, Musset, or Berlioz talk and write with the same naturalness, with respect to the rioters, that it's a matter of wild beasts, rabid dogs, tigers, hyenas, wolves, filthy vermin, etc., just like any hack . . ." [Note 2: Dolf Oehler, Le Spleen contre l'oubli: Juin 1848 ('Melancholy versus Forgetting: June 1848') (Paris: Payot. 1992), p. 30.] Despite the remarks about "scum" and "hoodlums," it could get worse.
As they draw dangerously close to invective, commentators remind us that the essence of counterrevolutionary expression does not take the form of more or less sophisticated rational discourse. Joseph de Maistre's Les Considérations sur la France ('Considerations on France') [1796 -- Trans. note] and Le Bon's La Psychologie des foules ('The Psychology of Crowds') have made us forget the much more numerous common judgments, whose consequences are more significant. The "slips" of a few media intellectuals, who have been stigmatized less because they were wrong than because they were clumsy, need to be reevaluated. Stupid remarks uttered about polygamy among residents of the banlieues are never just the expression of a social hatred that in other circumstances remains within the private sphere.
If we have to acknowledge that current counterrevolutionary thought avoids, at least explicitly, the concept of race, which was the heart of the counterrevolutionary thought of the recent past, the evocation of an ignorant people remains the principle that establishes social superiorities. How many times was the political ignorance of the people, the peasants, or the workers fulminated against in a 19th century that supposedly believed in progress? "Yes, the multitude is ignorant and blind," Proudhon proclaimed in 1863. "A last trait of this excellent race is its utter credulity," added Jules Ferry in the same year. "The ignorant peasant is less absurd than the half-enlightened worker," Alfred Fouillée added in 1884. "If you knew with what errors they keep them stupid, you wouldn't believe it," the socialist Joffrin chuckled in 1888. "I did not expect, I confess, to find in the workers of the Vosges such complete ignorance of the simplest economic ideas," explained the préfet of the Vosges in 1906, rather like a French economic minister a century later. [Note 3: These quotations are drawn from Histoire sociale du suffrage universel en France (1848-2000) ('Social History of Universal Suffrage in France, 1848-2000') (Paris: Seuil, 2002).] We see that the list of accusations, lamentations, and regrets is immense. In 2005, characterized by "abysmal political ignorance," the people still needed to be enlightened. The problem, it was said, was that the referendum had asked too difficult a question of voters who were wrongly taken "for law students" (Luc de Nanteuil, Le Figaro. Apr. 30, 2005). One would find such commentaries funnier if they did not claim to derive from a political science just as dubious as was, in its time, the psychology of crowds.
ERUDITE BACKING FOR CLASS PREJUDICE
The success of the pseudo-savants of crowds was all the greater for having given the political fantasies of "honest people" frightened by socialism a veneer of science. Erudite backing for class prejudices is still with us. On the evening of May 29, 2005, political scientists contrasted an upper France, well-off managers with diplomas, for the "Yes," and a lower France, workers and employees, poor and ill-taught, for the "No." In short, intelligent and well-informed persons on one side; stupid and ignorant individuals on the other. Pascal Perrineau, an editorialist credentialed by Sciences-Po, explained: "People voted on the wrong thing," [Note 4: France-Info, May 29, 2005] which was a way of saying "No" voters voted as a function of what they wanted for the nation and not on the European treaty, as if what was at stake bore no relation... And the accredited experts studded their speeches with prescriptions -- "Il faut" [introduces statements of imperative need -- Trans. note] or "on doit" [introduces statements of obligation -- Trans. note] -- which are foreign to science. But distinctions and principles get blurred in the changing of the scientist's garb for that of the advisor or of the expert for political parties or polling organizations. And of the propagandist.
Political pundits are not the only ones who participate in eruditely disguising social fears. Some historians have yoked themselves with astonishing naïveté to a restoration campaign in which the ideological undertaking is combined with a frightening intellectual retreat. Like one of those popular history periodicals that amuse their readers with narratives of battles and the lives of great men. L'Histoire gravely asked on its November 2005 cover: "Louis XVI: Must he be rehabilitated?" A stupid question for an historian, but a question of the day. Michel Winock, professor emeritus at Sciences-Po, took it on ambivalently: "Let's stop saying we're in 1788, but let's admit that the burdens and failures of our period incline us toward an indulgence that we have not always felt."
Going back to Louis XVI serves to condemn "resistance to the least reform, the "refusal to adapt to the way the world is changing," and the "rejection of the only tangible plan we've seen, the referendum on Europe's constitutional treaty." Louis XVI as a prophet of the "Yes"? It's never too late to tell human beings they have no choice. So dynastic legitimism parallels the contemporary legitimism by means of which conservatism adorns itself with the merits of reason and justifies itself by the necessary order of things.
Does a radio studio permit the return of the repressed better than the columns of the press? On France-Culture, Alain Finkielkraut's program "Réplique" ('Reply') featured an amazing duo last November 26: on the one hand. an historian engaged in making an impassioned case for a reformist king (how long will it be before they're defending Charles X?); on the other, a woman historian embarked on just as impassioned a plea in favor of the queen. The former, Jean-Christian Petitfils, esteemed the National Constituent Assembly to be "totalitarian"; the latter, Mona Ozouf, painted Marie-Antoinette as Lady Di: "Victim of democratic resentment [because] this woman had everything -- she was the most beautiful, the most attractive, the most endowed with advantages of every kind --, she brought down on herself that special election of hate... Marie-Antoinette invented something completely new in the history of queens, namely a taste for immediate pleasure, a taste for free individuality, the making for herself of a personal life... " The anachronism disappears when our historian [Ozouf] finally admits, lucid in her distraction: "We are in the process, you and I, of rehabilitating the king."
Convergences and alliances among the most opportunistic "savants" and the most powerful journalists are not new. In something resembling the way they availed themselves of the pseudo-scientific products of the psychology of crowds (Le Bon was at that time better known than Durkheim), commentators batten on the most obsolete products of science, such as behaviorism supported by polls. This convergence is clinched by its affinity for common sense, which gives political (and not scientific) answers to political questions. Concepts are of no use in understanding since voters say what they think and tell you what they're doing. Precede this with a few percentages and you get public opinion. A few reminders about "blocked society" are also enough to challenge the "weight" and "inertia" of a people slowed by "acquired benefits." Which are never of any concern anyway to editorialists who don't read and academics who have renounced all science.
Services are exchanged: one group plays up the intellectual support of academics they cite more for their title than for their thought, and the other group gets publicity for its (mediocre) essays and satisfies its media narcissism. Among those who do their utmost on all fronts, political scientist Dominique Reynié is among the most generous. His thoughts on elections, the crisis of the banlieues, or future presidential elections appear equally in Le Figaro, Libération, Le Monde, La Revue politique et parlementaire, not to mention various foreign papers whose editors get their ideas by reading the French press. The social network of political punditry has the advantage of forbidding that any theses outside the usual amalgam of what's to the left of the left with the far right be maintained. Dominique Reynié subtly boiled the former down to a "national socialism," an invention that earned him compliments in the press...
In the United States, commentators who talk about everything and nothing have been dubbed a "chattering class." In this case, there is no French exception. Stereotypical remarks are repeated all the more as their adepts lose their influence over a more and more critical public. In this regard, the referendum of May 2005 ought to have provoked reflection rather than their anger. In the history of the press, it doesn't often happen that unanimous stands followed by condemnations fed by powerlessness drive away a portion of readers and listeners. Who would claim that Audimat [which measures media audiences -- Trans. note] or economic interest alone dictate what journalists say? This is a fine demonstration of the survival of "ideology" even among those who proclaim its disappearance.
The erasure of critical thinkers from French intellectual life is the result neither of genetics nor of competition from talented conservatives. On the other hand, the crisis of the university explains in part a political bent combined with a decline in intellectual quality. Faced with the progress of conservatives within their own ranks, academics fatalistically admit that their colleagues certainly have the right to express their convictions and even to pursue social success elsewhere and by other means. They discreetly scorn their media appearances and their mediocre essays, but themselves withdraw into an esoteric conception of progress.
In prodding orthodoxy, peer review sometimes caused problems; it is no longer good for anything when it ceases to insist on respect for elementary principles of intellectual labor. Keeping critical thinkers and talent out of the media has also caused generational and intellectual renewal to run dry. Even conservative thinkers lose as a result.
Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Web page: http://www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/