Introduction In 1918, Thomas Mann1argued that politics and democracy are part of an indivisible whole, andprecisely here lies the problem of democracy. His critique of democracy was acritique against politicisation: if everything is up to discussion, even thehigher ethical principles can be called into question. Pierre Rosanvallon hasadopted a different approach. He is not an enemy of democracy, he is, as NadiaUrbinati has suggested, a “critic from within”.
In his 2008 book”Counter-Democracy”, he explores the concepts of the “political” and”unpolitical” in a very different way. Rosanvallon’s work begins with a paradox, which hedefines as “the major political problem of our time” (p.1). Today, democracy isunopposed as a political ideal – and the growing number of democratic countriesis an evidence of this -, but, at the same time, advanced democracies arewitnessing a “growing dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy”(Donatella Della Porta).
The decline or stagnation of participation rates inelections, the decline in party membership, the loss of confidence in politicalinstitutions and even anger against them are the well-known phenomena whichbelong to this dissatisfaction, crisis or distrust.Distrust is at the very centre of his work (thesubtitle of the book is indeed “Politics in an age of distrust”) and hisproject is to “rehabilitate” distrust as a positive element of democracy. WhatRosanvallon is able to convey is that distrust of power is not a negativeforce, rather it belongs to both the democratic and liberal traditions. What ismore, distrust underpins the different forms of counter-democratic powers -oversight, prevention, and judgment – which he believes are, alongelectoral-representative institutions, the essential components of the”democratic experiences”. As Mark E.
Warren has suggested, a large portion ofthe book is reserved to a history (a genealogy) of how distrust has beenorganized, how counter-democracy has worked. Indeed, the goal of the author is to see distrust in a new light,showing how it is at the heart of a “new democratic era”. But, according to theFrench thinker, counter-democracy has also an “inherent ambivalence”, whichcould lead to negativity: for example, one extreme consequence ofcounter-democracy is populism. But, as we will see, distrust plays also aprominent role in what Rosanvallon calls the “unpolitical democracy”.
Democracy and theunpolitical His analysis, this is perhaps the most interestingresult, deals with the themes of the “end of politics”, “the unpolitical” or”depoliticization” in an original way, and he does this coining the concept ofthe “unpolitical democracy”. Firstly, we need to clarify Rosanvallon’sdefinition of democracy. His “simple and compelling functional conception”(Mark E. Warren) of democracy involves three pillars. The first is the realm ofthe electoral-representative institutions. The second comprises whatRosanvallon focused on in his book, that is counter-democratic powers.
Thethird is “theoretical political practice”, which produces “the rules thatdefine a shared world”, in other words, creates a common story for thecommunity and gives meaning to society. In this context for him, the politicalis “le travail du politique” or “the institution of civil society by thepolitical”, which consist of activities such as “the definition of principlesof justice, arbitration between the interests of various groups, delineation ofthe relationship between public and private” (p. 291). In short, the creationof a “shared world”.
This third aspect is the key to explore his reflections on”the unpolitical”: it is this creative function that democracy is no longerable to perform, and therefore, without the creation of this shared world, itremains merely an “unpolitical” democracy.How is that possible and how it happened? Rosanvallonhighlights how counter-democracy is positive but, at the same time, essentiallyresponsible for the “depoliticization” of society. As a matter of fact,counter-powers of oversight, prevention, and judgment exercise a “negativesovereignty”, the use of which delegitimates the traditional political powersit addresses. By doing so they “dissolve the signs of a shared world” (p. 23,emphasis in original), because their action is democratic but has”non-political effects”. This is why he rejects the idea of “the passivecitizen”, arguing that citizens are not less politically involved, they havemoved to different, counter-democratic forms of political participation.
Secondly, counter-democracy has a chaotic effect on the political sphere,introducing too many levels and actors, and making it unintelligible forcitizens. “But visibility and legibility are two essential properties of thepolitical. Politics does not exist unless a range of actions can beincorporated into a single narrative and represented in a single public arena”(p.
23). And it is exactly this common narrative that seems to lack in today’sworld. Post-politics and governance Maybe, it is possible to find other insights on thistheme under the label “post-politics”. Japhy Wilson and Erik Swyngedouw defineit as follows: “In post-politics, political contradictions arereduced to policy problems to be managed by experts and legitimated throughparticipatory processes in which the scope of possible outcomes is narrowlydefined in advance. ‘The people’ – as a potentially disruptive politicalcollective – is replaced by the population – the aggregated object of opinionpolls, surveillance, and bio-political optimisation. Citizens become consumers,and elections are framed as just another ‘choice’, in which individualsprivately select their preferred managers of the conditions of economicnecessity.” 2 So it seems that there is no longer the need for thisbig picture political narrative because the market has filled that space.
Thenthe job of politics becomes merely a management job within a predeterminedcontext. But Rosanvallon warns us that “the market is merely onemanifestation…of the phenomenon of decentralized decision-making”. So for him,the market is only a symptom and not the cause of depoliticization.The French thinker has identified two different typesof depoliticization.
The first stems from “the participatory processes” citedabove, which can be categorized under the concept of governance. Rosanvallon identifiesthree major characteristics of governance: networking, complexity and lack of hierarchy.Let’s take a closer look at each one of them. Networking means that multiple actorsinteract and there is not a single player that make the decision. Complexityinvolves the idea that decisions lose their imperative force, engaging in a flexiblerelation with interested parties, for him this is a potentially revolutionary new”mode of regulation” which is changing the relationship between state andsociety. Finally, the consequence of all of this is the dissolution ofhierarchy referred to the legal system, here norms are no longer organized in ahierarchical way, due to the fact that a considerable number of agencies participatein the legislative process.
What is the way to look at this phenomenon? Summarizingthe academic debate on the matter, Rosanvallon lays out two different interpretations.The first is to conceive governance as the negation of representative democracyand of general interest. The second more optimistic view is to realize thatwith governance “the era of organizations gives way the era of networks” (p.262). Moreover, Rosanvallon suggests that governance leads to a type ofdepoliticization which he calls “decentering or dissemination”. This phenomenonmeans that there is no longer a single political subject, such as “the nation”or “the people”, but a fragmentation of actors in which politics has a merecoordinating function.
Another type of depoliticization is, in his mind, theone brought about by counter-democracy: it does not eliminate the “functionalcentrality” of politics because the counter-powers always address to it, ratherit reduces the ability of politics to create the shared world. By doing so it”drains politics of its substance”. Ineffective government Anotherwell-known aspect of the “crisis of politics” is the lack of effectiveness ingovernment action. As the former French prime minister Michel Rocard recalled,governing is now an “impossible profession”3.For Rosanvallon, governing has become more difficult first and foremost becauseof counter-democracy. He explains how the primary political goal is no longerto take power but to constrain power. Transparency has become the mostimportant value, replacing truth, the general interest or the creation of a”shared world”. In an uncertain world, citizens want total transparency, thatis total control on what is going on in politics.
The exercise of political responsibilityis no more conceivable, and therefore “Not knowing what power is supposed todo, people worry only about what it is supposed to be” (p. 258). Consequently,there is a shift from political goals to moral (or even physical) qualities ofcandidates. It follows that for him,”the impotence is systemic” and it is not caused by the lack of adequatepolitical leadership or political will.
All of this inevitably leads to a viciouscycle because if power is deprived of its capacity of action, then it will not beable to deliver what citizens want and in turn they will continue to undermineit. But he emphasizes that this will not be solved by a Churchillian orGaullist approach to politics. 1 As reported in Urbinati Nadia, “Unpolitical democracy”, PoliticalTheory, n.
38(1), 2010: 65–922 Wilson, Japhy, and ErikSwyngedouw, eds. The Post-Political and Its Discontents: Spaces ofDepoliticisation, Spectres of Radical Politics. Edinburgh University Press,2014, p.
63 Mentioned by Rosanvallon, p. 257