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Nationalism as a substitute for equality

Real equality cannot be achieved through distribution alone, but by relying on personal relationships with one another. If we are to reduce inequality, and fight populism, we must rehabilitate equality. Interview. Español

Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai, India. Looking out across the bay at some of the most expensive land in the world. Shreyans Bhansali/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

All political revolutions, not affected by foreign conquest, originate in moral revolutions. The subversion of established institutions is merely one consequence of the previous subversion of established opinions.”

- John Stuart Mill

We talked with Pierre Rosanvallon, the founder of the intellectual workshop La République des Idées, before he opened the conference Equality: impact, conflicts and challenges in Lisbon, in September.

Manuel Serrano: In western societies there is growing disaffection with political leaders and traditional democratic institutions. But while people seem reluctant to vote, they are quite willing to take to the streets and speak their mind. What type of crisis is this?

Pierre Rosanvallon: Historically, elections have been the core of democratic life for many years. Elections mean representation, legitimate regimes, citizen control. And they come with a programme: they are not simply a licence to govern, but to govern in a certain way. Elections were also supposed to create a society of equals: a society where everyone should have the same weight. In the 19th century, this was reflected in the Chartist movement in Britain and the French revolution of 1848. Having established full male suffrage, one of the mottos of the Second Republic in France was that there should no longer be any division between proletarians and non-proletarians in the country, for the general interest could only come into being when all citizens take part in society.

Today, however, we are witnessing the declining democratic performance of elections in terms of representation. And this, for a very simple reason: political parties do not represent classes any more, and politics stem from the top. Even if in some European countries, like Portugal, executive power still proceeds from a parliamentary vote, we have entered a period of presidentialisation of democracy. And what representativeness can a single person have? The presidentialisation of democracy entails a decrease of the representative capacity of elections. Elections are now only a process. We select people to govern, but there is no longer a relation between the process of selection and the policies that will be implemented from then on. There is a gap between the electoral and the governmental processes.

We are witnessing the declining democratic performance of elections in terms of representation.

MS: Disaffection knows no boundaries, and the European Union as a whole is failing to engage its citizens. Are we to keep on assuming that the EU is a union of states and citizens?

PR: The notion of citizenship is a complex one. There is a legal definition, but also a practical one. The legal one is embodied in your passport, in your right to vote, in your civil rights. Consider how many elements that are shaping our life are in fact being defined by European regulations, not national ones. But the legal definition of citizenship is currently narrowing. Citizenship used to be defined as our capacity to live together. In Europe today, however, there is a tendency towards social separatism - towards secession, for example, as is happening in Spain.

MS: Extreme economic inequality makes it difficult for us to live in a shared world. You are not proposing any new instruments to promote equality, but rather a redefinition of the concept. Why?

PR: If we are to reduce inequality, we must rehabilitate equality. The concept of equality is nowadays poorly understood. In fact, people hate inequality but are quite ready to accept the mechanisms which produce it. I call it the Bossuet paradox, after the seventeen-century theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, who famously said that “God laughs at men who complain about the consequences, while cherishing the causes”. This is so incredibly timely nowadays. People are against inequality as such, and shocked when they see social statistics or extreme examples of affluence and poverty, but they often consent to it in particular cases, and regard lesser variations as the result of supposedly legitimate individual choices and personal circumstances. Why? Because of the “winner-takes-all” logic.

Citizenship used to be defined as our capacity to live together. In Europe today, however, there is a tendency towards social separatism.

Take for example the Mayweather vs Mcgregor boxing contest. Floyd Mayweather made 59.347 dollars per second during his fight against Conor McGregor - more than 100 million dollars in total. This was socially accepted. We reject statistical inequality, but we are happy to accept individual inequalities.

We need to correct these huge inequalities, but to correct them means correcting the distribution of income. We have to rehabilitate the tax system. Today people believe they pay huge taxes, but during the Second World War the upper marginal rate of direct taxation in the United States was over 90%. When Margaret Thatcher was in power, taxes on financial income could reach 85%. This was considered too much, but it was socially accepted. Today, Corbyn would not dream of proposing such rates of taxation.

We must rehabilitate distribution and, in order for it to be more legitimate, we must share again a feeling of belonging to the same society. During the First World War, a famous Republican leader said that “today, dollars also have to die for the country”. There was a huge increase in the rate of taxation during the war, whereas before the war income tax was perceived as a Communist device. It quickly reached 25% and by 1929 the upper marginal rate reached 70%.

The concept of equality is nowadays poorly understood. In fact, people hate inequality but are quite ready to accept the mechanisms which produce it.

Today, to address inequality we have to implement a more legitimate distribution. We must also assert the equality of opportunities through policies. But we should go beyond that. We must establish equality as a social relation. John Stuart Mill had a very clear opinion on this issue. He argued that we will not achieve real equality between men and women through distribution alone, but by relying on personal relationships with one another. To be equal means to live as equals, he said. Today, in our society, this social definition is viewed in a depressive kind of way.

MS: Today, nationalism and identity politics are making a comeback, especially in Europe. Why do you think this is happening?

PR: Nationalism is a substitute for equality. In historical terms, this is not new. At the end of the 19th century economic globalisation had its first great moment. The movement of workers in Europe was much more important than it is today, and capital flows were already vast. France and Britain exported between them half of the existing financial capital. This triggered a huge reaction, which was twofold. On the one hand, the surge of a new brand of nationalism, different from that which emerged at the beginning of the 19th century, based on the idea of building countries of citizens. The new one was defined in a negative way: in opposition to others. On the other hand, the growth of racism and xenophobia – in the South of France, towards Italy, and in the North, towards Belgium. At that time, as it is happening to some extent nowadays, nationalism, racism and xenophobia became a substitute for equality: “we are only equals when facing different countries and people”.

John Stuart Mill had a very clear opinion on this issue. He argued that we will not achieve real equality between men and women through distribution alone, but by relying on personal relationships with one another. 

This also happened with segregation in the United States. Segregation was built as a substitute for equality for the white trash – the poor, uneducated white people. They felt equal to the rich because they could both despise Afro-Americans. Tocqueville was surprised to find that moral racism in the North was even worse than in the South. Why? Because in the South, Afro-Americans were nothing, whereas in the North they represented a danger – so, the whites protected themselves by being racist. Today, this is at the very core of European politics: separatism, nationalism, racism and xenophobia are substitutes for equality. We must understand racism and xenophobia through their role and performance in social terms.

Pierre Rosanvallon during the conference Equality: impact, conflicts and challenges. Alfredo Matos. All rights reserved.

MS:  How can we make sense of the statement that while we live in formal democracies, our governments do not govern democratically?

PR: Electoral democracy is founded on the principle of elected officials representing a group of people. This means that there is competition for filling the posts. But democracy also encompasses accountability and responsibility. It demands control and it requires surveillance.

Segregation was built as a substitute for equality for the white trash – the poor, uneducated white people.

Historically, it was up to Parliament, the great surveillant, to do this. Jeremy Bentham said that there are two key elements in democracy: the voice and the eye. The voice is elections: people speak their minds through voting – or, to some extent, in street demonstrations. The eye is the permanent element of democracy, the permanent surveying power.

We are in danger of living in a hemiplegic democracy, which is able to organise elections, but which lacks a permanent element of surveillance. The people’s eye is Parliament, because it investigates, it is sovereign and it holds the executive accountable. Today, however, parliamentary functions are no longer operational, to the extent that Parliament has become a place where you either support or criticise the government. For the system to be truly democratic, democracy has to be implemented there. We are talking here about a second democratic revolution.

MS: Today, “we live in post-democratic times” has become a common, widely used expression. Does this mean that the democratic system as we know it has come to an end?

PR: I think the time has come for a post-electoral democracy. But I totally disagree with the idea of a post-democratic time, an expression which was first coined by Collin Crouch. We should think in terms of post electoral democracy, of permanent democracy.

We are in danger of living in a hemiplegic democracy, which is able to organise elections, but which lacks a permanent element of surveillance.

MS: Related to this, Latin America appears to be a particularly fertile terrain for democratic innovation. Where do you think the region is heading to?

PR: First, you have to consider the fact that participatory democracy has been a strong movement in Latin America, an attempt to renovate electoral democracy and make it livelier. But it has not questioned electoral democracy as such, it has not pointed towards post-electoral democracy. The region has swung between the renewal of electoral democracy through participatory democracy, and the tendency to return to populism – I say return, because populism was very well defined by Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Colombia in the mid-thirties. Gaitán was considered an intellectual leader and a visionary by Fidel Castro, Perón and Hugo Chávez, who often quoted him.

I travel very often to Latin America, especially to Argentina and Chile, and the key discussion about the future of democracy has yet to be addressed. There is no democratic critique of populism in Latin America. For example, I visited Venezuela when Chávez was still in power, and I had a discussion with both his ministers and his opponents. The leader of the opposition at the time, Teodoro Petkoff, told me, talking about Chávez: “he is a clown”. I replied: “but the clown is winning elections”.

It goes without saying that you have to come up with real, serious criticism, and not only say that Chávez is a clown. The same applies in Europe today, with Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Lech Kaczynski in Poland. The intellectual scene has to become central once again. Being incapable of producing democratic and strong criticism of populism is very dangerous.

This interview was conducted on September, 30, 2017 in Lisbon, at the conference Equality: impact, conflicts and challenges, organized by the Francisco Manuel dos Santos Foundation.

About the authors

Pierre Rosanvallon is a French intellectual and historian. He is a professor at the Collège de France, where he holds the chair in modern and contemporary political history. He is also director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. In 2002, he created the intellectual workshop La République des Idées.

Pierre Rosanvallon es un intelectual e historiador francés. Es profesor en el Collège de France, donde ejerce la cátedra de historia política moderna y contemporánea. También es director de estudios en la École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. En 2002, creó el taller intelectual La République des Idées.

Pierre Rosanvallon é um intelectual e historiador francês. É professor no Collège de France, onde exerce a cátedra de historia política moderna e contemporânea. Também é director de estudos na École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Em 2002, criou o workshop intelectual La République des Idées.

Manuel Serrano holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from ESADE Business and Law School and a Master´s degree in International Relations from the Barcelona Institute for International Studies (IBEI). He is an international affairs analyst, journalist and editor. He worked as Junior Editor at democraciaAbierta (2015-2017) and currently works as a freelance correspondent in Brussels.

Manuel Serrano es licenciado en Derecho por la ESADE Business and Law School y Máster en Relaciones Internacionales por el Instituto Barcelona de Estudios Internacionales (IBEI). Es analista político, periodista e editor. Trabajó como Editor Asistente en democraciaAbierta (2015-2017) y actualmente es corresponsal freelance en Bruselas.

Manuel Serrano é licenciado em Direito pela ESADE Business and Law School e completou o Mestrado em Relações Internacionais no Instituto Barcelona de Estudos Internacionais (IBEI). É analista político, jornalista e editor. Trabalhou como Editor Júnior na democraciaAbierta (2015-2017) e actualmente é correspondente freelance em Bruxelas.


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