Nicolas Grimaldi /// Twilight of Democracy
Nicolas Grimaldi is unknown in English, but maybe we should get to know him. I like the titles of his books. Les nouveaux somnambules, or The New Sleepwalkers, out earlier this year from Grasset. Ambiguïtés de la liberté, which means what you think it means. Une démence ordinaire—an ordinary madness. L’effervescence du vide, which probably needs reading before Englishing, but the implication of those two words in juxtaposition is already pretty strong, that something might be stirring in the void. I like that. And I like that Grimaldi, who was born in 1933, has not tucked himself away but remains an active observer of the world and of the operations—material, psychological, mystical—of we humans upon it.
In light of current events (and actors), and given the widespread miscellaneous gloom of our times, you’re probably already open to the idea that something is lacking in contemporary democratic political discourse—something, but what? Don’t try too hard to name it, that way madness lies. But something. Was it ever there, really, or was it only ever dreamed of? And who in any of the so-called advanced democracies could express any genuine surprise at the absence of this something, without which everything seems ready to fall apart? If the average citizen distrusts the institutions governing his society, and distrusts or at the very least questions the competency of the vast majority of those that hold public office, can he really be expected to have faith in his fellow citizens? True, he seems from time to time to have faith in himself—if only everyone could be like him!—but we all prefer our own smell to our neighbor’s, and who is it, after all, who will make things better in a democracy, if not… the people? All the people? Those with the right attitudes? Those with the right ideas? Those with money and/or education? Those with their hearts in the right place, or those with torches and kerosene? It’s a hard problem, not only because we must ourselves be right, win or lose, in order to keep faith with our own participation in the process (“Your vote counts!”), but because even when we’re wrong we have to feel reasonably certain that at least our own hearts and minds are in the right place, caring and thinking about the right things, while the zombies on the other side are either wicked or misguided or both. And since there’s always a chance there’s more of them than us, the only real surprise may be that things haven’t gotten worse more quickly.
But how bad are things, really? And what, in particular, makes them so bad? Perhaps it isn’t what’s missing that troubles us, but the growing and seemingly irrepressible grotesqueness and insolubility of what’s already there. I prefer not to name names, not because they don’t matter but because they seem instantly to suck all oxygen from every space they enter. At this writing, the results of today’s election are still unknown, but knowing those results—whatever good or bad effects they imply—isn’t likely to dispel your suspicion that x or y remain dangerously widespread within our democracy, and that their agents, win or lose, will continue to do what they can to subvert the common good. But after all, what choice do they have? “In politics,” Grimaldi writes, “the pursuit of the common good is another name for suicide.” Well, must it be so?
In general, Grimaldi writes as a political outsider—not in the American, anti-intellectual sense, but as someone who has mostly avoided explicit engagement with politics, at least in his professional life—and his skepticism of the mechanics of modern government-by-the-people, and of the dominant fantasies that drive and, often, gum up the works, is gentle but urgent. He does not have any obvious (to me) political affiliations, and does not make his analysis with the aim of furthering one particular policy or approach to policy-making over any other. Nor does he seem concerned with political fashion or, for that matter, with contemporary “issues” (though his most recent book appears to take the Charlie Hebdo attacks as a point of departure). Rather he tends to espouse a kind of moderate conservativism, by no means opposed to the lesser evil but far from convinced that what makes it necessary also makes it good. He quotes Péguy—Tout a toujours très mal marché. He cites Montesquieu and Benjamin Constant. He wants people to think about what they are thinking about, even when it comes to politics—which is to say, even when it comes to the unwholesome work of balancing the needs and desires of individuals, groups, the state, the world. Discourse is, arguably, democracy’s most important practice, but it isn’t clear how or whether the quality of discourse correlates with the quality of government, much less whether a good democrat should be more concerned about the quality of her discourse than with the fact that, this time around, it has won or lost.
What follows is a translation of Grimaldi’s foreword to his recent essay, Twilight of Democracy (2014), which bears reading alongside (among others) the recent work of Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels (Democracy for Realists), Raphaël Liogier’s Ce populisme qui vient, and Caleb Crain’s recent article in the New Yorker. The latter wonders what every intelligent person wonders from time to time when wondering about democracy: should someone like x, y or z, really have anything to do with the decision-making process when it comes to the serious problems that face our nation? Well, should they?
Why do we still hesitate in the face of our ideal?
UPDATE 11/14/2016: The results are in. Everywhere the effort is underway to determine just what they mean, and what they don’t. I imagine by now we’ve all read a number of reasonable and less reasonable postmortems, some more rageful, some more tearful, some more sober than others. The shock, from all corners, is what is most palpable, which says to me that, however subtle or conspicuous the forces that gave us the current President-elect, we have either so far not understood them, or not properly identified them, or not acknowledged them, or not correctly weighted their real influence or real import. It is not unusual in a democracy, and certainly not in this democracy, for approximately half the population to be disappointed by the outcome of an election, but no election in my lifetime has produced such anxiety, confusion, and dismay. Where exactly are we now, and where do we go? The stakes are indeed high, and people have reason to be afraid, but then: did they not have reason to be afraid a week ago? A year ago? Ten years ago? What is most obvious—and it is by no means trivial—is that the seams of a certain decorum, now long on the fray, have definitively come apart. What should also be obvious is that the various data and narrative purveyors—really all of them—got the numbers, and the story, dramatically wrong.
Right or wrong, many claim to be afraid, above all, of Trump’s “normalization,” afraid that his personality, tone and platform will become normal, acceptable, and therefore, if not unassailable, at least more difficult to blunt or overturn. The philosopher Justin E. H. Smith (who together with Yascha Mounk and Masha Gessen has founded aftertrump.org) is especially concerned about the potential geopolitical consequences of a Trump presidency, in particular with regard to Putin’s Russia. As a tactical consideration, he appears to believe the best move is simply to refuse to grant legitimacy to anything Trump might propose on any front regardless of its apparent merit from whatever political perspective, the idea being that, “to the extent that [Trump] articulates views in coherent language at all, he shows no commitment to the truth of these views, and no interest in holding to them.” It is hard, on a glance, not to see this as a permanent commitment to crying wolf (which has its own foreseeable consequences), so the question then becomes whether this would be more or less damaging to our political traditions and institutions than to follow another American democratic tradition and, despite our fear and/or loathing of him, give the man a chance1. The answer to that question, of course, will depend both on one’s political leanings and on one’s political style, but it also returns us to the problems Grimaldi raises below. “For as indefensible as democracy may be, it alone stands between us and the worst, holding at bay the ever-latent peril of despotism or totalitarianism.” The contention of many—both in the lead-up to this election and now especially in its aftermath—has been that Trump himself represents, if not the very worst, then a short bridge to it. Whether or not such fears are justified may be beside the point. My own sense is that we entered the era of permanent wolf-crying some time ago (UPDATE 11/18: read Scott Alexander on one critical facet of this phenomenon), and that the current situation is to some degree the result of this. For the most part we display (and promulgate) a collective inability to recognize and prioritize, let alone work toward addressing, the most pressing political and cultural concerns of the people we either say we represent or hope to persuade. There is hardly such a thing as persuasion anymore. We have made a bad habit of foregoing compromise, all the while sighing at our rivals’ benightedness, and now, to meet anywhere near a plausible middle looks to both sides like a long trip down into a dark, perhaps bottomless gulf.
Cleverness won’t be enough, and neither will despair. The state of our union is decidedly troubled, but familiar analogies with old horrors might do more to skew our vision than focus it.
The conviction that everything that happens on earth must be comprehensible to man can lead to interpreting history by commonplaces. Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us—neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be.2
Reality is underway—not in the past but in the present. Let’s see (for a start) if we can be more attentive to it.
by Nicolas Grimaldi
translated from the French by Louis Cancelmi
Those times are no more, and it is pointless to regret them.
Based solely on the number of seats they occupy in Parliament, the aforementioned parties exist less as a matter of reality than appearance. Their total membership only barely outnumbers their elected officials. We’re dealing, therefore, with a dizzying amount of disproportion between the political representation of these parties and their actual importance. They’ve become clubs of sorts, where those who feel squeezed in whatever small measure they appear, and who therefore aspire to occupy however many public offices are within their reach, join up as soon as they’re old enough to place bets at the casino. And as with any lottery, most of the tickets probably aren’t winners, but—it’s axiomatic—you can’t take home the pot unless you have one. No matter how unlucky one’s beginnings, the electoral waterwheel never fails to turn, and sooner or later last round’s losing number will come up winning.
Also, nothing more resembles the feelings and emotions of political life than those of a casino. In one as in the other, you can always hold out for a bit of luck. Luck, after all, is just another word for fortune. Being blind, fortune has no more respect for virtue than it does for talent. It promises everybody an equal shot. It’s what makes every political prognostication so vain and presumptuous: fortune often smiles upon the unlikeliest candidate. The essential virtue, in politics, is to be modest enough never to lose your cool. If political success can’t be achieved through talent, then at least perseverance is frequently rewarded.
It goes without saying therefore that no politician feels himself responsible for the highest interests of the nation, much less for the public will. Doing one’s utmost to keep up with one’s colleagues, to earn their confidence without appearing to stand out, each politician does his best to do what the others are doing. Not a one, consequently, has any compunction about making or changing a law. And so, depending on the season or the direction of the winds, they take this one here, revoke that one there, without the idea ever crossing anyone’s mind that they are making decisions about the course humanity should take. Since the law is made, isn’t it effectively an artifact like any other? Of course every member of congress feels themselves above the law—they’re the ones who made it! And so the President of the National Assembly4 has just recently gone out of his way to remind us, in the same tone a teacher would take to remind his students to do their homework, that the Republic is not as inhumane as it would be, were it subjected to its own laws. Something other than the law, and which suspends its effects, is what the first republicans used to call (with equal parts scorn and horror) favor. Oh, innocent babes—they even thought the primary distinction of the republic would be to outlaw favors once and for all!
That today we find ourselves at a critical juncture in democratic life is a fact to which even the most diehard optimists will attest. In 1958, pretty much all we lost was the Republic. In 1968, we threw the University overboard. How many pillars of our economy have we watched crumble since then! Once upon a time, France had a steel industry: it disappeared. We also had a textile industry: vanished into thin air. There were shipbuilders, and there still are: on life-support. For a long time we thought the social framework couldn’t hold under the strain of five hundred thousand unemployed, today we look back nostalgically on a time when there were only three million. Our educational system, which not so long ago was envied and emulated the whole world over, has fallen apart. As though the size of one category were proportional to that of the other, we’ve never had so many high school graduates, and never so many uneducated people. Pretty soon there will be more vacant teaching posts than candidates to fill them. The country is in so much debt, it takes on more debt every day just to pay back the interest on what it has borrowed.
The social fabric is so frayed that no one can say any more what unites him with his neighbors, because he can’t imagine any sort of community with them. Culturally, we live in a kind of Babel. Everyone speaks such different languages that from one to another they can’t even be translated, and the language of one group is, for others, little more than senseless gobbledygook. The result is that what functions as society for us has ceased to be a social body altogether. The essential characteristic of a body is that the most negligible parts express within it an organic solidarity with all the others. In order to find an environment in which it might be possible for us to live, we shut ourselves up, each in our own group, isolating ourselves, protecting ourselves. And if this environment can’t be our immediate family, it will at least be some ethnic, linguistic or religious community, if not some athletic club or union. In such a climate of social dissipation, with no mortar to hold the diverse elements together, we cannot help but feel alienated from those around us. Lacking as we do any cohesive social structure, no one of our social “parts” can claim to represent the whole. It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that more than half of those registered to vote decline to participate in elections, as though the whole thing were a hoax. Anyone still pious enough to believe that public life itself is nonetheless at stake here, should ask herself what exactly national representation consists in under such conditions. Who represents whom here? Of all the problems facing us today, this one demands to be answered first. We act as though we have a representative system of government when none of our representatives actually represents anything or anybody—except whatever positions their party recommends.
Do political parties themselves still express the grievances and hopes of the principal organs of society, once these have been reduced (as we have seen) to nothing more than tiny clubs for setting up tournaments of ambition, and for opposing interests to tear each other apart? Because to the multitude of political aspirants, public life today presents less of an opportunity to do something than to appear to be something. Notwithstanding the fact that news travels more quickly these days from Frankfurt to Singapore than it did once upon time from Paris to Nanterre,5 political life still perpetuates the mores and customs of the July Monarchy.
Instead of perpetuating outdated notions by repeating historical lies or playground slogans (as though these were so much conventional wisdom), perhaps we would be better advised to stick to the facts, to assign political responsibilities according to our observations of reality, and to judge theories according to their results rather than the other way around.
And is there really any more pressing question than the one we always avoid responding to: do our political institutions still correspond to the reality in which we live? Does the organization of our political life still correspond in even the narrowest of ways to the expectations of the populace and the expression of its needs? Does it have, in practice, the means and competence to resolve the problems facing the nation? Assuming its representatives have the necessary intelligence, can it really be assumed they have the will? For the pernicious pathology of our institutions is such that it paralyzes everyone inclined to reform them. They will have cataloged everything that’s gone wrong and worked out the necessary remedies, and once everyone has acknowledged the accuracy of the diagnosis and the efficacy of the proposed reform, they’ll all shy away from implementing it. In politics, the pursuit of the common good is another name for suicide. In conclusion then we must pose the following question: if our institutions render the public good incompatible with the exercise of any sort of political responsibility, don’t we do harm to ourselves in relying on them?
Besides, is there even a single country anymore, of any age, that doesn’t depend on all the others? Trained in France, young mathematicians pursue their careers in the United States. Half the researchers they encounter there are Asian, or come from Central Europe. They used to be owned by the Vatican, now the most prestigious buildings in Paris belong to the Qatari emirate. Come to think of it, isn’t it their soccer team defending Paris Saint-Germain’s colors these days? In short, all parts of the world having purchased the world in its entirety, the ruin of one part is enough to bring the whole thing down. As we’ve just seen: thanks to the inebriation of a couple American banks, every financial institution in the world began to totter.
It’s as though nothing had happened since the Directoire6 or the reign of Louis-Philippe, the same administrative and political structures remain no less identical today than they were two centuries ago. In a horse-drawn carriage, one of Louis-Philippe’s prefects was supposed to be able to reach the far corners of his department in a single day.7 That’s how the limits of each department were settled upon. Does it make the least bit of sense to draw up a land registry this way, when it no longer corresponds to any demographic or economic reality? We hold on to our hoard of districts and townships. We pile up our intermunicipal councils, our departmental councils,8 our regional assemblies. We retain, for our elected officials in their old age, a Council of Ancients which we’ve dressed up as a Senate. Were the Abbé Sieyès9 to come back today, his greatest surprise would be to meet with so few surprises: the local governments have been maintained in the very framework he designed for them. Just about the only thing likely to astonish him would be their obesity—as though a functionary’s principal task had been to make someone else’s work indispensable to his own.
It seems to me then that the time has come to hazard a question or two regarding our capacity to form a nation, to obey one and the same Constitution, and to identify with those who promulgate the law. Whatever distrust, whatever contempt it has, even, for the exercise of democracy, the community of nations nonetheless continues to see democracy—and to celebrate it—as a universal principle. And yet democracy is nowhere to be found. Even in countries where it serves, rhetorically, as the foundational myth, the most reality it ever achieves is that of a decoy. Indeed, what sort of democracy might we be referring to, in a country where a candidate’s chances are measured according to the size of his campaign budget? An election is bought in just the same way as the ads that ensure its success. But has anyone seen a democrat infuriated with or even surprised by the circus surrounding their candidate? No one is shocked by it because this is the very price of success. The expression’s literal meaning deserves a moment’s meditation. Indeed, what sort of democrat would find it anything short of atrocious?
But perhaps there is something even worse. For in order to spend money, you first have to have some. And yet some countries are poor. Their candidates having essentially nothing to buy, the only thing they can do to get elected is sell the State. So they promise to create posts for their electors, one for every vote delivered. And they do it. Dig down through the successive layers of public service,10 and you discover a kind of electoral geology: here the traces of the Age of Andreas, here the Age of Evanghelos. The state is little more these days than the electoral treasury of the various parties.
And I’m going to hazard an even bolder, even more provocative question: are we really sure that this pseudo-democracy is the system of government most suited to the expectations of contemporary society?
Banal as the question might appear, the stakes I fear are nonetheless considerable. For as indefensible as democracy may be, it alone stands between us and the worst, holding at bay the ever-latent peril of despotism or totalitarianism. We’ve been liberated from it again, for the twentieth time, so now we think we’ve been immunized against it for ever. Oh, how we are mistaken! Indeed, a hundred little factions fuel this very hope, constantly, and make the seduction of it glimmer. Every bitterness harbors it. Every resentment awaits its revenge. And there’s no more obsessive or pernicious temptation than to have done at last with privilege and level out society, building in its place a radiant world of justice and fellowship. Nothing, apart from this indeterminable, uncertain, vacillating, onerous regime—whose recantations we denounce at every turn, whose weaknesses we rail against constantly—absolutely nothing gave us any warning of the gloomy hell that half the world lived through this past century. The true defenders of democracy would be those who kept its despicableness from making it intolerable, or its partisanship from making it unbearable.
In one of its most sarcastic paradoxes, history has conferred the task of preserving us from the intoxication of our illusions upon the most prosaic form of government, and left us the least seductive to protect us from all seductions. For the drama of politics is that it offers hardly any alternatives other than horror and ridicule. We would like to imagine a virtuous middle between the two, but probably there isn’t one.11 The task of every democracy is therefore to make something relatively irrational into something modestly reasonable, to get people to accept the mediocrity of its agreements as only mildly unacceptable. What is peace, after all, but war put off indefinitely? Democracy, likewise, is only a precarious balancing act between a disorder that’s kept perpetually in check and an order that’s continually postponed. It must make itself look acceptable to those it exasperates, while allowing those who reject it to believe there’s still hope for improvement. Failing that, and with nothing else to hold them back, many will come to believe the worst choice is the best one that they have.
Yet the widening gap between society and its representatives seems to me today so sharp, so blatant, so insuperable, that basic prudence compels us to reverse the trend. Before the structure comes entirely apart, and since we’re already aware of its many cracks, don’t we feel some urgency to simplify it, in order to strengthen it? And to repair it, in order that it be reinforced? Haven’t we assigned more initiatives and responsibilities to the State than it can possibly assume? By multiplying the echelons, the stages, the levels of democratic representation, haven’t we turned such representation into a corporate organization, and this autonomous body into a kind of parasite?
The following, very brief essay12 does not claim to answer these questions, nor does it offer solutions to the problems it raises. It has no theoretical ambition whatever, and therefore will confine itself to making an analysis. The country in which I am living out my days has become for me as foreign as the society of Louis XV might have appeared to one of Montesquieu’s Persians. Having neither the competence nor the authority to reform anything, I wish only to communicate my stupefaction to those possessing the courage, lucidity, and discernment to undertake such a task themselves.
- From somewhere further right on the Never Trump spectrum, Ken White, First Amendment lawyer and lead counsel at Popehat, makes the case in favor of, not exactly normalization, but a more traditional American democratic approach to opposition ↩
- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1958), p. viii. ↩
- Benjamin Constant, Constant: Political Writings, trans. Biancamaria Fontana (Cambridge University Press, 1988) p. 78. ↩
- The lower house of the French Parliament, somewhat comparable to our House of Representatives, the President (currently Claude Bartolone) serving a similar function to our Speaker of the House. -trans. ↩
- A suburb just north of the city. ↩
- The committee governing France during the last years of the Revolution. See here. ↩
- For an introduction to the administrative divisions of France, see here. ↩
- Similar to some county commissions in the United States. ↩
- Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, one of the chief political theorists of the French Revolution. ↩
- “La fonction publique” employs over 3,000,000 French citizens, including teachers, social service and post office workers, etc. ↩
- In his preface to Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes, Valéry nonetheless described a few years of the Régence as an instance of fragile equilibrium between order and disorder. For “order always weighs a person down,” but “disorder makes him wish for the police—or death.” Between the two, between Madame de Maintenon and Madame de Pompadour, there was this fleeting moment where order had ceased to impose its discipline, and disorder had yet to begin. Cf. Paul Valéry, Variété II (1929), in Œuvres, tome I, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris, Gallimard, 1958, pp. 512-13. ↩
- To my knowledge, none of Grimaldi’s work has been published in English translation. Many of his books, including Le crépuscule de la démocratie are available from Grasset. For more on this particular essay, interested Francophones are encouraged to listen to Grimaldi in conversation with Raphaël Enthoven for this episode of Le Pouvoir imaginaire, via France Culture. ↩
Tags: Caleb Crain, Christopher Achen, Democracy, Election 2016, Larry Bartels, Louis Cancelmi, Nicolas Grimaldi, Raphaël Liogier, Translations