11 - The sense of powerlessness and symbols of depoliticization  pp. 253-264

The sense of powerlessness and symbols of depoliticization

By Pierre Rosanvallon and Arthur Goldhammer

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The age of the unpolitical

The recent tendency toward political disintegration has two causes. The gap that counter-powers tend to open up between civic-civil society and the political sphere is one. For functional reasons, counter-powers tend to distance themselves from official institutions: the proof of their efficacy lies in their ability to weaken the powers-that-be. The citizen-as-watchdog gains what the citizen-as-voter loses; the negative sovereign asserts himself at the expense of the sovereign tout court; the organization of distrust undermines the assumption of trust conferred by election. For structural reasons, therefore, the political sphere tends to become alienated from society, to situate itself externally. Thus when citizens claim counter-powers, legal powers are devalued and minimized. As a logical consequence of the discontinuity that is established between society and the institutions of government, the statesman is automatically degraded to the rank of “politician.” To put it more bluntly still, democracy restricts democracy: elected officials are reined in and lose their room to maneuver owing to pressure from the voters themselves. As a result, the dynamics of control take precedence over the appropriation of power. The citizen is transformed into an ever more demanding political consumer, tacitly renouncing joint responsibility for creating a shared world. It is misleading, however, to interpret this development as nothing more than a sign of retreat into private life or growing indifference to the welfare of others, points repeated incessantly by a literature critical of the ravages of democratic individualism and filled with allegations of public “impotence” in the face of the inexorably increasing power of the private sector.

Catherine Colliot-Thélène, “L'Ignorance du peuple,” in Gérard Duprat, ed., L'Ignorance du peuple (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1998), pp. 36–39
Jacques Rancière was one of the first to use this term in Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998)
Jean-François Thuot, La Fin de la représentation et les formes contemporaines de la démocratie (Montréal: Éditions Nota Bene, 1998)
Michael B. Mackuen, James A. Stimson, and Robert S. Erikson, “Responsabilité des élus devant l'électorat et efficacité du système politique américain: Une analyse contre-factuelle,” Revue française de science politique 53, no. 6 (Dec. 2003)
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004)
Michel Crozier, Samuel Huntington, and Joji Watanuki, The Crisis Of Democracy (New York: NYU Press, 1975)
Michel Rocard, “Gouverner: métier impossible,” Les Carnets de psychanalyse, nos. 15–16 (2004)
R. Kent Weaver, “The Politics of Blame Avoidance,” Journal of Public Policy 6, no. 4 (Oct.–Dec. 1986)
Thierry Pech and Marc-Olivier Padis, Les Multinationales du cœur: Les ONG, la politique et le marché (Paris: La République des idées-Seuil, 2004)
Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Toward a New Modernity (New York: Sage, 1992)