‘Our regimes are democratic,’ Pierre Rosanvallon states in the opening sentence of Good Government, ‘but we are not governed democratically.’ There has in recent decades been a shift, he argues, away from a model of democracy focused on representative assemblies towards one in which executives are dominant. More and more countries are adopting the presidential style of government, even in places like Britain that nominally remain parliamentary democracies.
What, though, would it mean to have a truly democratic executive? Rousseau believed that only a ‘nation of gods’ could govern itself democratically: the people might get to make the laws, but well-qualified men, essentially an aristocracy, would have to execute them. Rosanvallon thinks there is an alternative to such unashamed elitism: he suggests complementing presidential power with what he calls ‘permanent democracy’, a constant interaction between the governors and the governed. Good Government appeared in France two years before the rise of Emmanuel Macron, but it is difficult not to view it in light of the young president’s approach to governance: a large-scale exercise in consultation with the people – with grievances gathered and measured – is followed by a ‘Jupiterian’ phase as the president imposes the necessary remedies from on high. In parts, Rosanvallon’s book reads like a template for macronisme, in others it suggests an explanation of where in practice it has already gone wrong.
Rosanvallon has always cut an unusual figure among French intellectuals – an impression reinforced by his memoir, Notre Histoire intellectuelle et politique. Unlike many 20th-century French thinkers, he didn’t begin his career at a prestigious university. Instead, after studying business management in the 1970s, he became something like an in-house philosopher for the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), today France’s largest trade union, which had Catholic roots and was resolutely non-communist. In particular, he sought to develop the idea of workers’ self-management. He was part of what became known as the deuxième gauche (not to be confused with the Maoist and Trotskyist gauchismes of the 1970s), which had taken up some core ideas from 1968: a hostility to all bureaucracies and a celebration of individual as well as collective autonomy. Its best-known politician, Michel Rocard, served as prime minister in the late 1980s, but his presidential ambitions were frustrated by François Mitterrand.
Rosanvallon, who was close both to the liberal historian François Furet and to Michel Foucault, eventually decided he wanted to be an academic, not a union apparatchik. He entered the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, where there was no need to specialise in a particular discipline; he also remained free to continue his work as a self-described agitateur d’idées, playing a central role in the – by French standards – market-friendly Fondation Saint-Simon. Together with Furet, he celebrated the exhaustion in the 1980s of both communism and Gaullism. By 1989, the bicentenary of the Revolution, what remained was a moderate république du centre.
In 2001, Rosanvallon was given a chair at the country’s most prestigious intellectual institution, the Collège de France. He had the privilege of being allowed to define his own field, and chose the ‘modern and contemporary history of the political’. He staked out a territory between political history and analytic political theory, which in the English-speaking world is largely a no man’s land. Like Foucault before him, Rosanvallon puts in the hours in the archives: his more than twenty monographs to date include a trilogy on the history of French democracy (which remains untranslated) and four volumes on the recent evolution of democracy more broadly, drawing on the British and American as well as the French experience.
Rosanvallon, like members of the Cambridge School in Britain and beyond, has dug up obscure pamphlets and treatises on governance to show the way political vocabularies and the political imagination have changed over time: past ways of thinking should be understood in their context rather than in terms of present-day theory. But his emphasis on the interplay of political thought and political institutions and, in particular, democracy as a lived experience is hard to distil into any kind of ‘method’. He has described himself as a man of the 19th century, a student of the ‘sciences morales et politiques’ who resolutely defies disciplinary boundaries. The closer Rosanvallon gets to the present, the more he seeks to pin down transformations according to concepts of his own – and the more prescriptive his work becomes. There is a risk in this. Paying close attention to institutional changes, and treating those changes as normative, can put the contemporary historian-cum-theorist in the position of court philosopher: he can end up legitimating whatever happened most recently.
Rosanvallon begins Good Government by recounting the history he thinks is now effectively over. In post-Revolutionary France, he explains, the executive was thought of as an impersonal institution entirely subordinate to the National Assembly. Condorcet even dreamed of a roi-machine, a mechanical device that simply enacted democratically chosen laws. The content of the laws was determined by a process of ‘authorisation’: citizens got to elect parties once every few years; once authorised, parliamentarians would do what they considered right without further input from the people. A figure such as Napoleon, who claimed that his subjects had become ‘tired of assemblies’, disrupts this narrative. But Bonaparte left no plausible defence of the principles behind his approach to government, and neither did his nephew Napoleon III, despite the proliferation of positive presentations of Caesarism in the mid-19th century. The Weimar Republic’s experiment with a directly elected president – often thought of as an Ersatzkaiser – ended in disaster. Rosanvallon’s brief, brilliant intellectual history confirms him in his view that the moderns never developed a proper theory of executive power.
Until, that is, the ‘presidentialisation’ of democracy began in earnest with de Gaulle. What at first seemed a ‘French exception’ (at least in Europe) of electing the president by popular majority has spread to many parts of the world. Even where a prime minister is recruited from within parliament and nominally dependent on it, most governments today are more like ‘republican monarchies’ – in which, according to de Gaulle’s formula, an election is ‘an encounter between a man and a people’. Presidentialisation means personalisation: elections are less about parties and more about endorsing the individual character of the person at its head. A leader such as Blair – who explicitly fashioned himself as a figure above parties or even above politics altogether – confirms the point, as does Angela Merkel, who during her re-election campaign in 2013 refused to offer much of a programme and rode to victory by saying over and over: ‘You know me.’ (When she went on to open the borders to refugees, a fair number of Germans felt that they hadn’t known her at all.)
The focus on a single person, Rosanvallon argues, allows for more accountability and transparency: a government and its decisions become more ‘legible’. As bureaucracy becomes ever more complex and mechanisms of government more remote, the public needs at the very least to be able to turn to one single responsible human, someone who can answer for the government machine in terms that make sense. ‘The head of the executive branch,’ Rosanvallon writes, ‘whose face is seen everywhere and whose words are heard by all, stands in the sharpest contrast imaginable to the ambient opacity of the politico-administrative system.’ Rosanvallon is quite aware of the obvious drawbacks. Instead of ‘legibility’ we may get merely the maximal visibility of one person – as with Louis XIV, who constantly displayed himself before the public while the actual decision-making was done in secret by his Council.
Rosanvallon concedes that presidentialism – whose current form is, he says, at once ‘deeply unsatisfactory’ and ‘altogether unavoidable’ – has a clear propensity towards ‘illiberalism’. Personalisation brings with it the polarisation of politics: a party has principles, but these don’t execute themselves, and party members can reason about their implementation together; a presidential election, by contrast, mainly comes down to being for or against a person. Presidentialism carries with it the danger of all-out majoritarianism, since a directly elected president can claim uniquely to incarnate the ‘will of the people’; as a result, a president is prone to assume a ‘super-legitimacy’ which he or she will be tempted to deploy against any countervailing institution, including the courts and the press. Napoleon III savaged the press as an ‘illegitimate’ – because unelected – ‘rival of the public authorities’, for Trump the media is the ‘enemy of the people’: such are the ‘deeply unsatisfactory’ results of the ‘unavoidable’ presidentialisation of democracy. As the political theorist Hugo Drochon has pointed out, these results are self-perpetuating: we shouldn’t be shocked that people keep electing ‘strong men’ when the dominance of ever more powerful executives instils in citizens a belief that we must have ‘strong leadership’.
What would be a less ‘unsatisfactory’ alternative? Some things seem unalterable: the executive ultimately functions as a single actor; the society it governs is diverse. But the relationship between governors and governed can take various forms. It should, Rosanvallon writes, involve ‘legibility, responsibility, responsiveness’. A robust ‘right to know’ will have to be established for citizens. We need ‘open governments’ – Rosanvallon cites Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome as a symbol of openness – that give a continuous account of themselves. Ideally, he believes, there should be full mutual visibility: a vigilant civil society, aided by the internet, should keep a close watch on the executive. Meanwhile, universities, schools and ‘public interest research groups’ can help make society as a whole more ‘legible’.
Some of these prescriptions are very general indeed. In the past Rosanvallon has been more specific, even giving practical demonstrations of what he has in mind. A few years ago, in the course of developing his notion of ‘narrative representation’, he invited ‘ordinary people’ to relate their experiences in a series of short books he edited, under the rubric Raconter la vie: he hoped to constitute a ‘parliament of the invisibles’ to whose stories nobody usually listens; the project was followed by Raconter le travail, with the support of Rosanvallon’s old employer the CFDT. While there is nothing so concrete in Good Government, Rosanvallon writes that leaders should exhibit ‘integrity’ and ‘truthfulness’, in order to establish the ‘bond of mutual confidence between governors and governed that a democracy of trust requires’. This, he thinks, is how a genuinely democratic government can still be brought about in a post-representative and post-parliamentary age.
At first sight, Macron’s post-parliamentary approach to politics seems to illustrate Rosanvallon’s account perfectly. The president’s distance from grubby day to day politics is what de Gaulle once envisaged – and is what some citizens may have pined for after the hyperactive, peoplisé Sarkozy and the all too normal Hollande. But Macron also seems to have heeded Napoleon’s advice that to be elected on a party ticket means having to depend on a party. La République En Marche has been the most personality-driven movement in Europe in recent years, far more dependent on its founder than, for instance, the Five Star Movement has been on Grillo. By contrast, de Gaulle did not name his movement, say, Coalition de Gaulois, and he forbade the candidates of his de facto party, the Union pour la nouvelle République, even to invoke his name.
Macron’s scrambling of the French party system confirms Rosanvallon’s diagnosis that the contemporary era is one of ‘malrepresentation’. Macron correctly perceived that, ever since the heated debates over the Maastricht Treaty, a conflict between Europeanism and souverainisme – or, as Macron would put it, between ‘openness’ and ‘closedness’ – had riven French society, and that this conflict was playing out within, not between, the major parties. Hence En Marche was constructed as an assembly combining the left of the right and the right of the left. It was also a machine to extract talented individuals from ‘civil society’ to take the place of discredited professional politicians: more than half of the candidates for the legislative elections in 2017 hadn’t held political office before. In line with this seemingly anti-elitist stance, Macron called for the ‘moralisation of public life’, passing a law aimed at the kind of corruption the former prime minister François Fillon – and, as it turned out, some of the stalwarts in Macron’s winning alliance with the centrist François Bayrou – had engaged in, such as employing family members in bogus jobs.
Rosanvallon has not endorsed Macron as a legitimate heir of the reformist deuxième gauche: he is really a social-libéral – despite the fact that, as Rosanvallon has also pointed out, his reign has turned out to be neither very social nor very liberal. In his memoir, which is among other things a melancholy tale of the decline of the socialist party in his lifetime, Rosanvallon is highly critical of the ‘soft drug of realism’ on which the left got hooked in the 1980s. He vividly describes a meeting between European social democratic leaders and intellectuals in 2000 at which he was disillusioned to find that the assembled proponents of the Third Way – the sociaux-libéraux of their day – actually wanted nothing more from the thinkers present than a few nice soundbites about civil society.
Macron’s approach often looks like a second coming of the Third Way. His signature phrase, ‘en même temps’, sums up the Giddens-style attempt to bundle together anything that sounds attractive, however contradictory: both ‘liberation’ and ‘protection’, both ‘free trade’ and ‘equitable trade’. This juste milieu positioning worked well at first: it seemed obvious that the most reasonable position to take must lie between the irrational extremes of a barely dédiabolisée Le Pen and the neo-Jacobin Jean-Luc Mélenchon, both of them ‘populist’ in the vulgar sense that they were happy to traffic in irresponsible policies. Macron’s self-positioning as et de droite et de gauche – like Blair, picking ‘what really works’ and then dignifying it with management speak – has also had a convenient side effect: it has allowed plenty of people from the older parties to join the marchistes without feeling like opportunists.
Macron’s technocratic stance is oddly reminiscent of a 19th-century figure whom Rosanvallon discussed in his doctoral dissertation: François Guizot, the liberal leader under the July Monarchy, now remembered mostly for his appeal to the French to ‘Enrichissez-vous!’ (echoed in Macron’s professed hope that young French people will set out to become billionaires). Guizot opposed both reactionaries who believed in the divine right of kings and revolutionaries who clung to the ideal of popular sovereignty. He advocated instead the ‘sovereignty of reason’, and the people with the best chance of finding out what reason demanded in any given situation were the educated classes. An election was not, therefore, ‘an arithmetical machine employed to collect and count individual wills, but a natural process by which public reason, which alone has a right to govern society, may be extracted from the bosom of society itself’. Guizot was convinced that representative government worked best by maintaining a constant exchange between government and society through ‘publicity’ – meaning a free press, but also continuous provision of information by the government. Suffrage, meanwhile, should remain restricted to the ‘capable’.
Macronisme can easily be seen as an updated version of the ideal of extracting reason from civil society: 90 per cent of En Marche’s candidates in the last election were professionals or business leaders. Yet the movement started out with ‘La Grande Marche’, in which five thousand volunteers conducted in-depth interviews with citizens to ascertain their concerns, generating le diagnostic of France’s social ailments. Could this be the ‘permanent democracy’ Rosanvallon hopes for? If so, then Macron’s failure to keep up his ‘dialogue’ with the people after becoming president and governing, as Rosanvallon puts it, de haut en bas, could explain his troubles. Last year’s ‘great national debate’, a response to the protests of the gilets jaunes, was an attempt to resume the ‘dialogue’ – even if it mostly involved actual meetings only with elected officials, while ‘the people’ themselves had their say on a website. But did this aggregation of cahiers de doléances from across the country really help to re-establish ‘trust’? What is clear is that in his response to the gilets jaunes, Macron, the supposed disrupteur, bet that in the end the French would want order restored and that he need make no more than a few tactical concessions. He took the same approach in the face of massive strikes this winter, throughout which there was no attempt at ‘dialogue’ at all.
Whatever one thinks of the idea of an executive constantly chatting with random members of the public, Rosanvallon, for one, would not want his proposal to be reduced to the banality of the focus group. Towards the end of Good Government, he demands nothing less than a ‘second democratic revolution’. The first revolution was driven by the demand for universal suffrage; the second will concern the optimisation of governance. Rosanvallon proposes the establishment of a ‘Council on Democratic Performance’ and commissions to monitor the quality of public policy, along with such symbolic gestures as an ‘annual democracy day’.
There is nothing wrong with such proposals, especially if you genuinely believe – as Rosanvallon’s subtitle suggests – that we are now ‘beyond elections’. But Rosanvallon isn’t writing here in his capacity as a contemporary historian. It is, rather, Rosanvallon the prescriptive theorist who claims that ‘competition’ is harming democracy and that a second democratic revolution may result in a ‘stronger and more unified society’. Yet, as he himself made clear when arguing with both communists and Gaullists in the 1970s and 1980s, society is by its nature divided and conflictual: the point of democracy isn’t to end conflict once and for all, but to deal with it in civil and generally beneficial ways.
The desire for unity may be especially strong at a time when European democracies are fragmenting into ever more disparate and numerous parties and movements. It’s easy to forget, given the dominance of En Marche, that in the first round of the 2017 presidential election Macron was chosen by a mere 18 per cent of eligible voters. As Rosanvallon writes in his memoir, in today’s individualistic ‘society of singularities’ where ‘the people’ means nothing more than ‘the plural of minorities’, it is less and less plausible to claim that a majority vote reflects the ‘general will’. Such fragmentation may make the Bonapartist – and Macronist – combination of voluntarism and rationalism seem temporarily attractive, but the notion of a super-legitimate representative of a unified society is a pipe dream. In any case, the evidence is that citizens still vote for political programmes – or at least for symbolic promises like ‘Get Brexit Done’ – as much as for individuals. And they certainly don’t want to abdicate their democratic rights to anyone’s ‘sovereignty of reason’.