This interview appeared in the Belgian L’Echo on December 19, 2020. Alain Bertho is a professor of anthropology at the University of Paris, he has been studying social unrest and uprisings for decades. On his recommendable blog he meticulously documents worldwide riots day by day. We don’t agree with all of his (sometimes liberal) views, but still think its an interesting read.
Question Simon Brunfaut: What do you think makes this crisis unique?
Answer Alain Bertho: Everyone feels that this crisis is historic for all humanity. It is a universal crisis that threatens the survival of everyone. This situation is not the result of a war or a revolution, but the consequence of an extensive environmental degradation due to human actions themselves, to their fundamental logic. At the same time, this crisis reveals the biopolitical failure of both nation-states and international organizations. It has a massive ecological and political revelatory effect. Nothing will ever be the same again.
Are we in a chaotic situation?
If chaos means the inability to bring order to our thinking and to deal with what we are going through, then, as Georges Balandier said, “disorder is first in our minds.” And our minds were already in disorder before the arrival of the pandemic. For two centuries we lived in the belief that humanity would overcome the difficulties through scientific, political, or social responses. The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the most important mobilizing utopia of the twentieth century. Beyond communism, our historical notion of collective life collapsed and we lost our sense of future and hope. The current crisis is a climax that reveals the historical impasse to the world that we had reached at that time. Today we are trapped in the present, unable to open up the future. This subjective chaos complicates any search for coherence, whether political or institutional. At the same time, it creates a need for counter-narratives, including conspiracy theories.
Is an authoritarian trend emerging in our states, in your opinion?
The authoritarian trend is gaining ground on every continent because it embodies the reaction of failing states that have no other way to legitimize the power they exercise over society. This worrisome trend is not meeting the democratic resistance it would have met a few decades ago. In the absence of a clear alternative and a mobilizing counter-narrative, the state’s chaotic management of the crisis reinforces collective confusion.
Could the management of the current health care crisis have taken place in a less authoritarian and more democratic framework?
In France, the Scientific Council has consistently recommended to involve civil society in the crisis. Its members, including President Jean-François Delfraissy, have already managed various health crises and epidemics, from Ebola to AIDS. How did we manage the AIDS crisis? By involving patients in medical research and medical research itself in health strategy. How did we deal with the Ebola virus? With the help of community management to compensate for the technical and medical deficits of the affected countries. West Africa is currently less affected by the pandemic, particularly because it has developed community-based, non-authoritarian management of health crises. Our governments refuse to do so and stubbornly narrow the circle of decision makers. In France, decisions are no longer even made in the Council of Ministers, but in a “defense council” whose discussions are secret. If authoritarianism is a symptom of panic, it is no guarantee of effectiveness.
Do you think this crisis reveals a structural problem within our representative democracies?
Our representative democracies have lost their capacity to represent. The state must be the synthesis of a general interest that transcends the contradictory diversity that characterizes a national society. But all mechanisms for social mobilization and representation are in ruins. The political decisions of our representative democracies are directly linked to the financial markets to which governments are primarily accountable. According to the IMF, government debt accounted for 75% of global GDP in 2018. In other words, financial markets have a mortgage on 75% of global GDP! Under these conditions, it is difficult to be truly accountable to the people. The Greek government learned this bitterly in 2015.
But at the same time, our states face strong mobilizations that interact with each other, from Black Lives Matter to the feminist movement in its current form. These mobilizations, rooted in the new generations, do not have representative dynamics like the social mobilizations and especially the labor movement in the last century. If “démos” and “kratos” separate at this point, democracy is obviously on the brink.
“The riot is a temporary window to the world,” you write. What does the current unrest say about the state of our world?
“A Riot is the language of the unheard” said Martin Luther King (not the voiceless as it is too often translated). Riots are a powerful weapon to feed collective concerns into public debate. In Mexico today, denunciations of sexist violence and feminicide are carried by extremely violent forms of mobilization. Women are also attacking churches. In France, the insurgent moment of the Yellow Vests at the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019 made a social emergency visible that neither the government nor the political opposition wanted to see. What cannot be put into words can always find other forms of expression. We need to pay attention to the actions of the rioters like a grammar of revolt. What or whom exactly are they attacking? What is it supposed to express?
What difference do you make between a demonstration and a revolt?
In the 20th century, demonstrations became a representative form disciplined by a normative political framework. The spectacularization of large-scale social demonstrations was achieved through staging, the use of music, color codes, and specific materials such as giant balloons. It reached a limit: the more beautiful it was, the more spectacular it was, the more disciplined it was, the less political effectiveness it had. In 2006, the mobilization against the “contrat première embauche” in France won the argument through actions blockading highways and train stations . In 2016, the “cortèges de tête” appeared, which no longer adhered to the spectacle of the demonstration and sought to involve them in confrontation with the police. With increasing success.
In your opinion, is this balance of power the only thing that still exists today?
The need to balance power has always existed, but the relationship between state and society has changed: It has become both more indifferent and more brutal. The mobilizations have to face this and try to steer this new agenda of violence. This means that the first confrontation (which remains largely symbolic and is more of a performance than a riot) opens the way to the need to impose a peaceful demonstration afterwards, without being a “spectacle demonstration.”
Will the crisis we are experiencing create new social tensions?
While the staggering rise of inequalities in recent decades is far from unleashing its full potential of social and political violence, a new political phenomenon is currently emerging. People are experiencing the naked incompetence and lies of the powers that be and their own collective power. Our governments are no longer able to manage the complexity of today’s societies. In the context of the health crisis, our countries have endured not thanks to state authoritarianism, but thanks to the mobilization of the people’s capabilities: inventiveness, collective and individual genius. People’s survival in their daily lives was ensured by non-prescriptive professional collaboration and local solidarity networks, not by institutional policies. This popular collective intelligence embodies a real dynamic of re-democratization. We need to stop trying to save representative democracy at all costs and focus on the democratic processes that are really happening today.
But how do you think this movement can be sustained over time?
The relationships between people will no longer be the same after this crisis. We must give this collective experience a shaping political force. As of today, we must work together on a new social order, knowing very well that this is a difficult path. It will meet fierce resistance from the state.
Do you fear an increase in violence in our societies in the event of a third wave?
The second wave was characterized by revolts. The despair in the face of authoritarianism was based on real experience with the risks and possible ways of reacting. In early November, high school students mobilized with demands for stricter and more reasonable rules in schools. They were harshly suppressed. If a third wave is managed in such an authoritarian way, we are in for turbulent days.
Are we generally living in more violent societies? Do you, like many analysts, see an increase in violence?
According to the Uppsala University database, until the 2000s, the majority of lethal violence was interstate violence, i.e., wars. This violence is being replaced by intrastate violence, up to and including civil wars with foreign participation. We are witnessing a shift in situations of collective violence and a brutalization of public action. I have never seen such violent police in France, while the violence of the demonstrators is comparable to situations in the past. So police violence is not the same as “social violence.” It is primarily linked to the fear of the powers that be.
Is the capitalist system itself becoming more and more violent, in your opinion?
The financialization and digitalization of capital has produced a new violence over the body. As Ken Loach pointed out so well, “platform capitalism” (e.g., Amazon) exploits labor in a slave-like fashion, outside of a properly defined wage structure, because it no longer knows how to make profit in other ways with the collective skills that have emerged. That is why this capitalism needs authoritarian governments.
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