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Classics

Chantal Delsol, La nature du populisme ou les figures de l'idiot (The nature of populism or the characters of the Idiot)

Henri Hude

Chantal Delsol

 

, La nature du populisme ou les figures de l'idiot (The nature of populism or the characters of the Idiot)

 

, Nice, Les éditions Ovadia, 2008, pp. 218, paperback edition.

 

Chantal Delsol teaches political philosophy at the Université de Paris-Est where she founded the Centre d'études européennes (European Studies Centre), an institution whose reputation transcends France's borders and is especially well-known in Central Europe. A recently elected member of the Institut de France, she has an extensive body of work, translated in many languages. She began her career by studying political ideas like subsidiarity and authority (crucial with regards to the social doctrine of the Church), and continued by analysing the modern soul of the West, its irreverence and angst today. She then turned to pure politics, domestic and international, in an essay titled La République, une question française (The Republic, a French question), and to international justice. After that she explored the soul writing several novels and is now back to political philosophy in one of her finest books.

 

As an emancipated mind and someone rooted in a certain place, all Chantal Delsol had to do is be herself to discover the anthropological model which she has used to enlighten us about the state of our civilisation and its malaise. Even if it defines the human condition, emancipation-cum-rootedness is not working anymore. In Western elites the trend towards emancipation has become a unilateral frenzy that destroys all that is human. Against this, outside of the West but also within it one finds another identical pathology of rootedness. Is the world hurling towards a clash between these two inseparable but irreconcilable frenzies?

 

Ms Delsol applies this model to populism, her book's core subject, gradually broadening its scope to a study of the current and future state of democracy, opening a perspective about world civilisation in its present state of development.

 

As for the second part of the title—The characters of the Idiot, the reference here is to the distinction in Greek between idion and koinon, between the specific and the common. Following classical thinking Chantal Delsol defines the idiotès as one who intellectually does not leave his hole to understand wholes and/or who, morally, does not rise to the level of the common good. We become competent citizens when we cease being an idiotès. Democracy is a regime whose rationality depends on the existence of an adequate number of citizens who are not "idiots".

 

For Chantal Delsol demagoguery is the tendency to remain an idiotès. For her there is no democracy without an effort to grow and be educated. But elites have a constant penchant (which she documents) to take the lower classes for idiots. The originality of elites in our day and age is that they believe that one is an idiot, not to mention vile and tyrannical, if one does not adhere to an emancipatory ideology that is rootless to the extreme. Denouncing the "populist" transcends a critique of demagoguery, a term that expresses both the current version of contempt for the people and the present form of ideocratic tyranny.

 

"Populism" is an accusatory term which puts the blame as much for the pathology of rootedness on the people for its idiocy as on anyone who is for an even-handed view of emancipation-cum-rootedness (Nazism is an example of this pathology; see Chapter 6 "La perversion du particularisme" or "The Perversion of Particularism"). By this unfair charge all those who do not adhere to an ideology based on a rootless and radical democracy (the idiots) are excluded.

 

Thus from a classical Jacobin perspective, people (without the capital P) are summoned to be the People (in and for itself) or hold their peace, and leave the task of thinking and governing to those who know the people better than the people itself, i.e. those who rightfully in perpetuity exercise power by divine rule because they are by definition democrats.

 

For Chantal Delsol, Europe's awful political impotence is a consequence of the rejection of the arrogant ideological and intellectual elite by the continent's peoples who instead want the right level of rootedness and emancipation. In pointed analyses that hit home she describes the expression of this ordinary contempt for the people, whose members are guilty of loving their roots and the good life, at least as much as the emancipatory extremism and its ravings do.

 

This book draws from the sources of the Politics of Aristotle who was a partisan of democracy and prudence against authoritarian and so-called scientific regimes. It views democracy's current problems as another round in the controversy that pitted Plato against Aristotle. Was Chantal Delsol wrong to raise questions about a form of democracy in which the people is respected?

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