The philosopher Pierre Dardot reviews the modern state in his latest book. A structure created in the 16th century that is still standing after successive transformations, and that exercises an impersonal dominance over society.
An icy wind receives Pierre Dardot (Paris, 1952) in Madrid, who arrives for the interview directly from Bilbao. “It didn’t stop raining there,” says the philosopher, resigned to the vagaries of the autumn weather that have accompanied him on the presentation tour in Spain of his latest book, To dominate (Gedisa, 2021), written in collaboration with sociologist Christian Laval. Retired from teaching – he has been a professor at the Paris Nanterre University – Dardot lives devoted to philosophical research, although he has excellent memories of his years as a professor. Author, along with Laval, of political essays such as The world’s new reason, Common, The nightmare that never ends The The shadow of October, a common interest in Karl Marx led them to create the Question Marx group in 2004, and laid the foundations for a fruitful collaboration. His latest book investigates the nature of sovereignty exercised by the modern State, of which, he considers, social institutions should be preserved, “but transforming and democratizing them.”
Ask. Does the title of your book mean that dominance is the main objective of the state?
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Answer. No, not consciously. But exercising sovereignty is about dominating. We have wanted to rework the notion of “domination” because in Political Philosophy it is always interpreted as a relationship between people. State sovereignty, on the other hand, has an impersonal character. It is exercised through laws and administrative rules.
P. It is a contingent construction, but could we live without the State?
R. It is difficult to imagine because we are very used to living within a state structure. In France, even the most recalcitrant neoliberals have a state consciousness. Faced with the slightest crisis, they invoke the State to help them, just like the big businessmen.
P. In your book I see a certain contradiction. The State is criticized, but it is also presented as the only brake on global capitalism.
R. It is that there is an internal contradiction in the modern State that goes back to the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, when the institutions of the social State were created, such as public health, education. We do not put it on the same level as the police, repressive aspects, which are also of the State. We consider that there is a relationship that may be contradictory between these two parties. What seems to us is that the institutions of the social state must be preserved, but transforming them, democratizing them. We must give more participation to the local. I was recently told that in Belgium there are medical centers or “health houses” that are built in the neighborhoods as private law institutions. They are much closer to the logic of the ordinary than those immense hospital structures that we see in France. And in them, patients can collaborate with doctors in the preparation of their medical reports.
P. The modern State was born in the 16th century, as a copy of the Vatican State. Could the crisis of the Catholic Church be a warning of the crisis that awaits you?
R. There is no doubt that it is already suffering a crisis of representation. The idea that at the head of the State there was a power with legitimate representation came into crisis 25 or 30 years ago. Faith in the State as an entity capable of assuming competencies, which had developed knowledge linked to its function, has been lost. Hence the electoral abstention is enormous.
P. In his opinion, in addition, he has ceased to be the protector of the worker to become the protector of global capital and its owners.
R. Indeed. There has been a transformation. The state is now concerned with facilitating the circulation of global capital. For example, with tax exemptions. Johnson’s England is amazing at that.
P. He says that the 1986 Single European Act is the most important document of the neoliberal era. Why?
R. It enshrines budget balance and monetary stability as golden rules that completely escape the control of the peoples, of the countries that make up the EU. It is an imposed agreement. They are rules that are above politics, and electoral alternations, and governments of the right or left accept them because there is continuity.
P. So does neoliberalism get along with the left and the right? Precisely 1986 is the year of Spain’s entry into the EU with a social democratic government.
R. Indeed. I do not mean that everything is the same. There are differences. The same as today we see the differences that exist with Orbán’s Hungary. As for social democracy, between 1980 and 1990 a radical change took place and, in my opinion, the term is no longer valid. Gerhard Schröder or Tony Blair no longer have anything to do with Social Democracy, although they still call themselves Social Democrats.
P. And Felipe González?
R. Either. In France, the Social Democrats barely get 5% or 7% of the vote. They are doing terrible. Spain at least has one party that declares itself a social democrat and that is important.
P. Yes. Although he governs in coalition with a formation more to the left and with the external support of pro-independence parties.
R. Squaring the circle.
P. What do you propose to people who want to end neoliberalism? Those who love, of course, because there are many people who are happy with that system.
R. Of course. There are entire layers of society that have fully adhered not to the neoliberal ideology, but to the neoliberal way of life. That is why I believe that the battle must be raised in the field of the model of life. The question is whether the left is capable of helping movements that want to promote another way of life.
P. As a great expert on Marx, what do you think would amaze you more if you could take a tour of the 21st century, the new skin of capitalism or the People’s Republic of China?
R. I do not know. But China is a unique case in the world. The fusion of the wildest capitalism with the totalitarian state. And for the moment it is successful. Of course, with catastrophic aspects for the daily life of citizens.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.