Introduction a paradox, which he defines as “the major




In 1918, Thomas Mann1
argued that politics and democracy are part of an indivisible whole, and
precisely here lies the problem of democracy. His critique of democracy was a
critique against politicisation: if everything is up to discussion, even the
higher ethical principles can be called into question. Pierre Rosanvallon has
adopted a different approach. He is not an enemy of democracy, he is, as Nadia
Urbinati has suggested, a “critic from within”. In his 2008 book
“Counter-Democracy”, he explores the concepts of the “political” and
“unpolitical” in a very different way.

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Rosanvallon’s work begins with a paradox, which he
defines as “the major political problem of our time” (p.1). Today, democracy is
unopposed as a political ideal – and the growing number of democratic countries
is an evidence of this -, but, at the same time, advanced democracies are
witnessing a “growing dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy”
(Donatella Della Porta). The decline or stagnation of participation rates in
elections, the decline in party membership, the loss of confidence in political
institutions and even anger against them are the well-known phenomena which
belong to this dissatisfaction, crisis or distrust.

Distrust is at the very centre of his work (the
subtitle of the book is indeed “Politics in an age of distrust”) and his
project is to “rehabilitate” distrust as a positive element of democracy. What
Rosanvallon is able to convey is that distrust of power is not a negative
force, rather it belongs to both the democratic and liberal traditions. What is
more, distrust underpins the different forms of counter-democratic powers –
oversight, prevention, and judgment – which he believes are, along
electoral-representative institutions, the essential components of the
“democratic experiences”. As Mark E. Warren has suggested, a large portion of
the book is reserved to a history (a genealogy) of how distrust has been
organized, how counter-democracy has worked. 
Indeed, the goal of the author is to see distrust in a new light,
showing how it is at the heart of a “new democratic era”. But, according to the
French thinker, counter-democracy has also an “inherent ambivalence”, which
could lead to negativity: for example, one extreme consequence of
counter-democracy is populism. But, as we will see, distrust plays also a
prominent role in what Rosanvallon calls the “unpolitical democracy”.


Democracy and the


His analysis, this is perhaps the most interesting
result, deals with the themes of the “end of politics”, “the unpolitical” or
“depoliticization” in an original way, and he does this coining the concept of
the “unpolitical democracy”. Firstly, we need to clarify Rosanvallon’s
definition of democracy. His “simple and compelling functional conception”
(Mark E. Warren) of democracy involves three pillars. The first is the realm of
the electoral-representative institutions. The second comprises what
Rosanvallon focused on in his book, that is counter-democratic powers. The
third is “theoretical political practice”, which produces “the rules that
define a shared world”, in other words, creates a common story for the
community and gives meaning to society. In this context for him, the political
is “le travail du politique” or “the institution of civil society by the
political”, which consist of activities such as “the definition of principles
of justice, arbitration between the interests of various groups, delineation of
the relationship between public and private” (p. 291). In short, the creation
of a “shared world”. This third aspect is the key to explore his reflections on
“the unpolitical”: it is this creative function that democracy is no longer
able to perform, and therefore, without the creation of this shared world, it
remains merely an “unpolitical” democracy.

How is that possible and how it happened? Rosanvallon
highlights how counter-democracy is positive but, at the same time, essentially
responsible for the “depoliticization” of society. As a matter of fact,
counter-powers of oversight, prevention, and judgment exercise a “negative
sovereignty”, the use of which delegitimates the traditional political powers
it addresses. By doing so they “dissolve the signs of a shared world” (p. 23,
emphasis in original), because their action is democratic but has
“non-political effects”. This is why he rejects the idea of “the passive
citizen”, arguing that citizens are not less politically involved, they have
moved to different, counter-democratic forms of political participation.
Secondly, counter-democracy has a chaotic effect on the political sphere,
introducing too many levels and actors, and making it unintelligible for
citizens. “But visibility and legibility are two essential properties of the
political. Politics does not exist unless a range of actions can be
incorporated into a single narrative and represented in a single public arena”
(p. 23). And it is exactly this common narrative that seems to lack in today’s


Post-politics and governance


Maybe, it is possible to find other insights on this
theme under the label “post-politics”. Japhy Wilson and Erik Swyngedouw define
it as follows:


“In post-politics, political contradictions are
reduced to policy problems to be managed by experts and legitimated through
participatory processes in which the scope of possible outcomes is narrowly
defined in advance. ‘The people’ – as a potentially disruptive political
collective – is replaced by the population – the aggregated object of opinion
polls, surveillance, and bio-political optimisation. Citizens become consumers,
and elections are framed as just another ‘choice’, in which individuals
privately select their preferred managers of the conditions of economic
necessity.” 2


So it seems that there is no longer the need for this
big picture political narrative because the market has filled that space. Then
the job of politics becomes merely a management job within a predetermined
context. But Rosanvallon warns us that “the market is merely one
manifestation…of the phenomenon of decentralized decision-making”. So for him,
the market is only a symptom and not the cause of depoliticization.

The French thinker has identified two different types
of depoliticization. The first stems from “the participatory processes” cited
above, which can be categorized under the concept of governance. Rosanvallon identifies
three major characteristics of governance: networking, complexity and lack of hierarchy.
Let’s take a closer look at each one of them. Networking means that multiple actors
interact and there is not a single player that make the decision. Complexity
involves the idea that decisions lose their imperative force, engaging in a flexible
relation with interested parties, for him this is a potentially revolutionary new
“mode of regulation” which is changing the relationship between state and
society. Finally, the consequence of all of this is the dissolution of
hierarchy referred to the legal system, here norms are no longer organized in a
hierarchical way, due to the fact that a considerable number of agencies participate
in the legislative process. What is the way to look at this phenomenon? Summarizing
the academic debate on the matter, Rosanvallon lays out two different interpretations.
The first is to conceive governance as the negation of representative democracy
and of general interest. The second more optimistic view is to realize that
with governance “the era of organizations gives way the era of networks” (p.
262). Moreover, Rosanvallon suggests that governance leads to a type of
depoliticization which he calls “decentering or dissemination”. This phenomenon
means that there is no longer a single political subject, such as “the nation”
or “the people”, but a fragmentation of actors in which politics has a mere
coordinating function. Another type of depoliticization is, in his mind, the
one brought about by counter-democracy: it does not eliminate the “functional
centrality” of politics because the counter-powers always address to it, rather
it reduces the ability of politics to create the shared world. By doing so it
“drains politics of its substance”. 


Ineffective government


well-known aspect of the “crisis of politics” is the lack of effectiveness in
government action. As the former French prime minister Michel Rocard recalled,
governing is now an “impossible profession”3.
For Rosanvallon, governing has become more difficult first and foremost because
of counter-democracy. He explains how the primary political goal is no longer
to take power but to constrain power. Transparency has become the most
important value, replacing truth, the general interest or the creation of a
“shared world”. In an uncertain world, citizens want total transparency, that
is total control on what is going on in politics. The exercise of political responsibility
is no more conceivable, and therefore “Not knowing what power is supposed to
do, people worry only about what it is supposed to be” (p. 258). Consequently,
there is a shift from political goals to moral (or even physical) qualities of
candidates.  It follows that for him,
“the impotence is systemic” and it is not caused by the lack of adequate
political leadership or political will. All of this inevitably leads to a vicious
cycle because if power is deprived of its capacity of action, then it will not be
able to deliver what citizens want and in turn they will continue to undermine
it. But he emphasizes that this will not be solved by a Churchillian or
Gaullist approach to politics.

1 As reported in Urbinati Nadia, “Unpolitical democracy”, Political
Theory, n. 38(1), 2010: 65–92

2   Wilson, Japhy, and Erik
Swyngedouw, eds. The Post-Political and Its Discontents: Spaces of
Depoliticisation, Spectres of Radical Politics. Edinburgh University Press,
2014, p. 6

3 Mentioned by Rosanvallon, p. 257