French original, “Michel Maffesoli: ‘Le pouvoir n’est plus irrigué par la puissance populaire’,” published in Front Populaire, 9 April 2022.
Michel Maffesoli is a sociologist and Professor Emeritus at the Sorbonne. His 1992 book La Transfiguration du Politique has recently been republished by Cerf. Is it still relevant? We asked the author.
FP: What are the main axes of this “transfiguration of the political” that you’ve been observing since the 1990s?
MM: You may find this a little vain, but I’ll start by quoting from my book to answer your question. “The social, national, international contract no longer seems to be a modus operandi in any field whatsoever […] A galloping heterogenization contaminates societies as a whole: work no longer obeys the laws of negotiation, economies are subject to a logic of war, institutions are fragmenting, politics is tribalising and increasingly obeys a logic of seduction, religion gives way to little forms of the sacred, and the nuclear family no longer has a monopoly on the regulation of sex. […] Therefore, can we continue to think of the social from the presupposition of mechanical solidarity (by which I mean rationalist and contractual)? […] The conflict is between the state and the non-state, or between the contractually regulated institution, a rational politics, and a fusional instinct with completely unpredictable reactions.”
I don’t believe that the observations I made 30 years ago regarding the saturation of politics, or at least the politics of representative democracy, and on the emergence of new forms of solidarity and emotional communion, have fundamentally changed. What’s changed is that these observations, which not many of us were making in those days, are now widely accepted. Thus, the phenomenon of abstention, highlighted by an increase in non-registration on the electoral lists (which I’ve been pointing out for a long time), has now become a concern for the authorities. In short, people no longer feel represented by elites, which makes any social and political order deeply unstable. The revolt of the Yellow Vests, the instrumentalisation of the pandemic to bring about this state of “voluntary servitude” (La Boétie) of which I have spoken elsewhere, and the general hysteria of public debates, attest to this saturation of politics.
FP: You have diagnosed the return of emotionality in the political sphere. With the benefit of several decades of hindsight, how do you see this thesis of the primacy of affectivity?
MM: I want to say first of all that, in all my work, I have always tried to describe, to take up a distinction of Max Weber, what is and not what should be. A non-normative, non-judgmental attitude, without ever saying whether something is right or wrong. I can only note that what I described as emerging in 1992 is now becoming a mass phenomenon. Politics in the modern sense was all about the long-term project (Julien Freund). This project was supposed to improve society, even prepare the ground for a perfect society to come. Today, as Plato said in The Republic, the degeneration of democracy is leading to “theatricracy”. Guy Debord had already shown this in talking about the “society of the spectacle” and the becoming spectacle of the entirety of social life. What does this mean if not that the support of voters is sought by seducing them, appealing to their emotions? When popular energy is no longer channelled into the political project, it turns into more or less disordered movements – for better (solidarity, mutual aid, the pleasure of being together) or worse: in particular, the expression of this emotionality in the form of violence and conflict.
FP: In a sense, even if Reason was brought to the fore by the Enlightenment, hasn’t the basis of collective being always been, at least in part, the domain of emotionality?
MM: We must not confuse reason and rationalism. Rationalism aims to submit everything to reason, to explain everything by explicit causes, to deny everything in human nature that belongs to the order of the imagination, dreams, fantasy. Thomas Kuhn clearly showed that Europe has followed the via recta of reason since the 17th century, leaving by the wayside the impedimenta of dreams, myths, phantasmagorias etc. This has led to the scientific advances and technological applications that we know.
But human nature is what it is. It needs to express its emotions, its feelings, this “more than being” that constitutes it structurally. It’s the emotional, the affective, that constitutes the social body. This is why, even in the midst of the rationalist era, Reason erected itself as a myth: there was talk of the “Goddess Reason”, and I have often referred to the “myth of Progress”. Myth is the expression of the symbolism of the social whole, translating its fantasy, its “own genius”. But if during modernity this aggregation, this solidarity, was mediated by the juridical contract and by economic exchange – the famous “social contract”, which I have termed mechanical solidarity – today, in postmodernity, it is emotionality that dominates, which is the aggregative ferment, the “social cement” – what I have called an organic solidarity, expressed in the “pact”. In short, the contract is purely rational; the pact is emotional.
FP: What did Eric Zemmour’s (with whom you have already debated) recent gathering at the Trocadero inspire in you? Some commentators have described it as a “fascist mass.” Should we see it as an example of the community feeling that you speak of in your work?
MM: As I have often said, I adhere to the distinction between “the scholar” and “the politician” (Max Weber), and I have never supported any candidate. Debate with a politician does not imply support or any particular stance. I talk to anyone who invites me to do so. This is the openness and generosity of spirit that I claim as the primary qualities for the intellectual: axiological neutrality. Or to use Joseph de Maistre’s expression, metapolitics.
With regard to the Trocadéro gathering, I note that Zemmour chose a place with a tragic resonance for many of his supporters who come from the right of Fillon. The last meeting before the defeat! Be that as it may, here too in my work I have pointed out what an out-of-step elite calls “populism” or extremism with reference to Jean-Marie Le Pen and Bernard Tapie, who, each in their own way, by criticising abstraction, wooden language, bureaucracy and economism, have recovered the support of the masses. The gathering of an emotionally overheated crowd hurling insults at its opponents and shouting its love for its leader, according to a well-orchestrated media scenario, is not a new phenomenon, or one unique to right-wing “populism.” We might think of certain meetings of Ségolène Royal and also sometimes, during his electoral campaign in 2017, of Macron.
Of course, these great gatherings are a hallmark of all religious rites and, like all gatherings, play on emotion rather than on reason. In La Transfiguration du Politique, I recall Marcel Mauss’s astonishment at the Nazi rallies, about which he concluded: “This return to the primitive had not been the object of our reflections. We had been content with some allusion to the state of the crowds, while this is something else entirely… Ultimately, we considered them without evaluating the extraordinary new means of communication.” 
The Trocadéro meeting translates in a spectacular way this purely emotional impulse that unites Éric Zemmour’s supporters in the cult of the myth of an eternal France. A historical narrative that corresponds more to a nostalgia for modernity than to an apprehension for postmodernity. But the construction of a mythical historical narrative is the task of every politician. Éric Zemmour turns to feelings and breaks with the economism of experts and the materialist ideology of Marxist derivation. What is certain is that a significant part of the electorate is sensitive to these issues. Let us recall Charles Péguy here: “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” In my book, I was already making the point that it was necessary to reverse this observation, and that, at the end of an era, the mystical regains strength and vigour!
FP: You use the Latin phrase “secessio plebis” frequently to highlight the rupture between the people and an elite which is considered illegitimate. How is this secessio plebis manifested today?
MM: For a long time I have been using the historical and metaphorical example of the Roman people who, when the decisions of the Senate no longer suited them, retreated to the Aventine, thus bringing life in the city to a standstill. To bring them back, the Senators sent as emissaries had to tell a story, to reinvigorate the myth in some way. The phenomena of abstention that I’ve pointed out at length, but also the abandonment of political parties and trade unions, and the lack of interest in political debates that no longer find an audience unless they take on a spectacular form, are raw forms of this secessio plebis.
But more generally, it should also be noted that solidarity, collective gatherings and forms of exchange and sharing abandon political and even institutional models and instead take on shorter, more spontaneous, more occasional forms. Gatherings rather than organised demonstrations, “flash mobs” and sudden riots are all modes of protest that break with the consolidated ritual of political conflict. We must also of course mention the Yellow Vests and their alleged lack of programs and leaders, as well as the numerous “No Green Pass” demonstrations and others. To this I will add what I have called “interstitial utopias“, ways of living out new forms of being together, more local, more spontaneous, more ephemeral.
FP: You explain in your book that by dint of the technical empowerment of politics, public affairs “have taken on a character of exteriority”, that social life has become an abstraction. What do you mean by that?
MM: Since my very earliest books I have drawn a distinction between the social and the societal. The social reduces relations between individuals to rational, material, legal ties. The societal takes into account the entirety of being, feelings and emotions as much as the rational. The modernity of which our politicians are still the representatives, attached to their privileges, is based on this social bond reduced to a legal and economic rationality – what I’ve called an abstraction of the social.
Politicians, experts, economists, senior officials, but also journalists, endlessly repeating their mantras about purchasing power, science and the principle of economic reality, paint a picture of a reality totally alien to people’s actual everyday lives. Because of this, power longer emanates from the will of the people, and so it withers. In the same way, popular power is no longer channeled by a power by which it no longer feels represented. Hence the ongoing revolts and, even more, those to come. All are signs of what Vilfredo Pareto called the “circulation of elites” that occurs whenever an era is ending. I could say the same thing by quoting Saint Thomas Aquinas: “omnis auctoritas a populo“. Authority, in the etymological sense, is what makes you grow. When established power is no longer embedded in instituting power, it is overthrown. This is what’s happening now.
FP: You oppose the “dying caste of established notables” with a popular, spiritual and Dionysian genius. Does this not itself suggest you have a somewhat idealised vision of the people? Is this not at least a Manichean opposition?
MM: As M. Heidegger or Hannah Arendt reminded us: we all have an idea in our lives. Every work worthy of the name is based on a haunting idea. I developed mine, as I just mentioned, in one of my first books: La Violence Totalitaire, where I draw a distinction between pouvoir (instituted power) and puissance (instituting power): between those who have the power to say and do – the so-called elites – and the people. Today, as you know, I think there is a break between the people and the elites. I’m not saying that one is good and the other evil. I am simply saying that the people no longer feel represented.
What I call popular genius is not to be understood in the modern sense of individual genius, but in the etymological sense of the word genius: “gens”. It is what roots a community in a common religion, what “binds” it (religare) together. It is from this that the spirit of a place is born, a common myth that animates a human group, bringing together its energies. In this sense, popular “genius” is the cause and effect of dynamic rooting. And I say that the God of the postmodern era is no longer Apollo or Prometheus, but Dionysus. A chthonic god, an ambiguous god, a god of effervescence. The god that the Bacchae sought out to combat the boredom that killed the city, however well administered it was by the wise Pentheus. In every era there is therefore a change of imagination, a change of pole. This is what I mean, and it has nothing to do with a Manichean opposition or a class conflict.
FP: Democracy, in its modern conception, is based on representation. But you note that the current political elite represents only itself. Should we then recognise that we are no longer in a democracy?
MM: Hannah Arendt, that great lady of thought, speaks of a “democratic ideal” to characterise modernity. ‘Ideal’ in the sense of the idea that configures an era, which defines its rules of coexistence. I would speak in the same way of the communitarian ideal. Obviously I don’t mean ‘communitarianism’ in the term’s colloquial usage, but rather as something that takes into account the ‘tribalisation’ of our societies, their fragmentation into multiple groups that can cooperate or oppose each other. What has been popularised and stigmatised recently under the term “archipellisation“. It is this confrontation between tribes, this regulation being put in place, for better or for worse. Yes, the model of representative democracy is saturated. No one can represent a group of citizens in large entities like the nation-state, and in a world where a polytheism of values predominates. The res publica, public affairs, can be administered differently. The shared destiny of the multiple tribes that make up a country can be faced differently, in a cohesion that is not uniformity.
I’m talking about uniqueness in opposition to unity. Uniqueness is the cohesion of a diverse whole; a “coincidentia oppositorum“, of which the oxymoron is the perfect rhetorical form. Let us take this path, proceeding by trial and error. To deny the communitarian ideal, reducing it to a rigid communitarianism, translates into pitting the various tribes against each other. As Walter Benjamin said, “every age dreams of the next”. We must support this dream so that it does not become a nightmare.
1 La transfiguration du politique (1992), ed. Du Cerf, 2022, pp 284 and 285.
2 See J.F. Lyotard, who clearly showed the end of the “grand narratives” (La condition postmoderne, Éd. de Minuit, 1979) and of course Jean Baudrillard, in all his work. For example: L’échange symbolique et la mort, Gallimard, 1976.
3 Op.cit. p. 216.
4 La violence totalitaire, 1979, rééd. DDB.