The Long Thermidor

This is the first part of a translation of an interview with Gerardo Pisarello which originally appeared on the Sin Permiso website. There will be several more parts to follow. Pisarello is a professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Barcelona and author of ‘A long Thermidor. The attack of antidemocratic constitutionalism’, which is the topic of this interview.

It’s from a couple of months back but I thought it particularly appropriate given the upcoming treaty referendum in Ireland, in which voters are told to vote for elite control over their public finances, with  all the dismantling of rights and entitlements that such an arrangement would entail, or face utter devastation.

Allow me to ask you about the title of the book: what ‘long Thermidor’ are you talking about?

The expression refers to the French revolution. In the republican calendar, Thermidor was the month of the coup d’etat against the vigorous democratic movement that succeeded the fall of the monarchy. This coup was carried out to protect the large estates and the politicial and economic elites associated witih them. What the title of the book seeks to highlight is the similarity between that process and other subsequent antidemocratic reactions, beginning with the one that has led to the consolidation of neoliberalism, and in general, the present financialised capitalism.

The subtitle reads: “The attack of antidemocratic constitutionalism”. What constitutionalism is that? Is this term not an oxymoron?

Constitutionalism is an instrument for organising power. To think that this necessarily entails the service of democracy is a mistake. The ancients, Aristotle above all, understood that the material constitution of a society could be democratic or antidemocratic. This tension runs through modern constitutionalism. The American version, for example, was born in large part as a device for holding back the democratising pressures generated by the independence movement. In Europe, the Thermidorian constitutionalism first, and the liberal one after that, also served to preserve the large estates and hold back the demands of popular majorities. And in that liberal antidemocratic tradition we would also have to situate the constitutionalism driven by the Washington Consensus in the 90s. Or the one that is today driven forward by the European Union, in open contradiction of the most important guarantees of the state constitutions.

As if it could be no other way, a central category, real democracy, appears repeatedly in your essay. What do you understand by real democracy? What contradiction does it entail?

I really use the concept of democracy, on its own, in the manner of the historian Arthur Rosenberg. Not as a finished, static regime, but as a movement in favour of political and economic self-government. This idea of democracy has little to do with the dominant liberal conceptions that try to pare it down, at best, to a mere mechanism for selecting elites. But it sits quite well, on the other hand, with the antique, classic notion of democracy, as an egalitarian movement that widens the inclusion of those in the demos. And with the present demands of the indignados as regards real distribution of power, not only in institutions, but also in the market.

Your book comprises an introduction and six chapters. Let’s start with the introduction; you begin it with a homage to Marx and Engels: “A wave of protests is haunting Europe”. What importance do these protests have? What are they protesting against, in your opinion?

These protests, preceded by those of the ‘Arab spring’, can be seen as part of a wave of popular anti-oligarchic revolts. As revolts directed at a shameless variation of rentier capitalism that precaritises, excludes and seems prepared to liquidate any democratic obstacle that gets in its way. Some voices have compared them to the protests that shook the order of the Restoration and that of liberal capitalism in 1830 and 1848. The latter is the year of the ‘spring of the peoples’ and, as you point out yourself, of the Manifesto of Marx and Engels. These are protests that bring together a plurality of classes and actors who do not belong to the plutocracy around an incisive programme of political and social democratisation. In the European or US case we are, undoubtedly, faced with embryonic revolts, with a still very limited impact. However, as the crisis deepens, it is most likely that they will grow and give way to new forms of antagonism and collective action. Meanwhile, they are the only hope of an exit from the neoliberal Thermidor.

You speak of an oligarchic assault on democracy. What do they seek to do with this assault which, in your opinion, is not a new phenomenon? Liquidate citizen freedoms? Wipe out worker conquests?

The financialised capitalism that we are faced with can be considered, in effect, an oligarchic assault on democracy. This entails a deep reconfiguration of the power relations that lead to its political and economic concentration. For the moment at least, the objective does not appear to be the straightforward elimination of public freedoms and social rights, but their greatest possible reduction. It would be a question, then, of maintaining mixed regimes in which oligarchic and democratic elements live side by side, but in which the latter occupy a marginal role. It would be a degraded variation on what the ancients, once again, called isonomic oligarchies. Regimes controlled by minorities that tolerate the existence of certain freedoms, as long as these do not call their rule into question.

You rely on Benjamin and you speak of brushing history against the grain. What does that move consist of? How does one brush against the grain?

In my opinion it involves two things. On the one hand, break with the linear, flat visions of history, those that see in it an ascendant, almost necessary evolution, towards ever greater freedom and rationality. It is a matter of showing that history, on the contrary, as a conflictive and open stage, marked out by great tragedies and rebellions, but stripped, at any rate, of any direction fixed a priori. On the other, to brush history against the grain demands questioning history as explained from above, from the exclusive perspective of power and its products. This involves reflecting the print of the people from below. Of those oppressed for economic, sexual, ethnic reasons. Those who are victims of the relations of ruling power, but who also resist and articulate alternative forms of power.

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