Can we ever stay the same in politics?

Quelqu’un qui entre dans la politique doit opérer une conversation. Même s’il n’en a pas conscience, elle lui est tacitement imposée. La sanction en cas de transgression est l’échec, voire l’exclusion du champ politique.

The definition of the word ‘conversation’ is that of an interchange between two or more people. In the light of the title of this essay, I think that is important to evaluate how the sense of the word conversation could be interpreted within this specific political context. I believe that any conversation undertaken in this context is in fact a negotiation of beliefs and values leading to an accumulation or diminishment of political capital, which many, including the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, have argued is essential for success in politics.

In order to enter the political field, one must be appropriately socialised. Political culture is inculcated through the state, which Engels defined as an ‘immense appareil bureaucratique et militaire, l’Etat n’est pas autre chose qu’une machine d’oppression d’une chose par une autre.’ (Schwartzenberg, 1998:51) Bourdieu also defined it as ‘the central bank of symbolic capital guaranteeing all acts of authority.’ (Wacquant, 2004:10). A particular way in which the State disseminates its ideology is through the school, which provides us with state sanctioned mentalities controlling how we understand the world around us.

In France, one could argue that this is seen in the perpetuation of ‘Grande Écoles,’ which historically are tightly linked to the State. The École Nationale d’Administration (ENA) was created in 1945 by De Gaulle supposedly to democratise access to high positions within the French state. As such it is one of the remaining bastions of the spirit of meritocracy that characterized the French Republic. However, many criticise the fact that ENA, and its main counterparts, École Polytéchnique, and École Normale Supérieure, seem to seamlessly reproduce the civil servants, politicians and business men that exist at the top of French society, and therefore have the requisite social capital to influence the elite, or the classe dirigeante, as they themselves form part of it.  In contradiction to the spirit with which it was conceived, the Socialist politician Pierre Joxe says that ‘l’ENA a un recrutement profondément anti-démocratique: elle sert à reproduire la classe dirigeante…elle a un fonctionnement substantiellement anti-démocratique.’ (Kesler, 1985:164). Interestingly, in a poll carried out amongst students at ENA in the eighties, there was an 80% negative response rate to the question of whether Air France should be denationalised. (Kesler, 1985:386). This would make sense, as seeing as many énarques go on to work within state institutions, it is obviously in their interest that the domination of that state (and, by proxy, of the ‘classe dirigeante’) be as large as possible.

This incalculation means that we already consent to the biddings of the state before we even enter into anything that might constitute political activity. How might one traditionally enter politics? It is common to start off locally, and to be progressively work one’s way up until to the position of MP and then higher. Yet, as Bourdieu says: ‘We cannot understand local and national communities as either natural or coherent; rather they are stitched together as effects of the stories, discourses, practices and authorised values that constitute them.’ (Webb, Schirato, Danaker, 2002:88). Again, this would seem to suggest that no conversation is actually possible, because to even begin to have one, one would have to start from a place of neutrality, where an equal interchange would be possible. Yet what Bourdieu and other critics would seem to be suggesting is that great care is given never to provide us with that opportunity.

This follows onto the theory of ‘socialisation,’ as evoked respectively by Freud, Mead and Piaget. ‘La culture politique est inculquée et transmise aux individus, qui intériorisent valeurs, orientations et attitudes à l’égard du système politique.’ (Schwartzenberg, 1998:116) Once one is socialised, the process of cultural secularisation begins. This comprises a progressive renouncement of perhaps more driven and focussed ideologies (which may have perhaps incited an initial entry into the political field), in lieu of more rational, analytical and empirical political action. As Gabriel Almond said, ‘la raison prend le pas sur la passion et sur l’idéologie. Le jugement rationnel prévaut.’ (Schwartzenberg, 1998:116).  Once political thought is unified, a grip on power is much more easily maintained. This unified collectivity is what is known as the ‘classe dirigeante,’ and to enter this political elite, one must conform oneself to their ideals.  As the Italian political scientist Gaetano Mosca said; ‘Il existe, en effet, différents liens qui unissent les membres d’une élite dominante : liens de parenté, de culture, d’intérêts etc. Ces liens assurent à l’élite l’unité de pensée et une cohésion au groupe caractéristiques d’une classe.’ (Schwartzenberg, 1998:187) In reference to the connections that link the political elite, they are the effect of socialisation, but also of the acquisition of other types of social capital (economic, social, and cultural, amongst others) which enable an entry into the political field, and permit a ‘conversation.’ So it would seem that before even entering into the elite sphere of politics, one must outwardly project recognizable values so that gatekeepers, who consist of political parties, parliamentarians, and public figures, will allow one access.

Once established in a position of influence within the political sphere, however small this influence may be, one does nevertheless, tacitly or not, begin a ‘conversation’ with the people one is supposed to represent. Yet this ‘conversation,’ is undertaken with personal interests at heart. Bourdieu’s theory, inspired by Nietzche and Freud, was that no action is disinterested. However, the political game insists that ‘in order to look after our interests and ensure their success, we have to repress any overt sense of that interest. Any politician who proposes a policy will articulate this action not in terms of potential self-advancement, but as doing something impersonal. (Doing one’s duty, carrying out the public will, serving the people, etc.)’ (Webb, Schirato, Danaker, 2002:14).

This being said, the strength of a speech, an idea, or a policy is less dependent on what it actually proposes, then on the mobilising force that it can muster. It becomes successful when it promotes the interests of a large group of people. As Bourdieu says; ‘Le simple “courant d’idées” ne devient un mouvement politique que lorsque les idées proposées sont reconnues à l’extérieur du cercle des professionnelles.’  (Accardo, Corcuff, 1986:127).

So there is a competition at the same time for the ‘monopole du droit de parler et d’agir au nom d’une partie ou de la totalité des profanes’ (Accardo, Corcuff, 1986:128), and for the promotion of the supposed interests of the ‘profanes,’ which in reality have been chosen to be promoted because they concord with one’s own interests within the political sphere.

Any objection to this monopoly would have to be constituted through a large group; as we have seen above, as an individual idea or person one is devoid of the requisite social and political capital needed to make an impression. However, the fundamental problem with this is that individuals ‘ne peuvent se constituer en tant que groupe ou force qu’en se dépossédant au profit d’une porte-parole.’ (Accardo, Corcuff, 1986:132). Once a group is formed, a ‘conversation, ’almost invariably leading to compromise is started.

A clear example of this could be bureaucratic committees. A first consideration might seem to suggest that co-opting members of specific communities is an attempt to encourage greater representation of classes and sectors of society regardless of whether or not their concerns directly influence the political ambitions of the state. However, considering this more closely, one could also put forward the argument that some-one who is co-opted to a bureaucratic committee, is only likely to have an influence if they take on the perspectives, dialogues and ideologies of the committee. Otherwise they risk only being thought of as having the social capital to speak on issues that are seen as pertaining to the group they represent. For example, a woman may be seen as only influential in relation to issues regarding females in society, because, as an outsider, this is where her social capital lies. It seems ironic that the exterior value of a bureaucratic committee could be seen as opening up societal issues to wider debate and conversation, yet in effect in some cases the reverse would seem to occur.

In conclusion, Talcott Parsons talked about politics as the definition of collective goals, and the successive mobilisation of resources in order to achieve these goals. I would argue that one of the resources to which he makes reference to is the ‘conversations’ that we have with those surrounding us. These conversations allow the elite to separate useful political contributions from those which serve no purpose within the political field. They allow a regulation of demand.

I would also argue that any form of conversation that takes place within the political field is generated from the conversation that it has within society at large, reflecting the Marxian ideology that political competition is but a mirror image of the greater class battle. Jean Stoetzel said: ‘Le statut d’une personne se définit par l’ensemble des comportements à l’égard d’elle-même qu’elle peut légitimement attendre de la part des autres.’ (Schwartzenberg, 1998:111). I think that this sums up the idea of a conversation that is tacitly imposed.  Within the political field, many different types of conversation are carried out, whether between the profanes and the professionals, between the professionals themselves, or between the professional from the political field with professionals from other fields (the fields of media, academia and economics, amongst others). The form that the conversation takes is dependent on the political capital of individuals, established through their place in the greater social hierarchy, which is in turn defined by their accumulation of different forms of capital, finally controlling their success within the political field.



—     Schwartzenberg, Roger-Gérard, Sociologie Politique, Montchrestien, Paris, 1998

—     Kesler, Jean-François, L’ENA, la société, l’État, Berger-Levrault, Paris, 1985

—     Michalon, Thierry, Dix leçons sur la vie politique en France, Hachette Livre, Paris, 1997

—     Webb, Jen, Schirato, Tony, and Danaker, Geoff, Government and Bureaucracy –Understanding Bourdieu, Sage Publications, London, 2002

—     Accardo, Alain, and Corcuff, Philippe, La sociologie de Bourdieu, Le Mascarat, Bordeaux, 1986

—     Bouveresse, Jacques, Bourdieu; Savant et Politique, Agone, Marseille, 2003

—     Waquant, Loïc, Pointers on Pierre Bourdieu and Democratic Politics, Constellations Volume 11, Blackwells Publishing, Oxford, 2004

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