Dr. Sophie Heine is a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford Department of Politics and International Relations, a Research Fellow at the Universtité Libre de Bruxelles and FNRS and a Wiener-Anspach Foundation Scholar; her research engages with identity politics and ideology in contemporary Europe. Here, she takes a moment to speak with Politics in Spires regarding the Occupy protests of 2011, and offers a preview of her forthcoming book.
I. Your recent work, Oser penser à gauche (“Dare to think to the left”), argues that contemporary progressive politics must redefine its underpinning ideology and articulate a coherent, emancipatory platform for change. This analysis proves particularly relevant to the waves of “Occupy” protests that began in New York in October 2011 and have been replicated across Europe.
• Can you discuss how these protests relate to your work? One of the virtues of this protest movement has been to demonstrate the crucial importance of popular mobilization. The media, politicians, and general public got interested in this phenomenon because it was growing and spreading fast and because it managed to spawn the support of a wide variety of citizens. Contrary to the movement for a just globalisation (also called the “alterglobalist” movement), the Occupy protests have concentrated less on ideas and counter-expertise and more on gathering people in the streets and tents in order to put pressure on political leaders and strike the media’s attention. However, as in the case of alterglobalism, the weakness of the Occupy protests lies in its lack of a long-term political project. One of my main theses in “Oser penser à gauche” (and related publications) is precisely that progressives must urgently elaborate a new and appealing ideology if they want to arouse sufficient popular support to shift the balance of power. The Occupy protests have not really managed to respond to that challenge yet. Apart from a general critique against financial capitalism and against the inability of current policies to counteract it, it has not really proposed an alternative vision or utopia likely to mobilize numerous citizens in the long-term and to lead to effective transformations. Their insistence on a fully-fledged participatory democracy, both inside the movement and as part of their alternative vision, is certainly interesting, but could scarcely constitute the core of a common progressive project. It is very idealistic indeed to believe that ordinary citizens will get involved in a movement principally as a means to increase their civic participation. Only very convinced existential militants or intellectuals can perceive radical democracy as the most inspiring vision. In my work, I instead encourage progressives to articulate a new utopia anchored in self-interest, and I propose a particular definition of individual liberty as a potential key concept.
• How do you think the Occupy movement has (if at all) linked European identity with the interests of the dominated majority? In my view, the Occupy movement has been about interests much more than about identity. The motto “we are the 99%” reveals very well that its explicit aim is to defend the interest of the dominated majority against a tiny minority of very powerful people. This movement has not really tried to build links between this language of interests and a European identity and I believe that this is a good thing. Unlike many progressive intellectuals who consider that identity is essential in triggering mobilizations, either in the emancipatory movements themselves or in society at large, I clearly do not consider, as I said earlier, that it should be a priority. On the contrary, identity politics can go against emancipation. When the purpose is to revive a broad collective identity, the danger is to regress into an “us” versus “them” mentality, entailing troubling exclusion and discrimination As for the use of identity politics inside a protest movement, one of its dangers is to create artificial divisions hampering the emergence of a common project. Consequently, constructing a common progressive vision requires a shift from the language of identity towards that of interest. It is the only way to generate sustained mobilization and support from a big part of the population. The issue should be to build a progressive ideology uniting the various struggles and alternatives around common purposes – something that the Occupy protests have not yet achieved.
• Is the global nature of the movement indicative of Cosmopolitan theory in practice? The global dimension of this movement responds to the global nature of financial capitalism and reflects the resemblance in the oppositions provoked by similar policy responses to the crisis. The general impulse of these protests has been the same everywhere: a demand for policies that would be more favourable to the interests of the dominated majority rather than to a wealthy minority. The fact that this movement has not attempted to link its critiques and claims to a national or European identity also embodies a typically cosmopolitan separation between politics and identity. On the other hand, contrary to alterglobalists’ regional and world Forums, the Occupy protests have taken place on a very local basis, displaying certain differences according to where they have formed. Thus, (even if this mainly stems from a reluctance to become rigidified if they accept authority, hierarchy and institutionalization), the protests have not attempted to build any sort of global organization, remaining instead very local in their practice. Yet, such a rejection of organization, representation and leadership could prevent any real and long term influence. A challenge for that movement would be to combine its cosmopolitan and democratic ideals with some organizational structures and more links with political actors.
II. On the basis of your critical work towards idealism, what can you tell us about the way ideas, values, and principles are used in contemporary British politics? In my work, I use the term “idealism” in the philosophical sense: as a particular way to explain society, politics, and history, which attributes a central role to ideas, whether these are normative values or explanatory principles. Idealists, according to such a meaning, believe that human societies change through ideational factors. In such an approach, ideas almost start having a life of their own: provided that they are sufficiently “good” or accurate, they have the power to change society and politics by themselves. Idealism has always been present in politics and particularly in progressive politics for which the ideas supposed to explain or change society are usually progressive values such as solidarity, cooperation, mutual care, equality, justice, etc.
In contemporary British politics, this idealist language is present in various political discourses: the project of a “Big Society” championed by the Conservatives aimed at reinvigorating altruistic values in citizens’ behaviours so that they would help themselves and their fellow citizens instead of being “assisted” by the State. On the Left, one hears more and more about the idea of a “good society” supposed to revitalize the “conservative” roots of Labour – a focus on local communities and identities, on a common national identity, family and work, and neighbourhood. Here, contrary to the Conservatives, the objective is not to justify the status quo and abandon citizens to the forces of capitalist markets but instead, in a Polanyian fashion, to “re-embed” these ideals in traditional social relationships and institutions. However, in both discourses, there is a strikingly similar insistence on traditional and “good” altruistic values. In the case of the Left, this emphasis derives from an idealist vision that postulates that altruistic dispositions ought to somehow be encouraged in the effort towards a more just society. Fostering local communities and traditional ways of life is meant to rebuild altruism at the local level, while highlighting national identity is intended to help reach a broader “common good”. It is thus mainly through the “good” values of solidarity and cooperation that politics can help alleviate injustice and oppression. As for the Liberal Democrats, their recent emphasis on an “open society”, characterized by liberal, multicultural, European and cosmopolitan orientations, constitutes an attempt to differentiate themselves from the language of closed identities and traditions, but without really freeing themselves from idealist tendencies. In this case, idealism is not only evident in the belief that “good” values must guide politics, but also in the utopian vision of the level at which they are to be deployed. Indeed, expecting universal moral values to trigger political changes is clearly utopian.
In these different examples, values are omnipresent; whether at the local, national, European or global levels, “good” moral values are supposed to lead politics. This approach is particularly problematic when defended by progressives. Indeed, when associated with identity, it is potentially perfectionist and communitarian. Furthermore, it also relies on an unrealistic approach to human actions; individuals listen to their selfish interests as much as they heed their altruistic motives, and even more so regarding impersonal political matters. While altruism can arise spontaneously at the micro and interpersonal level, collective and political decisions usually trigger selfish reasoning. A realist vision of human actions should thus incite progressive politics to reconstruct the notion of interests. A new progressive political project should convincingly explain how its propositions match the individual interest of the majority of citizens. Therefore, ideas matter in politics mainly in so far as they manage to mobilize popular support, since it is indispensable to shift the balance of power, to correct injustice, and, ultimately, to implement alternative policies. Rather than possessing an intrinsically transformative power, ideas are an instrument for progress first and foremost when they fulfil their mobilizing function. And for that purpose, they have to express the individual interests of the citizens in fighting and supporting the adequate political forces for a more just society.
III. How do you feel attitudes in Europe regarding EU identity (the notion of a cohesive, united European ethos), have been altered by the wave of conservatism spreading across the continent as a result of the financial crisis? The increasing influence of conservative forces and ideas in Europe has certainly created a favourable atmosphere for opposition against the EU. Indeed, many right-wing and extreme right political currents display a nationalist ideology valuing the nation-State and its identity against any sort of supranational institutions and policies. It is however important to note that this critique, although very much identity-based, also relies on other arguments such as the lack of democracy in European matters or the complaint that European policies are not in the citizens’ interests. Moreover, this return to national rhetoric, reinforced by the strength of conservative forces, has to be put into historical perspective: far from being a new phenomenon, euroscepticism has been mounting among European citizens for almost three decades.
In recent memory, popular discontent began to be more clearly channelled by fringe political parties after the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and the debate on the European Constitutional Treaty (ECT); both events sharpened and clarified political oppositions to the EU. During the constitutional controversy, even certain fractions within mainstream politics became critical of the EU. This fissure was particularly acute in France, where both the Social Democrats and the Conservatives were internally divided on whether to pass the new treaty or not. The adoption of the Lisbon Treaty in 2007 despite the rejection of the ECT by two founding member States of the EU –France and the Netherlands– reinforced the already existing euroscepticism in these countries and elsewhere.
The austerity measures recently adopted as a result of the debt crisis, as well as the push for further European integration, is only exacerbating eurosceptic tendencies, making the EU appear increasingly less democratic and more like an entity which favours the interests of the financial elite above those of ordinary citizens. What differentiates this new wave of opposition from that of a few years ago is that today’s frontrunners of euroscepticism are most active on the right of the political spectrum. The left-wing opposition, which combined a denunciation of the current EU with calls for a more social and democratic Europe, now seems to have either lost its voice, or to have abandoned its pro-European stance by refocusing its strategy on the nation-state. This evolution, coupled with the fact that arguments for social democracy are no longer very present on European issues, means that political projects for a deepening of the EU have almost withered away, as has the willingness to uphold a common European identity. Nevertheless, the subsiding of political discourses on European identity is not necessarily a bad thing. Not only do politics and identity not need to be associated, but their connexion can often lead to more harm than good. Unfortunately, the diminishing debate about a pan-European identity has been accompanied by increasingly nationalistic discourses. A better way of legitimating the necessary revival of sovereign political action to face current social and economic challenges – whether at the national or European level – would be to use the language of interests rather than that of identity. Grounding the legitimacy of European institutions and policies in the citizens’ interests would have far-ranging consequences, since it would require, among other things, a thorough democratization of European decision-making processes, different macro-economic policies that favour growth and employment, and taxes on high and capital income. An alternative deepening of European integration in such a direction requires a common project to be led by influential social and political forces, rather than a common European identity.
IV. Politics in Spires would be pleased to hear about your ongoing and upcoming research and publications. What work can we look forward to from you? My current work extends my former focus on left-wing ideologies along three lines of thought situated at the crossroads between the study of ideologies and applied political theory. My forthcoming book, Oser la liberté: l’individu comme objectif, le collectif comme moyen (“Daring Freedom: the individual as objective, the collective as a means”), further develops an original version of individual liberty as a key concept in articulating the interests of individual citizens from the perspective of progressive change. In the book, I encourage the Left to defend an alternative definition of the individual interest as a means of triggering collective transformations. I clearly distinguish myself from the mounting language of altruistic values by proposing a progressive way of appealing to the selfish interest of the individual. My point is that instead of trying to purport cooperation and generosity at the level of politics and society, the Left should instead build an ideology that convincingly appeals to the interests of each person in contributing to political changes that allow them to freely direct their lives.
I also have forthcoming articles, which discuss the classical debates around the role of ideas in social change in the tradition of the Left and sketch an alternative approach that is critical towards determinism – the idea that human agency can be predicted by external material forces – but avoids falling into the common idealist trap when one tries to rehabilitate human agency. In this part of my work, I attempt to contribute to an essential task for contemporary progressive political thought, namely, to elaborate a vision of autonomous political action that does not rely on values or ideas as autonomous instruments to change history. For that purpose, I contend that progressive ideology should be perceived as an essential factor for mobilizing the dominated majority. The definition of individual liberty put forward in my upcoming book is an argument in that respect.
Finally, another body of work that I am expanding concerns the possibility of fully dissociating politics and identity. Delinking politics and identity is not only relevant for rethinking a new progressive discourse on Europe, but also in the debate on the integration of cultural and religious minorities. In the liberal approach I adopt, cultural and religious freedoms should be upheld, but should not constitute the main basis for political engagement. The articulation of individual and collective interests – broadly understood– is a more efficient and less harmful basis both for political sovereignty and political involvement.