Christophe Guilluy: “The left is proposing a selfish society and that is fantastic to neo-liberals”.

  • Interview with the French geographer and thinker who questions the role of the dominant political elites who have become what he calls the "new bourgeoisie" - He explains the democratic crisis by the selfishness of the political class and its lack of interest in the problems of the majority of the population.

Vicent Partal
25.02.2024 - 23:56

In my opinion, the French geographer Christophe Guilluy (Montreuil, 1964) is one of the most insightful thinkers we have in Europe when it comes to understanding what is happening in our societies.

His books – none of which have been translated into Catalan yet – provide a very coherent framework for understanding the destruction of the welfare society and the political, social, and cultural crisis that is sweeping across the continent. A framework that he constructs based on a steadfast commitment to what he calls “ordinary people” and fearlessly criticizing the political elites, whether from the right or the left, which have become, in his words, the “new bourgeoisie.”

Critical of the depersonalization of cities, Guilluy suggests meeting at Le Sarah Bernhardt, a traditional bar in Paris, at Place de Châtelet, for a lengthy conversation over coffee while outside a light rain falls.

—Is it difficult to understand what is happening to us?
—I believe that purely political explanations are no longer sufficient. We must take into account what Christopher Lash saw a long time ago, the culture of narcissism. This culture has permeated the ruling classes and the Parisian bourgeoisie or the Barcelona or London bourgeoisie, it doesn’t matter. The driving force behind the destruction of society is not just the existence of Bill Gates and a few super millionaires, but this 20-25% of the population that has turned its back on the reality of society.

—What do you mean when you say they’ve turned their backs?
—Now we have a “bourgeoisie,” not in the traditional sense of the word, but ruling classes that no longer care about the working classes. It’s no longer a class conflict because they don’t acknowledge this conflict; it’s indifference. An indifference that’s very difficult to manage because the deep motivation of these individuals today is their ego. So, I believe we have a crisis, which is economic, social, cultural, but also psychological. And this allows me to understand why the democratic mechanism no longer works: it doesn’t work because a part of these individuals, this elite, believes that the individual is king. That the sovereignty of the people doesn’t exist because the only objective is the “I.” The caricature, for me, is Emmanuel Macron, obviously.

—You mention Macron now, but in your analysis, you resist differentiating between the right and the left as traditionally understood and criticize any elite.
—Because the left, today, is the best public relations one could imagine for this style of society. If the right proposed the same thing, there would be large demonstrations and protests. But it is the left that proposes this selfish society, and that is excellent for neoliberalism. That’s why the left-right reading no longer allows us to understand reality. It’s pure theater. Whether you are left or right-wing in Barcelona, what’s very important to you is the price per square meter of your housing, to put it bluntly.

—But despite this, there continues to be a conflict, let’s say, of class.
—The traditional bourgeoisie assumed a class status. It assumed it was the bourgeoisie and that, potentially, it could exploit the working class. And so, there was a visible conflict. But now, the contemporary bourgeoisie is cool, it’s open, it’s the open society. They say “Paris, open city!” but open at ten thousand euros per square meter. Wow! That’s why I always say that Paris is a citadel, as is Barcelona. A citadel, yes, but unlike before, the walls are invisible. But this is great for today’s bourgeoisie, which has understood that it must maintain the discourse of openness because it has turned its back on the social issue. So, it’s a discourse of substitution. And therefore, it’s very logical that today’s bourgeoisie is progressive. It’s very consistent with the market mechanism.

—From here stems your criticism of today’s left?
—Because now the only objective is the “I.” Not society. That’s the big difference between today’s left and yesterday’s left. Today, the progressive, from the left, aims for the satisfaction of their impulses, their consumption, their cool, zen well-being, with sun and beach… And cultural representation is completely hermetic to popular culture. It’s the first time in history that this happens. And, for me, the real issue is not an opposition, like a caricature, between the elites and the people. It’s stupid. The question is: what have the elites become? For the first time in history, the working classes no longer live where wealth and employment are created. It had never happened before. The selfishness of the new bourgeoisie and the exclusion of the working classes are the essential cause of what we call the decline of the West or the collapse of the West.

—There are external factors too…
—I don’t think the collapse of the West is solely related to the emergence of China or India. It’s internal to Western society. What attacks the West is not China, not even Islam. The causes are internal: especially what this new bourgeoisie has become. And that explains why the substance of Western democracy is exhausted. Because if you have an economic and cultural model that no longer serves the majority of people, then it’s not a democracy, it’s something else. It creates a rift with what I call the interior, which is peripheral France or peripheral Catalonia, and the metropolis. And when you cut off from the interior, you cut off a fundamental source of life that allows a society to constantly regenerate itself. One thing that surprises me in the psychology of urban elites today is the existential void of the people who live, for example, in Paris. I know the Parisian progressive circles very well, and they are perfectly empty.

—Yes, of a deeply existential emptiness. And it’s quite amusing to see that these are people who talk about capitalism, materialism, consumerism. But it’s all inverted language. They talk about themselves. Nowadays, for example, in France, there’s much talk about nihilism. Western nihilism. But it’s not nihilism per se, it’s the nihilism of the upper classes. The working classes don’t have the means to be nihilistic. Why? Because when you wake up in the morning and you have to find money and go to work, you don’t have time, like Woody Allen, to go to a psychiatrist to reflect on the meaning of life.

—You’re steering the debate towards culture, towards psychology, even.
—The fundamental problem we have today is to break the cultural representations that impose this model on society. Until we solve this problem, we won’t solve the democratic problem. And that’s why these movements constantly appear, which are called populist. They resurge like waves. And in response to them, they always react the same way: “Oh! What happened? How is this possible?”

—These movements are immediately labeled as antidemocratic or dangerous for democracy; they’re also very easily labeled as fascist…
—They do this because they have completely infantile thought patterns. I’ve spoken with Macron’s advisers and what impressed me, beyond their youth, was their immaturity. That’s why the battle I try to wage with my books is a war for representation. And here is the importance of alternative media like yours. Here is the importance of the internet, which they want to control and control, precisely because they see that they can’t control it.

—Do you think ordinary people see this, to use your definition?
—Yes. They have understood it perfectly. It’s no coincidence that there are fewer and fewer people voting, fewer people watching television, listening to the news. For example, it’s quite striking to see how the president’s speeches have null ratings. Ordinary people are gaining something very powerful, which is autonomy, cultural autonomy. They don’t need any experts; they know perfectly well what’s going on. And they also know that they don’t have the power, and therefore, they will use whatever they have at hand to be able to say, hey! that we exist! The yellow vests, Brexit, the populist vote…

—You’re very critical of two major themes of the cool left: environmentalism and mass migration.
—It’s because there is no one, in any country in the world, who wants to become a minority where they were born. No one. Except the elites or the upper classes, who can change domicile at any time, leave where they live, enroll their children in suitable schools, etc. They are free to move, but the working classes are fundamentally sedentary. And that’s why they want to control the space where they live, which is the only thing they have and will have. And that’s the demand that populist parties know how to capture. But why do populist parties capture this demand? Very simple: because they are the only ones who talk about these issues. For the others, it’s a taboo.

—However, the issue of controlling migration, you must admit, is very delicate because it can lead to racism.
—It’s true. That’s why the discourse needs to be universalized. When I talk about immigration, for example, I talk about Haitian immigration to Guadeloupe, which is very tense. Or the immigration of Comorians to Mayotte. Or Chinese immigration to Algeria, etc. And this allows me to de-ethnicize the discourse, remove the ethnic component from the debate and talk about the objective, concrete phenomenon. Let’s talk about the impact of immigration and whether it needs to be controlled, not about whether it’s Arab or African.

—But that doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist…
—Obviously, it does exist. But racism exists in both popular circles and in progressive bourgeoisie. It’s just that the progressive bourgeoisie is very cautious and knows that if a person maintains an unacceptable discourse on these issues, he will be excluded from the family, from work, from social relations… But, in any case, the danger is falling into ethnicization, enclosing the debate within an ethnicism that is also specifically European. French society today consists of working classes of African and Maghreb origin that have assimilated into a French working-class environment. Mixed marriages take place in the working-class environment, not in progressive bourgeois circles.

—So where do you place the debate, then?
—Seventy percent of the population considers insecurity to be important in France, that migratory flows are a problem, that the economic model no longer allows for finding decent work and that all this paints a very dangerous future for the welfare state and public services. In all these matters, the division is not left-right. And that’s why I’m very interested in the evolution of social democracy in Scandinavia.

—The case of Denmark?
—Exactly. In Denmark, for example, it’s the social democrats who have promoted policies to regulate migratory flows in the name of the rights of the working class. Because they understand that it’s the working class that, ultimately, faces, really, that is to say, every day, the consequences of this mass migration. The elites live in neighborhoods where an immigrant can’t afford a flat, they have medical insurance that allows them to avoid the collapse of public health, they can send their children to private schools. They are not the ones who live with the consequences of such massive migration that alters the reality of the country.

—Let’s talk about environmentalism, of which you’re also critical.
—Well! It’s because I find that the cool bourgeoisie talks a lot about the ecological footprint, but never about the social footprint, which is fundamental. And about the social footprint that ecological measures can cause, which ordinary people can’t follow. Like: “Change your car, it’s old and polluting, or we won’t let you enter the city.” As if ordinary people didn’t want to change their car! But they can’t. And here we come back to this issue of indifference towards the common good, which is related to existential emptiness, the absence of transcendence; the elites are like dead souls.

—Like dead souls?
—I believe we are surrounded by dead souls who think they are alive because they maintain an ecological discourse: they think about saving the planet, but that’s madness. “I will save the planet”: this phrase is completely megalomaniacal. It’s a madness related to the existential emptiness we were talking about earlier. It’s impossible for these elites to see themselves as they really are because it’s too violent for them. There’s cognitive dissonance. It’s understandable: you can’t, on one hand, maintain a progressive discourse and, on the other hand, generate so much social violence. And this creates very particular individuals who retreat into theories like these.

—In my country, we have a serious problem with political parties, with the people who integrate them…
—Just like here. This perverse mechanism of political parties is related to metropolization. When we observe the sociological evolution of all political parties and the militants of political parties, it turns out that there are fewer and fewer normal and ordinary people inside. Even rural mayors are no longer peasants. Now they’re doctors, they’re local officials, party bureaucrats, they’re people from the dominant political elite. There’s a hijacking of democracy by the upper classes.

—It has always struck me that you’re a geographer. We’re used to the public intervention of political scientists, sociologists, historians; but not geographers…
—For me, there’s something more important than geography and territory. I’m committed, as if it were a religious vocation, to defending the working classes. And ultimately, I believe I would have done the same if I had been a filmmaker, a teacher, or a journalist. I feel comfortable among people who take the destiny of the majority of people seriously because they take society itself seriously. That is, as something vital, something existential. I think that if we really continue to massacre most people, then yes, we will completely fall into nihilism. In this sense, for me, geography has simply been a tool.

—And with the panorama you paint, do you still have hope for the future?
—Of course! If I didn’t, I would stop writing. I believe there’s a potent anthropological logic being created. Look, a few months ago I met Bruno Le Maire [the French Minister of Finance] and I was quite surprised when he told me he agreed 100% with what I explained. Wow. That means there’s already a part of the elite that is convinced that, if things don’t change, there’s a risk of systemic collapse. Why? Because you can’t think about the future, for example in France, with a Ministry of Economy that asks for 740 million euros from financial markets every day. Every day. That’s madness. The model as it stands cannot work. Period. So, I also have the conviction, given that society is not viable as it is today, that we will reach a cultural upheaval of the elites and the upper classes. Not because there will be an epiphany or they will fall off their horse, but because they will be materially forced to change due to a risk they can no longer bear.

—But, for that, it requires self-criticism, and, to be self-critical, it requires strong thinking, reasoning. And these political elites are fundamentally very mediocre people.
—Yes. That’s why it’s so difficult and that’s why things aren’t progressing fast enough. But there’s no other way. I don’t believe there will be a providential party or a providential leader. I believe in a cultural movement that, through impregnation and gradually, will cause change through a long-term process. I reject the stance of those intellectuals who say this is the Titanic. I detest it. And, furthermore, I think I’ve already said, I’m not a nihilist. I believe in life. And I believe that existential emptiness is too depressing.

—A person like you, with your trajectory. How do you handle malicious criticism? Being told that you’re populist, fascist, even, sometimes…
—Unfortunately, nowadays the system only defends itself like this. But it’s not an argument, and therefore, I avoid media as much as I can. I don’t want to defend myself. Because defending yourself is already accusing yourself. I’ve written a lot, and I don’t deny anything I’ve written. I believe I’ve worked on complexity and rejected simplifications. Have I addressed dangerous topics? Yes, I knew it. But how can I not address delicate issues if I try to address the destiny of the working classes? The current defense tactic of the neoliberal economic model is to call you populist or fascist. And it’s very interesting that nowadays it’s the left that accuses any critical opinion of being far-right, and thus obediently serves capital.

—This is a quite surprising turn of history…
—That’s why the working classes, who have understood it perfectly, no longer vote for this left.




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