“People are hostile because they only can vote every couple of years!”

A conversation with the writer David van Reybrouck about populism, the renovation of democracy, and the limits of art as a political tool.

Brussels, 30 January 2012

Our “Truth is concrete” project raises the question of the usefulness of art. And the question if – as Geert Wilders infamously stated – art has indeed become a leftist hobby. What do we have to learn from the populist strategies of our opponents? Do we have to become populist ourselves in order not to just leave the terrain to the right? Was it that what you were proposing with your book “A Plea for Populism”?

In 2008, when the book was published, I lived in Holland and got growingly frustrated with the ease with which populism was used as an insult to do away with political adversaries. Whenever you didn’t agree with someone you called him a populist and that was the end of the story. There was something profound populist in calling people populist. It was an too easy criticism. If you want to fight the popularity of the right it will not be enough to criticise populist leaders. You have to understand the reasons why so many people are inclined to vote for them. Rather than aiming our criticism at populist leaders we should direct our mercy to their voters.

So what is the reason for the popularity of populists?

For me it seems a very logical consequence of the social developments imposed by Europe. Developments that have weakened traditional society structures and have produced new forms of social organisation. In Belgium and the Netherlands we talk of the three pillars of society: The Christian pillar, the socialist pillar and the liberal pillar – and everybody used to belong to one of them. Belgium is a heavily pillarised country: If you were born a Catholic in the 1940s you most likely would go to a catholic school, perhaps a catholic university. You would vote for the catholic party, your health insurance would be catholic, you would go to a catholic hospital and would be buried in a catholic cemetery. From the cradle to the grave you were surrounded by catholic services and institutions. Same held true for the socialist and the liberal freethinking traditions.
This system, which structured the relation between individuals and the state, has lost its importance. The role of the civil society – in Dutch called middenveld (midfield) – has been replaced by commercial media. It was the moment when in the 1950s people stayed home to watch television instead of going to a card game evening organised by the socialist union, for example. I think, Habermas was the first one to point this out in “Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit”. Habermas says, Öffentlichkeit (public sphere) is the place where individuals come together to form the we. The place where they become citizens. And he already observed in 1964 that the arrival of television was changing the public sphere as we had known it since the late 18th century.
My grandfathers have died by now. Back in the late 1940s and 50s when they were young adults – I come from a catholic background – they were incredibly motivated by the emancipation that was offered by the three pillars: One was a small-time worker and bookbinder who became a musician and was very interested in the arts. The other one was a bricklayer and a farmer. When he died, we found a library full of books, all funded by Davidsfonds, a catholic cultural association. There is something patronising to it, but at the same time it was a structure that invited factory workers to improve their moral skills, their intellectual skills, to be curious, to start travelling – it was a window to the world.
If my grandfathers would live today, they would watch a lot of television, which prime ambition is not to emancipate them but to make them addicted. That’s what commercial media do: Lure as many people as possible into watching their programs and lure advertisers to give as much money as possible. If my grandparents would live today and all their social and moral input would come from commercial media, they would be populist voters, I am damn sure. Would they be bad people for that matter? I don’t think so.

So it is mainly a lack of education and self-emancipation that leads to the rise of populism.

It is inevitable that populist parties are highly successful in this situation of a heavily commercially mediatised, post-industrial world. I am always surprised, how people can be surprised about this. In fact, one of the easiest jobs these days is to be a populist politician. It is such a simple recipe. If the three of us had a cynical mind-set we’d become massively popular. It is so damn easy.
I don’t think we realise to what extent European democracy is under pressure. We see it already in Greece – the cradle of democracy – and in Italy: The leaders of their governments are not elected! And they are applauded for that. I am sure they are highly competent. But it is very dangerous that we applaud the fact that technocrats have taken over from democrats. There is obviously something fundamentally problematic with the democratic system or its procedures.

Populism is a threat to our democracies, but it is to an extent also is produced by them…

… yes, we have become electoral fundamentalists, and by this I mean: We believe that democracy essentially boils down to having elections every four years according to certain procedural standards. We believe this is the only way of running a democracy. Populism is also a result of our electoral system, of a post-industrial society, commercially mediatised with an electoral fundamentalism on top. Populist leaders are successful political entrepreneurs. They try to catch as many bystanders as possible. They work in a capitalistic logic. Voting is no longer seen as a system that brings support for certain political programmes but rather as a constant popularity test.

Which is enhanced by new communication tools offered by the internet.

New social media obviously change politics rapidly. They bring a culture of permanent reportage, permanent newsfeed, permanent feed-back. That changes also how you work as a politician. You are much more afraid of your voters. The biggest enemy nowadays are the own voters. You have to continuously make sure that they still support you. That produces a permanent nervousness or even neurosis.
That is why democracy nowadays should not be limited to making us vote every four years on a Sunday morning in a post office. We are living in a time when information is circulating very fast. We can follow political changes by the second. Every second we can mobilise through Facebook, Twitter and we can rally people around our ideas. We have many ideas – but the only time we have real power is once every four years to make a cross next to someone’s name. How absurd is that? How archaic?
This sort of procedure was invented two centuries ago. We are riding with a horse on a freeway. And at the same time you see so much commitment. Political interest is larger than ever – but trust in political parties is lower than ever. That is a very dangerous situation.
This is almost a pre-revolutionary climate. But at the same time it is also an asset. It is fantastic that people are fighting on Facebook and that they are even hostile towards each other on the newspaper’ online forum. It shows commitment. Why not trying to see it as something positive? It is a source of information, a massive source of political preferences, ideas, arguments. Innovative ideas that are not used. It is just the wisdom of the crowd. So let us take this wisdom of the crowd as something valuable.

This was the reason for you to create last year the G1000 summit, an assembly hundreds of Belgium citizens?

The G1000 was a result of the long period that Belgium did not have a government. We had the impression that politicians – rather then finding a reasonable compromise – were predominantly concerned with the next elections. For possibly the first time in history the weight of the next election became already in the very beginning heavier then the weight of the previous one. Obama started one and a half year after the election with his new campaign. In Belgium they started one and a half days after the election.
So the reason to start the G1000 was: Let us try to get away from this nervous model of having elections every four years and making sure that you are going to win them. Let us remember that democracy in its essence is nothing else than Habermas said: People coming together and talking about the organisation of societies.
Belgian political opinion is a bit like the internet before the arrival of Wikipedia. You have many ideas but no structure to bring those together and to a higher level. So the G1000 was a bit of a wiki in an offline form. You see this diversity of ideas, see the enthusiasm to talk about politics! People are frustrated. Why are they so hostile on the internet? Because they only can once every couple of years, of course!
People at the G1000 came together for an entire day to discuss major issues, social and political challenges in Belgium. They talked for ten hours at 85 tables: Non-professional politicians, citizens. There wasn’t a single table where people were fighting with each other. We had 704 participants in our lecture hall, and there were a thousand more on 55 places all over Belgium and on the internet. Only two people in Brussels walked out! And it was a beautiful bank holiday. So people are dedicated. And they were happy that their voice could be heard in a different way.

But how did you choose the participants? Who was allowed to raise her or his voice?

That was our biggest challenge. We decided that people could not apply but would be selected – we chose this option to create a greater diversity. Not only the people that would anyway apply for this kind of event: highly educated, motivated, politicised already. I was thinking of my mother. My mother would never ever apply for this. She doesn’t think that she is knowledgeable of politics and yet if she would be contacted by our recruiting office, she’d do it because she’d feel invited. We worked together with a market survey company and they made thousands of phone calls. It worked. We got people who we’d never reach otherwise. There was even an extra recruitment for people of social groups that are difficult to access: elderly people, homeless people, people from ethnic minorities.

You worked with quota?

Yes, we had four quota: Gender, language, age and province. Our sample had to be in line with the national demography. And then there were three other criteria: age, educational level and profession. We used these three to correct the samples.
It worked quite well – but of course not ideal, because it was a civil initiative, that nobody had heard of it before. It was easier to convince people who had heard of it before. And we couldn’t give the participants an incentive. We didn’t have a budget to offer everybody 100 Euro. My idea was to have a tombola where one would win 5000 Euro. But we didn’t do it. Which is a pity.

So the people came just out of interest and engagement.

Yes, many said: It is great that my voice can be heard. There was a willingness to use democracy in a radically different way. I think elections are still valuable but Western countries should develop systems of citizen participation in-between them. There are different organisations are working on this. If there was to be more deliberate democracy and less representative democracy, populist leaders would have much less chance.

Several resolutions were formulated at the G1000, how did you get to get to results?

There were several sessions, each of them lasted two hours. At the end, resolutions were voted. We had three main topics and two open sessions. The topics were not defined by the organisers but online before. The people decided to talk about three topics: Migration, social security and welfare in times of major crisis. There were two academic experts on the main stage who introduced each topic briefly in ten minutes each – one from the French speaking, one from the Flemish speaking side. Then the tables had an hour to discuss the topic, following a very strict, neatly timed protocol. This session started with very personal and emotional feelings and then moved to issues people agreed on at their table. At the end of the hour, the notes of each table were picked up and brought to a central desk. Hundreds of ideas from the different tables were collected there. The highest rated ideas from different tables were projected on the main screen, so everybody could see them. And then every participant had a tool like a small mobile phone with which he or she could vote. It was a very simple procedure. At the end people not always were happy with the final results – “My ideas aren’t there!” – but they could live with the fact that their idea did not make it to the end.

There was no major disappointment?

We had international monitors running around, international observers like at the elections in Congo. They were academic experts, people from the European Union, from all over Europe. They checked with the participants: Are you happy? Do you feel understood?
Deliberative democracy can be organised in such a way that give less importance to consensus…

… a major ideal of the Occupy movements…

… and focus rather on compromise. People can live with compromise. In a strict electoral democracy, compromise is seen as a form of treason. Nowadays whenever a compromise is reached, the hardliners start howling. This shouting of the hardliners paralyses the finding of compromises, paralyses negotiations.

Since you were quoting Habermas: He describes the ideal of a consensus democracy. Chantal Mouffe argues that we need to outlive our differences in an agonistic way, so the differences do not lead to total confrontation, to antagonism. You are talking about compromises…

That’s a crucial point. As much as I am impressed by the work of Habermas, I am also impressed by the work of Chantal Mouffe. Habermas thinks that consensus is possible and that democracy should create procedures to find it. He believes that there can be a “herrschaftsfreier Diskurs” (power-free discourse), a space of neutral, objective, rational behaviour. For Chantal Mouffe this is not the case. For her at the very heart of democracy is not consensus but conflict. I am quite charmed by this definition since it tries to make the conflict manageable.
I had the chance to talk to her about that – I am personally very influenced by theories of non-violent communication, in my private life but also in my work as historian of the Congo. I am fascinated by the theories of Marshall Rosenberg, an American psychologist, on non-violent communication.
Also in non-violent communication you praise conflict. You don’t try to do away with it. You don’t see conflict as something that ends the negotiation, you see it as a fruitful starting point for further negotiations. And you try to find a form of compromise. We are talking about three things: consensus, conflict, compromise.
It is true that some forms of conflict are irreducible. But the conflict model that we use is dating back to the 19th century. Look at today, here in Brussels there is a general strike happening. This clash was prepared, it was clear that it would happen. It is the 19th century model: Those who take care of the employees and those who take care of the employers build up their confrontation. And it was obvious that a compromise could have been reached instead of a national strike. But somehow the procedures we use are not helping us to live with the conflict but are rather magnifying it.
So the procedures of the state are a bit behind the ones of the G1000 project: Let’s not promote consensus. Let’s celebrate disensus. But also let’s reach compromises.
We had 85 tables with each about ten people sitting around them. They were randomly seated to guarantee maximum diversity. You would have a young African guy sitting next to an elderly lady with rather racist inclinations, next to a factory worker and next to a lawyer. And everybody behaved respectfully and sensible to differences They did not do away with differences.

So what were the compromises that were reached? What were the results of the G1000?

It was planned as a three phase rocket: First lets find the agenda. Then lets define shared priorities. And now we are approaching the third phase: Lets define concrete solutions. This will happen in what we call the G32 because 32 citizens were selected to continue the process. They have to be available on three weekends, it is a lot of work – 350 people were applying for it! It is amazing to what extent people want to be involved.
They have been selected also in terms of diversity. And they have to respect the shared priorities that were voted at the G1000.
So the G32 has three weekends to find concrete solutions, and they can ask any expert they want. The three issues voted as the most popular at the G1000 are ideas that are rarely seen in one political programme together:  First: Companies should pay less taxes as an impetus to their investment. At the moment here companies have to pay 33% but the real big ones don’t pay any. So lets make sure everyone pays 18%. This is a rule a liberal party would be very happy about. But the next rule was: Lets have a tax on financial transactions. Which is a traditional idea of the left. The third thing was to make sure we have more ecological taxes. So the outcome was a combination of a very different set of taxations and priorities as you would find it in this way never in one political programme.
So during the next months people will be working on these issues and then we will hand it over to the national parliament and senate – and hopefully will start a discussion between the G32 and members of the parliament. This is the first wave of G1000 work and we will see, if we can continue as an organisation for political and democratic innovation.

You are a writer – and your tool would be to write about these things. But you stepped out of this medium in order to engage politically. We met many artists in politically charged situations like in Cairo, and one question was always raised: What can I do within my own medium? Do I stop being an artist and am just a citizen when I act politically? Or is there room for political action within my art?

It is true, I started as a writer and all of the sudden I am leading an organisation for political reform. I am a fairly individual artist and now I am running a programme with 50 collaborators and 800 volunteers. I find myself in this hyper-social environment and it doesn’t feel like me. But I am doing it because I believe in it and also because it is fun. But it is not as much fun as writing. I have to stretch the limits of what I usually do.
To be a social activist within my own literature I would find very hard. Obviously I don’t see myself writing a play on the crisis of democracy in todays Europe. That would be too instrumental for my taste. Especially in my poetry and my plays I try to understand the state of mind or the compassion of people. The compassion that stimulates you to be political active or to be a good mother of father etc. Much of my work is on solitude and on despair. Ideally I think, an artist shouldn’t mingle with the social politics of his time; but it hasn’t been ideal for the past 2000 years so.

So what is the role of art in a time like this? When our democracy is under threat?

Art is very important! Artists should be on the forefront. As an artist you are used to have freedom. If you grant yourself a life of freedom, it also should be free of taboos. To think of democracy without elections or beyond elections was a complete taboo. But the moment you start thinking about it, it is very liberating. As an artist, you can do so. We have this formidable technical tool which is language. We tried to cast some of these complex ideas and thoughts when we published the manifesto of the G1000. I wrote it and many of us gave comments. I am using a skill, but I don’t regard it a literary text. I don’t regard “A Plea for Populism” a literary text, I consider it a political analysis.

You also write for theatre. If one looks at the photos of the summit and hears you talking about it, it sounds like a theatrical set. You have an audience that performs itself – like in a Brechtian Lehrstück. You could think of theatre as a model where you can try out democratic procedures.

I like the metaphor, but I haven’t conceived the project through this metaphor. And to be honest: I would find it silly to turn it into a performance.

But theatre has always been a place where society has been rehearsing itself: From the Greek polis to the baroque stages where the monarch was the centre of everything to the bourgeois theatre of the 19th century to Brecht. The space of the theatre, the setup, the way how the audience is addressed, was always related to the system of society. It is not only an architecture, it is a performative space that offers a possibility for trying out and thinking.

You should write an essay about it! I love it. Hey, I will steal this idea for one chapter in my book on democracy I am planning to write. It is an interesting metaphor. And indeed most European parliaments have the same architecture as the Greek theatre.

Even the problem of representation, you are addressing with the G1000, is mirrored by the limits of representational theatre, where you sit and watch what others tell you. It is not only a question of text, it is a question of the space. Like Godard said: The problem is not to make political films, but to make films politically. How can you turn your art into a political situation?

On a deeper level, I could sympathise with that metaphor. But on a direct level and In terms of building up an own oeuvre – no. In general, I feel very much in line with Albert Camus. After having written a number of his books, he got involved with the Algerian independence movement and tried something actually very similar to the G1000 in the war between the Algerians and the French. He tried to bring some peace and rationality back to the debate. And he was completely unsuccessful. It was a runaway train and he couldn’t stop it anymore. When I was setting up the G1000 I thought: I hope I am not too late. But I don’t think Camus and his interventions were artistic manifestations. He did this as a citizen.
I sympathise with the idea of making the theatre more political; not because it talks about politics but because of the very fact that it in itself can be political. But I am also massively frustrated that it has become such a middle class entertainment industry. One of the main motives in “A Plea for Populism” was that the populist logic can also be explained by the growing division between people who are highly educated and those who only studied until they were eighteen or even less. I am frustrated by the fact that theatre has a hard time to find new audiences. So to create a more political theatre which is still only working for the same highly educated middle-class audience – I find it rather pointless.

Interview by Florian Malzacher & Johanna Rainer.

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