The Depoliticization of Politics: Pierre Bourdieu on Genoa*

translated by Michael K. Palamarek

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu on the shortcomings, illusions, and opportunities of the global protest movement

SPIEGEL: Professor Bourdieu, the opponents of globalization are assembling what is likely their largest demonstration at the world economic summit [G8 summit] in Genoa. Can you still make yourself heard above the fray?

Bourdieu: I’m very pessimistic. The riots draw all the attention. Every analysis is lost in this. The general public sees only anarchists, hooligans, and red extremists.

SPIEGEL: Intellectual resistance on its own, however, would have hardly brought mass action to such a point.

Bourdieu: The perpetrators of violence, with their organized action troops, have at least one function: they force the protagonists of neoliberalism, who like to give the appearance of calmness and reason, to show openly their own violence.

SPIEGEL: Is something like a major protest movement indeed developing, perhaps even a new form of class struggle?

Bourdieu: It’s rather still a chaotic reaction to conservative dogmatism, which wants to revive robber-baron capitalism in new, apparently civilized clothes. More and more people grasp that freedom and laissez-faire are not one and the same. Neoliberalism is a weapon of conquest. It proclaims an economic fatalism, against which any resistance appears to be futile. It’s like AIDS: it seizes upon the immune system of its victims.

SPIEGEL: Has politics—even on the left—already capitulated?

Bourdieu: For the most part European governments—even social democratic ones—have internalized neoliberalism and thus depoliticized politics.

SPIEGEL: At present the left has not found a prescription against neoliberalism. Is socialism dead in Europe?

Bourdieu: In official politics it appears in any case only as theatre. Freedom, equality, fraternity are all invoked, but these are slogans. In reality politicians have given free rein to globalization. They shamelessly avail themselves of a vocabulary of freedom and well-being for all. Thereby they submit themselves and their citizens to economic powers which have been freed from their fetters.

SPIEGEL: Currently no government can ignore the power of financial markets. Against this, how does politics intend to win back the room for manoeuvre of state action?

Bourdieu: Quite possibly it’s too late. The economistic view of things kills every utopia. That is indeed exactly its objective. Nothing else appears possible but to submit. A great responsibility for this lies with the media. It has contributed by portraying a particular social and economic development, which appeared a decade ago as only a possible future, as an inevitable one.

SPIEGEL: Does the dream of a European-wide social opposition movement thus remain an illusion?

Bourdieu: It would have to be in a position to unify the movements, currently still divided at both the national and international levels. And that won’t happen without a European confederation of reformed, critical labour unions.

SPIEGEL: You speak like a preacher, yet where should the concrete impulse come from—Berlin, Paris, Brussels?

Bourdieu: This is the big problem. The diversity of basic initiatives critical of globalization proves that it has already begun to seethe. The readiness for subversion is there, but how would it allow itself to be organized? I hesitate therefore to speak about a counter-revolution. Rather, it has to do with a counter-Reformation; people no longer tolerate the theatre of politics, just as Protestants no longer tolerated the theatre of religion. A more truthful politics is longed for, just as in the past one yearned for a more truthful religion.

SPIEGEL: These days Pope John Paul II himself calls on the players at the world economic summit to heed the pleas for help from the poor. A more welcome ally of the opponents of globalization?

Bourdieu: The Catholic church is not anti-capitalist. It would really only like to pour some communion wine into the water of neoliberalism. Its vision of Europe is neoliberalism plus Catholicism, or capitalism plus paternalism.

SPIEGEL: [French] Prime Minister Lionel Jospin demands that the European Union [EU] be developed into an instrument of resistance against unbridled globalization. Can France position itself at the leading edge of the movement?

Bourdieu: For historical reasons France has a great oppositional tradition. We’re specialists in revolution. Until now social conflicts have played out for us more vehemently than elsewhere in Europe. The German left has therefore always idealized France. This belongs to an useful historical mythology.

SPIEGEL: But does it not mean more than that?

Bourdieu: It’s rhetoric, above all. The French left speaks with a forked tongue, exactly as the entire EU conducts itself in ambiguous fashion. There are two Europes, each one always concealing itself behind the other. There is on the one hand the American Europe, something like Canada, an ally and trading partner of the USA, which however only remains in perpetual dependence because of dissimilar power relations...

SPIEGEL: ...and what can the other Europe, which, with its social achievements, sees itself as a counter-model to Anglo-Saxon capitalism, do against this?

Bourdieu: The idea of a strong European federal state is there, as a concrete utopia. It is feasible. The question is merely whether European politicians—other than those currently governing—summon up the will and the power for this, or whether they continue apathetically to accept their own abdication.


* Translator’s note. This interview with Pierre Bourdieu was conducted by Roman Leick, and originally appeared on July 16, 2001 as “Politik ist entpolitisiert” in Der Spiegel (No. 29/2001, p. 120), shortly before the G8 economic summit in Genoa (July 20-22, 2001). According to various estimates, demonstrations in Genoa against the summit drew between 100 000 and 200 000 participants, rendering them the largest anti-globalization protests to date. The protests were also marked by the fatal shooting of 23 year-old protestor Carlo Giuliani by riot police on the summit’s first day.

Bourdieu was considered to be one of the most important sociologists of his generation. In the last decade of his life, his work increasingly focused on developing a critique of globalization. For a sample of this work in English, please see Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market. Trans. Richard Nice. (New York: New Press, 1998), and the follow-up volume Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market. Trans. Loic Wacquant. (New York: New Press, 2003). An useful introduction to Bourdieu's thought can be found in his The Logic of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1990). Bourdieu died in Paris on January 23, 2002.

The translator would like to thank Elke Winter for her assistance with the translation, as well as J.J. McMurtry and Dennis Soron for comments and reference suggestions. - MP back to text

j~spot gratefully acknowledges the kind permission granted by the New York Times Syndicate to publish this interview in English translation.