Barbara Stiegler, philosopher: ‘Yachts are the symbol of neoliberal predation’

The French thinker and activist endorses the social protests that are shaking her country; she trusts that a true government ‘by the people for the people’ would work

Barbara Stiegler at the Institut français Madrid
Philosopher Barbara Stiegler, pictured on April 27th at the Institut français Madrid.Jaime Villanueva
Carmen Pérez-Lanzac

French philosopher Barbara Stiegler is a revolutionary. She believes that we are steeped in neoliberalism, that we are incapable of seeing the world without those glasses, and she places some hope in the social movements that have recently shaken her country. A professor of political philosophy at the Bordeaux Montaigne University, she has structured her thought around this current and Nietzsche, in addition to being an active participant in the French public debate; as an activist, she also joined the yellow vests. Her latest book is Adapt!: On a New Political Imperative, in which she takes a look at the 1930s of the last century and delves into the debate on liberalism held between the philosopher and journalist Walter Lippmann and the also philosopher and psychologist John Dewey. On the header of her Twitter account, the picture of a torn yellow poster reads “Leurs yachts échoueront sur nos grèves”: their yachts will run aground in our strikes.

Question. Can you explain the sign?

Answer. I liked it. Yachts are the symbol of the neoliberal predation of the world, of its obscenity.

Q. You say that we are all imbued with neoliberalism. That the left-wing parties are also there, even if they believe they are fighting it.

A. That’s right. The left has had a hard time noticing the different forms that neoliberalism takes. For the French, British, German socialist parties, implementing public policies meant fighting neoliberalism. They didn’t understand that many state public policies were perfectly neoliberal. We are all impregnated by its hegemony.

Q. Could you give an example?

A. Let’s talk about equal opportunities. Those responsible for education on the left will say that it is very important. And if you listen to them, you will see that they mean equality in order to compete. The idea is that, at the starting line, all the children have had equal opportunities. The poorest will receive more means, the richest less, and that will guarantee that the best win. That’s a neoliberal view! It entails believing that education is the selection of the best. But for me, its emancipation, it is collective and self formation. Is it a good model? I don’t think so. And it’s certainly not left-wing.

Q. When did the debate on neoliberalism begin?

A. There was a theoretical debate in the 1930s in the US, after the crisis of 1929. Liberals claimed that liberalism had to be refounded on a strong state. It is then that the educational system adapts to globalization. At first it was just a theoretical current that did not dominate. But little by little they prospered and by the 1970s and 1980s they rose to power everywhere. Starting in the 2000s — with the climate crisis and the Great Recession — citizens began to mobilize. By an incredible coincidence it happened at the same time as the publication of the lecture The Birth of Biopolitics by the philosopher Michel Foucault, in 2004, in which he identified the neoliberal object. And when you identify something, you can distance yourself from it. Otherwise you are like a fish in water; you don’t see the water. It has had a lot of impact on universities around the world.

Q. What was the debate between Lippmann and Dewey about, the one you mention in your book, which led to that mistake that you say still remains?

A. John Dewey, who had a lot of influence, wanted the US to start a democracy. He thought that the system they had was not truly democratic; everything was very hierarchical. He believed that the idea of democracy had to be extended everywhere: to schools, workplaces… he was the most renowned American philosopher of the first half of the 20th century. When he meets Lippmann, who was also a very influential chronicler, they clash. Lippmann criticizes the excess of democracy and states that it entails manufacturing the ideas of the people on an industrial scale. Lippmann would win this confrontation, because Dewey died during World War II and ended up being swept away by other thinkers. And this neoliberal and anti-democratic view is the one that prevails. Today, in all universities, the pragmatism of John Dewey and his demand for democracy are being rediscovered.

Q. Do you see hope in that?

A. I come from a communist background that I did not fully adhere to. I saw Brezhnev and the rest; they seemed like horrible people to me. For years I was politically bored. The 1990s were gray to me. And from 2000, with the ecological crisis looming and the demand for democracy, I began to see that something was going on. In 2005, when France rejected the draft European Constitution, I felt that we were living a very exciting moment of debate. My country has become increasingly authoritarian, and I, and many more, want more democracy. I have a complex relationship with my country: it is very authoritarian, and luckily, also very revolutionary.

Q. You say that we are living in an unusual moment.

A. It is an extraordinary moment. We are experiencing things that I have never seen as a citizen, there are violations of the rule of law that I had never seen. In my 51 years, I had never seen a president of the Republic engage in such severe actions as prohibiting attending protests with a sound device. Legal experts and intellectuals are very concerned about this drift. And this alone is already extraordinary, as well as the uprising it has caused. People ask for more democracy. Do they know what a democracy is? That is not so clear.

Q. And what is a democracy?

A. It is the government of the people by the people that the Athenians implemented. In our countries the people don’t govern; the people vote for the leaders, who are supposed to be more capable. And the people, by voting, delegate, give the power to those they elected. The people don’t decide. So we don’t know democracy as such. And what people are asking for now is democracy. Some want more rule of law, others a more representative government, and others really want a democracy.

Q. You are in the last group.

A. Let’s set up an Athens-style democracy. We haven’t tried it yet. It would work.

Q. Would we be expressing our opinion about everything all the time?

A. No. The Athenians found ways to do it. People were called by lottery to debate on a hill called Pnyx that the tourists don’t even know exists. Between 6,000 and 10,000 Athenians represented all of Athens. There were workers, simple people, not all of them were privileged. It was the people (albeit without women or slaves) and they decided on absolutely everything. If they voted to go to war, they all went to fight. Here, a man decides, with a handful of representatives at most, but they stay in Paris. Government by the people for the people is a very serious matter. We could govern ourselves like this perfectly.

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