Eva Illouz, the famous Israeli sociologist, explains to Tomasz Stawiszyński how culture and our social lives shape our emotional lives, and the role played in all this by capitalism.
It’s late March and spring is in full bloom in Paris. On the bank of the Seine, the cathedral of Notre Dame stands proud in all her magnificence, unaware of the tragedy that will befall her within the month. The sun shines down on the streets and parks, wine is flowing, tourists fill the benches and crowd round café tables late into the night, their conversations and laughter echoing far and wide down the charming streets.
Lovers abound. Irrespective of age, colour and gender. At times, it seems that everyone here is holding hands. In the broadest configurations, conventional and unconventional. Well, Paris isn’t called the city of love for nothing.
“But where does that sobriquet actually come from?” I ask myself as I make my way to a meeting with Eva Illouz, the famous Israeli sociologist who has for many years studied love and, more generally, the emotional lives of the modern-day residents of Western culture. Where does the name come from, and is there really something special about this place? Is there some incredible magic that releases layers of feelings from within us; feelings that lie dormant in our everyday lives?
Anyway, anyone who wants to spend a romantic break in Paris or who wants to win their lover’s heart, can count on an infrastructure that has been perfectly adapted for all expressions of love. Cosy bars, snug hotels, intimate alleyways, cinemas, theatres. Whatever a soul in love could possibly desire. And of course that fantastic architecture… Obviously it’s expensive, but hey, these days nothing is for free. Even love demands investment.
Precisely – but what exactly came first? Love, or that fabulously-adapted infrastructure and menu of delights? The instinctive answer is obvious: love. But Eva Illouz thinks it’s quite the opposite. And in her seminal book Why Love Hurts, she demonstrates how modern capitalism (and, in particular, Parisian capitalism) creates our emotional lives to an enormous extent.
Tomasz Stawiszyński: We are used to thinking that our emotions are part of our individual psyches, something deeply intimate, located inside our heads. Also that the appropriate language to talk about them is psychology – which must be somehow rooted in our family life, family history – or neuroscience, which is focused on the study of our brains. But in your work, you suggest that emotions are something socially constructed; that they are a social phenomenon.
Eva Illouz: To tell a sociologist that something is socially constructed would be like telling a biologist that bodies are made of cells. Yes, absolutely. Emotions are constructed because we use language, words, signs to express what we feel and to understand others. And language is a supremely social institution. But, at the same time, I think that most of the time we are in what I would call emotional zones – not clear, definite emotions with clear definitions and contours, but emotional zones, ranges of feelings. There is a gap between language and experience, because language tends to privilege single words of emotions, and it tends to make us think that we feel one single emotion…
Like anger or love.
Yes, anger is mixed with fear or, for example, with shame. Thomas Scheff, the sociologist, has shown that a great deal of anger is actually underlined or triggered by unacknowledged shame. We are ashamed to be ashamed. So, in fact, our language is ill-equipped to capture the emotional range, as well as emotional ambiguity. We are, I believe, often ambiguous about what we feel. We can feel two conflicting things at the same time, but we’re trained both by language and our ideology to privilege only one element of this. The role of culture is to make us focus on one dimension, one aspect, one point, one segment of that kind of amorphous, diffused, complex, ambiguous emotional experience that most of us have.
And is that related to social or political issues?
If you are a man and you feel a complex of shame and anger, you’re going to pay much more attention to your anger than to your shame, because you’re using ideologies of gender. That’s just one example of the role of culture. Let’s look at Christianity. Judeo-Christianity wants very much to legislate and regulate emotional life by instilling, for example, very strong feelings of guilt and shame. Guilt and shame are highly economic and efficient ways to control. The metaphorical ‘king’ does not need to send in police and build prisons. Your guilt is a powerful guarantor that you have accepted his order. But there also positive emotions: “You should not hate your neighbour, you should love your neighbour.” Christian love is an entire psychological and social programme; and ‘Love your neighbour’ is an emotional programme: it commands charity, compassion for the stranger, colonialism and forced conversion. So that’s the second part of my answer – religions and whole socio-cultural systems make emotional life the centre of the webs of power they build.
It’s not only religion that does this, but also the prevailing economics.
This is my modest contribution – the claim that capitalism has had a tremendous impact on emotional life. Both on the production side and on the consumption side, by making the emotions of workers things to be controlled and manipulated in order to increase the efficiency of the work process and the production process. On the consumption side, this operates by reimagining, if you want, human beings as having emotional needs; craving for emotional needs that will be satisfied by goods and commodities. Marketing science played a huge role in reconceptualizing human beings as having lots of emotions, and of the consumption process as being an emotional process. So we can say that emotionality has been entirely integrated into the capitalistic machine.
You write a lot about therapeutic culture and therapeutic discourse. What has the role of psychotherapy been in that capitalist process?
Capitalism has led to a complete collapse of traditional community social frames. No social force has led so many people to leave and break their traditional mode of living as capitalism has. Capitalist modern societies leave the individual pretty much on his own, that’s an objective fact. But then there is a question of how to reintegrate, reconstruct an individual who is disembedded. Psychology has done a great deal to re-embed the individual. So I would say that previously the individual didn’t have much need to think about him- or herself, because the individual was naturally part of a larger unit. It was as a part of that unit that you knew your duties and privileges in the family or the tribe. But now the individual is radically thrown outside those units on a social marketplace. Psychology presents itself actually as a cultural technique to help the individual do a tremendous amount of reflexive work. It helps the individual carry himself, manage himself, guide himself in a maze of relationships that suddenly become uncertain. For me, modernity is really characterized by a great deal of normative uncertainty about how to carry yourself in a variety of domains and spheres. Psychology is a management of that uncertainty.
So capitalism destroys communities and then psychology tries to help the individual to reintegrate. But psychology also becomes part of capitalism and is structured by its qualities.
Capitalism destroys the traditional forms of social solidarity. The individual finds himself objectively on his own in figuring out how to navigate in the social world: sexuality, work, parenthood. All these domains did not demand a reflexive monitoring and now they do. Psychology helps the individual to do that. In that sense, psychology is the handmaiden of capitalism, because it really helps it – it navigates the social world that capitalism has destroyed and recreated. Then there are also much more concrete ways in which psychology helps capitalism. In the sphere of consumption, psychoanalysis was practically the first science that was mobilized to think about the consumer and how to sell goods. Edward Bernays, the nephew-in-law of Freud, went to America, and there he really contributed a great deal in making psychoanalysis into a science that is used for advertising and for marketing. It’s just one example. Later, this tradition becomes modified with cognitive psychology and neuroscience, but psychology really plays a big role in putting forward the instruments to invent and imagine the consumer as a creature of emotions; whose emotions must be constantly solicited and elicited in order to sell and promote goods.
Psychology also plays a great role in modelling the mindset of modern corporate workers.
I think that psychology is also enormously used, enormously used – but this time very much up front – in corporations to manage the workforce, and to create a kind of big cultural compromise between democratic norms in which you cannot really beat workers any longer. This was how workers were controlled in the 19th century – through violence and sheer force. You cannot really do that any more (although there are places where it is still done). Psychology is used, in fact, to find a compromise between new democratic norms and the imperative of economic efficiency that goes and increases all the time, and becomes just an extraordinary rationality that takes hold of the capitalist world. The idea is that you will increase your productivity very simply by tapping into the emotional goodwill of workers – by creating good relationships between managers and workers, by making them develop a kind of emotional loyalty to their company. So slowly, you really see how the locus of control changes – this is very much Foucauldian – from the body to the psyche. This is what happens in the corporation.
The internalization of discipline and control.
Yes. Through well-being as well, that’s why it’s such a confusing way of controlling. Now I’m not saying that controlling through physical violence is the same as or less bad than control through the psyche, which sometimes you feel Foucauldian analysis would suggest. Foucauldian analysis gives you the feeling sometimes that surveillance mechanisms and self-discipline and self-training are as bad, if not worse, than the violence to which people are submitted in pre-modern forms of power. I don’t think that’s true, but it is still a form of control.
What do you think about the process of internalization and privatization of emotion, which is part of therapeutic culture? In Saving the Modern Soul, you write that therapeutic discourse has become a pattern organizing our notion of the self. So it is a very huge part of modern culture and also our internal life. Let’s talk about this process of privatizing emotions, in the large context of politics. This kind of critique of psychotherapy sees it as something essentially anti-political, as something that closes you inside your private self, and then makes you numb in the context of a politics. The result being that you don’t rebel against social injustice, but rather work on your inner life and relations with your parents. What do you think about this?
I think you’re perfectly right. First of all, the privatization of family is also an effect of capitalism. The division of the self between two aspects that the self experiences as very foreign to each other – the self in the public sphere and the self in the family – and the family being so related with emotions, and the real self being expressed in the family and domesticity, is also very much an effect of capitalism. So it really creates a kind of cleavage inside the self. That’s one thing that makes psychology the science which will try to create some kind of alignment between these two selves (the private and the public). Which, in fact, is an effect of social organization – it’s not something that is naturally like that. Second, I think that psychology’s tremendous impact has been to privatize social suffering. So if social suffering is always about the social conditions we’re thrown, psychology has made it almost its mission to show that whatever we suffer from is actually in our power to change.
Sometimes it actually is.
That’s why it’s complicated. Because we as individuals can indeed change something about the terms of our social suffering. The only ways in which we can experience the social is in our psyche and our body quite often. And it is true that if you do enough psychotherapy, you will eventually manage to change some of your social suffering. So from this, we have concluded a complete philosophical fallacy, which is that if we can change it, it must mean that we are also responsible for it. But that’s a fallacy. It’s a logical fallacy, because the fact that we can change it doesn’t mean in any way that its causes are in our psyche. We can change – a bit – our psyche, but the causes for it are not within it.
It sounds very neoliberal.
This is the idea that neoliberalism has capitalized on. The huge fallacy that psychology has created resonates with neoliberalism, in which individuals are more thrown than ever before into an economic world where they have to fight tooth and nail for their self-worth; in which self-worth is constantly contested, to be proven daily. These are abnormal conditions for selves. Self-help literature and the self-help ethos create a strong analogy between psychic victory and socioeconomic success. To succeed economically demands extraordinary feats for the self. The key figure, the key motif, of this constant work on yourself that you’re supposed to do in order to improve yourself, is one of not only improving your sexuality and your intimate relationships, but ultimately also being flexible, mobile, endlessly creative, able to cope with uncertainty. These are maddening conditions for the self.
You quoted a passage from Freud, where he writes that it can be destructive for workers to take away their neuroses. So it’s better for them to suffer because of neurosis than to see how pitiful the conditions they work in actually are. But do you think that psychoanalysis has no revolutionary potential at all?
For Adorno or Marcuse, social critique was very much infused with psychoanalysis. Until the 1960s, I would say a great deal of psychoanalysis – Freudo-Marxism – was used for social critique. Freud’s ideas themselves – about the amorality of the psyche and the stubbornness of sexuality to be everywhere – were in themselves radical and deeply transformative. But they are no longer so. Moreover, psychoanalysis describes processes that are indeed universal, and some that are very much inscribed within the particular societies of which they were a part. It’s quite difficult to know what is what. For example, the Oedipus complex is probably a reflection of the very specific state of the nuclear family in which the father competes with the son, in the nascent industrial capitalism where the son has a tremendous pressure to succeed more than the father, and the son is competing with the father over the affection of the mother. So I think that the idea of the Oedipus complex should be very much historically perceived. On the other hand, I do think that such mechanisms as denial and repression are universal. I do think there are things about our experience that we forget, and that go into… I wouldn’t say ‘unconscious’, I don’t know if the unconscious has the shape and the form that Freud gave to it. I totally disagree with the overwhelming importance that Freud gave to sexuality. I think that he was a Victorian simply imparting the Christian horror of sex in making sex central. You could say just as plausibly that we are acted upon by morality or injustice – just as we are by war or violence – as we are by sexuality. So we should reopen the question of how or what in psychoanalysis is usable for social critique.
My second objection to your question is that psychoanalysis is not only a theory, it is a practice. It is practised in the privacy of an office; a consultation where money is exchanged. It is a service, a very particular service that is exchanged for money, which points to a certain form of commodification of speech and suffering, and commodification of techniques of health, mental health. That’s why I would say that even though some psychoanalysts are very much engaged in social critique, they would still tend to practise in the privacy of their office, and in that sense they contribute to an immense work of making suffering silent, or rather to transforming it into the humming of the psychologist’s office.
Do you think that this kind of privatized, psychological perspective may somehow contribute to the actual rise of populism? Or are we instead tired of neoliberalism? We see that it hurts us, so we are gropingly looking for some kind of fundamental change.
I don’t think many of the people who vote for populist leaders think that they’re voting against neoliberalism. They are maybe acting against neoliberalism, but I doubt they think they are voting against neoliberalism. What they think they are voting against is elites and immigrants – I think these are the two main pillars of populism. The elites, and more specifically, the left-wing elites that are threatening our country. Populist leaders have managed to make it look like there is now a new danger. And, by the way, it’s connected – immigrants are the external danger, and the elites are the internal danger. People like Newt Gingrich and Trump have managed to make it look like left-wingers (liberals) and immigrants form a single conspiracy and threat; that they are traitors. It’s in Israel, in the United States, in Brazil, for sure in Hungary, and in Poland…
I can confirm that it is indeed in Poland.
So it creates an internal division, and it pits the working classes paradoxically-so against the people who traditionally supported the working class, but who are now perceived to have betrayed them, because they support minorities. The anti-immigrant sentiment is sometimes strange, because there are some countries where you have a lot of immigrants and others where you don’t have immigrants, like Poland, but still you have a very strong anti-immigrant sentiment. It shows that imagination plays a huge role in nativism, the desire to preserve a presumed nation or race. In Germany at least, cities where you have the least refugees or immigrants are often more likely to harbour an anti-immigrant sentiment. It’s a nativist desire to return to some ethnic purity. That for me is what populism is about. As in previous times in history, economics is displaced onto race or nationhood. But the difference with the 1930s is that today there are channels to express your anger through. In highly therapeutic states – as most of Western Europe – you are encouraged to think about anger, rage as your own responsibility; as a sign that your psyche is not functioning properly. But a lot of liberals – liberals, educated people – have very much disciplined ourselves to channel our anger and rage into activities like meditation or jogging or yoga or psychology. We have learned to monitor ourselves and to channel the surplus of negativity that unjust societies and difficult workplaces generate. Trump’s voters, as well as those who vote for other populist movements, have not learned to monitor this oversupply of rage. It constitutes an untapped reservoir of political potential. This political reservoir needed to be exploited and used, and it’s been the populist leaders who have used it. But the disruptions, the things they are reacting to, are real. They are reacting to the massive destruction of their life world – of neighbourhoods, of small towns, of infrastructure – by capitalism. They are reacting to the fact that wealthy people leave and go wherever it is cheaper to produce goods and pay workers. They are reacting to the fact that globalization does not benefit them. For them, globalization is the immigrants that come to threaten their identity.
It’s very interesting what you said that maybe the liberals, educated people in the West, have learned to manage their own emotions through practices like yoga or psychoanalysis. Doesn’t it make them more numb and more self-concentrated? Maybe those people who are angry right now are more political in the very sense of the term ‘political’? They are reacting to what’s going on outside of their heads, and they give their emotions that political sense: something that connects us to the outer world.
I think that liberals have been doing for a while a more cerebral politics, because, for example, green politics or ecology is about imagining what the future is going to be like. Now we’re starting, but only starting, to feel what global warming is about. But up until we felt it in those enormous heat waves, it was for the most part an abstract politics of imagining what the future might be like, and using scientific knowledge to have a politics. Imagining what it could be like is not something really tangible. In that sense, green politics has been a cognitive politics. Whereas working-class people are reacting to their immediate social experience of chronic unemployment, of chronic uncertainty, erosion of salaries and wages, of being unable to pay mortgages, liberals have tended to have a more abstract politics, geared to future generations, geared to far away countries, geared to the different. This is also connected to the fact that liberals tend to live in big cities, which have become a huge engine of capitalism. You and I – we live in a big city, most likely we are enjoying all the tremendous benefits that big cities are giving. We’re enjoying employment, we’re enjoying transportation, we’re enjoying social networks, very close health care, and so on and so forth. Many of those people who have remained outside big cities have not enjoyed all of these things. The tremendous expansion of capitalism in the last 40 or 50 years has happened in cities. And so for them, their social experience is that of inequality in all domains, while simultaneously the norms of equality and democracy have increased. For us, our social experience might have improved, so our political engagement is for groups other than us, and for the future of the planet.
What do you think about the diagnosis made, for example, by Mark Lilla, who says that part of the problem of the crisis of modern liberal democracies is identity politics, which went too far. We’ve concentrated so much on the differences between minority groups that we’ve completely lost the sense of common values, and the sense of community itself.
There has been a very significant and massive shift among the Left, which viewed itself as representing the interests of the working classes. At some point, I would say in the 1980s, it stopped doing that. It started representing the interests of other groups – gays, feminists, ethnic minorities. In popular culture, the working class was absent. And they were increasingly left unrepresented – and thus unheard and unseen—by the Left. They were left because the Left started embodying values that were at odds with the working classes. Think of Archie Bunker, a comic character of popular culture who represented everything that the Left hated. He was a working-class man, racist, mysoginist. This is how working-class people were represented in media, and probably even perceived. For working-class men, patriarchy is very important to their identity, because a working-class man always has a woman to dominate, that’s very important for his dignity. But feminism comes along and takes away that source of pride. Globalization comes along and takes away a steady working-class job with the promise of salary increases. That is why working-class people have different value systems. A working-class man in the United States is more likely to be Christian. A working-class man or woman is much more likely to prefer heterosexual marriage or to think that gay people are threatening the family, because for working-class people the family is often the primary mainstay of their survival, and of building networks of solidarity and economic help. And also because, by and large, they did not participate in the great social movements of democratization of society after the 1970s. These were spearheaded by the middle and upper-middle classes, and remained urban movements.
Objectively, you cannot deny the fact that after the 1980s, the liberal Left deserted the working classes for cultural reasons, and that the cultural views and values of the urban liberals and the small town or countryside working classes have become very much at odds. In America, it’s after the civil rights movement that the Republican and Democrat electorates start shifting tremendously. Before the civil rights movement, both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are very heterogeneous; their electorate is very heterogeneous and therefore less polarized. You have in the Republican Party people who live in big cities, who are for civil rights, as well as being Christians. And in the Democratic Party it’s the same – you have people from the South and Christians voting. So it’s much less polarized. After the civil rights movement, it becomes much more polarized and the electorates become much more homogeneous. Minorities tend to rally around the Democrats. Evangelicals and people for unchecked capitalism rally in the Republican Party. So something happens. It cannot be denied that, not by design, the Left deserted the working classes. Now it has to face the question of how to keep representing minorities – sexual minorities and ethnic minorities on the one hand – and speaking to the working classes again.
Bernie Sanders tries to do that in the United States.
Exactly, Bernie Sanders holds both things at the same time. I think that’s what makes him so special. I do agree with Mark Lilla, I think the Left should remain universalist and should be much more careful about questions of identity. But Lilla does not appreciate enough the tremendous emancipation brought by feminism and movements for sexual equality. These movements go to the foundation of the capitalist order, as they question the family and the role of men in the social order. Traditional socialist movements never did that. But the Left made mistakes. It thinks that identity matters only when you’re a minority. If the identity of the minority is in danger, then the Left screams “Help!”. But identity never disappeared. It resurfaced in white supremacy. White supremacy today differs from its cousin in the 1930s. There is no doubt that white Christian European identity – and its version in North American – is becoming one option in a much larger menu of identities on the world stage. We are witnessing the waning of European hegemony and power. Some are benefitting from this shift. Some are not and they are giving a fight. But Europe no longer has the dominance it once had on the world scene. How it will manage this change of status with its own minorities is going to be one of the key issues for the Left in the coming decade.
How do you see the gender issue in that context? Anti-feminist rhetoric is part of this conservative backlash. Jordan Peterson, a hero of young white men right now and very anti-feminist, says that men (young men especially) are currently in the worst position of all – more so than women. He also claims that feminism is a part of this problem. How do we look at this new clash of genders; this whole war between men and women proclaimed by such people as Peterson?
I think that it used to be the case that men dominated women in all social classes and all social groups. Now, only a certain class of men dominate all the rest, they dominate both men and women. So whereas a man was always sure to have a woman to dominate, many men don’t have that insurance any more. They feel disempowered in the economic sphere and they feel disempowered in the intimate sphere, where women want more equality and are not willing to give sex whenever men want. So I understand those men. It’s not nice, it’s not pleasant to lose something that was rightfully yours. I think this is what they’re experiencing – a loss of their privilege. They had privileges, but these privileges are only lost for the lower echelons of men. It’s not by chance that it’s the younger men, because the younger men are those who do not yet have accumulated assets; accumulated social and economic assets. Those men are very angry indeed, because they do see other men having those privileges, but they don’t have them themselves. So I understand their anger. We never like to lose privileges, especially those for which we have to do nothing but simply be born with a specific organ. There’s also the fact that it entitles you to enormous privileges – it used to grant men access to sexuality and access to services provided by women inside the family. These are enormous privileges. So feminism has represented, for me, mostly today a loss of power for working-class men and partially middle-class men, but absolutely not the dominant men. Masculine hegemony and masculine power are very much in place. Look at Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte – these are examplars of toxic masculinity. Power is still overwhelmingly if not totally masculine, and feminism has moved women inside the belly of the capitalist machine, but has not undermined power, except in the legal sphere.
Do you think that these kinds of processes we are discussing right now can potentially be a socially-destructive force that will lead to some sort of deep conflict or aggression in social life? Do you think that this is seriously dangerous?
We have two structures. First, the family-love structure, which rests on traditional values and roles. Second, a hyper-modern equalitarian one, which tends to undermine the former. The ecology of romantic relationships is deeply disrupted, and I don’t think we actually realize how crucial the family is to all the rest, that is, to the business of reproducing society. The family is crucial for biological reproduction, and if you don’t reproduce, you don’t have stable relationships or stable families to have children. Capitalism is great for producing but it turns out it is not so great for reproducing. This has all sorts of consequences for society. You don’t replace people; you bring in immigrants. If you bring in immigrants, you create identity backlashes, and so on and so forth. So capitalism cannot reproduce itself. Many women do not want to be a part of an institution in which they are not treated equally (the family), they prefer being alone or to have a partnership with other women. Many men also are indeed in crisis, because the social basis of their identity and dignity is undermined. This is, I think, the crisis of Western civilization that Houellebecq studied in his novels, predicting that the collapse of the West will happen through a crisis in sexuality and reproduction. The reason why sexuality is so central to Houellebecq’s novels is exactly the same reason why I made sexuality and romance the key motifs of my works, because I think this is where the key tendencies and forces of capitalism are converging. This is also where the crisis is starting.
I don’t want to ask you about solutions to this problem, because I know that you are not a politician. But in one interview you said something that I think is very profound: that in a way, the very act of understanding the situation in which we are has some therapeutic value. Not in the sense that we have in therapeutic culture – that we’ll be more efficient. But rather that we’ll be more aware of where we are and why we got there. Do you think that we need this kind of reflection? Awareness of what mistakes we have made, as liberals and people who care for liberal democracy? I mean, we are living in a world where everyone says that we have to act quickly. And you say a lot about understanding as a value.
I’m totally Spinozian in that respect. I do think that understanding is profoundly freeing, it’s really a condition for freedom. Otherwise, you can act in ways that simply lead you to another form of tyranny. So you’re asking what is to be done: to understand or act. It’s not that people don’t have the feeling that they don’t understand something. There is a lot of knowledge that is distributed and circulated. Maybe false knowledge, maybe partial knowledge, but people do have the feeling that they are acting upon ideas and opinions. We have become men and women of opinions. We form our opinions in such a strong way, and opinions and beliefs mix so intimately. This is the situation of democracy today, where belief and opinion intermix, and you cannot separate any more an opinion that derives from knowledge and a belief that is unchecked, axiomatic and dogmatic. You can’t separate it any more. I think that’s one characteristic of our democracy. In a way, it’s worse than a state where many people are ignorant and know that they’re ignorant, and don’t express an opinion about anything. This whole thing about false truth or post-truth is one of the diseases that we’re witnessing now…
Would you call it a post-truth era?
It’s not post-truth, it’s immunity to truth. People who vote for Netanyahu or for Trump are not exactly immoral – although I ask myself questions about that sometimes – but they don’t believe what they hear. The traditional groups that were bearers of truth no longer tell the truth. They show sociologists to have been tragically right in their claim that for truth to function, we need to accept the authority of the truth teller. But climate change scientists, journalists, lawyers, none of the traditional groups that made the Enlightenment possible are acceptable anymore. So there is a kind of complete immunity to truth. There is almost nothing you could tell Trump or Netanyahu voters that would make them disbelieve Trump or Bibi. You know, I was taking the bus in the US two months ago, there was a man sitting near me, he wanted to talk to me. I didn’t want to talk to him that much, I wanted to read my book. At some point, I don’t remember how, I understood that he was a Trump voter (it was a baseball hat or something) so I suddenly became interested in him [laughs]. I wanted to understand why someone would be a Trump follower. And I said to him: “Aren’t you bothered by the fact that Trump never paid his taxes and never showed any tax records?” His answer was disarming: he doesn’t believe it happened. He thinks it’s an invention. And so in that sense, as Jürgen Habermas told us, democracy has to be based on some kind of very common basic assumptions about communication. If we do not assume that speech contains truth, then it becomes a meaningless noise. That is what a great deal of things you and I recognize as valid modes of truth making have become for these people: white noise.
We have to go back to good old realism.
In a way, it’s like the sweet vengeance of positivism over our postmodernist posturing. Because it’s facts that the working classes are refusing. Facts about climate change; facts about the deeply misogynist nature of Trump, about his failed businesses, about his refusal to comply with ethical standards of good governance; facts of probable collusion with Russia. In a way, the working classes have become the true postmoderns. It’s not post-truth, it’s immunity to truth. It is truth as an exercise in subjectivity. They mock truth as a ploy of the elites. Look at the Evangelicals too. The Evangelicals could not have imagined a less Christian president than Trump. Obama corresponded far more to the ideal of the Evangelicals than Trump. Trump embodies an un-Christian life. What is very unsettling is that Trump voters disregard facts and they disregard values. That suggests to me that hatred has become primary. It suggests a whole wide group is engaged in a war, in a war for their survival, and that in that war, they will look at nothing, they simply want to win and erase the enemy. This is a deep and massive distortion of the democratic game. It used to be the case that in democracy you respected your rival. You had a competitor over truth and you argued over truth. We are no longer there. Truth no longer interests them. They are in a war and they want to win it.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
An Israeli sociologist and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She studied in Paris and defended her doctoral thesis at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Her 1997 book, Consuming the Romantic Utopia won honourable mention for the Best Book Award at the American Sociological Association in 2000.
Introduction translated by Annie Krasińska