The Left Hand and the Right Hand of the State
The influential sociologist Pierre
Bourdieu (1930 2002) was interviewed by R. P. Droit and T. Ferenczi in 1992. Their conversation was published in Le Monde on 14th January that year. Why choose to reprint this interview today, over a decade and half later? Bourdieu conjures up the useful metaphor of the left and right hand of the State and with it he illuminates the devastating impact of neoliberalism on social democracy and points to the willing involvement of the socialist political class in this process. As a consequence, social democratic politics in France and elsewhere were transformed beyond recognition. This was shown for some in the UK by Margaret Thatchers greatest victory: New Labour. Moving on from such disappointments, not just in Europe but globally, political hopes are increasingly placed in nationalism, particularly of the small is beautiful variety. But the key issue that remains is how the public interest and the common good can be manifested under the conditions of corporate and financial globalisation which enforce privatisation and cut-backs on the public sector. On this dismal point the proponents of competitive nationalism refuse to give any clear answers whilst launching manifestos for what might be described as cultural rejuvenation in the global marketplace. Does the new breed of nationalist not in fact conform perfectly with the self-seeking political characteristics that Bourdieu saw degrading civic virtues
Q A recent issue of the journal that you edit was devoted to the theme
of suffering.1 It includes several interviews with people
whose voices are not much heard in the media: young people on deprived
estates, small farmers, social workers. The head-teacher of a secondary
school in difficulty, for example, expresses his bitterness. Instead
of overseeing the transmission of knowledge, he has become, against
his will, the superintendent of a kind of police station. Do you think
that individual and anecdotal testimonies of that kind can cast light
on a collective malaise?
PB In the survey we are conducting on social suffering, we encounter
many people who, like that head-teacher, are caught in the contradictions
of the social world, which are experienced in the form of personal
dramas. I could also cite the project leader, responsible for co-ordinating
all the work on a difficult estate in a small town in northern France. He is faced with contradictions which are the extreme case of those currently experienced by all those who are called social workers:
family counsellors, youth leaders, rank-and-file magistrates, and also,
increasingly, secondary and primary teachers. They constitute what
I call the left hand of the state, the set of agents of the so-called
spending ministries which are the trace, within the state, of the social
struggles of the past. They are opposed to the right hand of the state,
the technocrats of the Ministry of Finance, the public and private
banks and the ministerial cabinets. A number of social struggles that we are now seeing (and will see) express the revolt of the minor state nobility against the senior state nobility.2
Q How do you explain that exasperation, those forms of despair and those
PB I think that the left hand of the state has the sense that the right
hand no longer knows, or, worse, no longer really wants to know what
the left hand does. In any case, it does not want to pay for it. One
of the main reasons for all these peoples despair is that the state
has withdrawn, or is withdrawing, from a number of sectors of social
life for which it was previously responsible: social housing, public
service broadcasting, schools, hospitals, etc., which is all the more
stupefying and scandalous, in some of these areas at least, because it
was done by a Socialist government, which might at least be expected
to be the guarantor of public service as an open service available to
all, without distinction. . . What is described as a crisis of politics,
anti-parliamentarianism, is in reality despair at the failure of the
state as the guardian of the public interest.
If the Socialists had simply not been as socialist as they claimed, that
would not shock anyone times are hard and there is not much room for manoeuvre. But what is more surprising is that they should have done so much to undermine the public interest, first by their deeds, with all kinds of measures and policies (I will only mention the media. . . ) aimed at liquidating the gains of the welfare state, and above all, perhaps, in their words, with the eulogy of private enterprise (as if one could only be enterprising within an enterprise) and the encouragement of private interest. All that is somewhat shocking, especially for those who are sent into the front line to perform so-called social work
to compensate for the most flagrant inadequacies of the logic of the
market, without being given the means to really do their job. How could
they not have the sense of being constantly undermined or betrayed?
It should have been clear a long time ago that their revolt goes far beyond
questions of salary, even if the salary granted is an unequivocal index
of the value placed on the work and the corresponding workers. Contempt
for a job is shown first of all in the more or less derisory remuneration
it is given.
Q Do you think that the politicians room for manoeuvre is really
PB It is no doubt less limited than they would have us think. And in
any case there remains one area where governments have considerable scope:
that of the symbolic. Exemplary behaviour ought to be de
all state personnel, especially when they claim to belong to a tradition
of commitment to the interests of the least advantaged. But it is difficult
not to have doubts when one sees not only examples of corruption (sometimes
quasi-official, with the bonuses given to some senior civil servants)
or betrayal of public service (that word is no doubt too strong I
am thinking of pantouflage3) and all the forms of
misappropriation, for private purposes, of public property, profits or
services nepotism, cronyism (our leaders have many personal friends .
. . 4),
clientelism . . .
And I have not even mentioned symbolic profits! Television has probably
contributed as much as bribery to the degradation of civic virtue. It
has invited and projected on to the political and intellectual stage
a set of self-promoting personalities concerned above all to get themselves
noticed and admired, in total contradiction with the values of unspectacular
devotion to the collective interest which once characterized the civil
servant or the activist. It is the same self-serving attention seeking
(often at the expense of rivals) which explains why headline grabbing5 has
become such a common practice. For many ministers, it seems, a measure
is only valid if it can be announced and regarded as achieved as soon
as it has been made public. In short, large-scale corruption which causes
a scandal when it is uncovered because it reveals the gap between professed
virtues and real behaviour is simply the extreme case of all the ordinary
the flaunting of luxury and the avid acceptance of material or symbolic
Q Faced with the situation you describe, how, in your view, do the citizens
PB I was recently reading an article by a German author on ancient Egypt.
He shows how, in a period of crisis of confidence in the state and in the
public good, two tendencies emerged: among the rulers, corruption, linked
to the decline in respect for the public interest; and, among those they
dominated, personal religiosity, associated with despair concerning temporal
remedies. In the same way, one has the sense now that citizens, feeling
themselves ejected from the state (which, in the end, asks of them no more
than obligatory material contributions, and certainly no commitment, no
enthusiasm), reject the state, treating it as an alien power to be used
so far as they can to serve their own interests.
Q You referred to the considerable scope that governments have in the symbolic
domain. This is not just a matter of setting an example of good behaviour.
It is also about words, ideals that can mobilize people. How do you explain
the current vacuum?
PB There has been much talk of the silence of the intellectuals. What strikes
me is the silence of the politicians. They are terribly short of ideals
that can mobilize people. This is probably because the professionalization
of politics and the conditions required of those who want to make a career
in the parties increasingly exclude inspired personalities. And probably
also because the definition of political activity has changed with the
arrival of a political class that has learned in its schools (of political
science) that, to appear serious, or simply to avoid appearing old-fashioned
or archaic, it is better to talk of management than self-management, and
that they must, at any rate, take on the appearances (that is to say the
language) of economic rationality.
Locked in the narrow, short-term economism of the IMF worldview which
is also causing havoc, and will continue to do so, in North-South relations,
all these half-wise economists fail, of course, to take account of the
real costs, in the short and more especially the long term, of the material
and psychological wretchedness which is the only certain outcome of their
economically legitimate Realpolitik: delinquency, crime, alcoholism,
road accidents, etc. Here too, the right hand, obsessed by the question
of financial equilibrium, knows nothing of the problems of the left hand,
confronted with the often very costly social consequences of budgetary restrictions.
Q Are the values on which actions and contributions of the state were once
founded no longer credible?
PB The first people to flout them are often the very ones who ought to
be their guardians. The Rennes Congress6 and the amnesty law7 did
more to discredit the Socialists than ten years of anti-socialist campaigning.
And a turncoat activist does more harm than ten opponents.
But ten years of Socialist government have completed the demolition of
belief in the state and the demolition of the welfare state that was
started in the 1970s in the name of liberalism. I am thinking in particular
of housing policy.8 The declared aim has been to rescue the
petite bourgeoisie from publicly owned housing (and thereby from collectivism)
and facilitate their move into ownership of a house or apartment. This
policy has in a sense succeeded only too well. Its outcome illustrates
what I said a moment ago about the social costs of some economies. That
policy is probably the major cause of social segregation and consequently
of the problems referred to as those of the banlieues.9
Q So if one wants to define an ideal, it would be a return to actions
sense of the sense and of the public good. You dont share everybodys
opinion on this.
PB Whose opinion is everybodys opinion? The opinion of people who write in the newspapers, intellectuals who advocate the minimal state and who are rather too quick to bury the notion of the public and the publics interest in the public interest. . . We see there a typical example of the effect of shared belief which removes from discussion ideas which are perfectly worth discussing. One would need to analyse the work of the new intellectuals which has created a climate favourable to the withdrawal of the state and, more broadly, to submission to the values of the economy. Im thinking of what has been called the return of individualism, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which tends to destroy the philosophical foundations of the welfare state and in particular the notion of collective responsibility (towards industrial accidents, sickness or poverty) which has been a fundamental achievement of social (and sociological) thought. The return to the individual is also what makes it possible to blame the victim who
is entirely responsible for his or her own misfortune, and to preach
the gospel of self-help, all of this being justified by the endlessly
repeated need to reduce costs for companies.
The reaction of retrospective panic provoked by the crisis of 1968, a
symbolic revolution which alarmed all the small holders of cultural capital
(subsequently reinforced by the unforeseen collapse of the Soviet-style
regimes), created conditions favourable to a cultural restoration, the
outcome of which has been that Sciences-Po thought10 has
replaced the thought of Chairman Mao. The intellectual world is now the site of a struggle aimed at producing and imposing new intellectuals and therefore a new definition of the intellectual and the intellectuals
political role, a new definition of philosophy and the philosopher, henceforward
engaged in the vague debates of a political philosophy without technical
content, a social science reduced to journalistic commentary for election
nights, and uncritical glossing of unscientific opinion polls. Plato
had a wonderful word for all these people: doxosophers. These technicians of opinion who think themselves wise (Im
translating the triple meaning of the word) pose the problems of politics
in the very same terms in which they are posed by businessmen, politicians
and political journalists (in other words the very people who can afford
to commission surveys. . . ).
Q You have just mentioned Plato. Is the attitude of the sociologist close
to that of the philosopher?
PB The sociologist is opposed to the doxosopher, like the philosopher,
in that she questions the things that are self-evident, in particular
those that present themselves in the form of questions, her own as much
as other peoples. This profoundly shocks the doxosopher, who sees
a political bias in the refusal to grant the profoundly political submission
implied in the unconscious acceptance of commonplaces, in Aristotles sense notions
or theses with which people argue, hut over which they do not argue.
Q Dont you tend in a sense to put the sociologist in the place
of a philosopher-king?
PB What I defend above all is the possibility and the necessity of the
critical intellectual, who is firstly critical of the intellectual doxa secreted
by the doxosophers. There is no genuine democracy without genuine opposing
critical powers. The intellectual is one of those, of the first magnitude.
That is why I think that the work of demolishing the critical intellectual,
living or dead Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, Foucault, and some others who are grouped together under the label Pensée
as dangerous as the demolition of the public interest and that it is
part of the same process of restoration.
Of course I would prefer it if intellectuals had all, and always, lived
up to the immense historical responsibility they bear and if they had
always invested in their actions not only their moral authority but also
their intellectual competence like, to cite just one example,
Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who has engaged all his mastery of historical method
in a critique of the abuses of history.12 Having said that,
in the words of Karl Kraus, between two evils, I refuse to choose the lesser. While I have little indulgence for irresponsible intellectuals, I have even less respect for the intellectuals of the political-administrative establishment, polymorphous polygraphs who polish their annual essays between two meetings of boards of directors, three publishers parties
and miscellaneous television appearances.
Q So what role would you want to see for intellectuals, especially in the
construction of Europe?
PB I would like writers, artists, philosophers and scientists to be able
make their voice heard directly in all the areas of public life in which
they are competent. I think that everyone would have a lot to gain if
the logic of intellectual life, that of argument and refutation, were
extended to public life. At present, it is often the logic of political
life, that of denunciation and slander, sloganization and falsification of the adversarys thought, which extends into intellectual life. It would be a good thing if the creators could
fulfil their function of public service and sometimes of public salvation.
Moving to the level of Europe simply means rising to a higher degree
of universalization, reaching a new stage on the road to a universal
state, which, even in intellectual life, is far from having been achieved.
We will certainly not have gained much if eurocentrism is substituted
for the wounded nationalisms of the old imperial nations. Now that the
great utopias of the nineteenth century have revealed all their perversion,
it is urgent to create the conditions for a collective effort to reconstruct
a universe of realist ideals, capable of mobilizing peoples will
without mystifying their consciousness.
I. Actes de la Recherche en Sciences
Sociales, 90, Dec. 1991, special issue La souffrance;
Bourdieu et al., La
2. Alluding to the authors book The State
Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power (trans.).
3. The practice whereby civil servants move to positions in the private sector (trans.).
4. François Mitterrand (President of France 1981-1995) was often
praised for his fidélité en
amitié, and a number of personalities appointed to important posts were, according to the newspapers, chiefly noted for being his personal friends (trans.).
5. effets dannonce in the original, produced when a minister
reduces his political action to the ostentatious announcement of spectacular
decisions which often have no effect or no follow-up Jack
Lang has been cited as an example (trans.).
6. The Rennes Congress (15-18 March 1990), the scene of heated disputes between the leaders of the major tendencies within the Socialist Party, Lionel Jospin, Laurent Fabius and Michel Rocard (trans.).
7. The amnesty that was granted, in particular, to the generals of the
French army in Algeria who attempted a putsch against de Gaulles government
8. See Bourdieu et aI., Léconomie de la maison, Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 81-2, Mar. 1990.
9. Socially analogous to the inner cities but in France implying
peripheral housing estates (trans.).
10. As generated and taught in the institutes of political science (Sciences-Po),
in particular the one in Paris (trans.).
11. Allusion to Ferry and Renaut, La Pensée 68 (trans.).
12. Vidal-Naquet, Les Juifs, la mémoire et le présent.