We chanted it at every rally I’ve participated in, every march I’ve marched in. Every community action I’ve organized. Every demonstration I’ve added my body to. Every sit-in I’ve sat in on. Every mass mobilization I’ve joined. In English and Spanish. It sounded great. (I’m sure it would sound great in any language.) It felt great. It always will.
Now, a new book has forced me to question the meaning of this always meaningful slogan. What is a People? offers six provocative philosophical turns (sandwiched between an introduction by Bruno Bosteels and a summation by Kevin Olson) on what it might mean for any group to be represented or to represent itself as a people.The peopleUnitedWill Never BeDefeated.El PuebloUnidoJamás SeráVencido.
It’s a highly debatable term. After all, as Alain Badiou notes in his opening foray, “The middle class is the ‘people’ of capitalist oligarchy.” For Badiou, the designation of being ‘a people’ is most often collaborationist. It’s a designation conferred from outside, like being inducted into an exclusive club. It’s a conservative expression of power and belonging. For this reason, Badiou finds a “dangerous inertia” at the heart of the word. For him, calling any group ‘the people’ “means only that the state can and must persist in its being.”
Two other essays in the book turn Badiou’s sense of inertia in opposite directions. Judith Butler offers a deep dive into ‘we the people,’ the first three words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. The phrase, she argues, simply ratifies what already exists. “If we imagine that a group must first assemble in a particular place, a public square or some equivalent, in order to proclaim ‘we, the people,’ then we fail to recognize that the act of assembling and reassembling is already doing the work of the phrase; in other words, assembling is already a performative political enactment even if it is prior to, and apart from, any particular speech act.” We show up at the rally before chanting the chant. We make ourselves ‘the people’ before declaring that we are the people. And we remain ‘the people’ even if we don’t chant the chant.
“To show up is both to be exposed and defiant,” Butler concludes, “meaning precisely that we are crafted precisely in that disjuncture, and that in crafting ourselves, we expose the bodies for which we make our demand. We do this for and with one another, without any necessary presumption of harmony or love. As a way of making a new body politic.”
Tunisian activist Sadri Khiari, who has lived in exile in France since 2003, nudges Badiou’s inertia in a divergent way. “To claim to be part of a people,” he claims, “is … to assert one’s privileged relationship to the state.” Khiari notes that, for the most part, white residents readily define themselves as part of ‘the French people,’ while North Africans don’t—no matter how long they have been in France, no matter how assimilated they are. His analysis resonates on this side of the Atlantic as well. Is there room in Donald Trump’s America for Mexican-Americans and Muslim-Americans.? With his call for a massive wall between the U.S. and Mexico and a proposal to temporarily block Muslims from entering the country, the answer seems to be no. Not for nothing Khiari titles one of his sections, “How to be French without being French.” His implicit question: can’t ‘the people’ be plural?
Which is also what Jacques Rancière gets at in his short contribution to the book. ‘The people,’ for Rancière, does not exist. “What exist are diverse or even antagonistic figures constructed by privileging certain modes of assembling, certain distinctive traits, certain capacities or incapacities.” In this view, what we talk about when we talk about ‘the French people’ or ‘the American people’ is the exact opposite of what we think we are talking about. We create separation, not togetherness.
Still, people all across the political spectrum continue to use the phrase. Georges Didi-Huberman tackles this in the essay that he calls “to render sensible.” He agrees with Rancière that the people “as a unity, identity, totality, or generality … quite simply does not exist.” And he confirms Khiari: “There is not a people; there are only coexistent peoples.”
The problem, in modern democracies, is one of representation. Politicians, we are continually told, represent the people. But what does this mean? And there’s a further question of how ‘the people’ are represented and represent themselves through history. Ultimately, Didi-Huberman calls for a new definition, one that lifts the lid on repression and separation – with ‘the people’ only intelligible as part of a process of becoming “sensitive to something new in the history of the peoples that we desire, consequently, to know, to understand, and to accompany.” In this schema, to be a people involves allowing ourselves to be moved in ways that will upend our sense of what it means to be a people. To be a people means being mobile, always changing, eternally in formation.
In a way, these essays all point to the imprecision of our language. We use the same word for ‘the American people’ as we do for the people who, when united, will never be defeated. Yet those are two different kinds of peoples. I am part of ‘the American People’ by historical accident. I am part of ‘the people who, if united, will never be defeated,’ by choice – a choice born out of quixotic social hope. Truly, our vocabulary has shortchanged us. This is part of what Pierre Bourdieu points out in his contribution to the book (Bourdieu died in 2002 and his essay dates from the 1980s), that language itself can be an act of “symbolic aggression.”
The essays in What is a People? move in many thoughtful directions. They sent me scurrying back to a work I first read when I was in my early 20s but am now revisiting: Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason.
I found Sartre’s existentialism compelling. Here was a truly progressive ontology of what you might cheekily call the self-made man: existence precedes essence; we make ourselves as individuals through our motivated actions in the world. The existence of others, Sartre says in Being and Nothingness, is discovered through the body, and, because my being-in-itself can never be your being in-itself, can only be mapped in a partial and provisional way. “If then we succeed in making explicit the structures of our most primitive relations with the Other-in-the-world, we shall have completed our task” – which he defines with a stripped-down three-part schematic: “a relation of the for-itself with the in-itself in the presence of the Other.”
The Critique, however, shows just how much this initial tri-partite analysis is lacking. We don’t just operate as selves “in the presence” of others. Our world is far more convoluted and entwined. Indeed, you might say that the self hardly exists in everyday life. What exists, rather, are the innumerable ways we interact and reciprocate and are variously enmeshed with others who are themselves selves. This is the same insight that fueled Emmanuel Levinas’s proposition that “me” simply means “here I am for the others” (with this, ontology dead ends and the subject of philosophy reverts to ethics) and Jean-Luc Nancy’s declaration that all being is actually “being-with-one-another” – social in essence.
What distinguishes the Critique, however, is how Sartre attempted to worm his way deep inside the myriad ways we relate and respond to the unavoidable pluralism of the world: ensembles, organizations, collectives, collaboratives, cooperatives, communities, groups, etc.
Sartre is clear: “a nation is not a group.” Why? Because there’s a difference between the togetherness that’s created when people wait on line together for a bus, and the community created when people storm the Bastille. The first is serial: I happen to be next to all these other people who are forced, by the system and infrastructure that exists, to do the same thing I’m doing at the same time I’m doing it. The other is fused: we are together in action and, in that decisive moment, I can choose whether to risk my life in that crazed charge or not. In the Critique, Sartre calls this praxis. In Being and Nothingness, he calls it a project.
The key division in life, as revealed in both texts, is between the unmotivated and the motivated.
And this is where we find the difference between the inorganic necessity which makes you one of ‘the American people’ and the liberating action involved in joining ‘the people who, if united, will never be defeated.’
You don’t choose to be part of the American people: it’s a serial relation based on where you happen to live and when you got there and a bunch of other inert features of your life. And national identity is permanent. This is not to say it doesn’t expand and contract (think of “the American people” before women had the right to vote). But it never goes away until a nation goes bust. In fact, your own participation as a member of ‘the people’ is irrelevant to the survival of the term.
By contrast, you create the group by choosing to become a demonstrator or to join or cross a picket line or storm the Bastille. In Butler’s terms, this choice leaves you exposed and defiant all at once – and this will define you and the others you are with. Actions of resistance are temporary and provisional. You go to this demonstration, but not that one. You oppose the war, but continue to pay taxes to the government that is pursuing the war. Resistance continually comes together and falls apart. Your choices are ever-present and have to be made over and over and over again.
Of course, this quality of being motivated does not guarantee that anyone’s project is liberating. Consider organizations like drug gangs and the Mafia and ISIS. Their lure goes beyond the bare seriality of the bus queue. Their members are motivated – even if we do not understand the roots of their motivation.
In an unsigned preface, What is a People? situates the concept of ‘the people’ as “solidly rooted on the side of emancipation.”
Yet the book doesn’t bear that out. For Khiari and Badiou and Ranciere, the concept, as currently employed, remains almost inalterably conservative and separating. And anyway, no matter how much we may want to believe that ‘the people, united, will never be defeated,’ events show again and again that ‘the people’ can be overwhelmed and outflanked and beaten back. In 2011, 'the Egyptian people’ took over Tahrir Square in Cairo and toppled the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak. And once the tide broke and the people receded back to their homes, they got the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi. And when that democratically elected (though clearly not liberating or progressive) regime proved too much for the people and the military, they got General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The empire struck back. Twice.
Just after World War II – a decade and a half before he published the Critique – Sartre honed in on the odd twinning of freedom and oppression:
Never were we freer than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces every day – and we had to hold our tongues. They deported us en masse – as workers, as Jews, as political prisoners. Everywhere, -- upon the walls, in the press, on the screen, -- we found filthy and insipid images of ourselves which the oppressor wished to present to us. And because of all this, we were free.
In this analysis – written in the flush of victory – oppression annealed peoples’ freedom through their praxis/project of resistance. Would Sartre argue the same way today, that the Egyptian people are becoming increasingly free even as their oppression may be stronger than ever? That verges on doublethink. And there’s a deeper question lurking here: can liberating praxis ever result in liberation? Sartre worried about this. He wrote the Critique, in part, to determine “if it really is possible to devise a theory of reciprocal multiplicities in organized groups, independently of all concrete historical ends and of any particular circumstances.” And if it is, he continued, “do we not immediately collapse in the face of an inert ossature of the organization? And do we not abandon the terrain of liberating praxis and the dialectic and revert to some kind of inorganic necessity?” His fear was that every definition of liberation automatically calcifies into a new form of oppression.
This leaves ‘the people’ with no choice but to push onward, event by event, with body and mind, in hope and despair, exposed as well as defiant. As the Chi-lites and John Lennon put it (both songs, weirdly, coming from the same year, 1971):
(For God’s sake) give more power to the people.Power to the people. Right now. Right on.