Democracy, Violence and the Risk of Tyranny: An Interview with Prof. Paul Dumouchel

In this extraordinary election season, when democracy and peace seem to be under siege, we are presenting a series of in depth explorations of big issues that aren’t discussed in mainstream election coverage. This week we were honored to discuss political violence and the risks of tyranny with Paul Dumouchel, professor of philosophy at the Graduate School of Core Ethics and Frontier Sciences at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan. Prof. Dumouchel’s book, The Barren Sacrifice: An Essay on Political Violence, guided our discussion. You can watch the interview, listen to the MP3, and read the show notes below.

MP3

Video

Show Notes

Paul Dumouchel and Mimetic Theory

Paul learned about mimetic theory as an undergraduate student in France. He found a book called Violence and the Sacred by René Girard. “I thought, wow this is really great!” Paul was working on a Master’s Degree in philosophy and wanted to explore the notion of truth. A Jesuit priest told him to read Girard’s book, Deceit Desire and the Novel, which explores truth and lies, as opposed to truth and error, which many philosophers talked about.

The Barren Sacrifice

Girard argues that as time goes by after the Christian revelation, the sacrificial means of protection against violence becomes less and less efficient. The idea of the “barren sacrifice” is about sacrifice that is barren, or no longer efficient. Traditionally, where sacrifice is a working institution, it’s not barren. It’s violence, but it does offer protection against larger forms of violence.

If we look at the evolution of the modern state, we see that the state requires violence, but this sacrifice becomes less and less efficient in the sense that its violence is unable to protect us from violence.

The less the sacrificial mechanism works, the more violent we become. That’s because we non-consciously try to reuse the mechanism to make the sacrifices work. It’s non-conscious because the behavior is ingrained culturally.

2016 Presidential Election

If we look back to the last 40 years, the violent rhetoric of this election is unprecedented. But the rhetoric in the last 4-5 years in the United States has become increasingly violent. What we see now in the election is the crest of the wave that has been going in that direction.

It’s not just a question of political rhetoric. It’s also a question of division. Within the discourse there’s the idea that we are completely separate. It’s the message, “You people aren’t fit to be Americans.” And that message is very dangerous because the whole idea of democracy is the idea that we agree, but we agree to disagree, while now the rhetoric is that we don’t agree to disagree, we just disagree, period. Therefore, there’s no space for dialogue. Either we win and you lose, or vice versa. But there’s no space for saying, “Okay, you won, now let’s work together.” This rhetoric is very dangerous because it leads people to think that this language is normal and justified. In that sense, it is unprecedented and reveals a profound division within the American society. And simultaneously, a profound disillusion with the political process.

Many people are fed up with the Democratic system and want to blow it up. They see Trump and Sanders as agents for that. Should we blow it up, or is it possible to fix it? Institutionally it’s possible to fix, but will be very difficult. If you look at the Obama administration that inherited the financial crisis, they put back into the position the very people who had been there before. On the economic scene, Obama used the same people as President Bush. Is that because he wanted those people, or was he trying to make allies in order to create change? If you want to create healthcare, you are going to have to pay a price. And that price might be putting people back in power who might not be who we think are best. That’s politics and it’s pretty hard to get it out of politics. That’s why reforming the system is so difficult.

Democracy and “Frenemies”

A good definition of politics is a “friend – enemy relationship,” which can take different forms. In a Democratic society, it means that your enemy is not a complete enemy. We’re political enemies, but we can still be friends.

There is a relationship between the level of internal conflict and external conflict. This is most evident in the fact that when countries are falling apart in big conflicts, they start a war somewhere else. But does it work? You look at the United States, which has been at war for 15 years. Has it worked to reduce internal political conflict? No, but why? Terrorists acts are terrible things. How many American soldiers have died in the wars? Around 20,000. How many outside of the US have died? Close to half a million. There’s an asymmetry to this war. Colonial wars were also asymmetrical.

The goal of the war on terror is not to establish peace, but to establish sanctuaries for protected spaces. The “War on Terror” is a misnomer. It’s not a war in any traditional sense, which is why it cannot have an end. It’s more like a police operation. Terrorism flares up in different places and we attempt to stop it here and there, depending on our interests. The idea that we will defeat terrorism is strange. It’s like saying we will defeat crime. You can reduce its number, but cannot eradicate it.

Look at Syria. The US, Russia, France, England, and other countries were involved. Has anyone really wanted to stop this war? All intervention was predicated not on stopping the war, but preventing this group or that group from winning.

What’s the benefit of having these wars? The benefit for the US has to do with its position in international relations. It’s trying to maintain its position as a major actor. Every side has interests, but no major side has an interest that the war should stop, except the Syrian people who are the victims.

In addition, these conflicts are not discussed at all in the campaigns. It’s as if we aren’t at war at all.

Statistically, 80 percent of the refugees in Europe come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, which means they come from countries where Western powers have been militarily active for the last 20-50 years. Politicians who say these people are coming here to take our jobs, social security, money, etc., forget we’ve been bombing their countries for 20 years. Maybe that is a relationship. Because our actions are invisible to us. Because we don’t see our violence as violence at all. We consider our violence as completely different.

Police Violence, Racism, and Indifference

African Americans are killed by police at a higher ratio than whites, but what do they die from? From having a broken taillight. Not responding when they are asked to stop. From carrying a toy gun. From nothing at all. They don’t die because they were shooting at policemen. They die for nothing.

And when it goes to a jury, the jury says it’s okay for a police officer to kill an African American because the police officer felt threatened. But it’s a taillight. If it were another group, that wouldn’t happen because the response is so disproportionate. Whatever is going on, it’s a failure of police action. But in the US, it’s not viewed as a failure of police action. It’s viewed as, “Well, you are supposed to obey.” So, they must have done something wrong, therefore it’s their fault. Which is the indifference of “I don’t care.”

Why do American police so readily shoot unarmed people or those who have committed no major crime? One variable is very important – the amount of guns. You don’t know if someone has a gun. Police rightfully think, “Who knows what this person has?” Police aren’t crazy. That mentality makes a lot of sense, especially when you know the amount of guns that are around. The gun culture and amount of people being killed by police feed each other.

In the Western world during the past 100-150 years, the network of people with whom we have felt solidarity has become smaller and smaller. It’s been reduced to immediate family and good friends. Communities don’t really exist anymore.

The solidarity we have is a solidarity of enmity, not a solidarity of friendship. The implosion of the Republican party under Trump is a very good example of the instant solidarity of enmity. It’s very interesting for someone in another country, but as an American it’s more that interesting in the context of the next president. But whomever is the president has implications throughout the world. It’s an issue that concerns us all.

Colin Kaepernick and the American Flag

Many say that Colin Kaepernick disrespects the flag by not standing during the national anthem. But one can say he is not disrespecting the flag because he is actually protesting to the flag. He is taking the occasion of the national anthem to bring a message to all Americans. That’s not the same thing as disrespecting. One of the characteristics of the solidarity that he is expressing is that it has the same structure as the state’s solidarity. It is not a traditional form of solidarity. He is expressing solidarity with all individual African Americans – some 40 million people. That’s an anonymous solidarity because it applies to every member of a certain segment of the population. By protesting in front of the flag, he is protesting the indifference and the silence of this issue in major American politics. It’s an issue which should be discussed. He is bringing it to the attention of people.

What does it mean to stand up for the national anthem when the killing of American citizens is being carried out as if it is not a problem?

What Happens When the State Turns Its Power Against Its Own Citizens?

In American politics there is evidence of action taken against American citizens. The role of the state is to protect its own citizens. But most massacres and genocides have been committed by states against their own citizens. The death penalty is an example. The US usually discusses it in moral terms. In Europe, after WWII, the death penalty was not framed morally. It was framed politically. It was a bad idea politically to give to the state the right to kill its own citizens. It’s strange when American say they live in a free country, but the state has a right to kill its own citizens. That’s not free.

What is the difference between the American state assassinating people in the world because it believes they are terrorist and police killing people because they think they are bad guys? They go together in the sense that there’s a pattern developing. When the state can no longer protect its citizens, it finds citizens to blame and seeks to kill them.

People claim they are free because they can carry a gun. But when you give the state license to kill, it doesn’t matter how many guns you have. There are more guns in the US than ever, but there are less people who have guns. Just like economic inequality, there is firepower inequality. Some people have a lot of guns.

Words of Wisdom as You Vote

It matters how we see things. It’s not so much a question of what we believe or think, what matters is more how we see things. Seeing the effects of the actions of the United States at home and abroad, is seeing, not thinking. See then ask yourself questions. Currently the way we see things is given to us by major media outlets all repeating pretty much the same thing.


Paul Dumouchel is Professor of philosophy at the Graduate School of Core Ethics and Frontier Sciences, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan. He is co-author with Jean-Pierre Dupuy of L’Enfer des choses, René Girard et la logique de l’économie (Paris: Seuil, 1979) and author of Emotions essai sur le corps et le social (Paris: Les Empêcheurs de Penser en rond, 1999). He co-edited with Jean-Pierre Dupuy L’auto-organisation de la physique au politique (Paris: Seuil, 1983), edited Violence and Truth  (Stanford University Press, 1988), Nationalisme et multiculturalisme en Asie (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2010) and with Rieko Gotoh he co-edited Against Injustice: The New Economics of Amartya Sen (Cambridge University Press, 2009). His more recent books are Economia dell’invidia (Massa: Transeuropa, 2011), The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays (Michigan State University Press), and, with Reiko Gotoh, Social Bonds as Freedom (Berghahn Books). His latest book, The Barren Sacrifice: An Essay on Political Violence (Michigan State University Press)was first published as Le sacrifice inutile essai sur la violence politique (Paris: Flammarion, 2011). His forthcoming book published by Harvard University Press is titled Living with Robots: Artificial Empathy and Philosophy of Mind. It will be released next year.


Explore what’s at stake in this pivotal election with our 6-part series, Raven ReViews Election 2016: Weekly Interviews on 6 Crucial Topics:

“…all of the Christians who supported Hitler believed that God wanted them to be patriotic Germans and work for the strengthening of Germany within the world… they believed that the two most important things for a Christian are God and country.”

“If you are a part of the (racist) system, and you participate in the privileging of yourself, or the unprivileging of others, whether intentionally or unintentionally, then that makes you a part of the system.”

“Some activism in the past has tended to demonized our opponents and ascribing the worst possible motives to their actions. What would happen if we did the opposite? If we ascribed the best motives to those we disagree with? We give them every benefit of the doubt we can and in that spirit we disagree.”

“Trump is afraid of Muslims coming in who do not share Americans values. But how well does Donald Trump represent basic American values? His extreme misogyny, regarding women as play things on recent tapes shows he has very little respect for women.”

“So, this good thing of listening to the voice of the victim can be abused by ‘playing the victim card.’ But there are real victims. The danger is that we can play the victim card in a way that seeks revenge, not justice. We do this by projecting guilt upon another person or institution.”

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