In a previous column, I mentioned the emergence of individuals who interrupt what seems to be the irreversible march of History, who hijack its meaning and mechanics. Above all, I was saying that the alleged readability or the alleged transparency of events does not allow us to explain these irrational appearances, those of Napoleon, Alexander the Great or, much more sinister figures, that of Hitler and today that of of the Russian head of state.
If it is obvious that individuals like Hitler have catastrophically transformed the future of the world and generated appalling miseries (and God knows how many individuals like him human history has been able to avoid because they accidentally disappeared, or did not have the combination of circumstances and chance allowing them to come to power), the remark that can be made is that these men were nevertheless listened to and followed, that millions of humans adhered to their madness and their unhealthy obsessions. But if, as I argued in the said column, History is often governed by chance, by the incompetence and by the irresponsibility of the men who govern the planet, one of the factors which also constantly modify the rational course of things is the indisputable suicidal instinct of societies.
In his famous and magnificent Shore of Syrtes, Julien Gracq invents an imaginary state, Orsenna, which lives in wealth and ease, but also in boredom, a boredom that pushes its leaders and its people to dream of military actions, wars and violence which they do not have no doubt that they are in fact expressing suicidal desires. Breaking out of the routine conferred by the opulence and antiquity of civilization to throw oneself into a kind of inferno which will happily carry all this away, and the whole country with it: that is Orsenna’s dream.
How many peoples throughout time have indulged in such terribly dangerous games that have finally destroyed them? The morbid and superstitious renunciation of the Aztecs in the face of the Spanish conquerors, the incredible quarrels of the Byzantines while the Venetians and the Ottomans swore their ruin, the voluntary abandonment of the Germans to Nazism: so many examples, among dozens of others, of suicidal behavior over the centuries.
Today, these self-destructive tendencies, we unfortunately find them in democracies, and in particular in Western democracies where spite, the desire for change, the need to do battle or complacency for what comes from the darkest in us generate a fascination for extreme political proposals and for those who embody them, a fascination which is like the unconscious symptom of deadly impulses. The attraction for demagogues, the attention paid to populist discourse of all kinds can certainly be explained by a hatred of the elites and by the detestation of the liberal economy. But this attraction is also the one we have for authority, for hollow but exciting statements, whether left or right, for ideology and simplism, and ultimately for the envy of everything. change without thinking about tomorrow.
However, we know this from the ancient Greek example and then through all the experiences of this kind throughout the 20th century.and century: demagogues and populists, even and especially when they pretend to play the democratic game, are the gravediggers of democracy, especially since the latter is always caught in the crossfire. On the one hand the impossibility for it to prohibit demagogues from existing, because that would be a negation of its very principle. On the other hand, that of letting them do their thing, and therefore of allowing the beginnings of ruin to grow within itself – as was the case with the incredible German democracy of the 1920s, which was forced to let the horrible Nazi plant.
It seemed for a few weeks that the events in Ukraine were going to serve as a brake on this disastrous voluntary march towards the worst that the citizens of Western democracies were playing. This was especially visible in France, where the vote for the extremes was in the process of settling. The sight, the concretization of what could represent authoritarianism and despotism seemed for a time to stop suicidal temptations in the country. But the fascination for the worst has returned. Rapid forgetting is also, alas, one of the great problems of peoples and societies.