A common criticism of the European technocrats is that they live in their own bubble. During recent political campaigns (the US elections, Brexit), the dichotomy between the predictions of the intelligentsia and the ultimate outcome demonstrated that bubbles also exist outside of Brussels.
Progressive Post : How can this problem be solved ?
Michel Serres : My response to that question is how I feel about Donald Trump and populists in general: I find that the media, in its efforts to combat such adversaries, actually increases the amount of publicity they receive.
PP : But surely we have to speak about this, try to explain it, denounce it?
MS : False. I want you to fight tirelessly against me, against my books – you would be giving me more press. When we fight against something, we must not forget the adage: Talk about me, praise me, defame me, I don’t care, what matters above all else is that you talk about me. There you have the first of your bubbles: the fight itself! Perhaps a more effective strategy would be to stop talking about them altogether.
PP : It is a strategy that has become more complicated now that Trump has been elected…
MS : When I read articles about Trump, he only ever gets negative press. It would be easy to forget that he has been elected. And yet, I lived in the United States for 45 years (Editor’s note: Professor at Stanford University) and there is no doubt about it: Trump represents the real America. On that note, Bush Junior was a sort of pre-incarnation of Trump.
Talk about me, praise me, defame me, I don’t care, what matters above all else is that you talk about me. There you have the first of your bubbles: the fight itself!
PP : What other bubbles can you identify?
MS : Managers, journalists, politicians – all of these people have, since childhood, been educated exclusively in the humanities; in sociology, psychology, law or management. What turns the modern world on its axis and makes it unique as a historical period? The hard sciences: the climate, or in other words chemistry; life expectancy, that is to say biochemistry and medicine; new technologies, etc.…fields of study that they know nothing about! Consequently, they all believe themselves to maintain some kind of relationship with the world because they talk about it, but they don’t really see it because they don’t have the necessary training.
PP : Would you say there is a bubble of ignorance?
MS : Yes, because they continue to repeat what they know, in what they believe to be astute observation, but the world is not changing in the way they describe. It feels like we have gone back to the Renaissance in full swing, when the Scholastic doctors of the Medieval were first confronted with Montaigne, Rabelais and his thousand and one ways to wipe your ass.
PP : Following in that vein, does the discourse surrounding post-truth seem new to you?
MS : I think that in journalism’s very beginnings, Honoré de Balzac wrote a novel called The Illustrious Gaudissart which claimed that newspapers spat out information. There have always been two observers of the modern world: one who is caught up in the moment and the other who, taking a step back, see how things are developing. I think that the latter has a better chance of capturing the evolution of the modern world. Under the pressure of the American giants, States’ prerogatives shrink away; this is the true fight, not knowing who will win the next election.
PP : How is it that societies which have never been better informed still manage to be deceived?
MS : Let’s look at the state of affairs first of all. Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, the British voting for Brexit, the Americans for Trump. I actually feel as though the Islamic State and its predecessors, such as Bin Laden, were created in order to fight against the Arab Spring. They did not want it to happen. We arrive at quite a nice synthesis with this list and the feeling that the entire world is turning to the most reactionary form of conservatism. Trump and Daesh are, in a certain way, fighting the same fight.
PP : Why are they coming to the fore?
MS : My hypothesis is that one of the greatest achievements of the modern world – and one that I benefit from personally – has been an exponential increase in life expectancy due to huge progress made in chemistry, medicine, algorithms…we have a tendency to forget that Julius Cesar and Alexander ruled between the ages of 25 and 30. Today, we have a bunch of old grouches in power! Today, a man of 60 has not even left his inheritance. The world’s fortune is therefore accumulating in the hands of a population that does not give a damn but whose wealth continues to increase regardless while the kids no longer have anything. If you follow the same logic for power, you’re going to see the same result! The old grouches have taken a hold on power thanks to increased life expectancy and they’re scared stiff by the modern world.
PP :I am 40 years old and my generation has lived through the same inertia, but it seems passive nonetheless…
MS : It is not the commitment that is lacking, but the means! Without any money and absent from positions of power, the most dynamic among us are deprived of the means to act. It’s generational inequality.
We arrive at quite a nice synthesis with this list and the feeling that the entire world is turning to the most reactionary form of conservatism.
PP : Why is it that, despite regular catastrophic predictions, conflict between generations has not taken place?
MS : There is indeed a certain stability in generational conflict, but we must be aware that there are things happening now which have never before taken place. For example, when I was born in the 1930s, there were less than 2 billion people on the planet. We are now more than 7 billion. New technologies have brought a new pattern of work, a new pattern of human relations, a way of conceiving space and time that are totally without precedent. The old grouches are scared of all these new developments.
PP : How can the new generation get a hold on power?
MS : They bring new things, including societal transformations, but objectively the cost of money is important. I am 82, my oldest daughter is 62 and has not yet inherited from me. Financial investment is increasingly immobilised by this situation and power follows suit.
PP : How can we transfer this power? Through institutions?
MS : We were close to the example of feminism’s progression but there is sort of blockage. Institutional methods will always be rather futile because our institutions were created in a world that no longer exists. And I’m referring to all of our institutions: schools, politics, hospitals, etc.…even money and work are now obsolete to a certain extent.
MS : There are only anachronisms in today’s world. Ultimately, Trump bears witness to our inertia. People are not quite aware of the unique and novel character of our era. But we also tend to forget for one simple reason: to live in peace is to forget, to experience war is to remember.
PP : The European Union was revolutionary in geopolitical terms. Is that still the case 60 years after the Treaty of Rome?
MS : For me, Europe is one of our most precious institutions as it brought peace to a region where there had been none since before the Trojan War. 70 years of peace is a colossal result!
PP : How can we make it evolve?
MS : I have this idea that a living organism – be it fauna, flora or a human being – is not a system. The elements that make up our bodies have not all experienced Darwin-style evolutionary advances at the same pace. For example, one part of our brains was formed during the Palaeozoic era, other parts with the arrival of the Homo Sapiens. We are not a system. We are formed through a sort of DIY. That is why the more a state can be considered perfect, the more it horrifies me. A perfect state is Stalin. A perfect state is the talisman of the Arumbaya (Editor’s note: re-read The Broken Ear from The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé). So, Europe is badly constructed, full of nails, but that is the way I like it. The less efficiently it works, the more I’m happy with it. Perfect institutions, throughout history, have always demanded that we sacrifice our lives for them. Europe will never ask anyone to sacrifice their life in its defence.
For me, Europe is one of our most precious institutions as it brought peace to a region.
PP : If we accept Europe as it is, does that not imply repairing it time and time again?
MS : Of course, it’s Jeannot’s knife. Jeannot has this knife, but he has had it for so long that he has to repair the handle. Then the blade gets worn out, so he replaces the blade. Does Jeannot still have the same knife? Yes and no.