– Aurelio Porfiri
God has given us many talents and want us to be the best we can. Certainly, when we have to make decisions sometimes, virtue is in the middle, but as for our goals we always want to strive for the best. Today, however, there is a sort of general narrative that favors mediocrity in several areas and disciplines. Last year, Alain Deneault published a very successful book called Mediocracy. The Politics of the Extreme Centre (Between the Lines, Translated by Catherine Browne) that deals exactly with this topic.
Can you give us some background about yourself and your studies?
I did my PhD in philosophy at the Université de Paris-VIII and am currently researcher at the Collège international de philosophie in Paris. I wrote several books on the issue of tax havens (Offshore at The New Press and Legalizing Theft at Fernwood) and on the imperialist policies of Canada (Canada: A New Tax Havens and Imperial Canada Inc., both published by Talonbooks).
What do you mean when you talk of mediocracy?
When we want to name what is superior, we say “superiority,” and what is inferior is known as “inferiority.” But when we want to name what is average, we do not say “averageness”: the word is “mediocrity.” Mediocrity relates to what is average. A “mediocre” person is not someone who is utterly incompetent – he is not a scatterbrain who can’t show up on time, make a photocopy, or say hello to the right person at the right time. But neither is he a person who has initiative, strong beliefs, courage, or stature. This is a person who is functional and submissive. Being like this is not a problem. “Mediocre” is not a pejorative word: we are all “mediocre” in some way. “Mediocracy” becomes a problem when we find ourselves in a system that tells us that we have to be resolutely average citizens: neither completely incompetent to the point where we are unable to function, nor competent to the point where we know the strength of our critical power.
“Mediocracy” is the average stage that has been raised up and granted authority. It is the average as an imperative requirement, even when we could aspire to something better.
In what way can this behavior can be called (as in the subtitle of your book) the “politics of the extreme center”?
From a moral point of view, extremism means refusing to tolerate everything that is not oneself. The extreme center is an ideological and communications strategy that sets up as “normal,” “pragmatic,” “levelheaded,” “reasonable,” “rational,” or even “necessary” and “true,” a discourse that is actually radical and whose optional nature is denied. An interest-based discourse, destructive in terms of ecosystems, deeply unjust in terms of social issues, and imperialist in terms of geopolitics, is dressed up in the finery of reason, hope, and necessity. Ideological marketing prevails over political thought. A political program presented as a requirement of nature, as if it obeyed fundamental laws, no longer attempts to locate the cursor somewhere on the left/right axis, but tries to suppress the axis in the name of necessity. Once this program has been presented as inevitable, a subservient press can assign negative labels (“dreamer,” “irresponsible,” “paranoid,” “populist”) to everyone who fails to endorse it.
What is this program? Bigger profits for multinationals, bigger dividends for shareholders, greater access to tax havens, fewer rights for workers, less money for public services. Citizens see public institutions dwindle away or dissolve, leaving them alone to face their destiny in a world no longer ruled by politics, but by corporate “governance.”
The extreme center wants to abolish the left/right axis and replace it with a position peremptorily presented as level-headed, rational, and necessary. This was effective for a time, but it is a dangerous game leading to a new form of alternation, which was unfortunately illustrated by the presidential election in France in 2017. The new system does not pit the left against the right: it pits proponents of a power that is economically violent, but that does provide a few marginal concessions for various constituencies, against those who are nostalgic for a state that openly asserts its brutal origins. Elections are now chiefly a matter of defining what degree of violence is acceptable on the part of a state that is subordinate, in all cases, to the power of finance, business, and industry.
On this issue, the far right is lazy, no longer even defending the status quo, but actually advocating for the death wish. Its aim is to reduce France to its essence, an essence on which foreign elements are supposed to be living as parasites. If only these parasites were removed, France would find its truth again and could sink into the deep sleep of those who are at one with themselves. However, not all of those who vote for the Front national are impelled by such morbid fantasies. Lynda Dematteo, an anthropologist specializing in these issues, explains that many of the people who vote for such extremist parties do so in a carnivalesque spirit, hoping to bring down the public institutions that they despise. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, even though he is a good, well-behaved boy – and in some ways is not as far left as an atypical Gaullist such as François Asselineau – has always found it difficult to attract these far right voters (even though he has been courting them for a long time) because he requires a minimum degree of commitment from them. For instance, they would have to support an ecosocialist transformation of maritime technologies. This is expecting too much from these voters.
In your book you affirm that mediocre people have taken power. How was that possible?
There are two branches to the genealogy of this appropriation of power. One goes back to the nineteenth century, at a time when crafts were progressively being made into jobs. This implied that work was standardized, meaning that it became an average thing. A standardized average was required to organize large-scale production on the alienated basis with which we are familiar, and that Marx has described with great penetration. This average work has been made into something disembodied, that keeps on losing meaning, and that is no more than a “means” for capital to grow and workers to subsist.
The other aspect of the appropriation of power involves the transformation of politics into a culture of management. Fundamental principles, consistency, and general directions have gradually been abandoned in favor of approaches based on circumstance. Actors must now be “partners” in projects based on well-defined interests, that do not include any reference to the common good. Under this system, we become citizens who “play the game” and submit to all kinds of practices foreign to the fields of belief, competence, and initiative. This art of managing is called “governance.”
These two phenomena led twentieth-century thinkers to note that mediocrity is no longer a marginal affair, involving a certain number of not very clever people who are nonetheless able to make themselves useful: it has now become a system. Professors, administrators, and artists are forced to comply with hegemonic ways of doing things in order to survive. At the political level, this means that every issue is analyzed from a “problem-solving” perspective. The current situation in France is a perfect example: in response to terrorist attacks, the response is to blast through, looking for a surgical solution, instead of stepping back and being more subtle, which is what the situation requires.
Are your arguments with mediocrity related to specific areas or are they somehow related to more general issues?
Mediocratic modes have perfected themselves so that they are now efficiently applied on a very large scale. The current standardization of practices, operating modes, terminologies, even tastes and sensations, is unprecedented in history. The Treaty of Westphalia signed in the mid-seventeenth century, at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, pitted states in competition against each other; from then on, the bureaucratic development of public structures helped lay the groundwork for this standardization. Then the industrial revolution, with its frightening division of scientific labour, made crafts into jobs, artisans into workers, skill into execution. Later, after the Second World War, the growth of multinational companies in many sectors encouraged the development of processes and methods that ensured their administrative control throughout the world. Finally, financialization has blindly emphasized and consolidated this evolution. If we look at the word “mediocre” and how it has evolved in terms of philology, from La Bruyère’s Characters in the seventeenth century to Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and, in the twentieth century, Lawrence Peter’s sociological intuitions and the social observations of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, we see writers shifting from a set of characterological and individual questions to another set of questions that are social and institutional.
You have said that the chief skill of a mediocre person is recognizing another one. How come?
Edward Said is a theorist who has dealt with this paradox head-on. He makes a distinction between the expert and the intellectual. The expert, as we think of him today, is too often a person who works within a given set of parameters, and who knowingly disguises discourses based on interest. He represents the powers that hired him in his getup as a disinterested scientist. Intellectuals, on the contrary, study questions that they find interesting in themselves, without any particular sponsor. The expert does not simply give people his knowledge to provide them with tools for deliberation: he sets up an ideological position as an objective referent – as a provider of knowledge. At the university, students now face a real question: do they want to become experts or intellectuals? This is assuming, of course, that the university, which is now extensively subsidized by corporations, is still capable of making this choice possible. More and more often, expertise means selling your brain to those who will use it to make a profit.
How you judge the impact of your book? How was it received?
In Québec, France and Italy, the book clearly helped reveal a form of social malaise, with many readers immediately seeing in its title the concept summarizing their respective situations. Many people told me stories that could have served as examples in the book.
Don’t you think that mediocrity is favorite by some because it can be more easy controlled?
I try to make a distinction between mediocrity and incompetence. They are not synonyms. Established power does not want utterly incapable people who don’t show up on time, are likely to ignore instructions, and are thrown off course by the idea of filling out a form. On the contrary, mediocrity comes at a cost. For lighting technicians, for instance, working on a trash TV show is very demanding: they have to meet standards, follow guidelines, and be able to work as a team. The result, however, is surprisingly poor – far more than if the person had been thinking creatively about lighting a play or a film shoot. A lot of work is involved in both situations, but the first case implies a narrowly normative set of parameters. Mediocracy consists in forcing the lighting technician to work within these norms – which prevail in that they embody the average – and to show herself, necessarily, as average, regardless of her genuine skill as a craftsperson. One can certainly be a very competent mediocre person: a person who is industrious, servile, and lacking any beliefs or passions of their own. If this is who you are, the future is yours. Power institutions need this kind of subject as managers and directors. What they really hate is to have to deal with people who are politically and morally committed or who are deeply original in their thinking and methods. Mediocratic modes have been brought to perfection under modernity, which is why they can be efficiently applied on a very large scale. The standardization of practices, ways of operating, terminologies, maybe even tastes and sensations, is unequaled in history.
You have said that mediocrity is just and average standard between good and bad, superior and inferior. But don’t you think that at the end mediocracy keeps us only on the low side of the bar?
The average we are talking about is not related to any moral or theoretical analysis of what might be the middle term within a broad range of possibilities. Rather, it is the average as defined by established powers that have an interest in defining it that way. In that sense, what our regime sees as an average behavior and mindset is in fact an extremist or instrumental standpoint.