Migrants and democracy – the same fear of emptiness?[1]

Martin Deleixhe[2]


I would like to try, with you, and in the brief time allotted to me, to understand what is at stake in the dazzling success of so-called “populist” formations (which, strictly speaking, it would be more accurate to qualify as “nationalist”). This success was built by means of a massive use of “discourses that kill”, to use the expression that gives the title to this symposium. The political scientist Jan-Werner Müller even makes this dehumanising discourse the distinctive feature of populism. According to the latter, what characterises the populist leader is his claim to embody the unique will of a homogeneous people. What makes this simplistic view of political debate possible is a certain moralisation of political life. The “real” people would adhere to a set of noble values, anchored in common sense. And all who do not share this moralised vision of the world would no longer belong to the people, or would even become the enemy (the qualifier is employed recurrently against journalists, guilty of verifying in their daily work that the will of the people and the populist programme do not coincide perfectly). The moral claim to be the spokesperson of an “authentic” people, rhetorically endowed with all the virtues, then allows the populist to ignore, indeed to shove aside, all the counter-powers that could stand in his way.

What seems to me crucial to take in is that these discourses that kill, made of moral unanimity and radical exclusion, have been constructed along a singular historical trajectory. To put it schematically, since the 1980s, an anti-migrant rhetoric carried by political formations of the far-right has been gaining ground in public debate. At first, it was the preserve of ethno-nationalist parties. It was, however, seamlessly integrated into the ideological software of the populists, who coupled it with the generic denunciation of a vaguely defined elite. This elite can only be corrupted, since it is characterised first and foremost by the gap that separates it from the virtue ascribed to the people. The populists then quickly accused the corrupt elites of facilitating the arrival of migrants, who are supposed to promote their economic interests.

But the novel fact of the last few years is that this rhetoric now extends into a much broader and radical denunciation. Rather than denouncing this or that democratic decision taken by politico-economic elites and judged to go against what is presented as the popular will, the populist discourse slipped imperceptibly towards a denunciation of democracy as a political regime. It is therefore not so much the outcome of a public debate that one contests, but the very principle of democratic deliberation.

My thesis, to explain this disturbing trajectory, can be summed up in a few words. I think that behind this mutation of the concentrated criticism of migration is an unqualified denunciation, or a nuance of democracy in which is hidden the same logic: the need for certainties. Or, to say it in the negative, a fear of emptiness, of indeterminacy, that manifests itself in the rejection of all critical debate.

What would explain the fact that some people’s hatred of the migrants precedes and prefigures the detestation of democracy? To put it briefly (and without the nuances that would have to be provided in a longer intervention), both migrants and democracy share a close link with the notion of pluralism.

The migrants, because, by joining a political community in which they did not grow up, bring in ways of doing, seeing and thinking that are just not done around here. Their behaviours are not always in close alignment with the values ​​and norms that weave the fabric of national public culture. This misalignment can then constrain the two actors in this interaction to mutual adjustments. In this respect, “the stranger” is no different from “the young,” since both are “newcomers” to the community. Both foreigners and new generations must find a way to integrate into the political community without betraying who they are and how they are constructed. In return, they can coerce, deliberately or unknowingly, the political community to question the legitimacy and the justice of its collective practices. The foreigner, because he brings something new, obliges his host community to take a reflexive and critical look at itself – which it can live painfully as a reproach, even as a questioning of its existence (one thinks of the thesis of the “great replacement” which circulates through the extreme right in France). In this sense, the foreigner is at least a vector of uncertainty since he or she raises new questions. Tacitly, the stranger poses a question to the imaginary and always debatable foundations of the myth of the national community.

The same goes for democracy. Understood as the exercise of power that is legitimate through the opening of public debate to all, democracy is inseparable from a plurality of points of view. The very principle of the alternation of power confirms the link between democracy and pluralism. Power is not the property of anyone. No-one can be in power themselves for an indefinite period. Power is only temporarily entrusted to the representatives of the current majority point of view. Democracy presupposes the acceptance of a diversity of worldviews, which goes hand in hand with a form of relativism. Participants in public debates can only exchange constructively if they admit that they cannot be the only ones to hold an absolute and infallible truth. Everyone must admit the very principle of the criticism of their arguments and positions within a continuous deliberation (although punctuated by the electoral deadlines). Therefore, democracy cannot claim either a state ideology, a philosophy of history, or a theological authority to establish its legitimacy. It is the political regime that is suspended by the participation – pluralistic and conflictual – of the citizens.

This explains why the populists, after having made foreigners a convenient scapegoat, are now attacking democracy itself. Both convey a certain discomfort, an obligation to submit to a critical examination which is incompatible with the postulate of a homogeneous and unanimously virtuous people. They, democracy and foreigners, invite us to examine ourselves, and expose the fact that the community as a complete whole does not exist. Only society, fragmented and traversed by various currents, can demonstrate concrete existence. At the risk of appearing pessimistic, it must therefore be posited that this mutation of an anti-migrant rhetoric into an anti-democratic rhetoric is only the reflection of an intensification of its intrinsic principle: the rejection of critical pluralism. “Discourses that kill”, if we don’t oppose them, will not only continue to jeopardize the lives of migrants. Eventually, they will also threaten the vitality of democracy.


Translated by Janet Haney and John Haney

[1] Presentation to European Forum, Brussels, 1 December 2018 Discourses That Kill. Meeting organised under the auspices of Zadig in Belgium, by the Ecole de la Cause Freudienne, New Lacanian School, EuroFederation of Psychoanalysis, and the RIS of the University St Louis, Brussels

[2] Martin Deleixhe is Acting Professor at Saint Louis University, Brussels. He also teaches at Sciences Po Lille. His research focuses on issues at the crossroads of theories of democracy with respect to the sociology of migration. In addition to numerous scientific articles on this subject, he has also published two books. One is devoted to the unique intellectual journey of the political philosopher Étienne Balibar, L’illimitation démocratique, Paris, Michalon, 2014. The other explores the normative difficulties raised by border controls in contemporary democracies, and in particular at the external borders of Europe, l’Union européenne, Aux bords de la démocratie, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2016.