We talk about politics or get involved in politics because we’re not satisfied with the way things are. We’d like to change them for the better. Politics take their roots in a desire for justice that says that what is doesn’t comply with what should be. This desire is beautiful, as is our faith in our ability to act on reality. At the same time, what is cannot be changed without risk. We can’t do anything we want with reality, and there are ways of acting on it that do more harm than good. Even when it emerges from a genuine desire for justice, the political act may still strengthen injustice or even increase it. If meaning well is not enough to act well, then how can we know what we’re supposed to do in the common world? How can we orientate ourselves in politics? Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a political actor: reality is for him a mass of issues. Social inequalities are so strong they can seriously damage the unity of society, the unemployment rate is high and we know what it means in terms of material and moral suffering, war rages in many parts of the world in new and extremely concerning ways, natural resources are insanely overexploited, the food-processing industry seems ready to always go an extra mile in the artificialisation of nature, social groups are ill at ease with their identity and their memory, some part of the teaching staff despairs because they can’t meet the requirements for an education anymore… Certainly, the situation requires an effort of thought, a strain of consciousness: how can we orientate ourselves?

Paradoxically, to be well-orientated, you have to start by accepting to be disorientated. That means not knowing immediately what to do. I’m sometimes surprised, when watching TV or reading newspapers, by some politicians’ confidence and by some columnists who always know what to say: they seem to be giving the answer before the question. Before having even looked at the facts, they’ve already integrated them in their interpretation grid, and modified them in passing. It should rather be about modifying the interpretation grid upon contact with reality. But we prefer answers to questions, we don’t like doubt and the confusion that goes with it, and our natural tendency would be to repress it whenever it arises. Accepting to be disorientated consists in taking the time to think the obstacles over. We’re engaged in a permanent growth of production and consumption, but the natural resources required to pursue this infinite process are finite. This blockade isn’t small, it requires a fairly important shift in orientation. We foresee future generations suffering from our ways of life — indeed, we’re not writing utopias anymore, as we used to do during the optimistic 17th century, but rather hundreds of dystopias. Accepting to be disorientated is accepting to doubt what we’re doing, and to truly doubt, not just in the course of a discussion. It’s about welcoming the confusion that appears to us, not to stop there, but because it’s a necessary way through any genuine renewal. If we reject this confusion, we’ll continue to ignore where we’re going while decidedly heading there, and politics will be reduced to the repetition of inadequate answers, to sets of halfmeasures aiming at repeating without succeeding a system that is already obsolete.

Going through confusion, it’s withdrawing before the action, accepting the delay of quiet concentration in a lack of understanding. This moment is necessary to avoid giving in to the three temptations which characterise choice stages: the step backwards, the forging ahead, and the revolt, all of those being “immediate solutions” that may enthral our minds. The step backwards comes from a meditation of the obstacles, it’s scared by some of society’s orientations, but it doesn’t answer them, rather retreating in a “before the obstacle” stage which doesn’t exist anymore. Because of this,it’s a refusal of reality, of what has happened. Coming from a genuine doubt, it transforms it in a reaction, sublimes the past and blinds itself as for the singular chances carried by our time and that we have to take. It’s linked to what Gaston Bachelard calls the “bipolarity of mistakes” [1]: when we realise the presence of a mistake in our approach, we tend to take refuge in the mistake diametrically opposed to it to resolve it. The European Union doesn’t keep its promises, let’s give it up, let’s go back to “before the European Union”. We’re then all the more mistaken. Of course, the riches of the past deserve to be preserved, and it’s not about drifting into never ending novelty, but this preservation can only be done in the present, from the present. Consent to the real present is the condition of a relevant policy. The forging ahead is a way of pushing back issues while still boosting a project of which you’ve foreseen the limits. It’s, for instance, putting your faith in the future development of new technologies to resolve problems caused by the actual development of technology. Or deregulate an economy already clearly deregulated to force it to keep promises it doesn’t keep. We refuse to question entirely a project even though we perceive its inconsistencies. Between this enthusiasm for a process and the reaction against this process is raging a merciless battle, in the name of modernity and progress on the one hand, in the name of common sense and values on the other. A battle that is quite mechanical, binary, in which the two sides feed themselves; they’re more alike than they’d like to believe. As for the revolt, in spite of its purity, it’s a choice of facility. It draws its strength in an emotional shock when facing injustice, but it doesn’t give itself the means for a renewal — the indignant are likely to stay that way for a while. It consists in breaking what has been done rather than repairing it or correcting its faults. It doesn’t worry about the risk of burying good intuitions when burying the problems. We vaguely hope that after the apparition of problems, answers will spontaneously spring out. But as we’re building ourselves in revolt, we’re also destroying ourselves. We could lose our best because of it. Some think, in France, that we’re nearing a revolution and that French people don’t know any other way to change their orientation. I’d like for them to be mistaken, as it seems to me that changing everything at once is a way to solve problems that creates many more of them.

Giving up on a too quick engagement in miracle solutions which are dead ends doesn’t amount to giving up on all action on reality. On the contrary, accepting the confusion of disorientation and being patient enough to experience the first reactions is preparing yourself to the determined choice of new orientations. To orientate ourselves, we need both distant purposes and concrete experiences: to look far away and be present to the world, head in the sky and feet on the ground. The problem of purposes is central: if we lack the energy to start anything new, it’s often because we lack decent goals, we go round and round in circles. The aims pursued, with less and less enthusiasm, by our societies — technical power, GDP growth, national greatness — find themselves questioned in many ways. He who accepts to be disorientated for a moment earns the ability to seek other purposes. But the issue with the old aims is often their exclusivism: seek power even if it’ll damage the balance of nature, increase the GDP and the economic activity regardless of this activity’s diversity and of its interdependence with other existential spheres, promote the greatness of a community without paying attention to the frustration we’re causing. The new goals should on the other hand move towards a balance — balance between nature and human artifice, between the different communities that build society, between the economic and the political. There’s this idea of a balanced system in the word ecology, a system in which the different parts aren’t completely autonomous but interdependent. The same goes for the European Union’s motto as well — united in diversity. The new goals should have the wisdom of correcting the exclusivism of the preceding ones, by renouncing to enlarge an exciting goal to aim at a less proud balance.

But the search for goals, essential to start again, can’t be enough. Indeed, goals can easily be pious vows that we pronounce without actually changing anything. We need to express visions, as they’ll be inspiring for us, but it’s also important not to forget that reality will, more or less, always deceive those visions. Moreover, everything that’s great starts to emerge in small beginnings. A goal won’t ever be realised in one go, it’ll only be able to take its roots in small experiences. The Movement for the Earth and Humanism of Pierre Rabhi is right to invite its members to do their “part”, that is to start by small local experiences without worrying about not transforming everything at once. These experiences are both a first step towards new goals and the way to confront these goals with reality, to put them to the test and to patiently correct them. It’s important to consider them with attention, while preparing ourselves to be surprised. Indeed, at first we don’t know where the renewal will come from: “Humanity is full of unforeseen possibilities and each of them will always astonish men when they appear.” [2], writes Claude Lévi-Strauss. Renewal in front of a political blockade can take completely unexpected paths. Mandela, to reunify his divided country, was looking for it in rugby matches. Europe’s founding fathers looked for it in the production of coal and steel. This surprising originality is the sign of a deep political sensibility, consisting in perceiving the new, discreet among clear fossilisation. Renewal isn’t in big encompassing projects that we should see through at all costs. Indeed, not only nothing will happen as planned, but, by pursuing a pipe dream, we risk making ourselves blind to the potential wealth of beginnings. Deep down, it seems to me that we should compare the contemporary political actor to a cultivator rather than a builder. The builder has an engine in mind, he has a perfectly coherent plan and a bill of specifications to realise it step by step, from scratch. The political ideologist also has a perfectly coherent plan that he applies to reality. If reality resists him, it doesn’t call the plan into question at all, on the contrary, it’s because you have to force it a bit. As for the cultivator, he respects reality infinitely, he patiently watches it produce, and he doesn’t want to transform it all at once. He builds his ideal from reality, as he is subjected to earth’s nature and to climate variations. He trusts that reality produces on its own, but he also knows it’s fragile, he knows that “everything that is born is subject to corruption” [3], that a good seed can become ill, that a too fragile plant can die before giving any fruit. Such is the man or woman of action of whom I dream: loving reality before wanting to change it from top to bottom, respectful of the slowness of its processes, mindful of the promises hidden in discreet beginnings, he accomplishe acts of precise care so as to let the new occur. He lives off this paradox: loving reality to have a better impact on it.

[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Formation of the Scientific Mind
[2] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race and history
[3] Plato, The Republic, Book VIII

Translated to english by Magali Hamilton Smith