You see them sometimes, late at night, cleaning offices for people they never meet; or unloading vans from empty bus lanes in the small hours. Mostly, though, we don’t see them, even on the other side of a counter, or a phone line. They put food in convenience stores, and ferry it later to landfill, uneaten. They put mineral water on the conference tables at which the minimum wage is agreed. Out of sight, out of mind, they live in spaces gated by time. Checkpoint Charlie was an airlock between two ideological territories. It didn’t open in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. It adapted.

Pierre Rosanvallon is an eminent French historian concerned with democracy and social justice. His commitment to the social responsibility of the intellectual is unwavering. His latest project is equally admirable for its seriousness as for its optimism. Raconter la vie (‘Telling life’) aims to help those who are ignored by society’s institutions, including politics and the media, to tell their own stories in what he calls a parliament of invisible people.

The project includes both a series of short, accessible books and a web platform to which people can contribute. You can read the story (in French) of a fast food worker, a veiled African student or a baker committed to using a wood-fired oven among many others, all produced with the support of volunteer editors. Each text can be read online or saved in digital form. Each is a unique testimony that affirms and demonstrates the dignity of an individual.

Raconter la vie

The results are not necessarily attractive. Dirty jobs and hard lives leave their mark. There is no room here for sentimentality about work or about suffering. But nor is this a collection of miseries. Rosanvallon says that the project records success, pride and people’s capacity for action and creativity. Unlike those who exploit other lives to justify one ideology or another, Raconter la vie restores individual dignity by recognizing the value and complexity of personal experience.

Above all, when you read these texts, you meet a voice,  singular, personal and real. There is a claim: look at me, see me: hear me. Recognise our common humanity.

Although he connects his project to 19th century attempts to portray of industrial society Rosanvallon’s approach is also new because it uses the technologies that have enabled globalisation – notably the Internet – to challenge some of its consequences. It is also new because he defies the conceptual boundaries between social science, journalism and literature. As he rightly asserts, that is intellectually and democratically vital if there is any chance of rethinking the world together.

Taking that commitment further, Raconter la vie is also connecting to similar projects, finding like minded-people who are making a contribution to a better future. And if we have a chance to make it better, it lies in bringing more and more voices into thinking, talking and shaping that future. That is why Raconter la vie is such an optimistic project and a hopeful sign of change. And if it’s not community art, I’m not sure what is.

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