BOOKS JULY 21, 2010
The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochis
By Pascal Bruckner
Translated by Steven Rendall
(Princeton University Press, 239 pp., $26.95)
Once upon a time, it seemed an incontestable fact that the life of the mind radiated from the Left Bank outward. Within a small quadrant of the Latin Quarter in Paris, an intellectual elite labored to produce magisterial works that lesser minds all over the world received eagerly, gratefully—and by and large uncritically. It was widely held that the treatises that the French mandarins produced were of world-historical scope and import—that their works clarified and gave shape to the great philosophical and historical and political questions of the day. In this respect the ascendancy of French theory was owed not least to the postwar emergence of an increasingly global intellectual public, and the echo effect was considerable. In the far-flung intellectual hinterlands—that is, for those who were not fortunate enough to live in Paris and its environs—the conviction developed that the latest tome by Sartre, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Althusser, or Lacan would provide, for better or for worse, the direction that was desperately sought to re-orient and resurrect a postcolonial world that was careening wildly out of control. The universal intellectua—a French contrivance dating back to the days of Voltaire, Hugo, and Zola—seemed alive and well.
What happened? When did French masters disappear? Why is Paris no longer the capital of advanced thought? The decline—or the change: there are those who feel relieved by the absence of les maîtres-penseurs—is undeniable. One common explanation centers on what one might call the altered nature of the conditions of intellectual production. It holds that ours is no longer a world in which great minds count, or count as they once did. In the old days the French university system, with the so-called “grandes écoles” leading the way, was a training ground for intellectual mandarins; but in an age of mass education, the situation has changed dramatically. Instead the market for a new breed of topical and spontaneous journalistic commentary, for media-savvy ways of thinking, has arisen. The result is a half-educated punditry, whose authority derives not from grand and deep literary or philosophical achievements of their own, but from a type of intellectual agility that allows them to meet a semi-distracted, multitasking public halfway. The new intellectual situation was once described by Dominique Lecourt, in a clever pun, as “the mediocracy.”
Another partial explanation derives from the fact that French culture, like that of other European eminences, has simply lost its formerly uncontested centrality. The process of decolonization and the concomitant rise of multiculturalism have resulted in a surfeit of competing cultural claims. By degrees, the ideal of cultural excellence, which at one point seemed more or less self-evident, has ceded to an overextended and anthropological definition of culture: the idea of culture as the “expression” of the way of life of a group, a tribe, a people. The legacy of European colonialism has rendered the once-haughty metropoles cripplingly sensitive to claims of cultural superiority. The unintended consequence of this development has been a paralyzing incapacity to make significant cultural judgments and distinctions. It is as though the necessary and imperative process of cultural evaluation has been stigmatized as a zero-sum game, and the virtues that are ascribed to one culture accumulate at the expense of other cultures.
For nearly two centuries, France’s historical badge of distinction had been the Great Revolution of 1789. This is the heritage that accounts for French “exceptionalism”: the obsession with insurrection as a vaunted and permanent feature of the national political imagination. (There is still a metro station in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil named for Robespierre.) For a long time the French idea of liberty was inseparable from the heritage of 1789, which was widely assumed to be a universal political model for export. But during the 1970s, the revolutionary ideal took an indelible hit. For many years, left-wing intellectuals had ardently sought to amalgamate the French and Bolshevik revolutions, with the former purportedly “anticipating” the latter: if such an equivalence existed, then the formal democracy of bourgeois society would ultimately be supplanted by the substantive guarantees of socialist democracy. Yet by the time French intellectuals had succeeded, around the mid-1970s, in making their case, the Jacobin-Bolshevik revolutionary tradition had metamorphosed into an irredeemably negative model—a cautionary tale, a catastrophic paradigm to be avoided at all costs. The publication of The Gulag Archipelago and the almost simultaneous revelations about Pol Pot’s “killing fields”—during the early 1950s, the Khmer Rouge elite had learned the Marxist catechism at the finest Parisian universities—broke the dogma’s back.
If, heretofore, the universality of French political culture lay with its revolutionary ideal, that ideal had now become contested, even radioactive. Within a few years’ time, what had been a source of immense pride turned for many into a badge of shame. And with the revolutionary model discredited, French intellectuals began hemorrhaging prestige. Inspired by the audacity of Eastern European dissidence, many became converts to the anti-totalitarian standpoint. The price they paid was the loss of their group distinctiveness. Now there was seemingly little that distinguished them from their liberal counterparts in England, the United States, and elsewhere.
Born in 1948, Pascal Bruckner exemplifies the generational trajectory of the ’68er. A self-avowed admirer of the left-wing activists who, in May 1968, initiated a general strike that paralyzed France and at one point impelled General de Gaulle to flee, the meditative Bruckner seems to have been more of a bemused onlooker than an active participant. As a critic, he is audacious, insightful, observant, and a master of mellifluous prose. His discursive style runs admirably afoul of the received academic paradigms. He is neither a theorist, nor a philosopher, nor a cultural critic, nor a novelist—at least not exclusively. He is many things in an age of hyper-specialization and academic regimentation, an intellectual virtuoso in an era when the capacity for independent reflection has been usurped by jargon and the space for autonomous thought supplanted by cant.
That Bruckner’s talents defy classification might help to account for the relatively understated reception of his work on this side of the Atlantic. This situation is likely to change soon: along with The Tyranny of Guilt, Princeton University Press will also publish Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy. Like the great French writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Bruckner excels at multiple genres. His novel Les Voleurs de beauté, or The Beauty Thieves, which appeared in 1997, won the prestigious Renaudot Prize. In 1992, an earlier novel, Lunes de fiel (translated into English as Evil Angels), was made into the film Bitter Moon by Roman Polanski. Both book and film serve up a dystopian portrait of human intimacy: bleak, sadistic, tortured.
The genre for which Bruckner is best known and most rightly admired is the essai. Although it has been extensively imitated in other national literary traditions, the essai is, one may safely say, a uniquely French prose form. Bruckner may well be its foremost contemporary practitioner, which is no faint praise. In the essai—which is not quite the same as the English “essay,” whose aspirations are, as a rule, more modest—a writer takes an individual theme as the basis for a long and wide-ranging meditation, with no nuance or connotation left unexplored. In 1995, one of Bruckner’s forays in the genre, The Temptation of Innocence, won France’s Medici Prize. It is a study of the infantilism of contemporary character structure, the prevalence of the Peter Pan complex, as it were, especially among bobo males. (Valiantly translated into English in 2000 by a small house called Algora Publishing, it provoked few ripples here.)
In addition to being a novelist and an essayist, Bruckner is also a moraliste. Here, too, it is important not to be misled by the seductions of the term’s English cognate. The moralist’s scope is broad, in no way confined to questions of morality. His proper terrain is what the French call mœurs, or “mores”: the full range of habitudes and customs that make up the condition humaine in all of its idiosyncrasy and variety. The moralist must possess perfect pitch when it comes to exposing the infinite variety of human folly. As a stylist, he is constitutionally averse to the leaden esprit de système. His wisdom is of the anti-scholastic, worldly, Socratic variety. He is acutely self-conscious of humanity’s, and therefore his own, intellectual and moral failings. Given his aversion to speculative pretense, the moralist is something of an intellectual sniper, a perennial deflator of illusion and pomposity. In this respect, Bruckner is the heir to an esteemed French literary tradition dating back to Montaigne and his successors, La Rochefoucauld, La Fontaine, La Bruyère, and Pascal. It was Montaigne who reasserted the virtues of Socratic wisdom (“I only know that I know nothing”) by plaintively asking, “Que sais-je?”: what do I know? He had witnessed the boundless theological hubris that ignited the religious wars that devastated early modern Europe—hence the disabused skepticism that pervades nearly every paragraph of his Essais. Bruckner, for his part, experienced his generation’s uncritical veneration of the delusions of revolutionism of almost every stripe: Leninist, Trotskyist, Castroist, Maoist. Therein lie, in part at least, the roots of his own thoroughgoing mistrust of human arrogance, of claims to human perfectibility voiced by philosophers and pseudo-philosophers.
In 1983 Bruckner wrote a breakthrough book that nobody—or almost nobody—read. It was called The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt. It was translated into English in 1986, at the second apogee of the Cold War. The Tears of the White Man represented an unflinching attempt to come to grips with the conceit of Third Worldism. Eloquently written, meticulously documented, and passionately argued, it was the bearer of tidings that very few people who made their home on the political left wanted to hear. As the dreams of Sovietstyle Communism gradually soured, many on the left had transposed their allegiances to revolutionary insurgencies in the Southern Hemisphere: in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. They placed their chips on the virtue and the power of “the wretched of the earth”—a phrase from the Internationale that was immortalized in the title of Frantz Fanon’s inordinately influential book of 1961.
Sartre did his share to fan the flames of tiers-mondisme, notably in his inflammatory preface to Fanon’s already inflamed book. Against the backdrop of decolonization and the Algerian War, he argued that “to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man, and a free man.” Sartre’s later philosophy was tainted by the link between revolutionary violence and authentic selfrealization. In his view, acts of violence committed by the oppressed represent instances of existential self-affirmation: they serve both to eliminate the oppressor and to disrupt the psychology of oppression. In a world where class injustice is rampant, Sartre deemed violence on the part of the oppressed to be inherently “moral,” just as colonial violence was intrinsically immoral. Such simplistic oppositions and views became a trademark of Sartre’s later “phenomenology of liberation.” As late as 1973, at the height of his pro-Chinese phase, Sartre observed crudely that the Jacobin dictatorship failed because its leaders did not kill enough people.
In France, the enticements of Third Worldism proved particularly seductive. The nation had been bloodied by two recent anti-colonial wars, in Indochina and Algeria. The Socialists and the Communists, the mainstays of the institutional left, had been discredited by a series of political compromises. Under the leadership of Guy Mollet, the Socialists had taken the lead in trying to suppress the Algerian revolt. For their part, the Communists seemed comfortably ensconced in the compromises of bourgeois parliamentarism: as one of the leading political parties in both the Fourth and Fifth Republics, it was hardly in their interest to rock the boat. And so, for many young people in France, it seemed only logical to go beyond the sclerotic and co-opted radicalism of their elders and fuse their proud indigenous revolutionary tradition with the attractions of Third Worldism. And de Gaulle’s disinclination to surrender the reins of power had all the trappings of a benign political dictatorship.
One of Bruckner’s great strengths is his uncommon skill for working out the intricate dynamics of generational psychology. He argued that the misplaced wager on Third Worldism was at bottom an act of collective narcissism. The naïve celebrations of anti-colonial liberation movements had less to do with genuine empathy for the lot of the oppressed than with solving the left’s political and emotional problems. Such allegiances, in Bruckner’s account, had a profoundly delusional quality. Facts and realities ceased to matter, insofar as they threatened to puncture the dreams of a radiant socialist future. What counted most was the ability to sustain the utopian temper, despite the massive countervailing evidence. For the left, it was as though the less it knew about the sanguinary realities of Third World revolutionary struggle, the better—that is, the more effectively those struggles could serve as projections for First World fantasies. As Bruckner observed:
How is it possible to think about “the Other” when I have no relation to him but through books and other media? The answer is to make him into the personification of an Idea.... Concrete facts were thus swallowed up in an abstraction. Everything became simple, formulaic, and we could steep ourselves in Latin American revolution as easily as in the rampages of the Red Guards. We jumped from one latitude and climate to another, playing with the slogans and ringing declarations. The world was a coat rack upon which we could hang our fantasies. We searched for a more intense and, therefore, more innocent version of ourselves in Angolan soldiers, Bengali Naxalites, and Bolivian guerrillas.
Because we were not lucky enough to be where the action was, we vented our frustrations by rites of imitation, by using sympathetic magic. Beards and berets like Che Guevara’s, Mao jackets, a cigar like Castro’s and today , an Afghan turban—these were the ultimate declarations of solidarity for many on the Left. On the sidewalks of Berkeley, the boulevards of the Latin Quarter, or the streets of Berlin, wearing such outfits was an attempt to make mere loitering look like the Long March. (If I pretend to be the Other, his victories become my victories.) We remained faithful to the Third World warlords by modeling our appearance after theirs, by trying to act like them. We shook the foundations of the hydra by waving placards carrying pictures of Ho Chi Minh, Arafat, Carmichael, Malcolm X, and Mao. A new kind of fetishism took the place of brotherly imitation, a fetishism whose aim was not so much to find a revolutionary way for France, as to imitate the different rebellious movements of the outside world.
Bruckner was breaking brave new ground with such criticism.
In retrospect, all the pseudo-revolutionary posturing seems to have been little more than an extravagant instance of political playacting. In The Elusive Revolution, Raymond Aron aptly described this bizarre political sequence as a generational “psychodrama,” with all the leading characters having internalized pre-assigned historical roles. The revolutionary longings of 1789, 1848, 1871, and 1917 re-emerged, only as phantoms: as citation or pastiche. Hence the spectacle of upper-middle-class youth eagerly vying to see who would be the new Saint-Just, the new Louis Blanc, the new Rosa Luxemburg. To his credit, Aron readily admitted that, at the time of the ’68 rebellion, he, too, was playing a role: Tocqueville.
But as the 1970s wore on, the reality principle set in and the grandiose revolutionary romanticism of the students dramatically imploded. The massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 signified a crucial turning point. The student activists had, in a spirit of left-wing solidarity, routinely supported the Palestinian cause. Several had actually undergone military training at PLO camps based in Jordan. A disproportionate number were Jews who identified profoundly with the resistance and the anti-fascist credo. But the September 1972 massacre cruelly illustrated the perils and the risks of revolutionary theater. The PLO militants had used real bullets. Real blood flowed from the veins of the Israeli athletes. In one tragic instant, many leftists gave up the delusions of revolutionary playacting.
The Tyranny of Guilt is a pendant to The Tears of the White Man, and a similarly important book. With twenty years’ hindsight, Bruckner reprises a number of the themes of his earlier book. He finds that, among certain left-wing ideologues, the idiom of Western self-hatred persists unabated. As Bruckner avers:
From existentialism to deconstructionism, all of modern thought can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasizing the latter’s hypocrisy, violence, and abomination.... The whole world hates us, and we deserve it. That is what most Europeans think.... Since 1945 our continent has been obsessed by torments of repentance. Ruminating on its past abominations—wars, religious persecutions, slavery, imperialism, fascism, communism—it views its history as nothing more than a long series of massacres and sackings that led to two world wars, that is, to an enthusiastic suicide.
In reasonable quantities, of course, self-criticism and repentance are praiseworthy: necessary stages in working through a politically or morally compromised past. Yet when indulged in to excess, they can interfere with the sense of reality, and lead to a kind of psychological immobilism. They turn into an unhealthy preoccupation with the past that shuts down the capacity to live fully and honestly and constructively in the present.
Following communism’s ignominious demise, the former assemblage of guerrillas and despots—Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Mao—ceased to be serviceable as the potential saviors of humanity, as the political foils to the West’s innumerable failings. Hence, in the anti-Western political imagination, the role of the “wretched of the earth” needed to be entirely recast. Bruckner finds that, since September 11, in many instances that role has been filled by representatives of political Islam. Thus Al Qaeda and its allies throughout the Muslim world have been retrofitted as the new freedom fighters: as the new lumpenproletariat whose eschatological destiny will be to redeem the West from its own wretchedness.
A crucial prologue to the Western romance with political Islam occurred with the Iranian revolution in 1978, as numerous Western intellectuals—most notably Foucault—celebrated the revolt of the mullahs as the extension, and the revival, of a rapidly waning Third Worldism: since the Iranian revolt fused anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-modern elements, it had to end in something politically positive. What a colossal error! Another prominent enthusiast of the marriage between the ultra-left and Islamism was Ilich Ramírez Sánchez—better known as Carlos the Jackal—who, in Revolutionary Islam in 2003, confidently proclaims that “Today, confronted by the threat to Civilization, there is a response: revolutionary Islam! Only men and women armed with a total faith in the founding values of truth, justice, and fraternity will be prepared to lead the combat and deliver humanity from the empire of mendacity.” Similar sentiments and arguments may be found among radical anti-globalization activists. Relying on the questionable premise that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” they savor the disruptions that Islamic terrorism can sow among champions of the Washington Consensus. They care little for the physical or moral well-being of actual Muslims—women and secular Muslims in particular—who are the most numerous victims of the jihadists. Instead the saga of anti-modernization in the Muslim world is exploited as a pretext for privileged Westerners to settle their own political grievances and scores.
Bruckner is especially insightful, and withering, about the obsessive fixation on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in the imagination of the contemporary left. He lists the instances of genocide or collective political violence that have in recent years devastated other parts of the globe—ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia; the horrific genocides in Rwanda and Darfur; the seemingly endless civil war in Congo—and notes that they have been greeted, for the most part, with disconcerting equanimity on the part of the anti-humanitarian left, whereas the Israeli-Palestinian conflict never ceases to inflame it. Israeli transgressions are emphatically and histrionically denounced, while the abuses and atrocities perpetrated by Hamas or Hezbollah are routinely extenuated or exonerated as acts of justifiable violence committed in selfdefense by an oppressed and desperate people. In France these disputes have been so acrimonious and divisive that, during the presidential election in 2007, many socialists of Jewish background openly declared their partisanship for the center-right candidate and ultimate victor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Bruckner offers the entirely plausible explanation that, in contemporary France, the Palestinian cause—which, since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in 2005, has been amalgamated with the global struggle of political Islam—remains the last redoubt of old-school ’60s tiers-mondisme. As he explains:
The point is that the Palestinians, or rather the mythical idea that people have formed of them, conjoin two elements that promote [hatred of the West]: they are poor compared with a handful of colonizers, some of whom came from Europe, and they are mostly Muslims, that is, members of a religion that part of the Left thinks is the spearhead of the disinherited. That is how this endless conflict became, between 1980 and 2000, and at a time when revolutionary horizons were shrinking, the incontestable cause of a certain orphaned progressivism.
In the enthusiasm for the Palestinian struggle, anti-imperialism, anti-Eurocentrism, liberation theology, and Third World liberationism are all combined.
And anti-Semitism? As Bruckner shows, in a post-Holocaust world a self-assertive Israel makes it possible for a segment of the left-leaning European public to hate Jews in good conscience. When Jews were weak and stateless, they (sometimes) won compassion. With Israelis now perceived as strong—as the aggressors, even as the new Nazis-Europeans are absolved of their post-Shoah guilt and inhibition. Who knows? Perhaps they were right all along to hate the Jews. Moreover, as the nations of Europe have ardently embraced, in the European Union, the terms of a post-national identity, the Jewish state continues to display all the traits of conventional nationalism, thus serving as a constant reminder of a standpoint that Europeans, for understandable historical reasons, would like to escape. (We will see how much longer, though, the post-nationalism of Europe survives the economic crisis.)
Europeans’ voluble denunciations of American imperialism—in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—serve an analogous historical function. Whereas criticisms of specific American policies are certainly merited, the feverish pitch that characterizes such disapprobation suggests there are also deeper motivations at work. As Bruckner suggests, by deploring America’s meddlesome geopolitical reach, Europeans are simultaneously justifying their own political fecklessness—in Bosnia, in Chechnya, in Africa, and elsewhere. By the same token, Europeans can conveniently deflect the guilt of their own disreputable colonial past by conveniently blaming their uncouth trans-Atlantic ally and rival. Enlightened Europeans have internalized the lessons of anti-colonialism: why, then, has it taken so long for those incurably provincial Americans to draw similarly correct conclusions? And anti-American ressentiment also absolves Europeans from feelings of gratitude or indebtedness to America for having freed Europe—twice!—from the totalitarian yoke: first from fascism, then from communism. Europeans bridle at American selfassertion because it reminds them of what they once were and what, as an amorphous post-national political entity, they can no longer be. Bruckner presciently remarks (The Tyranny of Guilt first appeared in France in 2006) that if in the future Vladimir Putin should encroach upon the sovereignty of the Baltic nations—or, say, establish a puppet regime in Moldova or invade Georgia—only the Americans would object.
But Bruckner adds that in their euphoria of self-castigation, Europeans have too readily overlooked their own political achievements: their amazing progress since the horrors of colonialism, the zero-hour of 1945, and the perilous stalemate of the Cold War. As Bruckner observes appositely:
There is no doubt that Europe has given birth to monsters, but at the same time it has given birth to theories that make it possible to understand and destroy these monsters. Because it has raised the alliance between progress and cruelty, between technological power and aggressiveness, to its highest point since the Conquistadors, because it has engaged for centuries in bloody saturnalia, it has also developed an acute sensibility to the follies of the human species. Taking over from the Arabs and Africans, it instituted the transatlantic slave trade, but it also engendered abolitionism and put an end to slavery before other nations did. It has committed the worst crimes and has given itself the means of eradicating them. The peculiarity of Europe is a paradox pushed to the extreme: out of the medieval came the Renaissance; out of feudalism, the aspiration to democracy; and out of the church’s repression, the rise of the Enlightenment. The religious wars promoted secularism, national antagonisms promoted the hope of a supranational community, and the revolutions of the twentieth century promoted the antitotalitarian movement. It sent soldiers, merchants, and missionaries to subjugate and exploit distant lands, but it also invented an anthropology that provides a way of seeing oneself from the other’s point of view.
How, then, might one surmount the tyranny of European masochism, the ethos of ceaseless self-reproach that in the West threatens to engender a condition of moral and cultural paralysis? For Bruckner, the solution lies in a realistic, non-idealized assessment of the relationship between Self and Other, the West and the non-West. To exalt the Other at one’s own expense and to devalue the Self for the Other’s sake leads to a doubly distorted perception, a fateful chain of misrecognition whereby Self and Other are equally distorted. But just as self-alienation can become one of the surest paths to self-discovery, so, too, can the Other’s difference become an invaluable source of self-knowledge. (In these reflections Bruckner is heavily influenced by Levinas.) The otherness of the Other is an opening onto new, unexplored worlds. It assists me in overcoming my own insularity, in surmounting the confines and constraints of my own ethnocentricity. Respectful, non-idealized knowledge of the Other is one of the surest routes to a cosmopolitan self-understanding: to a modality of self-knowledge that is simultaneously open-minded, pluralistic, and non-dogmatic.
In concrete terms, Bruckner recognizes that one of the West’s greatest strengths lies in the inherent reflexivity of its cultural traditions, its time-honored capacity for self-criticism. (To be sure, this is frequently honored in the breach.) In this way, the analysis of the continent’s darkest shortcomings has paradoxically led to its regeneration. A new European self-understanding must surmount the twin extremes of selfexaltation and self-hatred. As Bruckner declares, “With regard to Europe we cannot help being insanely in love and insanely indignant.... We must tread a path of vigilant affection, equidistant from suicidal nihilism and self-satisfaction.” And so, despite centuries of imperial conquest and internecine atrocity, Europe, in Bruckner’s view, were it to live up to its own humanitarian ideals, retains the capacity to serve as the planet’s moral compass. Having gained insight into the extreme fragility of human affairs, it must learn to reassert its formidable “civilizing capabilities”—this time, however, as a model of democratic political culture rather than for the ends of colonial dominance.
In The Temptation of Innocence, Bruckner observes that “true old age, that of the spirit ... starts when one is no longer able to communicate with others except by complaints and grumbling.” Is this observation a little confessional? For Bruckner’s preferred mode, in all his literary forms, has been the jeremiad. Its German variant, perfected by Spengler and like-minded luminaries, is known as Zivilisationskritik. Bruckner incessantly laments the infinite modalities of human inauthenticity, our perennial entrapment in disingenuous social commitments and involvements; and this view of the modern condition is not exactly wrong. But it is hardly all we need to know about our situation. Lamentation and rage amount to only a partial standpoint on life. And this restores us, somewhat ironically, to the problem of the ’68er.
The generation of 1968 was aflame with millenarian aspirations. The intoxications of total revolution abounded. But, as the 1970s wore on, expectations of a radiant, even utopian future were rudely disappointed, and a deflationary return to cultural and political normality set in. Robust civic-participatory energies were redirected inward. Expressions of cultural radicalism, such as feminism and gay liberation, were reconstituted as tame and rather conformist lifestyle choices. As a result, a type of generational melancholy set in—a spirit of Kulturpessimismus. It was sharply captured in 1983 by Gilles Lipovetsky in his influential book The Era of the Void, in which he described a generation that sought to transcend the confines of what Adorno called the “totally administered world” of late capitalism but now discovered that the exits and the escape routes were blocked. French intellectuals transferred their allegiances from Marx to Tocqueville, especially the pessimistic Tocqueville of the second volume of Democracy in America, who coldly and brilliantly described the leveling process of modern democracy as a sort of implacable fate. According to this view, the ancien régime, to its credit, had nurtured social gradations and status differences, thereby producing individuals with firm attachments and strong convictions, whereas democracy, conversely, is an atomistic social condition that softens morals, weakens character, promotes conformity, and discourages excellence. The result of this process is the malady of “democratic individualism.”
Bruckner strikes this Tocquevillean tone in one of the many laments (some of them reminiscent of Christopher Lasch) in The Temptation of Innocence:
Our suffering, we other Westerners, is based on relating everything to that negligible unit, that tiny social atom—the individual—armed with only one torch, his freedom, and possessing only one ambition: himself.... The result of this [situation] is that now men resemble each other in the ways that they try to set themselves apart. This desire to dissociate ourselves is precisely what brings us closer, and it is this distance that confirms our conformity. Romantic fascination with exceptional beings—with the insane, the criminal, the genius, the artist, the pervert—stems from our fear of becoming lost in the flock, in the stereotype of the petit bourgeois man. “I am different from the rest.” That is the motto of the man of the herd. For the punishment that most hurts the contemporary individual is indifference, rather than imprisonment or repression: counting for nothing, existing only for himself, to remain eternally a “pre-someone.”
In Bruckner’s view, mass society, in its modern welfare-state variant, dominated as it is by a mentality of entitlement, has become little more than a “culture of complaint.” (It was Robert Hughes who first coined that withering phrase.) But—here is a concrete example of the limitations of Bruckner’s negativism—can the welfare state really be reduced to a mentality of entitlement? Aren’t there considerations of justice and decency that it also fulfills?
Bruckner does not see that with his single-minded focus on the varieties of cultural decline, he veers perilously close to becoming a part of the whining, the all-pervasive masochism, that he otherwise deplores. He spends too much time philosophizing in a lachrymose mode, bemoaning democracy’s dereliction, complaining about people who complain. As such, his perspective on modern democracy is too univocal and dismissive. He perceives only decay and disintegration. This approach vitiates his otherwise praiseworthy critique of tiers-mondisme, which is best denounced precisely in the name of democracy and our open societies.
Not all forms of democratic self-individuation, moreover, are chimerical and inauthentic. Bruckner unaccountably neglects the countervailing democratic energy that results in what Kant called “autonomy”—the individual’s emergence from self-incurred tutelage—and what Hegel identified as “progress in the consciousness of freedom.” Modern individualism is less flaccid and one-dimensional than Bruckner would have us believe. It is certainly susceptible to the easy blandishments of mass consumption and cultural banality. But it also offers unprecedented prospects for individual and collective selfdetermination—prospects that under the ancien régime did not exist except for a privileged few. Insofar as cultural attachments cease to be inexorably predetermined by the ties of place, family, status, and class, persons are able to individuate themselves--to form unique, self-chosen identities--in a more autonomous and self-directed manner; and this unshackling permits a broadening and enrichment of personality structure, a transformation that would have been unthinkable in more traditional status-based or class-based societies. Thus, the news about democratic culture is far from all bad. A lot has been lost, but hardly all.
Bruckner is a bold and eloquent and important thinker, but at times one wonders whether his anti-democratic lamentations are not more the manifestation of a peculiarly French cultural disorientation than an accurate description of the democratic condition or the human condition. Since communism’s collapse, France has struggled to redefine its mission in Europe and in the world, but its room for maneuver is exasperatingly circumscribed. French intellectuals have also sought to reformulate their raison d’être, but in the postcolonial era, when the universalism of both the Revolution and the mission civilisatrice has been called into question, these efforts, too, have been permeated by uncertainty and gloom. It is a paradoxical situation, for the rich indigenous resources of the French philosophical and literary tradition—from Montaigne to Descartes, from Voltaire to Zola—offer more than ample sustenance for thinking one’s way through, and out of, the present crisis.
Richard Wolin is Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His new book, The Wind From the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution and the Legacy of the 1960s, has just been published by Princeton University Press.