Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Stéphane Hessel's Imperative

Christopher Hitchens once posited something to the effect that one could tell that life was no longer worth living when one no longer woke up angry. Nonagenarian French resistance hero, Stéphane Hessel, seems to have taken this adage to heart with with the recent publication of his 13-page pamphlet entitled Indiginez-Vous! Hessel's argument is a clarion call for the left. It elevates several issues dear to the left: destruction of the environment, Israeli colonization of Palestine and the gradual erosion of the public sector, and demands response to these issues in the form of non-violent resistance.

As the New York Times notes, Hessel's biography as a resistance hero and as a co-author and signatory of the International Declaration of Human Rights is part of what gives Indiginez-Vous! its importance. Hessel's long-standing modesty and belief in privacy further strengthens his case.  Hessel himself notes that much of what he is saying in the pamphlet are simply the things that many left-wing people believe and likens the moral imperative he felt to resist the Nazis as similar to the impulse one should feel in engaging with many of the pressing issues of the day.  He is right in this, but the surprise success of Indiginez-Vous! speaks to a certain deficiency within the left that has traditionally been filled by important moral thinkers especially in highly literary societies like Hessel's native France where writers are frequently elevated as public figures.  Additionally, many writers are creatures of the left. Thus, the loss of literary moral guidance has undermined the ability of the left to act. This is a point that has been well-addressed by the late historian Tony Judt in his essay on Albert Camus, The Best Man in France and in his last book published while still alive, Ill Fares The Land.

Judt, who died of Lou Gehrig's disease last year, argues that Camus presented an important moral touchstone for French, and wider western society.  While many of Camus' philosophical works were not particularly well regarded, his novels and World War II era journalism, appearing largely in the underground newspapers Résistance and Combat, while Camus was active in the French underground, have helped to inform the moral sense of much of post-war Europe.  Camus' moral clarity in the face of fascism, colonialism and other pressing issues catapulted him to a position of preeminence in French society.  Judt argues that, despite the erosion of Camus' stature within French literary circles over the second half of the 20th century, the surprise success in the publication of his incomplete, autobiographical novel The First Man in the early 1990s (at the hight of the decadent and corrupt Mitterrand years) spoke to a long-standing need for moral guidance. Thus Camus, in some way returned from the grave to reignite the fires of moral leftism, much as Hessel, now in his late 90s has again done so.

France, however, is a country, that while at times growing complacent has never fully lost its revolutionary zeal.  The public sector unions remain strong in France and frequent strikes prevent the impingement of basic rights, liberties and Social Democratic tendencies in such a way that France, despite well-over a decade of Conservative control, and the rise of the far-right in the form of the odious Jean-Marie Le Pen has never lost its residual leftist resonance.  Indeed, the French Revolutionary ideals of liberté, egalité, fraternité  have never become watered-down platitudes in the same way the Democratic constructions of the American republic have been.

The Fifth Republic has not always embodied those ideals: the deportation of the Roma - a source of supreme injustice and anguish noted by Hessel - a clear example of failing to live in accordance with them.  Despite this, the basic provision of health, education and public services for a population must be tantamount within a just society.  These are all ideals traditionally of the left, with Social Democracy being the great social compromise created by the World War II generation as a means of preventing the collapse of civil society that led to that war and its inhuman cruelties.  These institutions are currently what are under attack by the right and remain, to my mind, things worth fighting for.

The erosion of Social Democracy and the grand institutions of the state, which had previously served as a bulkhead against iniquity and despair for many, are at the center of Judt's book, Ill Fares The Land. Similarly to Hessel, Judt argued in favor of traditional leftist beliefs and for re-engagement with the roots of those beliefs.  The deregulations of Reagan, Clinton, Thatcher and the two Bush's and others paved the way for the naked greed worship of the financial sector and the loss of civic sense.  The free-market ideology of Clinton in particular, taken with the administration's decision to cave to Republican demands and gut the welfare and social security systems has permanently shifted the debate. With the Democratic Party in the United States traditionally serving as the party of social security institutions, Clinton managed to permanently shift the party away from its traditional base and into the same free-market, exploitative abyss as advocated by Reagan.

Especially shocking in the number of former hippies - a traditionally leftist faction - that would go on to vote for Reagan.  However, the emphasis on the self, and the rejection of traditional institutions that characterized the hippie movement, should have even proven telling.  While certain institutions overthrown were traditional vehicles of racism or repression for minority groups, the underlying emphasis on the self, on Dionysian pleasure-seeking above all else eventually led to a reaffirming notion of self-efficacy at the expense of all else. This is a point argued by Judt, and taken a step further by the French novelist Michel Houllebecq. Houllebebcq argues, in his novel The Elementary Particles, that the eventual logical outcome of the orgiastic self-worship that characterized much of the 1960s and 70s, was violence in the form of self-indulgent, De Sade-esque serial killers.  The paradigm has eventually merged with that of nakedly individualistic paradigms, and, as Adam Curtis argues convincingly in his documentary series The Trap, warped our sense of freedom.

The destruction of the welfare programs that provided basic services to the indigent has proven especially telling in affirming, to many, the narrative of the Right within the United States which largely ascribes virtue to avarice and equates vast material wealth as an entitlement to those most fit.  This paradigm is vulgar and destructive to the very fabric of good civics, it leaves most of society out, yet it continues to prevail.  This ideology has spread such that, even with the ever present elephant in the room that is Anthropogenic Climate Change - which threatens the ability of all of us to meet basic needs - we as a society remain unwilling to engage as a society and give up certain material wants in order to insure a viable future.

Further, media continually feeds us a master narrative that encourages further consumption, degrades the poor as being in some-way unworthy and encourages further propagation and worship of the idea of the individual at the expense of society. It achieves this by perverting facts, in its focus on the fringes and by continually pulling the twin levers of fear and greed in the levels it pulls.  The shift away from standard reporting and towards talk radio and blogging degrades straight reporting and hinders science-driven public policy by enabling various agendas - frequently those advanced by moneyed interest - often cloaked as news to predominate.

We also have an element of gawking, in which celebrity has been further elevated and has driven dissociation from events and from each other. We have come to identify with the singular rather than with the collective.  Thus even acts of charity become referendums on the greatness of the individual - and thus we have been given the celebrity missionary that I have previously addressed here and here.

Belief in the public sector has been largely swept aside by the twin brutalities of individualistic neo-liberal economic policies and the selfishness of public sector bureaucracies - many of which have begun to act merely for self-preservation than for their intended purpose of providing basic services.  However, the attacks on these bureaucracies by the far right, which in America has become the mainstream right, elucidates their need for self-preservation.

This has lead to the rise of the Tea Party within the United States.  The Tea Party is the ultimate vehicles for self-edification.  It creates a bizarre duality by which upper middle class white people adopt an attitude of victimization.  They genuinely begin to feel that they are some kind of aggrieved minority despite their holding absolutely every advantage within American society.  They then utilize this notion as a rationale for tearing apart what remains of the public sector.  They seem to genuinely seek the dismantling of even the last vestiges of social equity and basic social services.

Thus we see the attack on public sector Labor Union in Wisconsin - unions that largely exist to provide the basics for retirement to people that have given their careers to serving the public. The movement seeks to demonize the public service and characterize them as greedy leeches upon the tax-payer. In reality, the public sector is largely comprise of talented people who selflessly forgo greater financial rewards to thanklessly help educate, provide basic services for, or improve society as a whole.  These are people who seek only security and a decent retirement in return for their sacrifice. In the United States, this is one of the last remaining enclaves of the compromise that created the New Deal and the policies that have helped so many to realize their potential.  The Tea Party threatens to wipe this out and to thrust us back into the ages of deregulation and destitution for the disadvantaged.  Effectively, they seek to eliminate the notion of society altogether.

Hessel's few words then are important because they glide, knife-like into the festering belly of injustice. They are an elucidating blade crafted to help return steel to the left.  Hessel's pamphlet, though not particularly well-written, resonates because it articulates a vision of what the left used to stand for and what it appears to have lost.

My grandfather, though of a slightly younger generation than Hessel, was similarly moved. His belief in opposition to the evils of fascism, and belief for equal justice were unshakable.  When World War II broke out and claimed his native Belgium, he was only 17.  He had tried to run away from home several years earlier to fight against Franco in Spain.  The war stripped him of his childhood but never his sense of humor.  Like Hessel, my grandfather was imprisoned in a Nazi POW camp, escaped to serve in the French Resistance, and unlike Hessel, eventually joined the American Army and saw action in the Battle of the Bulge and elsewhere.

The genuine compassion, even for the Germans he fought against, and the dedication to social justice that my grandfather quietly carried is true of many Europeans of a certain generation. The promise of social democracy was that it, as Judt noted in Ill Fares the Land, created a system driven by compromise - rather than by deterministic ideology - that genuinely created a better world. The institutions of the state were built in accordance with empathy and understanding with the generation returning home from war developing these institutions in order to create security and opportunity for all thus mitigating future reasons to go to war.  Despite decades of degradation of the social state, it remains a set of ideals worth fighting for.

As Albert Camus said:
If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.
This should be the stated view of the left. Rather than a dull focus on avarice or material acquisition, it is our interactions with each other and our common humanity - that will enable us to tackle the social issues of the day - that allow us to realize that grandeur.


Chad said...

Nice, Alex. Inspiring, and I may even try to read this book. Although, saying the Tea Party effectively "seeks to eliminate the notion of society altogether" may be a little much. Also, I've noticed that, though your grammar is usually impeccable, you often use the contraction "it's" to denote possession. "It's" only ever means "It is" or "it has". The possessive pronoun is always "its". Sorry to be a grammar nazi. Keep writing.

Alex Deley said...

Good point Chad, it's a bad habit I've fallen into. You have to admit, it makes more intuitive sense that just 'its' and its' just looks weird. Corrections have been made.

Alex Deley said...

Chad, I disagree- the Tea Party does seek to eliminate society - as do many populist Tories. Sarah Palin is positively worshipful of Margaret Thatcher (as are many Tea Party types) who said: “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families”. I think this clearly represents the view point established by the Tea Party.