Left, right, wrong

Bernard-Henri Levy is a Frenchman.  Bernard-Henri Levy is a Jew.  Bernard-Henri Levy is an intellectual of the left.  Bernard-Henri Levy is a perceptive observer of the contemporary world.  In Left in Dark Times, all these aspects of Levy seem to make war on one another.

Because he’s French, Levy understands recent history to revolve around events that, alas, can only be described as marginal and parochial:  the Algerian war, May ’68.  Because he’s a Jew, he identifies the Right with the Dreyfus affair and Vichy, and writes of these injustices as if they had happened to him personally, only yesterday.  Because he’s a left intellectual, he embraces communal and inherited guilt, the sins of the father being visited on the (white) son, and he discovers a duty to take sides in every oppression, real or perceived, understood or misunderstood, across the world.  And because he’s a perceptive man, Levy knows that much of the above is nonsense.

French intellectuals are a curious lot.  Going back to Voltaire and Victor Hugo, they are always against the status quo, yet they are lionized by the media and wooed by people in power:  Left in Dark Times was inspired by a phone call from now-president Nicolas Sarkozy demanding Levy’s support in the elections.

French intellectuals are supposed to be deep thinkers, yet as a body, and with a few shining exceptions, they have been consistently wrong for at least 100 years.  Before World War II, they advocated a passionate pacifism.  After defeat and occupation, they played nice with the Nazis.  In the postwar world, they embraced the Soviet Union and became ever more shrill in their anti-Americanism.

At the time, these opinions echoed the world over.  Because France was the intellectual center of the world, pivotal to the great events of the twentieth century, its thinkers  influenced those of Europe, Latin America, the U.S., and beyond.  Paris was a mecca for young people seeking advanced ideas:  Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge butcher, became a communist during his stay there (1949-1953).

Levy belongs to the last group of French intellectuals that mattered to history:  the “new philosophers” who, having read Solzhenitsyn and seen “socialism with a human face” crushed in the Prague Spring, angrily broke with the Soviet Union.  Levy’s 1977 book, Barbarism With a Human Face, represents an important moment in the ideological dissolution of Soviet-style Marxism.

Much has changed in the 31 years since the book was published.  Levy, the youthful rebel, is now 60.  France stands at the center of nothing, even in Europe.  French intellectuals remain wrongheaded as ever, but nobody outside France knows who they are, or cares.  Many of them have retreated behind impenetrable language:  my favorite obituary of all time is the NYT’s “Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74.”  Most French intellectuals inevitably look to the events and symbols from the days of glory, and pine.  Like France itself, they seem caught in a conceptual time warp.

Levy is more open to fresh breezes than any of the breed, but even he demonstrates an old maidenly concern to tidy up the decrepit categorical furniture of French politics.  Sarkozy, the pleading candidate, belongs to the Gaullist party, and is thus a man of the right.  Levy is a man of the left:  it is, he says, his “family.”  He cannot vote for Sarkozy — but neither can he deny that the labels are like coffins, full of dead people and irretrievable moments.  The first section of Left in Dark Times consists of a rambling, longwinded plea for some meaning or distinction to elevate, above the complexities of today’s world, the man of the left.

Right and left became political geography by an accident of seating in the French revolutionary Assembly.  Those on the right favored a constitutional monarchy; those on the left wanted to wipe the slate clean in the blood of the nobility.  The labels continued to signal recognizable political philosophies through the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries.  During the Cold War, the left fought for socialism and was unable to resist seduction by the Soviet system, while the right, in France at least, promoted national glory and looked kindly on property and religion.

The fall of the Soviet empire and consequent death of socialism as a viable ideal shattered the left-right divide, probably forever.  Unfortunately for men of the left, it was the leftist philosophy that stood refuted by events.  They no longer owned the future.  They embodied no positive program of action.  Ever since, the men of the left have leaped, like Little Liza on the ice floes, from one anti- position to the next:  anti-imperialism, anti-racism, anti-globalism, anti-war, anti-U.S.  But anger and self-loathing don’t add up to a philosophy, and sporadic cultural vandalism is a feeble replacement for the barricades.

The left is finished as a directing force in world politics.  One can cling to the term, as does Levy, from a sense of personal identity, but it is empty of content.  Of course, the demise of the left has also killed off the right.  Free of the specter of communism, President Bush has nationalized a sizeable chunk of the American economy.  What remains today isn’t an asymmetrical politics, but a categorical scramble.

The question for Levy — or, more realistically, for the next generation of “new philosophers” — isn’t about the meaning of right and left, capitalism and socialism.  It’s about how we can best face the cataclysmic disruptions generated by liberal democracy and its attendant economic system.

Osama bin Laden gave his answer when he crashed commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center.  The Chinese regime, while more secular, offers a similar reply:  like bin Laden, it desires all the knowledge and comfort of the modern economy, but believes it can impose a single order on a tornado of social change by the massive application of brute force.

Levy’s France, with much of Europe, is caught in a terrifying high-wire act.  The French stand with democracy but also with the deniers of its consequences.  They have surrendered, quite willingly, much of their freedom and initiative as citizens of a liberal republic, and expect, in turn, that the government will keep the storm of change outside the country’s borders.  But if it is unlikely that the ruthless, despotic Chinese regime can tame the great disruption, what are the chances for a French state that trembles when students or truckers go on strike?

While France undergoes a profound demographic, economic, and moral transformation, French intellectuals, and the French people who so lionize them, lack the words even to describe what is occurring.

The old politics were a dichotomy:  for the left, a quarrel between order and adventure.  Late in the twentieth century, the terms flipped.  With the Soviet Union, the left surrendered to the craving for a single inflexible order of things.  With the creative destruction of free markets, liberal democracy has launched the human race into a tempestuous adventure.

Order is now at a premium.  The new politics will hinge on whether it should be imposed from above — democratically or by brute force — or whether it should be allowed to emerge from below, by the aggregated actions and decisions of free citizens.

Top-down decisions on fundamental matters require great wisdom and restraint by those in power.  Such qualities are rarely to be had for any length of time.  I am not, in any case, persuaded that anyone, including the savviest governments, possesses the know-how to imprison a tornado in a bottle.  Their actions will merely warp the landscape over which the great disruption will roll.

Bottom-up decision-making, on the other hand, will always strain the social fabric and may well end by tearing it apart.  Emergent order will require moral sturdiness and some luck.  That has been the American bet, and it has paid off handsomely.  Yet we are not immune to the pain of disruption, or to the demand that the government interpose itself between the citizen and a hostile world.  In his intellectual background and personal associations, Barrack Obama is as much a man of the left as American politics allow.  The economic crisis provides a reasonable excuse for those who seek a top-down imposition of order.

The future, as always, is up for grabs.  In this country, at least, we are not condemned to debate it in the language of the past.

 

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