From International Socialism 2:96, Autumn 2002.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Mediocracy: French Philosophy Since the Mid-1970s
Verso 2001, £18
The ascent of the idea of democracy in the scale of values recognised by political thought has occurred at the cost of an uninterrupted confrontation with so called totalitarianism, then with the ‘terrorist threat’, and now finally with the menace of Islamist fanaticism ... Thus politics is converted into the aggressive management of interests, which in turn provokes fearful murderous or suicidal explosions by those who endure the flagrant inequalities obtaining in this world, which has simultaneously made equality one of its canonical values. 
What are the origins of the fake humanitarianism which has characterised and bolstered the ‘new interventionism’ of the past decade, from the Gulf to the Balkans to the strategy of the cluster bomb and the lunchbox pursued in Afghanistan? This book, first published in 1999, locates its origins in the rise of the ‘mediocracy’, a self serving and motley group of intellectuals whose onslaught on the ideas of the 1968 generation in general and on Marxism in particular helped secure ‘the subordination of politics to ethics, in the name of human rights’.  Spearheading this backlash were a loose amalgamation known as the ‘New Philosophers’, for the most part either former pupils of Althusser, ex-Maoists, narcissistic self publicists or, in some cases, all three. Perhaps the most talented of these was André Glucksmann, a former member of the Maoist organisation La Gauche Proletarienne, who in the mid-1970s began reviving the concept of totalitarianism first developed in the immediate post-war period, and serving it up for an audience coming to terms with the revival of Cold War tensions and disillusionment with the eclipsing of hopes raised by May 1968. Glucksmann’s argument was that the horrors of the 20th century were derived from their philosophical roots. These he identified with the ‘master thinkers’, among them Marx, Hegel, Fichte and Nietzsche, whose role was to dream up the social order engendered by modern revolutions. Making use of a quote attributed, falsely and disingenuously, as Lecourt shows, to Hegel – ‘to conceive is to dominate’  – Glucksmann argued that the totalising theories of the ‘master thinkers’ lent ideological justification to the modern state and all its crimes, from the gulag to the Holocaust: ‘Marxism generates not only scientific paradoxes, but also concentration camps.’ 
Another former pupil of Althusser’s, the ambitious and unscrupulous Bernard-Henri Lévy, picked up on Glucksmann’s ideas and turned them into slogans with which to punctuate his baroque and overblown prose. ‘The Soviet camps’, he declared in his best known work, Barbarism with a Human Face, ‘are Marxist, as Marxist as Auschwitz was Nazi ... No camps without Marxism, said Glucksmann. We have to add: no socialism without camps, no classless society without its terrorist truth.’  A notorious photograph taken in the early 1990s shows Lévy crouching behind a wall in war-torn Sarajevo, holding a cigarette between his fingers as – presumably – bullets fly around him, wearing an expression located somewhere between languor and terror. This ‘ornamental pathos’, as Alain Badiou terms it , is perhaps the New Philosophers’ defining characteristic. Faced with the Jacobin Terror, the Nazi death camps and the gulags they offered an ambiguous message – beware the ‘perennial guides’ because ultimately they always justify atrocities.  In reality, however, Glucksmann’s attempt to reduce two centuries worth of active revolutionary struggles to a handful of philosophical works could itself be interpreted as the act of a minor master thinker.  Drawing heavily on the counter-revolutionary tradition of Burke and de Maistre, these attacks on the notion of revolutionary change were grounded in pessimism – man is powerless to change the course of history. In his 1978 essay Dissidence and Revolution, reprinted here, Lecourt argues that the target of the New Philosophers was not just Marxism in the abstract, but the Marxism which infused and informed the struggles of their contemporaries, from the Resistance to the Algerian War and May 1968, and which embodied ‘the idea of a revolutionary exit from the crisis of the imperialist system’.  It is this active engagement which the New Philosophers set themselves against.
But what role did they themselves envisage for intellectuals? According to Lévy, ‘We will never again remake the world, but at least we can stay on guard to see that it is not unmade.’  This call to retreat from politics, since any attempt to change the world will end in terror, made New Philosophy a pretext for political abdication. Under the guise of an apparently radical standpoint, which attacked Marxism as a counter-revolutionary ruling ideology and Capital as a handbook for capitalists, Glucksmann et al. could offer only empty slogans which led nowhere: ‘I think therefore the state is ... All modern domination is at root metaphysical ... as with reality, history simply does not exist ... there is no world, there is only discourse.’  Since Glucksmann refused to engage in a concrete social and political context, the freedom which he championed was not so much that of the masses as, in Jean-Marie Vincent’s phrase, the freedom of a court jester.  Ultimately, New Philosophy, to the extent that it can be considered a coherent body of thought, was based on a contradiction. It claimed on the one hand to renounce the role of guide or master, while at the same time building its theoretical standpoint on a tradition of thought whose goal was a social hierarchy founded on the subordination of the majority to an elite. 
How then to explain the emergence of the New Philosophers and their successors, and the extent of their influence? In the words of two authors associated with the trend, whose trajectory was similar to Glucksmann’s:
Since May we’d been living with this absolute certainty that not only was the revolution possible, but that we were in the process of making it. That’s what was in the heads of the Maoist activists: that the revolution wasn’t to be made, but that it was well and truly being made. So much so that when everything fell apart we found ourselves back with the question of its mere possibility, and as a result the question of activism lost its relevance. 
On one level, then, their output, retreat from politics and downgrading of the role of the intellectual can be explained by disillusionment with the collapse of Maoism and Althusserian Marxism. Where Althusser had implied that the shortcomings of socialism could be explained by the fact that the Marxist texts had not been properly studied, Glucksmann and company now argued that socialism had failed precisely because too many had been read.  Where Stalinist regimes had been defended and violence praised as a means of cleansing society, suddenly and belatedly the horrors of the gulag were relentlessly exposed. Where revolution had once been seen all around, now it was proclaimed impossible. Where workers had been a force for change, now they colluded in persecution.  In place of the engaged intellectual stood the ‘anti-barbarian intellectual’, resigned to his misery. In place of the proletariat was the disparate and rootless plèbe, resigned in turn to its own limited destiny – to seek neither power nor honour nor wealth, but simply to avoid oppression.  In place of Althusser and Marxism, meanwhile, stood Solzhenitsyn and ‘an ideology of non-intervention, of withdrawal into the self, of “dissidence”.’  In place of politics they offered ethics, the contemplative judgement of the world based on the choice between good and evil.
A number of additional factors explain the audience which these ideas found. Lecourt stresses the springboard provided by the media for ‘the Western ideology of dissidence’, since it offered the establishment the prospect of stemming the ideological shocks suffered by Western imperialism and its institutions in the wake of 1968 and the Vietnam War. Lévy and Glucksmann in particular soon became familiar talkshow guests. In 1977 Time magazine gave its cover over to the New Philosophers under the headline Marx Is Dead. For their opponents, the New Philosophers were the epitome of media culture – ‘disc jockeys of thought’ peddling ‘disposable ideas’. A key player in ensuring maximum exposure for them was Maurice Clavel, a reactionary Christian writer and broadcaster who made no secret of his hatred of Marxism. ‘If these two imbecilities, Marxism as a tool of analysis and as a tool of criticism, are allowed to survive for another two years,’ he declared in 1977, ‘people will end up thinking: the only way to free ourselves of the gulag is through Marx! And the whole thing will start again! Hellish vicious circles. These circles must be smashed.’  More important, however, was the role played by Michel Foucault. Lecourt emphasises how Foucault’s theory of power failed to identify any global mechanism to which either the generation or regulation of power and its effects could be attributed. Stripped of its class character it became a ‘universally serviceable, metaphysical substance’ , and was effortlessly appropriated for ‘Operation Dissidence’. Equipped with this ‘”left” theoretical guarantee’, the New Philosophers were able not only to legitimise the retreat of Western intellectuals from Marxism in the late 1970s, but to steer it in the direction of ‘”radical” mass disengagement’ , with, it should be stressed, devastating success. Under the impact of this onslaught left intellectuals like the historian Emmanuel Le Roy-Ladurie began to revise their view of the world: ‘It seemed to me that the opposition between totalitarianism and freedom was ultimately more important than the old left-right opposition.’ 
Once Lecourt scratches the surface of the New Philosophers’ iconoclastic sloganeering we are faced with a return to traditional bourgeois morality dressed up in various post-1968 concerns (feminism, ecology, gay liberation, etc.). This recuperation of the rhetoric of liberation, which had stressed the political nature of the private sphere, allows it to be deployed against forces whose entire raison d’être was based on a desire to confront the ‘unreserved exaltation of “private” life’ underpinning bourgeois morality.  If Foucault, unwittingly perhaps, but ultimately uncomplainingly, provided a bridge between the crisis of post-1968 activism and the very order which had incited the May revolt in the first place, he cannot be held solely responsible for the retreat from politics. Neither did this retreat simply take place by default. Referring to Foucault’s condemnation of the elevation of ‘sexuality into the nucleus of human existence, and sensual pleasure into the supreme value because it is inscribed in nature’, Lecourt devotes a provocative and at times ambiguous chapter to explaining the role of sexual mores in the continuing attraction of ethical thought. The ‘return of morality’, he argues, was in part a consequence of the way in which the pursuit of sexual liberation led the 1968 generation into ‘an insidious form of servitude: the servitude of an imposed and dictated sexual freedom’.  If at times The Mediocracy comes close to echoing the novelist Michel Houellebecq’s identification of neo-liberalism with liberal attitudes to sex, in Dissidence and Revolution Lecourt shows how struggles based on aspects of life previously considered private were brought to a mass audience by exposing their political nature and ‘relating them to the general process of the class struggle’. The subsequent inability of the labour movement to appropriate these struggles meant that the New Philosophers and others were able to turn their revolutionary potential in another direction.  The Mediocracy, despite ignoring the role of the labour movement to which Dissidence and Revolution gave such prominence, describes the result 20 years down the line – the ‘tempered hedonism’ of the new moralists and their imprecations to forget the ‘false subversions’ of the 1960s in order to embrace ‘the importance of the story of modern love’. A love, directed at the presence of the other, which holds the secret of ‘the extraordinary potential for solidarity, for sympathy, contained in the private sphere’. 
Here, then, lies the crux of the argument. On the one hand, since 1968, ‘the meaning of our lives has taken refuge in the private sphere of existence’.  Politics, meanwhile, is reduced to the technocratic management of interests and takes a back seat to ethics. This short-circuiting of political action finds its clearest expression with humanitarian individualism. Any attempt to explain or to analyse crises, from Mozambique to Rwanda, by reference to the concrete historical circumstances which gave rise to them, is obscured by ‘utter sentimentalism’. The world becomes ‘a pitiable tele-spectacle rendering those who allow themselves to be caught up in it hysterical, and consigning those who refuse to go along with the game to a brutal indifference’.  The fate of the various and countless victims to appear on screen is presented as a fatality, while ‘a handful of social workers ... confer their blessings on a mass of grateful wretches’.  Questions of scale and responsibility are blurred by the portrayal of such situations in terms of good and evil, giving rise to a politics ‘pregnant with tyranny’. 
If some of the thrust of his argument is lost when Lecourt chooses to illustrate this tyranny by placing Islamic fundamentalism in Iran on an equal footing with Western prosecution of the Gulf War, he nevertheless provides an excellent account of the ideological consequences of the setbacks suffered by the ideas spawned by 1968 and the defeat of the movements which carried them. An angry undercurrent of sarcasm courses through the book, treating its targets with admirable disdain. Referring to Glucksmann, Lecourt notes how the victims of genocide are constantly deployed to validate his arguments, as if ‘since his first book on Hiroshima the thinking of this philosopher could support itself only if it is perched on piles of corpses’.  Similar contempt is reserved for the ersatz radicalism of the postmodernists (‘chic anarchist music for the jet set!’),  contemporary French intellectuals whose ambitions are limited to ‘acquiring the social status of “opinion-maker”’ , and the ridiculous self importance of leading philosopher-moralists such as André Compte-Sponville and Luc Ferry, whose arguments leave their readers ‘condemned to counter-signing the aporias of common sense’. 
Such venom, however, is for the most part subsumed in an impeccably elegant but curiously distant, almost valedictory prose. Others have commented on the contrast between Dissidence and Revolution and The Mediocracy , which is at pains to apologise for the tone and class content of the former, but which itself offers nothing in its place. Dissidence and Revolution contains a ringing defence of the role played by Marxism in galvanising a generation of post-war intellectuals, empowering them ‘to connect their own struggles as intellectuals with the global process of capitalist exploitation, to locate and orientate themselves in the political conjuncture with reference to the struggles of the working class and oppressed peoples’.  This link between intellectual engagement and the prospect of change in the wider world is absent from The Mediocracy. In his criticism of Dissidence and Revolution Lecourt expresses the regret that it shied away from ‘the rectification of Marxist concepts in and through their confrontation with the concrete’.  But no subsequent exposition is developed outlining what kind of rectification might be required. Despite the condemnation of the way in which adherence to democracy in Western societies is presented as an article of faith, preventing any meaningful exploration of the relations between state and citizens, Lecourt himself offers no indication as to what these relations, if altered, might look like. Likewise, in referring to the process whereby republican values in France have been undermined by recent contamination with the liberal philosophy of rights, Lecourt draws a veil over the extent of his own identification with the republican state, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions from the occasional nod to the maverick champion of a Jacobin nationalist state, Jean-Pierre Chevènement. Nor does Lecourt offer any analysis of the relationship between New Philosophy and Althusser. For all the clarity of his analysis of Foucault’s role in making a bed for the New Philosophers, he makes no comment on the inadequacy of the tools fashioned by Althusser in the hands of those who attempted to defend his legacy when it came under attack. Despite the pugnacity with which the eclipse of politics is decried, then, Lecourt is nevertheless hesitant about engaging with the political himself. As such, The Mediocracy, like two other recent dissections of the influence of liberal humanitarianism, Zizek’s Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? and Badiou’s Ethics, provides further evidence of a thickening vein of sometimes dazzling, combative Marxist-influenced theory, and of its limits.
1. D. Lecourt, The Mediocracy: French Philosophy Since the Mid-1970s (London 2001), pp. 126, 131.
2. Ibid., p. 121.
3. A. Glucksmann, Les Maîtres Penseurs (Paris 1977), pp. 117–118. See D. Lecourt, op. cit., pp. 52, 180.
4. A. Glucksmann, La cuisinière et le mangeur d’hommes: Essai sur l’Etat, le marxisme, les camps de concentration (Paris 1975). Cited in D. Lecourt, op. cit., p. 152.
5. B. Lévy, Barbarism with a Human Face (New York 1979), pp. 155, 158.
6. A. Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (London 2001), p. 34.
7. B. Lévy, op. cit., p. 194.
8. C. Castoriadis, Les divertisseurs, Le Nouvel Observateur, 20 June 1977. Reprinted in S. Bouscasse and D. Bourgeois, Faut-il Brûler les Nouveaux Philosophes? (Paris 1978), p. 202.
9. D. Lecourt, op. cit., p. 172.
10. B. Lévy, op. cit., p. 195.
11. A. Glucksmann, op. cit., pp. 118, 281; B. Lévy, op. cit., p. 44; Maurice Clavel, cited in F. Aubral and X. Delcourt, Contre la Nouvelle Philosophie (Paris 1977), p. 26.
12. J. Vincent, Du Goulag á l’Abbaye de Vézelay, Rouge, 6 July 1977. Cited in S. Bouscasse and D. Bourgeois, op. cit., p. 76.
13. D. Lecourt, op. cit., p. 187.
14. G. Lardreau and C. Jambet, Le Magazine Littéraire, pp. 112–113, May 1976. Cited in F. Aubral and X. Delcourt, op. cit., p. 39.
15. J. Rancière, Portrait du vieil intellectuel en jeune dissident, Le Nouvel Observateur, 25 July 1977, in S. Bouscasse and D. Bourgeois, op. cit., p. 218.
16. L. Boltanski, Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics (Cambridge 1999), p. 168.
17. A. Glucksmann, op. cit., p. 217.
18. D. Lecourt, op. cit., p. 205.
19. Maurice Clavel, cited in Le Magazine Littéraire, Les dieux dans la cuisine (Paris 1978).
20. D. Lecourt, op. cit., p. 196.
21. Ibid., p. 204.
22. Cited ibid., p. 68.
23. Ibid., p. 205.
24. Ibid., p. 107.
25. Ibid., pp. 205–206.
26. Ibid., pp. 108–115.
27. Ibid., p. 114.
28. Ibid., p. 119.
29. R. Brauman, Humanitaire le dilemme (Paris 1996). Cited ibid., pp. 120–121.
30. D. Lecourt, op. cit., p. 121.
31. Ibid., pp. 77–78.
32. Ibid., p. 73.
33. Ibid., p. 5.
34. Ibid., p. 87.
35. P. Hallward, Mediocracy in France, New Left Review (II) 11 (September/October 2001).
36. D. Lecourt, op. cit., p. 172.
37. Ibid., p. xi.
Last updated on 22.6.2012