Bernard-Henri LÚvy's new book is annoying as a memoir but, when carefully read and pieced together, devastating as an indictment. Getting there will require the reader's determination. Take the time to get past stylistic self-indulgence, forgive some hyperbole, patch up a few logical gaps, and what's left is still essential reading. It uncloaks the most disturbing political trend of our time: the rise of a new absolutist ideology, one that is global, anti-liberal, anti-American, anti-Semitic, and pro-Islamofascist, and despite being irreligious is alsoŚand this will require explanationŚanti-secular.
Oxymoronic Left, new barbarism, neoprogressivism, red fascismŚLÚvy does not keep to a single name for it. What he does make clear is that it is emerging from the cadaverous Left, the "backward falling corpse" (which was the book's French title). Now revivified, the zombie Left stalks liberal society. It's more than a patchwork of dead ideas. It's an energized, totalitarian mass movement, marching stiffly, arms stretched forward, into the twenty-first century.
The book's annoying parts take up the first few chapters and bits of the rest. Disconnected assertions and sentence fragments, many tailed by ellipses, are meant to represent LÚvy's tormented inner dialog. Their upshot is that he is pained by the new barbaric Left. He pines for the one-time Left's heroic struggle against fascism and French colonialism, and for the anti-totalitarian spirit he attributes to May '68, so much so that he still thinks, though ever more tentatively, of the Left as his family and cannot even bring himself to vote for his friend, then presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy. In light of the overwhelming denunciation he levels against the Left, his political indecisiveness is more irritating than moving.
The Death of the Old Totalitarian Left
After the personal tribulation, the book's argument comes into focus: the case for the Left's degradation, death, and ugly reincarnation. One stab in its heart was Solzhenitsyn's book. "No other book has ever, as far as I know, unleashed an explosion like The Gulag Archipelago
" (p. 58). It was in the furnace of this book, he writes, that the communist dream dissolved.
The nail in the lid was Cambodia. If earlier revolutions had produced conditions worse than the ones the revolutionists hoped to defeat, well, that was because the victors merely grabbed means of production. They didn't reform minds, so they couldn't remove the last remnants of servitude. Radical professors at the Sorbonne and ╔cole Normale SupÚrieure taught that revolution had to be far more sweeping. After all, sexuality maintained the body's bondage; language itself sustained hierarchies; and geography too inscribed injustice, so that the division between country and city had to be destroyed. Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, and Pol PotŚthe future tormentors of KampucheaŚwere good students who listened to their professors and returned from France to turn their country into a laboratory for mass human experimentation.
To manage sexuality, Pol Pot regulated the days on which copulation was authorized and prescribed death for illegal flirtation. To reform language, an act of 1977 caused "linguistic amnesia, the erasure of entire volumes of the dictionary, and the redefinition, according to a new standard, of an equivalent number of words" (p. 62). To eliminate the city-country distinction, on April 17, 1975, in a matter of few hours, the Khmer rulers emptied Phnom Penh, throwing two million people, including children and the infirm, onto the roads, to meet their fate from pillagers and starvation. The fullest of all revolutions, the one that reformed language, sexuality, and geography along with politics and economy, was "one of the greatest insanities humanity has ever known" (p. 63).
Pillars of Totalitarian Thought
To LÚvy, certain articles of faith form the pillars of such totalitarian experiments. One is the Good (a poorly chosen word, an insult to classical thinking about the good): the idea that here and now our troubled society can be upended to create a shining new and just society. It's the end for which it's worth sacrificing a generation to starvation, reeducation camps, and the police state (p. 66). The other is the Evil: that filth and corruption in which we are now trapped. Leading from one to the other is the "boulevard of history." Driving us along it is that dialectical machine, that curative force, that "political medicalism" (LÚvy quoting Foucault) that carries us from our miserable existence into this fabulous future, with such certainty that we need not fret about lives discarded along the way.
How far we have drifted from May '68, LÚvy mourns. It had seemed then that the Left had shorn itself of communism, devoted itself to anti-fascism and anti-racism, and agreed to work for human rights through imperfect liberal-democratic regimes. It is this non-Marxist Left that had LÚvy's allegiance. But after the collapse of communism and all the more so after 9/11, LÚvy saw the coalescence of a new ideology, a new degenerate Left. It first seemed to him pointless, just something cobbled together from defunct ideologies. But then he understood that it was a revivified Left, which was once again acceding to totalitarian temptation. The outcome is today's neoprogressivism.
It is here that LÚvy's outline of totalitarian articles of faith should come in handy: to explain the intellectual pillars of this new Left. Having put up with rather too much breathless and disjointed prose, we would expect as much. However, he aims against only one of the new barbarism's pillars: its conception of Evil.
Neoprogressivism's Evil puts liberalism at the forefront (pp. 86ľ99). "Liberal" here refers to society built on private contract relations (LÚvy is ginger about calling it the market), a system LÚvy credits with civilizing effects. It abandons plunder and violence in favor of transactions, negotiations, and compromise. What is more, liberal society is built on mutual dependence between economic and political liberty. Liberal regimes that sustain private contract also protect man's natural rights. Incapable of appreciating a world of free contracting, where decentralized choices generate disparate economic outcomes, the anti-liberals attribute the outcomes to networks and systems, or to the usual suspects (corporations, the media, etc.) among the empowered, orŚamong the lower orders of the new LeftŚto conspiracies.
The neoprogressives believe "liberalism is the source all the planet's evils," LÚvy writes (p. 90), so they must declare innocent those Third World despots who "meddle with their citizens and treat them like cattle," because in the neoprogressive dogma "the System, and the System alone, bears full responsibility." They reject that the great revolutions, including the British and the American, were explicitly liberal, and used liberal thought in their struggle against absolutism (p. 92). The liberal market-based republics can more easily be portrayed as Evil, when liberty, which might be thought their finest aspect, disappears from view.
LÚvy then offers the recent interest in the work of Carl Schmitt as an illustration of the fascist train in contemporary progressive though. To my understanding, however, many of those who have revived the study of Schmitt have done so for the very purpose of unraveling the nature of brutal ideologies, and are motivated by anti-totalitarian impulses similar to LÚvy's own, so the accusation strikes me as rash and unfair. LÚvy does name names (pp. 95ľ99); it will be up to those better versed than I am to judge the accusations' merits.
LÚvy then takes on "the other socialism of the imbeciles," namely, anti-Americanism. To the neoprogressives, America starves the world and floods it with goods; fights terrorism and incites it; has no culture and imposes its culture; worships materialism and succors spiritualism; and comes too late to fight Hitler and then uses Hitler's methods. Arundhati Roy says Bin Laden is President Bush's twin brother; journalist Robert Fisk, on the first day of the war on Afghanistan, says that "we are the real war criminals"; and Harold Pinter, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, says that the real problem is America's gulag, meaning the vast prison system (p. 119). The same enlightened souls, LÚvy says, never let out a squeak about the public stoning of adulteresses in Kabul or about Saddam's myriad crimes.
The Europeans' anti-Americanism is driven in part by historical resentment, LÚvy writes. America is, after all, the Enlightenment success par excellence
, the state built on multinational and many-hued immigrants, brought together in a compact and associated by contract, not by bloodlines or supposed rootedness in soil. While Europe was destroying its own Enlightenment heritage and obliterating its libraries, it was the allegedly soulless and materialist upstart across the Atlantic that provided asylum and rescued the Western patrimony from the nihilist flames (p. 120). For the neoprogressives now as for Heidegger and Hitler in their time, "the main, radical, and, in a matter of speaking metaphysical enemyŚthe one with which no truce or pact was possibleŚwas not the Soviet Union but the United States of America." America is Evil because it exemplifies the triumph of liberalism; and liberalism is evil because it is American.
Among the neoprogressives' tenets, the most characteristic is that Evil is a planet-wide Empire. To cruder neoprogressives, America is the "command post, the nerve center, of a system of power that imposes a regime of unequal exchange on the planet, along with planned injustices and secret massacres . . . " (p. 132). In Negri and Hardt's Empire
, LÚvy finds the more sophisticated version, a "headless, decapitated, decapitalized empire," whose nuclei include states, big labor, corporations, and the media (p. 135). Converted to the creed of Empire-loathing, John le Carre tells in one novel of pharmaceutical firms scheming to perpetrate genocide in Africa; Le Monde Diplomatique
deploys fantastically fragile evidence to claim that NestlÚ kills a million and a half infants a year (p. 138).
Inevitably, this anti-imperialism degenerates into conspiracy theory. The same Le Monde Diplomatique
posits a world synarchism, an omnipresent Triad that uses invisible sentinels to exercise global domination that is "diffuse, opaque, and almost unfathomable" (quoted by LÚvy, p. 136). America's foreign policy comes to be the product of a secret plot hatched by Jewish neoconservatives who have occult power over the president's and vice-president's minds. History's motor is no longer class conflict or human passions, but masked powers, shadowy manipulators, and hidden worlds behind worlds.
The most remarkable feature of the cult of Empire-hatred is that it produces disdain for those whose suffering does not meet the cult's attribution of global evil. Exhibit number one is Darfur. Though an "an ocean of indifference and cowardice" condemned the Darfuris, the anti-liberals, anti-imperialists, and anti-globalists "earned a special distinction" (p. 141).
It is this anti-imperial obsession that makes Rony Brauman, onetime president of Doctors Without Borders and author of the French postscript to Norman Finkelstein's Holocaust Industry
, "blind and deaf to the tragedy of the Darfuris" (p. 137). Brauman, Robert Nesbitt, Noam Chomsky, and other intellectuals turn strangely silent on Darfur or attribute the whole hullabaloo to an American or Zionist plot. The NGO anti-racism meeting in Durban in 2001 mustered the crowds to chant "One Jew, one bullet," but cold-shouldered the Africans who wanted to spotlight Rwanda genocides; forgot the plight of the 260 million Dalit untouchables; ignored the cause of the Roma in Eastern Europe; and omitted from its final declaration the massacres in Chechnya and the Balkans.
If you're a Nuba being exterminated in the Sudan, or Burmese, Syrian Kurd, or Liberian, well, "You're out of luck," LÚvy writes. You're not oppressed by the American/Zionist/Imperialist axis, so "you're a hundred times less important, a thousand times less interesting to progressive consciences," than is an Islamist so humiliated that he must resort to terrorism to heal his humiliation (p. 140). That "maniacal negationist" Noam Chomsky whitewashes the Cambodian genocide, lest the world comes to be revolted by a crime America could not be accused of; and then rewrites the history of ethnic cleansing in Serbia to place it after
the NATO air strikes, and hence makes it a response to Imperial aggression, once again to give Empire no quarter (pp. 141ľ42).
It is noteworthy to add here that LÚvy, who presumably knows how to read French, confirms the accusation, virulently contested by Chomsky's acolytes, that Chomsky did more than merely introduce Robert Faurisson's book denying the existence of the gas chambers. According to LÚvy, Chomsky wrote "not merely a preface but a defense as well" (p. 39) and depicted this Holocaust denier as a "relatively apolitical liberal" (p. 141).
If you're Fidel Castro and manage the true gulag in the Caribbean, but are on the right side of the Empire/Anti-Empire divide, LÚvy writes, you get the honor of closing the Durban conference. And if you're Hugo Chavez you get, from the neoprogressive intellectuals, free pass to clamp down on the free press, to attempt to become life-president, and to declare that the world economy is under the thrall of descendants of Christ-killers. For Brauman, Chomsky, and other anti-teachers, as LÚvy calls them, the theorem of Empire has sets the barbaric norm, to which the epigraph to this review refers: "to choose the side of the perpetrators and not of the victims; to tell the victims that they're bad victims and their destinies don't matter to the world; to impose silence, in a word, on oppressed people who disturb the [Empire/Anti-Empire] conceptual order of the world" (p. 145).
The neoprogressives' Evil is, of course, also Zionist. There was early anti-Semitism against alleged killers of Christ; enlightenment anti-Semitism for Jews' having given birth to Christianity; nationalist anti-Semitism for Jews' statelessness; social anti-Semitism for their being capitalist blood-suckers; and racist anti-Semitism for their being the anti-race. Now the hatred is against the Jew who brazenly monopolize the world's limited stock of victimhood, the better to pursue his Zionist-Imperialist conquest (pp. 147ľ66).
It is all too drearily familiar to be worth repeating here, except for the conclusion that LÚvy shares with Pierre AndrÚ Taguieff: that when the neoprogressive NGO's joined in the Jew-hatred at Durban, they killed antifascism. Just a year later, the Movement against Racism and for Friendship Between PeoplesŚa group apparently well regarded at the United NationsŚconfirmed the death at a protest marked by the chant "Death to the Jews" (p. 174). The neoprogressives kidnapped the heroic symbols of anti-Nazism for their furious, merciless crusade against Israel, turning anti-racism into a Stalinist instrument (p. 165).
In the same process, the traditions of empathy for the humble and unfortunate have given way to indulgence for theocratic fascism. The Syrian Ba'ath party was modeled on Hitlerism, as was Saddam's party, as was the Muslim Brotherhood; and the Brotherhood's enemy, Nasser, was no less sympathetic to the Nazis. And there was Haj Amin al-Husseini, Arafat's uncle, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who wrote after his visit to Auschwitz, "I'll go peacefully to my grave knowing that five million Jews have been exterminated" (quoted by LÚvy on p. 170).
Nazism is woven into the Muslim Brotherhood's, Hezbullah's, and Hamas's genealogy. Citing Paul Berman, he writes that their "mythology of pure blood, their taste for suicide missions, their hatred of the West, their phobia of a Jewish plot aiming at world domination, their detestation of America and of freedom, comes from European fascist ideologies" (p. 183).
The word "Islamofascism" (or rather his silly variant "Fascislamism") is essential, LÚvy says, precisely because it makes the point that there is more than one Islam. LÚvy does recognize that that the term has also escaped the lips of George Bush, someone for whom he evidently has little regard. "Just because a fool, in the middle of the day, says 'it's daytime,'" LÚvy writes, referring to an aphorism by Spinoza, "doesn't mean he's wrong and that it's the middle of the night" (p. 165). We must differentiate Muslims who signed up for Waffen SS and for the Einsatzgruppe ─gypten, which prepared for the mission to eliminate Palestine's 500,000 Jews (its mission foiled because Montgomery won at El Alamein), from Muslims who were themselves murdered by Nazis (pp. 176, 185). We need the term to distinguish men like Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan fighter against both the Soviets and the Taliban, from his murderers. We also need it to be able to differentiate righteous Muslims from the followers of the murderous revolutionary movement that the New Barbarian luminaries now embrace (pp. 170ľ72).
LÚvy is running out of steam by the time he gets to the neoprogressives' abandonment of secularism. To make the point, he contrasts multicultural nihilism (he uses "tolerance," a word that is incomprehensible in this context) with secularism, arguing that the neoprogressives defend the former but are hostile to, or at least unprotective of, the latter. The murder of Theo van Gogh, the marches featuring the banner "Get ready for the real Holocaust," the threats against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the violence in response to the Danish cartoons, the muzzling of the teacher Robert Redeker
Śthey have brought out the worst in progressive reflexes.
Secular society does not give one group the right to threaten others on the claim that others are offensive to it. Secularism gives precedence to human rights; nihilistic multiculturalism gives it to group sentiments. "The secular society brings books into dialogue, all books, beginning with holy books." Nihilistic multiculturalism, taken to its logical conclusion, "brings about autos-da-fÚ" (p. 180). As neoprogressives have smeared liberalism as a front for global evil, their multicultural nihilists have also abandoned that essential product of liberalism, the secular realm, the very one on which progressive dissent has always depended. It is of course in this context that we must also interpret the alleged assassination plot, uncovered in Belgium in late 2008, against LÚvy himself.