Wednesday, November 26, 2003

France Falling – André Glucksmann, Part Two of Three

Ouest contre ouest, Shakespeare contre Sartre

Shakespeare or Sartre, this dichotomy strikes us as a bit odd at first, but it reflects the essence of the misconceptions and illusions that enchant many in Europe, and specifically in France. As I noted in my last post, Glucksmann is an ardent proponent of western civilization and sees debates over unilateralism vs. multilateralism as a means of distracting the political observer from the essential importance of defending western civilization precisely for its humanitarian aspects. Implicit in this view is the fundamental fact that a civilization, indeed civilization itself, stands for something against something else. By contrast, nihilism stands for nothing because it fails to draw distinctions, and it fails to draw distinctions because it refuses to make judgments according to a standard. This is the predicament of the French government today, it has no standard of reasonable judgment and is reduced to pure calculation coupled with a rhetorical stance that condemns the just while excusing the terrorist, the extremist, the fanatic.

In his book, Glucksmann provides numerous examples of how this failure to judge, to make distinctions, infects the behavior of the France in its alliance with the anti-war forces. Many of these are well-known and commented upon already. They include President Chirac’s coddling of dictators such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, his lashing out at the democracies of Eastern Europe lecturing them to keep silent, and one of the most blatant according to Glucksmann, the false legitimacy associated with the United Nations. The third element, the United Nations, is one of Glucksmann’s particular targets, because the phenomenon of pandering to the UN represents one of the clearest and most dangerous instances of the outright refusal of reasoned judgment.

In a chapter dealing with the “Comedy of Peace,” Glucksmann remarks that the association on the part of the French government, and many in the European public of the United Nations with democratic legitimacy demonstrates a fundamental failure to understand the nature and act of democracy. Confusing simple equality with democracy, the UN partisan empties democracy of all its substantial content, rendering it a mere phantom in an institution where well over three quarters of the nation members are only pseudo-democracies at best. Interestingly enough, this criticism of the UN was initially made by none other than Charles de Gaulle, who considered the institution to be one beholden to dictators, despots and madmen.

But what lies behind this misguided attempt to identify the United Nations with international legitimacy itself when it should be clear to the thickest observer that no such association exists? There is the simple notion of self-interest on the part of nations that would use the UN as a cover for their own national failings. Many nations in the Middle East and Africa fall into this category, as does a France that resents American hegemony. However, there is also the historical and ideological reason. Throughout much of its history, the UN Security Council was a lame duck at best. The Cold War – which represented a rather unnatural situation – meant that the US and Soviet Union would rarely reach consensus within the Council. The fall of the Soviet Union appeared to end that situation. But, it did not simply create a consensus in favor of the United States. Rather, those dedicated to the dream of an end to history and conflict saw the end of the Cold War as merely the end of one of the two belligerents – the United States had yet to be subdued.

On the one hand, freer trade and international security based on humanitarian principles appeared to be the globalizing force. But there were many who associated this globalizing force with the particular power and domination of one nation: the United States. In order to demonize the US, the mantra of imperialism was soon raised. Of course, the anti-globalization forces are not anti-global in any sense of the word. The Germans, and now the French, often refer to these groups under the rubric of “alter-globalization,” meaning they seek a different global form from that of American imperialism; they seek a global consciousness of sorts.

Here is where Sartre comes in. The global consciousness that opposes American hegemony is actually a species of nihilism. Feeding on the millennial thought of people such as Sartre, Kojève and Heidegger with his revelations from the gods, the alter-globalization movement simply equates American power with oppression and domination, no better than the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. In place of this particular power, the alter-globalization movement would impose a uniform and revolutionary consciousness. This is a notion that resonates with aspects of the French Revolutionary consciousness, and one that has found a home of sorts in the minds of the current French government and among many functionaries of the United Nations, the International Red Cross and the European Union.

Underlying this consciousness is the nihilistic notion that history can be ended, or that at least, an epoch in history can end with a new revelation. And as Glucksmann remarks, the one thing that must end with this cessation of history is war waged by states; though war waged by terrorists, religious zealots and the alter-globalization set is perfectly justified as part of the millennial struggle. As Glucksmann assesses the situation, we are back in the presence of the revolutionary “end to history” as advanced most recently and notably by Francis Fukuyama.

Now, Fukuyama aside, Glucksmann’s real targets from an intellectual standpoint are thinkers such as Kant, with his perpetual peace, and Hegel, with his radical historical consciousness. On this point, I tend to agree with Glucksmann’s description of the alter-globalization movement and Jacques Chirac’s perfidy in cozying up to that movement, but I would argue that we should perhaps be somewhat cautious in attributing all the blame to Kant and Hegel. My reason for saying this is that both Kant and Hegel, despite the radical nature of much of their theoretical prescriptions, were rather moderate in their practical accounts. Kant, well-known for his attempt to secure peace among European democracies, built his theory of perpetual peace around a consideration of war and the nature of war. His intention was to construct a system whereby sovereign states could better understand the elements of war and avoid it whenever possible. But in order to do this, he had first to think about war, and in this regard, his thought is quite Machiavellian. Moreover, Kant saw this as a project to be undertaken by western civilization through the institutions of civilized nations. Kant had no interest in universal consciousness and no illusions about the withering away of the state.

Similarly, Hegel’s views on the end of history were based on his belief that western civilization, a civilization that was unique in its dedication to reason, had inaugurated a stage in history that could not be effaced. To Hegel, the practical domination of Europe in the world and the ever-increasing spread of rationalized and liberal institutions, suggested that history had, in a sense, come to an end. Now, Hegel did not entertain illusions about the end of particular elements of human life, such as war or the nation-state. Certainly he differed from Kant in numerous aspects, but both were forced to reflect on the nature of politics and war, even if they sought a kind of overcoming of this nature. Nature could not simply disappear altogether.

This, I believe is the real problem. Behind Glucksmann’s contrast between civilization and nihilism is a contrast between nature and nihilism. Nature, like civilization, is about distinctions, and nihilism must reject both uncategorically. Kant and Hegel, like many philosophers before them, still had to deal with nature. Though they tended to shun it more than their predecessors, the fact that both recognized the importance of war and the political institutions of the nation, demonstrates that nature was still a factor in some sense. They could not simply speak of a global consciousness, the legitimacy of international organizations and the multiplicity of cultures. They were forced to take war and politics into consideration if their own particular projects had any hope of even moderate success.

And this brings us to Shakespeare. Shakespeare was, if ever there was one, the poet of nature in its classical sense. He presented the world and the people in it according to how they behaved in the world as it existed, but he did so in light of a natural standard that was at once suggestive but not wholly determinative. History, unlike in the accounts of the alter-globalization crowd, does not realize universal consciousness, but remains rather tragic in the Shakespearean drama. And when particular incidents in these plays run afoul of nature, Shakespeare tells us that “time is out of joint.” Glucksmann, drawing on this line, likens it to George Bush’s assertion that, “time is not on our side.” America, like Shakespeare, has found that history does not move inexorably to a single resolution, but is constantly under threat and infused with tragedy. The terrorist put time out of joint, but so does a Europe that no longer reflects on the nature of war and politics.

But oddly enough, perhaps more now than in any other time since World War I, it is only a return to nature that can help us to understand our global situation. What does this mean? Well, as I mentioned above, the Cold War was a rather unnatural time in that it pitted two huge powers against one another, while incorporating almost every regional conflict in this huge tug-of-war. The end of the Cold War seemed to bring this situation to an end, but immediately the world moved into a verbal utopia whereby conflict was to be superceded and democracy would miraculously become the rule of the day. This was the notion of globalization that inspired many in Europe and the United States. But we’ve found that this notion was no more natural than the Cold War that preceded. The hoped-for reliance on international organizations and humanitarian co-operation was a chimera. So many, most notably in the EU, were predicting the end of the nation-state, but while liberalism and globalization did proceed throughout the 1990’s, we are realizing that there are limits to globalization, but this realization isn’t coming thanks to the alter/anti-globalization types. It’s in the nature of things. We are finding that national governments must still rule their markets, and that even free trade requires national defense to ensure its own success. And we are seeing that the governments of western civilization must actively support the civilization they cherish, rather than offering comfort to those who would tear it down.

Glucksmann’s work is a defense of the nature of things and a chastisement to his French and European nihilist confreres. Unfortunately, we find that those who traditionally reflect on nature – professors in the humanities and sciences – are almost entirely devoid of any understanding of what nature would actually be. They’ve been trained in the ideologies of post-modern thought, and, even if they wanted to, they would be unable to think intelligently about nature. So few have the tools or the background to undertake the task. However, the advantage nature has is, well, that it is nature. It reasserts itself constantly and offers itself up for inspection on a daily basis as Shakespeare – himself no professor – can attest. It would seem, however, that there are some nations where such observations are more likely to occur. And on that note, I’ll turn, on Friday, to the second of Glucksmann’s contrasts that I intend to consider: the cowboy and the tsar.

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