Dieter Lesage and Dominique Willaert each published their book on turning right and left-wing reaction. Rik Pinxten read both and compares.
Why would I discuss two recent books in dialogue? Both are expressions of unrest and reflection on the ongoing shift to the right and the left inability of the left to give a convincing answer. It is, of course, valuable in itself. In the same spirit, a few analyzes and sometimes also proposals for a future society are currently being published: Eric Corijn published two works, even (once) the Social Democrat Marc Elchardus deviates from insight into today’s failures to move on to a conservative up to late right-wing project . I personally believe that self-critical reflection on the Eurocentric and nature-exploiting basic attitude, which has also characterized the humanist and modernist project over the past 500 years, must be part of a serious alternative. An obvious question then becomes: can the analyzes and suggestions for the future (which both authors formulate completely independently of each other) somehow make a difference? Are there also promotional suggestions? That’s my main concern in this review, so I’m trying to get both authors to talk at least a little bit.
Academic vs activist
A first honest remark must be that this does not become easy: the angle of Lesage is an academic who remains far from all empirical or concrete social struggles and above all proves to be a professional textual philosopher. Willaert, on the other hand, is a man of action who for twenty years led a rather activist theater initiative in a very popular mixed neighborhood in Ghent and now essayistically ventures on a book about the future of the left (I say). When one reads the two books one after the other, it becomes clear that there are few points of contact: the first makes extensive textual analyzes of ancient Greek philosophers, mostly through the seemingly biased view of Martin Heidegger, a once influential but far from clear philosopher with Nazi sympathies that traced the Greek roots of our thinking and thus still manage to secure a small following in France today among self-proclaimed left-wing philosophers (and the same in the Anglo-Saxon world). Also the other ‘important’ texts from European history pass by along the way and are read and commented on, as if their ‘correct’ interpretation (the reading of Lesage, I suppose) will be crucial to the future of mankind. NOTE: this literally means that very thorough and thorough analyzes of the ancient texts and their traces through our modern times are written on many pages in a mirror palace of beautiful but often hermetic sentences that stand alone philosophically. However, Lesage hopes that the whole world will learn from it in the future, and I very much doubt that. Willaert, on the other hand, will select a few texts completely à la carte, which he seems to call essential to understanding ‘people’ in order to use these ‘truths’ to expose widespread criticism, deviations from statements of truth and sincerity ( especially in the imaginary world of social media, in conspiracy thinking, in coup attempts à la Trump …) and to place the fog curtains for today’s powerful information owners (Google, Facebook and co). And then in a final chapter call for an alternative approach to the left. Both writers therefore want to understand the political discourse of today, including the obvious powerlessness of the ‘left’.
As a reader, reading both books was an interesting experiment. At Lesage I learned how the seemingly ‘revolutionary’ statements and writings of Rancière, sometimes Badiou, or Angemben and ‘Comité invisible’ can be seen as a so-called ‘radical left-wing version’ of Heidegger’s rather bizarre retro philosophy (I take all criticism on myself, do not worry). Lesage shows me convincingly why the anarchist lecture had to become a kind of self-suffocating knot. I’m just wondering if we should really go through the 50 page Heidegger analysis and the 30 page Hegel study. Why is this not a form of being caught in textuality, to address Said’s critique of about 1972, when the European Christian educated is imprisoned? Do we ever get out of it by adding another analysis like that? In light of our specific weight as Europe (currently) in the world, this has a significance, but given the actual changes in our influence in the tangible, empirical world, the question can be asked whether that significance is still so great that it is almost the entire book dominating, and that various other inputs (from China, India, Africa, Latin America) are completely ignored, in a book that explicitly aims to instigate a ‘radical democracy’? Is it not to remain too true to the Eurocentric canon idea? And how do you justify it today, left?
The question is not in vain, for the author tries to clarify what the Many can mean in this and the coming world order. When ‘the Others’ are completely absent, despite the interesting development that can already be felt there, then I get frustrated. The work is ‘high quality’ in the traditional sense of scholarly, elaborate, etc., but it remains exclusively and only in the western academic small garden, and that is a shortcoming. I think it can be a lot more radical, and I suppose it should, unless we want to sink far from reality in a lyrical game. For example, I miss practical examples from a swirling reality that is evolving before our eyes (also in our cities), as well as the interesting perspectives of critical economists like Piketty, environmental and climate thinkers, and politically attentive social scientists like David Graeber.
In Willaert, who is actually based on the same or at least parallel concern, I see rather the opposite problems: as an action man, he chooses, according to his needs, to deliver his intuitive understanding of reality, the studies or authors who can serve. For example, he begins with Freud’s book on the discomfort of culture (1930) and states that it shows how humans are created: We have conflicting instincts, which with increasing dissatisfaction lead to anger. Willaert argues that this is the case, not that this may be an interesting hypothesis. Then various real and often disturbing events are mentioned, ranging from the storm of the Capitol, to the rapid brainwashing of society as a whole through market thinking (meritocracy) and the use of ICT actors in this process. At the end of a roller coaster of events, statements and sometimes only indirectly documented statements about the social developments from which we are all drawn, he (also) ends up mentioning a few alternative developments: from Occupy, over Extinction Rebellion to the more extensively discussed transformation within the Democratic Party of the United States (with the group around Bernie Sanders) and the parallel Momentum movement in Britain under Corbyn. The explanation of the latter two is refreshing because I believe that this is not adequately addressed in the analyzes of the compounds (not at all with Lesage, which in a sense remains fully ‘continental European’ focused). Yet this deserves much more and deeper analysis than the mention on a few pages. The contrast between his rather arbitrary approach to quotation and Lesage’s academic text analysis is enormous. How do the relevant and best-studied pieces from both come together in one synthetic story that is substantiated and at the same time attractive? A negative point that both authors have in common: Even in Willaert’s version of a vision of the future, Eurocentrism is not abandoned, if only to shed more light on the enormous developments elsewhere in the world. Nor has the crisis level of ecological and climate change, together with the new structural inequalities in the world (it’s Piketty too!), Really not been realized, because it is completely lacking in the limited future framework that is being laid.
Dialogue. Criticism is difficult, especially if writers mean it well. But criticism must be fair and therefore harsh: It is also part of the radicalism that both writers are calling for. I completely agree with them on that point. I suggest: we need to find a sufficiently common language, otherwise no alternative at all to the common rejection of undemocratic globalization will become a reality. For this purpose, it will be necessary for the academic to partially abandon his jargon and for the activist to learn to deal with conceptual frameworks and ‘theories’ more carefully. And in my opinion, it will at least be absolutely necessary for everyone on the left to question the blind and above all exclusive belief in economics, which has been so persistent on the left since Marx. Of course, there are sensible aspects to economics as a discipline, but with Piketty, I think it’s always ‘political economy’, not ‘pure’ science. So the discussion of what is human, moral, just, sustainable, what human-nature and human-human relations are, comes first, and economics can then be useful in making the choices a little more systematic (and it’s not enough just to drop ‘intersectionality’, as Willaert at least still does). And these visions of people and values and the like must, determined by left-wing or progressive people in today’s world, be created in an inclusive way, not from the universally accepted concepts or ethical principles of the West: we must first learn to listen modestly to ‘the Other’ , because it lives and continues today, alongside our history. And finally, all this will also be best done in a more holistic perspective, where nature is not a source of tangible raw materials, but a whole of beings, substances and processes of which man is just a part as well. To me, it is progressive or left-wing thinking. From there, one’s own history of ideas could be reread (as Lesage works) or current developments in political-economic processes could be analyzed (in parallel with Willaert’s analysis). If we succeed in talking together about what could be a politically sound or justifiable choice for the future, then I think a recruiting and connecting left-wing project is possible. Perhaps the groundwork for the followers of Sanders and Corbyn, like that for the commons, can be a good starting point everywhere.
This is how I read the ears of both authors. I have also learned something from both, but I also agree that there is a common language and a common table, otherwise frustration remains only our part.
Dancing on a sizzling volcano, a study of the anger and unrest in our culture by Dominique Willaert and Parliament and the many, call for radical democracy by Dieter Lesage both appeared on EPO, 2022
Picture of Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay