Reading List: Foucault And The Race-Based Vision Of History, The Underside Of The French Presidential Campaign, And What We’re Willing To Die For

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To the twenty French academics who have come to the defense of Houria Bouteldja, spokesperson for Le Parti des Indigènes de la République (a group purporting to represent ethnicities colonized by France), whom Jean Birnbaum is alleged to have slandered in a recent article in Le Monde des Idées (June 9), I would highly recommend a single piece of reading: “Society Must Be Defended,” a series of lectures given by French thinker Michel Foucault at the Collège de France from January through March 1976. In that series, the author of “Discipline and Punish” recounts the appearance, in the seventeenth century, of the idea of a “race war” that supposedly would pit the “native Gauls” against the “Germanic invaders,” and the formalization of that idea two centuries later by nineteenth century academics, among them François Guizot and Augustin Thierry. Foucault goes on to describe how that race-based vision of history gradually became superimposed on Machiavelli’s much more powerful idea of the opposition, within the context of universal values, between the dominated and the dominating. He depicts the disastrous influence of this paradigm of racial struggle on Marx’s analysis of class struggle, which was largely based on the biopolitical model (before the term was coined); and he describes the speculative heroism of those who, from Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just at the time of the French Revolution to the best of the Left in the second half of the twentieth century, tried to respond by decoupling their solidarity with rebellious people from this disastrous intellectual heritage. It is all there; Foucault says everything that needs to be said. He gives you all you need to take stock of the identity-based, racist, and downright Darwinian trap that still haunts the French Left and, as part of that stock-taking, to trace the long and unfortunately very powerful genealogy of the tendency to define the oppressed by their origins, to bind them up in their skin color and ethnicity, and, in short, to mimic the racism of the extreme Right. One current name of that persistent trap is Islamo-leftism.

If there is a French leader whose career seems to reflect an anxious awareness of this trap first set so long ago—and now about to be sprung anew—it is undoubtedly former prime minister Manuel Valls. That is one of the lessons of the rich, precise, and information-packed account that journalist Laurent Neumann has just given us of the underside of the recent French presidential campaign (Les dessous de la campagne, Calmann-Lévy, 2017). In it we find centrist François Bayrou forever hesitating between conflicting calculations. Leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon oscillating between disingenuous anger and genuine pettiness. Marine Le Pen parading in Moscow alongside an anti-Semitic member of the Duma. And Emmanuel Macron marveling at his fabulous fate, not quite yet believing it. And the uncertainties of François Hollande. And the curse of François Fillon. But the truly engrossing figure in the book, in my view, anyway, is the former Socialist prime minister. We see Valls defending the Republic. We hear him advocating for secular values and policies. We watch him, encircled by his enemies and boxed in by his friends, confronting an intra-party revolt, opposing the burkini, denouncing the anti-feminism and homophobia of the above-mentioned “indigenous” Islamo-leftists, and daring to imagine a world where Jews need no longer be afraid and Muslims no longer ashamed. At the heart of all this one detects Valls’s prescient sense of the “racialist” temptation that is gaining traction on the Left. One feels his resolve to cede no ground—not an inch—to implacable Islamo-leftists. And one begins to wonder if, in Valls’s rigor, in his inflexibility, and in his demeanor of a commander shaming halfwits who think they can outsmart the worst sort of allies or accommodate the worst they have in them,one cannot find the real reason behind the disgrace into which he seems to have fallen (or been pushed).

And finally, one more rewarding read, professor Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine’s short but powerful Pour quoi serions-nous encore prêts à mourir? (Cerf 2017). In tackling the question of what we might still be willing to die for, the author strays a little too far into nostalgia (Baudelaire, really ? Ernest Psichari ?) for a world in which the “soldier” accompanies the “priest” and the “poet” on the path toward reconstruction of the world. But she does very well indeed in urging a general mobilization against radical Islam and its theologico-political crimes, rightly reminding us that we will not defeat jihadism if we content ourselves with pluckily “occupying sidewalk cafés” and calling for greater mutual tolerance. I admire her decision to place her exhortation to resistance under the imprimaturs of (1) Robert Musil, who mocked the sleepwalkers of the sleepless nights of his own time and their propensity to reduce the question of meaning to a matter of “weights and measures”; (2) Vladimir Jankélévitch, who insisted, in L’Impréscriptible (Inalienable), that a life reduced solely to concern for its own survival is the life “of an ant or a ruminant”; and (3) Jan Patocka, the Husserlian philosopher assassinated exactly 40 years ago by the Czech police, who found the strength, just before dying, to attest that a life is not truly lived unless it derives its reasons for action not in fear or self-interest but in the feeling that there are values greater than itself.

Mosul will fall. The caliphate is a shrinking shadow of what it wished to become. But the lesson of Laignel-Lavastine’s book is that believers in democracy will truly win the fight only if, beyond the ineluctable military victory over an army of undisciplined and cowardly soldiers and after we have understood why, on moral grounds, it is necessary to reject excusism and don’t-lump-us-together-ism, in short, once the intellectual confusion of the “discriminated Muslim” of today with the “rebellious proletarian” of yesterday has been dispelled, we wage and win the ultimate battle, a spiritual battle to reunite ourselves with our honor, our way to greatness, and our reasons for knowing, doing, and hoping.

Translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy

Foucault and the Race-Based Vision of History (Jean Birnbaum), The Underside of the French Presidential Campaign (Laurent Neumann), and What We’re Willing to Die For (Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine).