"The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction": by Mark Lilla
The New York Review of Books Inc (Oct 2016)
Soft cover, 176 pages
To call 2016 a catastrophic year for the worldwide Left would be an understatement. Britain's self-harming Brexit referendum and the USA's toxic (possibly Putinised) presidential election were only the most spectacular of the setbacks, with genocidal civil wars and anti-immigrant activism on the rise all over. Contrast with that period of hubristic optimism before the 2003 Iraq Invasion could hardly be more stark. George Bush's Caring Conservatives and Tony Blair's New Labour thought that together they could fix the Post-Cold-War world permanently for democracy and free markets, but those free markets (plus the immense war costs) lead directly to the financial crash of 2008, which lead to the austerity of 2010, which lead to the great "revolt of the left-behind" that Brexit and Trump represent. It turns out that a majority, admittedly narrow, of European and US populations now reject the cosmopolitanism and liberalism espoused by their political leaders and celebrity role-models.
To make headway against this tide of reaction, the Left needs to understand this mind-set rather than merely excoriating it as racist, sexist, homophobic and whatever. Such tutting and finger-wagging contributed significantly to the current ideological rout. Few scholars are better equipped to provide such understanding than Mark Lilla, Professor of Humanities at Columbia University New York. A political scientist and historian of ideas, Lilla has contributed many articles to the New York Review of Books analysing anti-Enlightenment and anti-Modern thought in religion and politics, and his latest volume "The Shipwrecked Mind" is built from expanded versions of several of these.
This reviewer first came across Lilla via his 1998 NYRB essay "A Tale of Two Reactions", while researching my book on the legacy of the '60s counter-culture. Lilla pondered the two revolutions that transformed post-war America, the 1960s "counter-cultural revolution" and Ronald Reagan's neoliberal economic revolution of the 1980s. He characterised both sides as "reactionary" in the strict sense of that term: the Right reacts ineffectually against the moral laxity of popular culture, while the Left reacts ineffectually against privatisation and market forces. But he also observed that young Americans appeared to have no difficulty reconciling the two positions by "holding down day jobs in the unfettered global economy while spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties". That remains largely true in Trump's America, except that those day jobs are harder to come by...
In "The Shipwrecked Mind" Lilla further dissects the reactionary impulse as displayed in the work of several 20th-century thinkers, some famous, others less so, most ignored by intellectual historians who find revolutionaries more interesting and sympathetic. Though his book was written well before Trump's victory, Lilla had already sensed the way the tide was running, that the media, internet and social networks were turning public opinion toward the right. He begins by clarifying an important point:
Reactionaries are not conservatives... They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings... The revolutionary sees the radiant future invisible to others and it electrifies him. The reactionary, immune to modern lies, sees the past in all its splendor and he too is electrified... His story begins with a happy, well-ordered state where people who know their place live in harmony and submit to tradition and their God. Then alien ideas promoted by intellectuals - writers, journalists, professors - challenge this harmony and the will to maintain order weakens at the top. (The betrayal of elites is the linchpin of every reactionary story)... Today political Islamists, European nationalists, and the American Right tell their ideological children essentially the same tale. The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind.In his first section, "Thinkers", Lilla tackles three 20th-century philosophers: Franz Rosenzweig, Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss. Rosenzweig was a scholar first of Hegel, then of Judaism, who rebelled against Hegelian reason and the "disenchantment of the world" in favour of religious revival. He called for a “battle for religion in the twentieth-century sense” in terms, ironically enough, very similar to those of his contemporary, the anti-semitic Martin Heidegger. Voegelin was German-born but raised and studied philosophy in Vienna. A 1924 fellowship in New York exposed him to the teaching of John Dewey at Columbia, and imbued him with a hatred of racism and totalitarianism that proved embarassing on his return to Austria: in 1938 he had to flee Nazi arrest back to the USA. His major works "The Political Religions" and "The New Science of Politics" attacked fascism, communism and nationalism, but blamed Western secularism for their rise and defended the utility of religion for keeping social order. This makes him popular with the US religious Right, though Lilla argues that they misunderstand him (he also blamed Christianity for the American Revolution!)
The best-known of the three is Leo Strauss, another gifted European philosopher who emigrated to America before WWII. Throughout the 1950s and '60s at the University of Chicago he mentored a whole generation of neo-conservatives in the art of political dissembling. We have him to thank, in part, for US foreign policy under Reagan and both Bushes. His muscular strain of Platonism emphasised the need for a two-level philosophy: a softened, highly-edited version of the world to placate the masses, and a hard, cold (and secret) true picture for their masters. The current furore over online False News might be seen as a Straussian legacy.
The second half of the book covers contemporary reactionary thinkers on both Right and Left. Brad Gregory's "The Unintended Reformation" is an exercise in counterfactual history, where he suggests that had the Pope's side won the 30 Years War, capitalism might have developed in a different, more humane direction, with less consumerism and moral relativism. Er, yes, perhaps... Lilla goes on to skilfully dissect the Swiss Talmud scholar Jacob Taubes, who started the cult of admiration for Nazi lawyer Carl Schmitt's work among European Left thinkers, then proceeds to Alain Badiou, who further exemplified such extraordinary intellectual gymnastics by moving seamlessly from Mao Tse Tung to St Paul as his preferred model of revolutionary fervour.
Lilla's last chapter analyses the Paris terrorist attacks of 2015 and their effect on French public opinion, through works by journalist Eric Zemmour and novelist Michel Houellebecq. A few months before the Paris attacks Zemmour published "Le Suicide Français", a tirade against the decline of France that became the second-best-selling book of 2014: not a simple racist of the Le Pen sort, Zemmour blames not just appeasement of Muslims but also the outsourcing, wage-cutting business classes and bankers. Houellebecq, perhaps France’s most important contemporary novelist, used to take a jaundiced, sub-situationist view of French consumer society, but his latest novel "Submission" changes tack with a plot about an Islamic political party coming to power in France in the near future and achieving popular support, thanks to a general decline of moral fibre wrought by secular consumerism. By a macabre coincidence it was published the morning of the Charlie Hebdo murders.
Following World War II social-democratic ideas enjoyed a certain hegemony on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to the experience of collective wartime effort. (That even included "wet" Tory governments and the pre-Tea Party GOP to some degree). The 1960s counter-culture dented this hegemony through unrealistic and anachronistic revolutionary posturing, and so it was that on achieving office Margaret Thatcher could denounce the hegemony as "the ratchet of socialism". Between them the Thatcher and Reagan administrations inaugurated a devastatingly effective counter-attack, by playing on popular emotions, the prejudices and fears caused by rapid social change, and by ridiculing the moralising "political correctness" of the New Left. The ideas Mark Lilla examines in this book all contributed to this gradual, drip-by-drip process of undermining the post-war progressive mindset. As he puts it "for an ideology to really reshape politics it must cease being a set of principles and become instead a vaguer general outlook that new information and events only strengthen. You really know when an ideology has matured when every event, present and past, is taken as confirmation of it". That's where we appear now to be with Brexit and Trump.