Ernest Sternberg: A Revivified Corpse, Left-Fascism in the Twenty-First Century

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Ernest’s Sternberg’s review of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism (New York: Random House, 2008 ) in Telos (A Revivified Corpse: Left Fascism in the Twenty-First Century) is well worth reading (also check out Fred Siegel’s review in Democratiya here).

The review is a pithy summary of many of the issues that concern me today including the collusion and alliances of the extreme left and extreme right, the development of Islamist totalitarianism, and the increasing frequency of antisemitism cloaked as anti-imperialism. Observing events in his native France since the fall of the Soviet Union and especially after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Lévy asks, “what happened to the secular, liberal, left?” In answering this question, Sternberg notes two ideas at the core of Lévy’s conception of contemporary neo-progressive thought:

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).

Perhaps a better term is “the perfect” as in “the perfect is the enemy of the good” or simply, utopianism.

The review continues:

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” (Lévy 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, Lévy 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 Lévy’s allegiance. But after the collapse of communism and all the more so after 9/11, Lévy 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.

Sternberg has more substantial critiques of Lévy’s analysis. In particular, his “failure to comprehend mainstream Anglo-American conservatism.” For Lévy:

conservatism brings to mind those martinets who persecuted Dreyfus: those whose highest values were Authority, Order, Nation, State, Tradition, and Social Body (his capitalizations) as against intellectuals, freedom, democracy, parliament, and rights of man (p. 24). Unable to extricate himself from hoary Left-Right dichotomy, even as he reveals its bankruptcy, Lévy claims the parliamentarian Edmund Burke, whose sin was to be a conservative, as one of the origins of the historical path to Nazism (p. 92).

The irony is that Lévy himself has taken a Burkean turn. Lévy identifies the essence of the anti-totalitarian spirit as one that conceives of politics “as a world of indecision, indetermination, which takes into account the complexity of human affairs, the need for deliberation and compromise” (p. 70)…

American conservatives aren’t interested in Burke because he admired the French queen but because he formulated a powerful argument for incremental reform in light of society’s overwhelming complexity, an argument not so far removed from Lévy’s own…

…Most versions of American conservative thought look for inspiration and tradition not to an ancien régime, but to the American revolution, the Founding Fathers, the constitution, Lincoln’s reforms, and incremental development of America as the original liberal, anti-absolutist state.

Intellectual historian George Nash covers this in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Since 1945. Nash argues that the ideology of American conservatism is difficult to pin down. For European conservatives, things were (are?) much easier. Generally speaking, European conservatives were against radical political and social change—better known as revolution—and they supported a national church. In the United States, a country founded on revolution, such a political idea would be regarded as anti-American and the establishment of a state Church–whether Protestant or Catholic–also ran counter to American political culture.

A more serious deficiency is Lévy:

lacks an explanation for the rise of neoprogressive barbarism. Despite much intellectual name-dropping, the book is short on theory. Yet, his initial outline of totalitarian articles of faith gives a hint. The new totalitarians must envision a Good as well as an Evil, only Lévy is silent on what their Good might be.

Sternberg will discuss “Left Fascism” at the 2009 Telos Conference in NYC (Jan 17). Details below:

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From the conference website:

The conference topic will be New Administration: War, Class and Critical Theory, which will consider both the new administration in Washington and political shifts abroad, viewed in light of Telos‘s long-standing concern with “administered society,” expansive bureaucracies, and the role of the “new class.”

Conference Schedule

Saturday, January 17

9:00 Greetings: Mary Piccone, Introduction: Russell Berman

New Class and Capitalism:
Beyond Welfare and State and Neo-Liberalism

Chair: David Pan

9:15 Jim Kulk: “Political Divisions and the Financial Crisis”

10:00 John Milbank: “Revived Red Toryism: The New Political Paradox”

10:45 Break

11:00 Neil Turnbull: “Federal Populism and its Failure as Regionalism”

11:45 Michael Marder: “In the Name of the Law: Schmitt and the Metonymic Abuses of Legitimacy”

12:30 Lunch

Old Wars, New Wars

Chair: Tim Luke

1:30 Joseph Bendersky: “Horkheimer, ‘Militant Democracy,’ and War”

2:15 David Pan: “World Order and the Decline of U.S. Power: Soft or Hard Landing?”

3:00 Break

3:15 Adrian Pabst: “The Berlin Doctrine: Rethinking the Euro-Atlantic Community”

4:00 Ernie Sternberg: “Left Fascism”

4:45 Closing Discussion

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