Transculturation And The Collapse Of Thought

Wanting to help edify me, an old friend who may recognise himself hastened to send me the YouTube link to a conference on Ukraine. “John Mearsheimer’s thesis, although it dates from 2016, is one hundred per cent my own,” added this friend, urging me to listen to it (you can find it on the platform). So what did this distinguished professor who had so impressed him have to say?

Russia : a lost ally
I would have been pleased to smile if the distressing banality of his remarks had not reminded me of earlier ones with far crueler consequences. But first, let’s sum them up. Ukraine, says the American strategist, is in no way of any strategic interest to the United States and he therefore proposes to “Finlandise” it to make it a buffer state. Why, he continues, should we upset Russia, a nuclear power to be reckoned with, with our NATO posturing on its own turf? What a waste it would be to throw such a precious potential ally into the arms of our worst rivals (the conference dates back to before the war!) We need Russia,” replies the good professor without batting an eyelid, “for Syria (infested, as we know, with fundamentalists, I might add). We still need Russia for Iran (to keep the mullahs in check, I might add), but above all to contain China, “our real competitor”.

Machiavel for ever
So here we are! This is pure geopolitical forecasting from this ‘expert’, where the balance of power is analysed more than summarily in the light of the only reason that counts: the reason of the strongest. This is just the ticket for the Q-Annon fundamentalists, who are heartened by Donald Trump’s recent statements. Let’s be clear. We’ve known since Machiavelli that politics is an instrument of power relations. And it is up to politicians and their advisers to use it to defend what they consider to be the general interest of their nation. On the other hand, it is up to intellectuals, who are attached to the values of democracy, to denounce them if the former use them to mask their own interests. That is, of course, if democracy has not turned into oligarchy. In this respect, John Mearsheimer, as a right-wing analyst who defends American interests tooth and nail, is fully in his role, however cynical he may be. Moreover, he is merely reinforcing an old regionalist reflex inherent in all American administrations: the Monroe Doctrine.

The intellectual responsability
But what about the intellectuals – particularly those trained in or belonging to Europe who, like my friend, have defended the diversity of cultures and the task of telling their history, the “unwritten history of the vanquished” that Walter Benjamin called for? “At the time when the Russian world wanted to remodel my little country in its own image, I formulated my ideal for Europe as follows: maximum diversity in minimum space; the Russians no longer govern my native country, but this ideal is even more in danger” wrote Milan Kundera in 2005.*

Dishonour and  war”
Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine gives this recently deceased novelist’s observation all its sharpness and urgency. Why is this so? Because it highlights, beyond the stammering of history, the “strange defeat” (Marc Bloch) of intellectuals when they absolve themselves of their responsibility and bow to the reason of the strongest, ignoring once again “a far away country of which we know little”. These famous words by which Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister at the time of the Munich agreements in 1938, sought to justify the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia were, like the words of the American analyst, a geopolitical calculation to avoid war. Winston Churchill replied, “You wanted to avoid war even at the price of dishonour; you have dishonour and you will have war”.

The defeat of thought: an old story
The defeat of thought is not a new phenomenon; it accompanies the crisis experienced by the intellectual class at the time of the great upheavals of its era. The crisis we are experiencing has already had several avatars: from the “silence of the intellectuals” to “The defeat of thought”, the eponymous title of this article taken from Alain Finkielkraut’s 1984 book, via Allan Bloom’s The Closing of American Mind and Régis Debray’s caustic analyses of the terminal intellectual. In his latest book, La défaite de l’Occident (The Defeat of the West), Emmanuel Todd extended the defeat of thought to the whole of the old and new continents.

What are the causes of this? Back in the 1980s, Finkelkraut pinpointed the epicentre in the bi-secular duel between two concepts of nation: the ethnic idea and the elective idea of the nation. German Romanticism and French counter-revolutionaries defended the former by extolling the “national genius” and the patriotic and popular values associated with it. Individuals are the spearhead. The elective theory, on the other hand, sees the nation as a voluntary association of free individuals, an idea born of the Enlightenment and inherited by the French Revolution

The ethnic theory
The philosopher’s view can be summed up as follows: whenever the ethnic theory prevails over the elective theory, when nationalism is victorious, Europe collapses. Samuel Blumenfeld wrote in the daily Le Monde: “We thought that the elective theory of the nation had won the day after the UNESCO Constitution was drafted in 1945, taking up the ideal of the Enlightenment. But no. In 1951, Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in Race et histoire that the text in question was guilty of Western ethnocentrism. The idea of a cutting-edge civilisation held up as a model to Third World countries. As a result, the philosophy of decolonisation translates into a regression towards the local geniuses of German Romanticism”.

The hedonism of the consumer society has accelerated its backward leap, and the urban arts, born in its bosom, have suddenly found themselves promoted to the level of the great classics, provoking a new battle between the ancients and the moderns. Social networks, which privatise public space and exacerbate individualism, have amplified this trend. As a result, the cultural diversity so dear to Kundera and the transcultural experience that we fight for have been downgraded to the point where they are no longer perceived as a value, but as an avatar of multicultural consumerism: the “United Nations of Benetton”. As Nietzsche already anticipated, this confusion and even reversal of all values has the effect of neutralising freedom of reception, i.e. critical thought. Freedom of expression, without safeguards, has become the useful idiot of authoritarian regimes.
In this respect, the responsibility of the “organic intellectual”, as Gramsci called him, is precisely to put critical thought back on track as far as possible, not as a negative thought that judges, condemns and takes sides, but as a premise for an authentic politics of recognition, i.e. a politics of balance between the general interest and particular interests.
This balance is not new; it is already implicit in Article 4 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The well-tempered liberal-socialism that it implies is still an unthought of concept in the political arena today. Having been phagocytised in France by Macronism, it is more than ever the new continent to be explored for the Old Continent, which is looking for a second wind in next June’s elections. Can we pull the plug on its rugged individualism and put it at the service of a well-understood social, ecological and transcultural policy. That’s the challenge of the forthcoming European elections.
A lot of work for those who once believed in the value of transcultural experience. But they must not give in to the siren calls of the extremes right or lefet or sit back and watch the train go by.

One more effort my friend…