Arts & Living, Politics, Society

The tyranny of guilt and the politics of dissolution

Pascal Brucker’s The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism is a passionate indictment of the guilt-ridden and self-loathing culture that dominates contemporary Western Europe, and his own country, France, in particular. In the chapter Listen to My Suffering, Bruckner identifies and challenges the widespread climate of victimization:

As soon as we acquire the status of legal claimants, we immediately acquire that of injured parties as well. Each of us is given at birth a portfolio of grievances to exploit. History as a whole owes us a debt which we demand be immediately repaid. Today, we combine romanticism with suffering; we form a new elite caste, with an absolute allergy to pain, the ideal being to acquire the title of pariah without having actually endured anything. The slightest adversity we encounter is a scandal that has to be indemnified. To set oneself up as a victim is to give oneself twofold power to accuse and demand, to cast opprobrium on others and to beg. And since each of us has in our family tree at least a person who was hanged, one proletarian, one victim of persecution, we will go back as far as the Middle Ages if that is what it takes to demand justice. Classical  political combat trained warlike men and women who were proud of their conquests, whereas contemporary legal combat produces chronic malcontents. It is not clear that this presents progress (page 147-148).

Brucker can hardly be called an exponent of the secular Hard Right and his writings can be best understood as an attempt to rescue the original progressive Enlightenment ideals from the ravages of identity politics and multiculturalism. The author embraces the egalitarian democratic ideal and claims that modern intellectuals have abandoned universalism in pursuit of a new species of identity politics in which moral superiority is expressed as cultivated self-hatred. What remains unclear is whether these faux progressives are basically well-intentioned  intellectuals gone astray or whether all this rhetoric is just another rationalization of the will to political power.

In Brucker’s universe, democracy is a neutral decision mechanism in which conflicting conceptions of the good and interests fight for dominance. Culture is shaped by “ideas” (biology is largely absent in his book) and we should make an effort to ensure the ideals of the Enlightenment prevail. What is questionable about this perspective is whether democracy should be treated in such a neutral fashion. In a very general sense, identity politics is an inescapable feature of modern democracy because majority rule requires a moral or cultural rationale for the preferential treatment of one group over another. A politics that would aspire to completely abstain from non-unanimous decision making would bring about the end of the State. Because a straightforward appeal to superior force is both unappealing and vulnerable,  practical politics is always in search for legitimacy as it benefits one group at the expense of another. The modern therapeutic state offers no shortage of excuses to intervene – albeit of a transient nature.

Brucker offers a defense of national borders that, at some points, could double as a defense of private property and free trade: “To draw a boundary is to put an end to battle: the former enemy becomes and ally, the foreigner a neighbor. The border area calms down, dangers are domesticated.”

What distinguishes today’s progressives from the aristocratic rulers of old is that they do not accept any borders – neither nation nor property. With such beliefs, there can be little doubt that this culture and its people will ultimately be displaced. Political power based on self-loathing and empowerment of political rivals is even more vulnerable to dissolution than political power that solely grows out of the barrel of a gun.