Living on

Five years after his death, Jacques Derrida's ideas continue to resonate

Five years ago, the French philosopher and founder of "deconstruction" Jacques Derrida died of pancreatic cancer in Paris. Derrida was arguably the most famous (some would say infamous) of all contemporary philosophers. In his prime -- coinciding with the winds of postmodernism that swept university campuses and architectural practices in the 1980s and 1990s -- his influence extended well beyond the academy. On hearing of his death in October 2004, Jacques Chirac declared him "one of the major figures of intellectual life of our time". Judging by how little noticed the fifth anniversary of his death has been, however, his star has fallen a long way in the past five years.

Part of the reason for this may lie with the natural shelf life of Derrida's uniquely opaque writing style, not to mention his refusal ever to allow the meaning of his work to be pinned down. "He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying," Derrida's friend and colleague Michel Foucault once said of him. "That's the obscurantism part, and then when you criticise him, he can always say, 'You didn't understand me; you're an idiot.' That's the terrorism part." Foucault was certainly not alone in finding Derrida's philosophising too wantonly obscure. Many, and perhaps most notoriously the analytic philosopher John Searle in a 1983 essay in the New York Review of Books, saw all the verbal pirouettes as a diversionary tactic, designed to draw attention away from the lack of substance in his work.

But neither this nor the various controversies Derrida became embroiled in stopped him from developing a huge following over the years. So is the real reason for Derrida's low profile today simply that the world has moved beyond the sort of critical vision he sought to apply to it? The style of deconstruction Derrida championed was intended to sweep away the "meta-narratives" of a promised utopia inherent in modern political thought. His aim was to reduce them all to their paradoxical cores, ushering in a period of sceptical, deliberately disjointed reflection in their stead. But deconstruction's own stock has devalued of late, perhaps because, as the cultural critic Terry Eagleton points out, it boils down to an ethical free-for-all in which anything goes and nothing is left to stand for the good life. In his book After Theory, Eagleton jokes of Derrida's view of ethics: "One can only hope that he is not on the jury when one's case comes up in court."

All of which makes it hard to imagine Derrida's oeuvre making a sudden comeback, called up for reasons of practical necessity in the way that Keynesian economics recently has been. The difficulty of imagining it notwithstanding, that seems to be precisely the intention behind a new edition of his lectures, soon to be published by the prestigious University of Chicago Press under the title The Beast and the Sovereign. The lectures -- which have been gathering dust for the past few years in the archives of the University of California-Irvine -- hold out the promise of a more politically relevant Derrida, fit for our times, as they deal with questions of "force, right and justice".

Undoubtedly this is all very much of the political moment. But there is one problem: Derrida was ultimately never political in the way that these new lectures seem to portray him. To be sure, he was not apolitical, a common misconception. In an interview with a fellow intellectual, Mustapha Chérif, shortly before Derrida's death, he held forth on a range of matters, including Islam, secularism and democracy, and his own centre of gravity was always very much on the left. But it was also always part of his politics to refuse to adopt or support any particular political creed or movement. Marxism, he pointed out, was no longer anything to follow, and even in his most overtly political books -- such as Spectres of Marx and The Politics of Friendship -- he allowed only a hesitant normative light into his thinking.

To quibble about Derrida's own political leanings, however, may be to miss both the point and the possible value of hearing his distinctive voice speak to us once more through these lectures. Regardless of his own political tactics, the legacy of Derrida's approach to texts, to the need to tease out the layers of often contradictory meaning contained within them, remains important. From that attention to inconsistency and contingency comes a trenchant critique of the danger and seductive power of thinking through binaries such as "good versus evil".

In this sense, Derrida remains entirely pertinent to the moment. The misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan top a long list of such Manichaean follies. And that these are follies foisted on us through the asserted legitimacy of particular discursive constructs (the idea of the "war on terror", for example) merely restates the importance of the ultimate Derridean argument: that we do well to take the production and disputation of discourse seriously, because it is through words and texts that acts and deeds materialise.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump