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30 October 2023

The left needs to be more like Michel Foucault

Only by reclaiming his vitalist philosophy can the left-wing thought triumph.

By Mathis Bitton

Nietzsche’s popularity is increasing among young conservatives. This online, right-wing movement – a peculiar mixture of eugenics, bodybuilding, pagan imagery, ironic detachment and racial determinism – has gained traction, particularly among young men at elite US colleges.

Last year, at a conference of political philosophers at Michigan State University, a Yale professor named Bryan Garsten told his colleagues that many of his best students “considered liberal democracy an exhausted joke”, if not a decadent regime in need of replacement. Since these students might hold real power in the not-so-distant future, worries about their affinity for Nietzschean – or downright fascist – ideas seem legitimate.

There is nothing original about disenchanted students loathing the status quo or embracing radical politics. A similar disposition made 20-year-olds rush to the streets of Chicago in 1968, join the Paris Commune in 1871, or fight alongside the Jacobins in 1789.

For as long as the left-right distinction has existed, young minds in search of effervescence have chosen the left to channel their discontentment towards political action. Socialist or anarchist, liberal or postmodern, the left has always flirted with vitalism, siding with the artist against the censor, the aesthete against the clerk, the libertine against the prude.

What does distinguish our moment from these older examples, however, is that the thirst for subversion has changed sides. Vitalism has become a rightist project devoid of defenders on the academic and political left.

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As early as the late Middle Ages, opposition to the privileges of the few took the form of aesthetic experimentation. Mikhail Bakhtin, the 20th-century socialist critic, writes at length about the place of carnivals in the medieval imagination. With peasants dressed up as nobles, chuckling defiantly, mocking the clergy, and engaging in all sorts of depravities, carnivals were occasions to deride dogmas and inject dynamism into dull lives. For Bakhtin, impertinent humour and grotesque disguises break the chains of obedience. The greatest of changes comes from the simplest of desires to provoke, to ignore convention, to test the limits of decorum. Drinking, singing, rejoicing in forbidden pleasures, the masses felt the thrill of emancipation – an illusory thrill, an ephemeral thrill, but one that could sow the seed of revolt.

Similarly, during the French Revolution, the Jacobins did not merely present their movement as a quest for new rights and liberties. More than oppressors, the notaries of the ancien régime were cowards, conformists, mediocrities incapable of original thought.

Contrasting their youthful ambition with their enemies’ timidity, the architects of 1789 compared themselves to pagan warriors, to ancient philosophers, to Renaissance artists overthrowing a sterile, sclerotic order. Henri Grégoire, one of the revolution’s key thinkers, likened the aristocracy to “rapacious tribes who live on nothing” but lies, exhorting his contemporaries to destroy the “talisman” of privilege, whose power “stupefies many a man” into submission. In pamphlets and speeches, Jacobin leaders spoke the language of vitality, if not of virility. The ancien régime had put the people to sleep; theirs was the promise of awakening.

Parisians then returned to the streets in 1830, 1848 and 1871. Every time, artists glorified the aesthetics of popular uproar. In 1830, Eugène Delacroix painted his “Liberty Leading the People”, a romantic masterpiece depicting a woman guiding the crowd over the bodies of the fallen, holding aloft the flag of the revolution.

[See also: What Daniel Dennett gets wrong]

After 1848, it fell upon Victor Hugo, the era’s greatest novelist, to lend his voice to the rebellious in Les Misérables. “Paris,” Hugo declared, “will terrify the world.” Describing scenes of plebeian defiance, the socialist writer portrayed the barricade as an expression of the human spirit: “He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic. Nothing is more sublime.” For Delacroix, as for Hugo, as for the poets who later commemorated the 1871 Paris Commune, these events did not merely consist of material struggles. They were “fantastic”, “tragic”, “sublime”. They were a means of self-expression, if not works of art.

Ever since, vitalism has given leftist movements their pulse. Of more recent events, none represents this thirst for self-expression as memorably as May 1968. For about seven weeks, demonstrations erupted, students occupied universities, and factory workers erected barricades in the middle of Paris. The scale and scope of the event seemed extraordinary for a postwar society searching for calm and normalcy.

Yet the protests, however impressive in the moment, accomplished relatively little. Denouncing consumerism, imperialism and traditional institutions, the movement did not shift the country’s fundamental orientation, at home or abroad. In fact, the protests’ most important contribution was not political but aesthetic. In the crowd, millions found friends, dreams and energy. Anger and disenchantment gave birth to a common language. Out of the tumult emerged songs, slogans and images that would inspire generations to come.

The protesters of May 1968 captured this aesthetic ambition with a simple slogan, “beauty is in the street”. As Mitchell Abidor observes in his oral history of the period, most former protesters remember their participation in the strikes as a performance. They wanted to inject chaos into their parents’ static, orderly world. In the streets, Abidor claims, “people discovered the thrill of speaking in public and inspiring others… people literally discovered their voices.” The people that Abidor interviews retain fond memories of this sense of empowerment, more than 50 years later. Most barely remember the exact cause for which they were fighting; some even admit that they did not understand the movement’s political project at the time. They joined because they thirsted for the kind of energy that modern life cannot offer. For disabused students, the protests provided a cause and a community.

Outside of the classroom’s white walls, graffiti turned Paris into a boundless canvas. Barricades, hymns and marches brought Victor Hugo’s Misérables to the 20th century. Suddenly, the romantic heroism of another age returned. There, in the irregularities of the crowd, in the vigour of assemblies, in the harmony of popular chants, young people found beauty in anarchy.

The intellectuals of 1968 played an important role in cultivating this vitalist sensibility. Michel Foucault, the period’s icon, was himself an admirer of Nietzsche. Among his many provocations, as a student, Foucault would come to university with a dagger, chasing his classmates around the halls of the École normale supérieure in Paris to irritate university bureaucrats and shock bourgeois sympathies. In his masterful 1993 biography of Foucault, The Passion of Michel Foucault, James Miller shows that this obsession with transgression guided the philosopher’s whole life and work. A champion of his time, Foucault was an independent spirit who pursued self-creation at all costs, be they flirting with radical politics, consuming copious amounts of LSD, or partaking in orgies with students. In search of “limit-experiences” that tested the frontiers of the senses, Foucault pushed the Nietzschean quest for vitalism so far that he did, in the end, cross the limits of the acceptable.

[See also: When we whisper together]

Allegations that Foucault abused boys in Tunisia represent the dark side of the dissident disposition, reminding us, in the starkest of terms, that vitalism without limits – that is, without moral boundaries – can lead to vice. Nevertheless, in his story, as in the story of so many intellectuals from his generation, we find the Promethean fire that burned in the hearts of the Jacobins and the communards.

To see what has since been lost, contrast Foucault’s biography with that of his self-proclaimed successors. Not only do they lead less eventful lives, not only do they side with administrators more often than not, but they empty Foucault’s own contributions of all Nietzschean ambitions, reading him as a mere theorist of anti-domination and marginality – which, admittedly, he also was.

Young radicals today have less sex, less alcohol and take fewer drugs than their predecessors; their conception of activism is more bureaucratic, their language more polished, their protests more vanilla. Students ask for grading exemptions before taking to the streets; professors spend more time in committee meetings than at cafés. Students monitor each other’s every word, sometimes reporting classmates to an ever-growing army of “councillors” and “deans” and “managers” who work for opaque bureaucracies that speak in acronyms. Forced into precarity by an abysmal job market, academics hold their tongue, barely capable of grasping the boundless freedom that Foucault’s peers enjoyed.

In short, if today’s left retains the ideas of the 1968 generation, we lack their aesthetic dynamism. Montesquieu once quipped that the virtue of the ancients, if we experienced it first-hand, would “astonish our small souls”. Well, the vitality of the 1968 protests would astonish our small minds. In 1968, it would have been impossible to imagine a rebellious student turning to the right out of disenchantment, or in search of aesthetic thrill. Today, such a scenario is not only possible, but increasingly probable.

In this regard, conservative attacks on “wokeness” are not as effective on substantial grounds – opinion surveys show that most people support gay rights, access to abortion, more protections for trans people, etc – as they are on aesthetic grounds. When rightists frame the left as the party of talentless HR conformists, their accusations are far from baseless. The left, once the side of the aesthete, has become, in the minds of many, including many of its own, the side of the bureaucrat. Unsurprisingly, this aesthetic affiliation repulses many young, disenchanted minds who turn to darker corners for excitement.

Many lament the rise of right-wing vitalism; few see it as a reason for introspection.

Yet recognising one without the other isn’t very useful. As the 17th-century French theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet once wrote, “God laughs at those who deplore the effects whose causes they cherish.” Hyperbolic pronouncements on “the crisis of masculinity” will not bring radicalised students back into the fold. Neither will the search for “better role models”, whatever that means. But bringing what Rosa Luxemburg called “uninhibited, effervescent life” back into leftist theory and practise might intrigue, if not attract, the disenchanted.

However absent from current conversations, leftist vitalism might not have said its last word. If a few lost souls suffice to make the left side once more with imbalance, obsession, gluttony, ravishment and wild experimentation, this “crisis” will have served its purpose. Etymologically, the word crisis means little more than a moment of choice; let us hope that we will choose reasonably – to be a bit less reasonable.

[See also: Why we go to war]

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