‘The Left In Dark Times’ By Bernard-Henri Lévy

9780812974720I bought The Left in Dark Times because I wanted to read something by Bernard-Henri Lévy and I thought that this book, rather than his reportage/current events style books, would be a good introduction to his actual thinking. While sometimes called a philosopher, I’m not really sure it applies, but I wanted something vaguely rigorous by him (which, as it turns, this isn’t, exactly).

You may know Bernard-Henri Lévy (sometimes known as BHL; he’s that famous in France) as that rick looking French guy on TV with the leonine mane of grey/white hair, dark suit, a white shirt that is always unbuttoned two buttons below what is appropriate to the situation, yet always staying above the critical belly button line.

The Left in Dark Times feels terribly dated. It is something from a time that feels very long ago; before the ‘Great Recession,’ before the more recent global economic contractions (Greece, China, etc). Before we were expelled from an economic eden where risky trade and capital entrepreneurship would lift all boats, if we just let it. In this book, economics aren’t a ‘thing’ at all.

The left is in dark times because, he writes, economic democratic-socialism has been, somehow, disproven, by the good times of the early and mid noughties. For him, the true Left (capital L) is in international humanitarian interventionism. Which is not, in itself, bad, but now, things feel so tied to the economy as causing so many humanitarian problems through indirect means. He scoffs at the idea of a malignant economic imperialism and colonialism, but these days, their ill effects feel all too true.

Let’s just say it: his Left feels more like neo-liberalism. The vapours hanging over his exhortations are pre-lapsarian, before Tony Blair and New Labor fell from grace. We can no long say, can we, that humanitarian crises are unrelated to the failures of unregulated, neo-liberal, rentier capitalism.

He writes a lot about the anti-semitism and the ‘Palestinian question.’ I agree with him on a two state solution, but I don’t agree with his positioning on things like BDS and attitudes towards Israel, but as a Jew (BHL, not me), I give him some leeway here, especially since I am not so blind as to understand that anti-semitism is a much more pervasive problem in France and in Europe, in general, than it is in America (or is worse in America than I know? with Trump’s appropriation of anti-semitic imagery, is it an underappreciated issue here, too?).

He ends (not really; there’s a meandering and surprisingly long epilogue) with a passionate defense of the Universal, by which he means universal human values. He does defend Europe, but is careful not to mean merely an extension of an idea of western values to the world. His Universals are, though, the justification for interventionism. Reading just made me sad, coming on the heels of the Brexit and dissolution of trust between northern and southern Europe (really, between southern Europe and Germany). He becomes oddly religious. Or almost religious. He defends (sort of, and then backs away) Jewish concepts of prophecy and the prophetic tradition as linked to the Universal. I like one phrase, near the end: “The Universal works more by influence than incorporation.” I can get behind such a Universal. It feels kindred to King’s moral arc.

Ultimately, he is a Hitchens like figure. Tied to a time and a place and an ideology that makes him more than normally timely and less than normally timeless. And, while it might be the translation, he lacks Hitchens’ genius for scintillating polemics that make him, still, a worthwhile read for students of essayistic style.

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