Jun 102015

Jean Baudrillard, The Divine Left: A Chronicle of the Years 19771984. Translated by David L. Sweet. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014; 152 pages. ISBN: 978-1-58435-129-0.

Reviewed by Matthew R. McLennan, Saint Paul University

Substantively speaking, Jean Baudrillard’s thought appears to have developed very little from the mid-1970s to his death in 2007. It takes shape in a bleak but often humorous post-Marxist running social commentary in which he endlessly proclaims the “definitive end of the dialectic” (29)—and hence the end of the social, of politics, of art, and ultimately of the real. As a reader of Bataille and Mauss, Baudrillard retains for a time the fantasy of a pre-modern, “primitive” symbolic exchange. This gives way to, or mutates into, an “accelerationist” support of “fatal strategies” (Fatal Strategies, Semiotext(e), 2008) intended to destroy rather than to sublate modernity, and a radical hope for seduction, reversal, or sheer accident as a way out of the “end of history” (or rather, of the sad truth that history “has simply never begun” (117)). His mature position is nicely summed up by the following quote, from The Illusion of the End: “Let us hope that the random universe outside smashes this glass coffin. Any accident will do if it rescues us from a scientific euphoria sustained by drip-feed.” (Stanford University Press, 1994: 88)  Baudrillard’s otherwise opaque and in any case incendiary commentary on the terror attacks of 9/11 becomes clearer, if no more compelling, if we bear all this in mind (The Spirit of Terrorism, Verso, 2003).

Why then should Semiotext(e)’s recent translation of The Divine Left be of any interest? The latter is a minor, dated work in the corpus of a thinker who offers no hope (save the purely aleatory) of overcoming the impasse of contemporary politics. It chronicles the moment in French (and Italian) politics when the Communist Party choked at the threshold of power, opening an era of broad-tent socialism conceived as the perpetual management of neoliberal crisis. Predictably, the failure of the French Left, even and especially at the moment of its election with Mitterrand at the helm, is interpreted in light of the aforementioned failure of politics more generally, and the definitive end of the illusion of history. Reactionary phenomena like Jean-Marie Le Pen are dismissed virtually out of hand, and the book seems particularly insensitive to the historical traction of factors like French Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. In the broadest sense, the book is entirely predictable and untimely, in the worst sense of the term. But for all that it is also far from useless.

In other reviews for Symposium I have expressed the opinion that in the best of cases, “occasional” writings such as The Divine Left can be understood on analogy with the great political interventions of Marx, such as the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon or The Civil War in France, clarifying through the encounter with historical immediacy some of what remains opaque in the theoretical writings. To this extent the best of the minor works of Baudrillard, Negri, Guattari and others that have been recently published in English translation by Semiotext(e)—while admittedly failing to measure up to the depth and importance of Marx’s political interventions with which I draw the analogy—can be read as simultaneously: (a) laboratories of ideas expounded in other, more systematic and theoretical works, (b) instructive attempts to think the concrete in something approaching real time, and (c) quite possibly suggestive, if not completely instructive, of how to think the present conjuncture. In short, I welcome the translation of minor texts—those of Baudrillard included—for these reasons and am always pleased when Semiotext(e) rolls out new minor titles in their Foreign Agents series. The question that interests me is whether or not the recent translation of Baudrillard in particular measures up to criterion (c): in other words, granting that the text is of philosophical interest to Baudrillard’s existing readers and that it also stands as an example of theoretical intervention, does Baudrillard’s intervention speak to the present in any way?

It does. Underneath the nauseating repetition and theoretical allusion, the thesis of the book is actually quite simple, and applicable well beyond a bygone France and Italy. Baudrillard tells us that

The Right…claims to represent deep values, but through simple tradition and legitimacy, not through the moral and historic decree of Reason. This arbitrariness is how the Right, even if it makes an appeal to moral values, finds the immorality to govern. Whereas the Left, because it appeals to true morality— that which deifies the course of history toward the Good and happiness—is constantly forced to exonerate itself from being in power and to sacrifice itself, as it has often done, on the altar of the Right. The Left’s very divinity prevents it from governing with all the means at its disposal. In contradistinction to the Right, the profound morality of the Left is what creates an obstacle to the exercise of power, despite all the immoral stratagems of which it too must avail itself. The hypocrisy of the Right is more traditional: it pretends to morality, yet it is fundamentally immoral. The hypocrisy of the Left is paradoxical: it is fundamentally moral, but it assumes the airs of intransigent realpolitik, airs of governing, and airs of cynicism and arbitrariness. (141)

In short, the post-revolutionary Left, being by nature a party of principled criticism, is hamstrung by its morality whenever it attains power. So much so, that it secretly does not want it. The Left pursuing power must dissimulate itself as, at best, the most reasonable and humane candidate for the management of crisis. And for its part, the defeated Right faces the absurd proposition of becoming a party of principled criticism, whereas this is precisely where it fails; indeed, “a right-wing party with ideas would lose its legitimacy.” (109) There is a drift on both sides towards a muddy political centre where true, which is to say oppositional and immoral, politics effectively disappears.

Baudrillard’s reading here seems idealistic in the extreme, underestimating for example the neo-fascist potential of contemporary Europe. But elsewhere in the text he gives the perennial unpredictability and noncompliance of “the masses” their due. He even goes a shade too far in that direction, characterizing elections as “indifferent” and “random,” effectively “a kind of game or spectacular curiosity,” expressing a paradoxically clever “stupidity” of the electorate: “‘Surprise yourself by voting for the Left!’ ‘The Right claims to be around for the next twenty years—treat yourself to the Left!’ (this is what happened in ’81). And why not: ‘The Left has totally failed—let it remain in power!’ (’86/’87).” (102) To this extent, interested readers might read The Divine Left alongside In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (Semiotext(e), 2007), which grinds out the hypothesis of the clever stupidity of the masses.

But turning finally to the question of the contemporary applicability of Baudrillard’s analysis, who are “the Left” in, say, the Canadian context of 2015? We can certainly speak of the electoral (centre-)Left, for example the New Democratic Party, which created history as I was reading Baudrillard’s book by seizing a majority in Alberta from the ruling Progressive Conservative dynasty. The leftward lurch of Albertan voters has hastily been downplayed however, often even by the putative Left, as either (a) an irrational protest vote of the kind Baudrillard outlines above, or perhaps worse, (b) belief in a more reasonable management of the status quo. Much has been done in the media to defuse the fear that premier elect Rachel Notley represents anything but a measured, pragmatically sound alternative to outgoing PC leader Jim Prentice. But the moral angelism of the Canadian electoral Left is by no means gone; looking back to 2014, the roundly defeated Andrea Horwath of the Ontario NDP ran on a right-wing populist ticket that confused and alienated many of her own party’s members.

Read with an open mind, Baudrillard’s book goes some way to illuminating the paradoxes and reversals of this scene, if at a high level of abstraction. But we should also consider the campus/activist/social media Left, about which the book is largely silent. Here the allergy to power—at least in its rhetoric—becomes most manifest. Largely a politics of identity, non-party leftism today plays into the indifferent recognition-machine of the state; it produces only “weak events” (122) and, in any case, reinforces the “obscene” social media culture of total transparency by demanding the ritualistic manifestation of difference. (123) By way of provocation, we can say about the non-electoral Left what Baudrillard says of the French Communists: “They believe in the ‘reality’ of the social, of struggles, and of class, who knows? They believe in everything. They want to believe in everything. It’s their deep morality. This is what deprives them of all political capacity.” (28) Strictly speaking, it is their moral angelism and their will to total transparency which does so, not their purported “leftism.” And what they lack in broad political capacity, they make up for in micro-political acuity. But this is a discussion for another time.

Does there remain then in the contemporary scene any Leftist organization (electoral or otherwise) capable of actually wielding power? Of breaking the glass coffin, not for the hell of it, but for the sake of the deep moral horizon animating their praxis? And if not, are we bound to the impossible work of mourning sketched in Baudrillard’s writings? My wager in interpreting The Divine Left is in accordance with the extremely charitable suggestion of Jean-Louis Violeau in his introduction: that it may be read in view of “sav[ing] the idea of the Left against its real occurrence.” (12)