(Ed. Note: In 2006, Soft Skull Press publisher Richard Nash sent me a copy of a wonderful manuscript, “SuperHip JoliPunk: Coming of Age at the End of History, by French writer Camille de Toledo. I devoured the book, and gladly published an excerpt. The problem is, the book never came out. It seems the market for social critique by European writers is somewhat volatile. Fast-forward to a few months ago, when Richard informs me the book is finally coming out. For real this time. I re-read the manuscript, and still find in Toledo an admirable and passionate thinker, one very well suited for the 21st century. Thus, we present to you a new section from the book, and strongly encourage you to pick it up. – VI)
Funerals are often times to rehash old memories, and this one was no different. He was so this, he was so that, Yes, that night last winter, he looked so happy. Well, what can you do? He’s gone now, he went so peacefully . . . But for us, trying to sit still during the service was a chore. The entire world had chipped in for the enormous white tent raised to welcome the mourners, but we were fidgeting during the drone of the speeches, the uplifting anecdotes, the formal, farewellparty smiles. I would have been out of there in a second had it been up to me. I was thinking of a cute girl I had seen rollerskating in the parking lot outside, brunette, a bit taller than me. But there was no escape from dad’s lap, from mom, from grandpa, from the cousins—we were all stuck there, defeated and antsy as the interminable parade of speakers came and went, each one teetering off to the podium far up in front, clutching the microphone with shaky hands and delivering their eulogies.
The most heinous speeches were delivered by the very old, those who had lived through WWII and the 1940s. Sometimes they spoke in the name of their dead, other times in the name of those they had killed. Sometimes in the name of their collaboration with the enemy, sometimes in the name of their resistance —however they framed it, the main point was something about defending commerce against all comers. Gentle commerce, the peacemaker, the civilizer. Commerce, the royal road to reconciliation after the brute butchery of the war. Free enterprise: the key to brotherhood! The memorial speeches of the following generation, our parents’ generation, were more sorrowful and more resigned. They had dreamt of revolution only to wake up amidst the debris of their shattered illusions. These weren’t merely stories trotted out in the intimacy of family gatherings. They were depositions in sensational show trials, testimony delivered collectively, emphatically in endless public investigations launched against both eras — the war years and the 60s — almost before they had even ended. The first of these featured the sinister cortege of the guilty, the Klaus Barbies, the Maurice Papons, then came the obscene hair-splitting over the number of the exterminated, figures that had to be memorized and recited daily, as though people believed this was the only way to stave off, for 24 more hours, the inevitable repetition of the nightmare. The format of the courtroom drama playing on the other channel was a little different. As the sexual revolution got railroaded up front, rival members of the radical left in the studio audience methodically picked each other off. This dismal fare would be interrupted from time to time by commercials brazenly peddling communist nostalgia as accessories for fashionable themes like the entrepreneurial spirit or national security. In each of these shows, humanity’s role was reduced to that of a kind of coroner whose duty it was to identify and classify corpses, to figure out who got the monstrous corpses piled up by the Nazis on the one hand, and who got the decomposed corpse of Marx and the carcasses of 1917, 1936, and 1968 on the other. Our elders kept trying to pass them off on one another, batting them back and forth from side to side like millions of gruesome shuttlecocks, blocking the way forward for our generation. As long as this went on, the only choice we were offered was either guilt for the barbarity of WWII or guilt for the naïve faith in revolution.
The first narrative was fashioned after the defeat of the Nazis. Western civilization had just put the finishing touches on its second suicide, in the process inventing a form of political atrocity worthy of the age of mass culture. While some individuals, Primo Levi, for example, devoted their lives to asking how it was possible to go on living in a culture that had so eagerly welcomed the hellish enormity of the war, others just went back to work. For the beast had to be contained at any price. Never again. Never again could this thing be let out. If it were fine-tuned in just the right way, maybe the economy could banish the specter of world war for good.
Enormous expectations, immense hopes were placed in the ability of the economic system to prevent war from breaking out. It just might work—it might be possible to lock up the beast in a cage of free trade.
This was the great hope. Soon afterwards, however, people began to disagree over the nature of the beast. For the economic system designed to end war became an instrument of oppression in its turn. Does anyone still need to be reminded that more than a third of the world’s population now lives on less than two dollars a day? The question today is not whether the economy should be more equitable or more just. Everyone wants “justice,” whatever they mean by that word. The real mystery is rather why today it has become so hard to criticize the status quo. Why? I’ll tell you why. Because we’re still haunted by the memory of the war. We’re terrorized by it. This collective memory was constructed with a stark message: either you choose free enterprise, or you choose war. Just look at the 30s: protectionism, nationalism, military buildups, and then horror. It always ends in horror and atrocity. Horror, and then after the horror, the duty to relive the horror every single day in memory. And so always remember, the only way to peace is through open markets and free trade.
The idea that open markets are the only alternative to open war has worked its way into almost every cell and capillary of our daily lives. It streams invisibly through our bodies like a virus, subtly influencing everything we do. Its secret hold on our minds is such that it is hard to believe that any of our thoughts go uncolored by the memory of the war. After all, this is the pretext for the whole deal — today’s economic system is literally built on the rubble of WWII. The horror of the past has been distilled into a concentrated liquor. It runs continually from our pores like a nervous sweat, and sweating guilt for the war’s unspeakable barbarities, our bodies are engulfed by its reeking vapors.
All throughout the ’80s and ’90s, war memories buttressed the walls of our prison. I remember the debates over the Maastricht treaty, the endless arguments leading up to the famous referendum that at one point everyone in France thought was going to be answered with a “no” vote. I remember how Mitterand sold the idea of the hyper-common market to the public: it was either this or war. Free trade or the inferno. The only way to say “no” to barbarity was to say “yes” to commerce. Fiscal discipline would keep a reunited Germany in its place and nip any rekindling of its expansionist ambitions in the bud. I remember listening to the grim numerical mantras streaming from the TV news: public deficits would be limited to 3%, national debt to 30%, inflation to 2% . . . With the arrival of the convergence criteria for European economic union, the spirit of endings reached a new nadir of bleakness. Now you could speak truth to power as much as you wanted, you could shout it in the streets, in front of ministry balconies, go tell them that the language of fiscal discipline was the language of death — it didn’t keep anyone from falling into line. The convergence criteria were our new straight and narrow, our new creed: don’t stray too far from those figures. Be happy in a world without History. Don’t make any sudden movements. Remember the lessons of previous generations and for everything else you’ll be free to do what you like. Free to be a man or a woman, transgendered or genetic. Free to listen to traditional Neapolitan ditties or Celtic rap. Free! So long as you obey the convergence criteria. This was the message to Europeans. In the media, one tune segued into another — we went from counting days with the French hostages in Lebanon — 245, 246, 247, 248 days for Marcel Carton, Marcel Fontaine and Jean-Paul Kaufmann in the ’80s, to counting off of the daily deficit figure in the ’90s. You could hear sound of an era every night at 8:00. This is helplessness speaking, this is surrender telling you what you need to do, despair teaching you what you need to know. Today’s deficit is 3.7%, 3.6%, 3.5%, 3.4% . . . and so on, ad nauseum, right up until the coming of the Euro. The memory of the war egging us on, we all raised our voices in unison: Better peace and the common market than the return of the monster.
It is important to listen to this narrative of memory, this story woven of memories and fashioned into a collective memory. It is important to pay careful attention to its comings and goings, its transformations, how it moves from language to language, from mouth to mouth. Sometimes it emerges to quash sudden eruptions of hatred, other times it is told just to trick us. For while it is put to good use when invoked against the extreme right, the same story is also twisted into an instrument used to criminalize the opposition to neoliberalism.
We had only just begun to follow the teachings of one memory when the other captured our attention. This second narrative grew into a funeral march for the ’60s. After the disillusion of the ’70s, the despair of the ’90s was a foregone conclusion. It adopted sarcastic parodies of ’60s slogans as its own watchwords, and the radicals, now approaching 50, mustered all their resources in service of submission and cut deals with the establishment reality. The more the spirit of the ’60s examined itself, the more disgusted it became and the more arguments for surrender it discovered. “We gave up,” it said. “In the end, the revolution just couldn’t compete with the attractions of money and power. You won’t last long either, you wait,” it suggested. “No one resists the global economic system for long.”
But there was a consolation for the hippies. Not only were they welcomed back to establishment society, they could rise in it. In Latin America, the heroes of the counterculture still have an aura of innocence, like James Dean or Jim Morrison — by dying early they achieved eternal youth. In Argentina the hijos, the orphans of the disappeared, carried on the struggle the Junta had tried to drown with their parents in the muddy waters of the Rio de la Plata. Youthful black and white snapshots of their parents became their icons. Same for Chile and Uruguay. So long as the revolutionaries died young, they could count on returning from the dead. They would remain eternally young. The hijos never saw their fathers’ bellies grow soft. Their parents had escaped the fate of the aging revolution in the red robes of martyrs; their children would reconstruct their identities on a clean slate. There was no decadent remnant of the past to clear away first.
In the spring of 2001, the journal Lignes devoted an entire issue to the “desire for revolution.” Two years after the Seattle demonstrations, there were reasons to believe that something was changing. But no. Niente, nada, nothing. In his contribution, Jean Baudrillard emptied the idea of content the way one empties a garbage can. “The concepts of desire and revolution defused, neutralized and exterminated one another insofar as they were conflated under the sign of liberation.” Jean-Paul Dollé sought to end the debate once and for all: “Today, the question of revolution has been answered. It is impossible, because capitalism has triumphed absolutely, leaving no part of the world untouched by its dominion.” Finally, there was Edgar Morin, waxing almost lyrical: “Revolution is a word that I have abandoned. First of all, we have turned it into a myth, because we believed that it held the solution to every fundamental human problem. Afterwards, it was polluted, disfigured, betrayed, and, as Karl Korsch said as early as 1932, it has become simultaneously utopian and reactionary.” The candles were extinguished. The wake was drawing to its close. Aging activists very rarely seem to have anything else to do besides indict the errors of their youth. They’ve spent a third of their lives readying the revolution, then devoted another third to betraying it. The last third they spend explaining the betrayal. One should live in such a way that one dies with no time left to apologize. Nothing is as ugly as that about-face, that apostasy which turns on the desires of the past and confesses them like sins in the hope of being forgiven for desiring. It’s not desire’s fault. As long as it was only desire, the revolution killed no one. So why beat yourself up about it? There was nothing the matter with the spirit of 1968. The mistake is in apologizing for having been touched by it, as though that alone was enough to make you guilty of every crime committed in the name of revolution — in other times too, in other countries. A terrible mistake that the rest of us, we children of the double collapse, are still paying for today. Now we too must apologize for Lenin, for the massacre of the sailors of Kronstadt, for political police, for the extermination of the Kulaks, for the tartars of Crimea, for the Uighurs, for the victims of the purges, for that other monster, Stalin, for Siberia, for the murderous career of Baader-Meinhof, for the insanity of Shigenobu and the fanatics of the Japanese Red Army.
The moment the revolution itself was put on trial, from the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the opening of the Soviet Archives, from the trial of the Italian Red Brigades to indictment of the sexual revolution, the very idea of resistance became suspect. Such is the atmosphere that we have had to learn to live in.
Together with the collective memory fashioned during the après-guerre, the way we have been taught to remember the events of May 1968 has provided a reliable buttress to the established order. The memory of the war gave it a moral foundation by associating free markets with peace. The memory of the 1960s protects it by promoting its own disenchantment with revolution. These two memories worked better than armies. They have won the battle for hearts and minds. “Never forget,” they repeated, “that even the slightest gesture of revolt potentially carries within it the seed of mass graves.” Stay put. In the name of remembrance, remain calm. Follow the path of the last men. Not the last men of Nietzsche, but the last men of Fukuyama, “men without courage, men made entirely of desire and reason . . .” Forget politics! It’s a dirty business filled with dirty people who end up, most of them anyway, covered in dirt themselves before the history books catch up with them. Instead, spend your free time contemplating the horrors engendered by the passions of your fathers, spend it contemplating their failures. If you really want to take part in the world so badly, if buying a TV set is just not going to do it for you, then at least work to defend the established order and help it protect us from the past. That’s what’s on the menu here.
In school, I learned that there were two ages of power in the modern era: the power by divine right, which was the foundation of the European monarchies, and power derived from natural law, which placed sovereignty solely in the hands of the people. The French Revolution marks the historical junction between these two regimes, with the beheading of Louis XVI symbolically marking the death of the old order. The third age of power was created out of the ashes of World War II. This time, the roots of power were neither divine nor in the people. This time, power’s legitimacy is founded wholly on memory — the total memory of total horror. Its principle goes: The world economic order is legitimate since, through free trade, it guarantees peace. Dissidence needs to be repressed since it can potentially develop into isolationism, nationalism, and then barbarism. It follows that it hardly matters if the people are for or against the first principle since in any case it is the economic order that keeps the peace, not the people. Democratic legitimacy decapitated the king; now mnemonic legitimacy has decapitated the people.
We have left the democratic era behind. One day we’ll have to face it. For it was only a phase, one of the better ones, to be sure, but now the time has come to turn the page. Until they can bid farewell to democracy, today’s dissident forces will be unable to tear themselves from the grave of the nation-state they cling to like a forlorn Sicilian widow. Let’s finish our grieving and get back on track. It’s better to attack the principle of power, not its alibi: let us leave democracy right there where mnemonic legitimacy has left it — in the abyss, in pieces, along with the other corpses. “There are no duties of remembrance,” says the Jean-Luc Godard film Éloge de l’amour, “only a right to forgetfulness.” This line spoke to me when I first heard it because it offered me a way out, a path that led out of the captivity. Because the obligation to remember has transformed itself into a repressive force, revolt ought to begin with forgetting. André Gide wrote in the opening pages of The Immoralist: “I do not want to remember, I believe it would hamper the future and damage the past.” This also spoke to me. It helped me dispense with the obligation my aging predecessors had invented to keep discontent in check. But our memory, alas, has become so consolidated, so institutionalized that it is off-limits to questions it. Take a second to think of the storm of insults and criticism that await any man or woman bold enough to stand up openly for their right to forget. They’d be humiliated, they’d be put in the stocks with the revisionist historians and similar creatures and falsely accused of wanting to deny the very existence of the monster. Jean-Luc Godard dared to go there, at the risk of being understood by no one, and sure enough, no one understood him. When the collective memory is bent to serve an unjust order, then the right to forget it becomes a legitimate act of resistance.