John Lichfield: Are we looking for a new message – or a new Messiah?

The success of Stephane Hessel's book may tell us a great deal. There is an incoherent and, as yet undirected popular anger and anxiety

Friday 07 January 2011 01:00 GMT

France has a new political and philosophical prophet. Step aside Jean-Paul Sartre. Step forward, Stéphane Hessel, 93. Mr Hessel's slim volume – very slim – called Indignez-vous! ("Protest!" or "Cry out!") is a publishing and social phenomenon across the Channel. More than 600,000 copies have been sold since October. The "book", 19 rambling pages of conversations with a sweet and honourable old man, has been chosen by the readers of Le Monde as the publishing event of 2010. "Publishing event" is right. The success of Mr Hessel's book is eloquent and telling. The book itself is not.

Indignez-vous! urges young people to emulate the wartime spirit of resistance to the Nazis by rejecting the "insolent, selfish" power of money and markets and by defending the social "values of modern democracy". The book, or pamphlet, is rather poorly written. It is repetitive, unoriginal, simplistic and frustratingly short.

The message – "indifference is crippling; be angry; revolt, peacefully, for what you believe in" – is admirable enough. As a manifesto for renewed faith in social-democratic politics in a world where democracy and politics are losing control and respect (to market fundamentalism; to the power of China; to the blabbering global village of the internet) the pamphlet is lamentably inadequate. It contains no deep analysis; no memorable writing; no prescriptions for action, except vague exhortations to "indignation" and "peaceful insurrection".

Here are a couple of brief extracts. "I would like everyone – every one of us – to find his or her own reason to cry out. That is a precious gift. When something makes you want to cry out, as I cried out against Nazism, you become a militant, tough and committed. You become part of the great stream of history... and this stream leads us towards more justice and more freedom but not the uncontrolled freedom of the fox in the hen-house."

"... The productivist obsession of the West has plunged the world into a crisis which can only be resolved by a radical shift away from the 'ever more', in the world of finance but also in science and technology. It is high time that ethics, justice and a sustainable balance prevailed..."

Honourable enough sentiments but hardly original or penetrating. How can one explain the book's extraordinary success in France? Partly, it is a tribute to Mr Hessel, a German-born French resistance hero who survived torture and concentration camps to become a human rights advocate and diplomat after the war. Partly, it is a reflection on the well-meaning but unreflective, gut leftiness of a section of the French chattering classes. The book is being translated into English and several other languages. It is difficult to image it being such a triumph elsewhere.

And yet, and yet. The success of Mr Hessel's book – if not the book itself – may tell us a great deal. There is, not only in France, but also in Britain, the rest of Europe, and even in the US, an incoherent and, as yet undirected, popular anger and anxiety. As the German philosopher, Anselm Jappe, says in a new book, Indebted Unto Death: The Decomposition Of Capitalism, the 2008 crash was not only a financial crisis but a "crisis of civilisation".

The Western world has lost one religion (the post-Thatcher and Reagan blind worship of markets) but cannot yet bring itself to believe in another one. There is widespread anger that the same market institutions, which were bailed out by state funds in 2008-9, used that money, in effect, to speculate against state debt in 2009-10. There is incomprehension that the total value of money "invested" in world financial markets (€700,000bn, according to a recent French parliamentary report) should be equivalent to 12 times the value of the annual world GDP.

To continue such vast, virtual speculation is, we know, insane. To try to curb it might, the markets tell us, send the globe into an even more catastrophic recession. The people who play in this speculative casino hand fortunes to one another. Meanwhile, public spending, we are told, must be cut to prevent those same people from speculating against the euro, or against sterling, or against the dollar.

We know that the growth-led model for economic and political success threatens to destroy the planet. At the same time, we cannot seriously imagine any other model. Meanwhile, little by little, not invisibly but visibly, China, representing an entirely different set of political values to the West, is buying up Western debt and Western industries and, in effect, Western consciences and Western souls. We should, as Mr Hessel suggests, logically, be turning towards the "left" and a renewed belief in the importance of regulation, common action and state investment for the public good. There remains, however, a morbid terror of anything labelled "left" – driven by memories of the Soviet debacle and the alleged failures of the post-war welfare state.

These fears are rigorously encouraged, and enforced, by a large part of the Western media – certainly the British and American media – which continues to believe in, or at least, peddle versions of the old market fundamentalism. Worse, there is a deepening contempt – also enforced by part of the media and the autarchic instincts of the internet – for all mainstream politics, politicians and even for democracy itself.

Mr Hessel's book touches on all these themes with varying degrees of imprecision. What he fails to offer is any coherent new response, other than "indignation". The runaway success of his book suggests that there is a vast, potential followership (and not just in France) for a new political Messiah of the centre-left: someone who could articulate the anger and frustration of the middle classes (the new "masses") and offer a convincing, democratic way through the sinister muddle of the early 21st century.

The alternative – a kind of fascism-lite – can already be glimpsed in the Tea Party in the US and the rise of middle-class, anti-immigrant populist parties in Europe (G&T parties?) The success of Mr Hessel's book is telling sign of the times. Regrettably, it is unlikely to change them.

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