Where are the Jean-Paul Sartres of today?

While fixing my things, I came across a copy of an old edition of Volkskrant newspaper, one of the items I got for Christmas last December 2015 (thank you Ibbie for the English translation!). 

On page 8 of the Volkskrant newspaper is an interesting article entitled “France looks for leftist intellectuals à la Sartre.” Reporting on the skepticism raised by the French papers Le Monde and La Libération, Volkskrant concludes that the French intellectual are mirrors that simply reflect the dominant spirit of the times. Hence, most were overwhelmingly leftist during the height of the Cold War but extremely neoconservative after the collapse of the former socialist bloc. “Where is the Jean-Paul Sartre of today, who once climbed on a barrel to call the workers of Renault to revolution?” To this question, they can only give the name of Alain Badiou who is himself a product of the previous era rather than of the present. The same article noted how popular opinion is dominated by “neoconservatives” such as Alain Finkelkraut, Eric Zemmour, Michel Onfray, and Michel Houellebecq who are notorious for fulminating against immigrants and Islam.

Where indeed are France or Europe’s Jean-Paul Sartres of today? Some of the names of European left-wing intellectuals and scholars that immediately come to my mind come from cycles of radical struggles: Alain Badiou, Jacques Ranciere, John Berger, Saskia Sassen, etc. Perhaps, it is not looking in the right place? Or maybe not hard enough? How about scholars like Robert Biel, inspiring young socialist leaders like Pablo Iglesias, or the Greek radicals who have unfortunately been betrayed by the Syriza project? I admit I am more familiar with names from the Third World. But surely there should be more from Europe if one scratches the surface. In a way, the Volkskrant report is characteristic of typical sensational journalistic accounts that dwell on cat fights, bombastic sound bytes, and personalities that fail to provide a wider socio-historical context.

The seeming absence of radical intellectuals in the vein of Jean-Paul Sartre could be a symptom of the relative success of the right-wing ideological offensive that cleared the way for the neoliberal restructuring of the global economy from the 1980s onwards which aimed to raise falling profits by pushing down workers’ wages at a time of continuing crisis of the world capitalist system. For the past 3 decades, the neoliberal regime has meant greater dispossession and intensified attacks on the rights of the working people in order to secure corporate profits. Insidiously, it also meant blaming the masses themselves for the crisis for demanding higher wages, benefits, and welfare rather than pinpointing the root to the inherent dynamics of capitalist accumulation. Hence, xenophobia, anti-immigration hysteria, and racism being dished out by intellectuals-for-hire serving as instruments of the ruling order.

Of course, the people have never been silent and have always fought back against the powers that be. This resistance further exploded in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, which saw the emergence of more protest movements, renewed interest in Marx’s critique of capitalism among the general public and a plethora of symposia on communism in western academia. Ultimately, with the renewed upsurge of mass protest, more intellectuals will surely be won by the people’s struggles. And dominant media cannot always deny them exposure in their pages.

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