Review of Pascal Bruckner’s The Tyranny of Guilt

Erik Erikson, a Danish-German-American psychoanalyst, linked guilt with the feelings a child is overcome with when learning to make his own way in the world, usually between the ages of 4-6 when initiative becomes a part of a child’s daily purpose.

It is the third of eight stages in a child’s psychosexual development, where a child has increased confidence in doing things and making mistakes without being necessarily reliant upon an adult to whom the child is emotionally attached. Though what comes from this turn of events is a new found development of guilt, a link that the child’s autonomy in decisions will increase the level of wrongdoing the child is doing.

It follows that with the genesis of autonomy in a child comes an inability to properly judge boundaries and where the child might act out of turn, under which circumstances guilt is heightened.

In an adult a compulsion towards guilt might be seen less as a valid element of self-development, and more as being a compulsion towards masochism, the characteristic of pleasure being taken from pain or abuse. This, at least, is how Pascal Bruckner explains away the phenomenon of guilt in his book The Tyranny of Guilt, translated this year, as a compulsion towards masochism, using guilt as a way to retain a hierarchical attitude towards, for example, the third world, the lumpenproletariat, the illegal immigrant or the homo sacer (an individual who may have once been killed by anyone around the time of Roman law. The concept has been updated by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben as a person not able to enjoy the law, like, say, a Guantanamo Bay inmate) by allowing themselves to be put in a frame of mind where people’s misery is a product of the guilty person’s power over them.

As such Bruckner sees guilt as linked to megalomania or hubris, perhaps even as a substitute for power for the middle class European individual in a post-empire age, or a way to appear to reverse the co-ordinates of power relations in society, when in fact the presence of guilt firmly keeps those relations in place.

The guilt that Bruckner identifies is characterised by a wallowing in pity, which in turn is linked to Judeo-Christian notions of remorse and even sin. Bruckner points out that his native France has found truth hard to swallow in the years after the independence of Algeria. Where the Catholic and Monarchic traditions in France are usually seen to side with attitudes on the right, Bruckner notes that they are not entirely absent on the left, although it is often not recognised as such.

In the years after Algerian independence the left, usually the promoters of a single culture of universal human rights, and a nation under the banner of republican and egalitarian principles, chose instead to accept the entrapment of closed immigrant communities, and would excuse unpalatable acts that ran into conflict with some secular or anti-clerical principles.

This sea-change and eagerness to appease has been born, according to Bruckner, out of a guilt attributed, not to the pushing forward of enlightenment values, so crucial to progressive politics, but out of an arrogant bourgeois urge to bear the burden of blame, and this decadent urge is actually doing more damage to the pursuit of international left wing politics than good.

Inevitably Bruckner talks about the left at the time of the Iraq war. This is where he is at his most crucial, but where he is at most dangerous to overgeneralise. Certainly Bruckner is correct in identifying his use of the word guilt in accordance with particular portions of the Left who claim to uphold principles of tolerance when simultaneously giving a soapbox to far right Islamists, like those of the middle class left-liberals and Socialist Workers Party members in the UK who were happy marching alongside supporters of the Muslim Association of Britain and anti-Semitic sects, unconsciously under the principle my enemy’s enemy is a friend.

Bruckner’s use of the word guilt proves useful to hold up against times when Galloway praises the Hizbollah and Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, or Lindsey German when she says, differences aside, she’d sooner be in the same camp as Hamas and the Hizbollah if she lived in somewhere like Palestine or Lebanon. The Stop the War Coalition was a very big conglomeration of leftwingers and peace activists, and fronting this organisation were people who excused heinous crimes as a product of Western decadence, not being able for one second to see that their compulsion to do this is based on decadence too, on guilt.

But this attitude is not the sum total of the left, and with the electoral disasters of Galloway, and the mocking that follows him and the Respect party, perhaps it is now time for the willing left to hold a light up to people in his shadow, for the willing left that see it as more important for human rights organisations to maintain good relations with feminists than with self-described jihadis who happened to served in prisons that should also be called into question. An enemy’s enemy is not always a friend, and it can quite often be a dead weight.

Lots of charges have been thrown towards Brucker, not least the call that he is a neo-conservative philosopher. Whether he identifies himself as such is up to him, but it would be a huge error for sections of the left intent on characterising Bruckner as such to ignore the conclusions made in this book, it might also teach them some uncomfortable truths about themselves.

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