‘Debray’s French chauvinism, no antidote to US imperialism’

This Associated Press video says about itself:

(23 Dec 1970) The French writer Regis Debray relaxes in Chile after his release from prison in Bolivia.

That was 49 years ago.

By Paul Simon in Britain:

Monday, March 18, 2019

Book Review: Civilisation by Regis Debray

Chauvinism infects a tedious attempt to investigate US cultural domination in Europe

by Regis Debray
(Verso, £16.99)

MARX’S maxim that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force,” will almost certainly be familiar to readers of the Morning Star.

At first sight in his book, Regis Debray appears to be fleshing out that maxim in offering the reader an analysis of US cultural dominance in Europe as being a direct consequence of its economic power. Yet while Civilisation promises much, it actually delivers little beyond further tarnishing the reputation of its author.

Debray has been a fixture in the French philosophy scene and in and out of various transient leftist movements for decades. His usual stance is to back the ultra-leftist cause and he has thus found little difficulty in also accommodating himself to various projects of the French capitalist state, including the Mitterrand presidency.

He’s delivered a tiresome little book which reeks of French bourgeois chauvinism and a surprising lack of Marxist analysis or references. The orotund phrasing and complex sentence structure makes one wonder whether translator David Fernbach should either pursue a case in an employment tribunal or be put in jail.

In a leaden opening chapter, the author is at pains to separate “civilisation” from “culture”. In Debray’s view, the former — urban, imperial and offensive — transcends borders and a specific geography while, in contrast, a culture is defensive and reactive.

His central thesis develops into little more than France having slipped from being a civilisation into a culture thanks to the rise of the US. He holds up poet Paul Valery as a Cassandra voice warning from the 1930s of this phenomenon, bewailing the fact that modern discourse is dominated by neoliberal framing and not by Gramsci’s hegemonic theories.

Perversely, he then goes on to ignore most other Marxist writers of any meaningful relevance. Instead, he lets his inner-bourgeois nationalist have full voice, referring to “the spectre of Muhammad walking our streets.” Channelling Marine Le Pen is quite something, even for a Trotskyist.

The book meanders through numerous indigestibly arcane academic cultural references and witticisms, as if the writer was an aged and declining professor desperate to intimidate and impress a giddy undergraduate in the middle of a tutorial.

His antidote to US cultural domination is a romantic nonsense — a sort of European and presumably French-led reprise of Vienna between 1870 and 1930. In failing to recall that city’s all-too-easy embrace of nazism and barbarism, this is a dangerous and miserabilist thesis.

It’s a book that reeks of years of over-education and under-analysis on the part of the author. Give it a wide berth.

1 thought on “‘Debray’s French chauvinism, no antidote to US imperialism’

  1. Pingback: ‘Debray’s French chauvinism, no antidote to US imperialism’ — Dear Kitty. Some blog | Modern AfroIndio Times

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