Monday, April 2, 2018

Book review: Michael Behrent on Marcel Gauchet's Advent of Democracy Series

L’Avènement de la démocratie (The Advent of Democracy Series) I–IV, by Marcel Gauchet

Age of Emancipation
Once upon a time, it was not unusual to think that history was a story. Some held that history was the ordeal to which mankind was subjected while awaiting the apocalypse; others saw it as the triumph of human reason over ignorance and prejudice. Hegel considered it to be humanity’s ever-growing consciousness of freedom; Marx argued that it was a tale of class conflict, culminating in revolution. These days, however, the notion that the historical process might consist of a single grand narrative is almost universally regarded as little more than a comforting myth.

Marcel Gauchet disagrees. For over a decade, the French historian and philosopher has devoted himself to a mammoth four-volume work premised on the unapologetic affirmation that history has a meaning. As its title, The Advent of Democracy, suggests, the project is an attempt to explore democracy’s fate in Europe and (to a lesser extent) in North America. Gauchet begins this story in the early modern period and takes it up to our neoliberal present, where the demise of a sense that history possesses an overarching meaning is one casualty in a broader dissolution of collective attachments. In our neoliberal age, democracy has come to mean little more than the pursuit of individual rights and interests, while the hope of determining our shared fate through democratic means has become strangely elusive.

To think ourselves out of this mindset, we need history—and lots of it. Each successive volume of Gauchet’s magnum opus is significantly longer than its predecessor, often while covering a shorter period. The first volume, The Modern Revolution (La révolution moderne, 2007), considers the rise of the early modern state through to the development of nineteenth-century liberalism in just over 200 crisply argued pages. The next volume devotes slightly more than 300 pages to assessing The Crisis of Liberalism (La crise du libéralisme, 2007) that lasted from approximately 1880 to 1914. The third installment is longer than the first two volumes combined: though The Totalitarian Ordeal (À l’épreuve des totalitarismes, 2010) examines the period between 1914 and 1974, the vast majority of its 650 pages are devoted to the dictatorships that flourished in Europe between 1922 and 1945. Now, after a seven-year gap, Gauchet has published the final volume, The New World (Le nouveau monde, 2017). To explain our present epoch, Gauchet requires no less than 768 pages.

Do we need yet another history of democratic ideas, institutions, and practices? And why now? Writing ten years ago, Gauchet observed that democracy had become “the unsurpassable horizon of our time.” Could a history—not to mention a philosophy of history—driven by such an insight be anything other than insipidly celebratory?

Gauchet manages to avoid this.. read more