Wednesday 10 October 2007

Foucault and Iran: lessons for today's Left

I've been reading Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson's excellent book about Michel Foucault and the Iranian revolution. It's a fascinating dissection of the process by which a secular, gay, leftist philosopher ended up offering virtually uncritical support to Khomeini's repressive Islamist regime.

Athough it describes events that took place nearly thirty years ago, the book provides several pointers to understanding the deformations of today's Left. There's no doubt that the French theorist's uncritical enthusiasm for the Islamic revolution was partly due to a stunning intellectual naivety, which preferred to trust ideological rhetoric over political reality, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that actually existing Islamism didn't quite measure up to its radical claims. It's also clear that Foucault's postmodernist theorizing created a framework of cultural relativism which inhibited him from applying the same critical analysis to the Muslim world as he had to western political structures.

But beyond this, there are other elements in Foucault's intellectual volte-face which he shares with the wider western Left, and which Afary's and Anderson's book highlights well. A key factor is a loss of faith in radical, secular change and a deep disillusionment with the socialist project. Running alongside this is a current of anti-modernism, which has always been present in western radicalism (think of the romantic medievalism of William Morris et al) and which tends to resurface whenever the hope of future change is blocked. To quote Gramsci: 'The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.'

We can see contemporary manifestations of this disillusionment with the modern in the writings of a number of liberal-left journalists: Guardian commentator Madeleine Bunting's reductive characterisation of western secular culture as little more than sex, celebrity and consumerism is but one example. Afary and Anderson point to the way in which, in this climate of revulsion from modern society, religion can come to seem like the last bulwark of decent values, even for secular leftists who are not explicitly religious and in other contexts would be keen opponents of religion.

This helps to explain the continuing unwillingness to criticise Islam among many western liberals, as well as the new-found 'belief in belief' among many on the hitherto secular Left. In Foucault's case, the spiritual anti-modernism of Khomeini came to seem like a radical and exciting alternative to what he perceived as the debased values of western capitalism. In fact, what the Iranian revolutionaries were offering was a return to a pre-modern world in which many of the gains of the Enlightenment, which Foucault affected to despise, were overturned.

If anti-totalitarian progressives want to go beyond mere condemnation of the postmodern leftists who are Foucault's intellectual descendants, and to persuade them of the errors of their ways, then we need to understand the wellsprings of their ideological contortions. More than this, we need to rediscover our own faith in the possibility of progressive change, which includes a renewed faith in Enlightenment principles and the progressive tradition, to counter the nostalgic, seductive appeal of 'spiritual' movements which promise only a return to prejudice and repression.

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