Friday, May 17, 2013

Albert Camus and the Liberal Dilemma

Ron Jacobs
May 10-12, 2013.
Albert Camus is arguably one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. His relatively short life is well chronicled and the fodder of multiple conversations in university literature classes. His novels and essays raise fundamental questions about life in a world where life can easily be seen to mean absolutely nothing. Like Jean Paul Sartre–another writer with whom Camus is often compared and contrasted–Camus’ search for meaning in a world rendered meaningless strikes a chord in every human, especially those who do not seek easy answers. The conclusion these men reached was that it is up to us to provide our own meaning.

9780674072589_p0_v1_s260x420It has always been a curiosity, then, why Camus had such a difficult time understanding the desire of the Algerians to create a meaning to their lives that required overthrowing the French colonialists. His understanding that human freedom was perhaps the greatest quality humanity possessed seemed to stop short of recognizing the denial of that freedom under colonialism. This shortsightedness led Camus to justify situations in a manner that remind this reviewer of Rube Goldberg’s inventions, only without the result desired.  In other words, explanations full of loops and turns but without even the conclusive ending Goldberg’s inventions achieved.

So, it was with just such a hope for clarification that I picked up Camus’ recently published (in English) Algerian Chronicles. Perhaps these writing would reveal some clarity to his position not found previously. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. While Camus certainly goes further in explaining his position (or perhaps lack of a position would be a better phrasing) regarding the situation of the French vis-a-vis their occupation of Algeria, that position is no less muddleheaded than any explanation previously published.

This collection of writings includes a number of articles and essays Camus wrote for French journals.  It also includes some rather extensive reporting on the situation of the colonized Algerians.  These writings do much toward describing the plight of these people, but suffer from an inability to acknowledge, much less examine the root cause for their situation. After citing example after example of colonial neglect and abuse, Camus still fails to point the finger at the cause of these failings.  My visceral reaction is simply, how can he not understand that these examples are not failings of colonialism, but exactly how colonialism works. The psychological underpinnings are fundamental to the dynamic, affecting both the colonized and the colonizer.

In what is best described as the liberal dilemma, by refusing to accept that history is as important as the present when examining colonial and imperial situations, Camus’ writing consistently falls short in its explanation of why Algeria and France found themselves in conflict in the years of the Algerian liberation struggle.  In the historical vacuum that Camus places himself in, he ends up accepting the facts of French colonialism and oppression as immutable.  Furthermore, he seems to reject the idea that the Algerians should have any say in their own future unless it is on terms determined mostly by the French colonizers.
Read the rest here.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at:
Comment: Ron Jacobs has written an important, albeit it brief, article that raises important questions about the sincerity of Albert Camus to identify entirely with an anti-colonial revolution in Algeria.

I am not using the word 'sincerity' (my word here and not Jacobs') to hypothesize that Camus was insincere or wholly unable to see the brutality of what his home country, France, was doing in Algeria. I am, nonetheless, saying that I agree with Jacobs that Camus did not carry the recognition of brutality to a call for revolution against France. And in so doing he did not, perhaps could not, identify with the self-determination of the Algerian revolution.

His resistance was, therefore, in effect window dressing and in course ineffectual.

As brilliant as Camus was and as much as his collected works give us reason to pause and think about the purpose of life and the big questions that pertain, he failed to afford the Algerian people their self-determination.

Makes me wonder if Camus was unable to uncouple the racist tendency to see whiteness (Western agency specifically) as the universal default condition. In other words, did he want an outcome that looked like the French Republic? One in which the Algerians would not be mistreated but on French terms, and in so doing their liberated state would be an extension of Frenchness and not self-determination.

My thinking is that Camus assumed French centrality.  He sought a reform of abuses and not a revolution in much the same terms that his counterpart, Jean Paul Sartre did.

Satre was more blatant about condemning France, its colonial doings, and its inherent racism.  His position was more wide-reaching and damning in outcome.  Revolution for Sartre was not unthinkable.  It was, in fact, inevitable and for no small reason because of colonialism.

It is, therefore, not too difficult to see why Frantz Fanon associated himself closely with Sartre.  For Fanon, liberation was about revolution in material and psychological terms.  And Sartre did not disagree.

Camus, on the other hand, never even got close to this position of deconstruction.

It is for this reason that Jacobs thinks that Camus suffered from the "liberal dilemma".

Change for liberals is not undesirable.  What is undesirable is unlinking change from its Enlightenment-derived essence.  Liberals - like the recent Occupy movement demonstrated - seek change that reforms the system over uprooting the system.

Camus seems to have assumed that reason - a major Enlightenment value - makes change desirable insofar as it replicates the agency of French centrality (read whiteness in post-colonial terms).

French abuses had to be reformed through reason and, thereby, the colonial project could be redeemable because it had at its core the 'reasonable' assumption that "all men" could be free like the French - if even modified to be so.

It is a problematic position and its inherent biases are clear from the outside.  One of those biases is the fact of appropriation.  Speaking on behalf of the Other, and even worse in consequence, speaking toward erasure of the Other.

It is this unremedied bias that has post-colonial critics and theorists pointing to the colonial baggage and disruption of the post-colonial era; an ongoing reality that Camus did not foresee.


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