Commentary. It’s not true that the Left lost its ideals because it was too focused on the conditions in the fields and workshops. It has lost them because those whose own proper field was the realm of ideals—i.e. the philosophers—stopped working on them.

The letter without the spirit is dead

It is certainly praiseworthy for a philosopher to turn his thoughts to politics, and to do so mostly by taking into view vast horizons of contemporary life, asking some of the real questions that are confronting us today. What makes it even more laudable as an initiative is the fact that the main problem he is confronting is precisely the lack of ideas, as well as ideals, on the part of the today’s left, both Italian and European. Accordingly, we express our gratitude to Maurizio Ferraris for having attempted this feat in his recent il manifesto column. But are his prescriptions helpful?

I think Ferraris mainly intended to put forward an intelligent and provocative position that would encourage thought. I think one might agree with the thesis that the Left is (at least to a certain extent) in trouble not because it failed to reach its goals, but because it has achieved them. Notwithstanding the fact that nothing has been achieved definitively, and that, for the sake of accuracy, we should add that the welfare state is in terrible condition today, starting with public health; that the best parts of the Italian public school system are being dismantled; that funding for research in Italy fails to reach any level that can be deemed reasonable; that in too many of the places where there are still a few jobs left, it was precisely the representatives of the left (though not only) in the local administrations who agreed to make everyone pay the price for economic activity in terms of the destruction of the environment and of peoples’ health; that there has not been any sign of a national-level proposal from the left regarding the problem of integrating migrants; and, finally, that tax evasion, corruption and organized crime are afflicting the country like always—indeed, more than ever, with some help from officials who are all too willing to overlook small amounts of tax fraud here and there. If, as some think, eradicating these three cancers is not a part of a “leftist” agenda, then we might as well abandon the notion that the few voters from the so-called elite who are still voting for left-wing parties are doing it for ethical reasons and not for personal gain. However, that would be distorting the truth.

To this we must add that, as the above-mentioned facts demonstrate, the goals in the service of which all these institutions have been set up—the welfare state, access to education, awareness of one’s duties and rights as a citizen, and, I would say, even the awareness of the duties of adulthood and of moral and civil responsibility—do not seem to have been achieved; not to mention the freer and better life that had been promised. And how could they be achieved, given that, first and foremost, those (few or many) for whom “the Left” had been the political name of a trove of humanistic, universal and cosmopolitan thinking—which developed together with the modern age into the age of human rights in all their forms, civil, political, social, cultural, and which managed, through the heat of battles and tragedies, to create a res publica, a “thing belonging to everyone” which was worth defending—simply stopped believing in them? Particularly when it comes to ethics.

And thus we come to the point. It’s not true that the Left lost its ideals because it was too focused on the conditions in the fields and workshops. It has lost them because those whose own proper field was the realm of ideals—i.e. the philosophers, or whatever one wishes to call them: intellectuals, writers, or the sluggish and gray minority of the academics; in short, “we”—stopped working on them. Maurizio Ferraris himself is a case in point, both in his youthful works and in his mature postmodernism. Ironically, we stopped precisely at the moment when, after the painful test of our values ​​in the first half of the previous century, between the wars and the totalitarian regimes, the best legacy of the Enlightenment was fused into a form of practical reason embodied in the great normative documents: the Universal Declarations, the post-war Constitutions, the European Charters of Rights. The philosophers abandoned practical reason at the very moment that the best of our mothers and fathers had miraculously succeeded in embodying it in the form of institutions and norms, and laying it out, for the first time in history, as something to be universally acknowledged—at least on paper.

But the letter without the spirit is dead, and the spirit vanished almost immediately. Among the philosophers, there were only a few free spirits who did not allow themselves to be enchanted by the dark, violent myths of the Cold War: the Camuses against the Sartres, the Miloszes against the Lukacses, the Spinellis and Olivettis against the Banfis and Kojèves… and then what? Then the French bowed down before the altar of Heidegger, that “preacher of Being” who saw Hitler’s tanks as a manifestation of the war between its true and false forms, and could only shrug when faced with the reality of the death camps (according to him, the Jews, whom he viewed as paradigmatic examples of the capitalist-financial and uprooting modernity, “self-destructed”).

The followers of Hegel and Marx also had an axe to grind against Enlightenment modernity (“The Nazi death camps are not an aberration,” but the direct product of the Enlightenment, according to Adorno and Horkheimer). From the fruitful meeting of the Black Forest of philosophical thought with Hegelian dialectic, the canon of the so-called “continental philosophy” was born, which we have taught everywhere for the past 50 years. As for Italy, everyone knows what happened to that small life-giving stream of ideals (i.e. of philosophy) without which the Left must wither and die: it was buried under the twin forces of the “contemptful consciousness,” striving to outdo even Carl Schmitt himself in terms of realpolitik and decisionism, and slipping gradually towards both theocratic politics and negative theology, and the “dancing consciousness,” a collection of faceless masks for which all values ​​and truths are violence, everything is joyfully relative and only fundamentalists still believe in facts—the camp where we find Maurizio Ferraris himself. This is how it happened that the Left was left without a reason to exist—indeed, without reason at all. Except, that is, for the fields and the workshops.

Now, in the 21st century, the whole of humanity, freed from the need to work, which is to be outsourced to robots, and nourished, in Ferraris’s terms, by the socialization of “documedial capital” (whatever that means), will have the joyous prospect of a life dedicated entirely to the “production of value”: which, in Ferraris’s account, seems to ultimately mean consumerism, tourism and writing, because that is how “value” is being produced nowadays. Indeed, what else is left to do at that point but socialize it?

If such a world is possible, and if that is where we’re going, would it be any different from a Brave New World-style nightmare, a “Republic of the happy” where people are liberated from the distressful desire to make something of themselves without annihilating others? That is the ultimate question that goes to the heart of all humanism, idealism, practical reason and philosophy. As for us, we’d rather forget about it. Meanwhile, we’re moving forward along that path: with our complicit silence, the study of history is being abolished by decree—first of all that of the history of the 20th century, which is obviously outdated, and there’s not even enough time to teach it. Can thought become more intelligent without memory? Who knows. But it will certainly become more and more thoughtless.

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