He was active in the Résistance, the French representative in the United Nations after the end of World War II and among the signatories of the Charter of Human Rights. His name is Stéphane Hessel and he is ninety-three years old. He has reached the last stage of his life, and before he takes his leave he has a message to give to young generations. This appeared under the title Indignez-vous! in October 2010 and is a 20-page pamphlet. It became an instant success and is currently making the rounds in Europe and the United States as well as on the Internet—in original and in translation. According to UK Indymedia it had sold 600,000 copies in just three months.
Hessel is worried that the spirit of anti-fascism that made resistance to the Nazis possible is waning away. He confesses that our world is different than that of the twentieth century and that today it is not always easy to make out reasons for outrage. ‘The world has become too complex.’ But, if we were to look closely, there are more than enough grounds for concern: against the growing socio-economic inequalities within and across societies, environmental pollution, failing education policies, the failure to resolve the Middle-East conflict, and the hopelessness of terrorism. It is time we look us in the mirror, take offence, overcome our disinterest and become politically engaged, thus changing the world. Or so, Hessel.
Hessel’s message is neither new nor contested. There are signs of disenchantment with politics in democratic societies, of growing distrust vis-à-vis political institutions and of deepening indifference with reference to the commons. And most agree it is important to do something against this—for instance by injecting more life into representative democracy through deliberative mechanisms or the support of civil society organizations.
Hessel’s prescription is somewhat different—and that is what made the pamphlet successful. His recommendation is that we should get angry. This is not a political message, argues Adam Kirsch in the TNR, it is an anti-political motto and potentially toxic. I would not fully side with that but I understand Kirsch’s perspective. Think of the Tea Party supporters marching in Washington—they are angry alright. Same with the supporters of the extreme right-wing in Austria who have been objecting to the building of mosques at the local level—they too are angry. And if you have ever caught a glimpse of Le Pen of Front National speaking to his followers in France, then you know that taking righteous offence is not alone a qualification of those who are right.
Does the success of Hessel’s pamphlet indicate a sleeping potential for greater political engagement? Maybe—had his been a country other than France. In France, citizens will often get indignant and take to the streets. Therefore, for the French, the old man’s call is more of a confirmation that they are doing things right—at a time when they are beginning to doubt it: Hessel’s manifesto was published against the background of last year’s week-long demonstrations by young people against the partly necessary reforms of the country’s antiquated pension system. As Hessel writes, we live in a complex world. From that perspective, his pamphlet is more a symptom of rather than a solution to the problems faced by modern democracies.