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A shaky diagnosis of a disillusioned youth

Age of Violence. The Crisis of Political Action and the End of Utopia
Forfatter: Alain Bertho
Forlag: Verso Books, (Storbritannien)
DIAGNOSIS / Does hope lead to disappointment and desperation to terror? With Alain Bertho, we can talk about a presentism, ie a lasting present, without past or future.


In his excellent novel from 2012, Rue des thieves, which has also been published in Norwegian, writes the French author Mathias about two young guys, Lakhdar and Bassam. They arrive from Morocco to Barcelona, ​​where Lakhdar falls in love with the Jewish Judith, while Bassam falls in love with the Koran. The book was created in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring and describes along the way a young generation that is divided in the face of two emotions, hope and desperation. Both are equally hopeless, for hope leads to disappointment and desperation leads to terror.

Alain Bertho refers to the novel in his own small but monumental book, which has been published in English translation. Bertho is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Paris VIII. He has studied urbanization and globalization for many years, and with this book he comes up with a shocking diagnosis of a disillusioned youth at a time when everything seems to be in turmoil – or perhaps rather crash!

Freedom, equality and brotherhood

It is rare for a scientific researcher to provide a true page turner, but Bertho has done so, in his description of how the political activism is hit by a deep crisis and has instead resorted to frustrated use of violence. One of his many points of departure is an interesting survey, where people in France, Germany and England were asked how they viewed the Islamic State. Among the French respondents, a total of 16 pct. say in the groups 'Very positive' (3 pct.) and 'Fairly positive' (13 pct.), while only 5 pct. of the British and 2 pct. that the Germans adopted a similar attitude.

Bertho concludes that France has a far greater potential for the recruitment of radical jihadists, but when that is said, he directs his gaze towards the global situation, and it is frightening reading.

If you could not sign the society's secular dictates, you were not welcome.

It is in the spirit of the times. Until quite recently, our self-view has been shaped by the ideals of the French Revolution in 1789. Freedom, equality and fraternity, and all that. But it is precisely there that Western societies have increasingly sought secularism as the highest ideal. In France, it is called "laïcité", and it developed through the 1990s into a repressive selection mechanism. The concept became the core of efforts to define national identity. If you could not sign the society's secular dictates, you were not welcome. It is a "softer" definition than ethnicity, because immediately it does not smell badly of racism, but it is nevertheless violent. Not least because this entire mechanism is governed by a requirement for security – protection against an external and an internal enemy.

Lisbeth Salander

Post-historical generation

France is particularly exposed to conflicts in this regard because the country has never really had its own colonial past for introspection. But basically, this is a problem that repeats itself throughout the Western world. It is about young people with an immigrant background, who feel neglected, and we often abdicate responsibility by explaining it as an effect of the increasing Islamization outside the world. But in reality it is a radicalized reaction to a rejection, and we see the same reaction everywhere in society. Bertho exemplifies with Lisbeth Salander , the anarchist girl from Stieg Larsson's novel trilogy. She seeks to escape a criminal father, and she represents a youth without faith in the conventional future of adulthood.

The rebels from 68 lost hope because most of all they were looking for a better life, purely materially – this also applies to the migrants.

Today's young people are the first post-historical generation. It stands in stark contrast to the rebels of '68, who grew up in a time of colossal industrial growth and who sought individual freedom. But the young people see it as a generation that lost hope because most of all they were looking for a better life, purely materially. This also applies to migrants. For the young, it is about avoiding the mistakes of the past and false hopes, and not so much about constructing a future. Because this belief in the future has led the parent generation into a dead end.

This puts the attack on the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in an interesting light. On 7 January 2015, two brothers, who identified themselves with Al Qaeda, broke into the newsroom and killed 12 people, while another 11 were wounded. The whole world seemed to go into collective mourning over the barbaric attack on freedom of expression, but there was an important point. Charlie Hebdo represents the attitude from '68, where one was non-conformist by assuming total freedom to say anything. That attitude no longer works.


For many, belief in the future and thus hope has disappeared. It becomes clear by considering two phenomena.

The Baader-Meinhof group, the Red Brigades and the like were a direct result of the spirit of '68, and they carried out their violent actions in the belief that it opened up a new future. Today's radical jihadists operate in the same way, but they only see that the parents' generation's faith in the future has led them into a dead end. They therefore work from the idea of ​​ending the future, and this is in many ways the core of modern violence, which has canceled the previous political activism.

In 1991, Francis Fukuyama predicted that the collapse of communism heralded the end of history. But what we see now is something completely different from what Fukuyama predicted. We're talking about presentism, i.e. a continuous present, without past or future. Or put another way, if you think about the future, there is no reason to be sad about the past. This is very well accommodated in jihadism's aloof image storm. Besides the theological purification, there is an important element in their attempt to wipe out the past through archaeological vandalism in Palmyra and elsewhere. History is the victors' tale, so where is the losing side's version? And as long as we don't have it, the future is also meaningless.

If MODERN TIMES had given out stars or chef's hats, I would have delivered five of them without hesitation!

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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