Back in the 1950s, when Mario Vargas Llosa was a university student in Peru, the standards for great literature were clear. Cervantes, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and such key 20th century novelists as James Joyce and Thomas Mann, observes Vargas Llosa in Notes on the Death of Culture, “wrote books that looked to defeat death, outlive their authors and continue attracting and fascinating readers in the future.” Novels like Ulysses and The Magic Mountain, produced through “indefatigable efforts,” required of their readers “an intellectual concentration almost as great as that of their writers.”
In fact culture itself, notes Vargas Llosa in this relatively brief but wide-ranging collection of new and previously published essays, has always been synonymous with excellence—with difficult but rewarding works in literature and the arts that aimed to offer “serious and not playful answers to the great enigmas, questions and conflicts of human existence.” Culture is also inextricably linked to history and tradition, to shared “myths, mysteries and rituals” that have “stood the test of centuries” though wars, disasters, political changes and scientific and technological discoveries. Through culture, the present maintains a dialogue with the past—or so any university student would have assumed back in the 1950s.
Vargas Llosa, a prolific novelist who won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2010, quotes appreciatively from a 1948 treatise, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, by fellow laureate T. S. Eliot. Vargas Llosa is not himself a believing Christian, nor does he share key aspects of Eliot’s own conservativism. But he agrees with Eliot that, in countless ways, religion is the crucial ingredient that enables cultures to develop and thrive. In the Western world, Eliot writes, “it is against a background of Christianity that all of our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend on that culture for its meaning. Only a Christian culture could have produced a Voltaire or a Nietzsche.’”
Eliot therefore believed that, as secular attitudes spread, and Christianity’s social and intellectual influence wanes, so will Western culture decline. “I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith,” he wrote nearly 70 years ago. In fact, “I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it will be possible to say that it will have no culture.”
That period, Vargas Llosa argues, has now arrived. To be sure culture, as Eliot understood the term, still survives in “small social enclaves.” But for most Europeans and Americans, even educated ones, culture no longer primarily connotes the notion of shared religious beliefs and long-standing historical traditions. Instead, it is almost “exclusively accepted in its anthropological definition,” suggesting external traits related to speech, diet, dress and other commonly shared behaviors. “When the idea of culture becomes an amalgam of this kind,” Vargas Llosa suggests, then it might come to be understood merely as a pleasant way of spending time.” Of course, he adds, “culture can indeed be a pleasing pastime, but if it is just this, then the very concept becomes distorted and debased.”
Thus, in universities and elsewhere, few would now agree with Matthew Arnold’s famous description of culture as “the study of perfection,” the admirable effort “to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere.” In the popular mind, culture is closely connected to popular consumer choices that, as Vargas Llosa puts it, are made to be “consumed instantly and disappear, like cake or popcorn.” Culture today consists of commercial products made popular by advertising and marketing: pop music, movies, television, internet shopping, Twitter, Instagram and other social media networks, all of it tossed together in a post-Christian, postmodern stew. ” “A Verdi opera,” writes Vargas Llosa, “the philosophy of Kant, a concert by the Rolling Stones and a performance by the Cirque du Soleil have equal value.” “Everything is culture and nothing is.”
Ours is also a “civilization of the spectacle,” Vargas Llosa declares. It distracts and amuses and its presence shapes important social institutions. For example, “the border line that traditionally separated serious journalism from muckraking yellow journalism has become blurred, full of holes, and has in many cases disappeared.” This has radically changed priorities: news becomes important if it is “unusual, scandalous and spectacular.” In politics, similarly, appearance trumps substance. For most candidates, “gestures and form” are far more important than convictions and values. Throughout the civilization of the spectacle, a “playful banality” prevails.
Vargas Llosa’s own interest in politics began when he was a student in Lima, where it was generally imagined among young intellectuals that only socialism could eliminate chronic poverty in Latin America. And only socialism could form a viable alternative to the sort of military dictatorships that General Manuel Odría, for one, had established in Peru after the Second World War. As a student Vargas Llosa dutifully read Das Kapital and particularly admired the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who owed much to Marx and who, in the 1960s, sang the praises of Stalin and Mao. By his own admission, Vargas Llosa once thought of revolution in “remote, romantic, even academic terms.”
But even then, as he recalls in his engaging 1993 autobiography, A Fish in the Water, Vargas Llosa wearied of the “all-purpose clichés”—including “revisionism,” “class interest,” “class struggle,” “petty bourgeois opportunism”—that permeated student political discussions. Increasingly he found Marxist class analysis and the “puerile” rhetoric of the Left little more than a “catechism of stereotypes and abstractions.” Vargas Llosa also realized that he was too autonomous to be a “tireless revolutionary, a slave to the organization.” His disenchantment grew when, in the 1960s, he made several trips to Cuba and found that Fidel Castro’s despotic regime was even worse than Odría’s.
Vargas Llosa turned to an array of non-Marxist writers, including Jean-François Revel and Raymond Aron. He read Karl Popper “as if in a trance.” He spent many years living and teaching in Europe and the United States. In 1990 he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of Peru as something of a libertarian, calling for a smaller government and a greater use of free market principles as a spur to economic growth. Vargas Llosa is now “skeptical” about the future. But he also concedes in Notes on the Death of Culture that “innumerable things” have improved over the course of his lifetime, including the fact that there are “fewer dictatorships, more democracies, a freedom that encompasses more countries and people than ever before.” Even in Latin America it is now possible to find prominent thinkers and public figures who agree that the free market is “an unsurpassed and unbeatable system” for allocating resources and creating a middle class.
Overall, however, his tone is grim. At 80, Vargas Llosa admits that “in this era of virtual reality,” he has perhaps become “a dinosaur in tie and trousers, surrounded by computers.” And occasionally in these essays, some of which first appeared as op-ed columns in the Spanish newspaper El País, he does sound like a grump, albeit a highly sophisticated one, who can’t stop itemizing all the ways in which the world is going to the dogs. Still, it’s hard to quibble with his theme that “stupidity has become the ruling value of modern life,” especially as he describes the “thirst for scandal” that preoccupies so much of the mass media, which has had the general effect of turning politicians “into the clowns of the great farce that is public life,” and is discouraging the “best people” from seeking public life. But then, a “universal voyeurism,” itself “a manifestation of barbarism,” is increasingly defining a culture “where nobody respects the privacy of others.”
In today’s culture, the image is king. Vargas Llosa evokes the “the wise prophet” Marshall McLuhan who decades ago described citizens in the age of mass media as floating docilely in an “’image bath,’” submitting to emotions triggered by an “unusual and at times very brilliant bombardment of images that capture our attention though they dull our sensibilities and intelligence due to their primary and transitory nature.” In fact contemporary culture, such as it is, clearly “favors minimal intellectual effort, at the expense of commitment, concern and, in the final instance, even of thought itself.”
As images prevail increasingly over words, books may “head for the catacombs,” suggests the man who has published dozens of them. They may survive in electronic form, but with a change in content as well as “wrapping.” Traditional bound books awaken a “tactile, sensual pleasure” in certain readers, as well as a palpable sense of durability: they can be stored and treasured for hundreds of years. E-books, however, offer “immateriality,” a sense that the words on the screen are ephemeral, erasable. In the future books made of paper and filled with nothing but words will likely appear eccentric and remote, much as we now consider “the alchemists’ tracts on the philosopher’s stone.”
Even now literature is marginalized, pushed to the back of the rack in favor of gossip magazines, movie star memoirs and other forms of light reading. Not that long ago, Vargas Llosa notes, serious novels were widely reviewed in newspapers and many popular magazines. Critics like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling set a particularly high standard. They were erudite but accessible, publishing bestsellers and reaching educated readers in the New Yorker, the New Republic and other mainstream publications. They had a “central role” in the world of culture, helping “guide citizens in the difficult task of judging what they heard, saw and read.” Vargas Llosa especially admires Trilling, “a liberal in the cultural sphere, with his faith in ideas as a motor of progress and his conviction that great literary works enrich life, improve men and women, and underpin civilization.”
Vargas Llosa thus regrets the vast cultural influence of literary theorists like Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, who played with ideas “like circus jugglers with their scarves and clubs.” For them, critics like Trilling were “celestially naïve.” Unlike Trilling, they did not start by assuming literature’s special place in the Humanities, as a rich source of insight and inspiration. Derrida, in fact, gained fame by “deconstructing” literature, demonstrating the superiority of the critic’s role.
Rooted deeply within academe, Derrida and other postmodern theorists, Vargas Llosa points out, used a highly specialized and often opaque terminology to argue that language does not express reality. “Words,” then, only “express themselves.” Moreover, literature “does not describe the world, it merely describes itself; it is a succession of images that document the different readings of reality that books offer, using language that is always subjective and deceptive.” “Nothing,” therefore, “exists outside language, which constructs the world we think we know, but which is nothing more than a fiction of words.”
Such ideas have, of course, trickled down from the universities into much of the wider culture. As Roger Scruton puts it in his new book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, “meanings, facts and values are now regarded as negotiable,” and a sort of “wooly headed subjectivism” reigns. But of course, for the leftist thinkers he analyzes, not all meanings and values are equally negotiable. Their critique is aimed at “old authorities,” the traditional systems of belief that informed Western culture for millennia. They suggest that the only relief from “a state of bewildered skepticism” is “a leap forward, into the world of free choice and free opinion, in which nothing has authority and nothing is objectively right or wrong.”
Back in 1985, when deconstruction and other postmodern theories were all the rage in British and American intellectual circles, and English majors and graduate students were enjoying a frisson of subversive excitement by lacing their essays with terms like “praxis,” “textuality,” and “invagination,” Scruton offered a dissenting view. His Thinkers of the New Left cast a critical eye on Sartre and several more recent figures whose writings, which became prominent during the 1960s and 70s, were increasingly hailed as stimulating feats of intellectual daring. At the time Scruton was a professor of philosophy at the University of London, and his opposition to academic orthodoxy was not warmly received. In fact he was so vigorously denounced by critics and colleagues that his publisher pulled Thinkers of the New Left from the bookshops and, as Scruton recalls, transferred them “to my garden shed.”
Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, Scruton’s revised version of Thinkers of the New Left, is also provocative, and very much up to date. (Richard Reinsch’s podcast with Scruton about the book is available here.) Scruton drops or condenses material on several figures no longer in fashion, including R.D. Laing of “primal scream” fame. He retains analysis of, among others, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Jurgen Habermas, and Michel Foucault, very probably the most influential of the group, whose dictum that dominant elites control language in order to maintain their power and privileges is now a fixture in humanities curricula throughout Europe and the United States. Scruton also adds “substantial new material” on several newer intellectual celebrities like Slavoj Žižek, the idiosyncratic Slovenian who has acquired something of a cult following, thanks partly to his starring role in such documentaries as 2015’s A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.
In his introduction Scruton notes that, when appropriate, he will commend “what is good” in the writings of his subjects, hoping that his results “can be read with profit by people of all political persuasions.” He concedes, for example, that Žižek (who sometimes quotes Eliot as well as G.K. Chesterton) is “seriously educated” and that he often “writes perceptively of art, literature, cinema and music.” He also suggests that, even though he has been venerated by the Left, Foucault’s own political views were “constantly shifting,” and that he became something of a critic of communism in his final years. Scruton also praises Foucault’s prose, suggesting that “the synthesizing poetry of his style rises above the murky sludge of left-wing writing like an eagle over mud-flats.”
But Scruton is also bracingly blunt when he describes the “pseudo-scholarship” of Althusser, the “barely readable but impeccably orthodox” writings of Habermas, the “glutinous prose” of Gilles Deleuze—the fatuousness and charlatanism that characterizes the work of many of today’s most admired thinkers. Of course bloated and pretentious writing—“Newspeak” Scruton calls it, following George Orwell—is not incidental; it tends to conceal slack thinking as well as unsurprising political assumptions. It obscures the fact that, despite their “relativistic” theories, the thinkers Scruton analyzes are simply trundling along the well-worn grooves of Leftwing orthodoxy, positing a revolutionary utopia that will one day expunge the bourgeoisie and their backward ways.
Leftist Newspeak is “a powerful tool,” Scruton writes; its “mystifying technicalities” shrink and distort the world we recognize, the one in which men and women face each other as individuals rather as “abstract forces.” The “impenetrable sentences,” once decoded, also reveal that, in the hardened bunkers of the academic left, very little has changed since back in the days when Engels was still corresponding with Marx; that, indeed, the very word “capitalism” must radiate toxicity until the end of time. “The growth of the welfare state,” writes Scruton, “the expansion of home-ownership, the increased social mobility, the evolution of cooperatives, self-employment and shareholding—none of the ways in which society has moved on since Marx or adapted to the needs of its members has loosened the grip of this potent word.”
This “transformation of the language of politics,” Scruton writes, has been “the left’s principle legacy.” Foucault’s ruling “episteme” and “structures of domination,” the “Big Other” evoked by Lacan and his disciple Žižek: such terms function very much like the “all-purpose clichés” that bored Vargas Llosa back in the 1950s. Thus, if you were to cut and hack your way through the verbal forest cultivated by these New Left thinkers, you would not only be on your way to earning a PhD in cultural studies, but might also conclude that, in order to improve society, you must first destroy it; that human happiness requires nothing less than the complete overhaul of all existing political, religious, and legal institutions. In sum, as Scruton puts it, “there can be no resolution of our conflicts short of total transformation, total revolution or, as Joseph Conrad’s professor expresses it in The Secret Agent, “‘the destruction of all that is.’ ”
But the New Left’s “denunciations of power” are not typically linked to detailed accounts of what the “institutions of the future” will be like. Instead there is almost always the speculative goal of a society “without institutions,” one in which “people spontaneously group together in life-affirming globules, from which the dead shell of law and custom has fallen away.” This magical social order has never existed anywhere, but its creation is the destination towards the Left inexorably points.
Of course, as Scruton notes, it is “the impossibility of utopia that fastens us to it: nothing can sully the absolute purity of that which will never be tested.” Moreover, “intellectuals are naturally attracted by the idea of a planned society, in the belief that they will be in charge of it.” As a result, Scruton observes, “they tend to lose sight of the fact that real social discourse is part of day-to-day problem solving and the minute search for agreement. Real social discourse veers away from ‘irreversible changes,’ regards all arrangements as adjustable, and allows a voice to those whose agreement it needs”—a view that has, of course, underpinned Western democracies for hundreds of years.
In Notes on the Death of Culture, Vargas Llosa’s outlook is fatalistic, even apocalyptic. Scruton, however, offers a more promising “alternative political philosophy” to counter the Progressive Valhalla that, for the thinkers of the New Left, will somehow materialize after the corrupt old structures have finally come down. Central to Scruton’s philosophy—sketched in a closing chapter, “What is Right?”—is a society that starts with a clear distinction “between civil society and the state.” On this model, rooted deeply in Anglo-American traditions, societies tend to thrive without the close oversight of central planners and Leftwing intellectuals. They are enriched, for example, by institutions built to human scale, the churches, choirs, clubs, fraternal organizations and sporting leagues that are maintained by the voluntary efforts of their members and that stand healthily “between the citizen and the state, offering discipline and order without the punitive sanctions through which the state exerts its sovereignty.”
Also central to Scruton’s philosophy is the rule of law, the “sine qua non of political freedom, available only where law is independent of the executive power and able to stand over it in judgment.” In regimes like Castro’s, the Party, “although the supreme agent within the state,” remains outside the law, and can be neither “prosecuted for a crime nor sued in a civil action.”
This critical difference between communist and capitalist societies has been “ignored or minimized by the left,” writes Scruton, which has tended to lump the judiciary within the “ideological state apparatus,” to use Althusser’s highly influential phrase. This is because, for them, “class struggle” is seen as “the fundamental fact in any conflict.” They regard “judicial independence” not as “a means of standing back from human disputes in order to resolve them,” but simply “as another instrument of domination, another functional device, whereby the power of the old ruling class was preserved by an ideological fiction of justice.”
But then, as Foucault taught, it’s always about domination. Nearly all of the thinkers Scruton discusses in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands have taken “the same annihilating approach to their opponents as leftist parties in power.” After all, the opponent is the class enemy. For Sartre he is the “false intellectual.” For Badio he is a “simulacrum.” In Žižek’s words, he is the person whose thought is “a worthless exercise, a pseudo-theorization of the lowest opportunist survivalist fears and instincts.” Such an enemy, writes Scruton, “is not to be the object of negotiation or compromise. Only after his final elimination from the social order will the truth be perceivable.”
And so, thinkers who are not mentally subservient must be mocked or marginalized, as Scruton himself learned. “Once identified as right-wing,” he writes, “you are beyond the pale of argument; your views are irrelevant, your credit discredited, your presence in the world a mistake.” It would certainly be a mistake to overlook Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, which despite its combustible title is, in fact, judicious as well as stimulating. It shows that Scruton, a brilliant thinker who writes with clarity and grace, is a particularly helpful guide to the most problematic and disorienting intellectual trends of the past 50 years.