Liberty, Equality, and -- Especially -- Fraternity

02/06/2014 03:30 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2014

In this time of provocative and suggestive "quenelles" and bananas hurled at government officials, of rancid hatred and incendiary clamor, of generalized resentment and vindictive rivalries, we have forgotten a word that badly needs reinventing. That word is fraternity.

Fraternity does not get good press, alas.

It seems the epitome of the floating signifier, in the Freudian sense, or of the thoughtless abstraction of the Hegelians.

It has been called empty (Hannah Arendt), even kitschy (Milan Kundera), and potentially (and paradoxically) violent (Sartre's "fraternity-terror" and, before that, Robespierre's original).

But it is one of the beautiful words of modern political discourse: dangerous, no doubt; tricky, of course -- but less so, in the end, than the other two words of the motto of republican France, one that operates as a check on the mortal danger that, in its absence, the first two words would pose. Without fraternity is not liberty fated to generate that dark stew of the will to live and the will to kill that is rightly condemned by the critics of untrammeled libertarianism (originally known as liberalism)? Is fraternity not the antidote to the totalitarian danger detected, just as presciently, by Tocqueville's followers in the ideal of equality, with its leveling passion?

I think of the fraternity of Malraux who, building on Maurice Barrès (the cult of the self) and Oswald Spengler (whose civilizations were monoliths without doors or windows, closed off from one another), dedicated his work (his novels, his theory of art) and his life (the Spanish civil war, the resistance in Alsace, Gaullism) to articulating the great adventure of the soul without God but aspiring to greatness all the same.

I think of Camus showing us how fraternity is a precondition for revolt, not only against evil and its cortege of senseless suffering, but against the Caligula that slumbers in each of us (teach me wrath ... educate us in cruelty and indifference to the misery of others ... upon Arrival, plague ...).

I think of the Dostoevsky of "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions" in which he responded in advance to Ivan's remark to Alyosha: "I have never understood how one can love one's fellow man." For him, too, the alternative was implacable: brothers or demons... fraternity or death... gentleness or barbarity...

I think of Jan Patocka, the great Czech philosopher, the dissident's thinker and, therefore, the thinker of postmodern democracy; I think of his "solidarity of the shaken," his chain of wrecks stripped naked by the celibate machines of totalitarianism, wrecks that only a sturdy rope can rescue from the night of the war of all against all and of the One against each. What is that but another name for fraternity, for the same call for justice and for the recognition of the Other in his dignity as the other? Brother or beast ... Vulnerability to the vulnerability of my neighbor or else, for me, the ultimate vulnerability, without recourse or salvation, fatal...

And, of course, I think of Emmanuel Levinas, the great thinker of a version of fraternity conceived not as the insipid assertion of universal compassion and even less as God knows what sort of call for the fusion of subjects who miraculously turn out to be more similar than they had appeared to be, less "otherly" than they had thought themselves to be -- as in the tired fable of the companions of the lost Origin, sons of the same mother, that is, of the same community of blood or faith and thus, by consequence, of the same mechanism for the exclusion of bad sons, of miscasts and apostates. The brother, for Levinas, is not the same but the other; not the identical but the singular; he is the one who has understood that human rights, for example, are not mine first and foremost but those of that "otherwise than being" that is other people. The brother is the "innate fact" of a face that is an order and a prayer, a supplication, and transcendence. The brother is the "between us" of subjectivities confronting one another -- confronting one another, yes, but renouncing (or trying to do so) the insistence on "essence" and on the spontaneous and natural "profit-sharing" that are the wellsprings of their war, in opposition to which Levinas poses the muted, imperfect, but invincible will to respond to the other.

That form of fraternity is not a password; it is a horizon.

It is not a program but an ideal, a perspective, a utopia.

It is not the third term of a saying that has been frayed to the core; it is a regulating principle that enables the other two terms to keep their criminal excesses at bay.

Thirty years ago, it was that idea that the protagonists of a great adventure had in mind when they founded SOS Racisme in France. These days, that adventure seems sadly to have fallen into disrepute, but we have to give it credit for keeping the beast on a leash -- at least for a time.

It is that spirit that the believers in republican democracy on the right and left should try to regain if we are to avoid imprisoning ourselves in our identities, to cease amplifying the conflicts that come with competing to outdo each other in victimhood, to forgo our claims to the rights supposedly attached to victim status, and to step back from the glamorization of hate.

To rebuild.

To counter the ill winds that are blowing over a bewildered France that seems, as after a tragedy, to have fallen off the rails.

There is a solution: fraternity.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy