There are relatively few engaged intellectuals whom I really respect. I can name a few: Aron, Chomsky, Greenwald, Assange.. There are others that I find respectable and others whom I surely do not know, but there are few of any real intellectual depth or power.
This is particularly true in France. The country of Descartes is one, unfortunately and for various historical reasons, where the prestige of "philosophers," novelists and would-be revolutionaries is far too great. They sell fantasies - using pretty phrases - without ever having to be confronted with realities.
I have found a notable exception: Emmanuel Todd. I have watched a large number of interviews he has given and am deeply impressed. I am sorry that most of these are not available in English. But I will summarize:
* He is a historian and demographer. He tends to use "hard" data in the longue durée, especially demographic and educational stats. He is suspicious, and rightly so, of economy data.
* In 1976 he predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union in a book called The Final Fall. Knowing that all Soviet economic data was falsified, he relied on harder to falsify demographic data: the rise of infant mortality, the low number of "privileged" individuals (measured by car ownership, 2%) relative to the security apparatus (10%) and the independentist tendencies/fundamental differences of the periphery (Central European satellites, Central Asian Muslims) convinced him the Empire could not last. At the time, people were terrified of the rising power of the Soviet Union, hence the discrediting of Jimmy Carter and the rise of Thatcher-Reagan.
* His great academic work is on family structures. He analyzes categories of premodern family structures (liberal/authoritarian, inegalitarian/egalitarian) and claim that these family structures are reproduced as political systems during the phase of modernization. Liberal-inegalitarian weak "nuclear families" produces "liberalism" (essentially Northwest Europe), authoritarian-egalitarian (brothers are equal, father supreme) produces communism (Russia, Yugoslavia, Central Italy), authoritarian-inegalitarian (one son receives entire inheritance) produces fascism (Germany, Japan). He claims these family structures determine the character of nations and have very lasting effects, including the discipline and export prowess of Germany. I am not sure I completely buy all this, but it is interesting and surely the structure of the family, the basic unity of society and of an individual's social universe, has a huge impact on a society's development. He is not a determinist (family structure only suggests an outcome, does not dictate it).
* In the 1990s, based on his work on family structure and the mounting European economic crisis, he opposed the "strong franc" policy and the creation of the euro, predicting it would either not be created or would lead to trouble in 20 years. He opposed globalization and free trade between nations of different levels of economic development, considering it the suicide of the West.
* In 2002, at the time of the "American hyperpower," he predicted the decline of America based on its poor educational performance, hyperconsumerism, debt-based growth (household, public) and its chronic trade deficit. He plead for a Franco-German-Russian alliance.
* He considers that immigrants will be assimilated in France and that the Arab World is becoming "normalized" (collapsing birth rates, decline of endogamy (marriage of cousins), progression of literacy). Based on this he predicted an Arab Spring during the mid-2000s.
* Since the late 2000s, after some reconciliation with the idea of the EU, he has returned to opposition to the euro, which he considers doomed. He sees the euro only leading to total German economic hegemony. He pleads for French withdrawal from the euro, European socio-environmental protectionism, a devalued franc, and moderate Keynesianism.
I find much of this very convincing. Todd's values, he's a Frenchman educated in the UK, are close to my own. His method/philosophy - heavy use of data, closeness to reality, complete skepticism at the possibility of democracy without elites or replacing mixed-market capitalism - are close to mine. He tends to exaggerate for effect and sometimes appears to take his dreams for realities (he has very high hopes for the French Left), but on the whole, I find him very persuasive. I've bought a number of his books and will be reading them with great interest.
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