If it was impossible to replace politics with righteous anger in 1944, it is surely all the more impossible in 2011. In fact, when Hessel tries to make “get angry” into a political platform, the results range from incoherent to sinister. For the attractive thing about anger is also the dangerous thing about it: It turns consensus, the basis of democratic politics, into a vice. All of France’s problems today, Hessel explains, can be attributed to the rich: “the power of money … has never been so large, insolent, and egotistical, with its servants even in the highest spheres of the State.” These are the same kinds of malefactors, he says, who were responsible for the defeat of 1940 and the rise of Vichy: “When I try to understand the origins of fascism, why were invaded by it and by Vichy, I tell myself that the rich, with their egotism, were terribly afraid of the Bolshevik Revolution.”
It follows from this equation that any attempt to cut back the French welfare state, such as Nicholas Sarkozy has been making with limited success, is the moral equivalent of Vichy. One of Hessel’s examples of the virtuous indignation he is calling for is the French teachers’ strike in 2008: The teachers who rebelled against proposed budget cuts “decided that these reforms departed too far from the ideal of the republican school, were too much at the service of a society of money.” Yet Hessel does not say anything at all about the content of the reform, which was extremely moderate—to shed 8,000 teaching jobs through attrition, by not replacing 50 percent of retiring teachers. Nor does he say anything about the motivation for it—to balance the French budget in line with European Union requirements, and to respond to falling class sizes. In other words, Hessel’s indignation does not allow for consideration of the trade-offs involved in every ordinary political decision.