Matt Thorne on a grandiose new theory of social change
By Dieter Thoma
Polity Press, 400pp, £30/$45
Two recent events have made German philosopher Dieter Thoma’s wide-ranging book Troublemakers: A Philosophy of Puer Robustus even more topical than it must have seemed when he was writing it – an unexpected development for a book about Thomas Hobbes’s political theories.
The first is the removal of Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy, an event that has always seemed, if not inevitable, then at least likely, especially if some of the stories about exactly what he was up to in his living quarters are true. The other, however, would have been impossible to predict: the terrible fire that engulfed Notre-Dame Cathedral in mid-April of this year.
What has all this got to do with Hobbes? Well, Thoma’s central conceit is the importance of the figure of the puer robustus or “stout boy” – a “troublemaker” who is against order and authority. Thoma believes that the crises and upheavals of our age often originate from the periphery rather than the centre of power.
It is a controversial theory, especially for British readers. Anyone looking at the current British political landscape could find some evidence to support this position, but also plenty that contradicts it. Was Brexit the work of dedicated (and wealthy) political outsiders determined to disrupt? Or was it the uprising of a forgotten mass who had been denied a voice for decades? Is the fact that Brexit has taken so long to achieve evidence that it is impossible for a “stout boy” to have the impact Thoma suggests? Or is the process itself (and the subsequent questioning of the political order), the actual achievement of Thoma’s “stout boys”?
And how does Notre-Dame fit into this? This is where Thoma’s already eccentric book becomes quite hard to follow. Thoma focuses on a passer-by’s definition of Quasimodo, the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s great novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, as “a monkey gone wrong”, and considers this character as another version of Hobbes’s “stout boy”. Maybe it makes more sense in German.
Thoma makes no significant differentiation between real people and fictional characters, suggesting that in creating these characters their authors were not only constructing fiction but also propagating archetypes. In this way, the “stout boy” passes through time from the 17th century to the present era. Thoma finds examples of his archetype in the writings of Rousseau, the fiction of Diderot, the plays of Schiller, the music of Wagner, the psychology of Freud and many other places throughout history (notably 1940s Italy and 1950s China) before coming to the 21st century, where he locates him in Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning.
But he also – and this illustrates one of the many weaknesses in Thoma’s argument – sees the “stout boy” in former American president Barack Obama. Thoma makes many interesting points about Obama’s campaign, including the question of whom the “we” in “yes, we can” actually referred to (and whom it didn’t); the use of science-fiction imagery from supporters such as Oprah Winfrey in his political campaign; and the way one individual’s triumph became presented as the victory of the masses. But to call the former president an “eccentric troublemaker” seems perverse. (Thoma considers Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, a “bimbo” or “egocentric troublemaker”.)
If the world’s most powerful men are, in a sense, outsiders, then where does the centre of power truly lie? Thoma’s thoughts on this question, especially with regard to historian Francis Fukuyama’s premature celebration of “the end of history”, are undoubtedly interesting, but it’s hard not to conclude that he has stretched his theory too far. When your definition of a “troublemaker” includes not just Presidents Obama and Trump but also, in Thoma’s words, “fascist troublemaker” Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered 77 people in Norway, it’s hard to believe that linking people in this way has any intellectual value at all.
Thoma’s belief that Western societies are currently “characterised by a struggle between different troublemakers” is arresting. But you could equally replace “troublemakers” with “politicians” or “interests” or “belief systems” and the assertion would make as much sense. Perhaps the biggest problem with this book is simply that Thoma hasn’t defined Hobbes’s “stout boy” as robustly as he could. If any archetype is to be useful, it needs to give us a way to differentiate between fascists and democratically elected leaders, fictional hunchbacks and 19th-century composers.
That said, there is still much to enjoy in this book, and Thoma is an endlessly lively thinker, whether measuring himself against Hobbes and Rousseau or contemporary theorists Slavoj Žižek and Giorgio Agamben. It would be hard to find a more obvious example of a philosopher led astray by his hobby horse, but even if his conclusions are suspect, there is tremendous entertainment, and occasional wisdom, in getting there.