Camille de Toledo’s Rebel French Yell


Here’s something to celebrate: Next year will mark two decades since history came to an end. In 1989, the Cold War fell apart: the Berlin Wall crumbled, the Soviet Union began to dissolve, and the West triumphantly climbed atop the rubble. Francis Fukuyama jubilantly proclaimed that we’d reached, “The end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In short, capitalism had won.

Camille de Toledo was 13 years old at the time and asks, in his scathing manifesto Coming of Age at the End of History, “Do you think growing up is easy when your mother is a cemetery?” Born too late, the great struggles—capitalism versus communism, fascism versus freedom—have passed him by; it’s perhaps the worst of all times for an unflinching rebel, his chance to change the world seemingly buried. And these days, for Toledo, the counter in counterculture has become, well, just the culture. As he puts it, “rejecting the establishment was now part of the establishment’s very foundation,” revolution nothing more than a marketer’s term. Toledo’s book is a provocative if unresolved collection of three long, intellectually dense essays that grapple with how to be a rebel in the age of the “new captivity.”

At his strongest, Toledo explains his generation’s moment as a time when “democracy and turbocapitalism [walk] hand-in-hand like the newly-hitched excreta of a Vegas wedding chapel.” The excreta forms the “New Architecture of the United World,” in which we’re all being continuously co-opted. He chastises elites, intellectuals, poets, and philosophers: “All that remains of the spirit of revolt are annoying slogans.” Toledo feels politically impotent in the face of the power of that old adage: It’s all been done before. He turns to the intellectuals, but they have become “the whores of secular passions”—instead of seeking out the universal truths like Justice and Truth, they instead run in the rat race of partisan politics and academic bickering, upholding the power of the state and reinforcing the accepted ideals of their countrymen. To Toledo, this is all a betrayal of the highest order.

If Toledo’s jargon sounds insolent, that’s because it is. And though his prose is decidedly French—our age is nausea-inducing, “so thoroughly postmodern,” the narrator is always “suffocating” —his anguish often aptly describes what passes for political struggle today. The arc of the writing is animated and innovative, and despite his continual accusations of despair, the book is actually full of hope. What’s most valuable about Coming of Age at the End of History is Toledo’s willingness to throw himself wildly into grand ideas. He uses punk rock, the Situationists, and Jean-Marie Messier, the once super-CEO of Vivendi, all in one breath to condemn the “mass dandyism” of today—an indictment of the cynicism and general acceptance of the status quo, of mediocrity. Or, put another way, Toledo is targeting his angry, pointed finger on the educated liberals who spend their time watching Jon Stewart and reading The Onion. Instead of resistance, the young, smart, and discontented have relegated themselves to unruffled, even enjoyable, complacency.

As befalls most young revolutionary dreamers, Toledo excels on description, but comes up short on answers. His proposal for a new kind of existence—lucid romanticism, which he describes as a “constant insurrection” and “intoxicated with style but without greed”—is ill-defined and near useless. He holds up the Zapatista movement as a model of a “new dissident consciousness,” but the case is outdated and thin. He also glamorizes the antiglobalization protestors in Seattle and Genoa, despite the fact that the first half of his book suggests that such street protests are useless—because the authorities then take the protests and hold them up as self-justifying examples of free speech in a liberal democracy.

There are few indulgences more romantic than a nom de plume, and Camille de Toledo actually masks Alexis Mital, the 32-year-old heir to the Dannon yogurt fortune, one of the wealthiest families in France. But faulting him for being upper-class would be ad hominem. To the contrary, his privileged background lends his anger a rare credibility; few who want to fight the capitalist order are on such intimate terms with the elite, much less a part of it. Toledo’s fault instead lies in failing to fully recognize that truly contrarian politics will have to boast a hard-and-fast platform. His engaging but flawed book fails to provide that real answer. His contribution, however, comes from diving into the great and monstrous ideas of his age. Here’s hoping that more 30-ish writers will be so bold.