‘Time for outrage’

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Constant C examines the life and times of Stéphane Hessel, whose book Time for Outrage inspired the Los Indignados movement in Spain, the forerunner to the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring.

Stéphane Hessel - Photograph: Wikipedia
Stéphane Hessel – Photograph: Wikipedia

When Stéphane Hessel published his book Time for Outrage in 2010, nobody really knew him.

Nor did they know that his book would be a huge commercial success all around the world (3 million copies in 30 languages). Nobody knew that it would be the inspiration for most of the worldwide social movements within three years.

Aged 93 at that time, Hessel was a great figure but remained relatively unknown except to some historians, politicians or scholars. In fact, he carried an important part of contemporary history with him. Not only French history, but universal history.

In the Second World War (WWII), he joined De Gaulle and the French Resistance in London during the Nazi occupation of France. He was fighting for a free France, free from oppression. But he was also fighting for more universal values such as Liberty and Democracy.

While the Vichy government, installed by the Nazis, dedicated itself to serving financial interests and was selling the French people’s sovereignty to other powers, Hessel found his ideals in the National Council of the Resistance’s (NCR) programme. This programme, adopted in 1944, promoted nationalisation of energy production, ground resources, companies providing public services such as transport, and banks.

This programme is the origin of the current French social contract. It is still the basis of society despite the attempt by neoliberal proponents to erase it. Hessel was outraged by the Nazi occupation, and involved himself in the resistance movement. As a consequence, he was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany But he escaped to England, before returning , clandestinely to Nazi-occupied France.

When WWII ended, the Allies helped France and De Gaulle to set up a transitional government. The NCR’s program was the inspiration for government policies. Social rights were granted and economic growth allowed a quick reconstruction of the country. Despite these achievements, Hessel’s outrage did not stop. Most of the world was under colonial rule.

Hessel joined the group that drafted what is now known as “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (adopted by the United Nations in 1948). This international document started the decolonisation process. Hessel became a French ambassador and diplomat whose actions were still inspired by his first engagement in the French Resistance. He was fighting for Liberty and Democracy. He was fighting against Oppression, Injustice and Tyranny.

In Time for Outrage, he exhorts the youth to ‘outrage’, to be angry at injustice and oppression. He admits that today’s world is more difficult to understand. Amidst the flow of instantaneous information, it can be difficult to identify with a specific cause to fight for. During WWII and until the Cold War, the world was more Machiavellian, meaning there were only two sides, two blocs, or two spheres. We just needed to choose the right side.

To Hessel, it is because the world has become more complex that we have to engage; that we have to be outraged. There are perhaps more reasons to be outraged today, than ever before: segregation in Israel; worldwide poverty and extreme poverty in Africa and many other places; neoliberal policies that go against social rights; monopolies of financial power in the economies of the world economies; the supremacy of individual interest over community interest… The list has no end.

We have to look to Camus, the famous French novelist, in his fight against the “I am not concerned” concept, too prevalent nowadays as a result of an extreme individualism. This mentality led Europe to the well known WWII tragedy. Outrage is, to Hessel, the beginning of engagement, the only way for human beings to enter into history.

By teaching us his experience, Hessel initiated a surprisingly international Social Movement. “Los indignados” (The Outrage) in Spain was named after his book. Occupy Wall Street invaded public places to shout their outrage against the financial powers. Social movements in Greece expressed outraged against the austerity measures imposed by the European Union. To some extent, it is the same outrage that led to the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. Even Bersih can be seen as the outrage of the Malaysian people for a clean, free and fair electoral process.

Hessel died on Wednesday, 27 February 2013 aged 95. Let us honour his memory. Let his and our Outrage continue.

“To create is to resist, To resist is to create”. – Stéphane Hessel

Find his book online.

Constant C is a citizen of the world, interested in what makes social movements tick.

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