‘Sisters and brothers, indigenous peoples of Bolivia, of Latin America and throughout the world’, began President Evo Morales’s inaugural address in 2006. ‘Today begins a new day for native peoples, in which we seek equality and justice; a new millennium for all peoples. Brothers and sisters, I undertake this commitment here, in this sacred place.’ Perhaps it is only fitting that this ringing example of a contemporary fraternal appeal should be drawn from Bolivia, where Régis Debray spent three years in prison in the 1960s in the service of brotherhood with Che Guevara, Castro and the Latin American Revolution. Debray’s latest book, Le moment fraternité, though not lacking in the deadly sarcasm or contrarian political sensibility that has distinguished so much of his work, sounds an unusually hopeful tone. Fraternity has always been a strong leitmotif of Debray’s work, but now it becomes the centrepiece for a positive theory of political and social organization. Life lived exclusively in the first-person singular is damaged life, Debray reminds. But how is the fraternal bond to be reconstituted, in an age in which ‘the individual is all, but the “all” no longer means anything’?

Le moment fraternité begins by unpacking the enigma of belonging. The great moments of fraternity depend upon an appeal to something beyond us: fatherland, revolution, classless society. The constitution of an us presupposes a unifying absence: ‘no visible connection without an invisible beyond, no inter without a supra. For a you and a me to form an us there needs to be an other’. Debray’s term for this ‘beyond’ is the sacred. It should perhaps be stressed at the outset that the sacred here is intrinsically man-made: ‘it is not the emanation of a being, but the product of a making’; ‘the sacred does not fall from the sky, nor does it pre-exist us—it will disappear when the last homo sapiens uses his last watt to cook his last rat’. The first of the book’s three sections, ‘On the Uses and the Abuses of the Sacred’, loosely recapitulates the approach to these questions minted nearly thirty years ago in Debray’s magnum opus, Critique of Political Reason. Certain conditions are necessary for those acts of sacralization that create an ‘us’. A symbolic act or place is helpful: exodus from Egypt, flight to Medina, Thanksgiving, storming the Winter Palace.

If the sacred is to work properly, to demarcate a lasting and stable group identity, it also requires enclosure, a border separating ‘us’ from ‘them’. Antagonism, hatred and fixation on borders are trademark signs of the sacred’s vitality, and where these hostilities begin to ebb, so too does the cohesion of the group. In the present televisual age, in which social relations have never been more atomized—laptops, mobile phones and air travel have the paradoxical effect of enlarging the sphere of individual relations on a global scale, while reducing the scope of communal interaction—it seems that the sacred can take its revenge in one of two ways: either it forms an explosive fundamentalist reaction to modernity—irredentist nationalism, millenarian religion—or a vapid simulacrum of religion, such as the West’s current dogma of human rights.

This is the subject of the second, and most corrosive, section of Le moment fraternité, ‘Twilight of a Religion: Human Rights’. Here, Debray argues, the videosphere has found its perfect ideology: a faux religion that demands no responsibilities from its adherents, packaged with a fuzzy catch-all creed from which no one could reasonably dissent. This religion manqué works in mellifluous harmony with the reigning economic and political philosophies of the contemporary West to project the image of a serene global village, effectively camouflaging the interests of its principal players. Marx was only mistaken in describing the ‘ice-cold water of egotistical calculation’, when in fact today, ‘finance capital drips with tepid and sugary water, exudes compassion from every pore, while de-localizing the workforce between boom and slump’. The rule of law, elementum of the Religion of the Contemporary West, ‘tends to neutralize the inequalities of force, profit and influence’ secured by the present transatlantic consensus. In contrast to religion proper, this latter-day creed is bereft of historical memory. Its preferred sacred figure, the victim—the harki, the slave, the deportee—is interchangeable, non-specific, ahistorical, a testament to the videosphere’s amnesiac perpetual present. The Religion of the Contemporary West has no congregation, no antagonist, commands no strong attachments; it specializes in erasing borders, where the sacred would insist on drawing them.

The point is not, of course, to invalidate the axial value that ‘man has value as man’, but rather to embed it in the real history of peoples. Debray points out how the sphere of human rights has been inflated, from the modest, national assertions of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, through the more grandiose 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, to the globalized 1948 un version, where the said rights are not just international, but universal. The final stage—the declaration of the West’s right to humanitarian military intervention—came later, the product of a specific historical conjuncture. The morale of the West had been undermined in the 1960s by its dirty compromises and colonial war crimes; the wretched of the earth had inflicted humiliating military and moral defeats. But in the 1970s, ‘Solzhenitsyn and the Vietnamese boat people inverted the axes of good and evil: the villain became the saviour. With the rediscovery of human rights as the remedy for totalitarianism, the happiness of the rich no longer seemed to depend on the misfortune of the poor’. With this came a new international division of labour. Under the new order, ‘the Americans do the heavy lifting, we do the blahblah. Their foundations, consultants and experts take charge of globalizing the new faith (and their own sphere of influence with it).’ The effect is moral degradation for both sides:

That such an Ubu-esque exercise as the invasion and occupation of a refractory Afghanistan can lead our hallucinating elites—colonizers because colonized themselves—into debates on tactical and technical modalities, shows what our noble sentiments have become capable of: the 21st-century resurrection of a colonial cretinism and moralizing cruelty that leads governments to treat peoples like Lao Tsu’s straw dogs.

It is against both military-humanitarian interventionism and its irredentist alternatives that Debray resurrects the forgotten third member of the Republican triptych, as a possible model for mobilization. Fraternity, for Debray, signifies an act of rebellion, a contravention of the natural order for the purpose of forging new bonds of solidarity. True brotherhood transcends the family circle, and rewrites our genetic code by making common cause where there was none before: ‘One is not born a brother, one becomes one. Only this strange and unnatural act of fraternization can restore the energy and strength to a dull and faded fraternity’. The voluntarism of Debray’s fraternity, reminiscent of Renan’s formula for the nation—‘un plébiscite de tous les jours’—ensures that it will never be mistaken for the related, but nevertheless insufficiently activist concepts of friendship and neighbourliness.