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Counter-Currents Radio Podcast No. 213
Populism: Beyond Left & Right?
Alain de Benoist’s The Populist Moment


The faces of European populism today: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

8,406 words

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Alain de Benoist
Le Moment Populiste: Droite-Gauche c’est Fini!
Paris: Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, 2017

The German saying, Vox populi, vox Rindvieh, comparing the people to cattle, is attributed to one Elard Kurt Maria Fürchtegott von Oldenburg-Januschau (1855-1937), a Prussian Junker of the old school, as his name alone suggests.A hundred years ago, such sentiments were almost by definition the views of the reactionary “Right” in opposition to the rising tide of popular “Left” socialism, and socialist tribunes of the people. Today, such expressions of disdain for the people are associated with a liberal-Left ruling class.To paraphrase Marx and Engels, a specter is haunting Europe, the specter of populism. But what is populism? Can it be defined? What questions does populism raise? What are its origins and what is the significance of its rise? Can populism be described as Left-wing or Right-wing?

These and similar questions are examined by the French thinker Alain de Benoist in Le Moment Populiste (The Populist Moment). De Benoist is a prolific intellectual writer, the editor of two publications, and for decades has been one of the leading theorists of what has been loosely called the French “New Right,” a term which, in the light of the subtitle of this collection of essays (Right-Left: It’s Over!), he presumably now shuns.[1] [4]

Despite the subtitle, this book is analytical, not polemical. It is not a single work written about populism, but a collection of essays written on various aspects of the subject by de Benoist at different times, some of them previously published and revised, some of them original, all collected to create this book. Therefore, although the book may be seen as a whole, each chapter is autonomous and can be read as an essay quite independently of the other chapters.

The Introduction to this work outlines the background to the rise of populism and some of its major characteristics. The text of this essay, and indeed all the essays, is dense, and like all de Benoist’s writing, demonstrates to the reader phenomenal and genuine erudition, extensive research, and an acute ability to reach the heart of a matter, extract the essentials, and see the key point of a theory or argument and examine it relentlessly, whether the argument is in academic theoretical writing or someone’s interpretation of political developments. Major aspects of populism outlined in the Introduction include the severing of the link between the ruling class and the electorate, the betrayal by the establishment Right of the notion of the nation, and betrayal by the establishment Left of the notion of the people – the notion that true democracy is by nature confrontational, “not the extinction of conflict, but conflict mastered” (p. 17). This is evident in the shift by socialist parties from representing the aspirations of the underprivileged to accepting, even embracing, liberal and global capitalist reality, the increase in poverty, and the centrifugal tendencies towards a two-class society. All this and more is noted in the Introduction.

It will not escape readers that the notion of a centrifugal tendency towards a two-class society of haves and have-nots, or as others may say, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, is an essential tenet of Marxist theory. De Benoist indeed frequently refers sympathetically to Marx in this book. The parallel between Marxian notions of the collapse of the middle class and populist appeals to the “losers” of globalism does not escape de Benoist. He is past master at citing writers and referring favorably to others, in order to buttress and give more credence to his own arguments. Here is one very astute observation in a paragraph taken from the Introduction, which can also serve as an example of the writer’s style:

[Populism] is related to the situation of the people where the overriding impression which they have is of triple exclusion: political exclusion, social exclusion, cultural exclusion. Cultural insecurity, well studied by Laurent Bouvet, begins at the point where someone feels that they are a stranger in their own home, when someone begins, rightly or not, to regard neighbors as a threat on the grounds of their ethnic background or their religion. The question of ways of life, of mores in the sense of Hegelian Sittlichkeit (“customary moral life” as opposed to the formalistic Kantian Moralität), is key.

In this short paragraph, de Benoist has put his finger on the three-fold form of social exclusion which is undoubtedly at the heart of the malaise which gave birth to modern populism, in addition to drawing the reader’s attention to an indeed crucial distinction between customs as mores lived and believed in and customs and mores adopted for the sake of practicality or rationality. The common thread of this collection of essays is the belief that the “horizontal” conflict of Left versus Right is being replaced by the “vertical” conflict of the elite versus mass.

It is not possible to examine populism without examining democracy. As de Benoist observes, the representative party political democracy challenged by populist leaders is seen by many as not being democratic at all, if democracy is taken to mean the rule of the people. The sense of alienation which gave rise to movements like UKIP in England, Podemos in Spain, or Syriza in Greece was caused by a sense of alienation and frustration. The new class, writes de Benoist, is “autistic, incestuous, narcissistic” (p. 48). The key here is the disappearance of citizenship, the sense that everyone belongs to a common community of interest. If the voter is the citizen, the voter can expect, and has a right, to be represented, at least if citizenship is understood as being membership of a political polis. The right of the citizen to be an active part of government decision-making is echoed in the American revolutionary cry, “No taxation without representation!”

Not only does a citizen, that is to say, a member of the polis, expect to be represented; a citizen expects to participate. De Benoist looks back to Rousseau and forward to the French socialist Régis Debray to support his critique that representative democracy is a constrained kind of democracy, democracy in which the citizen is empowered only to vote, and then hands over executive power to representatives who may be far away, both geographically and in their ideas, from those who appointed the representative to speak for them. The people are cajoled, promised to, and bribed, but then forgotten after each election. This is the essence of Rousseau’s critique of representative democracy. De Benoist’s argument leads to the conclusion that this sense of alienation from elected representatives in Western democracy has increased as a result of two major developments in recent years: namely, the weakening of political power in the face of global capitalism and the power of money; and secondly, connected to this development, the increasing similarity of views and aspirations of elected representatives. Populism gives voice to the widespread “popular” view that professional politicians are not so much representatives of their electors as they are legislators and administrators acting at the behest of lobbies to best manage civil society and not govern, still less represent, the people. The result is alienation from the traditional democratic electoral process. De Benoist cites an opinion poll from September 2016 which revealed that eighty-five percent of those polled expected to be disappointed by the results of the forthcoming presidential election in France regardless of the result.

One of de Benoist’s major arguments, underlined by the fact that it forms the subtitle of this book, is that the division between the winners/losers, anywheres/somewheres, the elite/the people, has replaced the Left/Right divide. There is a chapter devoted to the disappearance of this divide (“L’effacement du Clivage Droite-Gauche”) which begins with a well-known quotation by the French journalist Alain (de Benoist’s statement that “everyone knows it” is presumably intentionally hyperbolic!) to the effect that whenever someone asks him whether he believed that the Left/Right matrix had been overtaken by events, his first thought was always that the person who had posed the question was not Left-wing. Although de Benoist opens his chapter with this well-known quotation, he does not attempt to confute it directly. This is surprising, for the entire direction of de Benoist’s argument throughout the book is that the Left/Right contest is of little weight or relevance, if not when Alain first made his statement in 1925, certainly today. However, de Benoist qualifies his polemical subtitle by stating that “the Left/Right divide is in the process of losing a great deal of its significance” (p. 58), which is considerably more cautious, and I think accurate, than the front cover’s assertion that the Left/Right divide is “finished.” The point of Alain’s remark, of course, is that the announcement of the end of this divide is either a Right-wing ploy or a Right-wing delusion.

Regrettably, de Benoist does not take time to consider the plausibility of this. It is, after all, undeniable that people who are said to be Left-wing are generally happier to accept the label “Left” than people said to be Right-wing are happy to accept the label “Right.” While there are many Left-wing groups, parties, and movements, and even a major political party in the German Republic called – with a disarming, Pythonesque paucity of imagination – “the Left,” opponents of those who call themselves “Left” or “far Left” do not, on the whole, like to be called “Right,” still less “far Right.” It may be objected that this is because, in a Left-dominated culture, people are unwilling to accept a label liable to cause social awkwardness, opprobrium, or disadvantages in terms of career or reputation. Maybe. But even to argue that point would simply confirm the prevalence and influence of Left and Right divides in society as well as in social and political behavior, which would contradict de Benoist’s belief that the divide is either finished or at least rapidly diminishing.

De Benoist quite rightly points to the historical limitations of the terms Left and Right and to the problem of definition, to support which argument he presents the reader with a rather entertaining à la carte list of different kinds of “Right” in France, ranging from the counter-revolutionary Right to the esoteric Right – and, he notes, one could do the same with the term “Left.” Quite so. However, the point surely is to determine to what extent such divisions are valid distinctions of ontological significance and whether they exercise influence on the way people act politically, regardless of whether the terms “Left” and “Right” are hard or even impossible to define. In addition to the point about the Right being a creed which “dare not speak its name,” the notion that the Left/Right divide is coming to an end may be seen by those on the Left as wishful thinking by a Right that wishes to make itself respectable. This is one point. It does not mean that populism has had no effect on the existence of Left and Right, either in the way people understand politics or in the way they act politically. This much is true: the populist surge has at the very least significantly undermined the Left/Right divide and blurred divisions which were once taken for granted.

The Left/Right divide traditionally subsumes party politics in Western representational democracies. Therefore, a political current which truly dispenses with the Right-wing matrix to any significant extent threatens to undermine the foundations of representational democracy as it has been known up till now. The Left/Right divide influences and coexists with populism, but is also weakened by the success of populism. Furthermore, and complicating matters further, populism may manifest itself as a challenge from without to the established political party system or may emerge as a challenge from within, involving a transformation of the way traditional parties “do things” (witness the Labour Party in Britain or the ÖDP in Austria). The relationship of Left and Right to the rise of populism and the manner in which they interact is thus considerably more complex than de Benoist seems to allow for in these essays.

A clear example of populist change within an establishment party is the recent history of the British Labour Party. This party has long been an alliance of a workers’ socialist and union movement and liberal upper- and middle-class thinkers and writers. It was so proud of this alliance that Labour Party spokesmen were wont to refer to it as part of the success story of the British Labour movement. In 2014 the then leader of the Labour Party, Edward Milliband (under pressure from a populist sentiment growing within his party?), changed the rules for electing the party leader from a “representational” process which disproportionately favored the parliamentary Labour Party and the unions, to a one member, one vote system. The change in rules enabled a radical Left-winger named Jeremy Corbyn, with huge support from the party base, to become party leader against the wishes of the great majority of Labour members of Parliament and most union leaders.

Corbyn’s election and his appeal are characteristically populist: he is more comfortable with a crowd than in a committee, and he addresses “the people,” if possible directly, or “the many, not the few” (a much-loved Corbyn slogan). This represents a direct appeal to the masses over the heads of experienced cadres, the promise of radical direct solutions, the will to “echo the voice of the people,” an attempt to provide members with a strong sense that each member has “a contribution to make” (another strong element in Corbyn’s campaigns), and pride and significance is given to increased membership and participation in elections and campaigns. However, although Corbyn is clearly a populist figure, he is also very much a Labour Party man, keen to maintain the traditional Labour alliance of socialists and liberal intellectuals, that very alliance which populism may be expected to break. It is true that the socialist-liberal cooperation in the Labour Party is strained now, and it might snap if Corbyn’s tactical ambivalence about the Brexit result continues.

Be that as it may, Corbyn’s success shows that the Left/Right divide has been weakened by the rise of populism, but it is still present and influential. Another example can be found in Germany, where the Linke chairman, Sahra Wagenknecht, is widely regarded as “the right politician for the wrong party.” Her doubts about continuing immigration have created extreme hostility among party members, where attachment to internationalism and the free movement of labor is strong. Nobody expects, however, that she will move to the AfD, the German anti-immigration party, where her style, approach, and even her policies might be expected to find ready acclamation. The fact is that her populist appeal is constrained by her identification as a politician firmly in a “Left” and “anti-fascist” tradition. It is unthinkable for such a person to associate with anyone or anything associated, however obscurely or indirectly, with the name of fascism. Thus, the historical legacy of anti-fascism and Left/Right continues to hamper populist resurgence.

Changes in the party political landscape in countries like France and Italy in recent years show on the one hand how populism has affected political structures, and on the other how old preconceptions of Left and Right have prevented the revolutionary transformation of the political landscape which might otherwise have taken place. The Left and Right parties of the center have diminished to a shadow of their former selves while populist parties have surged forward, but still the old faces hold onto power – just. But a confrontation of the kind evoked by de Benoist between the elite and the people has not emerged as the defining conflict of political discourse. In France, the two radical parties, the Front National and La France Insoumise, which enjoy up to thirty and twenty percent support from voters respectively, and which have unquestionably been strengthened rather than weakened by populism, are nevertheless defined in terms of their history, and the history of their leaders, as radically Right and radically Left. To underline a point already made, while La France Insoumise is comfortable with the designation “Left,” the Front National strives to reject the designation “Right.” They are entirely unable to work together and they regularly exchange insults. Marine Le Pen of the Front National went so far as to take Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France Insoumise, to court for malicious misrepresentation in referring to her as a “fascist,” and she lost her case. In the meantime, a new pro-EU candidate known as the “Mozart of Finance,” who held populist disdain for the old, discredited political parties, was parachuted into politics by the Rothschild Bank, and now sits firmly in the presidential saddle.

The fact of the matter is surely that the Left/Right divide has not been effaced by populism but changed radically, weakened but not destroyed. The situation is made still more complex by the fact that whereas some populist leaders such as Beppe Grillo have created new populist movements, other leaders such as Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party, and to some extent (to what extent is another open question!) Sebastian Kurz in Austria, have led what might be described as populist putsches within the shell of historical and well-established political parties. Furthermore, the very use of the terms Left- and Right-wing populism, used by de Benoist himself, indicates that the notion of Left and Right has neither been overcome nor sunk into insignificance.

What are the reasons for the persistence of Left- and Right-wing factors in determining political adherence, political self-identification, and the perceptions of others? Three factors strike me as especially important: firstly, historical loyalties; secondly, the tenacity of anti-fascism as a political means of identification and action; and thirdly, race and racialism. It is no coincidence that in Britain, where loyalty to political parties is considerably stronger for historical reasons than in, say, France or Italy, no successful new populist party has taken hold on the public imagination. UKIP, which might have been expected to fulfill this role, and which worked to create a situation in which a Conservative government finally agreed to allow an EU referendum to be held – in other words, a party which brought about the fulfillment of a populist demand – has not been subsequently taken seriously by the electorate as a permanent political party. In the general election held soon after the referendum, electors returned to their traditional Conservative and Labour party roots. In the German republic, where populism and disloyalty to the constitution are treated by the establishment media as practically interchangeable terms, no populist movement seems able to escape the fate of being placed firmly in a high-walled political ghetto beneath the warning of political leprosy: “populist/Right-wing.”

Anti-fascism: the persistence of this form of political identification and activism, which is now globally active, has greatly helped established parliamentary systems to keep populist dissent at bay by linking it to fascism and thus marginalizing it. This overlaps with the factor of race as a means of self-identification. Populist notions of identity tend to avoid the issue of race entirely. The idea that anyone should suffer discrimination on the grounds of race alone remains taboo in modern Western society, and it does so within and without populist movements. Populist movements are further hampered by the fact that their appeal must by its nature be essentially positive to succeed. Populist leaders instinctively grasp (here in stark contrast to previous “far Right” political leaders) that to be successful with broad masses of people, the message must be upbeat, and must be more about what success will bring than what the world under the current system is like. Appeals to a racial identity is divisive within communities, and is inherently negative. Successful populists avoid it or denounce it.

On the other hand, creating a taboo subject weakens any political movement of whatever kind. Populism is, as de Benoist rightly argues, about the recreation or restoration of an identity, and race is undoubtedly a badge of identity. To deny that this is so is to play to the arguments of those opposed to populism and who regard all political allegiance to any inherent identity as “populist” and “dangerous,” the ideology which believes that the only legitimately relevant identities in politics are identities of choice. If a populist movement acknowledges race as an important means of identification and distinction, it will be quarantined as a movement fatally bitten and contaminated by the zombie wound of fascism/racialism. If it ignores race as a defining identity, it is constantly vulnerable to the critique that it casuistically manipulates random groups for destructive and dishonest purposes of its own, which is “as bad as racism.”

Populism, as de Benoist and many others rightly point out, is an assertion of identity, a revolt against the anonymity of a society in which to return to the crucial three aspects of alienation given by de Benoist, a large group of citizens are no longer citizens in a meaningful sense of the word because they no longer participate 1) culturally, 2) politically, or 3) economically in the life of their communities. “Communities”! “Identity”! But what community, what identity? There is naturally the identity of class, where economic alienation is a significant reason for supporting a populist upsurge. The appeal of populist leaders tends to be chiefly among those who perceive themselves, rightly or wrongly, as the economic losers in globalization, those “left behind” by that globalization which the elite (by “elite” I mean here those who benefit considerably from economic globalization) condescendingly describes as “inevitable.” This was the appeal of Trump and Farage: they challenged the notion of inevitability and brought a message of hope to people, in words to this effect: “They say it is inevitable because they will not let you say otherwise. They don’t care about you. I do. There is another and better alternative to their dismal policies and intentions. It can and will be better, believe me.”

There is a paradox in the populist appeal to the economic “loser”: are the economically deprived in their position as a result of globalization, or because there is not enough globalization? Is the European Union to be attacked for being too globalist, or for being too bound by tariffs? The EU was attacked on both counts in the referendum debate in Britain. Had the Remain campaign not been inept and overconfident, it would have exploited the contradictions in a critique of the EU that comes from two mutually exclusive positions.

However we see it, a populist movement will lean even against its own instincts, towards nationalism, because it must, as de Benoist cogently argues, be political, that is to say it must understand politics as a choice among many choices. This choice has to be made to a group of supporters and as an appeal to electors within a national framework. As a project launched to defy an elite perceived to be deeply committed to globalism and the perpetuation of its hegemony, the populist appeal will tend to lean heavily on a national tradition and history. The populist challenge, notes de Benoist, is a demand for politics to carry weight again in a world where economics seems to determine all political allegiance and decisions.

However, if the populist appeal is to the nation, it must be an appeal to all races in that nation. If it is a racial appeal, then in our world it is necessarily an international, pan-racial appeal which transcends national boundaries, and is hardly likely to have local national, and therefore populist, appeal. It is not simply that Farage and Trump did not “play the race card”; the card was not in their hands in the first place. Their call was not for racial exclusivity, but national exclusivity. On the other hand, the concept of race, the awareness of race, and the existence of race will not go away. It plays a major role in identifying the far Right in the eyes of opponents of all kinds of ethnic identification, and by doing so, helps to keep the Left/Right divide alive, even if, as presumably de Benoist would argue, on a sort of historically doomed life support system! It is the subject which may not be rationally discussed but that cryptically underlies much of the debate on culture, national identity, and religion, a love or hate which “dare not speak its name.”

One of the essays in this collection is entitled “Gouverner sans le people”: governing without the people. I can think of no expression which better summarizes the indictment made by populist movements of every hue and kind against the ruling establishments of their countries. The former President of Germany, Joachim Gauck, a faithful mouthpiece of global order, candidly stated a few years ago that “the elite is not the problem, but the people.” This dismissal of the people recalls the famous, darkly humorous little poem by Bertolt Brecht penned after the suppression of the East German uprising on June 17, 1953:

The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubling their efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

An important aspect of populism is the demand for a yes/no alternative on important issues, decided not through the filter of establishment party representatives but by direct appeal to the citizens – in other words, by means of a referendum. The American presidential election between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton bore some resemblance to a referendum, and the political comedian Michael Moore foresaw the electoral victory of Donald Trump on the grounds that voting Trump gave the average Joe the chance to participate in history, granting him or her a moment of political importance. Moore’s skit implicitly acknowledged that the American working class had been disenfranchised by the prevailing representational two-party system. But nowhere was the contrast starker than in the British EU referendum, in which the Western political establishment and everything it represented, and everything and everyone which supported it, was pitted against – what? Not against a coherent political program, and not against an ideology (de Benoist quite rightly is at pains to insist that populism is not and could never be an ideology), but against the notion that the people, rather than moneyed and groomed experts, should hold ultimate sovereignty.

The reaction of the establishment’s pro-Remain campaigners to the result was by any definition hysterical. Labour MP David Lammy, to take one example among thousands, described the result as “madness” and a “nightmare.” The people, as de Benoist notes, are increasingly regarded by those who rule them in the West as “irrational,” and therefore are not to be trusted with significant political decision-making of any kind. The reaction to the Brexit vote has brought out what I would call a hitherto occult Platonism on the part of establishment rulers. It will be remembered that Socrates, in Plato’s Symposium, argued that in every field, the expert and not the client or average citizen should be allowed to make all major decisions in his professional field. The argument is clear enough. A hospital patient would be unlikely to welcome the democratic, shall we say “populist,” involvement of cleaning staff and orderlies in deciding on the best way to perform a gall bladder operation. An amusing anti-populist, “Platonist” cartoon showed a passenger in an airliner exclaiming, “This boring old pilot sucks. Hands up those who want to give me a chance?” A sea of hands is raised. Similarly, the people are not regarded as clever or educated enough to make major decisions.

The notion, which goes back to Plato, that the people are not educated or clever enough to make major decisions has been widely voiced with greater or less circumspection and discretion in reactions to both the election of Donald Trump and the British referendum vote. However, it raises the question as to what extent believers in the Western system of democracy believe that liberalism can or should be democratic at all. There can be little doubt that most parliamentary representatives in the Western world are opposed to democracy in principle, if by democracy is meant that a majority of the electorate is ultimately sovereign and can override their representatives. The former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was challenged in a television interview on the subject of capital punishment. Opinion polls showed that a majority of people in Britain were in favor of the reintroduction of the death penalty. Did he consider himself superior to them, given that he was opposed to the reintroduction of the death penalty himself and would not allow the matter to be put before Parliament, or to hold a referendum on the issue? Blair assured his interviewer that he certainly did not consider his judgement inherently superior to that of his fellow citizens. But what other conclusion could be drawn from the fact he refused to contemplate taking the matter to the people? Referenda challenge the hegemony of established political parties, which is why parties in the West usually resort to a referendum only to forestall division within themselves. Both of the EU referenda held in Britain are cases in point. The referendum, which evades the filter of political parties and presents the electorate with a stark either/or question, creates divisions which weaken representative parliamentary democracy, especially those with two-party systems.

An important argument in this collection of essays is that the differences between major established political parties has been shrinking. De Benoist examines quite closely why this should be so and points to an increasing congruence between liberal democracy, as an ideology which has written “progress” on its banner, and global capitalism, which is compelled by its nature to believe and invest in perpetual material progress as the only measure of good and bad governance, and which purports that only those systems which further rather than hinder the polity and best serve the interests of global growth are desirable. Thus, nothing, and no allegiance, should be allowed to stand in the way of global capitalist growth. The ideology of progress (de Benoist quotes Juan Carlos Monedero, formerly of Podemos, who said that capitalism is marked by its belief in the inevitable march of progress) unites liberal democracy and capitalism. Liberal democracy, argues de Benoist, is essentially the mouthpiece of the economics of perpetual growth, and its ideology can be summarized in one word: “progress.”

Increasingly, politics in the West is seen not as politics in the sense of a conflict between truly different value systems and their regulation by due parliamentary procedure (as embodied in British parliamentary ritual and performed by “Her Majesty’s Government” and “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition,” a constitutional form admired even by Julius Evola), but rather the legislative formality of business management and the regulation of the economic life of a given undifferentiated mass, not of a given people – a mass called the “voters” but which might as well be called “consumers.” This mass is gathered together for economic reasons, and only economic reasons, in one corner of the globe, and which do not individually vote in elections on the direction of politics, but only to express approval or disapproval for the way business has been managed. Those who do not accept the rules of this game are, so far as possible, excluded from participating in the game altogether, because a group challenging the democratic game is perceived as a threat to the very freedom which that challenging group is denied. Genuine opposition is defamed as illegitimate, and as much as possible, “run out of town.” Ultimately, there is no genuine alternative under such a system, and no opponent, no government, and no opposition. The enemy, notes de Benoist, is no longer political, properly speaking, but is rendered as an abstract manifestation of evil, not outside the community, since there is none, but rather outside humanity, the carrier of disease and mayhem – “terrorist” or “fascist.” This is a telling point.

Put crudely, but not inaccurately, stalwart anti-populists seem to allocate people in the political spectrum to a very few groups: firstly, the legitimate players who manage the system – those who seek to prevent conflict, acknowledge that there is no alternative to the prevailing hegemony of the rule of experts and the belief in undiminished capitalist growth and world unity (the shadow of a New World Order falls at this stage); secondly, the undifferentiated and unprofessional masses who should not be permitted to make decisions about the management of affairs, but should provide “feedback” at elections on their satisfaction with the way the economy is run; thirdly, the leaders and spokesmen, often labelled disparagingly populist, who irresponsibly manipulate the simple folk for devious, destructive reasons of their own; and finally, the authors of destruction, the anti-humanists, the terrorists and fascists and deviants who are beyond comprehension and beyond discussion, and who must be kept ineffective and irrelevant, being regarded as moral or psychological deviants whose actions and very existence are without political significance, beyond that of being an existential threat to “our way of life.”

De Benoist does a superb job of examining the historical and ideological links between liberal democracy and the ideology of progress, and like many observers, he highlights the underlying hostility of proponents of liberal democracy towards those whom Goodhart called the “somewheres” [5] and whom German Social Democratic leader Sigmar Gabriel famously dismissed as “the mob.” What is missing in de Benoist’s work, however, is a response to the critique that the masses may indeed be too “stupid” or “uneducated” to participate in the democratic process. De Benoist does point out that populism can hardly be fascist because it is by its nature anti-elitist, and fascism by its nature is elitist, but he does not go further than that. It is clear that opponents of populism dare not venture further down that road and have to content themselves with anti-democratic outbursts against the people. But what of populists? David Goodhart has indicated that in Britain there is an educational bias in favor of the elite and the system in power. To my knowledge, no thorough study of this very suggestive and plausible point has been made. Should and could populist movements seek to raise the level of awareness of their supporters, or is populism nothing more than a movement of resistance and protest which draws on the instincts of its supporters, or as its opponents say, their prejudices? To what extent is anyone excluded from the liberal elite as a result of inherent inability to perform or because the system is skewed? This subject demands much closer examination than it has been given here.

Populism emerges when power is no longer capable of responding to the conscious social aspirations of those not in power, or at least of not responding in terms of action. But those not in power understand themselves as an identifiable group – Goodhart’s “somewheres.” Indeed, they are somewhere. De Benoist cites the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, who distinguished between the Wesenswille and the Kürwille – the will on the basis of what one is and the will on the basis of what one chooses to be. This recalls Goodhart’s distinction between identity as a matter of birth, and identity as a matter of choice. De Benoist also cites Christopher Lasch, who notes that derooting populations destroys everything about them except their yearning . . . to have roots. The truth is that without identity, the human individual is not properly a human being at all. Identity is by definition linked to an awareness of belonging, be it belonging to a place, a nation, a religion, a club, a company, a race, a tribe, and so on. A sense of identity is therefore not only awareness of belonging, but awareness of not belonging. Populism is therefore inevitably confrontational, whatever else it is. It is, in the realest sense of the word, political, meaning that it harnesses a sense of belonging to a concept of how the State should be governed or shaped. Globalism and global capitalism, as de Benoist passionately believes and describes, is the destroyer of all such material: biologically and geographically meaningful identities. (The system welcomes identities which are without substance, because they are without political content, which is perhaps why private hobbies tend to be encouraged and political affiliation discouraged in the West.)

The ideology of progress, says de Benoist, is by its nature hostile to politics in principle, because in politics there is always conflict and always an alternative. The very meaning of politics is a choice about the running of a State. Global capitalism preaches that there is no choice anymore, and that one day there will be no State, only a global managerial order. And here we come to a crucial aspect of the populist/elite confrontation. Global capitalism expects people, desires them, to be active economically and personally, but to also be entirely passive politically. There are economic choices – choices to be made as a consumer, choices in lifestyle – but there are to be no meaningful political choices. No wonder the elite fear and despise referenda. A referendum presents an unmistakable political choice to the people.

A regrettable omission of this book is a consideration of the European Union as a vehicle of global capitalism, and the relationship of populist rebellion across Europe to widespread skepticism about where the so-called “European project” is going. The European Union is, after all, a project set on destroying identities and differences in the name of progress. Different national currencies have been reduced to a bland “euro” with banknotes which depict bridges and churches which could be anywhere, but are in reality nowhere. Specific national rules, even matters of local color and detail, are regulated from Brussels. The British abandoned their weights and measures, the French abandoned yellow car headlights, the exteriors of high-rise buildings had to be expensively cladded (with deadly consequences, in the case of London’s Grenfell Tower) – all this and much more to rationalize Europe in the name of a progress without alternatives.

Insofar as it maintains differences, the European Union does so in the sense of funding tourist attractions and folklore. The structures of the European Union and the manner whereby decisions are made – the investment of power in committees arriving at decisions by compromise and all-night sessions behind closed doors, the subservience of politics to economics, the blurring of responsibilities, the distancing from the people, the education and nurturing of a privileged and highly-paid class of anonymous and unelected mandarins – all this and more is exactly what all populists reject. Value Added Tax, no smoking rules, advice to mortgage-lending banks, energy-saving directives, a single currency, and directives issued anonymously in the form of “recommendations” to an array of member states are all part of the ongoing project to reduce Europe to a highly successful import-export enterprise, the management of which should not be offered to shop floor workers or customers, viz. the electorate.

The near-complete absence in de Benoist’s essays of a discussion about the EU in a book about populism, given that to a great extent populism in Europe is motivated by skepticism towards, if not outright rejection, of the European Union, is disappointing, but not altogether surprising. GRECE and the European New Right in general has been uncomfortable with themes related to the European Union project. On the one hand, GRECE writings and speeches overwhelmingly favor greater European unity even at the cost of the national sovereignty of member states, yet the New Right has always strongly favored local identities, traditions, and the “rights of peoples.” It is highly debatable to what extent these views are mutually compatible, but little debate has been held on the practicalities of a United Europe by writers associated with GRECE or the European New Right.

A leading theoretician formerly associated with the French New Right, Guillaume Faye, published a book in 1985 entitled Nouveau discours à la Nation Européenne (New Speech to the European Nation); it was a no-holds-barred “wake up call” for a united Europe to challenge the USSR and the USA as a comparable superpower by virtue of Europe’s immense human resources, as well as its economic and military potential. The writer’s evident lack of interest in democracy, be it representative or populist or any other kind, was such that he was able to write a book on the subject of a united Europe without even discussing democratic structures (or lack thereof) whatsoever.

For their part, those in favor of the European Union project have been hard at work creating a sort of paper patriotism of their own, given that even “anywheres” have to identify with a project in order to support it. Jürgen Habermas proposed what he called “constitutional patriotism” as a badge of loyalty to the West German Bundesstaat. Pro-EU campaigners have latched on to this notion, and along with their flag and humanist hymn taken from Beethoven and Schiller, they now laud the virtues of a European Constitution of so-called “European values,” which just happen to be synonymous with those of the ideology of progress. Allegiance to the EU is therefore not ethnic, but constitutional. These “European values” dovetail nicely with the globalist project to destroy European ethnic and geographical identity by compelling, obliging, and financing people to move as “freely” as goods on a globalist scale in accordance with the rationality of an international capitalist market.

In this context, de Benoist offers a long chapter critiquing Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the authors of Empire and Multitude. Essentially, these two argue – with a sort of fatalistic crypto-Marixism – that the world in which we live will inevitably become ideologically “one world,” part of a non-centralized capitalist empire, thanks to new technology and the advance of global business, which accompanies and exploits it, but that this new development contains its own inherent challenger in the form of the international and globally interconnected consumer. In his critique, de Benoist claims that the writers actually distort Marx, and in doing so draws close to seeing the populist challenge in the light of a challenge to global capitalism in terms that are sympathetic to Marxism. A crucial point here is that the “horizontal” conflict of Left and Right is being replaced by the “vertical” conflict of those above and those below. The populist notion that the “decent people” (Farage) are challenging the anti-democratic elite who enjoy a hegemony of power recalls the notion of a “final struggle” between the owners of wealth and the alienated creators of wealth. De Benoist examines Marx and ably shows that Hardt and Negri have misappropriated him in order to argue that it is possible to be revolutionary and passive in the wake of global expansion. Wishful thinking is no substitute for political action, a point upon which Marx and de Benoist would, I believe, heartily concur.

Apart from the comments on Hardt and Negri, there is no close examination of the role of modern media in the rise of populism in de Benoist’s essays. Modern media are a force for democratic empowerment, and inherently anti-elitist. For example, publishing on demand offers any writer the chance to publish a book and escape the tyranny of editors’ decisions. YouTube allows anyone to become their own filmmaker, musician, or lecturer. Users of Twitter, blogs, and such can post opinions online without being subject, as they once were, to the strict scrutiny of an editor of a paper that was strictly limited, for reasons of space if nothing else, as to what it could or would publish. At the same time, modern media isolate the individual. They encourage and help to replace natural meeting points and clubs where real people could foregather and reinforce their sense of belonging to “their” community. Perhaps it is not for reasons of health alone that the European Union has surreptitiously promoted the decline of the café and public house throughout Europe by pressurizing governments to introduce ever-harsher tobacco and alcohol taxes, safety and health regulations, and compelling member state governments to prohibit smoking in bars and restaurants (the EU in this, as in many other ways, is a keen student of the worst aspects of American puritanism), which were for so long places where dissent and dissatisfaction against governments could be raised. There is even a German expression, Stammtischgerede, which refers to the bar where regular bargoers meet, the Stammtisch, and which means something like “political bar talk.” The rapid decline of the pub and bar in the German-speaking world, as elsewhere in the EU zone, has meant a rapid decline in Stammtischgerede.

This book is an achievement and testimony to the writer’s intellectual energy and dedication to digging down to the roots of events in the world. Alain de de Benoist’s career is likewise a role model for those who seek intellectual respectability outside the constraints of the internationalist dogma of progress and global liberalism, a role model which every populist should take to heart, for another essay which might have been included here could have dealt with the conundrum of living within a system – political, economic, or cultural – and at the same time being opposed to it. Populism is always in danger of becoming a one issue hobby horse, here today and gone tomorrow, after which it will be “business as usual” for the elite. The main failings of Le Moment Populiste for this reviewer lie in its omissions, notably the conundrum of identity and race; the issue of education and populism; a response to the most cogent and most cited anti-populist critique, namely that the masses are indeed not fit to rule and that this is why populism is “dangerous” because it gives too much power to the unqualified; an examination of the enormous role played by the EU in undermining identities; the conflict between reliance on state munificence and the quest to be free of it; and by contrast too much examination of what seems to me to be relatively minor or parochial subjects, which would better serve to illustrate a point and do not merit such substantial consideration – for example, the conflict in France over the 2011 law which made it illegal to wear a face-covering veil in public places, or a long discussion of “the Right and money.” The essays draw mainly on French examples, to an extent understandably, since the writer is himself French, but nevertheless, too much so for a book which purports to review populism in general.

This book is certainly an important and extremely learned contribution to an ongoing debate. De Benoist quotes Jean-Claude Michéa [6], whom he obviously admires (there is an entire chapter devoted to Michéa): “emancipation of the masses begins with a rejection of blind faith in progress.” This blind faith is the underlying faith of the EU and similar projects. Alain de de Benoist insists that in politics, there is always an alternative, and that point is more substantial than it may at first sound. There is a strong tendency on the part of those who are hostile to populism to underline its eccentricity, its failure to grasp that there is “no alternative.” There always must be an alternative, insists de Benoist, for the notion that there is no alternative is implicitly insistence on submission and the beginning of tyranny. When an entire governing elite speaks of no alternative, they are declaring the end of democracy and the end of politics, for both exist through the making of decisions, opting for one of a number of alternatives.

This is the direction towards the one world order into which global capitalism and its mouthpieces seek to take us, although in their words, they will not claim to be taking anyone anywhere. For them, what they do is simply the way of “realism,” which consists in submitting to the imperatives of progress and growth. Populism, whether “Left” or “Right,” or nationalist, or ethnic, or class-based, or drawing upon still another source of identity to affirm itself, must by its very nature believe in alternatives, and believe that there is always the right and opportunity to say yes or no. This is the heart of de Benoist’s plea, which runs through all these essays. If we believe in politics, we must reject every implication that in politics we “have no choice” because a given economic or political development is “inevitable.” If there is a common factor to all forms of populism, it is in this message: “There is an alternative to what they are telling you.” Social, economic, and cultural power: if, as de Benoist argues, a sense of being deprived of these is the motor of populism, then regaining them must be its aim.


Editor’s Note

[1] [7]In his essay “The New Right: Forty Years After,” following a discussion of his problems with the term “New Right” itself, Alain de Benoist writes the following: “The preceding lines will help us understand why I am reluctant to use the denomination ‘the New Right’. It should be recalled that, when it was first coined, this expression was never used as a self-description. In fact, this label was invented by the media in 1979 to depict a school of thought and an intellectual and cultural current, born eleven years earlier and which, until then, had never described itself using this label. However, in view of the fact that this expression had become so widespread, it had to be more or less adopted thereafter. But it was never used without apprehensions, for several reasons. The first is that this label is reductive in a twofold manner: first, it suggested that the ENR was essentially a political organisation — which has never been the case. It also positioned our school of thought within a denomination (the ‘Right’) which our school of thought has always opposed. The second reason is that it facilitated and unjustifiably suggested links to various movements in several countries who use this label themselves. I have already given the example of the Anglo-Saxon New Right organisations. Other parallels, equally significant, could also be drawn. In Italy, our friends from the Nuova Destra have long ago renounced this expression. We did the same in France. I happen to define myself as a ‘man of Right-Left’ — i.e., as an intellectual who simultaneously refers to the ideas of the Left and the values of the Right.” (From Tomislav Sunic, Against Democracy and Equality: The European New Right [London: Arktos, 2010], p. 23.)