La gauche du capital: libéralisme culturel et idéologie du Marché
Paris: Krisis, 2014
Following in the footsteps of Jean-Claude Michéa (whose Our Enemy: Capital I have reviewed for Counter-Currents), Charles Robin, a former militant in the far-Left Nouveau parti antcapitaliste (NPA), published a book in 2014 called La Gauche du Capital: libéralisme culturel et idéologie du Marché (The Left of Capital: Cultural Liberalism and Market Ideology). It consists of a number of critical essays on liberalism and its generic relation to capitalism. The first of these, “Le Liberalisme comme Volonté et comme Representation” (“Liberalism as Will and Idea”), is by far the longest, taking up 86 of the 243 pages. This coinage, taken from the title of Arthur Schopenhauer’s most famous work (The World as Will and Idea), points to the book’s main thesis, namely that there are not many independent kinds of liberalism, but only one: a monolithic, “totalizing” (Robin does not use the word totalitarian) worldview, driven by the will to flatten and eviscerate whatsoever resists it.
Robin’s aim is to provide a radical scrutiny of liberalism. His argument is that all kinds of liberalism – notably including what he sees as the two major forms, economic and social liberalism – are manifestations of one ideology, ontologically interrelated. An analogy by Pierre Bérard to the same effect is quoted from an interview given to the French “New Right” journal Éléments: Together, he says, liberalism in economics and social liberalism demonstrate “the very prominent reconciliation of the Castor and Pollux of double liberal thought.” In the same sense, Robin’s argument is that the “human diversity” lauded all over the Western world is reflected in the Left’s commitment to “free movement of people” and “no borders” on the one hand, and on the other in capitalism’s commitment to “the free movement of capital and labor.” Commitment to tolerance and diversity and commitment to progress and profit are the same commitment, springing from the same liberal fountainhead.
Liberalism is understood in very different ways by different writers, and even in different national traditions. Liberalism does not seem to express the same phenomenon in France, Britain, and the United States. I say “seem” because it is precisely Robin’s belief that by viewing different aspects of liberalism, different commentators are not more or less correct, but fail to have a holistic view of liberalism, and therefore do not properly understand it. Those who see liberalism as only Left-wing, only laissez-faire capitalist, or only permissive social politics are viewing liberalism without recognizing what Robin calls the “touchstones” of liberal ideology.
Surprisingly, Robin does not stress the different connotations which the word “liberal” tends to have in different countries, connotations which can be explained by different national histories. How did liberalism emerge? In Britain, the term originally referred to the so-called Whigs – the more Protestant class of free-traders who promoted Manchester liberal capitalism, which demanded more rights for the town and manufacturing in opposition to the vested interests of agriculture and wealth from land rent (indeed, the first great liberal daily paper in England was published in Manchester, the Manchester Guardian). The Whigs’ opponents were represented by the Crown Party, the Tories. In the course of time, and notably with the rise of the Labour Party, the term liberal, at least in Britain, was increasingly understood to refer to those who sought a moderate third way between the forces of conservatism and Empire on the Right and the challenge of socialism and the international workers’ revolution on the Left.
In France, the term liberal has maintained a stronger association with the economic liberalism of the original champions of the rights of property, profit, and the individual. In the United States, the term liberal has tended to refer to what in Britain or France would usually be regarded as socialist or Left-wing. Increasingly, however, liberalism has come to be universally recognized as a movement of emancipation, and a liberal as someone who wishes to free the individual from social restraints on his freedom of movement – for example, restraints of tradition, ethnicity, class, and geography.
The primary purpose of Robin’s book is to argue that liberalism is at the same time an ideology of the untrammeled movement of people and capital and an ideology of personal emancipation from social ties. Only when we see that liberalism is both a movement to liberate the individual from non-economic commitments as an individual, and to bind the individual into a system of consumer and competitor economics, argues Robin, will we understand what seems a paradox: namely, that the radical “anti-capitalist” Left is at home with, and effectively works in the cause of (and allegedly sometimes directly in the pay of) international capital.
In his brief Preface to this book, David L’Épeé describes a man whose fortune in France in the middle of the eighteenth century was among the top twenty in the kingdom, a man of supremely progressive ideas who was viscerally opposed to the Catholic Church, and famous for his slogan “il faut écraser l’infâme” (the loathsome object must be crushed). This man was Francois-Marie Arouet, better known today as Voltaire. From its earliest days, liberalism was a doctrine advanced by the rich and powerful, and which served their material interests.
According to Charles Robin, a study of the rise of liberalism from the eighteenth century onwards shows that the struggle for economic and individual emancipation were mutually supportive and intrinsically linked. Liberalism’s touchstone is “the idea that the individual human being is ontologically first in relation to society” (p. 109). A significant part of his argument is that liberalism is a monolithic phenomenon of “logical coherence and practical viability” which cannot be understood except in its totality. What is required to understand liberalism is what Robin calls a “total and multi-dimensional” critique (p. 112).
Robin says that the key common denominator of liberalism is the well-being of the individual as the prime measure of all social values. Social and economic liberalism undertake a kind of “division of labor” to achieve the aim of the total individualization of society, rendering it a level playing field of atomized individuals who have no intrinsic value to one another except as consumers and/or producers. Liberalism, so Robin, works to create a society in which all commitments and loyalties which are altruistic (altruistic in the genuine sense of demanding sacrifice from the individual in the name of a common cause through which the individual may lose as an individual, but through which the individual’s group will gain), and all allegiances and sense of belonging are attenuated and ultimately flattened. Robin alludes to flattening, by which he means the leveling of social relations, given that liberalism acknowledges no hierarchy but that of money; it is the individual human life which is of supreme importance. Liberalism always accords a higher value to any single individual than towards claims derived from religion, nation, tradition, or any other group loyalty.
Among early liberal writers, we can certainly observe an interrelation of the economic and social perspectives. Liberal philosophy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as propounded by John Stuart Mill or John Locke, for example, argued that the central purpose of an individual’s life was the pursuit of happiness and the guaranteeing of the right to that pursuit by the protection of individual property and freedom from unwarranted interference by any psychological or physical power. This right to property and freedom of expression was, of course, the cornerstone – to borrow Robin’s expression – of the American Revolution: “no taxation without representation.” Here we can see the relation between the need for personal freedom and the need for economic freedom, and how in what Marxists would call “bourgeois philosophy” the call for individual freedom is also the call for the right to own property and exploit land and people.
Indeed, Robin’s view of the economic compulsion which underlies the insistence of eighteenth-century writers on extending individual freedom and rights is a summary of the Marxist analysis of liberalism. The extension of those rights – the slow journey towards emancipation, the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, and more – developed parallel to (albeit sometimes at a different pace) economic growth and industrial innovation. The key word for both aspects of liberalism is progress, and the mark of success is diversity: Progress towards ever greater individualization, and diversity of customers and competition. Seen in this light, the Leftists (“liberals,” as Americans will call them) demanding open borders and the end of controls on human movement between countries, and the United Nations’ demand for a global migration plan are driven by the same liberal motive as global capitalism: an unquenchable thirst for high returns, expanding markets, mergers, demolition of barriers, cheap labor, and the economies of scale. This is well illustrated in the case of immigration: namely, the liberal “comradeship in arms” shown in the encouragement and sympathy publicly expressed by Joe Kaeser, CEO of the German multinational Siemens, for the dreadlock-sporting female Captain of Sea Watch 3, Caroline Rackete, who was arrested for defying Italy’s immigration laws. Rackete had docked in an Italian port with a boat filled with African migrants in defiance of Italian laws, forcing Italy to accept them. Big capital is indeed in favor of open borders. Similarly, the Left and the anti-fascists more or less agitate in the cause of global capital when they claim refugees are welcome and demand open borders.
Charles Robin takes a view similar to that of Jean Calude Michéa in that he believes “Left-wing” and “socialist” should not be regarded as one and the same, or even as similar. All over the Western world, social democratic parties have embraced “liberal hothouse” ideas and have become alienated from the original, collectivist, class-driven demands of socialism. Seen in this way, the ultimate aim of the cultural Left and the economic Right is a global brotherhood of man and a global economy: two interlaced facets of the same ideology. A global economy will function at maximum effectiveness when barriers to capital and people are removed. Society must be entirely fluid, and in order to become so, the aim of both kinds of social and economic liberalism is to open all borders, remove national barriers to people and goods, and to destroy attachments of ethnicity, religion, or any other loyalty which might take precedence over the imperative of economic reason and the supreme right of the individual.
Like many writers before him, Robin notes that a characteristic of capitalism is disrespect towards the sacred, whether it be the culturally, socially, or religiously sacred. Echoing Marx again, he writes that capitalism, through its ideological “loudspeaker” of liberal ideology, is ruthless in its determination to disempower the sacred, the entrenched, the traditional, and whatever else stands in the way of Progress. Liberalism will undermine allegiances to an old order or traditional way of life, and descry it with scorn as irrational, oppressive, illogical, backward-looking, and absurd; or else pretend to admire it while at the same time preparing the way for its subversion by capitalism. “You must move with the times” is the cry of free-marketer and social liberal alike. Both the Left-wing radical and the capitalist are fully committed to progress – apparently, progress without a discernible end – and breaking down the barriers which impede that progress. Liberalism is driven by a strong inner compulsion, and “inevitable” is a word it readily employs. While the declared purpose of a progressive movement or initiative may be – and indeed often is – ostensibly compassionate, the principle of profit, according to Robin’s argument, will be the driving force behind the call for liberation, although this is often concealed.
Charles Robin questions the altruism which liberals like to hoist to the mast of their “holier than thou” causes, a self-congratulating altruism which affords them the self-indulgence of deploring their opponents for lacking the empathy, kindness, and imagination which they and other caring liberals presume to have in abundance. However, given that the individual is the measure of all value for the liberal, his altruism is a means of gaining higher social and moral status. (In the last few years, the manner in which large corporations have displayed their commitments to various liberal causes is a striking illustration of this.) Liberal altruism is profitable, in more ways than one. The notion of giving in a genuinely altruistic sense, according to Robin, is alien to liberalism, because it contradicts the fundamental liberal belief that the individual’s private happiness is supremely important. Liberal thought at its inception was thus marked by what Robin calls a “profound anthropological pessimism”:
From the moment that one cannot allow oneself to see in advance any manifestation of good will or loyalty beyond oneself as being more than a hypocritical mask of self-interest and love of self, or as being driven by the unacknowledged will to accumulate “moral capital,” it becomes impossible to grasp how, in the conditions laid down by liberal anthropology, the very idea of a human society (in which, as Michael Mauss has shown, the removal of a notion of giving cannot be carried out without endangering the very conditions of its existence) can make any real sense. (p. 23)
Liberalism is always extending the right of the individual to choose one’s homeland, one’s job, one’s future, and one’s fate, and even one’s gender and “culture” is only a matter of individual (consumer) choice. According to liberal ideology, people should be able to choose their culture rather than being born into it and compelled by nature to adhere to a culture – or even a sexual orientation or gender – which is not to their taste as consumers. “Lifestyle choice” is eagerly supported by entire industries of products and services. Thus, there is a profound unity between the liberalism which considers the rights of the individual to be supreme and the liberalism of that “Right” which seeks to place market values at the center of human endeavor.
Like Claude Alzon, the French Communist whose essay on the “dumbing down” of young people under capitalism argued that the hidden political purpose of permissive education was firstly to provide capitalist society with “obedient consumers” devoid of a historical perspective, and secondly to weaken class consciousness (how can you have class consciousness without having had effective history lessons?), which would enable pupils to query the evolution of social order. Permissive education molds them to become compliant, mindless consumers instead. In the same way, Charles Robin describes the “capitalist modernization of the school” and its
“progressive transformation into a “democratic” space, freed of the traditional hierarchical relation between the figure of the instructing teacher and the instructed pupil, the latter now being invited to express himself and present an opposing view to the “random” knowledge of the teacher. This is symptomatic of the creation of a horizontal reforming of the symbolic relationship to authority, meaning by definition destroying that hierarchy. All this was made possible in the 1960s by the liberal challenge to the very legitimacy of the notion of Power itself. By regarding the figure of the master as an oppressor instead of as an imparter of knowledge, the means were given to destroy the means of transferring critical knowledge under the cover of revolutionary change. Such knowledge is part of the intellectual and cultural equipment through which a radical critique of Power and its institutions can be mentally elaborated.
The massive decerebration, of which the current scholastic system has become the principle tool (Natacha Polony), has another side to it: the growing subjugation to a power without authority, which is liberal culture, which benefits from the active neutralization of all reference to the past or tradition, and from the promotion of a formless “spontaneousness” (sic) transformed into a categorical imperative and principle of auto-justification. (pp. 66-67)
Intellectual autonomy is proffered as the first step towards global autonomy, but it is an autonomy entirely in harmony with the aims of global capital. Robin quotes Guy Debord in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle:
The primary aim of a society in which entertainment dominates is to work towards the general disappearance of historical awareness. . . . Historical awareness is the real means of measuring the worth of what is new, and those who are selling what is new have every reason to seek the disappearance of the means of measuring it. (p. 71)
The right of the individual to choose his hobbies and his tastes with complete disregard for social custom or restraint dovetails neatly with the maximization of profit, because hobbies and weird fashions create new markets and provide new business opportunities. McDonald’s or Starbucks are global franchise businesses glorifying individual diversity while subverting communal diversity by encouraging globalist movements, uniform eating habits, and maximizing markets for identical products. Liberalism, writes Robin, is driven by a momentum to encircle, like an amoeba, and thus absorbs an ever-increasing array of human activities, which is as much as to say that he regards liberalism as totalitarian. In an essay republished in this book from Éléments revealingly called “L’extrème gauche, armée de réserve du libéralisme” (“The Extreme Left, the Reserve Army of Liberalism”):
Originally, liberalism is the philosophical attempt . . . to reinvest the individual with rights with which he is naturally endowed. . . . Man, insofar as he is endowed with a rational faculty, will not know how to accept as true or acknowledge as legitimate any proposition or injunction which has not first been measured by the standards demanded at the Tribunal of Reason. . . . [I]t is no coincidence that Kant defined the time of the Enlightenment as being when man escaped from the bonds of tutelage . . . at the moment when all normative hindrances are declared equally invalid, when they act as a break on the natural freedom of the individual. The problem is that with the primacy of the individual thus accepted, there is nothing to resist the unlimited extension of the right of the individual in every possible and imaginable field of activity. (p. 133)
Later, in an essay on Michéa, Robin notes that one of the primary cultural consequences which can be laid directly at the door of the liberating tendencies of our societies is the fabrication of atomized individuals living cheek by jowl, but with nothing in common. Man is “reduced to the state of a monad” (an anagram of nomad), a “simple substance,” blown about and experiencing only spontaneous perception and desire:
This explains the suspicion shown by liberals in principle towards any communal loyalty or sense of identity. . . . The liberal process consists in disassociating the individual from all normative traditions, which are decried as obsolete and oppressive. (pp. 170-171)
La Gauche du Capital’s arguments are not new. It is obvious – and becoming more so with every year of this century – that the greater part of the Left is not seeking an alternative to capitalism (and that when it claims to do so, it hardly bothers to describe how that alternative would work). The far Left’s denunciations of capitalism are mostly fraudulent. The far Left and liberal Left are effectively working for the same causes as free-market capitalism. It is to be noted that Robin does not describe the forces aligned against this trend. There must be such forces, otherwise liberalism would not have to “fight” at all. The failure to adumbrate in any way what does or could oppose liberalism is a major omission of this book, in my opinion.
Robin avoids the term “liberal democracy” and insists, like Alain de Benoist, that democracy and liberalism are totally different. Although he speaks of the genesis of liberalism, his theses eschew a historical account of its rise, although liberalism has a well-recorded history. Whether we consider liberalism in its social or economic manifestation, or both, we see that it grew in the course of struggle – something which Robin acknowledges when he refers to liberalism’s inherent impetus to expand, but of which he gives no account.
The book leaves important questions unanswered. Are all liberal ideas, being subsumed by Robin under the term “liberal ideology,” equally subversive of other allegiances in a social order? The theme of these essays is a critique of liberalism – but a critique in the name or in the cause of what? The writer mentions that he was in a far-Left movement, and is still a socialist, but if the core value of liberalism is the primordial value of the individual and the emancipation of his potential, then what is the core value of Robin’s socialism? Why does he not tell us? Is he seeking to roll back all liberal measures and laws? If so, why does he not say it, and if not, why not? The abolition of slavery was a Christian/liberal wish, impelled by the belief that the negro had indelible rights given by God or nature and a worth as an individual that is superior to the property claims of the slaveowner. It was liberals who sought to abolish capital punishment, arbitrary execution, and torture; even women’s suffrage (woman’s equality was a cause enthusiastically championed by John Stuart Mill), not to mention extending voting rights to the non-property owning classes, may reasonably be considered to be “liberal” measures. Is Robin proposing rescinding these measures on the grounds that all liberal measures subvert human collectives?
It is fashionable to criticize liberalism, but the critics of liberalism are usually very fond of their own liberal “rights,” such as free speech or the equality of the sexes. In the United States, the upholding of the right to bear arms is considered “conservative,” but historically, the right to bear arms is undoubtedly liberal in that it empowers the individual to defy arbitrary power. Does Robin wish to scrap the Geneva Convention, a very liberal agreement which attempts to reduce some of the horrors of war based on liberal empathy for the suffering of the individual human being?
At one stage in his book, Robin mentions that writing this and other essays is a task or duty, and that he would rather be on the beaches of Montpellier (for unstated reasons). Such a wish sounds much like the very kind of frivolous individualist desire and the sort of whim which a liberal state – but not, say, illiberal Saudi Arabia or North Korea – might be disposed to grant.
With regard to economic liberalism, the writer is presumably not proposing (or at least he nowhere says that he does) the state’s confiscation of all the means of production in the name of socialism. However, if some free private enterprise is conceded by Robin, is that not a concession to liberalism? Like so many of those who condemn economic freedoms, Robin is coy about the argument that economic liberalism is more efficient than socialism in achieving economic results. When it comes to capitalism’s efficiency in getting a job done, Robin is silent, yet it is the insistence on the efficiency of individual freedom in business which is the cornerstone of the liberal critique of socialism.
Had Robin offered a genealogy of liberalism in this book, he might have drawn readers’ attention to the swelling power of liberalism as an ideology. Today, politicians and businessmen speak of “growth” and “progress” as abstracts, but growth and progress are meaningless without reference, becoming merely hollow ideological shibboleths aimed at reassuring the faithful and gaining their approval. But growth, progress, equality, and emancipation are mindlessly idolized by most political leaders (but not only liberals), and this is a development which arguably does point in a totalitarian direction. Angela Merkel of Germany provides a prime example of liberal collaboration between Left-wing social politics and hard-boiled financial interests, with a stress on the abstracts of “growth” and “progress” and the ominous warning that there exists “no alternative” to this narrative, showing that Robin’s critique of modern liberalism is on the mark. Is it not totalitarian to insist that there is no alternative to a given political worldview?
My unease with the thrust of Robin’s argument lies in his insistence that whatever is “liberal” belongs to the same destructive impetus as the liberal mantras of today. He gives no credit to any liberal measure at all, and one wonders if he would acknowledge any. It is unclear whether he believes that economic free enterprise should be permitted by the state, or if he assents to thousands of presumably liberal-inspired statutes to reduce the potential for human exploitation and suffering. In other words, Charles Robin makes his work easy for himself. It is not that he fails to refute traditional liberal arguments about the sanctity of the human individual or certain rights which he enjoys himself, such as the right to publish this book without fear of being arrested for doing so. He simply fails to address them. He does not engage with liberal arguments at all. He just points out the danger they pose.
An excellent example of the collusion of “radical” Leftism and capital has been the debate on the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. The hysteria (the word is not too strong) with which the referendum result was received by the captains of industry and most of the political Left confirms Robin’s thesis that capitalism is liberalism at work, and the permissive society is liberalism at play. Both kinds of liberal clearly feel existentially challenged by a political result which could put a break on the demolition of the “non-rational” adherence to the cause of national sovereignty.
Alternatives to liberalism? The writer offers nothing but a passing reference or two to Michéa’s belief in “common decency” (which Michéa himself took from George Orwell) and social conviviality. Robin decries liberalism as a subversive ideology, does not differentiate between one liberal measure and another, and gives no historical account of the rise of liberalism. Such an account would have compelled him to confront the argument that many liberal changes are accepted even by non-liberals today.
The rights of the individual and the right to happiness have not by any means been, as Robin seems to believe, the same as the rights of the individual to property and profit. Child labor laws, laws regulating employment, and others were proposed by liberals and bitterly opposed by liberal (?) capitalists who considered that they infringed upon the rights of contract. Similarly, “social” liberals campaigned for the emancipation of slaves in the United States and were opposed by the slaveholders in the name of individual property rights. Examples abound of liberals (according to Robin’s definition) fighting liberals. How does this accord with the belief that the social and capitalist liberal necessarily reflect one and the same ideology? Much of nineteenth-century social legislation in European countries consists of laws aimed at protecting the weak individual from exploitation by the powerful. There are not many today who wish to entirely roll back the achievements of the liberal nineteenth- and twentieth-century lawmakers in this respect.
One who did wish to do just that was Alissa Rosenbaum, better known as Ayn Rand, the mother of what she called Objectivism, whose fanatical devotion to economic reason and contempt for compassion culminated in the propagation of a sort of capitalist, Nietzschean right of the strong to exploit the weak, and a reduction of the state’s remit to ensure that contractual rights were upheld. She is bitterly opposed by American . . . liberals. However, to this day she is regarded by both her followers and her opponents not as a liberal, but as a libertarian, and it is striking that Robin does not once mention libertarianism in this book. Perhaps it does not suit his argument to draw attention to the fact that there is a “pure” form of liberalism called libertarianism, and a liberalism which is ready to make socialist or crypto-Christian compromises in order to protect the weak individual from the economically strong. It seems that liberalism and its history might be more complex than Robin gives it credit for.
Robin’s book is to be applauded for highlighting the collusion of capital and Left-wing globalism. As an analysis of the ideology of liberalism, however, it falls short. Among many lacunae (inter alia libertarianism, a genealogy of liberalism, and Marx’s interpretation of liberalism), there is no mention of the belief in compromise that is deeply embedded in liberal thought. For Robin, liberalism is uncompromising in its drive to abolish all impediments to the realization of the absolutely emancipated individual. He ignores the fact that the pursuit of happiness, that core liberal value, is itself originally religious. What has recently taken place (but despite the promise given in this book’s opening, there is no historical account offered here) is that liberalism has developed historically to the point that it is now being freed of its restraints, just as global capitalism is. All and any ideologies freed of restraints becomes a hunger that will not be stilled, which is why in the days when it had not broken from its attachment to tradition, religion, and nation, liberalism was a force which preached “moderation in all things.” It is not liberalism as an ideology, nor even capitalism, which are “loathsome objects,” but rather their capture by those who know no moderation, whose appetite is limitless, and who have made of liberal values a global ideology, and of rational economic procedures an uncontrolled demographic and economic cancer.
The value of this book lies in its rejection of the belief that liberalism or capitalism are inevitable, and that their growth will continue forever. It offers an introduction to a thought-provoking discourse on liberalism at a time when societies calling themselves democratic are showing a disturbing tendency to restrict any kind of political discourse which does not accept the liberal narrative – as they define it – from the outset.
 Pierre Bérard, “La rebellion est-elle possible?“ in Éléments, No. 132 (July-September, 2009).
 Claude Alzon, La Mort de Pygmalion: essai sur l’immaturité de la jeunesse (Paris: Françoise Maspero, 1974).
 Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle (Paris: Gerard Lebovici, 1988), pp. 28-30. English translation: Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (London: Verso, 2011).
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