Alain de Benoist
Contre le libéralisme: La Société n’est pas un Marché
Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2019
The title of Alain de Benoist’s latest book, Contre le Libéralisme (Against Liberalism), is polemical, while its subtitle, La Société n’est pas un Marché (Society is Not a Market), could be a theme slogan at a demonstration. The combative tone contrasts with milder, more academic-sounding titles of earlier works such as Les Idées a L’Endroit (Ideas in the Right Place) in 1979, or Comment peut-on être Paien? (How Can Someone Be a Pagan?) in 1981; but after 1986, when his Europe, Tiers monde même combat (Europe/Third World: Same Struggle) was published, it was clear that de Benoist was taking heed of Marx’s dictum that it is the philosopher’s duty not just to understand the world, but to change it.
His latest work is based on the assumption that liberalism is an ideology. Liberalism is often not understood as an ideology but rather as the natural way of things – as the “normal attitude” to take, a fact which in itself suggests that liberalism is an ideology. When an ideology establishes its hegemony, it morphs into something like a religion and is assumed to be self-evident, a widely-accepted bedrock of social and political life. By examining the history and origins of liberalism and what he believes to be its inherent ideological drive to power, de Benoist endeavors to demonstrate that liberalism is indeed an ideology which exercises specific power to keep the hegemony of its values in place. No attempt is made here to analyze what an ideology is, although the writer refers to ideology – notably, the “ideology of progress” – several times.
In addition to a scholarly analysis of the origins and nature of liberalism, de Benoist has written a critique of its nature. The title and subtitle of his work reflect the two interrelated aspects of de Benoist’s principal reproach against liberalism: firstly, his “conservative” reproach that liberalism destroys human variety and replaces multifarious cultural and geographical identities with aggregates of “nowhere men,” global villagers devoid of a social or cultural profile; and secondly, his “socialist” reproach, reflected in the book’s subtitle, that liberalism is turning society into a market – a market where winning and losing is the gauge of merit and money the only measure of worth, in which politics is appraised in terms of market values only. De Benoist’s argument is that under liberalism, politics has no role other than to ensure that the global market machine runs smoothly.
Contre le Libéralisme’s chapters can be read as interlocking aspects of a complete argument, but they are self-contained and can also be read in isolation. The reader knows what to expect from reading each section heading:
Qu’est ce que le libéralisme?: What is liberalism?
Communautariens versus Libéraux: Communitarians versus liberals
Libéralisme et identité: Liberalism and identity
La figure du bourgeois: The figure of the bourgeois
Critique de Hayek: A critique of Hayek
Démocratie représentative et démocratie participative: Representative and participatory democracy
Le troisième âge du capitalism: The third age of capitalism
Conserver quoi? Les équivoques du conservatisme: Conserving what? The contradictions of conservatism
Tous précaires! Le travail à l’heure des hommes en trop: Precarious work in the age of the redundant worker
Critique de la valuer: Critique of value
L’argent ou l’équivalent universel: Money, or the universal equivalent
De Benoist argues that liberalism has its own dynamics, which by their very nature desocialize and degrade social actors, with liberal society constantly moving in the direction of reducing social beings to equal global individuals equipped with “human rights.” Collective identity is never permitted to take precedence over individual rights. Liberalism distrusts any social or political activity or code of values which does not “buy into” a market-based economic system. De Benoist is careful to exclude democracy from that charge, arguing forcibly that liberalism and democracy are mutually exclusive. Liberalism, according to de Benoist, accentuates the individual at the expense of the social, whilst democracy (or at least what he calls participatory democracy) does the reverse: It collectivizes and it socializes. De Benoist argues that there is no liberal politics as such, since liberalism, concerned with the freedom of the individual as the only creditable human freedom, is implicitly hostile to politics.
Politics by its nature, notes de Benoist, engages the individual socially, in an activity which takes him or her out of the sphere of self-awareness and into the world of social interaction and decision-making. Liberalism essentially expects the needs and demands of the market and the material potential or restriction of demand to determine decisions. Liberalism understands politics (which in de Benoist’s eyes is not real politics at all) to consist in arbitrating in economic disputes. For de Benoist, liberalism is literally anti-social because human beings are evaluated exclusively on the basis of the level of their economic significance. Only to the extent to which they are actively engaged in the global marketplace do individuals enjoy social weight. Progress, growth, and human rights are repeatedly invoked to provide liberalism with its moral alibi.
The point of departure – and the principal thesis – which de Benoist is expounding in Contre le libéralisme is that liberalism reduces human identity to a self-sufficient, thoroughly individualized, and therefore alienated hermetic ego who (or which?) ignores – and eventually is ignorant of – obligations to past or future, ethnicity or religion, culture or class; an ego free of any obligation other than material satisfaction of demand. It is an identity exclusively defined in terms of the free market and consumer choice. The individual is free to choose, and that is everything and nothing. It is everything because liberalism posits degrees of freedom in terms of degrees of being emancipated from the constraints of non-economic responsibility, and freedom grows with progress. It is nothing because all human achievement is a cooperative achievement. Caesar without his army would have stood alone – and what is a great poet who is reading only to the deaf and writing for the blind? This, very simply, is what struck me as being the thread of the anti-liberal critique of this densely-argued book.
The first chapter as well as the Introduction provide an overview of what de Benoist proposes to do, and that is to provide the reader with an easy-to-read (at least when one considers the challenges of writing on this subject) exegesis of liberal ideology. De Benoist explains what he understands by liberalism, and it is liberalism which concerns the writer and not liberals. De Benoist shows no interest in providing some kind of psychological portrait of a “liberal type.” What is liberalism and the liberal society we find ourselves in? De Benoist writes:
A liberal society is . . . a society in which the individual takes first place, a society of the ideology of progress, the ideology of the rights of man, the obsession with growth, the disproportionate stress on the virtues of the market, the subjection of symbolic imagination to “what’s in it for me” as an axiom, and so on (p. 9).
De Benoist is determined to examine the complex and profound ramifications of liberalism from various angles so as to arrive at a better understanding of what it is we are dealing with, and he returns to a theme examined in his other writings: Namely, that we should distinguish between liberalism and democracy. Liberalism, he argues, is based on individualism, and is therefore by its nature anti-political, “for the simple reason that there is no politics made up of sole individuals” (p. 42). Liberalism “has also led to the corruption of democracy” (ibid.) for the reason that democracy assumes that its members “identify with a collective cause,” but it is precisely in opposition to collective causes that individualism arises. Consequently, liberal involvement in democracy is a kind of subversion, for liberalism raises the voice of self-interest against what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called the general will of the people, or as de Benoist neatly puts it, “The liberal world is the world of not-in-common” (p. 43).
De Benoist also discusses representative as opposed to participatory democracy, a seldom articulated but ever-present dispute at the heart of many political debates and arguments on the nature of populism. It is a permanent undercurrent of the dispute over Brexit. Tribunes, whom liberals regard as demagogues and decry as populists, urge participatory or direct democracy in opposition to the notion of professional representatives making their decisions in the name of others in what they adjudge or claim to be the others’ best interests. The liberal argument here is that some issues are too complex for any but the professionals to make a decision upon, and that in the liberal view is what the professional politician is elected to do as professional arbitrator for the market. Democracy, as de Benoist understands it, is something quite different. With a nod to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, de Benoist states that “the political principle of democracy is not that a majority decides, but that the people are sovereign” (p. 249).
The chapter on participatory versus representative democracy is the shortest in the book, and ignores the decline in the membership levels of political parties and participation in party political activity throughout societies governed on the principle of parliamentary representative democracy, which would confirm de Benoist’s argument that liberalism reduces levels of political engagement as it advances in influence. The subject of direct democracy and representative or parliamentary democracy is more important and more complex than many people imagine, and de Benoist would have been well able to do the subject more justice than it is given in his short chapter on it.
The fact that liberals, and the kind of representative democracy they most favor, dislike and distrust referenda, supports de Benoist’s thesis that liberalism favors people at the expense of a people. If the market is supremely important, then market identity is supremely important: Producer, consumer, wealth is important, whilst any other personal loyalties or adherences are depoliticized under a liberal hegemony and treated and categorized as personal pursuits, hobbies, or fads, and acknowledged as socially desirable only insofar as they remain such. Liberalism in Western democracies distrusts any political involvement which puts belief before career.
According to de Benoist, the liberal belief that all men are equal can and is used to undermine the basis of democracy. If all people are the same anywhere, what does it even mean to say that “the British,” “the Americans,” or any other people or nation “have decided x in the election”? In the Scottish independence referendum, the Scottish government demonstrated its liberal credentials by giving even recently-arrived residents the right to vote. Similarly, Irish citizens resident in the UK are allowed to vote in British elections. The right to vote is simply decided by a residential permit – or less even than that.
In a chapter devoted to liberalism and identity, de Benoist argues that liberalism destroys the very identity which must be the cornerstone of true democracy. The same goes for progress, which is here presented as the rallying cry of liberalism:
“From the time of the Enlightenment,” writes Zygmunt Bauman, “it was considered common sense and self-evident that the emancipation of Man released human potential, and that release requires the rupture of communal ties and that human beings be disassociated from the circumstances of their birth.” Modernity is thus built on a radical devalorization of the past in the name of an optimal vision of the future, a future which is taken to represent a radical rupture with all that has gone before it; thus speaks the ideology of progress. . . . The role of progress being the disappearance of communities, the emancipation of the human advances not by way of a recognition of singular identities, but by an assimilation of those identities into a dominant model. . . . The liberal dynamic tears man away from his natural or communal bonds by making an abstraction out of his former adherence to a particular human group. Liberalism is the vehicle of a new anthropology in which it is man’s task to free himself from his organic links, this emancipation from nature being interpreted – very much in the Kantian sense – as characteristic of what is truly human. The ideal is no longer what it was in Classical thought, namely to act in conformity with the natural order, but on the contrary, to be able to free oneself from the natural order. . . . Liberalism is . . . directly hostile to the affirmation of collective identities (pp. 131-135).
De Benoist concedes that particular identities, such as national identities with their “common knowledge” (savoir commun), include national legends which are partly true and partly imaginary accounts of the national story, in the myth of origins. Perhaps the Battle of Bouvines, the exploits of Charles Martel, or the story of the Star-Spangled Banner were somewhat more modest in reality than in the telling, but while it is easy for liberals to point to this, it remains the case that origin myths are necessary as the kit of collective identity. “A myth works not in spite of being a myth, but because it is one” (p. 141).
Here, de Benoist’s interpretation of collective historical accounts comes close to the Marxist view of religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature” with a pragmatic function, with hyperbole or even falsehood at its core, surviving only by reason of its social or political usefulness to one group or another. However, de Benoist fails to mention that some myths undermined by Enlightenment skepticism may be given new credence in the light of subsequent historical discoveries. The unearthing of the ruins of the “fictitious” city of Troy by Schliemann in 1870 is an obvious example.
This book is very skeptical of the optimists who are confident that technical advances are by and large improving the lot of the “human race” and that technical progress ensures that human felicity is on an upward curve. The obsession with speed and efficiency and the benefits of progress increases as diverse environmental and political crises worsen. The writer notes that we are entering an age of technical frenzy, and progress and growth are revered as always urgently needed, always good, and always necessary. He examines this point in his chapter on what he calls the “third age of capitalism”: the age of turbo-capitalism, in which obsession with technical development begins to reduce the role of the consumer to that of a slave to a self-regulating machine. Liberalism strives to deregulate the market and reduce all individuals to the simple and leveling status of consumers. The consumer is the “bourgeois” whose culture – insofar as it can be called culture at all – is cosmopolitan, and for whom frontiers, statutes, and the rights of peoples are so many hindrances to the free flow of goods and people. Bigotry and borders are the bogeys preventing the free flow of goods and people and the unending prosperity of the world market.
In Europe, both Left and Right have in large part abandoned their traditional roles of defending class and culture respectively, to accommodate themselves to the demands of the market. Gradually, societies become absorbed into liberalism’s value system and into the world capitalist market.
A compromise between former national values and devotion to the economic rationalization of growth arose in the 1970s and is still strongly represented in political speech. It received its greatest boost with the discovery – and rediscovery through Right-wing think tanks – of the works of Friedrich von Hayek, Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman, among others. The writings of these liberal theorists were combined with patriotic or conservative rhetoric, or even a program. Margret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan would be obvious examples of such liberal conservative influences on politicians. De Benoist argues with passion that this half-conservative/half-liberal position is ultimately untenable, and he underscores some of what he considers to be the inconsistencies of national liberals:
How can anyone claim to wish to regulate immigration while at the same time adhering to an economic world order which is based on ideals of mobility, flexibility, and the opening of frontiers and global nomadic wandering? . . . How is it conceivable to refer to the efficiency of market forces without conceding that that very efficiency impels those who believe in it to do away with the frontiers which separate and therefore serve to maintain distinct and different human cultures? How is it possible to defend the identity of peoples or of nations while at the same time implicitly believing that those collectivities are nothing other than aggregates of separate human individuals? How is it possible to deplore the bankruptcies of small businesses while celebrating the competition and free-market logic behind those bankruptcies? How is it possible to appeal to “morality” and at the same time identify with a doctrine which legitimizes individual behavior (the maximization of particular personal interests), which all authentic morality has always condemned? How is it possible to restore “traditional values” without responding with the challenge that it is capitalism which is destroying traditional values wherever it can? (p. 31)
De Benoist identifies two defining characteristics of liberalism: It is an economic doctrine which relies or refers to the self-adjustment of market forces as the desirable motor of economic amelioration, and secondly it is a kind of anthropological theory which operates on the premise that man is an individual first and a member of a group second. In other words, so de Benoist, liberal anthropology regards Homo sapiens as being in essence non-social, and it will follow from this – and if this is believed – that the human individual is the primordial and therefore privileged point of reference for all political and economic endeavor, and that the free market is the most natural form of economic order because it is centered on the needs of man in his essence; namely, as an individual. The economic and anthropological doctrines of man-as-individual combine to make up the keynote of liberal ideology, from which all else arises: liberal notions of justice, democracy, and rights. As de Benoist sees it, the individualism which is a manifestation of liberal ideology today is the “philosophy which considers the individual as the sole reality and takes the individual as the point of all evaluation” (p. 57). De Benoist then quotes Benjamin Constant to the effect that that the independence of the individual ranks first among modern man’s requirements.
It is certainly the case that, for liberalism, the individual comes first, and that the individual always coming first might well be said to be a hallmark of liberal ideology. However, de Benoist, like many critics of liberal ideology, ignores an important fact. In certain respects, the biological – that is to say, the physical and psychological individual self – is the only individual of which each of us has immediate and total indisputable awareness. Descartes extrapolated from the idea that the only perceived certainty an individual has is that of the individual itself, that all else we believe we know is mere surmise. Not to acknowledge the fact that individualism is pragmatically and biologically the first level of consciousness is to ignore liberalism’s strongest argument, which is that the collectivity may be the first to decide, but the individual is the first to feel. The collectivity may make decisions in pursuit of a phantom, but where the decision affects the welfare of the individual, the decisions are very real and may be very painful.
De Benoist is right that liberalism insists on the sanctity of individual life at the expense of collective identity or even of collective survival, and this inherent hostility towards the group may sound the death knell of any human collectivity, class, social or ethnic group, or nation which stands in the way of the market’s demands. We only have to see the hysterical obsession of the liberal-minded with protecting migrants, refugees, and stowaways at the expense of a nation or group who might suffer from their incursion to acknowledge that de Benoist is entirely right here.
This book does not examine the question in terms of those who believe in a regulated economy, but still consider themselves to be socially “liberal.” For de Benoist, a liberal is one who favors free market economies – a very disputable view indeed, and a narrow interpretation of what liberalism means that should be borne in mind when reading this book. According to de Benoist, liberalism believes that the market, in which the market is a free market economy, is the natural development of any optimal society of free men and women, whatever their “stage of development” and wherever they are to be found. Liberalism is very much for export. The free market economy based on money and the investment of capital in order to generate more capital, as per capitalism, is the economic panacea of free-market liberals, and is the system which feeds hungry mouths and sets people free from the shackles of obscure and backward beliefs so that everyone is “free to pursue their dreams.” Capitalism is for most liberal theorists (Hayek is an exception in this respect) the most natural system of social organization and the most successful; in a Darwinian sense it is natural, as Herbert Spencer and others argued, because it is successful, and with its success it will usher in the end of history and the global market of the global consumer, as well as unending and presumably unendingly increasing human happiness.
In the writings of the popular libertarian Ayn Rand, capitalism assumes the role of socialism in Marxist teleology and is presented as the natural endpoint of human evolution, where the human individual fulfills his natural destiny of being entirely rational and entirely free. When the entire world is integrated into a free market economy, human history will be replaced with happiness and politics will have been “overcome,” just as how class struggle is to be overcome by the final victory of international socialism for Marxists. Capitalism is perceived as the culmination and attainment of full individual freedom. De Benoist quotes these chilling words by Alain Minc: “Capitalism cannot collapse; it is the natural state of society. Democracy is not the natural state of society. The market, yes” (p. 65).
De Benoist notes that it is that great theoretician of the free market economy, Adam Smith, who distinguished between space and territory. There may be an economic space, but there is no territory in a free market, meaning that the market or an enterprise is not bound by any specific attachment to one place; potentially, at least, it is not confined geographically. Capitalism, and the liberalism which speaks out in order to advance it, acknowledges no special merit in land as such, and still less in inheritance. There will always be a market, and there will always be land. This puts liberalism in opposition to democracy, which defines itself in terms of land, a community with a geographical and membership profile. Democracy helps to shape a people, is its representation, and expresses its will. Liberalism is hostile to all such expressions of a collective will, character, or intention.
De Benoist cites the German constitutional lawyer Carl Schmitt approvingly to the effect that liberal politics cannot even exist, given that liberalism represents and affirms the primacy of the economic over the political, the private over the public. For liberalism, political conflicts and wars are always challenges to be neutralized within and by the liberal worldview under the inexorable reasoning of utilitarian reason. This analysis seems to be confirmed in the case of the dispute in the United Kingdom over the proposed departure of Britain from the European Union. Right versus Left is being replaced in this dispute by liberal versus anti-liberal. Those who campaign for remaining in the EU are those who denounce the decision to leave the EU as “irrational” and “political.” For liberals, the very expression “political decision” in this debate has become itself pejorative, a development which supports de Benoist’s thesis that liberalism is hostile to politics just for being politics. The pro-EU arguments, thoroughly liberal, appeal almost exclusively to economics, self-interest, and progress. The democratic rights of a nation apart from the destiny of individuals would appear to be incomprehensible to the liberal mindset. De Benoist wryly notes, “One can even ask oneself if, for some liberals, the only way of being fully human is not to behave like a merchant . . . that their world vision is entirely confined to a yardstick of utility” (p. 76).
Liberalism creates an abstraction, the global individual, at home everywhere and nowhere. The abstract individual is unnatural. The liberal abstraction of the global rational man is deprived of the essential qualities necessary to create a complete human being, a personality:
The current crisis arises entirely out of the aggravating contradiction between the ideal of the abstract universal man, with the atomization and depersonalization of social interaction which go along with that, and the reality of a concrete human being, whose identity is social – one based on affection and proximity, with the cohesion, consensus, self-assurance, and sense of obligation which go with that (pp. 82-83).
The nostrum of “always more” as a cure to all dissatisfaction and the consequent insistence on economic growth as the major defining mark of success or failure for a government is a consequence of liberal ideology. As liberalism is the prevailing orthodoxy, growth at any cost is understood by the majority of politicians (elsewhere, de Benoist has commended Green activists for not accepting this self-evident truth at face value) as a self-evident truth. Most political debates indeed start from the assumed consensus that growth and development are de facto desirable in themselves. De Benoist cites Marx with approval that the bourgeoisie is a revolutionary force which strips away old allegiances to create the economic one-dimensional man, the Homo oeconomicus of our time; but Marx approved of liberal rationalism as a necessary stage in human social evolution towards the fully emancipated human of the socialist utopia. De Benoist does not.
De Benoist is absolutely right that in most political discourse, growth is taken to be a self-evident good, an assumption challenged – with questionable success – by some Green parties and movements. The distrust of growth – and indeed, in de Benoist’s case, hostility towards the notion of growth as a self-evident good – marks a significant turning away from the condemnation of ecological pessimism which characterized the views of the French New Right in the 1970s. What remains consistent (and in this reviewer’s opinion a disturbing and incomprehensible lacuna) is the failure to consider the hugely important role played by human demographics in the expansion of world markets, in the rise of individualism, and in the strengthening of global capitalism. Not once in this book does de Benosit deign to comment on the economies of scale arising from runaway population growth, an economic development whose global effects are obvious and which contributes mightily to the globalization of culture, the global movements of goods and people, and the atomization of society and consumer-driven anti-culture – all of which de Benoist deplores. The rise of mass demand fed by the economies of scale, facilitated and enhanced by technical progress in communication and transportation, make it inevitable that global markets expand, that economies “develop,” and that nature will be more efficiently and profitably exploited and reduced to cash value only.
The exploitation of nature and its reduction to a mere marketable commodity arose with the acceleration of population growth in conjunction with technical progress in the middle of the eighteenth century, a development that ran parallel with the rise of liberalism and which has not, as it were, paused for breath since then. Liberal values simultaneously exalt the primacy of the individual consumer and the consumer’s rights to self-expression, which includes the maximal exploitation of the non-human material world. While this urge has been strong for centuries, it is only in recent years that its full global possibilities were able to be fully realized, and the threat of global environmental desolation has become real. It is difficult to imagine economics of scale working effectively at a global level without increased technical efficiency and massive demographic pressures. The failure to so much as comment on human population growth in a critique of liberalism is a major weakness, and reflects the blindness to demographics which seems to characterize most political commentary, liberal and non-liberal alike.
In his chapter on communitarianism, de Benoist examines the meaning of identity. How do I identify myself, and with reference to what? He draws on the well-known distinction which Martin Buber drew between Blutverwandtschaft and Wahlverwandtschaft, ethnic kinship and chosen kinship with other people. According to this paradigm, there are two fundamental kinds of identity: one which is inborn, literally, with my DNA, revealing to me that I am a member of the species Homo sapiens, male or female, black or white, and so on; and a chosen identity – whom I choose to marry, where I choose to live, and so on. Not all lines are sharply drawn. For example, someone may choose to change his or her nationality.
De Benoist notes that liberalism strives to shift the dominance of Blutverwandtschaft to Wahlverwandtschaft. Extreme liberals would make even gender a matter of individual choice. All of liberalism’s campaigns move in the direction of boosting individual choice and downgrading, so far as possible, inherited or biological identities. The more that individuals are separated according to small groups, especially groups of choice, the less social cohesion there can be. Prejudice and tradition are regarded as irrational hindrances to economic progress. For the liberal, no respect is to be shown, no monument built, and no memory honored of anyone who cannot be shown to have contributed to “human progress.”
A strong impulse of liberal ideology is to “combat prejudice,” since prejudice, or “choosing my friends,” presupposes a scale of values other than that of buying and selling on the market. While it may be impossible to prevent persons from associating with those whose company they prefer, any hint of association on the basis of non-individual group identity runs counter to liberalism’s insistence on the prime importance of individual human rights, since preference and prejudice imply exclusion and contraction. A key aim of liberal campaigns is therefore desegregation. For liberalism, each and every human individual is equipped with rights which precede and are independent of the social group. These rights are inborn, are natural, and have nothing to do with merit, achievement, or personality. De Benoist notes that universally applicable human rights can only refer in their turn to an abstract notion of universal justice (an example of this theory of abstract “Platonic” justice can be found in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice). Liberalism is by nature both anti-democratic and anti-social. For liberalism – and here de Benoist cites Robert Nozick – there is no cause worth the sacrifice of one’s own life. The role of the state is to help the individual choose his or her own path to freedom, and that is also the first principle of justice according to Rawls, to which de Benoist adds the principle – as laid down by Locke in his Social Contract – of the right to property. With respect to the interpretation de Benoist offers of the rise of liberalism as the rise of a self-interested group – an idea upon which he expounds in his chapter on the bourgeoisie – he is indistinguishable from Marx.
There is a certain lack of clarity in this book in ascribing ideology to what are considered desirable goals under liberalism. In the opening sentence of his Introduction, de Benoist asserts that “liberalism is the dominant ideology of our time,” but later, progress and the rights of man are also referred to as “ideologies.” Are progress and the rights of man to be understood as minor ideologies dependent on a sort of umbrella ideology called liberalism? Or are they like different species of liberalism, and liberalism is the genus? To refer to either progress or the rights of man as ideologies under the larger dominance of liberal ideology is problematic. De Benoist apparently takes it for granted that, for the sake of his analysis of liberalism, his readers will accept that progress and the rights of man are ideologies, or at least that there is an ideology of progress and an ideology of the rights of man. Yet on page 11, de Benoist switches to refer not to the “ideology” of the rights of man, but to the “religion” of the rights of man. Does this mean that de Benoist considers progress and the rights of man as at the same time both ideology and religion?
De Benoist pinpoints progress and growth as goals which liberalism considers desirable in themselves. There is nothing new in the critique of the so-called “ideology of progress,” a term once used by Julius Evola and more recently by the Russian New Right intellectual Alexander Dugin, who has even referred to the “fiction” of progress. Since the early days of the Enlightenment, progress has been understood as a good in itself. However, champions and critics of “progress” alike are having recourse to facile and hollow polemics if they write about “progress” as though it were a Platonic abstraction, and when they fail to contextualize progress by defining what a given notion of progress is aiming toward. The word in both its Latin origin and its German version (Fortschritt) directly refers to moving forward. How can anyone claim to favor or object to the notion of moving forward without saying what it is one is moving forward towards? Progress has to be contextualized to acquire meaning. Progress is welcome if a pupil makes progress in learning a new language, but if a patient learns that a malignant tumor has been making progress, such progress is unwelcome. Exactly the same may be said about growth. To be opposed to growth as growth is absurd. The question must be settled: “growth of what?” and secondly, “growth to what point?”
De Benoist, like many other critics of modern society, rightly draws attention to the frequent reference to progress and growth as self-evident benefits. His hostility to the society of waste and overheated consumption is heartfelt. However, he offers no outline of a situation in which progress or growth of an economy or a business might be desirable. Does this mean that progress – for example, in combating smallpox – is part of some liberal “ideology of progress”? It may be argued that an analysis of growth and development in political discourse and how they relate to liberal ideology would have exceeded the scope of his work; but if progress and growth are seen, at least in an idealized abstract form, as hallmarks of liberal ideology – and de Benoist does indeed appear to regard them thus – then it can be expected by the reader that not only liberalism but the notions of progress and growth should be examined here. But they are not.
Both extreme liberals and Marxists believe in historical progress toward a desirable end. Both understand economic progress very much as progress in efficiency, efficiency being in this case the increase in mechanical performance in relation to invested energy. A specific example (hundreds can be made) is the mastery of electricity and the replacement of the wax candle (which itself superseded the tallow candle) by oil lamp, and then the light bulb, and then the energy-saving bulb. In a memorable scene in that liberal/libertarian masterpiece Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart utters a groan of despair as she sees, in the wake of an economic depression, American families having to resort to candles to light their rooms! Is progress here, in terms of efficiency, universally and in every situation a benefit? The maligned candle is in constant high demand by restaurants because it provides a softer and more romantic light than electricity. Most people would agree that electricity is “worth the candle” (readers will excuse the pun) and that electricity was beneficial . . . progress. And what of highways? The collapse of America’s railroad network after being in large part replaced by interstate highways in the 1950s is regarded by most people as laudable progress, although many might acknowledge that this particular example of “progress” came at a heavy social and environmental price: accelerated disassociation of individuals from one another, environmental damage and land sacrificed to the building of highways, the isolation of anyone who is unable to drive, and of course road accident deaths.
The point is that progress is too often praised or condemned for its own sake, while to be understood it has to have a contextual history by which in a given case it may be evaluated and judged. This is not to suggest for a moment that critics like de Benoist are not right to issue a warning against liberalism’s fanaticism (the word is not exaggerated) about its great abstract God, “Progress.” With the digital revolution, we first had the bar code, then the credit card, and perhaps in its next development, microchips under the skin. Progress as an abstract benefit is evoked by liberalism to assist in the imposition of a society of total control.
China is a long way down that road of total control, but to what extent is China “liberal”? This book does not look at societies which combine successful participation in world markets with very non-liberal traditions at home. It is surely not the case that only liberalism is unthinkingly and fanatically dedicated to growth and progress.
In his chapter entitled “The Third Age of Capitalism,” de Benoist describes capitalism as having “never ceased to mobilize millions of individuals around a cause which can have no other end than itself, the accumulation of capital” (p. 267, citing Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism). According to the theory of these two writers, capitalism has run through three stages, or ages. The first, which dominated the nineteenth century, was the age of the bourgeois, and the second was the age of Fordism and mass production which arose in the 1930s. The principal aims of Western society at that time were increasing GNP and consumer purchasing power. The third age is that of turbo capitalism, whose key values are mobility, initiative, and flexibility. Turbo capitalism is characterized by an upsurge in the power of the money markets. From this results a progress-obsessed system which “produces more goods with less labor so that growth is ‘rich in redundancies’” (p. 278).
De Benoist might have added another form of progress, which is highly beneficial from the point of view of human survival but extremely ominous from the perspective of the survival of non-hominid species or minority human races, and that is the immense progress made in agriculture, hygiene, and medical care. These advances in technics, science, and medicine have lifted African and Asian populations to previously undreamed-of demographic and economic heights. Neither the ecological movement, nor many conservatives, nor it seems the writer of this book, believe that the relationship between medical and agricultural efficiency and the power driving human populations (and the lengthening of life expectancies) merits close attention.
The writer makes clear that his examination of liberalism and his rejection of liberalism is not in respect of “the soundness of this or that point of the liberal argument in economics (l’argumentation économique libéral), to appraise the comparative virtues of free markets against protectionism, the interest of a flat tax, or the need to reduce public expenditure . . . it is a work of political philosophy striving to reach the essence, the core of liberal ideology . . .” (p. 11). De Benoist cites the theologian and critic of modernity, John Milbank, to the effect that liberalism is an “anthropological error.”
Where does all efficiency and progress lead to? What is the point of economic success, and what does progress and growth grow into? Allowing for liberalism’s ability to emancipate the individual and to raise his or her ambitions, what can those ambitions be in a society which only allows for market values? The individual is confined entirely to the playing field of the market. It is the old Nietzschean conundrum: “I ask you not free from what, but free for what?” De Benoist tells anti-liberals that “restoring the common and the common good is the program to which all anti-liberals today can adhere” (p. 45).
So far as the economy is concerned, a liberal free market economy is the most efficient form of economic order that exists. Competition hones activity and makes business more efficient. In societies where state monopolies prevail or competition is not permitted, there is a tendency of the state to stress international competition against other states in order to energize the economy, which tends to flag in societies in which market competition is forbidden or severely constrained by the state. The old liberal argument that competition creates a more economically successful society is a highly persuasive one, and draws on a multitude of examples showing that individual competition is good for efficiency and boosts quality. Nowhere in this book is efficiency acknowledged as a spur to quality or well-being.
If de Benoist ignores the benefits of efficiency, those who currently determine policy in the world seem determined to skim over the dark side of the promises of growth and progress. Without an alternative to liberalism and the free market, what are the values to which opponents of a society driven only by financial considerations will appeal? Abortion, for example, may be entirely rational from an economic point of view – and profitable, too, especially if society is so liberal as to allow for the buying and selling of fetuses. While liberalism may be advantageous – or even desirable in the case of competing services – if not restrained, a liberal society in which decisions are made only with reference to profitability and progress can swiftly mutate into a society of monsters.
De Benoist does not pause to consider the claims of the human individual as a biological being independently of his social environment. There is an individual vulnerability which liberalism protects against the arbitrary demands made in the name of collectivity; for example, that a group of individuals must be punished for the crimes of their class or their forefathers. In a consistently non-liberal society (and what exactly would a consistently non-liberal society look like?), would the individual have no rights as an individual? If not, we would be contemplating Thomas Hobbes’ dystopia of a life “nasty, brutish, and short.” On the other hand, if we are “against liberalism,” to what rights could one refer to protect the individual when universally-applicable “human rights” have been rejected as a liberal trap? Surely, the individual has some claim to recognition as a human individual, and some inherent rights which are applicable worldwide?
This having been said, unbridled liberalism is indeed accelerating the pace at which humankind is abandoning culture and abandoning the association of affection in the wake of the technical progress which liberalism has helped to unchain, a progress without aim other than ever-heightened levels of technical efficiency, making way for a remorseless monolithic and sterile society of profit which cares nothing for the – dare one say – “rights” of either the individual or the cultural or ethnic group to which an individual may belong.
Contre le Libéralisme is a timely book. Liberal politics is dominated by a fanatical obsession with a progress that is never defined by those who espouse it, a commitment to growth without limits mentioned by those who assume growth is obviously good, and a commitment to human rights in which those rights are not explained and their foundation not clarified by those who demand them. This book is a sharp voice of intelligence which could be summed up with this challenge: “When you preach rights, progress, growth, and justice, exactly which rights, what progress, and whose justice are you referring to, and why do we need them?”
This book provides an interesting, scholarly, and highly intelligent elucidation of the points relevant to those challenges. The answers here are academic, and the reader will search in vain for conclusions to be drawn or for getting involved in “real politics,” but this book starts the reader off on the right path to discover the beliefs and values which are at work in the political and economic arena today. Without knowledge and understanding, we cannot change the world. The question of an alternative persists unanswered. If we are against liberalism as an ideology, of what are we in favor? To put it simply, to invoke the country singer Joy Lynn White, if liberalism “makes me feel so bad,” what will “make me feel so good”?
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