Part 2 of 4 (Part 1 here)
Translated by F. Roger Devlin
The Ideology of Sameness
“I think the entire history of the world and of societies can be fully interpreted according to two great principles,” writes the sociologist Paul Yonnet, “viz., that of equalization and that of differentiation (or the tendency to similarity and the tendency to deviation), between which relations of re-equilibration, of compensation (true, false, symbolic, or real) or consolation, are constantly being formed.” I share this point of view, and that is why I think behind egalitarian rhetoric something else must in fact be read: the rise of the aspiration toward the homogeneous, toward the reabsorption of differences, the rise of what we might call the ideology of Sameness.
The ideology of Sameness unfolds from what is common to all men. It unfolds from taking account only of what is common to them and interpreting this as sameness. In the absence of an exact criterion allowing us to appreciate it concretely, equality is merely another word for Sameness. The ideology of Sameness thus poses universal human equality as an intrinsic equality, disconnected from any concrete element which would allow us to precisely confirm or disconfirm that equality. More simply put, the ideology of Sameness appears from the moment equality is (wrongly) posited as a synonym for sameness. It is an ideology allergic to anything which specifies, an ideology which interprets any form of distinction as a potential devaluation, and which holds differences to be contingent, transitory, inessential, or secondary. Its motor is the idea of the Unique. The unique is that which cannot support the Other and intends to lead everything back to unity: a unique God, a unique civilization, a unique form of thought. The ideology of Sameness remains largely dominant today. It is both the fundamental norm (in the Kelsenian sense of Grundnorm) from which all others flow and the unique norm of an age without norms that does not want to know any other.
This ideology is intended to be at once descriptive and normative, since it posits the fundamental identity of all men as both an accomplished fact and as a desirable and realizable objective — without ever (or rarely) inquiring about the origin of this deviation between what is already there and the reality to come. It thus seems to proceed from what is to what ought to be. But in reality, it is on the basis of its own normativity, its own conception of what should be, that it posits an imaginary unitary being, a simple reflection of the mentality which inspires it.
Insofar as it affirms the fundamental identity of individuals, the ideology of Sameness naturally runs up against everything in concrete life which differentiates things. It must then explain that these differences are merely secondary specifications, basically insignificant. Men can well differ in appearance; at bottom they are nonetheless the same . Essence and existence are thus out of joint, as are soul and body, spirit and matter, and even rights (posited as attributes of “human nature”) and duties (which are only performed within a social relation, in a precise context). Concrete existence is nothing more than a deceptive dressing which prevents us from seeing the essential. It follows from this that the ideology of Sameness is not unitary in its own postulates. Heir of the Platonic cave myth as well as of the theological distinction between created and increate being, it has a dualistic structure and inspiration in the sense that it can only posit the perspective of Sameness by relying on something external to diversity or transcending it.
To eradicate diversity, to lead humanity back to political and social unity, the ideology of Sameness most often has recourse, in its exoteric pronouncements, to theories which locate the causes of such distinctions (which it regards as transitory) in the social superstructure, the effects of domination, or the influence of education or environment. (We note is passing that the theories in question identify immediate causes for the state of affairs which they deplore without ever inquiring into the cause of these causes, i.e., their first origin or the reasons they constantly arise anew.) Evil (the fons et origo malorum) is thus placed outside man, as if what is outside were not first of all a product of what is inside. By modifying external causes, one can transform man’s heart or even get his true “nature” to appear. To succeed, they have recourse sometimes to authoritarian and coercive methods, sometimes to social conditioning or reconditioning, sometimes to “dialogue” and the “appeal to reason,” without achieving any better results with one than with the other — failure always being attributed not to any mistake in the postulates with which they began, but to the insufficient character of the means employed. The underlying idea is that of a pacified or perfect society, or at least of a society which will become “just,” as soon as one has made all external contingencies which prevent the emergence of Sameness disappear.
The ideology of Sameness was first formulated at the theological level. It appears in the Occident with the Christian idea that all men, whatever their proper characteristics and whatever the particular context of their own existence, are holders of a soul in an equal relation to God. All men are by nature equal in the dignity of having been created in the image of the unique God. This is why Christian society, diverse as it has remined across the ages, develops around the ideal of the Oneness of the collective body (and of power). Whence this observation by Hannah Arendt:
The monotheistic representation of God — of the God in whose image man is supposed to have been created. From this principle, only man can exist, men being merely a more or less successful repetitions of the Same.
The corollary, developed at length by St. Augustine, is that of a fundamentally unified humanity, all of whose components are called upon to evolve in the same direction, realizing an ever-greater convergence among themselves. This is the Christian root of the idea of progress. Brought back to earth through a long process of secularization, this idea will give rise to that of a reason common to all — “one and entire in each individual,” as Descartes will say — in which every man participates because of his humanity itself. “Thanks to the idea of a world history,” Hannah Arendt writes further, “the multiplicity of men melts into a single human individual known as humanity.”
This is not the place to examine how the ideology of Sameness has engendered within Western culture all the normative/repressive strategies described by Michel Foucault. Let us just remember that the nation-state, over the course of its historical trajectory, has been less concerned to integrate than to assimilate, i.e. to reduce differences further in making global society more uniform. This movement was continued and accelerated by the Revolution of 1789 which, faithful to the spirit of geometry, decreed the suppression of all intermediate bodies that the Ancien Régime had allowed to persist. From then on, one no longer wanted to meet with anything but humanity and, in parallel, a citizenship whose exercise was conceived as participation in the universality of public affairs. Jews become “citizens like the rest.” Women become “men like the rest.” What is specific to them, membership in a sex or a people, is considered either non-existent or bound to make itself invisible by restricting itself to the private sphere. Marcel Gauchet writes:
The form of the One, arisen from the age of heteronomy, will command even the most radical versions of autonomy. The promise par excellence which the future shall assume is that of the restoration or instauration of collective unity. . . . The motivating question of ideologies, from this point of view, can be summarized as follows: how to produce the collective One formerly produced by religion, but by different means.
The great modern ideologies in fact dream sometimes of the unification of the world by the market, sometimes of a “homogeneous” society purged of all “alien” social negativity, sometimes of a humanity reconciled with itself by having finally found what is proper to it. The political ideal will be the gradual effacement of the borders that arbitrarily separate men: people will call themselves “citizens of the world,” as if the “world” were (or could become) a political entity — which it is not.
But the ideology of Sameness did not merely lay the theoretical groundwork for egalitarianism. It also permitted colonialism (in the name of the right of those most advanced on the path of human convergence to make latecomers “progress” along the road of progress), just as within states it legitimated repression against all sorts of supposed deviants with reference to “general” norms. In the modern age, this tendency to homogeneity has been pushed to an extreme in totalitarian societies by a central power positing itself as the only possible focus of legitimacy. In postmodern Western societies, the same result has been obtained by the universalization of the logic of profit and the commodification of the world, a gentler but also more effective procedure: the degree of homogenization attained by current Western societies greatly surpasses that of the totalitarian societies of the past century.
The aim of universalism, which tends to unity, always correlates with individualism, which involves separation and dissociation. So the ideology which most aims at the unification of the world is the very one which engenders the most division. This is the greatest contradiction of the ideology of Sameness. The aim of universalism is necessarily tied to individualism, for it can only posit humanity as fundamentally unified by conceiving it as composed of individual atoms pictured as abstractly as possible, i.e. without any context (“ungrounded”) or any mediation, finally interchangeable, each substitutable for the others. This is why it aims at erasing everything that screens the individual from humanity: folk cultures, intermediary bodies, differentiated ways of life. In this we see that difference must not be confused with division. The ideology of Sameness extends its grasp by destroying differences, but also by destroying that which ordains such differences: the flexible structures, themselves differentiated, within which they occur. Attacking differences which are always organically ordered, it thereby evokes disintegration and division. Lacking any integrative framework, the fever of Oneness ends in the dissolution of the social bond.
The rise of individualism which liberals celebrate has thus been engendered by the impeccable logic of the rise of the nanny-state which they deplore. The more communitarian structures collapse, the more the State must take charge of individual security. Conversely, the more secure it makes individuals, the more it frees them from “maintaining family or community ties that previously constituted indispensable protections,” thus favoring public assistance and irresponsibility. A dialectical movement and a vicious circle: on the one hand, the differentiated society comes unraveled; on the other, the homogenizing State progresses in step with individualism. The more there exist isolated individuals, the more the State can treat them uniformly.
Being in competition and opposed to one another, in confronting one another the great modern ideologies have aggravated the divisions, the dissociations produced by the spread of individualism. This paradoxical result has only stimulated their ambition: faced with the specter of “anarchy,” “social dissolution,” class struggle, civil war, or social anomie, they have only pleaded with greater force for alignment in the present and levelling in the future. Marcel Gauchet notes:
The very men who strive to emphasize the breadth and inexpiable character of the antagonisms besetting the societies of their time do so in order to bring out by way of contrast the promise of resolving contradictions of which the future is the vehicle. This is typically the case with Marx. The spectacle of the convulsions and tearing of the present only reinforce faith and hope in the unity to come.
The problem is that the ideology of Sameness can only demand the radical exclusion of that which cannot be reduced to Sameness. Irreducible otherness becomes the main enemy which must be permanently eliminated. This is what all totalitarian ideologies resort to: the “excess men,” who by their very existence stand in the way of the emergence of a homogeneous society or a unified world, must be eliminated. Anyone who speaks of humanity inevitably places his adversaries outside the bounds of humanity.
The contradictory logic of universalism and individualism is not the only contradiction to afflict the ideology of Sameness. For example, this ideology sometimes argues from the idea of “human nature” — from a human nature reconstructed on the basis of its own postulates — sometimes by affirming that all the natural determinations are secondary and that man never better assumes his humanity than when he frees himself of these contingent determinations. These two affirmations contradict one another — and the second equally contradicts the scientistic ideology according to which man can be entirely explained like any other natural object, so that “there is nothing to know about him that the natural sciences cannot one day unveil to us.”
The corollary of abstract equality is the principle of in-difference. The logical consequence is that, if all men are worth the same, all their opinions are worth the same as well. Hence contemporary relativism and the liberal theory of the State’s necessary neutrality in regard to everything that has to do with values and ends (the “good life,” in Aristotle’s sense). But this neutrality can only be apparent, for the very fact of choosing to be neutral has nothing neutral about it. Moreover, liberals obviously did not allow that antiliberal theories can have the same value as liberal theories. And the opinion that all opinions are of equal value visibly fails to prevent them from mobilizing against certain opinions, starting with that according to which all opinions are not equal.
There is obviously a contradiction between planetary homogenization and defending the cause of nations, which involves the recognition and maintenance of their plurality. One cannot at the same time defend the ideal of a unified world and the right of peoples to dispose of themselves, for nothing guarantees that they will dispose of themselves in the sense of that ideal. Similarly, one cannot defend pluralism as the legitimation and respect for differences while pleading for the equalization of conditions which would reduce those differences. Finally and above all, if there only exist men “like all the rest” on Earth, what is the point of proclaiming the inalienable rights of these singular individuals? How can one celebrate both that which makes us singularly irreplaceable and that which makes us virtually interchangeable? Of course, one can always get out of this with pirouette-like formulae such as “equality in difference.” But this expression has no meaning; it merely refers us to an in-different difference. One can support the right to difference while thinking that that by which men partake of Sameness is more fundamentally constitutive of their social identity than that by which they are distinct from one another. Pietro Barcellona has quite rightly spoken of the “tragedy of equality” to describe this paradox according to which one could, by appealing to the idea of equality, both disqualify any form of hierarchy and guarantee “diversity, the unique character of individuals.”
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 Paul Yonnet, “Diversité, différence,” in Une certaine idée, 4th trim. 2000, 94.
 Pensée unique, popular French expression roughly equivalent to “political correctness” in English. [translator’s note]
 Hannah Arendt, Qu’est-ce que la politique? Seuil, Pars, 1995, 42.
 Marcel Gauchet, “Croyances religieuses, croyances politiques,” in Le Débat, May-August 2001, 10.
 Marcel Gauchet, La religion dans la démocratie. Parcours de la laïcité, Gallimard, Paris 1998, 68-69.
 Art. cit., 10.
 Alain Supiot, “La function anthropologique du droit, ” in Esprit, February 2001, 153.
 On this subject, cf. Philippe Béneton’s book Les fers de l’opinion, PUF, Paris 2000.