The Populist Moment, Chapter 9, Part 1:
Alain de Benoist
“Conservatives of the Left” & the Critique of Value, Part 1
Translated by F. Roger Devlin
The ecologist Fabrice Nicolino, a member of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial board (he was seriously wounded in the Kouachi brothers’ attack in January 2015), declares:
I am nostalgic for a time when people had a place, when men and women were strongly bound. I am nostalgic for a time when rural civilization was not the garbage it is today, a monstrosity that stuffs people with pesticides. What made it disappear is something absolutely ugly and degrading, a bizarre mass of techniques and technology that has made people’s concrete lives impossible. . . . I understand by the word “peasant” something wonderful; I understand that a man has attached himself to a piece of land, and that he respects it.[i]
In January 2013, Thierry Jaccaud, Editor-in-Chief of L’Ecologiste, denounced “marriage for everybody”: “To suppress the concepts of father and mother would be . . . to do violence to the bonds between people and between the generations.” Drawing an analogy with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), he thinks this proposed law “would be a stunning denial of nature, the distressing result of our industrial society which destroys nature not only in reality, but also in our minds.” The following year, José Bové, a disciple of Jacques Ellul and Bernard Charbonneau, also declared his condemnation of all forms of surrogate pregnancy and medically-assisted procreation on the same principle by which he condemns the manipulation of vegetable life in the form of GMOs.
At the beginning of February 2016, a Congress for the Universal Abolition of Surrogate Motherhood was held in Paris. It was presided over by the feminist Silviane Agacinski, the wife of Lionel Jospin, whose hostility to “gender theory” is well-known.
In each of these instances, the positions taken triggered controversies. That figures classed “on the Left” were able to take “conservative” positions in certain areas, especially “cultural” or “social” areas, seemed incomprehensible or scandalous. The explanation most often advanced by the dominant discourse sees in this a consequence of society “shifting to the Right.” Jean-Claude Michéa, Michel Onfray, Christophe Guilluy, and many others have been accused of a “reactionary deviation.” This lazy interpretation completely misses the reality, however. If certain thinkers on the Left and the extreme Left today advertise “conservative” positions, particularly in the domain of morality and culture, this is on the contrary because they have taken their commitments seriously and reflected more deeply, notably through a deeper analysis of capitalism. This “conservatism of the Left,” in other words, is not the result of a reactionary turn, but the logical consequence of a rigorous critical analysis of Capital’s nature and functioning.
The expression “conservatism of the Left” appeared recently in Canada following a conference organized at the University of Ottawa in 2010 concerning the thought of George Orwell, a conference whose proceedings were published in part four years later.[ii] Situating themselves in the tradition of George Orwell and Jean-Claude Michéa, its two principal organizers, Éric Martin and Maxime Ouellet, both professors in Montreal, proposed to grant the idea of Tory anarchism[iii] “the philosophical place it deserves,” and to seek an “articulation of progress for the preservation of the transcendental conditions of the possibility of freedom,” rejecting both the reactionary spirit and unbridled progressivism.
From a liberal point of view, freedom amounts to the possibility of making rational choices with a view to one’s best interest. This is a purely individual liberty which results from the exercise of a right of which man is supposedly the “owner” by his very nature. It follows that it is independent of any possible particular conditions: Man is supposed to construct himself freely from nothing. Now, one cannot seriously think of freedom while skipping over its roots — i.e., the concrete social conditions which allow it to be exercised. What are these social and institutional conditions of emancipation? The answer is that freedom, like autonomy, must be conceived in terms of attachment and bonds, not in terms of uprootedness, of responsibility toward others rather than of the transgression of everything that attaches members of a society to a common political and socio-historical base. “Genuine freedom can only exist if it takes root in a political community which precedes and constitutes it,” say Éric Martin and Maxime Ouellet.[iv] This dialectical relation between freedom and what is in common is obviously essential.
Martin and Ouellet embraced this label of “conservatives of the Left”[v] for a time; i.e., critical conservatives. Maxime Ouellet also spoke of “liberating anti-modernism” in the fashion of Robert Kurz, just as Michel Freitag used to speak of “ontological conservatism” — before abandoning it so as not to be assimilated to “reactionaries of ill repute” — which did not, however, protect either man from criticism.[vi] Besides Jean-Claude Michéa and George Orwell, both appealed to Günther Anders as well, who no longer aims at changing the world but at “preserving it as it is” (joining Albert Camus, according to whom today’s task was less to remake the word than to keep it from falling apart), as well as to Michel Freitag,[vii] Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Jacques Ellul, historian of the workers’ movement Edward P. Thompson, and above all to the critical value theory, as attested by the important collective work they edited on the “tyranny of value” in 2014.[viii]
Represented mainly be Robert Kurz, who died in 2012,[ix] Anselme Jappe,[x] and, to a certain extent, Moishe Postone,[xi] critical value theory (Wertkritik) proposes a quite original rereading of Marx which breaks with decades of classical or orthodox Marxism by basing itself on the critique of political economy begun in the 1844 Manuscripts and continued in the Grundrisse (1857-58), then in the first chapter of Das Kapital (the reading or which Louis Althusser warned against because it was too Hegelian!).[xii]
Éric Martin and Maxime Ouellet remark that, to illuminate the devastating effects the logic of capital has had on the social bond, Marx “bases himself throughout his works on the criticism of modernity formulated by certain romantic authors, without however believing it possible or desirable to return to pre-modern forms of sociality.” It is in this sense that he recognizes, as Adorno and Horkheimer would after him, that there necessarily exists a “conservative moment” within every critical theory. “Marx bases himself on pre-modern forms of sociality,” add Martin and Ouellet, “not because he is conservative but because he is a dialectician: He knows that the alternative to alienated labor, which separates the producer from the conditions of his existence, runs by way of a critical recovery of the traditional commune.”[xiii] “The Marxian philosophy,” further writes Maxime Ouellet, “rests on a critique of abstract universalism constitutive of modern thought and of the negation of the concrete individual particularities which follow from it.”[xiv]
Freed of its historicism and positivism, but also of its Ricardian references, Marx’s entire oeuvre is a philosophy of freedom which tries to analyze the modern forms of alienation which make man a stranger to himself. Well aware that man is a “political animal” — i.e., a social being which exists within a community (Gemeinwesen), and who needs common institutions in order to live with his peers — Marx searches for the means that would permit him to recover his being, so to speak.
But at this point the critical theory of value makes an essential distinction between what Robert Kurz has called the “exoteric Marx” and the “esoteric Marx.” For the “exoteric” Marx, the contradiction between productive forces and the means of production which the bourgeoisie has appropriated represents the principal contradiction of capitalist society (even though it is never a mere conflict within the capitalist system). It is this contradiction (the class struggle) — backed by the categories of “infrastructure” and “superstructure,” but which prevent our understanding the essence of labor — which have been retained by vulgar Marxism, as well as by Soviet “Marxism-Leninism.” The “esoteric” Marx, a philosopher and sociologist, goes well beyond this in the sense that he considers capitalism as a “total social fact” (Marcel Mauss) and seeks to make its essence apparent by a rigorous critique of political economy’s foundations — whence his theory of value.
Beginning from the distinction between use value and exchange value, which is already found in Aristotle (in his critique of chrematistics, which demands that production always remain subject to an ideal of the “good life”), Marx shows that it is because of the process of the abstraction of labor that commodities can have a value. Labor is not so much a standard of measure, as Ricardo believed (along with all the theoreticians of “labor-value” who followed him), as what establishes value and constitutes (qua abstract labor) the field of homogenization of the products of human labor transformed into commodities. Abstract labor, by contrast with concrete or “living” labor, a simple social activity of transforming nature to satisfy one’s needs, is this abstraction of human activity that allows the products of human labor to be made commensurable and exchanged; it constitutes the form of social mediation specific to capitalism. Value, which is not to be confused with wealth, is the quantity of abstract labor as a unique source of the valorization of capital. This means that, as a social relation, capitalism rests on the absorption of concrete labor by abstract labor, of use value by exchange value. The law of value is precisely that universal norm regulating social practices which rests upon abstraction from the specific particularities proper to each individual’s vital activity; i.e., the devaluing of the human world.
In the sense attributed to them today, work and value, commodity and market, and even the economy are not eternal categories, but relatively recent historical inventions. Capitalism consists in an unlimitedness where the only goal of the surplus accumulation of capital is to allow the reproduction of the system (according to the celebrated schema A-M-A’). Capitalism produces for the sake of production, the origin and end of production always being money. Whereas life always comes prior to conceptual rationalization,[xv] capitalism rests on a form of abstract and impersonal domination — a “tyranny without a tyrant,” as Hannah Arendt said — constituted by the fetishized mediation of value which participates in the social order’s material reproduction by reifying the lives of individuals. Value, says Marx, is transformed into an “automated subject.”
Martin and Ouellet write:
Domination is not reducible to the power exercised by one class over another, but is tied to the fact that modern society is organized around labor insofar as it is the central form of social mediation. . . . Capitalism then appears as a social power become alien, a heteronomy which renders every man a stranger to himself, alienated under the empire of an abstract master: Only capital is free, and all are subsumed by the power of value.[xvi]
The critique of value is thus a critique of social mediations alienated by commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism is not a product of fantasy or “false consciousness.” It is a social relation expressed in the form of a relation between things, in which things appear to have intrinsic qualities that are actually the product of a social relation. In that sense it is inseparable from the reification of social relations. The “esoteric” Marx does not put the emphasis on class struggle but carries out a critique of labor as source of value, as the fuel necessary for the reproduction of capital. Contrary to what vulgar Marxism has persisted in believing, it is not class domination but the fetishist relation to value which is at the heart of the capitalist system.
This approach allows us to understand how capitalism, considered in its essence, has nothing conservative about it.[xvii] It never did except at its puritan beginnings, when it had to distinguish itself from the ostentatious forms of dissipation characteristic of feudal lords — and that was merely a way of stigmatizing disinterestedness and gratuitousness. Arnaud Imatz remarks:
Many authors on the Left, and also on the Right have difficulty admitting that capitalism presupposes perpetual upheaval of the conditions of human existence. By identifying traditional values with the capitalist system, whereas the former are precisely that system’s most implacable enemy, these authors . . . systematically led their troops — workers and employers — to struggle not against their real adversaries, the dominant oligarchy, but against their enemies’ enemies.[xviii]
Everyone is familiar with Marx’s famous words about the “icy waters of egoistical calculation” into which the rise of the bourgeois class has plunged society. Capitalism cannot be conservative simply because the reign of the market, characterized by the autonomization of economic exchange with respect to the other aspects of social life, implies the dismantling of everything which might possibly present an obstacle to its mad course. Capitalism must liquidate the old social and cultural structures upon which pre-capitalist societies rest, and which might hinder the expansion of markets. It must eradicate the common values deposited over the course of centuries to the benefit of a single abstract norm: regulating social life by economic value. It needs for money, land, and labor to be transformed entirely into commodities, into resources to which it is possible to apply the law of supply and demand — which happens when money has accumulated sufficiently to turn into capital. And for this, it needs men to be transformed into “free subjects” in the Cartesian sense of the term; i.e., liberated as much as possible from social relations.
The generalization of salaried employment itself implies the commensurability of the products of labor, which can only appear when individuals have been “liberated” from any form of traditional relations. Karl Marx writes:
For money to be transformed into capital, the possessor of money must find the worker free on the market of commodities — free in the double sense that, on the one hand, he disposes as a free person of his labor-power as of a commodity belonging to him, and on the other, that he . . . is completely disencumbered, free in respect of all the things necessary for his labor-power to be realized.[xix]
Capital requires bosses and workers to be equally “free” to negotiate the conditions and price of labor, proletarians “who only live if they find work, and only find it if their work increases capital.”[xx] This is why it drives uprootedness.
Some liberals recognize this themselves. The main thing which characterizes liberalism “is the recognition of property rights and individual liberty. True liberalism . . . therefore rejects any total vision . . . of the life of men in society,” writes Pascal Salin, who also rejects any idea of general or national interest separate from that of isolated individuals. “It is for this reason,” he adds coolly, “that globalization, if it effectively contributes to the destruction of nation-states, will be a benefit for humanity.”[xxi]
Éric Martin and Maxime Ouellet observe:
Value can only be set up as a regulatory norm for the whole of social practice in a society founded on an image of abstract equality. The new capitalist community institutes as its counterpart a form of subjectivity, that of the cosmopolitan “possessor of commodities” unattached to any concrete community apart from that of money.[xxii]
This is also what Marx says in the Grundrisse: “Money being itself the community, it cannot tolerate any others in its presence. . . . When money is not itself the community, it must dissolve community.”[xxiii] Value only imposes itself when ancient symbolic mediations constitutive of traditional society have been destroyed.
Thus, the world of Form-Capital can only be a world of fluid, unaffiliated individuals torn from nature, made potentially nomadic, and moved only by the search for their individual best interest. A world made of monads with no territory [hors sol], no attachments, no identity nor permanent place of residence, transformed into labor-power (objects). A world in which fluidity, flexibility, and precariousness become general norms, where everything must be available as merchandise to be consumed as a function of each person’s desires (these being posited as equally legitimate); in short, a world where money imposes itself both as “exchange value become autonomous” (Marx) and as a universal equivalent that renders all things commensurable by converting every quality into a quantity, as a general value and a phenomenal form of commodity fetishism.
It is obvious that under these conditions, any non-hostile glance at the past can only amount to irrational “nostalgia” or “reaction.” It is in this respect that the ideology of progress contributes to the rationalization of the world by Form-Capital. It is based in fact on a principled disparagement of the past, seen as a mere mixture of constraints and archaic superstitions. As Alain Finkielkraut writes, “The age of diversity celebrated the republican values of equality, liberty, and fraternity the better to reject what came before it, even that which was republican, as obsolete, and to cast the obsolete back into the darkness of evil.”[xxiv] Anyone who looks back is excommunicated. Faced with those who want to “establish a sanctuary for progress” (Jacques Attali’s formulation), one becomes “conservative” as soon as one leaves the camp of “progress.” Such was the case with Walter Benjamin who, adhering to a Communism that had “annihilated in itself the idea of progress,”[xxv] saw in the revolution to come not the natural end result of humanity’s forward progress, but rather a halt put to a catastrophic development; i.e., a conservative act (in the sense of the Schmittian katechon) putting a stop to a flight forward [fuite en avant].
At best, the philosophy of the Enlightenment regards social bonds merely as a means for the individual to attain his particular aims. Its strength comes from its having appeared as a vehicle of emancipation (something which some thinkers, such as Georges Sorel, contested from the beginning, having understood that this ideology’s only goal was to legitimate the rise of the bourgeois class). But what it emancipated the workers from, along with accentuating the disenchantment of the world inaugurated by Christian desacralization, was living environments, landmarks, and the social bonds which protected them — in order to submit them to new forms of alienation and transform them into interchangeable individuals subject to all the conditioning [conditionnements — also means “packaging” in French] of merchandise.
Historically, this process has gone hand-in-hand with the homogenization of time (reduced to an abstract, measurable quantity) and space (transformed into a market). For the ideology of progress, time is no longer a qualitative and qualified time, but a measurable and calculable time without quality, since it is reduced to a space or a quantity (“time is money”), a time which is only an addition of abstract units allowing continual progress within a perpetual present. Individuals thus find themselves expropriated of historical time in order to be confined to the moment.[xxvi]
* * *
Like all journals of dissident ideas, Counter-Currents depends on the support of readers like you. Help us compete with the censors of the Left and the violent accelerationists of the Right with a donation today. (The easiest way to help is with an e-check donation. All you need is your checkbook.)
For other ways to donate, click here.
[i] “Contre les terroristes industriels,” in Limite, January 2016, 9. Cf. also his book Lettre a un paysan sur le vaste merdier qu’est devenue l’agriculture (Paris: Les Échappés, 2015).
[ii] Labelle, Martin, & Vibert (eds.), Les Racines de la liberté, op. cit.
[iii] Cf. Jean-Claude Michéa, Orwell, anarchiste tory (Castelnau-le-Lez: Climats, 1995), where George Orwell’s “Tory anarchism” is defined as a kind of sensibility reversing all the founding principles of liberal anthropology.
[iv] Éric Martin & Maxime Ouellet, “La crise du capitalisme est aussi la crise de l’anticapitalisme,” in Éric Martin & Maxime Ouellet (eds.), La Tyrannie de la valeur. Débats pour le renouvellement de la théorie critique (Montreal: Écosociété, 2014), 50.
[v] The expression was used by Éric Martin in “Politique, idéologie et classes sociales : l’angle mort de la gauche,” in Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme, 2009, 1. We find it in Günther Anders: “Today it is no longer enough to transform the world; above all we must preserve it. Then we can transform it, even a great deal and in a revolutionary fashion. But above all we must be conservatives in the authentic sense, a sense that would not be accepted by anyone proclaiming himself conservative” (Et si je suis désespéré, que voulez-vous que j’y fasse ?, translated by Christophe David [Paris: Allia, 2001]). Philippe Van Parijs more recently declared: “In response to the attempts to dismantle social policies . . . to be on the Left does not mean to be progressive, but conservative” (“La gauche doit-elle être socialiste ?”, in Krisis, June 2009, 100).
[vi] Cf. Félix L. Deslauriers, “Libérer du conformisme une tradition en passe d’être violée par lui. Walter Benjamin et les ‘conservateurs de gauche’ (in Critique, website Raisons sociales, December 2, 2015), a text that provoked a response from Éric Martin and Maxime Ouellet (ibid., December 4, 2015). Cf. also Jean-Pierre Couture, “Comptoir d’Amérique : les ‘nouveaux réactionnaires’ et le nationalisme conservateur au Québec,” in Pascal Durand & Sarah Sindaco (eds.), Le Discours « néo-réactionnaire ». Transgressions conservatrices (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2015), 111-124.
[vii] The Quebec sociologist and philosopher Michel Freitag (1935-2009), who was also a critic of the liberal idea of an isolated individual, rational and entirely free in his choices, has extensively analyzed the practices of impersonal domination called forth by discourse calling for the liberation of the individual and the reification of his rights. Hostile to positivism as well as utilitarianism, he has also established himself as an important theoretician of symbolism, social mediation, and “dialectical sociology” (Dialectique et société, 2 vols. [Lausanne: L’Âge d’Homme, 1986]).
[viii] Martin & Ouellet (eds.), La Tyrannie de la valeur, op. cit. Let us recall that Carl Schmitt also wrote a book (of very different inspiration) entitled Die Tyrannei der Werte [The Tyranny of Values, 1960].
[ix] Robert Kurz, Read Marx (2000); Vies et mort du capitalism, translated by Olivier Galtier, Wolfgang Kukulies, & Luc Mercier (Fécamp: Nouvelles éditions Lignes, 2011).
[x] Anselm Jappe, Les Aventures de la marchandise. Pour une nouvelle critique de la valeur, translated by Joël Gayraud (Paris: Denoël, 2003); Crédit à mort. La décomposition du capitalisme et ses critiques (Fécamp: Nouvelles éditions Lignes, 2011).
[xi] Moishe Postone, Marx est-il devenu muet ? Face à la mondialisation, translated by Olivier Galtier (La Tour d’Aigues: éditions de L’Aube, 2003); Temps, travail et domination sociale. Une réinterprétation de la théorie critique, translated by Olivier Galtier (Paris: Mille et une Nuits, 2009).
[xii] She also borrows from authors such as Michel Henry (Marx, 2 vols. [Paris: Gallimard, 1976), Maximilien Rubel (Marx critique du marxisme [Paris: Payot, 2000]), Jean-Marie Vincent (Un autre Marx [Lausanne: Page 2, 2001), Edward P. Thompson (“Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism,” in Past & Present, vol. 38, no. 1, 1967, 56–97), Günther Anders (Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen [The Obsolescence of Man] [Munich: C. H. Beck, 1956]), Jean Vioulac (L’Époque de la technique. Marx, Heidegger et l’accomplissement de la métaphysique [Paris: PUF, 2009), as well as the writings of precursors such as Isaak Roubine (Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value  [Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1990]), and Henryk Grossman (The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System  [Pluto, 1992]).
[xiii] Éric Martin and Maxime Ouellet, interview with Emmanuel Casajus, website Le Comptoir, June 22, 2016.
[xiv] Maxime Ouellet, “Les ‘anneaux du serpent’ du libéralisme culturel : pour en finir avec la ‘bonne conscience’. Un détour par ‘La question juive’ de Karl Marx,” website Palim Psao.
[xv] “Individuals are dominated by abstractions,” observes Karl Marx in the Grundrisse, “whereas formerly they depended on one another” (Manuscrits de 1857-1858, translation by Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, vol. 1 [Paris: Éditions Sociales, 1980], 101).
[xvi] Martin & Ouellet, “La crise du capitalisme est aussi la crise de l’anticapitalisme,” op. cit., 25-26.
[xvii] “To say Margaret Thatcher was conservative when she destroyed England is absurd,” observes Olivier Ray very correctly (debate with Natasha Polony in Limite, January 2016, 21).
[xviii] Arnaud Imatz, “Le clivage droite/gauche en question,” in La Nouvelle Revue d’histoire, July-August 2016, 15.
[xix] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 1867.
[xx] Marx & Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848.
[xxi] Pascal Salin, Libéralisme (Paris: Odile Jacob,2000), 10-12, 490.
[xxii] Martin & Ouellet, “La crise du capitalisme est aussi la crise de l’anticapitalisme,” op. cit., 31, 43.
[xxiii] Karl Marx, Grundrisse 1, chapter on Money .
[xxiv] Alain Finkielkraut, Causeur, February 2016, 75.
[xxv] Walter Benjamin, Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century.
[xxvi] Cf. Franck Fischbach, “Ce que la valeur fait au temps et a l’histoire,” in Martin & Ouellet (eds.), La Tyrannie de la valeur, op. cit., 145-158. By the same author: La Privation de monde. Temps, espace et capital (Paris: J. Vrin, 2011). Cf. also Henri Lefebvre, La Production de l’espace (Paris: Anthropos, 2000).
Enjoyed this article?
Be the first to leave a tip in the jar!