Alain de Benoist
Society Is Not a Market,
Introduction, Part I
Part 1 of 3 (Introduction Part II here)
Translated by F. Roger Devlin
When liberalism is said to be the dominant ideology of our time, there are always those who protest by citing, for example, the amount of public expenditures or the level of taxation in our country. But this is looking at the problem through the wrong end of the telescope. A liberal society is not exactly the same thing as a liberal economy. On the other hand, it is a society dominated by the primacy of the individual, the ideology of progress, rights-of-man ideology, an obsession with growth, a disproportionate emphasis on mercantile value, the subjection of the symbolic imagination to the axioms of self-interest, and so on. As the principal heir of the Enlightenment philosophy that affirms the supremacy of reason and establishes it as a universal principle to which all men naturally have access, liberalism has acquired a universal scope since “globalization instituted capital as the real historical subject of capitalist modernity, and market value as a universal norm for regulating social practices.”[i] It is at the origin of globalization, which is merely the transformation of the planet into an enormous market. It inspires what is nowadays called “political correctness” [la pensée unique]. And of course, as any dominant ideology, it is also the ideology of the dominant class.
When we speak of liberalism, we are ensnared by words from the start. If by “liberal” we mean open-minded, tolerant, a partisan of free examination and freedom of judgment — or even being hostile to bureaucracy, welfare, and a centralizing and invasive statism—the present author would obviously have no problem in claiming the label for himself. But the historian of ideas knows that such senses of the word are trivial. Liberalism is a philosophical, economic, and political doctrine, and it clearly must be studied and judged as such.
The old Left-Right division is not very useful in this respect. As Jean-Claude Michéa has reminded us, liberals “constituted the business wing of the original Left through the early twentieth century.”[ii] It was only afterwards that liberalism found itself displaced toward the Right — along with the ideology of progress — at least in Europe, since in the United States liberals are even today regarded as Leftists. Whereas in Europe “liberals” — whether “men of the Right” or “national liberals” — define themselves above all as partisans of the market economy and free trade, in the United States “liberalism” has an exclusively political sense and only refers to the doctrine of individual liberty, limited government, and contract. “Liberals” can thus be considered Left-wing opponents of conservatives, which is usually not the case in European countries.
Moreover, it is obvious that within liberalism there exist a great number of different authors and tendencies: “classical” and “modern” liberalism, continental and Anglo-Saxon liberalism, “evolutionary” and “rationalist” liberalism, etc. Just as political liberalism has been distinguished from and even opposed to economic liberalism, some have identified two great principal currents, one running from Burke to Hayek, the other from Locke to the American libertarians.[iii] Others prefer to distinguish between those who see in liberalism the application of universal principles and those who see in it a means of peaceful coexistence, those hostile to state regulation in the name of economic efficiency and those hostile to it in the name of liberty. Still others, sensitive to certain recent developments, oppose “neoliberalism” to classical liberalism.[iv] We shall not enter into this teeming debate, which is certainly interesting, but is not the subject of this book.[v]
Nor is it the goal of the texts collected here to discuss the well-foundedness of this or that point of the stock arguments of economic liberalism, to assess the comparative merits of free trade and protectionism, the advantages of the flat tax, or the need to reduce public expenditures. Still less is it meant as a challenge to the reputation of first-rate authors such as Raymond Aron or Alexis de Tocqueville — who are not satisfactorily defined by the label “liberal” in any case. It is rather a work of political philosophy which strives to go straight to the central point, the heart of liberal ideology, beginning from a critical analysis of its foundations; i.e., an anthropology essentially based on individualism and economism. Along with the theologian John Millbank, we believe liberalism is above all an “anthropological error.” This is why we speak of liberalism (and not “ultraliberalism,” an equivocal formulation which suggests liberalism would be acceptable as long as it did not fall into certain excesses) to refer to this ideology and discuss its natural correlate: capitalism.
The culture of narcissism, economic deregulation, the religion of the rights of man, the collapse of the collective, gender theory, the defense of hybrids of all sorts, the emergence of “contemporary art,” virtual reality, utilitarianism, the logic of the market, the primacy of the just over the good (and of right over duty), subjective “freedom of choice” set up as a general rule, the taste shoddy merchandise, the reign of disposable goods and planned obsolescence: All this is part of a contemporary system in which, under the influence of liberalism, the individual has become the center of everything and is set up as the universal criterion of value. To understand liberal logic is to understand what connects all these elements and their derivation from a common matrix.
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Liberalism does not contain all of modernity within itself, but is its most illustrious representative (“the most coherent form of the modern project, as Michéa says, but not its exclusive form”). Modernity has often been described as the age when the heteronymous way of life gave way to the autonomous way of life; i.e., the moment when we pass from a society where behavior was subjected to the norms of the superego consisting of beliefs or traditions to a society where man conceives himself as a power free to create himself from himself alone. This conception obviously contains some truth, but also quickly reaches its limits, for modernity has only put an end to certain forms of dependence and constraint in order to replace them with new forms of alienation: the exploitation of living labor, subjection to the law of value, transformation of the subject into an object, mass loneliness, the absurdity of forced labor, the collapse of the interior life, inauthentic existence, conditioning through advertising, the tyranny of fashion, the disappearance of intimacy, the judicializing of everything, the lies of the media, social control, the reign of political correctness, and so on.
Modernity is better understood by seeing in it the moment when society is no longer posited as primary, but when the individual is considered as prior to the social whole, which then becomes a mere aggregate of individual wills. Considered as a being fundamentally independent of his fellows, man is at the same time redefined as an agent permanently seeking to maximize his self-interest, thus adopting the behavior of a businessman with regard the market (Homo oeconomicus). This unprecedented transition is precisely the work of liberalism. “The fundamental axis of modern European history can be summarized in this formula: the abstract individual becoming concrete,” observes Marcel Gauchet.[vi] In this sense it is not an exaggeration to speak of an individualist revolution, a revolution which must obviously be appreciated over the long term, for it has not only affected society but also transformed personalities, customs, and ways of thinking.
Individualism legitimizes egoistical behavior,[vii] but it would be a serious mistake to make it a mere synonym for egoism, or to reduce it to egocentrism or the narcissistic bombast of egos. There is an anarchistic individualism and even an aristocratic individualism, but the individualism spoken of here, individualism in the full sense of the term, is first of all tied to the rise of the bourgeois class and its values. Moreover, the individual is not the person, nor does individualism correspond to improved recognition of the person.
Marcel Gauchet has well described the difference between biopsychic and social individualism. Ancient societies in which legitimacy rested on beliefs, shared custom,s or ancestral traditions were societies without social individuation, something which in no way hindered individual personalities from standing out prominently. Gauchet writes, “societies without individualism involve very strong individuation, whereas individualism as we know it makes individuation very problematic.”[viii]
As a structural component of modernity, social individualization is inseparable from the rise of rights discourse — insofar as for liberalism man is defined above all as a bearer of rights, with law itself supposedly cognizant of nothing but equally free individuals. Liberalism is based on the conviction that there exist fundamental individual and inalienable rights both prior to and superior to any human institution, and that the first of these is the right to freely pursue one’s own best interest. Such rights are obviously purely formal (the right to work has never provided anyone with a job), but this is not the important point: the fundamental right is the right to have rights. The society of individuals is both a society of which individuals are in the last instance the only and ultimate component (the indivisible social atom) and a society in which legitimacy is based exclusively on law: “The society produced by individuals is the society charged with producing the individuals which compose it by giving them the means of conducting themselves as individuals.”[ix] To say that man possesses rights qua man amounts in fact to saying that to be a man is to have rights: a society of individuals is a society where the individual bearer of rights is the only source of legitimacy, for the separate individual human holder of rights is alone truly human. This is why, in such a society, forms of communal assertion are easily seen as pathological even when they are not convulsive. This is also why whatever may remain of non-contractual collective structures, beginning with the family, has been permanently delegitimized.[x]
For liberals, the sovereignty of individuals is based firstly on their property in themselves: It is insofar as they own themselves that they have the right not to be “owned” by anyone else; i.e., not to be dependent, as a matter of principle, on anyone else. This is the very principle of the theory of possessive individualism which defines human beings as the proprietors of themselves. In a book that has become a classic, Crawford Brough MacPherson[xi] shows that the right of property in liberal doctrine is only a secondary expression of this property in oneself, which establishes that man only possesses the character of man if he is independent of the will of another and is in no way beholden to society for his person, his abilities, or his choices. This theory supports the idea that man is above all what he has freely chosen to be, that he is entirely the master of his choices, and that he constructs himself not from anything already there, but from nothing.
The consequences are considerable. Since the only legitimate social actions are those based on the will of individuals, every contract is based on an implicit or explicit calculation of the contracting parties’ self-interest. Individual rights may thus be opposed to any social obligation or any political imperative. Marcel Gauchet observes:
An individual who defines himself purely by the rights he originally holds from the mere fact of his existence is an individual who owes nothing to society. He has a freedom with respect to it. He is, of course, able to influence its decisions and, if he wants, he can participate in collective life and play a role in it. But nothing obliges him to do so.[xii]
In the name of individual prerogatives, rights can turn into a rejection of any power and any limit. As Pierre Manent writes, “This is how, in the name of human rights, some people want to forbid nations from making laws they may consider necessary or useful for preserving or encouraging the common life and education which give each nation its physiognomy and raison d’être.”[xiii]
Since the individual is the owner of himself, each should be left entirely free in his preferences and choices as long as he does not infringe other people’s ability to do the same. The liberal conception of individual right can be summarized in this formula: As long as I do not prevent others from doing the same, I have the right to do with myself anything I want (take drugs, sell my bodily organs, rent out my uterus, work on Sunday, disinherit my children, etc.). As a matter of principle, there is no collective rule I must respect, and no public power can order me to sacrifice my life for any cause at all. The right of property in oneself thus takes no account of the praiseworthy or degrading character of the way we intend to make use of ourselves. Similarly, according to strict liberalism nothing allows limits upon the financing of electoral campaigns by private companies or industrial lobbies, opposition to drug trafficking, or, as Michael J. Sandel remarks, objections to cannibalism between consenting adults . . . .[xiv] The concept of political society thus disappears in favor of “civil society.” This is perfectly logical, since civil society is never anything but an aggregation of private interests, and not a political community to which citizens must bear allegiance in order to participate in the common life [jouir du commun]. The result is what Pierre Manent observes: the undivided reign of individual rights automatically kills off the idea of the common good.
By the same token, the liberal conception of liberty is clarified. Liberalism, of course, is no more synonymous with liberty than egalitarianism is with equality, Communism with the common good, or humanism with humanity. Liberalism is not the ideology of liberty, but the ideology which puts liberty in the service of the individual alone. The only liberty proclaimed by liberalism is individual liberty conceived as emancipation from everything that goes beyond the individual.
In October 1841, in a letter addressed to John Sterling, the young John Stuart Mill already defined liberalism as the doctrine “that is in favor of allowing each man to be his own guide and sovereign” and of “acting exactly in the way he considers best for himself.”[xv] He continues, “[A man] cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. . . . Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” he will say later in one of the best-known passages of his book On Liberty (1859). This way of looking at things is common to all currents of liberalism. L. Susan Brown writes,“A group cannot be liberated — it cannot, as a group, exercise freedom — only individuals can be free.”[xvi] Jeremy Waldon adds, “The liberal rejects the view that the social order is constitutive of individual freedom.”[xvii] From the liberal point of view, “neither the common good, nor the country, nor any other value can justify restricting liberty.”[xviii]
Liberals can insist all they like that the counterpart of liberty is responsibility; it is in fact obvious that as concerns ethics, they cannot develop the least conception of the good without contradicting their own principles. Léon Walras in his Éléments d’économie pure (1874) already said that from the liberal economy’s point of view “there is no taking into account of the morality or immorality of the need which the useful thing corresponds to, and whose satisfaction it allows.” Praise of egoism reaches almost caricatural proportions in the writings of Ayn Rand, the idol of libertarians, who goes so far as to claim “altruism is incompatible with freedom.”[xix]
The principal of equal liberty is also based on the primacy of the individual insofar as he is no longer considered as a political and social being but as an atom not naturally bound to any other.
Only beings posited as independent can be conceived as “similars,” since that is the soul of equality. . . . The individual independence acknowledged in individuals means there is no legitimacy except what flows from the rights they hold from the fact of [their] equal original liberty.[xx]
The social bond henceforth depends entirely on the contractual system. Liberalism affirms that anything can be negotiated — except individual liberty, which by nature is non-negotiable (the paradox then arising that it can only guarantee individual liberty on the condition that everyone agrees to consider it an essential value, which is rarely the case).
But the principle of undifferentiation [in-différence] holds not only in the moral domain. The primacy of the abstract individual also operates in the sense of a generalized neutralization, of the expansion of the neutral effected by the ideology of Sameness at the expense of differences. It erases collective singularities between peoples and cultures just as it relativizes sex differences, for legal individuals have no sexed characteristics:
The order of priorities is reversed. It is tacitly established that we are first of all abstractly identical individuals and then, incidentally, of the male or female sex.[xxi]
Laurent Fourquet puts it well:
To go ever farther in the neutralization of man: This means to tear from all concrete men their non-rational particularities so that men increasingly resemble that unique, ideal man who in humanist teachings is alone rationally able to govern a rational world.[xxii]
Just as protectionism is not autarky, autonomy must not be confused with independence. The former holds accountable; the latter separates. Liberals flatter themselves with emancipating man and thus making him more “autonomous.” They do not see that autonomy does not consist in cutting oneself off from one’s peers, but in the capacity to think and act on one’s own without eliminating all relation to others. (It is in this sense, for example, that by opposing the “slavery of salaried employment” the first socialists were fighting for the autonomy of the proletariat.) Liberalism claims to aim at autonomy, but it is in fact the independence of individuals with respect to one another that it idealizes. Since individual initiative is only fruitful when it is framed by collective rules, the interaction of egoisms stimulates mimetic rivalry and the desire to eliminate competitors while it increases inequalities — much more than it favors the autonomy of agents. Just as free competition unavoidably ends in the formation of oligopolies and monopolies, abstract liberty involves a rise in inequalities and strengthens the hold of class. “The market can only emancipate human beings according to its own laws,” to cite the excellent formulation of Jean-Claude Michéa. This may be paired with Guy Debord’s observation that “the economy transforms the world, but only into an economic world.” In liberal society man is neither emancipated nor rendered more autonomous; he is transformed into a monad, atomized.
Pierre Manent explains:
For the Greeks, nature is what binds us, what brings us together. . . . For us moderns it is the other way around: nature is what separates us, for we are “naturally” separate individuals.
Whence the paradox that “living together”[xxiii] [translator’s note: vivre ensemble, an expression recently popular with French politicians] must today be preached on the “exclusive basis of a principle which strictly separates and dissociates. . . . We want to ‘remake the social bond’ and reject the only idea that could give meaning and content to this bond: that associative human nature in which we find our goods and our ends.”[xxiv]
The liberal way is obviously not the only way of conceiving liberty. Since Benjamin Constant, we have known of all the ways that the liberty of the Ancients, understood as the ability to participate in public life, is opposed to the liberty of the Moderns, defined as the right to free oneself from public life. Another way of understanding liberty is in the republican and neo-republican manner, those terms here designating the political tradition which runs from Titus Livius and Machiavelli (Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius) through James Harrington (Oceana, 1656), all the way to authors such as Quentin Skinner and John Pocock.[xxv] If for liberals liberty is defined as that which escapes all interference capable of limiting individual choice, for republicans liberty is defined as non-domination and is never, as a matter of principle, restricted to the individual sphere: I cannot be free if the political community to which I belong is not. This conception of society as a field of forces whose course is never determined in advance obviously implies the primacy of politics, which alone can impose and guarantee the freedom of a people or a country. Republican liberty is concerned with society as such, while liberal liberty proudly ignores it.
The work of the Quebecois sociologist Michel Freitag is part of this “neo-republican” current. We owe to him a fundamental critique of liberal liberty whose principal merit is directly tying the concept of liberty to that of the symbolic imagination.[xxvi] As Daniel Dagenais explains:
Freitag illuminates from the start, and contrary to a narrowly modern philosophical tradition, all that liberty owes to primordial conditions, rooted as it is in the autonomy of living things. Moreover, if liberty is made possible by the opening that allows access to the symbolic, if therefore it constitutes a human attribute par excellence, Freitag never ceases to insist on the substantial historical rootedness of symbolism in the concrete forms of society.[xxvii]
Indeed, liberty does not fall from the empyrean of pure ideas. It is not an abstraction; on the contrary, it is always concretely situated. To ask ourselves about liberty is firstly to ask ourselves both about its limits (unconditional liberty is totally void of meaning) and about the conditions of its possibility — and to recognize that it is created and maintained above all by historical and political action, and that in this sense it is not so much a matter of justice in the legal sense as a matter of political choice or will. Freitag writes, “The subject cannot emancipate himself simultaneously from all his particular anchorage points without shedding his inmost humanity and everything accessible and concretely appropriable in it and through it.”[xxviii] This means that, as for Hannah Arendt, liberty must not be founded on the individual, but on the social relation by which a world is constructed: All liberty is the manifestation of a concrete form of being much larger than itself.
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[i] Maxime Ouellet, “Les ‘anneaux du serpent’ du libéralisme culturel : pour en finir avec la bonne conscience,” online text, 10.
[ii] Jean-Claude Michéa, Le complexe d’Orphée: La gauche, les gens ordinaires et la religion du progress (Paris: Climats, 2011), 169.
[iii] Libertarians divide themselves into two tendencies: proponents of the “minimal state” or “minarchists,” who at least admit that a state can exist without necessarily violating rights, such as Robert Nozick (Anarchy, State and Utopia [New York: Basic Books, 1975]) or James M. Buchanan, founder of the “Public Choice” school (The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan [Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1975], and the “anarchocapitalists” according to whom every state is by definition illegitimate and immoral, such as Ayn Rand, David Friedman (The Machinery of Freedom [Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1973; 2nd ed. 1989; 3rd ed. 2014]), Karl Hess & Murray Rothbard (The Ethics of Liberty [Atlantic Highlands, N. J.: Humanities Press International, 1982]).
[iv] One of the leading characteristics of “neoliberalism” is a changed perspective on the state, which is no longer seen as an intrinsic obstacle to the free development of exchange but, because of its decreasingly political character and its rallying to the principles of “governance,” becomes an auxiliary of the market, tasked especially with introducing rules of competition and deregulation where they have not previously existed. In other words, neoliberalism requires the state to intervene in favor of non-intervention by applying rules without which the market economy cannot function. The recourse to the authority of the “rule of law,” in addition to the blackmail preventing capital export, thus permits the overcoming of the old Manchesterian “laissez-faire.” This development, which was already emerging at the celebrated Walter Lippman Colloquium organized in Paris in 1938 at the initiative of Louis Rougier, has become stronger since the Reagan-Thatcher era, which relaunched the fashion of the “new economists” in the 1980s. The conclusion to be drawn from this is that the state no longer constitutes a rampart against the encroachments of the market today as one might still have believed in the time of Keynes. As Christian Laval writes, “If there is a lesson to be learned from the events of 2008-2011, it is that the state is not simply opposed to the market, that it is not merely external to the market, but that it is more than ever an internal element of the market whose intervention is indispensable to the functioning of the capitalist system” (“Les gauches françaises et la nature du néoliberalisme,” in Juliette Grange & Pierre Musso (eds.) Les socialismes [Lormont: Le Bord de l’eau, 2012], 339).
[v] On the diversity and ambiguities within the liberal family, cf. especially Françoise Orazi, L’Individu libre: Le libéralisme anglo-saxon de John Stuart Mill à nos jours (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2018), a work recently added to an already considerable literature.
[vi] “Les métamorphoses de la personnalité contemporaine,” lecture delivered at La Salpêtrière, January 18, 2018, 7.
[vii] This affirmation that man is above all else an egotistical being has led many authors to attribute to liberalism a pessimistic conception of human nature. But one could see in it the liberal form of optimism, since it is by acting in his own interest that the individual is supposed to serve everyone’s interest the best: egoism then becomes a virtue.
[viii] Op. cit., 3.
[ix] Ibid., 8.
[x] “No one appealed to the rights of man in court 50 years ago,” Marcel Gauchet reminds us. “The idea would have appeared bizarre. Today, in all democratic countries, the rights of man have become positive rights, inscribed in the legal code and to which courts refer with increasing frequency. . . . We are living in a social universe of individuals psychically constituted by their identification with their legal status as individuals and according to the rights belonging to them” (ibid., 9-11).
[xi] Crawford Brough MacPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962).
[xii] Op. cit., 12.
[xiii] Pierre Manent, La loi naturelle et les droits de l’homme (Paris: PUF, 2018).
[xiv] Michael J. Sandel, “Do We Own Ourselves?” in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2009).
[xv] The Earlier Letters of John Stuart Mill, 1812-1848 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963). Translator’s note: I could find no passage resembling what Alain de Benoist quoted, so I have translated it from his French.
[xvi] L. Susan Brown, The Politics of Individualism: Liberalism, Liberal Feminism and Anarchism (Portland: Black Rose Books, 2003), 22.
[xvii] “Theoretical Foundations of Liberalism,” in Jeremy Waldon (ed.), Liberal Rights: Collected Papers 1981-1991 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 42.
[xviii] Françoise Orazi, L’Individu libre, op. cit., 16.
[xix] The Objectivist Newsletter, April 1963.
[xx] Marcel Gauchet, “Pourquoi ‘L’avènement de la démocratie?’” in Le Débat, January-February 2017, 184.
[xxi] Marcel Gauchet, “La fin de la domination masculine,” in Le Débat, May-August 2018, 81.
[xxii] Laurent Fourquet, Le christianisme n’est pas un humanisme (Paris: Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, 2018), 81.
[xxiii] Vivre ensemble, an expression recently popular with French politicians. — Tr.
[xxiv] Interview in Le Figaro Magazine, June 8, 2018.
[xxv] Cf. Philip Pettit, Républicanisme: une théorie de la liberté et du gouvernement (Paris: Gallimard, 2004).
[xxvi] Michel Freitag, L’abîme de la liberté: Critique du libéralisme (Montreal: Liber, 2011); Michel Freitag & Yves Bonny, L’oubli de la société: Pour une théorie critique de la postmodernité (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2002).
[xxvii] Daniel Dagenais (ed.), La liberté à l’épreuve de l’histoire: La critique du libéralisme chez Michael Freitag (Montreal: Liber, 2017), 9.
[xxviii] L’abîme de la liberté, op. cit., 382.
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