Alain de Benoist
Society Is Not a Market,
Introduction, Part III
Translated by F. Roger Devlin
Let us sum up. Man is a “social animal” whose existence is consubstantial with that of society. Justice in the first instance is not a matter of rights but of measure; i.e., it is only defined as a relation of equity between persons living in society, so there are no holders of rights outside social life, and within it there are only those to whom rights are attributed. Economic life represents not a “sphere,” but a dimension of social life that every traditional society has always placed at the lowest rung of its hierarchy of values. Politics is the locus of sovereignty and legitimacy. Society is not the sum of the individual atoms that composes it, but a collective body whose good takes precedence over (without suppressing) mere party interests. Ethics involves never seeking one’s own personal interest first, but contributing to the organic forms of solidarity which strengthen the social bond. Civic belonging obliges people to work first of all for the common good. Liberty is not defined as the chance to escape political authority or exempt oneself from public life, but as the chance to participate in it.
It is certainly not the state’s job to substitute itself for business leaders, nor for economic agents in general. The economic agent should be free in his activity . . . as long as it remains purely economic. The problem is that many social facts have both an economic and a political or cultural dimension. The state should intervene in economic matters each time an economic activity has a political dimension, for in regard to this dimension it is political authority that ought to be affirmed. Thus, the state need not accept the “law of the market” when the latter not only fails to contribute to the common good of the community of citizens over which it has authority, but endangers its system of values, its social coherence, its cultural habitus, the integrity of its patrimony, or even its independence and thus capacity for action. Such a state has nothing in common with today’s welfare state, the essentially “therapeutic” state which mothers its citizens and deprives them of responsibility, any more than with a “minimal state” charged only with managing the externalities which exceed the capacity of private agents.
It is also important not to make the “state” synonymous with politics or public life as liberals (but also statists) too often do by opposing “public” and “private” without nuance. When the welfare state is beginning to tire under the effect of its own excesses and is no longer able to offer citizens the guarantees of solidarity and capacity for decision which formerly constituted its prerogatives’ essential aspect, such an alternative would be mistaken. The idea of conferring on “civil society” the tasks of which we want to relieve the state is very ambiguous from this point of view. Applying the principle of subsidiarity rightly understood certainly does not consist in conferring on the private sphere what is withdrawn from the state, which would lead to passing from one excess (universal welfare) to another (all sorts of exclusion), but rather in organizing public and private roles differently by recreating spaces that are open to participative democracy and citizen initiatives. Withdrawing into the private sphere can only favor individualism, whose inevitable consequence is indifference to others, if not disguised civil war. We must therefore encourage a renewed citizenship based on participation and collective grassroots action. From this perspective, as Chantal del Sol has rightly remarked:
Tasks in which everyone has a stake cease to be the exclusive affair of the state which, however, remains the guarantor of their effective and complete realization. Thus they do not become private business; they become, more precisely, political affairs in the sense of everybody’s affair. There is no doubt that citizenship itself would be deeply transformed by such a change.
Incantatory recourse to the virtues of the “market” is similarly nourished by ambiguities. Speaking historically, the capitalist system has indisputably shown itself to be more efficient than the economic systems of the “countries of real socialism.” But what is meant by “efficient”? Efficiency is never an end in itself. It only ever refers to the means chosen to bring about a certain end, without telling us anything of the value of that end. Here it seems the end is the production of an ever-increasing number of commodities, a condition indispensable for the expansion of capital. But what price must be paid in other areas for a further gain in growth or productivity? It has often been observed that the more societies are materially enriched, the poorer they become spiritually. Is there a relation of cause and effect here? Is it possible that the endless development of the market encourages man to reason exclusively in cost-benefit terms that can only be expressed within a purely material order? The reign of liberalism induces an economistic obsession that prevents the great majority of our contemporaries from asking themselves about the ultimate purpose of their activities and the very meaning of their presence in the world. As Marcel Gauchet writes:
A market society is a way of life in which mercantile values insinuate themselves into even the smallest aspects of human affairs. It is a place where social relations are refurbished on the model of the market.
The farther mercantile values spread, the more they tend to eliminate non-mercantile values, the ideal being attainment of a society where strictly everything can be bought or sold.
Beyond a certain level of well-being, the amounts of happiness and unhappiness within a society barely depend on its wealth at all. We are not happier today than we were in days when we lived in less opulent societies. Perhaps we are even less so, for that opulence has come at the price of undoing the social bond and deconstructing a realm of symbolic imagery which helped us live. Now, the good society is not fundamentally that which provides the means of existence, but that which gives reasons to live — i.e., meaning. Economic activity, efficient or not, provides only means.
Liberal capitalism has been largely accepted by the population for decades for three main reasons: It favored growth, raised the average standard of living, and allowed an increase in consumption well beyond material need. Today, these three forms of legitimacy have disappeared. Growth is stagnating or barely progressing in the most developed countries, and no one knows how to make it “come back.” The middle classes are on their way to falling back into the working class, if not into oblivion. Purchasing power is sinking and economic inequalities (inheritance and income) are becoming more serious, even as states are no longer able to stand up to the financial markets and correct their effects. This loss of legitimacy is expressed in a dissociation between capitalism and democracy, which were long working together. Unable to keep its promises any longer, capitalism finds itself in a critical situation utterly unlike the circumstantial crises which beset it in the past.
From a liberal point of view, in which markets are automatically in equilibrium as long as nothing interferes with their spontaneous functioning, crises can only be incidental events which do nothing worse than slow down the market’s planetary expansion. The very concept of systemic crisis is foreign to liberal analysis. Yet, the capitalist system has been in crisis for a long time. To hide this, it first had recourse to credit in order to maintain the dynamic of overproduction and overconsumption that allowed the contradictions of industrial capitalism in the Fordist Era to be regulated, but this was merely a way of postponing the reckoning. Since the real economy was no longer able to bear the system, the latter became increasingly speculative and financial — not because it had “gone astray” as many believe, but quite simply to survive: financialization is merely a reckless way to avoid facing the facts of decreasing profits and the devaluation of value. But this resort is itself reaching its limits. To private debt is now added sovereign debt — i.e., state debt, which has multiplied exponentially over the past 20 years, and everyone knows it will never be paid off, in spite of austerity policies.
Lacking any better options, the system is trying to buy a little time by printing money as fast as it can, as for example by fabricating ever more fictitious capital. Previously meant merely to watch over the monetary system, the central banks to which states have abandoned their economic policies have chosen to create unlimited money. These injections of massive liquidity that favor speculation over production may artificially (and temporarily) secure the banks themselves, but they do not get the economy moving again. And just as capitalist progress has now destroyed everything which might regulate or limit it, a new global financial crash, much worse than that of 2008, is starting to appear on the horizon.
For his part, Marcel Gauchet thinks that if capitalism was so well received in the Western countries, this was not so much due to its efficiency, and even less because it has been perceived as “natural,” but because it was profoundly consistent with a way of thinking that had long since been won over to the primacy of the individual. Capitalism is, as it were, the logical correlate of a society of individuals. But the paradox is that liberalism cannot function except through what survives of a non-liberal spirit within society. In this regard, Jean-Philippe Vincent is not wrong to write that “Adam Smith’s invisible hand can do nothing without the second, conservative invisible hand of trust.” But how can supposedly self-sufficient individuals put in competition with everyone around them trust one another? The efficiency of the markets is not enough to produce the preconditions for its own existence, beginning with social cohesion and trust — all the more so in that its capacity for self-correction is largely illusory.
Jean-Claude Michéa observes:
The liberal state is philosophically forced to launch a permanent cultural revolution whose aim is to eradicate all historical and philosophical obstacles to the accumulation of Capital, beginning with what in our days constitutes the absolute precondition of is possibility: total individual mobility — a mobility whose ultimate form is obviously the invitation, broadcast to all the most dangerous characters, to circulate without restrictions across all the sites of the global market.
Herein lies the destructive power of liberalism. It must remove all obstacles to the expansion of the market, but also methodically destroy any philosophical or religious system that condemns egoism and cupidity. The mere idea that letting individuals follow their self-interest is enough to achieve economic efficiency and social harmony, which amounts to a complete reversal of the norms that have presided over the human presence in the world, suggests a kind of deconstruction that can only result in the total destruction of everything that has no commercial value or which can be sacrificed to commercial value. This is also emphasized by the philosopher Jean Vioulac, who writes:
The arrival of the consumer society imposes the dissolution . . . of everything capable of restraining the purchase of commodities, and thus the abolition of any morality which rejects the immediate satisfaction of desire. Liberalism, insofar as it is defined by the demand for deregulation and the de-institutionalizing of all forms of human activity, is the political project that seeks the complete dismantling of the legal order; and in this respect it is one of the most powerful motors of nihilism.
Finally, the reign of capitalism expresses itself in a closure of meaning nearly without historical precedent. This closure of meaning, which is also a closure of the possible, leads unavoidably to nihilism:
Nihilism is the historical product of a social and economic regime in which the human capacity to create and recreate existential meaning and values tends to melt away, and where social activity tends to be reduced to the perpetual reproduction of means and ends subordinate to the absolute finality of having and of power over the human and non-human. Since the nineteenth century, this model of society has been characterized as capitalist. . . . Capitalism is intrinsically a regime that devastates the human as well as non-human nature, a regime incompatible with culture. . . . Nihilism is the overall representation of the world underlying capitalism.
Liberalism has been able to play a useful role at certain historical moments by opposing dogmas that had become overly cumbersome, but that does not make its principles any less false. By basing itself on individualism, liberalism adopted an anti-political stance from the start for the simple reason that there is no politics of mere individuals. There is only politics with reference to peoples and communities. The rise of individualism accompanied the collapse of the “grand narratives” which were the vehicles of collective projects. But it also led to a corruption of democracy. If democracy is fundamentally a political regime, it is because it presupposes that the individual, rising above the private sphere and perceiving himself as a citizen, identifies with a collective cause and with a general interest that is irreducible to any mere addition of particular interests (whence the distinction Rousseau draws between the general will and the “will of all,” which is never more than the sum of individual wills). The language of rights has today become a discursive strategy that allows individuals and groups, on the basis of their subjective feelings or desires, to launch a permanently escalating series of demands without having to ask about their compatibility within a common world. From this point, the social bond can only result from the harmony between individuals and from the confrontation between their interests and rights. Insofar as liberalism claims to place institutions in the service of the individual, it inevitably opposes the common good. The liberal world is the non-common world.
Just as one can oppose despotism without adhering to the ideology of the rights of man, the alternative to liberalism is obviously not a return to the institutions and corporations of the now-vanished Ancien Régime, nor in recourse to totalitarianism, which consists, as Luis Dumont has shown, in trying to recreate a society of the holistic type artificially, working from individualist premises. It is better to seek to recreate the common by starting from the base — i.e., the social bond. Non-liberal society is that which carries to its maximum what individuals have to do and to put in common. Giving priority to the common once again, to being-in-relation, is at the same time working toward the rebirth of the figure of the citizen, based on active participation, and to remedy the desymbolization of social life.
It is not an accident that in the past “demands on behalf of the common were called forth by social and cultural struggles against the capitalist order” (Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval). Throughout European history, great popular revolts have taken the form of “communes” seeking local self-government, starting with the great Commune of 1871 that was of socialist, mutualist, federalist, patriotic, and Proudhonian inspiration (the “federation of the communes of France”). Conversely, in the nineteenth century it was with the suppression of the commons — those lands and pastures used collectively in conformity with customary law, and the establishment of areas for the privatization of fields and meadows — that the logic of the market triumphed in England. Men who enjoyed the use of what was held in common without ever possessing anything were stripped and robbed, while a vast movement to depossess use-value by exchange-value, inaugurated at the end of the Middle Ages, became universal. From this point of view, we might say that present-day globalism represents the encompassing of the totality of the world.
That which is held in common is a matter of the social bond (and not of “connection”). It is the very principle of all life in society, but it is not a thing, a substance or quality, nor even an end aimed at or sought. Nor is it a synonym for the universal or public (as opposed to private). The common good is not beholden to any moral definition, but to a political definition. At the beginning, the “com-mun” is the collective enjoyment of a munus. The munus belongs to the vocabulary of reciprocity and gifting (munificence, municipality, mutuality, communion), this Latin term being associated with the Aristotelian “put in common” (koinônein) which, by announcing the distinction between property and use, presupposes a relation of reciprocity between those who adhere to the same values and lead the same kind of life. The common (koinôn) refers to what belongs to the community (koinônia), but not to any of its members in particular. The common cannot be divided or shared: It need not be appropriated to fulfill its social function. It is even inappropriable by nature, for the excellent reason that it can only be enjoyed in common — that it is defined as that which each can be enjoyed without dividing it. Moreover, it is inseparable from the practical activity necessary to institute it, which means that it is to be thought of mainly as the result of a coactivity rooted in praxis (the common use of what is held in common), and it is in this respect that it can also become a social force as well as a political principle for transforming society.
From this point of view, the common good means nothing other than a good which has been instituted in common. In the expression “common good,” the second term counts for as much as the first, because the common by itself is already a good. Restoring the common and the common good is the program that offers itself today to all anti-liberals.
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 Chantal Delsol, Le principe de subsidiarité (Paris: PUF, 1993).
 Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012).
 Marcel Gauchet, Le nouveau monde. L’avènement de la démocratie, IV (Paris: Gallimard, 2017).
 Éthiques de l’immigration, op. cit., 32.
 La double pensée, op. cit., 115.
 “The icy waters of egoistical calculation,” in Esprit, March-April 2014, 136. Eric Deschavanne observes, “Liberalism liberates the forces of historical transformation which permanently destabilize societies. Liberty especially liberates the forces which tend to destroy it” (website www.atlantico.fr, February 25, 2018). Cf. also Dany-Robert Dufour, “Du vrai, du beau, du juste et du bien: Hypothèses sur le déclin des idéaux de la culture occidentale,” in Revue de MAUSS, first semester of 2018, 174.
 Cornelieus Castoriadis spoke of a “total vacuum of meaning” (La montrée de l’insignifiance: Les carrefours du labyrinth IV [Paris: Seuil, 1996], 61).
 Alfredo Gómez-Muller, Nihilisme et capitalisme, op. cit., 8.
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