Alain de Benoist
Society Is Not a Market,
Chapter I, Part 1: What Is Liberalism?
Translated by F. Roger Devlin
Not being the work of a single man, liberalism has never presented itself as a unified doctrine. The authors who have laid claim to the name liberal have sometimes given divergent and even contradictory interpretations of it. Yet there must have been enough points in common between them to consider them liberal authors. It is precisely these points in common that allow us to define liberalism as a school.
We shall pick out the two most important. Liberalism is firstly an economic doctrine that tends to make the self-regulating market the paradigm for all social facts: What is called political liberalism is merely a way of applying principles deduced from this economic doctrine to political life, principles which tend precisely to limit the role of politics as much as possible. Secondly, liberalism is a doctrine based on an anthropology of the individualist type; i.e., it is based on a conception of man as not a fundamentally social being. Both characteristic traits have a descriptive and a normative side: the individual and the market are described as factual data as well as presented as models.
Thus, we cannot understand anything about liberalism as long as we oppose its principal forms (economic, political, cultural, philosophic) to one another, just as we cannot understand anything about capitalism if we see in it merely an economic system and not a “total social fact” (in Marcel Mauss’ words). The deep unity of liberalism resides in its anthropology — an anthropology whose basis is individualism and economism, each inseparable from the other.
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Louis Dumont has demonstrated the role played by Christianity in Europe’s transition from a traditional society of the holist type to a modern society of the individualist type. From the beginning, Christianity posits man as an individual who, before any other bond, is in an inner relationship with God, and who can thence hope to achieve his salvation thanks to his personal transcendence. In this relationship with God, the value of man as an individual is affirmed, a value in relation to which the world is inevitably lowered or devalued. Moreover, the individual is, by the same title as other men, the holder of an individual soul distinct from his body (since destined to survive it), a prerogative which distinguishes him from other animals. Egalitarianism and universalism are thus introduced at the ultramundane level. The absolute value which the individual soul receives from its filial relation to God is shared by all of humanity. This is the very logic of monotheism: If all men are equally sons of the same unique God, these men must be considered as belonging to the same family, which relativizes the specific cultures to which they belong. Hence the Apostle’s well-known statement: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither man nor woman, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). God’s people have no borders.
Marcel Gauchet took up this observation of a causal connection between the emergence of a personal God and the birth of an inner man whose fate in the beyond depends only on his individual actions and whose independence is foreshadowed by this possibility of an intimate relationship with God; i.e., one involving only himself. He writes:
The farther God recedes into his infinitude, the more the relationship with him tends to become purely personal, to the point of excluding any institutional mediation. Raised to the absolute, the divine subject can have no legitimate terrestrial counterpart except in intimate presence. Thus the interiority with which we began becomes a thoroughgoing religious individualism.
The Pauline teaching reveals a dualistic tension which makes the Christian, at the level of his relationship with God, an “individual outside the world:” becoming a Christian originally involved renouncing the world in some sense. Over the course of history, however, the individual outside the world gradually came to contaminate worldly life. In 380 AD, under the Emperor Theodosius, Christianity became a state religion. As it acquired the power to make the world conform to its own values, the individual originally posited as outside the world gradually returned to immerse himself in it and deeply transform it. This process occurred in three main steps. At first, life in the world was no longer rejected, but relativized: this is the Augustinian synthesis of the two cities, which shows both what opposes them and what connects them. In a second phase, the papacy assumed political power and itself became a temporal power. Finally, with the Reformation, man completely invested himself in the world, where he worked for the glory of God by seeking a material success that he interprets as the very proof of his election. The principle of equality and individuality, which at first only functioned at the level of the relationship with God, and could thus coexist with an organic and hierarchical principle structuring the social whole (this was the case during the entire Medieval period), thus finds itself gradually brought back to Earth to end up as modern individualism, which represents its secular continuation. As Alain Renaut writes, expounding the theses of Louis Dumont: “For modern individualism to be born, the individualist and universalist component of Christianity had to ‘contaminate’ modern life, so to speak,” to the point that the two representations gradually united, the initial dualism was erased, and “life in the world was conceived as capable of being wholly compatible with the supreme value.” At the end of this process, “the individual-outside-the-world became the modern individual-within-the-world.”
By this point, the organic society of the holistic type had disappeared. To cite a celebrated distinction, we had passed from community to society; i.e., to a common life conceived as a mere contractual association. It would no longer be the social whole that came first, but the individual holders of rights bound to one another by rational and by no means disinterested contracts. One important stage in this evolution corresponds to nominalism, which affirmed with William of Ockham in the fourteenth century that no being exists apart from particular being (it was also from Spanish scholasticism that the subjective theory of value derives). Another key moment corresponds to Cartesianism, which already posited the individual in the philosophical field, as would later be presupposed by the legal perspective of the rights of man and the intellectual perspective of Enlightenment reason. From the eighteenth century, this emancipation of the individual with respect to his natural bonds would regularly be interpreted as marking humanity’s accession to “adulthood” within a narrative of universal progress. Underpinned by the individualist impulse, modernity would be characterized primarily by a process through which kin and local groups, as well as larger communities, gradually disaggregate in order to “liberate the individual”; i.e., in fact to dissolve all organic relations of solidarity.
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Being human has always meant asserting oneself both as a person and as a social being, with the individual and collective dimension being irreducible to one another, yet inseparable. In the holist view, man constructs himself on the basis of what he has inherited and with reference to his socio-historical context. It is this model, which is historically the most common, that individualism (which must be regarded as a peculiarity of Western history) directly opposes.
Individualism in the modern sense of the term is the philosophy that considers the individual as the sole reality and takes him as the principle of all evaluation. Liberalism posits the individual and his supposedly “natural” liberty as the only normative courts of appeal for life in society, which amounts to saying that it makes the individual the one and only source of values and of the ends he chooses for himself. This individual is considered per se, abstracting from all social or cultural context. While holism expresses or justifies existing society with reference to inherited, transmitted, and shared values — i.e., in the final analysis, with reference to society itself — individualism posits its values independently of society as it finds it. This is why it recognizes no autonomous state of existence belonging to communities, peoples, cultures, or nations. In these entities, which the individual apprehends by way of systematic individualism, he sees mere aggregates of individual atoms and posits that only the latter have value.
At the same time, man is posited as a producing and consuming being, egoistic and calculating, who always and only seeks to maximize his own utility rationally; i.e., his best material interest and private profit. This thesis makes of man a being of calculation and interest. The model is that of the tradesman in the market: the Homo oeconomicus. From that point, society consist only in a series of market relations.
This primacy of the individual over the collective is at once descriptive, normative, methodological, and axiological. The individual is supposed to come first, whether considered prior to the social in a mythical representation of “prehistory” (the priority of the state of nature), or whether a mere normative primacy is attributed to him (the individual is what is most valuable). Georges Bataille stated that “at the base of every being there exists a principle of insufficiency”; liberalism by contrast affirms the full sufficiency of the singular individual. In liberalism, man can apprehend himself as an individual without having to think of his relationship to other men within a primary or secondary society. As an autonomous subject who is the owner of himself and moved by his own particular interest, he defines himself (by opposition to the person) as a “moral being, independent, autonomous, and thus essentially non-social.”
In liberal ideology, this individual is the holder of rights inherent in his “nature,” whose existence in no way depends on political or social organization. Here we are within the horizon of the theory of subjective rights that Michel Villey has shown to oppose on every point natural right as posited by the Ancients, which limited itself to determining the just share to be attributed to everyone (“suum cuique tribuere”). Governments must guarantee these “natural” rights, but cannot provide the basis for them. Existing prior to any social life, they are not immediately paired with duties, for duties imply precisely that there has been a beginning of social life: there is no duty to others where there are not already others. The individual is thus himself the source of his own rights, starting with the right to act freely according to the calculus of his own particular interests. Thus he finds himself at war with all other individuals, since they are all supposed to act the same way within a society conceived as a competitive market.
Although individuals can indeed choose to associate with one another, the associations they form have a merely conditional character, contingent and transitory, since they remain dependent on mutual consent and have no goal other than satisfying the particular interests of each party as fully as possible. Social life, in other words, is no longer a matter of anything but individual decisions and discriminatory choices. Man behaves as a social being not because it is part of his nature, but because he is supposed to find it advantageous; i.e., it has no ethical relation to him. If he finds no more advantage in it, he can break the agreement (at least in theory). It is even by thus breaking the agreement that he would best display his own freedom. As opposed to the liberty of the Ancients, which consisted primarily in the opportunity to participate in public life (in Rome there was an indissoluble connection between civitas and libertas that we also find in Greece), the liberty of the Moderns consists above all in the right to withdraw from public life. The fundamental right for liberals is the right of secession: the “right to leave,” as Baudelaire said. This is why liberals always tend to define liberty as synonymous with independence. Thus Benjamin Constant celebrates “the peaceful enjoyment of private individual independence,” adding that “to be happy, men only need to be left in perfect independence regarding everything related to their occupations, their undertakings, their sphere of activity, and their fancies.” This “peaceful enjoyment” is to be understood as a right not to be held to any duty of belonging, nor to any of those allegiances which, in certain circumstances, can in fact reveal themselves as incompatible with “private independence.” Society only exists to satisfy individual desires that are immediately transformed into “needs” and “rights,” something that robs the concept of the common good of all meaning.
Liberals particularly insist on the idea that individual interests should never be sacrificed to the collective interest, the common good, or public safety, concepts they consider inconsistent. This conclusion follows from the idea that only individuals have rights, while collectivities, being mere sums of individuals, cannot properly have any rights belonging to them. Thus, Ayn Rand writes, “The expression ‘individual rights’ is redundant; there is no other source of rights.” Benjamin Constant says, “Individual independence is the first of modern needs. Consequently, one must never demand that it be sacrificed to establish political liberty.” Before him, John Locke declared that “a child is born a subject of no country or government,” since once he becomes an adult, “he is a freeman, at liberty as to what government he will put himself under. He is free to choose the government under which he wants to live, what body politic he will unite himself to.”
The liberty to which liberalism appeals is an abstraction, tied to a “right” inherent in the human person which posits that the individual is justified in doing (and in demanding that he be able to do) what he wants with his own time, his own body, or his money. Moreover, man is supposed to make only those choices that take place downstream from himself, without ever being conditioned or shaped by his heritage or belonging. Liberal freedom thus supposes that individuals can detach from their origins, their environment, the context in which they live and in which their choices are made — in other words, from everything that makes them such as they are and not otherwise. In other words, as John Rawls says, the individual is always prior to his ends. He is all the freer insofar as he is detached from all belonging, and he is supposed to construct his preferences just as he constructs himself: from nothing. But it cannot be demonstrated that the individual can apprehend himself as a subject free of all allegiance and of all determination. Nor does anything demonstrate that he will in all circumstances prefer his own liberty to every other good. By definition, such a conception ignores engagements and attachments that owe nothing to rational calculation. It is a purely formalist conception which does not allow any account to be taken of what a real person is.
From a liberal point of view, the individual has the right to do everything he wants so long as the use he makes of his freedom does not limit that of others. In other words, individual liberty must not be a burden to others; i.e., it is not to be exercised to the detriment of the freedom of others. Liberal freedom “consists in being able to do anything that does not harm others” (Article 4 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, August 1789), on pain of exposing himself to the punishments established by law. Since respect for the law has nothing to do with morality, all ethical preoccupations immediately disappear. Every desire is thus considered legitimate as long as it does not contradict the desires of another. With this one condition, all is possible and permitted. Liberty is then defined as the pure expression of a desire with no theoretical limit but the desire of someone else, the totality of these desires being mediated by commercial exchange. This is already what Grotius, the theoretician of natural right, affirmed in the seventeenth century: “It is not contrary to the nature of human society to work in one’s own interest, provided one does so without damaging the rights of others.” At the start, all our desires are legitimate from the mere fact of their being ours!
This proposition obviously sins firstly in its irenic character: nearly all human acts are carried out in one way or another at the expense of the freedom of others, and moreover it is nearly impossible to determine the moment at which the freedom of one individual can be considered as limiting that of others. Understood this way, liberal freedom is really defined in a purely negative fashion as the rejection of any external admixture (“freedom from” rather than “freedom for”). Moreover, and above all, it cannot involve any obligation to act for one’s own good, nor even with a view to any good: one can even harm oneself provided this does not bother anyone. This is the radical abandonment of the idea of telos, or the search for intrinsic excellence. As Pierre Manent has put it, liberalism is first of all the renunciation of thinking about human life in terms of its good or its end.
In fact, the freedom of liberals is above all the freedom to possess. It resides not in being, but in having. Man is said to be free insofar as he is an owner, in the first instance, of himself; the fetishization of individual private property is merely one consequence of this. This idea that property in oneself fundamentally determines liberty will be taken up again by Marx.
Alain Laurent defines self-realization as an “ontological insularity whose primary end lies in the search for one’s own happiness.” For liberal authors, the “search for happiness” is defined as the free possibility of always seeking to maximize one’s own best interest. But the problem instantly arises of what is to be understood by “interest,” especially since those who follow the axiomatics of interest rarely concern themselves with describing its genesis or components, any more than they ask whether all social actors are fundamentally motivated by the same interests, or whether their interests are commensurable or mutually compatible. When cornered, they tend to give a trivial definition of the term: “interest” becomes for them a synonym for desire, intention, action directed toward a goal, etc. Everything become “interest,” and even the most altruistic, most disinterested of actions can thus be defined as egoistic and self-interested since it corresponds to a voluntary intention (to a desire) of its author. But in reality, it is clear that for liberals interest is defined first of all as a material advantage which, to be appreciated as such, must be susceptible of calculation and quantification; i.e., able to be expressed within the horizon of that universal equalizer known as money.
Recognizing the individual’s inalienable right to his freedom of choice automatically equally involves the social and legal acceptance of every conceivable manner of living. As Charles Robin has written: “in such a context, any reference to any sort of common morality or shared values can only appear fundamentally authoritarian and destructive to freedom, insofar as it continues to accord a meaning and a philosophical legitimacy to something beyond the individual.”
From this point, one can hardly be surprised that the rise of liberal individualism has expressed itself first by a gradual dislocation of the organic structures of existence that are characteristic of holist societies, then by a general dissolution of the social bond, and finally by a situation of relative social anomie in which individuals find themselves to be increasingly strangers to one another and increasingly potential enemies of one another, since all are caught up in that modern form of the “struggle of all against all” which is generalized competition. Such is the society described by Tocqueville in which each member, “withdrawn, is like a stranger to all the others.” Liberal individualism tends to everywhere destroy direct sociability, which was long an obstacle to the emergence of the modern individual, and the collective identities associated with it. As Pierre Rosanvallon writes, “Liberalism somehow makes the depersonalization of the world the condition for progress and freedom.”
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 Le désenchantement du monde (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), 77.
 L’ère de l’individu. Contribution à une histoire de la subjectivité (Paris: Gallimard, 1989).
 Cf. Wim Decock, Theologians and Contract Law: The Moral Transformation of the Ius Commune (ca. 1500-1650) (Leyden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2013). On the “theological thoughtlessness [impensé] at the heart of economic rationality,” cf. also Sylvain Piron, L’occupation du monde (Brussels: Zones sensibles, 2018).
 Louis Dumont, Homo aequalis. Genèse et épanouissement de l’idéologie économique (Paris: Gallimard, 1977), 17.
 Some liberal authors, however, have distinguished between independence and autonomy, while others (or the same ones) have striven to distinguish between the subject and the individual, or between individualism and narcissism. Unlike independence, autonomy remains compatible with submission to supra-individual rules, even when the latter arise from a self-based normativity. This, in other words, is the view defended by Alain Renaud (op. cit., 81-86). This way of proceeding is not very convincing. Autonomy is in fact very different from independence — in certain respects it is even its contrary — but this is not the essential question. The essential question is what can, from a liberal point of view, force an individual to respect any limitation on his freedom if such a limitation contradicts or limits his self-interest?
 De la liberté des Anciens comparée à celle des Modernes (1819).
 The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: New American Library, 1964).
 Op. cit.
 Second Treatise of Government, Chapter 8.
 On the Law of War and Peace (1625).
 In certain respects, Marx himself adheres to a metaphysics of the individual, something which led Michel Henry to see in him “one of the premiere Christian thinkers of the West” (Marx, vol. 2, 445). The thesis of Marxian individualism has been maintained by numerous authors, starting with Louis Dumont. Pierre Rosanvallon also writes: “The whole philosophy of Marx can be understood as an attempt to deepen modern individualism. The concept of class struggle itself only has meaning within the framework of an individualist image of society. In a traditional society, on the contrary, it has no meaning” (Le libéralisme économique. Histoire de l’idée de marché [Paris: Seuil-Points, 1989], 188-189). Marx nonetheless rejects the fiction of the Homo oeconomicus that developed beginning in the eighteenth century, for he sees that the bourgeoisie uses it to alienate the real individual and chain him to an existence restricted to the sphere of self-interest. Now, for Marx, self-interest is merely the expression of a separation of the individual from his life. This is the basis of what is best in his work; viz., his critique of commodity fetishism, the “reification” of social relations. But he has no intention of substituting any common good for private interest. For him there is not even any class interest.
 De l’individualisme. Enquête sur le retour de l’individu (Paris: PUF, 1985), 16.
 Op. cit., vii.
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