Critiques Théoriques by Alain de Benoist L'Age d'Homme 2004 Tél : 0155427979 firstname.lastname@example.org 574pp 29 Esperantos
THIS WORK brings together a series of texts written and most but not all published by Alain de Benoist over the last dozen years. As its title indicates, it is divided into "critiques" and "théoriques". None of these collected essays is new but some of them are previously unedited and they come from a variety of sources. Common to all of them is a desire to link general ideas to the significance of what is happening in the world today. Specifically the writer claims to be offering a critique of 1) individualism/universalism and nationalism; 2) the systematic deconstruction of the logic of consumer society ("la raison marchande et da la Forme-Capitale"); 3) the struggle in favour of local autonomy, linked to the defence of collective identities as the "primary condition for the renewal of democracy." The ultimate aim of the book, according to the writer himself in a short preface, is to help the reader, in the context of the above mentioned three part critique, to understand the significance of what is happening in the world today on the premises cited above and to know what to expect tomorrow.
The individual, notes de Benoist, lives in a society which he sees as increasingly exterior to himself, while at the same time (and for the same reason I would suggest) he loses contact with his own individuality. This somewhat oblique remark means, I think, that as individuals in the current period of transition, which de Benoist says may be as historically significant as the Neolithic revolution, we no longer have the trusted points of faith, tradition or social reference which enabled us in times past to define ourselves to ourselves and to the exterior world. It is the case that in a world where no more or opinion can readily be taken for granted, the individual cannot be sure of the social, intellectual or cultural references of the members of society with whom he has daily contact. The book seeks to place the contemporary world of ideas in perspective. We see the signs. De Benoist claims he can help us understand the sense. This is indeed the key to understanding the strength but also the limitation of all de Benoist's writings. De Benoist is an interpreter of signs. In this he is second to none. Frequently I found propositions which I would doubt or wish to question, but not in anger or as one provoked, which is the normal reaction to a "leader" or a letter to a newspaper. This is not polemical, this is discursive; the essays invite disagreement, they do not provoke it.
Distraction replaces reflection. Performance replaces elucidation. This is de Benoist's critique of modern intellectual and political life. These essays are masterpiece of just that, reflection and elucidation, and no doubt suffer for the very reason that de Benoist's critique is valid. The unpractically hefty tome (if buying this book on the internet check the postage charge: it weighs about 2.5 lb) is hardly light reading in either sense of the word and not directly relevant to either academic or professional life; but it is very relevant to an understanding of the signs that come to us in this time of transformation. The Brève Histoire de l'idée de progress, for example, first published in the magazine Le Recours aux forêts is a masterpiece of elucidation and clarification. De Benoist does not attack the idea of progress, he provides us, to use a Nietzschean term, with its genealogy. With a question he poses the unsolved conundrum at the heart of the idea of progress: what does progress lead to, assuming that it is leading to something and is not just a monotonous repetition of the slogans and prejudices of our age? How can we speak of progress at all if there is no discernible, defined end to the journey? Without an end we cannot measure how near we have progressed towards something. True. Progress could also be a progress away from something as much as in the direction of something, away from an undesirable, primitive state, some would argue. This is the implication of a Darwinian view of progress, not progress as improvement towards but improvement on.
Although de Benoist rightly regards progress as implying "idolatry of what is new for its own sake", he warns against idealising the past, implicitly criticising all those whose political action creates an image of the past put up against an image of the present or the future, which for whatever reason does not meet our expectations or fulfil our dreams. (This recalls Moeller van den Bruck's definition of "the reactionary" in Das dritte Reich.) De Benoist seeks not a return, but as he himself says, a "new beginning".
Here lies a contradiction, or at least a conceptual strain, in the argument. De Benoist writes that the notion of progress "implies idolatry of the novum" (p57) points to the crypto-religious faith of Turgot and Condorcet that the mass of humanity is marching towards an ever higher degree of perfection. Man is infinitely perfectable, so say the spokesmen and prophets of progress. This leads to the urge to remove obstacles which lie in the way of progress, including human living obstacles, culminating, potentially at least, in a justification for revolutionary Terror or its equivalent. Modern totalitarianisms, de Benoist believes, argue on the basis of a fixed ideology of progress, and conclude that there is a surplus of humanity which encumber progress to a better world. While developing his critique of the ideology of progress, de Benoist is at the same time dismissive of any nostalgic or even conservative wish to preserve for its own sake. But on what basis does one argue against an ideology of Progress if not by appealing to certain inherited qualities, to the claims of Tradition? Is it not the wish to preserve for its own sake and where necessary to restore, which acts as a counter to the "idea of progress" which de Benoist deconstructs? To take a practical example, (practical examples are singularly absent in these essays) the successful restoration in England of traditionally dispensed ales was indeed a clamouring for an "idealised world" against the idea of progress. It was precisely the idea of progress as de Benoist accurately defines it which had damned traditional British ale to history and with the very same unholy combination of false optimism and financial calculation which marks so much of the prejudiced priority ranking of progress. The success in this small area needs to be repeated a hundred fold, from education to environment, architecture to democracy. De Benoist's analysis of the idea of progress is the theoretical beginning to an understanding which should end in decisive practice, and this in spite of what de Benoist himself seems to be saying. "You can't turn the clock back" is itself a pernicious and mendacious shibboleth of the idea of progress. You can. History is a cycle, not a story with a beginning and an end, or if it has an end is the end not a new beginning? De Benoist charges Judaism and Christianity with having introduced a linear concept of history into human culture. The need to draw a line between being a traditionalist and a reactionary would appear to account for de Benoist's insistence that he in no way wishes to see a restoration of anything from the past, but the claim sits ill at ease with the wish to "re-enchant" the world, respect the identity of peoples, which comes out of the past, and his forthright rejection of the ideology of progress.
The political characteristic of environmental campaigners is that they reject faith in economic growth/progress (an analysis of the differences and common factors between growth and progress would have been useful at this point) as something good in itself and de Benoist is in deep sympathy with that rejection. But where environmentalists are opposed to progress it is only in its specific material manifestation as a force of physical destruction, theirs is not a rejection of progress as such. De Benoist, speaking of progress from the philosophical point of view, fails to distinguish between the general and particular. Perhaps he would say that the idea of progress by definition avoids particulars (or includes them without naming them?) Certainly his essay on progress deals only in the generality, but by seeing how progress is defined in the particular we can better see what is at fault with the idea of progress per se. Where progress is practically applied, it is not an ideology, but a measurement of the nearness to a goal. It is quite easy to lay down parameters for defining progress in for instance the teaching or learning of a foreign language, for in this case an aim is readily defined (acquisition of an ability to speak and understand a given language). Progress would be related directly to standards which can be clearly fixed of proficiency and fluency in the target language. On the other hand, where progress is without specific clearly defined aims which can be defended and clarified in this way, Progress is the war cry of Subversion.
De Benoist also takes a close look at that system which worships progress, known as capitalism. In a chapter entitled Le Troisième Age du Capitalisme and drawing on a work by Boltanski and Chiapello (Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, Gallimard 1999) he paints a picture of capitalism in its so-called "third age". The ages are defined as follows: that incarnated by the bourgeois and described by Sombart and Marx. Families and entrepreneurs and freebooters seize opportunities created by new heavy industry. This age was replaced by the age of Ford and Taylorism in the 1930's. Social conflict, initially acute, is attenuated as the proletariat gradually renounces revolution in favour of security and the assurance of ever rising living standards, which capitalism, in contradiction with Marx's prophesy, is able to provide and does provide. The ultimate aspiration is for everyone to become middle-class. The state works alongside major employers. It is the age of conflict solving in social conflict, compromise and security. This society of capitalist optimism ended symbolically with the petroleum crisis of 1973, which leads us according to de Benoist, into the third age of capitalism, a capitalism which is no longer harnessed to place and which no longer has a national face to it. It is the "turbo capitalism" famously described by Edward Lutwak. It is marked I would add by a shift from producer power to consumer power. Whereas in the second age of capitalism, the producer was admired and envied, today it is the consumer who calls the piper. As markets become deregulated, the consumer becomes increasingly sceptical and intolerant of poor service. Not only the state but also big companies are placed under the constant strain of being overtaken by a "let rip" competition. Once price controls have collapsed, producers and suppliers ply trade under the constant threat of being undercut. Prices are under constant pressure downwards as margins are squeezed. But where the consumer gains, the employee loses: as prices fall, jobs become less secure. A "job for life" becomes increasingly rare. The products which capitalism offers at knock down prices are as short lived as the temp jobs necessary to earn the money to buy them. Western manpower costs cannot hope to compete with the millions of Asia. Massive unemployment in the West is a hallmark of the new capitalism while the second age tolerated only marginal unemployment. ("Growth is rich in unemployment" -Alain Lebaude). As de Benoist notes, the major characteristic of this new capitalism is the extraordinary rise in power of the financial markets. "Shareholder value" is more important than product value. The share index no longer remotely reflects the value of a company. It becomes instead a record of speculation. The total value of capital in mutual funds in the US has risen from $17 billion in 1950 to $5000 billion in 1997 and now constitutes 50% of the total value of listed shares in the US, against 10% in 1960. Here and in other developments of the newest stage of capitalism, the state abandons its former role as risk taker. The risks are now assumed by the individual citizen. We are losing the social democratic consensus of the past in which state and employer acknowledged a responsibility to their enterprise (state/company) and to its members. The determining factor of economic action today is a matter for corporate government, that is to say solely the profitability of any project. A major move in this direction was the agreement by the key industrial nations in 1986 to deregulate the financial markets. Deregulation of the financial markets has become a motor of globalization. Supposedly creative of diversity, global capitalism is destroying diversity through the acceleration of multi-billion dollar acquisitions and mergers which have come on the heels of deregulation. At first the prime source of value was raw material, later it was the finished industrial product, now it is financial assets. On the evening that it went public on the New York Stock Exchange the company Palm Pilot attained a total value of $53 billion, more than that of General Motors. If an investor had invested $1000 each in the five major internet companies of the day when they were floated he would have been a millionaire by 9th April 1999.
What can be described as increasing democracy in capitalism, the strengthening of the powers of the investor against the managerial board, has undermined the security of the employee by stimulating cost cutting and a the taking of a more short term view of the prospects of an enterprise. The new capitalist dislikes regulations and restrictions. As industry is driven out of countries where the man-hour costs are higher, the strain on the state is increased as revenue falls and social security costs in the form of unemployment benefit increase. Pressure then grows to cut services or outsource them: deregulation spins into an accelerating spiral. At the end the totally deregulated society will be one in which the roll of the state is reduced to protecting the corporations, whose servant its has become. Increasingly, the individual will be abandoned to his/her own devices so far as the quality of retirement, education, and health are concerned. While the world is apparently becoming wealthier, the reality is that turbo capitalism is destroying natural resources at a frantic pace, abetted by nation states lead by internationalist politicians, sold creatures who no longer represent people but lobbies and interests. Those who protest are denounced as "populist", "backward", "Luddite", "unrealistic". As the state outsources its responsibilities, the gap between wealthy and poor widens. The managerial class are richly rewarded for their services and are materially seldom affected by the fortunes of any company in which they happen to be working. In the USA, according to de Benoist, the difference factor between average employee and top management has shifted from a factor of 20 to a factor of 419. We are witnessing the emergence on the world stage of a "hyper-class" (Jacques Attali) of fantastic wealth for which the entire world is a village. At the present time the world, both individuals and nation states, is living on credit. De Benoist scents disaster to come. Perhaps like Marx he underestimates the ability of capital to attenuate an increased exploitation of man by intensifying the exploitation of nature and following the exploitation of nature the enormous success of its industrialisation-the soya industry is a case in point, the paper industry is another, the fish industry a third. All these industries have been extraordinarily successful at the cost of destroying large parts of the planet, at creating profit out of the law of marginal returns. De Benoist does not once mention the demographic factor, a key factor in the rise of third age capitalism. It is the size of markets which make even the most marginal profits still profitable. The expansion of global capitalism is closely linked to the soaring population of Asia accompanied by its rising living standards and materialism and apparently insatiable demand. The future at the moment looks Asian: literally and spiritually. For de Benoist to overlook demographics when commenting on environmental degradation, the rise of turbo-capitalism and the gathering economic weight of India and China, shows that even this most comprehensive of writers has blind spots. Without taking population growth into account, all analyses of current economic trends are inadequate. Here as elsewhere in this book however, de Benoist's observations are an excellent platform for launching an in-depth discussion.
An important chapter for understanding de Benoist's pleas for democracy (he is unequivocal in his support for the concept of democracy) is that on Rousseau, called simply Relire Rousseau. In his work Démocratie: Le Problème (Le Labyrinthe Paris 1985), de Benoist had expressed the view that democracy is desirable but that Western so-called democracy does not answer to the description of what de Benoist, drawing on his understanding of democracy's historical roots, calls a true democracy. It is in this context that de Benoist writes of "re-reading Rousseau". Judging by the way some commentators dismiss Rousseau, de Benoist's chapter might better have been entitled Lire Rousseau. Jean-Jacques is a traditional bête-noire of the political right; was it not Revillo Oliver, who somewhere referred to him with characteristic hyperbole, as the "verbose godfather of liberalism" and "clinically insane"? De Benoist quotes Charles Maurras, who called him "misérable Rousseau". Rousseau's "natural savage" has been the subject of mirth for commentators who more in joy than in sorrow insist that savages all the world over are not good or noble but cowardly, cruel, greedy and generally as vile as any of the rest of us, yet as de Benoist, surely rightly, points out, "man in his natural state" was a working hypothesis and intended by Rousseau to be regarded as such; he was not intended to be a historical figure in any way.
De Benoist underlines that in Rousseau the word "natural" carries two distinct meanings, one meaning "authentic" and one meaning "original". Increasingly Rousseau's quest for the natural in his writing is a quest not so much for the primitive as for the authentic. Man is more virtuous the more "authentic" he is, that is, the more he is in harmony with his fellow men; the precondition for this, there can be no doubt is liberty. While most commentators stress that Rousseau apparently yearned for that lost state of nature from which man has fallen, (the natural in the meaning of "original") with the socialization of man, being equivalent of reminiscent of Man's fall from Grace, de Benoist submits that Rousseau was arguing that man was originally pure animal-a creature beyond, or if one will, before, good and evil. In contrast to the Encyclopaedists, Rousseau was fully aware that man was animal in origin. His insistence on the goodness of man was a challenge to the doctrine of original sin. It is the Christian doctrine of original sin which postulates the "naturally" (originally) good savage, for the Bible says that man's expulsion from the Garden of Paradise was the result of plucking from the tree of knowledge. Man lost happiness in the moment he lost the innocence of-supreme paradox-being not man. It is a fact that man as we know man is a social creature and man as man cannot return to a pure state of nature, for the simple reason that were he to do so, he would lose himself, he would cease to be man. Rousseau stressed that civilization did not make us better. On the contrary, the more sophisticated we become, the less natural and therefore the less virtuous, because virtue consist in simplicity. It is precisely a characteristic of Rousseau, argues de Benoist, that he did not look back to some fictional Golden Age, nor did he believe, as Locke did, that man entered into society by signing a hypothetical social contract, nor did he believe, as Hobbes did, that the social contract was forced upon him to defend himself against a state of permanent war. The contract belonged to the future and would be one drawn up by free men and women. Against the normal assessment of romanticism and naivety, de Benoist stresses Rousseau's political realism. What Rousseau and de Benoist do seem to share is a dismissive attitude to the pragmatic in politics, for although de Benoist states that there is more of the Machiavellian and realist in Rousseau than is widely believed, he offers little evidence that this is so. But if men should be "compelled to be free" and not divided against each other but bow to the general will, it is of more than academic interest to know in what institutional forms and with what institutional safeguards the general will defines itself. The political implication of de Benoist's admiration for Rousseau is spelled out clearly: Rousseau did not believe in absolute equality and did not admire the English system of representative democracy.
Just as Rousseau's understanding of the "nature" of man has been badly misinterpretated, so has the meaning he gives to the word "equality", argues de Benoist. Rousseau is best known for the words at the beginning of Le Contrat social "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." and "all men are born free and equal." In fact the notion of equality which Rousseau develops is a complex one. He is entirely aware that in their abilities people are not and cannot hope to be equal. There are inequalities created by nature. The equality of Le Contrat Social is not an equality of ability but an equality of comprehensive reciprocity: "engagement réciproque de tous envers chacun." Far from arguing against inequality, Rousseau proposed to institutionalise it in his proposals for the Constitutions of Corsica and Poland (which de Benoist regrets are seldom read today). In an "authentic" virtuous society, social inequalities would reflect natural inequalities. There should be a limitations to disparity of wealth to the extent that no citizen should be able buy an other. Rousseau defends the right to property but whereas for Locke the right to property is a natural right, for Rousseau it is a social right. It is created by the Social Contract and does not precede it. Rousseau was undoubtedly a staunch anti-conservative in that he believed deeply in a Republican sense of political duty and despised the calculating self-seeker, the egoist, the "I'm all right Jack" attitude of the non-political man. Abrogating responsibility to others in the affairs of state is a cardinal vice. To abandon political participation is to abandon one's very political soul; hence man must be forced to be free, must be compelled to accept responsibility for his own humanity. Against the bourgeois, the person who pursues his own interest in society, is the citizen whose interests are part of the entirety of the interests of society. The people is the source of all legitimacy. Representation is a promise of fraud. Rousseau totally rejected it.
Rousseau rejected liberal optimism too, the myth of progress and the judgment of the value of human beings based on wealth. Furthermore, and especially important for de Benoist, Rousseau did not believe in history as the account of some kind of linear progression. Drawing his inspiration from the Ancients, notably from Plato and Aristotle, in marked contrast to Heidegger and Nietzsche, Rousseau believed that democracy was indeed an ideal but one which could never be fully achieved. To what extent are Rousseau's historical accounts of man's self alienation as described in Discours sur l'inégalité hypothetical as de Benoist would have them, or literal as many commentators have understood them? On the one hand condemned as being the spiritual father of the Terror, on the other hand, praised as the initiator of a new epoch ("With Voltaire one world comes to an end and with Rousseau a new one dawns"-Goethe), de Benoist's concluding words on his essay on Rousseau should meet with widespread agreement. "It is a pity that such a complex writer continues to be simplified. Rousseau must be read again." Or just read.
There are two essays in this book on ecology. They represent a dramatic reversal of the views on the same subject which de Benoist was writing in éléments in the 1970's. At that time de Benoist was extremely hostile to the ecology movement and used the time honoured (cheap) trick of picking out the most extreme and eccentric quotations from those he was attacking, in this case in order to give the impression that ecologists were semi-hysterical millenarians. "The challenge which we face" he wrote then, "does not consist in trying to find a way of conserving an ancient nature but the means of constituting a new culture...The "naturalist" illusion consists in believing that man should stop transforming the world." (éléments Issue 21-22 1977) . I recall a talk I had with Michel Marmin in Paris in 1983 where I criticised the position taken by the French New Right on ecology. He told me that he agreed that the position was too simple and a "more subtle analysis" would soon be coming. A "more subtle analysis" would be an understatement to describe the U turn in de Benoist's views on the subject, although it is certainly the case that as well as changing, the views have become more subtle, analytical and informed.
His two essays republished here are from 1994. They illustrate the change in position. I wish there were an explanation of the cause of this change of mind (or heart), but de Benoist is not a writer who speaks of personal motivations or causes. What has brought the change about? Partly I think, Alain de Benoist has become much more sceptical of the notion of progress than he used to be, or it might be more apt to say scepticism has turned into hostility. Whereas in the past he regarded talk of progress with equivocation, today his judgement is negative. The rejection of "green politics" in the past was also, I suspect, a reflection of the influence of a residue right-wing Pavlovian distrust of anything perceived to be coming from the left, as historically the Green movement in large part although by no means exclusively, does. Green politics is by its very nature more feminine and feminine dominated since its core value is preservation and protection. In that sense it sits ill at ease with a politics which honours strength, a Nietzschean politics of the kind which was certainly more attractive to Alain de Benoist thirty years ago than it is today. Last and probably not least, the advancing degradation of the environment, the expanding greyness of the world and the destruction of all wilderness to make way for theme parks, motorways, housing estates, holiday homes and offices, has continued at a staggering rate from the sixties to the present day, that is to say during the years of de Benoist's intellectual activity. The non technical world has shrunk so rapidly in even the last 20 years, that a man of intellectual honesty and good powers of observation, and de Benoist is blessed with these faculties, can hardly fail to be struck by the significance of such change. To put it bluntly, the facts are harder to ignore now than 20 years ago.
De Benoist's argument in favour of Green politics eschews catastrophe prognostications and in this he remains true to his earlier hostility. (In the past he stressed the extreme nature of ecological warnings as evidence of an essential crankiness, today he comments on a tendency to make imprudent exaggerated forecasts as a still characteristic weakness of environmentalist organizations). He begins by drawing the reader's attention to two contradictions in what is here called not the idea but the ideology of progress. One lies in presenting progress as natural/inevitable while at the same time apparently arising out of an escape from the constraints of the natural. The second contradiction, argues de Benoist, is that progress, by arguing that by improving upon nature we improve ourselves, necessarily creates a rift between the "advanced" and "primitive" human societies, groups and individuals: the primitive are incomplete human beings who must either civilize or die out. In the name of humanity and civilization, the less fortunate, the more primitive, are treated at best with polite contempt. Progress serves as a pretext for the most "inhuman" behaviour. The ecology movement is the only political movement which now stands squarely opposed to this model of civilization and is conceptually hostile to the ideology of progress. Criticised by much of the right for their universalism and by much of the left for their attachment to roots, ecologists offer a new beginning in politics. Instead of the left-right divide, ecologists offer the "more fundamental" divide of productivism and anti-productivism, that is to say, between seeking sufficiency and seeking growth. "It is the old opposition between being and having, the just measure and always more." (p.338)
At the basis of ecological thinking, de Benoist continues, is a fundamental critique of the idea that the economy is the key to human destiny. The economy has become an end in itself. De Benoist quotes André Gorz : "capitalism has abolished everything which in tradition in a way of life, in daily civilization, might serve as an anchor for a life of completion." Here de Benoist is adds one of his characteristically astute, penetrating observations which makes him so rewarding and pleasurable to read:
"In the face of the imperious obtrusiveness of economic rationality, in the face of the technical inspection of every nook and corner of the planet, in the face of a techno-science, which by its very nature considers whatever is possible to be necessary, political ecology has the immense merit of having broken with claims made within the system on the system's terms, of having questioned the future of salaried work in a world where we are constantly manufacturing more products with fewer workers, of having denounced the catastrophic impact of productive activities on the natural environment and the life of people; in short, ecology challenges the central motif of the ideology of profit, according to which,
The sense of man is in nature. In destroying nature he destroys himself. De Benoist sees in ecology a force both conservative and radical, conservative in wanting to conserve both biodiversity as it has existed and slowly evolved over millennia, and specific human cultural traditions and societies, radical in breaking completely with the "pruductivist ideology which today underlies the planetary logic of Capital and markets." (p.337)
Some ecologists have made exaggerated claims about the exhaustion of certain resources, claims which those who insist that ecology is much ado about nothing latch onto as evidence of the lack of seriousness of ecological movements in general. The argument that reports about disaster as for example in the Report of the Club of Rome, have proved in some cases exaggerated or wrong and ecologists have produced misleading statistics (guilt lies on both sides-Shell's assurances of new vast supplies of oil, hiding the fact that these new supplies would be vastly more costly to extract than present supplies, was a misleading statistic from the other side, as even Business Week now acknowledges) and disagreement about the significance of demographics trends or how high the current human population has to go before peaking, cannot hide the fact that there are limits to all material things: "the principle seems indisputable: we do not live in a world without limit. To abandon the ideology of productivism, means to give up the notion that more is better, maximum is optimum, quantity is quality." (p339). De Benoist concludes the first essay on ecology with this arresting comment:
"At the end of the day we need to know if the earth is nothing but "a physically inanimate object" as Alain Laurent asserts and its voice is silent as Alain Renaut suggests, or if on the contrary it has something to teach us and is in some way part of us...In a world where mechanisation accentuates an existential void, a world more and more "disenchanted", an amicable connivance with things returns us to a that love of beauty which is a form of the beauty of love." (p.346)
The second essay on ecology contains a warning and indirectly an admission of the key roll played by population growth, which as this magazine has repeatedly stated, commentators, de Benoist not excluded, are loathe to dwell on:
20% the inhabitants of the earth consume 80% of its resources. The most industrialised quarter of the world consumes six times the quantity of non ferrous metal, fifteen times the quantity of paper, eight times the quantity of steel, four times the quantity of grain than the rest. What would happen if this rate of consumption were effectively extended to the rest? The answer admits of no doubt. "The truth is hard to say but there is no getting away from it. If the South catches up with the North according to the cultural criteria of happiness based on the accumulation of assets and the rules of an economy led by hypertrophic mass consumption, we will be committing mass planetary suicide." (Jean-Paul Besset).
Other essays include a critique of liberal ideology. De Benoist distinguishes sharply between democracy, which he believes is the only natural form of politics, and liberalism, which places the human individuals at the centre of politics and morality. "Liberals insist particularly on the idea that individual interests are never to be sacrificed to the collective interest, common good or public well-being." (p16)
Where de Benoist writes about liberalism he is describing a pure liberalism which in British and American discourse would be better described as libertarianism. In essence de Benoist insists that this liberalism is a an ideology posing as rational doctrine, but its rationality rests on the false assumption that man is originally or in his pure state an individual, obliged to associate with others out of practical necessity. The idea that man will act in his best interests in a free market is as Utopian as Marxism. In reality, the individual requires a "horizon" (episteme) a context, a world of references and familiar signs in order to flourish. For de Benoist, being human means to be a personality and a social being, which two facets of oneself are indissoluble. The creed of liberalism maintains that the individual is ideally sufficient unto himself. At the origin of liberal theory we find Locke, who crucially regarded freedom in terms of the right of disposing of oneself and one's goods as one pleased. In other words, freedom was understood by Locke primarily in terms of property. De Benoist hints at but does not fully expose the emptiness at the heart of libertarianism and it is libertarianism which I would prefer to use as a term for the ideology of liberalism, since classical liberalism is far removed from the what de Benoist discusses. The emptiness lies in the fact that if in an ideal society every individual is free to pursue his ends, the very sense of ends fails, since ends are only realisable in a holistic setting, other, that is, than the purely material satisfaction of bodily needs. By rejecting all bonds in the pursuit of freedom, the achievement of that freedom itself loses its value because all other isolated individuals have achieved similar freedom and there arises the nihilistic question "freedom for what"? In the moment that people come together as free individuals, they become social and compromise necessarily a certain part of their freedom. Absent from this essay is an attempt to counter the argument that in economics the individualistic pursuit of self-interest is more successful from the point of view of efficiency or reliability of service, or that historically the recent rise of liberal economics and widespread rejection of Keynsianism and Social Democratic models has at least something to do with popular revulsion at the inefficiency of state, union and socialist monopolies. A rejection of public services was largely fuelled by a pragmatic view that a watering down of state and collective power would increase the quality of services. Not for the first time, I feel that arguments are weakened by the author's avoidance of any practical aspects of theories, ideas and ideologies. They do after all claim to offer solutions to real life problems.
A reluctance to confront the issue of practical example mars the essay on what is revealingly called Psychologie du Conspirationnisme. As a psychological analysis of what might be humorously termed the "ideology of conspiratology", de Benoist strikes home, drawing an accurate sketch of the psychology of the those who see conspiracies behind the march of human history. It is too facile however, to dismiss, as de Benoist does, all conspiracy theories out of court on the grounds that there is an identifiable conspiracy monger psychology. Such a psychology exists. It is well portrayed here by de Benoist. This does not answer the practical question: is such and such conspiracy based in fact? Furthermore, the fact that conspiracy hunters may indeed suffer from psychological or even pathological traits (most of us have a "conspiracy fruitcake" story to tell) does not mean that every conspiracy they claim to have identified is non-existent. Conspiracies abound. Life is unthinkable without them. Every person ambitious to achieve anything is likely to have conspired more than once in his or her life to achieve certain ends. If the conspiracy hunter is obsessed with conspiracies, he is logically enough more likely to unearth some real conspiracies than someone who is not obsessed. (If I have a phobia about spiders and believe they are hiding everywhere, I shall often be mistaken, but not always. I am in fact more likely to discover real spiders hiding behind cupboards or under wheelbarrows than someone who does not have my phobia and who is not looking out for them. The fact that someone may suffer from a clinical pathology regarding spiders does not mean that when they say there is a tarantula under the bed they are necessarily wrong. Those who think so are illogical and may one day get bitten.
This is an excellent collection. To do it justice It stands out for the acumen of analysis, the erudition, the collection of pithy and always highly relevant data culled from a variety of sources, testimony to the author's awesome capacity to absorb books and articles. To quote a last time and leave with a de Benoist like question: we are according to Xavier Patier 25 times more productive per person in 1990 than in 1830. Why do we not have 25 times as much free time, which would be enough to enjoy amply this thought provoking collection to its full?
[Return to home]