Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Alt-Right in France

I just finished reading an excellent article by Thomas Chatterton Williams in the December 4 New Yorker. It's about the French nouvelle droit, what Americans would call the Alt-Right. In France the anti-immigrant right has among its leaders serious intellectuals who have articulated a detailed argument for their views. Their approach mixes conservative ideas and attitudes that date back centuries with an eclectic mix of contemporary themes, some of them taken from the left, and I found it very interesting.

These new rightists believe that who people are depends on their history, their culture, the ideas they were raised believing, even the geography of their homelands, and who people are matters. What a nation is like will not depend so much on its political system or its economy as on its inhabitants. A nation of one kind of people will necessarily be different from one whose citizens are some other kind of people. As Tyler Cowen put it in his summary of American neo-reactionary ideas, "culture matters."

Williams meets first with Renaud Camus, a genteel man from an old family once known mainly for his erotic gay novels. Camus launched an extended attack on France's current president:
Camus derides Macron, a former banker, as a representative of “direct Davos-cracy”—someone who thinks of people as “interchangeable” units within a larger social whole. “This is a very low conception of what being human is,” he said. “People are not just things. They come with their history, their culture, their language, with their looks, with their preferences.” He sees immigration as one aspect of a nefarious global process that renders obsolete everything from cuisine to landscapes. “The very essence of modernity is the fact that everything—and really everything—can be replaced by something else, which is absolutely monstrous,” he said. . . .
This distaste for the obliterating sameness of modernity unites European conservatives with, among others, anarchists like James Scott, nationalists in Japan and India, and many environmentalists. This is of course an old tradition in France, where many people love the rural culture, with its thousands of cheeses and so on, and worship the village their families come from.

Chatterton devotes much time to Alain Benoist, who was part of the 1968 study group, known by the acronym GRECE, that issued the first manifesto of the New Right and coined the term Identitarian for its members. Benoist has written more than a hundred books and is still an important thinker and writer:
In View from the Right (1977), Benoist declared that he and other members of GRECE considered “the gradual homogenization of the world, advocated and realized by the two-thousand-year-old discourse of egalitarian ideology, to be an evil.” The group expressed allegiance to “diversity” and “ethnopluralism”—terms that sound politically correct to American ears but had a different meaning in Benoist’s hands. In Manifesto for a European Renaissance (1999), he argued:

The true wealth of the world is first and foremost the diversity of its cultures and peoples. The West’s conversion to universalism has been the main cause of its subsequent attempt to convert the rest of the world: in the past, to its religion (the Crusades); yesterday, to its political principles (colonialism); and today, to its economic and social model (development) or its moral principles (human rights). Undertaken under the aegis of missionaries, armies, and merchants, the Westernization of the planet has represented an imperialist movement fed by the desire to erase all otherness.

From this vantage point, both globalized Communism and globalized capitalism are equally suspect, and a “citizen of the world” is an agent of imperialism. When Benoist writes that “humanity is irreducibly plural” and that “diversity is part of its very essence,” he is not supporting the idea of a melting pot but of diversity in isolation: all Frenchmen in one territory and all Moroccans in another. It is a nostalgic and aestheticized view of the world that shows little interest in the complex economic and political forces that provoke migration. Identitarianism is a lament against change made by people fortunate enough to have been granted, through the arbitrary circumstance of birth, citizenship in a wealthy liberal democracy.
Many conservatives these days share Benoist's distaste for colonialism, and indeed for any notion that the West should dominate the world or export its ideas. Their quietism reminds me of some American religious conservatives; having lost the battle for control of the public discourse, they now only seek to separate themselves from it, carving out a space where they can do their own thing.

You can read GRECE's Manifesto for the New Right online, and I just did. It begins with a savage attack on the modern world:
What is modernity? Modernity designates the political and philosophical movement of the last three centuries of Western history. It is characterized primarily by five converging processes: individualization, through the destruction of old forms of communal life; massification through the adoption of standardized behavior and lifestyles; desacralization through the displacement of the great religious narratives by a scientific interpretation of the world; rationalization, through the domination of instrumental reason, the free market, and technical efficiency; and universalization, through a planetary extension of a model of society postulated implicitly as the only rational possibility and thus as superior. . . .

The imagery of modernity is dominated by desires for freedom and equality. But these two cardinal values have been betrayed. Cut off from the communities which protected them, giving meaning and form to their existence, individuals are now subject to such an immense mechanism of domination and decision that their freedom remains purely formal. They endure the global power of the marketplace, technoscience, or communications without ever being able to influence their course.The promise of equality has failed on two fronts: communism has betrayed it by installing the most murderous totalitarian regimes in history; capitalism has trivialized it by legitimating the most odious social and economic inequalities in the name of equality. Modernity proclaims rights without in any way providing the means to exercise them. . . .
As a brief summary of modernity, this has much to recommend it. Much of it would be accepted by many leftists; Benoist told Williams that in the last French election he voted for a far left candidate. And now, the manifesto says, modernity has reached a crisis:
Modernity has given birth to the most empty civilization mankind has ever known: the language of advertising has become the paradigm of all social discourse; the primacy of money has imposed the omnipresence of commodities; man has been transformed into an object of exchange in a context of mean hedonism; technology has ensnared the lifeworld in a network of rationalism – a world replete with delinquency, violence and incivility, in which man is at war with himself against all, an unreal world of drugs, virtual reality and media-hyped sports, in which the countryside is abandoned for unlivable suburbs and monstrous megalopolises, and where the solitary individual merges into an anonymous and hostile crowd.
Fortunately this awful world cannot long endure, and signs of its imminent end are all around us:
preoccupation with ecology, concern for the quality of life, the role of "tribes" and "networks," revival of communities, the politics of group identities, multiplication of intra- and supra-state conflicts, the return of social violence, the decline of established religions, etc.
Again, many activists from across the political spectrum would accept this analysis. And the new Right has a 13-Point Plan to fix everything! Below are the 13 points as the manifesto titles them, with my summaries or brief quotations from the text:

1) Against Indifferentiation and Uprooting; For Clear and Strong Identities
Celebrate your Frenchness, or your Irishness or whatever. Don't blend in. Orthodox Jews are held up as a model of how to preserve your own community and people in a crazy world.
2) Against Racism; For the Right to Difference
No race or culture is better than another, but all peoples are better off keeping to themselves.
3) Against Immigration; For Cooperation
France should be for the French, and Moroccans should stay in Morocco. Not just for the sake of the French but the sake of Moroccans, since removal from their own civilization will only degrade and dehumanize them. Wealthy countries should help poor ones fix their problems so people will want to stay, but without imposing western notions of how to do things.
4) Against Sexism; For the Recognition of Gender
Vague word salad about promoting equality and gender difference at the same time; I doubt any women worked on this manifesto
5) Against the New Class; For Autonomy from the Bottom Up
Overthrow the Davos class
6) Against Jacobinism; For a Federal Europe
The European project should be pursued only far enough to prevent war, and nobody should interfere in a nation's self-governance
7) Against Depoliticization; For the Strengthening of Democracy
Real people power will lead to the end of the Davos class (see above) and the re-orientation of the state toward what regular folks want – to me this sounded exactly like the Trump people, both in its aspirations and its complete lack of any real plan
8) Against Productivism; For New Forms of Labor
Instead of striving to produce more and more by ever greater dehumanization, we should consume less and focus on making work meaningful. Which is something that millions of people agree with but nobody knows how to make happen.
9) Against the Ruthless Pursuit of Current Economic Policies; For an Economy at the Service of the People
More vague word salad about things being better once the evil capitalists are tamed
10) Against Gigantism; For Local Communities
We were made to live in villages
11) Against Megalopolis; For Cities on a Human Scale 
"homes are no longer built for living but for surviving"
12) Against Unbridled Technology; For an Integral Ecology 
Growth must be limited and some sectors de-industrialized so that we can live within our resources.
13) For Independent Thought and a Return to the Discussion of Ideas
Now that, I am all for.
What is one to make of this? Many of things on this list are appealing to people across the political spectrum: a more authentic way of living, less focus on efficiency, more involvement in local communities, a shift to ecologically sound modes of production, even if that means we have fewer cars and smaller houses. A more thoughtful approach to life and politics. The xenophobic spirit is more popular in Europe than American liberals imagine, since many Europeans are deeply attached to the old rural and small town culture of their nations. Even some pro-immigration activists acknowledge the force of these concerns; they consider, however, that sometimes other things are more important, especially the obligation to take in refugees who are in danger of being killed in their homes. Because in Europe the immigration debate focuses on refugees more than anything else. The two million Syrians who have come to Europe in recent years did not come in search of an easy life; they fled death and destruction. Thus far the argument that Europe must take in as many as it can safely harbor has carried the day in France and Germany and therefore in the EU's institutions, but the price has been a surge in support for anti-immigrant parties.

I am ambivalent. I would love an alternative to global capitalism, but none is on offer, and the manifesto's assertions about a gentler world do not constitute a serious plan. Culture does matter, and people from different cultures are not interchangeable. Immigration does change things. I don't mind the changes, but other people do, and I am not willing to say that their beliefs are any more wrong than my own.

Behind all of this Alt-Right stuff lurks an irrational fear or hatred of the other that I just don't feel. I try to be understanding of other people's feelings, but by own roots in white bread middle America just don't have that kind of appeal to me. And I am not willing to see anyone persecuted for your discomfort.

Reading this manifesto, I felt transported into a dream: a dream of a peaceful world of strong communities in which people do meaningful work and govern themselves according to solid notions of right and wrong inherited from their ancestors, a dream in which nobody who looks different or asks too many questions is allowed. Even though I know how powerful such dreams have been in human history, I simply can't take them seriously. Life is not like that, and you will never make it so, no matter how eloquently you write or how obnoxiously you tweet.


Anonymous said...

One interesting aspect of these kinds of movements is the seemingly inevitable alliance between the kind of pretty vaporings about cozy-comfy village life that you describe here--and which I too admit have their attractions--with brutal tough-guy-ism. What is it about rocking-chair-by-the-fire nostalgia that attracts an alliance with young men whose main political platform is the pleasure of beating people up (in person or online)? Maybe there really is some sort of deep, powerful, unconscious link between village nostalgia and a longing for charivari, rough music, taunts, riding out on a rail, honor and shame, etc., etc.

Maybe modernity--meritocracy, bureaucracy, deracination, enclosure and clearance, forced ethnic mixing, police forces, the decline of violence--is the revenge of the shamed of the village.

szopen said...

"The two million Syrians who have come to Europe in recent years did not come in search of an easy life; they fled death and destruction"

THat's wrong. They did that when they came to Turkey. Once in Turkey, they were safe, though they had to live very ppor lifes. But then, they went on to Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and so on, and somehow still not being safe there and still felling death and destruction, until they reached Germany.

That's what makes us wary of the teary stories about people escaping death and destruction.

Moreover, they should be helped, but then they should return to their homes ASAP, and we should help them rebuild their homes.

John said...

I suppose it's true that Syrian refugees were fairly safe in Turkey, but the Turks don't want them and make it impossible for them to do anything but hang around refugee camps and eat UN rice. Not much of a life.

People need work to do and homes and lives. Indefinite detention in a refugee camp is not a solution.

I'm all for getting refugees back home as soon as possible, and I hope this will begin in Syria within a year or two. As soon as we get around to recognizing the actual Syrian government again and helping them end the war.

szopen said...

"People need work to do and homes and lives. Indefinite detention in a refugee camp is not a solution."
Sure, but why exactly they need homes and lives in Germany? The first couple Syrian refugees who were brought to Poland by church organisation I think all escaped to the Germany within a month.

As for the new right manifesto - strange, but most of it looks absolutely plain, even with vague left-of-centre feeling.

Anonymous said...

To me, the bright side of this movement is the challenge to the presently almost limitless reign of work and marketplace values. Meritocracy, bureaucracy, corporate capitalism, megacities for the best and the brightest--there's too much of it already. But, with respect, when the protest starts obsessing over the presence of foreigners, and/or puts names or codewords to despised ethnic groups, is when it becomes ugly, dangerous, and noxious. Put very simply, if forced to the choice, I'll take contemporary anomie and our souls reduced to resumes over xenophobia and racism, any day.