Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Mark Lilla on the Nouvelle Droit

David Brooks has posted his Sidney Awards for long-form journalism, an event I always look forward to at this time of year. One of his winners is a piece in The New York Review of Books by Mark Lilla, one of my favorite journalists, on the French New Right. These are the same people Thomas Chatterton wrote about in The New Yorker a year ago, which I wrote about in January. I find these people and their program fascinating, and I recommend Lilla's piece.

Lilla begins by noting that the nationalist right is on the move across Europe:
In countries as diverse as France, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Italy, efforts are underway to develop a coherent ideology that would mobilize Europeans angry about immigration, economic dislocation, the European Union, and social liberalization, and then use that ideology to govern. Now is the time to start paying attention to the ideas of what seems to be an evolving right-wing Popular Front.
So Lilla went to France, where he speaks the language, to investigate:
This past summer I spent some time reading and meeting these young writers in Paris and discovered more of an ecosystem than a cohesive, disciplined movement. Still, it was striking how serious they are and how they differ from American conservatives. They share two convictions: that a robust conservatism is the only coherent alternative to what they call the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of our time, and that resources for such a conservatism can be found on both sides of the traditional left–right divide. More surprising still, they are all fans of Bernie Sanders.

The intellectual ecumenism of these writers is apparent in their articles, which come peppered with references to George Orwell, the mystical writer-activist Simone Weil, the nineteenth-century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, the young Marx, the ex-Marxist Catholic philosopher Alasdair Macintyre, and especially the politically leftist, culturally conservative American historian Christopher Lasch, whose bons mots—“uprootedness uproots everything except the need for roots”—get repeated like mantras. They predictably reject the European Union, same-sex marriage, and mass immigration. But they also reject unregulated global financial markets, neoliberal austerity, genetic modification, consumerism, and AGFAM (Apple-Google-Facebook-Amazon-Microsoft).
Most of these writers identify as Catholic despite little evidence that they have any faith; Lilla suggests that
the relationship between religious and political identification is reversing in Europe—that it is no longer religious affiliation that helps determine one’s political views, but one’s political views that help determine whether one self-identifies as religious. 
The new rightists long for a more organic alternative to the global society of international neoliberalism, with its worship of the free individual. They are strongly environmentalist and often expound on the need to produce and consume less so that our human and natural heritages can be preserved. Above all they talk and write lovingly of European Civilization, and they argue that it is the mission of a nation to pass on its accumulated wisdom to future generations, "not to serve an agglomeration of autonomous individuals bearing rights."

Lilla concludes with a warning:
Not many of the French writers and journalists I know are taking these intellectual developments very seriously. They prefer to cast the young conservatives and their magazines as witting and unwitting soldiers in Marine Le Pen’s campaign to “de-demonize” the National Front, rather than as a potential third force. I think they are wrong not to pay attention, much as they were wrong not to take the free-market ideology of Reagan and Thatcher seriously back in the 1980s. The left has an old, bad habit of underestimating its adversaries and explaining away their ideas as mere camouflage for despicable attitudes and passions. Such attitudes and passions may be there, but ideas have an autonomous power to shape and channel, to moderate or inflame them.
I see this error of the left all around me, the refusal to take those who disagree with them seriously. The new right is a very powerful force, and it cannot be dismissed by saying that it is "just racism" or "just another way to defend the interests of the powerful."


Unknown said...

Perhaps a reason not to take these guys seriously is the same reason you often offer for not taking the left seriously, which is that no real alternative to capitalism-democracy-meritocracy, with their attendant cosmopolitanism, is in sight. Some of these thinkers' complaints about a society that is merely a collection of autonomous individuals have merit, but I don't foresee any major return to localism, rootedness, and tradition in western society (bar self-consciously sectarian and minority movements along the lines of the "Benedict option.") I just don't think it's going to happen, for better or worse. In which case, while the ideas themselves have some interest, a leftist critique that these intellectuals Lilla is talking about would in practice mainly serve to provide intellectual cover for violent rightism-cum-racism also has some merit.

Douglas Mitchell said...

As an avowed liberal myself, I admit that I don't always take the right all that seriously. I am guilty of of the same characterization of the right, a visceral, almost instinctive rejection of the people holding these beliefs - without going through the hard work of actually listening and evaluating the spectrum of those beliefs. I do not usually read David Brooks - finding his arguments to support American conservatism so convoluted and easily refuted by anyone who is even half aware of current events to not be worth the effort. However, the reference to the Mark Lilla article was very interesting and to me, hopeful. Collectively, we human beings have got to find better ways of organizing ourselves. Individually we are so limited - when we work collectively we have such power. Mostly, we use this power to exploit, dominate, and destroy. If only we could use our power to comfort and enrich, heal and create.

Unknown said...

I'm a liberal as well, and I probably find these French rightists' critique of modernity more attractive that a lot of people do. But I just don't see a lot of young people wanting to return to small towns and open small shops or start family farms, and wanting to start going back to church or marry someone they grew up knowing. College, meritocracy, high pay, exciting cities, cosmopolitanism, and the global entertainment market are going to continue to draw people off and undercut whatever efforts the rightists might make. What League of Legends or Pokemon or Gangnam Style fan is going to trade all that in for bowling with the Elk Lodge?