More and more French intellectuals are denouncing a “crisis of liberalism” and are aligning themselves with far-right viewpoints. Among them are Alain Finkielkraut, Eric Zemmour, Michel Houellebecq, Elisabeth Levy, Jean-Claude Michéa, Michel Onfray, Jean-Pierre Le Goff, Pascal Bruckner, and many others. Most of them refuse to be absorbed by the populist dynamic of the Front National; many previously had leftist backgrounds; but all of them find their place in a rightwing landscape that increasingly advertises itself as young and dynamic. Two books from this scene have recently appeared. The first one is The New Children of the Century (Les Nouveaux Enfants du siècle) by Alexandre Devecchio, a thirty year old journalist covering social developments like Islamization and the radicalization of the French youth for conservative media like FigaroVox. The second one is by philosophy professor and Hannah Arendt specialist Bérénice Levet. The title of her book, Twilight of the Progressive Idols (Crepuscule des idoles progressistes), is derived from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, itself a pun on Wagner’s opera Twilight of the Gods.
Devecchio openly declares his sympathies for a new generation of right-wing activists and thinkers whom he believes have little in common with the older Le Pen generation. Far-right voters are no longer necessarily reactionaries yearning for the past, but instead are optimistically looking into the future. Levet is making her political affiliations less explicit. She insists on her originally leftist identity but criticizes liberal approaches towards culture and education, which makes her adopt right-wing perspectives.
Two major insights can be gained from the books. First: both Western populism and radical Islam are reactions against the culture of nihilism and emptiness that young people experience in school, family, and professional life. Sympathizers of the new far right and young Islamists are reacting to the same (perceived) existential crisis current in Western postindustrial societies. Second: the declared enemy of both the young far-right voters and Islamists is the “bobo” (“bourgeois-bohème”), that is, the cosmopolitan liberals normally born between 1946 and 1964 (but who may also be younger), who benefitted from a booming postwar economy but left the next generation a cultural desert in which all values have been deconstructed: “All are opposed to the ‘bobo youth’ whom they see as privileged, more and more uprooted, minoritarian and whose carefree lightness ignores the tragedy of the epoch, but with whom history will catch up sooner or later” (Devecchio: 274).
Liberalism has created a multicultural France of a fake tolerance culture fueled by repentance, victimization, and the nihilistic lack of enthusiasm for the future. The generation of “liberal progressives” (as Levet calls the bobos) is immature and generally unable to face important social problems. Bobos abandon questions of identity in favour of an empty talk about secularism. They are the gravediggers of their own culture, and the young “Arab” population – which, on this view, is overwhelmed by conspiracy theories, antisemitism, and communitarianism – has no difficulties clearing away the body of this dying France.
In the 1980s, anti-racism inspired enthusiasm among the young in France. The famous Mitterandian NGO movement SOS racisme had some real vigour that could still be felt during the elections in 2007 (which pitted Nicolas Sarkozy against Segolène Royal). Today, twenty-eight year old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, representative of a Christian right in France is, according to Devecchio, the new Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Comedians like the half-Cameroonian Dieudonné changed from antiracism to a strongly identitarian and anti-Semitic programme. Dieudonné has the status of a rock star and, as Le Monde pointed out in 2014, among his fans there are many young leftists.
Like many of the above-mentioned authors, Levet criticizes in detail the nihilistic culture brought about by the “liberalist” politics of the 1970s. Internationally, her critique of the culture of relativism coincides very much with Alan Bloom’s critique of the relativist “leftist Nietzschean” (2008), which might actually be a good English translation of the French term “bobo.” Apart from that, Levet reinvents many points that international critics of neoliberal education have been working on for years, beginning with Bill Reading’s The University in Ruins. But unlike the latter, who focuses on corporate capitalism, Levet is obsessed with progressive liberals. Progressive liberals have created a “culture of novelties, of movement, of the flight forward” (28). A fake idea of progress brought about a total rupture in education with the country’s cultural legacy. The biggest problem, according to Levet, is relativism. The liberal attitude permeating the education system leaves no place for great ideas, great works, historical events or inspiring people. This “progressivism” is nihilistic because it has misunderstood the idea of progress. The left has been unable to provide an all-encompassing, cultural vision of modernity, which might indeed be the reason for the decimation of the French left in the last elections. According to Levet, the only remaining ideal is an abstract notion of progress always going for the newest of the new. Levet suggests establishing a more concrete reality based on history that contains values with which young people can identify.
Second, liberal culture misunderstands the notion of freedom. The individual is merely free in the sense of being cultureless. Citizens, students, parents, and politicians have become “users” (47). As users they are free to use whatever device they want. However, this freedom is based on cultural emptiness because it cancels the real freedom of persons who can represent and identify with a particular part of human civilization and decide to make choices within a concrete cultural sphere. Users are “merely unbound but not free” (“Deliés mais non libres,” 24), writes Levet.
According to Levet, the atomization of society (today called multiculturalism), fostered by well-meaning and rational liberals, has led to “cultural insecurity,” a term coined by geographer Christophe Guilluy. This is reflected in education. Schools have become training centers and teachers have become coaches. Contents and curricula are not determined by a corresponding culture but in accordance with PISA rankings. In this world, people (no matter of what origin) revert to simplified and binary modes of thinking and to conformism; the more so since they are submitted to a subtle form of tyranny of opinion. The situation is scarily reminiscent of what happened in the 1920s in Germany. At that time, atomized people would be attracted by the mystifying and irrational ideologies of the Nazis. What will the disillusioned people go for this time? So far, they have voted for Le Pen, which has the advantage that, at least in the eyes of these two authors, liberal approaches to education and politics are no longer seen as the only way.
Both books act against a nihilistic culture of relativism that lacks authenticity, action, and vigour. They are opposed to a globalized, uprooted, identity-less Western culture determined by anomie, the absurdities of an exaggerated anti-authoritarianism, the obsession with political correctness, and bureaucracy. The question is: why does it take far-right people to criticize all this? The reason is that roots, identity, and history have never been pet topics of leftists. They prefer to talk about openness, human rights, and tolerance. For the present authors, leftist politics has led to the deconstruction of the country’s cultural foundation, which becomes particularly dramatic when countries are under pressure from immigration. Forty years of liberal culture, liberal education, and liberal politics brought about a spiritual, intellectual, and linguistic poverty that has consistently been disguised as a “progressive culture.” Levet wants to smash the progressive idols. But what are the alternatives? Levet writes: “We want faith in the instruction of the Enlightenment, the human sciences, and culture as the shaping powers of the human spirit that will happen through the contact with classical works” (28). Further down, she writes that she wants to create “spirits able to make efforts, who have interiorized a cultural world, a language, a heritage … who can hold out against the logic of consumer society” (56). To “the junk spirituality [of Islamists] we oppose a real spiritual life that was born in Greece: the passion to question, a critical spirit” (63).
Is this not what anybody – including bobos – should want? This “conservatism” is not antithetical to leftist agendas as it does not call for conformity, totalitarianism, and the suppression of critical thinking. According to Levet, the new conservatives want to “attach their existence to something that is older [and bigger] than themselves” (43). What will that be? The Pope, Jeanne d’Arc, or Putin? Obviously, not all options will be desirable. Levet is obsessed with the teaching of the classics. I, for one, have the impression that a lot of “rote learning” will be used in the “reculturation” project because this will establish an intimate link with culture and language. But will reading Racine and Corneille turn young French people (including those of Arab origin) into responsible citizens? And maybe they simply do not want to read them because they live in a culture where those particular individuals are not valued. Is this again only the fault of liberals or is it not a problem that is older and bigger than us? Liberals did not invent iPhones and video games. Levet is convinced that liberals and not capitalism abolished the “learning by heart” method (56). However, if liberalism had never existed, would young people today populate the shopping malls reciting Racine? The crisis of education and Western civilization is due to the fact that there is no bigger objective, no aim that society as a whole is supposed to achieve. And it is too simple to say that liberals have simply deconstructed it away.
I was amazed to find myself in agreement with many of the arguments brought forward in those books, including those concerning the necessity of assimilation, the hypocrisy of the liberal concept of “living together” (vivre ensemble), and the valid definition of civilization in terms of a Montesquieuian style to which all members should adapt (Levet develops this point with regard to the burkini affair). I also confirm Levet’s descriptions of the disastrous influence of a certain kind of progressive liberalism on education. Well-meaning “liberals” make our lives difficult with an enthusiastic production of novelty for novelty’s sake: new pedagogical methods, new workshops, and new teaching techniques, which are mainly designed to help the weak (and sometimes not even that). This mindless hyperactivity does not foster but prevent the creation of new cultural achievements. Listening only to the students’ wishes leads to cultural desertification.
Still, I have doubts whether those new right-wing youngsters will save the country. Certainly a rejuvenated right-wing extremism will not produce the right cultural policies. Maybe just because of their juvenile innocence and enthusiasm they are unaware that they are playing with fire. Where will this obsession with anti-liberalism lead them? Maybe they should come and live in the Middle East for a while, as I do. Here they will find authoritarian leaders, religion, identity, tradition, rules, values. Yet many people in the Middle East would much rather like to escape this culture and join the liberal West. During the Arab Spring those populations brought down non-liberal governments. Urban people in Russia, Turkey, and China would like to do the same. Are they all bobos? Can the whole world be divided into globalized, societal neo-bourgeois on the one hand and traditional, catholic petty bourgeois (Devecchio: 217), on the other? Devecchio’s term “neo-bourgeois,” reminiscent of nouveau riche, leads to a further question: does this petty-bourgeoisie have the cultural potential to reinstall the “elegance, distinction, aesthetics and désinvolture” (Levet: 124) of the old world that the liberal regime has apparently gambled away? Levet speaks of “aristocratic individualism” (117). But are those items not bourgeois by definition and thus the business of bobos? The petty-bourgeois taste is rather similar to that of neoliberals (who are the typical nouveau riches), which is the realm of kitsch.
The biggest problem with both books are the oversimplifications. A typical example is the quick linking of cultural liberalism to economic neoliberalism, concluding that liberalism has been a sort of imperial utopia from the beginning (Devecchio: 281). Devecchio writes: “[Cultural] liberalism was the Trojan horse of the free circulation of capitals promoted by financial globalization and through which the initial liberal naïve optimism [‘angélisme’ in French] could be logically extended by opening the borders” (Devecchio: 68). Also Levet speaks of the “tacit pact between cultural leftism and economic liberalism” (Levet: 58). Neither of the authors make an effort to explain the nature of the link. Did it come about by magic? What follows in Devecchio’s book is a sentence from Régis Debray who holds that “May ’68 was the cradle of bourgeois society.” This has nothing to do with the neoliberalism argument. Connections between liberalism and neoliberalism do exist (Jean-Claude Michéa has made some of them visible) but they are relatively weak and paradoxical. All the world’s liberals saw the election of Reagan in 1980 as a disaster. I never met a bobo who is pro-Thatcher. How can this conspiracy theory of “leftists working for neoliberal capitalism” be maintained? By depicting shopping malls as liberal inventions? The only thing liberalism and neoliberalism have in common is that they like freedom. But the fact that I like green tea does not imply that I also like Brussel sprouts just because both are green.
Such oversimplifications are frequent. Problems that right-wing philosophy cannot solve will be put on the bill of progressive liberals. Levet writes that “we want faith in instruction in Enlightenment” (28). A hundred pages later she states that “the idea, transmitted from the Enlightenment, that liberty needs to be grasped at any costs, focused only on rights and brought about a break with traditions” (155). Is Enlightenment what we want or is Enlightenment the source of all liberal evils? I would hold that it’s both, and leftist thought has gone to great lengths to “solve” this paradox – even if in reality it perhaps cannot be solved.
Equally hastily established is the link between liberalism and transhumanism. Devecchio writes: “The individual believes to be its own norm, and the resulting atomization leads to transhumanism, this Promethean fantasy of auto-generation” (284). Levet, too, is convinced that “transhumanism proceeds from a progressive anthropology” (177). Of course it is progressive, but that does not mean that transhumanism is typically liberal. Conservative Italian Futurists preached transhumanism, too. Furthermore, liberal scholars also launched the tradition of Critical Posthumanism. Once again, one does not need to be right-wing to develop the cultural criticism that these authors consider unique to the new right.
With a further simplifying gesture Levet swipes away the entire body of deconstructionist philosophy. However, even if one partially agrees with her, it will always be necessary to point out that deconstruction is not progressive by definition. Progressive people usually construct. Deconstructors are skeptics who do not believe in Socratic-Platonic progress and therefore tend to deconstruct the newest of the new. In some way, ruminating liberals are conservatives and the new far-right is a progressive, activist movement reminiscent of the Italian Futurists, optimistically moving forward towards a bright future, destroying liberal cultural achievements on the way. The resemblance with radical leftism of the 1960s is surprising and Devecchio’s comparison of Maréchal-Le Pen with Cohn-Bendit is revealing.
A more nuanced presentation of the new far-right phenomenon would not have given in to the binary opposition of young and enthusiastic conservatives to edgy, narcissistic bobos. Why did progressive liberals develop their culture of openness and self-criticism in the first place? Because they felt strong and secure. The new right-wing movement, on the other hand, acts out of weakness and insecurity. Therefore idealizations and diabolizations are lurking everywhere and they should be skeptically examined and not reinforced in the hands of those intellectuals. Instead of obsessively fighting against liberalism, it would be more constructive and also logically cogent to fight against what Gilles Lipovetsy has called “hedonist capitalism.” In the end, that’s what we all dislike. And the solution is certainly not a return to “authoritarian capitalism.”
The most interesting insight of Levet’s book is that liberal and neoliberal education (which I would always distinguish) have led to similar results. Levet’s excoriation of liberal education has an equivalent in Anglophone criticism of neoliberal education. However, this criticism is directed against the influence of globalization. Schools are no longer places where knowledge is produced and refined, their focus has instead shifted to economically exploitable technical knowledge. Graduates need to be inserted into the global economy without being submitted to any cultural requirements. This is the result of the harsh conditions of international capitalism and not the work of liberal bobos. In neoliberal education, teachers are told by companies and not by PISA rankings what they have to teach. Hedonist and authoritarian capitalism have similar faces as both lead to similar states of deculturation.
Alexandre Devecchio: Les Nouveaux enfants du siècle
(The New Children of the Century)
Price : EUR 20.00
Paris, Cerf, 2016, 336pp.
Bérénice Levet: Le Crépuscule des idoles progressistes
(The Twilight of Progressive Idols)
Price: EUR 19.50
Paris, Stock, 2017, 263pp.
Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait. He is the author of Films and Dreams: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Sokurov, Kubrick, Wong Kar-wai (2007) and has written a number of books on topics ranging from intercultural aesthetics to the philosophy of architecture.