Liberalism as The Realm of Lesser Evil: Jean-Claude Michéa

Besides his knack for exposing such errors in reflective judgment, Michéa displays impressive perspicacity in noticing the relationship of liberalism to the Marxist political project.  Deferring to the expertise of two towering figures in the history of political Marxism, he reminds his readers in a footnote that “Lenin did not hesitate to locate Marx in an intellectual continuity with Smith and Ricardo,” and that his onetime-ally Kautsky had before him “already made Marx the direct heir of ‘English economic science,’ i.e. of original liberalism.”[174]  As Michéa therefore argues,

beneath its radical appearance, [the] “materialist” [Marxist] fashion of viewing things represents no more than a rigorous systemization of the essential postulates of the modern imaginary (already partly effected, moreover, by Adam Smith).  And it was certainly not by chance that the different discourses that today celebrate capitalist globalization, held to be inevitable and eliminating all conceivable barriers to the sway of a unified world market, all rest on the idea that the future of humanity can only be read on the basis of the compulsions of economic growth, itself dependent on the ceaseless advance of “new technologies.”[175]

If Michéa is better than Losurdo at unpacking the historical interconnections between Marxism and liberalism, however, it is only because his politics are far worse.  It is not hard to infer from the tone of the passage just cited that Michéa is profoundly ambivalent to the path charted by liberal modernity.  Insofar as most of the socialist currents inspired by Marx have sought to overcome capitalist society on the basis of capitalism itself, he sees them as merely an extension of the outworn liberal logic of “progress.”[176]  To his credit, Michéa regards the initial impulse that lay behind this modern belief — i.e., that social conditions could be continuously improved over time — as expressing a legitimate “desire to escape at all costs…the hell of ideological civil war.”[177]  Nevertheless, to his mind, the obstinate adherence to this vision of limitless growth in the present is untenable (or “unsustainable,” to use the term currently in vogue).  Michéa therefore chastises Marx and Engels for failing to recognize “the ecological limits that any project of unlimited economic growth would inexorably come up against.”[178]

At this point, Michéa unfortunately lapses into a rather shallow form of moralism.  In this respect, he is not all that far removed from another Orwellian critic of “lesser evilist” politics: the late Christopher Hitchens.[179]  Whereas Hitchens culturally “broke left” in the aftermath of 9/11 — promoting atheism, secularism, and rationality — Michéa has turned to the right.  He heaps scorn upon anything and everything that he takes to be emblematic of the depravity and licentiousness of modern life, denouncing them as “contrary to good sense and common decency.”[180]  Sexual impropriety, obesity, veganism/vegetarianism, and recreational drug use are only a few of the many examples of “indecency” attracting the French philosopher’s ire.[181]  Lamenting the rapid disintegration of traditional “values” and “moral scruples” to capitalism’s unremitting forward march, Michéa announces that he intends “to undemonize the concepts of ‘tradition,’ ‘customs,’ [and] ‘roots.’”[182]  As anarchists go, he is fairly blasé about the personal autonomy and individual rights usually associated with the rise of the modern bourgeois social subject.  Michéa openly objects to “the capitalist lifestyle and its narcissistic individualism,”[183] which erode “preexisting moral and cultural possibilities.”[184]  In one of his most reactionary moments, he even expresses his regret at the breakup of the traditional family structure, and its replacement by the individual as the basic economic unit of society.  He complains of the reduction of conventional bonds of consanguinity to relationships of mere contract,[185] disdaining the way “[t]he bourgeoisie has torn the pathetic veil of sentiment from family relations and reduced them to purely monetary ones,” as Marx and Engels put it.[186]

Here Michéa drinks from the same trough of pro-family, anti-individualist tripe that reactionaries have been peddling for over two centuries now.  The counterrevolutionary Catholic author Louis de Bonald, reviewing Germaine de Staël’s Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, thus found her criticisms of republicanism wanting in this respect, feeling they did not cut deep enough.  While de Staël was fiercely opposed to Jacobinism and its terroristic excesses, she certainly did not pine for a return to the ancien régime, the prerevolutionary past so beloved by de Bonald.  She denounced “compulsory service, such as that of the corvée,and other relicts of feudal barbarism,” as she called them.  De Bonald also took the liberal De Staël to task for railing against “the threefold fetters of an intolerant church, a feudal nobility, and an unlimited monarchy.”[187]  In a xenophobic fit, he alleged that she made too many concessions to England and “her happy and liberal fatherland,” Genoa.[188]  As de Bonald saw it, liberal individualism had slowly (but undeniably) undermined the traditional authority of the family.  “Republics, particularly the English one, only count individuals,” the French royalist wrote in 1818.  “The French monarchy saw only families.  The result is that there is more movement and agitation in republics, and more stability and repose in our monarchy.”[189]

The mid-19th century critic and völkisch theorist Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl expressed a similar feeling of disquiet when it came to the liberal argument favoring the primacy of the individual over the primacy of the family.  In his 1855 work on The Natural History of the German People, Riehl contended that constitutional liberalism gravely endangered the fundamental integrity of the family unit.  Whereas Hegel taught that the modern state represented the apotheosis of freedom and rationality, over and above the spheres of the family and civil society,[190] Riehl reversed this order: the family, and not the private realm of civil society or the public realm of the state, was the only site where the antinomies of modern existence could be resolved.  (The contrast between Riehl’s reversal and Marx’s reversal of the Hegelian schema in the Philosophy of Right is illuminating: Marx saw the only way to overcome the irrationality of capitalism as the creation of a classless society, in which institutions such as the family and the state could then be abolished).[191]  “Taken to its extreme, a constitutional state would have to lead to a loosening of marriage laws in theory and to the gradual disavowal of the home in practice,” Riehl warned.  “The state, as a mere legal agency, recognizes only individual persons — citizens.  It disregards the natural, historical factor of a collective folk personality, which manifests itself to us in those two mighty organisms, society and the family, that have been ennobled by the moral force of historic traditions.”[192]

Michéa stands on essentially the same ground as Riehl and de Bonald, however, when he looks to derive the practices of “sharing” and “reciprocity” from traditional structures, hoping to thereby offset the selfishness and “egoism” of liberal bourgeois society.  “It is [only by] moving upwards from the specific forms of local (or ‘territorialized’) life, and the one-on-one dealings that come with it (what Alain Caillé calls ‘primary sociality,’ of which family life is a major part) that the elementary structures of reciprocity [might] be put into place.”[193]  Indeed, against this Stirnerian egoism, Michéa is forced to invoke the intellectually flaccid Orwellian notion of “the common decency of ‘ordinary people.’”[194]  The utility of this notion, he claims, consists in its remaining a “deliberately vague and imprecise concept.”  Michéa hints from time to time, however, that this common decency “results from a continual work of humanity on itself in order to radicalize, internalize, and universalize these underlying human virtues expressed in the aptitudes to give, receive, and assist.”[195]  He later enlarges on this idea of “human virtues,” defining them as “psychological and cultural dispositions to generosity and fidelity.”[196]  Now and then Michéa tries to provide his refurbished, latter-day aretaic vision with an anthropological foundation, rooted in Marcel Mauss’ classic exposition of primitive gift economies.[197]  The traditional societies Mauss observed in his 1925 piece, he argued, were governed by the reciprocal logic of “give and take” rather than the selfish logic (or “icy waters”) of “egoistic calculation.”[198]  Given his anarchist sensibilities and the emphasis he places on the anthropological study of the gift, it might superficially appear that Michéa is close to another high-profile anarchist author and anthropologist, David Graeber.  Over the course of the last decade or so, Graeber has explored pre-monetary gift-giving practices in his anthropological work.[199]  This scholarly focus is loosely related to his involvement in the anti-/alter-globalization movement, rooted as it was in principles of direct action and the creation of prefigurative political models.  Conversely, Michéa was unimpressed by anti-/alter-globalization politics, and did nothing to support it.[200]  Moreover, unlike Graeber, Michéa withholds his endorsement of the direct action championed by these politics,[201] preferring “Chinese cultural traditions that privilege indirect action on the conditions of a political process rather than the methodical forcing of the process itself.”[202]

In the last instance, Michéa’s argument that liberal civilization was founded upon a pessimistic view of human nature, which subsequently gave way to arrogant optimism, is unconvincing.  The narrative arc he describes between liberalism’s initial self-consolation as “the realm of lesser evil” and its final self-congratulation as “the best of worlds” does not hold up under cross-examination.[203]  Riffing on Gramsci’s famous dictum, Michéa categorically maintains that “[o]riginal liberalism was…marked by a pessimism of the intellect”[204] — “a radical distrust of the moral capacities of human beings.”[205]  With such philosophers as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Mandeville, Voltaire, Hume, and Helvétius, this statement may indeed be true.  The same cannot be said for authors like Cumberland, Locke, Hutcheson, Rousseau, or Condorcet, however.  Classical liberal discourse allowed for a diversity of viewpoints regarding human nature.  As it happens, the concept Michéa relies upon to ward off the pessimism he ascribes to liberal thought, “common decency,” is likewise an inheritance of Enlightenment liberalism.  In fact, the entire Scottish school of common sense philosophy — typified by Reid, Ferguson, Stewart, and Hamilton — followed their predecessors Shaftesbury and Hutcheson in their liberal optimism.  Reid, the progenitor of this school, even speculated that shortly after infancy an individual’s “reasoning and moral faculties…unfold themselves by degrees; so that it is inspired with the various principles of common sense.”[206]  The concept of a “common decency” basic to all mankind had already been a part of everyday parlance for several decades by then, antedating its philosophical formalization by Reid.  The periodical Common Sense: The Englishman’s Journal (1738) invoked the notion on a number of occasions.  Its French equivalent, civilité ordinaire, appeared often in the writings of the great liberal skeptic Pierre Bayle, including his groundbreaking 1695 Historical and Critical Journal.[207]

Continue to Living in the End Times and the salvation of liberalism: Slavoj Žižek

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