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

A rather disheartening (if predictable) exchange between Corey Robin, Doug Henwood, and myself on Christopher Hitchens and the post-9/11 Left (from Facebook)

A younger Christopher Hitchens

A younger Christopher Hitchens

Ross Wolfe:

I think I tried posting this entire thing on your recent blog post on Hitchens, but here’s a link to the article by Spencer Leonard that I feel actually provides the most adequate leftist appraisal of Hitchens’ legacy.

Corey Robin:

Sorry, tried to read this a few weeks ago when someone posted it on Doug Henwood’s site.  Couldn’t make it past the second paragraph: so God-awfully written, filled with windy claims about “History,” and even windier claims about Hitchens’ role in either shattering the left or announcing the shattering of the left. Couldn’t tell from those two paragraphs whom the writer was more intoxicated with: Hitchens or himself.  I don’t know who this author is, but you might want to tell him: the one — and perhaps only — thing he should or could learn from Hitchens is how to write a clear, clean sentence.  That first sentence alone — it has more stops and starts, herks and jerks, than the 7 train on during rush hour on a bad day.  Don’t these people believe in editors?

Doug Henwood:

Adequate? Pure gasbaggery.

Corey Robin:

Ross Wolfe: If you do want to post this to the blog, that’s fine. Just post a link with perhaps a paragraph-long teaser. But please don’t post the whole thing; it takes up way too much space and makes it hard for people to figure out where things are in the comment-thread.

Ross Wolfe:

Corey: Sadly, you yourself succumb to the same shallow moralism that was Hitchens’ greatest weakness. To psychologize an author’s alleged shortcomings — whether it’s Hitchens or Spencer — as mere “narcissism” or simple “self-intoxication” is a glib, facile, and ultimately dishonest procedure. It’s all too easy to evade the real difficulties posed by a figure like Hitchens by attributing motives in this fashion.

If you’re able to make it past your objections to his writing style, Spencer aptly notes this moralistic tendency in Hitchens’ own writings (which is, oddly, replicated in your articles on him):

The insights Hitchens develops respecting the history of the Left with reference to Orwell are valuable and, in many instances, merit further elucidation. The difficulty arises in trying to address such matters in the moral terms on which Hitchens bases his analysis, as for instance when Hitchens attempts to characterize the European fascism of the 1930s and ’40s in terms of “arrogance,” “bullying,” “greed,” “wickedness,” and “stupidity” [WOM, 7]. Such moral and intellectual flaws have, after all, plagued humankind throughout its history, and for this reason they provide an inadequate basis for conceptualizing something so distinctly and exclusively modern as fascism.  Similarly, leftist politics, while it may be rooted at the individual level in a certain moral impulse, can never be guided by that impulse alone.  While Hitchens’ expressions of moral disapproval are in themselves unobjectionable and indeed often rhetorically powerful, they hardly suffice as categories of political analysis.

The most horrifying aspect of fascism is that it does not admit of explanation on the basis of mere moral faults.  As problematic as Arendt’s analysis of “the banality of evil” in her reflections on the Eichmann trial may have been, at least it was able to move beyond the shallow attribution of the Nazi’s “evil” to some underlying diabolism.  Certainly, a number of the members of the Nazi leadership were thuggish goons, and many of the guards at the concentration camps were confirmed sociopaths, but this by itself does not explain the industrialized murder of European Jews, gypsies, communists, homosexuals, and so on.

Similarly, to try and dismiss Hitchens’ arguments and apologia for the war by reducing them to mere symptoms of his own personal vanity is insufficient.  The more troublesome question is to ask why this former leftist, in siding with naked U.S. aggression and militarism against the undeniably despotic Ba’athist regime, eventually succumbed to the same “lesser-evilism” of which he had earlier accused supporters of Bill Clinton.

Sure, everyone knows Hitchens was an arrogant prick.  But is this fact alone enough to account for what later “led Hitchens to shill for the American warmongers,” as Spencer put it?

Corey Robin:

Wow, I should wade through all that heavy-breathing in order to find out that Hitchens’s insights are “valuable”? Yet limited b/c he thinks fascism is reducible to bullying and wickedness? Sorry, dude, you’re not making that piece any more enticing. Now, I recognize that the notion that politics is about more than easy moralism must seem like some kind of blinding insight to you, but for many of us, it’s just one of many and obvious rules of the road.  If we don’t apply it to the Case of Christopher Hitchens — in the way, say, Adorno applied it to his analysis of Beethoven or Lukács did when he discussed Walter Scott — it’s b/c we don’t see Hitchens as a symptom of world-historical importance.  He was, in the end, a symptom of himself, which is why I thought a brief blog post was sufficient to the topic at hand.

I will add, because you seem so interested in these questions of History, that there is a long history of liberal-ish/left-ish intellectuals, at moments of political retreat, taking precisely the route Hitchens did.  It actually goes back to the French Revolution — read up on the Girondins’ decision to declare war on Austro-Hungary — and is a fairly familiar story to anyone who knows that history.  So I guess if there’s a second reason I didn’t feel the need to get myself all worked up about the man’s trajectory, it’s because it’s such a tried and true path.  Again, not of interest to anyone interested in History, but fairly familiar to anyone who knows some history.

Ross Wolfe:

Gasbaggery, Doug? As you were someone who so astutely helped point out some of the most shallow and theatrical aspects of the anti-war “activistism” of the ’oughts, I find it surprising that you would not be more sympathetic to the angle Spencer’s article takes.  Because it by no means tries to mount a defense for Hitchens’ tasteless and one-sided apologia for U.S. military aggression, but rather tries to frame these as the products of his disillusionment with the same degenerate Left that you yourself described in “Action will be Taken.”

Whether Hitchens’ radical enlightenment opposition to “every form of tyranny over the mind of Man” — namely, religion and superstition — served simply to mask some form of deep-seated Islamophobia is a matter of interpretation.  In my personal opinion, nearly all religion at this point in history is hideously reactionary, sexist, and homophobic.  It is only able to survive as a severe anachronism.  Religion, along with all forms of occultism and superstition, should by all rights be eradicated from the earth, no matter where it originated — so that humanity can be free from ignorance and irrationality.

By shamelessly siding with the aggressor in the U.S.’ and the U.K.’s invasion of Iraq (along with the host of other countries in the “Coalition of the Willing,” who they’d bought), Hitchens fell beneath his own threshold of criticism. Both sides of the conflict were miserable and worthy of contempt.  But Lenin, who is so often mindlessly invoked when it comes to conversations of imperialism, was himself far more balanced when it came to such matters.  For example, from chapter five of his 1916 work, A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism:

Imperialism is as much our “mortal” enemy as is capitalism.  That is so.  No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism.  Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support.  We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.

Consequently, once the author admits the need to support an uprising of an oppressed nation (“actively resisting” suppression means supporting the uprising), [Kievskii] also admits that a national uprising is progressive, that the establishment of a separate and new state, of new frontiers, etc., resulting from a successful uprising, is progressive.

Or later, if Lenin didn’t make himself clear enough on this score here, he spelled it out even more explicitly in 1920 in his “Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions”:

With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind:

first, that all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries, and that the duty of rendering the most active assistance rests primarily with the workers of the country the backward nation is colonially or financially dependent on;

second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;

third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.

Ross Wolfe:

Corey: If you’re half as familiar with Adorno’s work as your casual aside would suggest, you’d know that Adorno’s critical engagements of contemporary figures were not limited to figures who represented “symptom[s] of world-historical importance.”  Hitchens was easily a more important public figure and thinker in the last couple decades than, say, the anti-Semitic radio preacher Martin Luther Thomas, to whom Adorno devoted more than a hundred pages of analysis, was in his day.

Hitchens was indeed symptomatic of the widespread tendency of former leftists to devolve into empty moralism and hawkish apologia for U.S. militarism. Of all the moralizing pro-war leftists who spoke out or signed the deplorable and misguided Euston Manifesto, Hitchens was easily the most visible. If not Hitchens, then indeed who would qualify as sufficiently emblematic or “symptomatic” of this tendency? Nick Cohen? “Harry Hatchet”?

Adorno, as you’ll no doubt recall, found some things of merit in the writings of the archconservative Oswald Spengler, and found plenty to criticize in the writings of ostensibly leftist figures like Bertolt Brecht or Thorstein Veblen [in Prisms].  Things are not so clear-cut as one would imagine.

Ross Wolfe:

Corey: Hitchens is easily a more interesting subject of analysis than someone so straightforwardly vacuous as Sarah Palin, a figure you deemed worthy of consideration for your study on “the reactionary mind” (even appearing on the cover of your book [The Reactionary Mind]). So I’m not really sure what you’re objecting to in Spencer’s book review.

Doug Henwood:

Yeah, gasbaggery.  I was sadder about Hitchens’ death than many on the left, but his apologetics for imperial war over the last decade of his life were revolting.  I found them tragic and depressing compared to his earlier work, which was part of the sadness.  But I don’t need to read any elaborate fantasies about how there was something radically progressive about his mancrush on Paul Wolfowitz.

Ross Wolfe:

Doug: There was nothing “radically” (or even remotely) progressive about Hitchens’ justifications for the invasion of Iraq — his mancrush on Wolfowitz notwithstanding (this was, by contrast, an irreproachably revolutionary position).  If you’d bother to read the article, you’d know that Spencer makes no such claims.

In fact, we also take Hitchens’ post-9/11 trajectory to be tragic.  We see it as indicative of a deeper despair with the recent state of politics on the Left and the practical impossibility of revolutionary transformation in the immediate future.  The Left was in such a sorry state in the opening decade of the twenty-first century that many so-called “radical” celebrities had resorted to third-worldist support for backwards, repressive dictators like Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, or reactionary groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.  These figures and groups were celebrated simply in the name of anti-imperialism or anti-Zionism.  They fell into the simplistic sophistry of the old “enemy of my enemy” logic.

Regardless, what do you make of statements by Lenin, the Ur-theorist of the Marxist account of modern imperialism, such as the following:

No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support.  We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.

Spencer A. Leonard:

‎@Doug – What’s more telling is that after 2 years you still can’t bring yourself to articulate this piece’s theme, however well or poorly expressed: That Hitchens’ break with the “left” was at least instructive of the wretched condition (not just weakness!) of that left.  I placed that decline in a historical frame stretching back to the 1960s at the very least. Doug’s invocation of what’s “progressive” persuades me that I ought to have pushed it back to the original draft of the 1960s, namely the 1930s, since we have the New Left (and Doug Henwood) to thank for extending the currency (as more than just words) of such Stalinoid concepts as “progressive.”  The only thing different is that, at this point, these faint echoes of a Left that was are scarcely sufficient anymore to provoke anyone to such much as interest themselves in investigating that history, much less to discover how and why it keeps happening to them.

Doug Henwood:

I never thought I’d say this, but: Next to this stuff, give me Stalin.

Ross Wolfe:

Yeah, Doug, I also don’t know why you hold such a grudge against people like Hitchens when you’re close buddies with Louis Proyect, a self-described “solid supporter” of the miserable Venezuelan petro-dictatorship of Chávez — the “postmodern Bonapartist” — and the repressive regime of lifelong strongman Fidel Castro in Cuba.  Come to think of it, you’re also fairly chummy with Tariq Ali, another thinker who includes backwater authoritarian hellholes like Cuba and Venezuela (along with that third great bastion of proletarian revolution, Bolivia) as part of his “Axis of Hope.”  Castro and Chávez, outspoken supporters for Gaddafi to the bitter end.  If countries like these, along with Bolivia, are the only hope remaining for the Left, I think it’s fair to say that the it has failed in carrying out its revolutionary and world-historical mandate.

How you find these political beliefs somehow more justifiable, tolerable, or even understandable than Platypus’ critical position vis–à–vis the existing Left (to my knowledge, none of our members have at any time supported the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan) will always be a mystery to me.

Despite these unfortunate personal associations, however, I continue to admire your writing and certain of your contributions to the anti-war discourse of the past ten years or so.  It’s unfortunate that you still refuse to engage with Platypus, since it still seems to me that your own political beliefs are far closer to some of those entertained by our members than they are to, say, Proyect’s.

Ross Wolfe:

I never pegged you for a Stalinist, Doug.  But I suppose it makes sense.  Abandoning criticism, you fall back on the most plebian, garden-variety sort of dogmatism.

While I realize that you’ll probably say that you’re joking, the mere fact that you’re willing to peddle this schoolboy shit in order to avoid engaging in open political dialogue is telling.  I present you with an unambiguous statement from Lenin regarding the Left’s justified apathy when it comes to reactionary anti-imperialism, and you prefer to sidestep it because it doesn’t fit neatly into your prefabricated categories of heroic third-world “resistance” against U.S. military chauvinism (though I don’t deny for one moment that it is chauvinism).