The End of the Modern World: Interview with Alain de Benoist
February 20th, 2017 – We awaited Alain de Benoist's analysis on the populist wave. Here it is with this veritable guidebook entitled Le Moment populiste – Droite-Gauche, c’est fini ! (Editions Pierre Guillaume de Roux). To read with urgency in light of future elections in France and Europe.
The extraordinary defiance of the ever growing layers of the population towards the “parties of the government” and the political class in general, to the benefit of new types of movements, which we call “populist”, is without a doubt the most striking fact of the transformations in the political landscape for at least two decades. The phenomenon even tends to accelerate, as the election of Donald Trump showed, occurring a few months after the British “Brexit.” The breadth of gap separating the people from the dominant New Class is confirmed everywhere. Everywhere new divides emerge that render the old left-right divide obsolete. But what exactly does “populism” mean? Is it a simple symptom of the crisis of representation? An ideology? A style? Or does populism translate a fundamentally democratic demand in the face of elites accused of no longer doing real politics and wanting to govern without the people? It is to these questions that this book responds, which starts from the most immediate current events in order to situate the political, sociological, and philosophical stakes of the debate.
Following the release of this major work and after reading it, we asked some questions to Alain de Benoist.
Breizh-info.com: “Right and left, it's done with!”: such is the subtitle of your work. What do you base your statement on, knowing nevertheless that candidates, notably in France and we see it on the occasion of this pre-electoral period, always claim to be on the right or the left (including the “extremes) for the most part?
Alain de Benoist: I devoted a whole chapter of my book to the history of the right-left divide. Besides the fact that there has always existed a multitude of different rights and lefts, I show that what this divide refers to never stops evolving over time. To be on the left in 1880 was to militate for colonialism; to be on right was to be hostile to the separation of church and state! In the past the left was the party of class struggle, today it's the party of individual rights, whereas a large part of the right has rallied to the defense of the market, to the axiomatic principle of interest and the economic explanation of the world.
Political scientists, from their side, have never succeeded in giving an authoritative definition of the right and left. In the throes of a significant identity crisis, the parties of the right and left themselves have also become incapable of giving a precise meaning to these terms. Add to that the disappearance today of sociological families where people used to vote for a given party their entire lives: people today “zap” (like a TV remote) from right to left or the opposite, without seeing anything but right wing policy made by the left wing parties or left wing policy made by right wing parties. As to the political essays that appear in the libraries, it is increasingly difficult to say if their authors (Marcel Gauchet, Jean-Claude Michéa, Michel Onfray, etc.) are on “the left” or on “the right” themselves.
The truth is that the left-right dyad has become obsolete for the purposes of describing today's political landscape. The left-right divide is only still functionally operating under the weight of habits: there's a historical gravity to the bipolar logic that is maintained by the political game, notably at the time of elections. But when we refer to opinion polls, we see that in the eyes of a majority of French people, this divide is increasingly devoid of meaning. In 1980, still only 30% considered the notions of left and right outdated. In March 1981 it was 33%, in February 1988, 48%, in November 1989, 56%, in 2011, 58%. Today it is 73%! An extraordinarily significant progression.
The rise of populist movements, which often articulate elements of the right and elements of the left in the same political and social demand coming from the base, against a political offer from “above” deemed deceptive, even unsupportable, is one of the consequences of this evolution. On one hand, populism substitutes the horizontal right-left axis with a vertical one “those on top vs those on the bottom,” but it excites, accompanies, and accentuates new divides that increasingly replace the right-left divide: the divide between those who profit from globalization and those who are its victims, the divide between those who think in terms of peoples and those who only know a humanity conceived as a sum of individuals, the divide between peripheral France and urbanized France, the people and globalized elites, the ordinary folks and the New Class, the popular classes as well as the middle classes in the process of decline and the big globalist bourgeoisie, the advocates of borders and the partisans of “openess,” the “invisibles” and the “over-represented,” the conservatives and the liberals, etc.
The formidable wave of defiance towards the elites (political, financial, media, and others) doesn't cease to increase populism that has the direct effect of eliminating - Mélenchon spoke of “clearing away” - the old caste of so-called parties of the government. Christian Democracy and the Communist Party have been swept away in Italy, Syriza in Greece almost caused the disappearance of Pasok, the last presidential election Austria was contested between an ecologist and a populist. We could give many other examples.
Will it go differently in France? I don't have the impression. Among all the scenarios that remain possible concerning the next presidential election, a Macron-Le Pen duel in the second round is not the most improbable. No one seems to realize that in such a scenario, and for the first time in the history of the presidential election, none of the two big parties that have alternately governed France for more than thirty years would be present in the second round, which would represent a historical turn of the highest importance.
Breizh-info.com: The popular strata seem effectively exasperated, tired, of the way in which the city is managed. But however are they a force that can bring about proposals? The abstention rate in elections, the lack of mobilizations in big social or societal demonstrations are they not signs of an abandonment of involvement in the life of the city by the people?
Alain de Benoist: They are rather the proof of the extent of a malaise that took root in the crisis of representation: people have the feeling of no longer being represented by their representatives, many think that it's useless to make use of a sovereignty on the election day which they know they will lose the day after. That's why populisms aspire to more direct, referendum based, or participative forms of democracy, conscious of the dysfunctions and limits to a liberal democracy that has replaced popular sovereignty by parliamentary sovereignty and that is today directed by an oligarchic caste that only seeks to defend its interests alone.
The popular classes are not only exasperated by the “way in which the city is managed.” They want to end administrative management, that is to say end the power of an expertocracy that pretends political problems are only technical problems in the final analysis (for which there only evidently exists a single rational solution) and who seek to seek to turn the governing of men into the administration of things. They realize that “governance” is only a means of governing without the people. What Vincent Coussedière called the “populism of the people” which is nothing other than a demand addressed to the politicians to actually practice politics in place of sticking to management.
You ask me if the “popular strata” are “a force that can bring about proposals.” Firstly, call things by their name: the popular “strata” are in reality popular classes and their opposition to the elites arises from the relation of classes, as all criticism of populism transcribes a class contempt, the dominant ideology being nothing other than the ideology of the dominant class.
Then what is meant by this cliched expression “force that can bring about proposals?” The people represents the constituent power, and it is only fully present to itself if it can decide for itself regarding the things that concern it. Whether its regarding immigration, globalization, or the power of the European Commission, the people sees that others have never stopped deciding in their place, and that these decisions have upset their daily lives. It is perfectly apt to judge what is good and bad for itself. In order to make “proposals,” it must only be consulted or given the means to make a decision.
Breizh-info.com : Why does the word “populism” get such bad press – while qualifying each of its opponents – within the elite?
Alain de Benoist: “Populism” like “communautarisme” [Translator's note: communautarisme refers to the attitude of minorities, racial or sexual for example, to separate themselves from society overall], also became itself a rubber word that the New Class uses as a foil in order to delegitimize anything they detest. “Populism” has bad press among the elite because they cover up all that they lambaste and dread the most: the return of “dangerous classes.” More clearly: the awakening of peoples determined to perpetuate their values, their way of life, and their own social nature.
It's not a coincidence if the criticism of populism very quickly transforms into criticism of the people, currently represented as a mass of ignorant bumpkins. The proletarian whose dignity (“poor but dignified”), decency, and honesty they used to praise, has become a mixture of Bitru and Dupont-Lajoie [Translator's Note: Bitru is a character representing the “common French man” in a novel and Dupont-Lajoie was a film made in 1975 featuring a highly critical depiction of the common French man] in the media, uncultured, wicked, xenophobic, and backwards, who obstinately persists in refusing to trust “those who know” and never votes like he should do. Thus it is understood, either the people doesn't know what they want, or when they know that they want something, that shouldn't be taken into account. Daniel Cohn-Bendit spewed “We're fed up with the people!” the day after Brexit. Thus he said aloud what others silently thought.
Breizh-info.com: The end of ideology was marked by “populist” waves in Europe, but also and especially by the advent of a form of disenchantment of the world, largely dominated today by economic powers via advertising and globalization. Starting from the moment where the son of a Stalinist Communist militant rooted in his red suburb became a globe trotter working for different international firms and feeling at home everywhere, how to recreate a collective hope for the peoples tomorrow– and around what? And other than by flattering certain low instincts …
Alain de Benoist: First a remark: the disenchantment of the world, whose roots are far from contemporary situation doesn't signal the “end of ideologies,” a fashionable expression but strictly meaning nothing, precisely because no society can exist without submitting to the influence of a dominant ideology.
Today we live in the ideology of merchandise, that is to say an era where the symbolic imaginary has been largely colonized by singularly mercantile values (calculability, profitability, profit, etc.). Social disconnection, technomorphism [Translator's note: technomorphism refers to the growing influence of technology on people's lives to the point where technology comes to dominate], the rise of narcissistic individualism, in conjunction with this “commodity fetishism” (Karl Marx) transform the individual into an “automaton subject” that has increasingly has a relationship with its fellows modeled on the relationship with things.
The response to the question that you pose precisely depends on the possibility of abandoning this ideology of merchandise, the logical consequence of liberal anthropology, which makes man a selfish being permanently seeking to maximize his best material and private interest. That implies rehabilitating the public sphere in relation to the private sphere, and recreating conditions for the emergence of a collective project.
I usually say that in the expression “common good,” the word that counts the most is “common.” The role of politics is actually to produce the common. This common, which is the condition of truly “living together” - an expression sullied today in order to give it an entirely opposite meaning to what it is – necessarily takes root in shared values, shaped by history and culture, in which your “son of a communist militant” could recognize himself as well as a French youth tempted by Jihadist exoticism.
But it is clear that we are far from that, in a society that only knows individuals, which has forgotten that the reasons for living and the reasons for dying are the same, and which imagines that the social bond reduces to juridical contract and mercantile exchange.
Breizh-info.com: Under what form could this “populist moment” that you evoke arise?
Alain de Benoist: Under many different forms of course, as populism is not an ideology (this explains its polymorphic character).
During the year 2016 alone, a representative of the Five Star Movement was elected to the head of the the mayoralty of Rome, England left the European Union, the Austrian FPÖ barely missed the election of one its representatives to the presidency of the republic, the Front National surpassed 40% in certain local elections, Podemos took the mayoralty of Madrid and Barcelona, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) confirmed its rise in Germany, Viktor Orbán made his presence felt within the Visegrád group, Donald Trump was elected in the United States, Matteo Renzi had to resign the presidency of the Council in Italy, Hollande and Valls, Juppé and Sarkozy have been (or are in the process of being) sent back to their homes.
So the “populist moment” is not an eventuality, it's already here. But its still too soon to draw up the balance sheet which, when the time comes, will necessarily be contrasted.
Breizh-info.com :Are there historical or geographical comparisons that you could make with the scene unfolding in Europe today?
Alain de Benoist: Not really. We could make comparisons with the populisms of the end of the 19th century (the Narodnik movement in Russia, that of the Granger farmers in the United States) or in France, with the Boulangiste movement.
We could also evoke the end of the Weimar Republic. But I believe that wouldn't take us very far. History doesn't serve the same dishes again, as Céline said, and the historical comparisons, as interesting as they can be, rapidly find their limits. Better to consider that history is always open, especially as we see the great cycle of modernity closing in those moment.
The contours of a world that we have known, even sometimes loved, dissipate before our eyes, while the world to come remains nebulous. Populism participates in this transition in its way. It remains to be known what it can announce.
Breizh-info.com : Alain de Benoist, what is your recipe to produce so many works, articles, summaries, sources, and arguments, with this frequency?
Alain de Benoist: There is no recipe. For me like everyone, days are only twenty-four hours! I only try to organize myself well and not waste my time in mundane activities and useless discussions.
I work 70 hours a week, which has permitted me to publish a bit more than 100 books, 2000 articles, and 600 interviews (this will be the 638th!) I don't derive any particular glory from it: quantity doesn't measure quality, and I don't accord any moral value to work!
Interviewer: Yann Vallerie