Fear of the New
To the extent that, as Hegel remarked, philosophy is its own time apprehended in thought, major historical events cannot be fully understood until well after they occur — after reflection has generated new, more adequate categories of analysis. Thus it is not surprising that the collapse of the Soviet system and the fading of the Cold War were initially misread as, e.g., “the end of history” (by naive liberal apparatchiks) or as the dawn of “authentic socialism” (by diehard Leftists, who saw contingent authoritarian encrustations as the only problem with an otherwise sound “really existing socialism”). These apologetic hermeneutical exercises are easy to understand: in both cases the objective is, first and foremost, to relegitimate internalized ideological assumptions by reducing the new to a mere extension of the old. The price one pays, however, is to miss what is really new. It is that same process Marx so vividly described at the beginning of The Eighteenth Brumaire, whereby a present inevitably trapped in its immediacy can only deal with the future from the viewpoint of the past.
During the last few years, these premature self-serving accounts have been spectacularly refuted by events. The explosion of civil wars on almost every continent and the disintegration of practically all variations of socialism — both authoritarian, “really existing” versions as well as their more benevolent “welfare state” counterparts — have starkly demonstrated the need for radically different interpretations. New theoretical approaches may eventually help reconfigure the legacy of the past two centuries away from the still predominant but increasingly inadequate economistic models of both the Left and the liberals. Pending their elaboration, however, it may be useful to reconsider different sets of interpretive models which may have been unwarrantedly dismissed under Cold War pressures. Historically discarded not so much by persuasive arguments or rational analyses but by sheer force or moral self-rightousness, some of these alternatives (e.g., anarchist critiques brutally repressed by, among other things, official Comintern directives, or the plethora of right-wing theories summarily dumped after 1945 as part of the defeated fascist legacy) may help throw light on what has remained hidden in the background, but is now violently coming to the tore in incomprehensible guises. Within such a chaotic, transitional context, the kind of theoretical pluralism advocated by the likes of the late Paul K. Feyerabend and the Left Popperians (whereby, no matter how wrong, alternative accounts function as the necessary preconditions for the development of more adequate ones), can only help sweep away ideological cobwebs and prefigure new theoretical paradigms able to at least temporarily break out of Hegel’s historicist dilemma.
This is why it is puzzling to read the dark forebodings issued by forty members of the Parisian Left-liberal establishment concerning the threat of a “new fascism,” calling for the exclusion from public discussion of ideas considered particularly repulsive, before they could be critically evaluated — a process itself rejected as “dangerous.” In a short statement providing no sustained arguments and identifying no clear targets, the “concerned” French intellectuals merely outline an “us” vs. “them” scenario recycling familiar WWII imagery: on the one side, the paladins of liberal-democratic values of “liberte, egalite, fraternite”; on the other, the forces of evil embodied in “anti-democratic” and “neo-Nazi” networks seeking to legitimate their sinister projects: exclusion, violence, crime. Another instance of the present desperately trying to understand a future which refuses to be reduced to a mere extension of the past? As subsequent polemics have made dear, these Left vigilantes are merely indulging in well-tested McCarthyite practices to conduct inquisitions aimed at no one in particular and, therefore, potentially everyone, to create a climate of ideological intimidation for those even considering so-called “alternative discourses” or “unorthodox narratives.” What is the “new fascism”? Does it refer to Zhirinovsky or Le Pen or Schonhuber or . . . ? The original “Appeal,” published in Le Monde on July 13, 1993, does not say. In the polemics that followed, it became clear that the real target was not at all the obvious culprit, the tar Right, but the New Right in general and Alain de Benoist in particular. In paradigmatic neo-Stalinist style, even card-carrying liberals with impeccable scholarly credentials such as Pierre-Andre Taguieff were publicly chastised for daring to take seriously and study and thereby legitimate the New Right as a relevant political entity.
Considering all the subsequent criticism, one would have thought that the whole incident had been an over-reaction by a few zealots who had succeeded in conning “respectable” intellectuals into signing the Appeal — an embarassing lapse into a French version of Political Correctness to be forgotten as soon as possible, in order to focus on more substantial matters the Appeal itself had identified as the root causes for the resurgence of “insidious perversions of thought” and threats to liberal democracies: “economic crisis, unemployment, social exclusion, and a general suspicion of the political world.” Surprisingly enough, exactly a year latter the same group reissued practically the same “Appeal,” this time signed by 1500 junior vigilantes presumably eager to confirm their own PC credentials. Has the French Left, or at least a substantial part of it, gone Crazy? At a time when the bankruptcy of practically all the main political models urgently requires an intensified search for new alternatives and fresh approaches, it seems as if 1500 Left fundamentalists, oblivious to the shameful Stalinist legacy, seek to cut off theoretical debates and exclude from public discussion anyone deviating from predominant dogma by branding political opponents as “fascists,” “neo-fascists” and “neo-Nazis” — terms with no fixed meanings beyond some residual demonizing power.
At any rate, notwithstanding its patently fraudulent character, the Appeal did succeed in at least temporarily marginalizing (or perpetuating the already existing marginalization of) the French New Right, in the same way forty years earlier Joseph McCarthy succeded in silencing the American Left — notwithstanding his formal censure by the US Senate. Like the American Right, which in the 1960s was suddenly confronted with a resurgence of all those “dangerous ideas” — and more — the French Left vigilantes are dead wrong in assuming that their pious, neo-Stalinist “appeals” can substitute for rational dialogue and permanently repress “dangerous” ideas. This kind of efforts are usually the desperate last resort by exhausted ruling groups to legitimate increasingly untenable but still hegemonic political ideologies. For better or worse, the French New Right’s “subversive” ideas are having considerable repercussions throughout Europe, at a time when the Left seems theoretically and politically finished, while the Right is experiencing an unexpected renaissance. These developments may signal a major paradigm shirt threatening the displacement of traditional Left/Right divisions and a reconfiguration of post-Cold War politics. For these reasons, the New Right needs to be confronted head on rather than excluded by pretentious appeals ex cathedra. An intellectually honest Left cannot do otherwise.
Is the French New Right Either “New” or “Right”?
Fortunately, the American Left has not been in power as long as its French counterpart. Thus it is not as institutionally entrenched, and has not yet become as complacent, dogmatic and self-rightous. Notwithstanding its notorious PC police units — mostly mothballed in politically irrelevant academic ghettoes — at least some parts of it remain considerably more heterogeneous, open, and therefore able to confront “subversive” ideas on their own ground, without having to repress them with well-known “administrative measures.” It the New Right is as sinister as the vigilantes claim, nothing more than open rational inquiry will help bury it in the Left’s favorite cemetery: the dustbin of history.
Such an Auseinandersetzung, however, cannot be merely an abstract exercise in liberal tolerance but a serious effort to understand, learn and criticize what on close scrutiny turns out to be, on the whole, a rather interesting set of ideas. This may be explained by the tact that, as many serious analysts have already taken considerable pains to emphasize, a lot of them constitute (or used to constitute, before most of the academic US Left’s postmodern involution into narcissistic identity politics) standard Left positions: participatory democracy, sell-determination, local autonomy; opposition to capitalism, bureaucratic domination, nationalism, racism and traditional imperialism. Whereas the mainstream ex-Marxist Left no longer criticizes the “culture industry” as the manufacturer of alienated popular consciousness and, surprisingly enough, has developed the most articulate apologies for the cultural Kitsch it has euphemistically rebaptized as “popular culture,” the French New Right has not only taken up the critique but, unlike the Frankfurt School’s failure to prefigure viable alternatives and its subsequent escape into high culture and high modernism, has proposed concrete political strategies to combat it.
Once upon a time, before it tasted the narcotic of institutional power or the intellectual euthanasia of tenure, the mainstream Left used to criticize liberalism as capitalist ideology; capitalism as a system conducive to the destruction of personality, tradition and culture; and popular culture as a means of collective cretinization. It is now the New Right which indicts liberalism as bureaucratic domination over a populace reduced to a homogeneous mass of abstract individuals, capitalism as the nemesis of local self-determination and traditional cultures (the only ones still able to constitute autonomous individuality), and mass culture as the opiate of the masses. Alter the mystifications of Liberation Theology and multiculturalism, even Left anti-clericalism — that pre-WWII sine qua non of radical politics –has given way to an opportunistic religious tolerance. The French New Right, meanwhile, has developed a rigorous critique of Christianity (predicated, unfortunately, on a misreading of the history and doctrine of both Catholicism and Protestantism). As for anti-Americanism –another paradigmatic Left predilection — it now receives only lip-service from the Left, while it has become a major plank in the New Right platform. Similarly, the postmodern Left no longer has any principled critique of that traditional Right uncritically committed to nationalism, capitalism, imperialism, racism etc. (because it has, by and large, come to share many of its views). The New Right, however, has sharply broken with the National Front in France and the National Alliance in Italy precisely on these issues. As Taguieff has suggested, Benoist may very well be one of the few real New Leftists left!
What makes the French New Right particularly interesting is that it does not merely propose a bizarre reversal of positions but the end of the traditional contraposition of Left and Right in favor of a new political paradigm. According to its critique of liberalism and universalism, the meaning of the collapse of communism goes far beyond the disappearance of another abhorrent and oppressive political system, to the very core of the new structures of modern domination. What led the Soviet system first into Chapter 11 and subsequently into Chapter 7 was neither Reagan’s military Keynesianism nor Stalin’s crimes but its wasteful central planning, social engineering and abstract rationalism –characteristics which, in more moderaate guises, also define all liberal-democratic regimes. Thus, far from being irreconcilable opposites, the bureaucratic centralism of the former Soviet Union and liberal technocracy in the West turn out to be variations of the same basic Enlightenment model — a model which, by defining all conflicts in economic terms, has successfully occluded a more pervasive logic of domination beyond labor/capital conflicts and predicated on the political power and obtaining between the rulers and the ruled, the experts and the masses, the administrators and the administered. During the last couple of centuries, blaming capitalism for every imaginable problem has been a convenient way to conceal the equally questionable role of the New Class of politicians, intellectuals and bureaucrats in institutionalizing and administering new structures of domination.
Various theories to account for the rise and role of this New Class were developed over the last century to explain and oppose precisely this relatively new logic of domination. These theories have a long history, going back not only to Alvin W. Gouldner or Milovan Djilas’ famous text by that name, or Konrad’s and Szelenyi’s Hungarian version, or even those of James Burnham and Jan Waclaw Machajsky, but all the way back to the 19th century, to the anarchists’ critique of Marx during the last tumultuous meetings of the First International, before it was sent away to die in New York. Since these theories are very critical of the socio-political role of intellectuals as new agents of domination, and intellectuals are practically the only group writing about these matters, they are not very popular among those people they seek to discredit. Even Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “organic intellectuals” only deceptively overcomes the objection that intellectuals dominate as the agents of a pseudo-universalism concealing their claim to power. For Gramsci, their role remains that of mediators between a popular culture embodying living needs and modes of satisfaction (but frozen in archaic forms) and the objective truth properly articulated only by the party. The theory of cultural hegemony merely deals with how to successfully develop ways whereby this objective truth would spontaneously flow out of popular culture — an objective truth Gramsci was honesst enough to recognize as ultimately another particularistic ideology in disguise, but one which he still upheld it on essentially pragmatic grounds.
The main implication of all theories of the New Class is the displacement of economic conflicts between labor and capital as the deus ex machina of social dynamics, in favor of political conflicts between those possessing a “cultural capital” redeemable as social and political power and those with mere “cultural liabilities.” In a context where all economic relations are mediated by political arrangements, this means that the struggle for power — including economic power as a special case — no longer defines politics in terms of a Left favoring egalitarian redistributive policies and a Right committed to defending existing privileges and social inequalities but in terms of control of institutions allocating a substantial segment of the collective social product appropriated through fiscal means. Thus the main new political division now obtains between centralizers committed to an extension of the state redistributive apparatus allegedly meant to solve all social problems (hence “victimology” as the New Class’ favorite mode of ideological self-legitimation) and populists committed to local autonomy, fiscal austerity and participatory forms of democracy.
Since the state presupposes the nation as its domain of operation, the new paradigm challenges the sanctity of the nation — the New Class’ functional equivalent of the capitalist market — from the viewpoint of a federalism predicated on decentralization, local autonomy and cultural specificity. With the significant exception of the anarchists, since the dissolution of the Comintern and the end of WWII both the old Left and the traditional Right have generally assumed the nation as a given. From the viewpoint of theories of the New Class, it becomes a major tool of political domination. Much to the chagrin of the Old Right and of the huge centralized bureaucracies from Paris to Tokyo, the French New Right strongly advocates reconfiguring basic political units along federalist or confederalist lines (thus appropriating another venerable anarchist tradition). This realignment is meant to contain the universalizing power of the New Class and to vindicate those local traditional cultures being systematically homogenized by the culture industry.
The French New Right comes to its own version of the theory of New Class domination and ideology through its theory of racism, the critique of liberalism, and the violent rejection of abstract universalism. None of these positions have been, at one time or other, foreign to some sectors of the Left. Max Horkheimer’s and Theodor W. Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment — the Frankfurt School’s Bible, if anyy particular book can be designated as such — has, as its main objective, the development of a theory of anti-Semitism and the vindication of that very same cultural particularity Benoist has been recycling as “le droit a la difference.” Half a century alter the drafting of Dialectic of Enlightenment, however, even the French New Right’s most careful critic has at various times branded these ideas as “differential racism,” i.e., a racism much more subtle and pernicious than standard biologistic versions.
In the attempt to understand the root causes of the Nazi extermination of European Jewry, Horkheimer and Adorno traced anti-Semitism back to the identity logic of Enlightenment ideology and the very structure of conceptual thinking, which accounts for the title of the book. Abstract universalism, the conceptual counterpart of capital (abstract labor) comes to dominate concrete particularity in the same way that capital dominates labor. That identity logic, according to which the abstract concept redefines the concrete particular in its own image while delegitimating all that is left out of this exercise in conceptual engineering, corresponds to the logic of capital — to the famous reversal Marx describes in Capital, whereby objectified labor (capital) becomes more concrete than the living labor that created it, to the point of redefining the latter as an abstract commodity bought and sold in the market-place. Accordingly, anti-Semitism is treated as a special case of this broader logic. The culturally recalcitrant Jew, who refused to forfeit his particularity in this process of capitalist homogenization, had to go: that which could not be assimilated had to be exterminated. This is why Dialectic of Enlightenment concludes by establishing a continuity between fascism and the culture industry as the main agency of managed social integration. Thus, by implication, the culture industry becomes the benign continuation of the exact same project of universal homogenization. Defeated in the battlefield, fascism had won the cultural war. Coupled with the system’s ability to satisfy basic needs as well as most artificial ones, Horkheimer and Adorno saw no way out, hence the strategy of theoretical hibernation and the focus on an aesthetic theory glorifying impenetrability (qua immunization against instrumentalization) as a substitute for political and social theory.
Today only a handful of diehard Left intellectuals still rave against the culture industry. Redefined as a respectable academic discipline, “popular culture” has long since ceased to be considered the opiate of the masses. It is now a legitimate “terrain of contestation” allegedly providing scores of emancipatory possibilities. The essence of the original Frankfurt School critique, however, has become part and parcel of the French New Right ideology — mostly subsumed under a broader critique of the US and its cultural hegemony. By independently retreading the development of Critical Theory, however, the French New Right tails into some of the same traps. Its critique of the culture industry is tied to a broader anti-Americanism predicated on a serious misunderstanding. Like Horkheimer and Adorno, Benoist is also deceived by how the culture industry represents the US: a sad mixture of Walt Disney, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s (although the latter came too late to draw any critical wrath).
Against the US and Christianity
What the French New Right fails to realize is that the sort of cultural particularity it wants to vindicate against that old Left scarecrow, “American Imperialism,” is precisely the same American model developed during the 18th century colonial experience. Although gradually eroded and marginalized since the early 19th century, this model remains deeply ingrained in a paradigmatically American ethos still thriving in the more rural areas of the country. The very raison d’etre of the various American Protestant communities chased out of Europe because of their cultural peculiarities was to guarantee their autonomy and specificity. Why rise would these colonies insist on creating a federal system alter a successful war of independence, rather than developing the same kind of tendentially homogeneous and highly centralized nation as the French did only a few years later (especially since so many of the so-called “Founding Fathers” were greatly influenced by French ideas)?
Since most traditional Americans espousing something resembling the original ethos do not travel abroad much and generally shy away from international politics (they favor various updated versions of that isolationism which sank Woodrow Wilson’s internationalist dreams and, more recently, almost succeeded in defeating NAFTA), Europeans see primarily New Class operatives representing the interests of multinational corporations or vacationing cosmopolitan intellectuals. While this helps explain why Europeans have a very one-sided vision of the US, it does not justify the French New Right’s ridiculous suggestion of a geopolitical alliance of Europe and the Third World against a US imperialism presumably bent on homogenizing the rest of the world through its human rights and global democratic agenda.
While at one time, under misguided neoconservative advice, former President Bush may have pontificated about a “New World Order,” he was succeeded in office by a Democrat who sees no overriding raison d’etat to bother disciplining genocidal thugs in places such as Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Haiti, etc. Clearly, there is no monolithic US policy, given once and for all. Throughout this century US policy has been torn between internationalism and isolationism. Along with every other country on earth, the US is in flux. In tact, to the extent that it resonates so well with its traditional ethos, the same new political paradigm the French New Right advocates may find in the US an even more fertile soil than in Europe. Not only is the US terminally heterogeneous, but, claims by opportunist multiculturalists to the contrary notwithstanding, it is first and foremost European in its institutions, culture and outlook. It does, however, differ from Europe in one fundamental respect rooted deep in its history. Because of its Protestant origins, there is a long tradition of tolerance and heterogeneity predating the country’s very birth. Both factors should be appreciated by a French New Right so concerned with defending these values as to redeploy a long gone European paganism against an allegedly totalitarian Christianity considered responsible both for Enlightenment pseudo-universalism and the worst repressive features of communism.
While there is an obvious line running from Catholic universalism through the Enlightenment to liberalism and Marxism, closer scrutiny reveals a much more complex trajectory. First, Christianity itself was never “pure,” combining both the tradition of ancient Judaism and Hellenic philosophy. Neither was ever exclusively universalist. Thus, Plato’s forms always clashed with the sophists’ relativism and, judging from the scores of conflicts reported in the Old Testament, ancient Judaism can hardly be claimed to have been a homogeneous affair. Second, although the pre-Reformation Church did not seem to have had too many qualms about periodically burning heretics at the stake and although the Inquisition has become the paradigm of intense state terror, Catholicism has also been correctly described as a complexio oppositorum seeking to reconcile a plethora of conflicting doctrines. Third, as Protestants never tire of reiterating, European paganism was systematically integrated into Catholicism very early on, to the point that “really existing Catholicism” can be considered its legitimate heir. Fourth, even if the Church was the kind of totalitarian proselytizing agency the French New Right assumes, the Reformation put an end to its universalist pretentions once and for all. What was Protestantism about if not the vindication of particularity — even if it ultimately referred to the same God and the same heritage? As in the case of its anti-Americanism, while fully in line with standard Left ideology, the critique of Christianity as terminally totalitarian is indefensible and does not really tit with the rest of the French New Right’s positions.
What Can the French New Right Contribute?
Both anti-Americanism and the critique of Christianity are symptomatic of a problematic feature of the New Right in general and Benoist in particular, which may account for (but not justify) some of the Left vigilantes’ hostility. As Taguieff has carefully documented, since its creation in 1968 the New Right has changed its positions so often and so drastically that it now confronts a credibility problem. Are the new views on race merely rhetorical decoys to legitimate the same old biological racism of a couple of decades earlier? Is “the right to difference” a stratagem to justify a new kind of cultural apartheid meant to guarantee the purity of European (Aryan?) civilization? Is the critique of the nation and the re-discovery of federalism but another means of attacking equality and thereby indirectly relegitimating old hierarchical structures? Is the critique of liberalism ultimately a justification for the standard conservative project of dismantling the centralized redistributive state apparatus? Presumably, the Left vigilantes would answer most it not all of these questions in the affirmative. On the basis of what has been published, there is a remote possibility that they could be right, but this is extremely unlikely. At any rate, no convincing arguments have been provided to that effect and, consequently, it remains idle speculation concerning possible motives. Rational discourse, however, cannot bother with unverifiable motives and must take ideas at race value. What one explicitly says and writes must be considered more important than what can be surmised about what one “really” means, on the basis of conspiracy theories, intuition or just plain suspicion. When and if these sinister meanings are clearly articulated and documented, then they should be criticized and attacked. To do so prematurely is intellectually irresponsible.
Worse yet, the refusal to seriously study and learn from opponents may result in missing what is truly original in their views and, in the particular case of the French New Right, why its ideas are having such a profound impact throughout Europe. A concrete negation always entails the critical appropriation of whatever opponents may have to contribute. Thus, at a time when ethnic strife has already precipitated many countries into brutal civil wars and is threatening many more throughout the world, the French New Right’s vindication of a new concept of “ethnicity” — even if clearly unencumbered by old racial, national or naturalistic encrustations — is extremely problematic. This is why it is all the more urgent to understand its implications and inquire into its possible new role within post-Cold War political institutions. While this kind of issues may prima faciae appear as a regression into pre-WWII far Right politics, it is by no means a new problem in the US or Canada, where it has been on the agenda for at least the last couple of decades under the heading of multiculturalism. What distinguishes the French New Right’s approach from the US Left’s is the critique of liberalism, the theory of the state and, to a lesser extent, the concept of democracy.
While American multiculturalism acknowledges the irreducibility of different cultural traditions (or the undesirability of subsuming them all under one predominant cultural model, thus coming very close to accepting the French New Right’s “right to difference”), it operates entirely within the context of the post-modern liberal state, thus generating a series of insurmountable contradictions. From the French New Right’s viewpoint, cultural values are logically prior to political institutions and, in fact, determine them. One need not become embroiled into the intricacies of political theology to acknowledge that, no matter how much its politically correct liberal administration may try to shed so-called “Eurocentric” biases, the US remains the secularized legacy of the Protestant Reformation. Its basic institutions cannot be cut off from such cultural roots without plunging the entire system into chaos. Even if the state were able to shed all axiological residues, the resulting (allegedly strictly procedural) framework would still presuppose particularistic culture-dependant choices. Bottom line: no matter how politically correct it tries to become (i.e., consistent with liberalism’s abstract universalism), multiculturalism remains fundamentally incompatible with the liberal state.
The problem with the American political framework can be traced back to the attempt to deploy liberalism at the federal level while allowing its constituting political units (the states) maximum possible space to articulate their cultural particularity within local political institutions. In this respect, a version of multiculturalism was inherent in the very structure of American federalism — a structure, surprisingly enough, very similar to the French New Right’s version of federalism predicated on “pagan pluralism.” From the very beginning, however, it was contradicted by a Bill of Rights presupposing a national constituency and thus ecroaching on the autonomy of the allegedly sovereign federating units. Since the first decades of the 19th century, the US has sought to resolve this contradiction in favor of a defacto national model. Such a choice has had spectacular results in the creation of what is today the world’s only superpower, but at the cost of undermining its very foundation.
A variation on the contradiction Carl Schmitt identified between liberalism and democracy, multiculturalism (the functional equivalent of democracy) can thrive within the interventionist liberal state only if it is reduced to the celebration of irrelevant folkloristic, culinary and otherwise merely superficial characteristics. When it comes to serious questions such as, e.g., religion, it becomes dear that the contradiction is unresolvable without fundamental constitutional revisions. As can be seen with the controversy surrounding abortion, there is absolutely no way at the federal level to reconcile the conflicting moralities of the parties involved without alienating a significant segment of the population, encouraging civil disobedience (even terrorism), and eventually delegitimating the state as such. A plurality of cultures can coexist without either destroying or absorbing one another only if embodied in organic communities, not merely isolated individuals. In the latter case, the outcome is not only the gradual erasure of cultural particularity but the very decomposition of individuality, which explains the inextricable connection in the US between cultural homogenization through the culture industry, the rise of the therapeutic industry, and the progressive disintegration of communities.
Paradoxically — because of its virulent anti-Americanism — the French New Right’s articulation of the concept of ethnicity within a “pagan” (i.e., neutral with respect to religious practices) federalism and in connection with a notion of participatory democracy within small and axiologically homogeneous local communities unwittingly recycles the original American model. It does this at a time when most Americans seem to have forgotten it in their uncritical embrace of a liberalism which has become increasingly problematic as a result of its extension throughout the various units of the federation now turned into a de facto national state. Even more paradoxical is the realization that some of the more perceptive sectors of the American Left, although apparently unaware of what the French New Left has been advocating, are beginning to come around to roughly similar positions.
Toward a New Left/New Right Reconciliation?
In a recent evaluation of “The Situation of the Left in the United States,” Stanley Aronowitz not only calls for dropping socialism in favor of “radical democracy,” but begins to obliquely refer to “federalism” as a possible alternative to current quandaries. This is encouraging, although the move seems opportunistic and in bad faith (as it becomes immediately obvious in both the responses and Aronowitz’ own reply). Even if such were not the case, however, the proposal remains embroiled in a long series of blatant contradictions, undeveloped positions and fashionable (but vacuous) post-modern academic slogans. How is it possible to have radical (or direct, participatory or plebiscitary) democracy without at the same time advocating a rigorous federal system guaranteeing the autonomy of small constituting units –the only ones within which radical democracy can be practiced? And if these units are sufficiently small, why should they be prevented from becoming culturally homogeneous, thus prefiguring a plethora of autonomous communities (federated in larger geographically-defined units) perpetuating a plurality of different cultural traditions (the sort of political framework advocated by the New Right)? Similarly, how can one claim to transcend socialism while still assuming “the unity of class and culture” — that crude myth about base and superstructure which constituted the very foundation of orthodox Marxism? At any rate, it and when most of the American Left ever comes to the point of seriously thinking its way through the concept of radical democracy, it will have to reject not only the kind of conformist liberalism it still uncritically accepts (plural universalism and internationalism) but also the centralized nation-state, its superficial concept of culture (as something presumably absorbed, along with toxic chemicals, on the shop floor) and the predominant shallow notion of community as a bunch of abstract individuals coming together on the basis of accidental cultural traits, biology or particular predilections (e.g., gender or sex-orientation).
Were such a process of theoretical maturation to take place, the remnants of the American New Left might find themselves in practically the same camp as (of all things) not only the French New Right but that much despised American New Right! Of course, neither Aronowitz not any of the participants in the symposium on “radical democracy” seem to have the faintest idea concerning what exactly constitutes the “Right” –something they identify with the likes of Satan and see as not only all-powerful but triumphant everywhere. Had they bothered to read some of the more sophisticated conservative analysts on the Right, not only would they have discovered that the most interesting branches of the Right — such as the French New Right, if it is still possible to place them anywhere on the Right — have redefined themselves by incorporating about 95% of standard New Left ideas, but that, on the whole, there is no longer anything that can be identified as “Right.” As Paul Gottfried argues in the most extensive available account of the status of American conservatism today, there is no longer any such a thing. The differences between paleoconservatives, neo-conservatives, the American New Right and conservative libertarians are even greater than those separating the Left (broadly defined) and the Right (even more broadly defined). As for the alleged “triumph” of the Right, Aronowitz and Co. would do well to read conservative critics such as Samuel Francis, whose recent study of the American Right is accurately rifled Beautiful Losers.
Such a careful study of the American Right would confirm the French New Right’s claim that the Left/Right dichotomy is no longer politically meaningful and that post-Cold War realities call for a new paradigm in political theory. Thus, with a slightly different focus, a symposium on “radical democracy” similar to the previously described one could have been equally held by the American New Right, which recently has also reconsidered some of its political positions. What the liberal media describes as far Right groups, such as “The Christian Coalition,” also opt for radical democracy and local self-determination, and have broadened their scope to include orthodox Jews as well as other equally “conservative” religious groups within their fold. Surprisingly enough, they have become the most vocal anti-central government group in the US, demanding local autonomy as a way to preserve their particular cultural values. More radical than the remnants of the New Left, the American New Right calls for a thorough decentralization of the educational system, to the point of making it completely independent of the state (also a traditional anarchist position), local self-determination, a radical reduction of state interference in social policy, and fiscal autonomy. If education has to do, among other things, with the transmission of values, and radical democracy means local self-determination, what can be objectionable to teaching creationism, having school prayers and whatever other locally-mandated practices, unless one introjects a liberalism which necessarily contradicts democracy by positing absolute values beyond direct democratic self-determination?
Historically, the American New Right’s Achilles heel has been what the French New Right sees as the basic flaw in all of Christianity — a totalitarian commitment to impose its own values everywhere. Considering itself the underdog, the Christian Coalition seems to have given up its universal aspirations and, although it still seeks to convert the whole world to “the one and only true faith,” in a return to traditional Protestant tolerance it now accepts a broad spectrum of differences. With the exception of abortion, against which it remains adamantly and obsessively opposed, on practically every other issue it may not in principle object to a New Left reconfigured around radical democracy, cultural self-determination and federal governance (even on abortion, in order to be consistent with its commitment to the right to self-determination and federalism, it will have to accept the legitimacy of other particular communities sanctioning the practice, if they do so on the basis of local democratic mandates). Allowed to control education, housing, welfare and cultural life in general in its own communities, the Christian Coalition will still vigorously condemn secularism, abortion, homosexuality and other non-Christian practices, but it will probably learn to live with them in other territorially defined communities.
Obviously, an immense amount of micro-differences remain between people who have for most of their lives identified with either the Left or the Right. But if suddenly everyone seems to be able to agree on fundamental principles, such as self-determination, radical democracy and federalism, who are the real enemies? What happened to the opposition? Once again, the French New Right seems to be onto something when it contraposes a universalizing New Class seeking to impose an abstract liberal agenda on everyone, and populists wanting to live their lives in their communities, with their particular cultures, institutions, religions etc. Is such a vision viable for post-industrial societies totalized by new communication technologies, intensified economic interaction and considerable social and geographical mobility? Will it not entail a regression from what many regard as humankind’s major achievements, such as human rights, science, technology, etc.? Maybe. But it these achievements do not have a direct impact of people’s lives and, as the French New Right claims, they tend to develop into new and more sophisticated means of domination, then it may be wise to leave it to the people themselves, as integral parts of functioning communities and cultures (rather than as abstract individuals deprived of all those concrete cultural particularities which makes them truly human) to decide whether and to what an extent to buy into them -no matter how “backward,” “barbaric” or “primitive” these particular choices may seem from extraneous cultural viewpoints. It the true, the good and the beautiful are objective entities, then people will eventually find them on their own, with the assistance of their own “experts,” without having them imposed from above by those who pretend to know better.
No matter what answers one may give to these questions, one thing is dear: tar from constituting any kind of public danger, as the Left vigilantes claim, the French New Right, notwithstanding its obsessive opposition to any kind of administratively imposed equality (which may be its only remaining link with the Old Right) has made a significant contribution at a time when original ideas are hard to come by. As such, it deserves to be taken seriously rather than censured by self-rightous apparatchiks unable or unwilling to deal with rational arguments on their own grounds.
At any rate, it is both ironic and indicative of the theoretical “situation of the Left in the United States” that it took the journal sponsoring the symposium within which Aronowitz’ article appeared (and which was optimistically launched over two decades ago with a pretentious title such as Socialist Revolution) about one decade to realize the folly of calling for “revolution”in the US and another one to finally dump “socialism.” Now that it will probably have to be rebaptized once again as something like Radical Democratic/Review, it has finally crawled back up to the theoretical level of the SDS Port Huron statement in the early 1960s. Not accidentally, when Aronowitz chides other symposium participants for being theoretically crude and not aware of”the extraordinary development in recent theory of ideology” he quotes none other than . . . Louis Althusser! (Ibid., p. 77). Far from being “recent,” although published in English only in 1981, Althusser’s ideas on ideology date back to the early 1960s, when he was still desperately trying to legitimate by whatever means necessary the opportunism of the French Communist Party) or “extraordinary,” the theory of ideology of the theoretician Tony Judt has snidely dubbed “the Paris Strangler” — both in Marxist theory and marital practices –today rates no better than phrenology.
Given this state of affairs, the American Left would do well to copy the French New Right in appropriating most of one’s opponents’ better ideas and reintegrating them within a new theoretical synthesis.
[Telos, Winter93/Spring94, Issue 98-99]