“Two Roads For the New French Right” by Mark Lilla, New York Review of Books December 18, 2018.
Mark Lilla has written an essay on the French Catholic Right without using the term laïcité’, an achievement of sorts. It strikes me as a bit like writing an article about The National Rifle Association and not mentioning the Second Amendment, which you can do, but only if you are Sacha Baron Cohen, and its not an article you are writing, but a satirical sketch.
Come to think of it, Lilla also manages to explore a good chunk of the French far-right ecosystem without once using the term ‘fascism’. This will not do.
A liberal heavyweight of ‘populism’ studies and a critic of identity politics, Lilla writes that something is underway in France that is more than “xenophobic populist outbursts”. A “New French Right” is being assembled by some characters with questionable democratic credentials.
But what Lilla purports to identify as a new political phenomenon is not in any sense new to veteran anti fascists. It’s only new to him. Lilla, who understands not a bit of the essence of fascism, waxes cheerily about the hip, countercultural credentials of this latest iteration of the French far-right, as though this is the first time a political movement has raided the nostalgia box of May 1968.
For instance, what he describes as a New French Right owes much to the 1980-90s writings of Alain de Benoist, an obvious progenitor of the ideas that are the focus of his essay. de Benoist and his Nouvelle Droit (New Right) of the 1980s and 1990s was also influenced by Gramsci, and I think de Benoist coined the term ‘the right to difference’ way back when. The Génération Identitaire fascists of today, with their millionaire funders behind their slick tech savvy media stunts, are similarily fascsinated with Gramsci and hegemony, the counter culture, environmentalism, etc. So is it a new, new French Right? Let’s not go down this road, for I fear we will end up reinforcing what is already a lexical hell.
Through this critique of Lilla’s essay, I will try a different approach.
The 3rd generation neofascist from the Le Pen stable, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, (pictured above on her Granddaddy’s lap in a Riefenstahlesque National Front poster of yor) gets a treatment that reads like a human interest piece. She is a “stylish Frenchwoman” with a “slight, charming French accent” who politely opposes what she calls a “nomadic, globalized, deracinated liberal system”. “Deracinated” translates here as “uprooted”, but it works in the other sense, too.
Lilla writes that French intellectuals dismiss these new-right Gramscians as closet National Front supporters and therefore of little political significance. He then laments that “The left has an old, bad habit of underestimating its adversaries and explaining away their ideas as mere camouflage for despicable attitudes and passions.” We probably don’t agree on what is referenced above as “the left”, but what Lilla doesn’t understand is that it is not all of the left that is guilty of this, just part of the left.
Comrades within the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) who beat the living shit out of a National Front organizer during a recent Saturday protest are not paralyzed by attempts to parse French fascism into naughty and nice. But that’s what Lilla trys to do here.
Lilla is wringing his hands, as all liberals do when they sense the salience of their ideas approaching a denouement. One solution, of course, is to hop in the sack with the fascists by calling them conservatives.
“One possibility is that a renewed, more classical organic conservatism could serve as a moderating force in European democracies currently under stress. There are many who feel buffeted by the forces of the global economy, frustrated by the inability of governments to control the flow of illegal immigration, resentful of EU rules, and uncomfortable with rapidly changing moral codes regarding matters like sexuality. Until now these concerns have only been addressed, and then exploited, by far-right populist demagogues. If there is a part of the electorate that simply dreams of living in a more stable, less fluid world, economically and culturally—people who are not primarily driven by xenophobic anti-elitism—then a moderate conservative movement might serve as a bulwark against the alt-right furies by stressing tradition, solidarity, and care for the earth.”
Note how encouraging the nice French New Right could have a positive effect on democracy. And that’s the crux of the problem here: if the liberal democratic state is “under stress” and in need of a “moderating force” then the possibility that capitalist democracy is itself the problem is out of the question. This is the key concept around which all descriptions of ‘extremism’–from right or left–are constructed. And it is dangerous for antifascists to traffic in this stupidity.
The other possibility, according to Lilla, is this:
“A different scenario is that the aggressive form of conservatism that one also sees in France would serve instead as a powerful tool for building a pan-European reactionary Christian nationalism along the lines laid out in the early twentieth century by Charles Maurras, the French anti-Semitic champion of “integral nationalism” who became the master thinker of Vichy.”
So we have a passive and an aggressive conservatism that are behind what he calls the French New Right.
Both of Lilla’s scenarios are bunk. What is underway, and has been for some time, is a continental project of neo-fascism that has outstripped and scrambled familiar liberal categories. The only way to unscramble them is to reject both using a theoretical framework that is antifascist and socialist–from the left and below.
Lillla’s second scenario unconsciously references what I call the political geography of white nationalism within which all of this is taking place. This, together with neoliberalism, are what condition and structure this ‘new’ expression of the French far right, not vague notions of a global economy about which peope feel a generalized anxiety.
Let’s call it what it actually is: a fascist international in formation.
Also, just because one political creature of the far right prefers terms like “culture war” or “social organicism” in place of “race war” and “white nation” doesn’t mean such efforts have any empirical value for antifascists. Such rhetorical flourishes cannot help us distinguish ‘good conservatives’ from ‘bad conservatives’.
All of this is ripped from history, as when Lilla writes “This is consistent with trends in Eastern Europe, where Pew [Research Center] found that Orthodox Christian self-identification has actually been rising, along with nationalism, confounding post-1989 expectations.”
Confounding whose expectations, exactly? Most antifascists I knew in the 1990s correctly predicted a profoundly destructive unleashing of far right forces once they were freed from the Cold War parameters that had previously limited their political options. Much of this neo-fascism had a Christian bent–not surprising at all if you understood the twin pillars of fascism to be white nationalism and the Chrisitian Right. If, however, at the time you believed in the righteousness and stabilizing influence of the post Cold War American led neoliberal order–the end of history, the universal utopia of the European Union, the expansion of ‘free markets’ and civil society, etc.,–there was no real threat of a renewed fascism, only a gradual diminishing of those ancient prejudices that would accompany progress. But that was never going to be the case.
Some of us were arguing way back when that a pan-European white nationalism was developing into what can only be described as a fascist international. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc didn’t unleash long buried ancient prejudices that ‘communism’ kept artificially suppressed, as some inept anthropologist or another wrote, it burst the Cold War anti-communist consensus and opened new horizons for fascism to challenge capitalist democracies and authoritarian states alike.
Perhaps most disturbing, however, is that Lilla, together with so many of his dim witted colleagues, never tire of fretting about the ‘anxiety’ and ‘xenophobia’ that supposedly accompanies (excessive) immigration. Exhausted from such intellectual turbidity, they have nothing left for an analysis of why people from the Global South move northward. To do so would mean bringing up the pulverizing wars, economic super exploitation and social dislocation that is always justified, when it is even acknowledged, by a zero-sum racism that says, effectively, “that’s the nature of the nation state. You can’t change that, only fight for your piece of the pie within it.” That successive French governments and corporations have played no small role in prosecuting these wars for profit and conquest is totally ignored.
In any case Lilla gets it backwards: immigration doesn’t drive xenophobia. The de facto racism of the French state (or American) and its beneficiaries drive the manufacture of immigrants, creating the finished product that becomes refugees. It’s a global killing machine, with an engine that uses humans as fuel. Liberals are incapable of getting this, which is why Hillary Clinton recently floated her ‘tough on immigration’ proposal, clearing the way for Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to offer Trump $1.5 billion for construction of his border wall. Will Democrats provide a ceremonial signature brick in that wall? How convenient and despicable, yet predictable and predicted. But I aggress.
As everything continues to slip sideways, the ground shifting beneath our feet, yesterday’s comrade today’s foe, everyone is reaching, struggling to capture what the fuck is going on. Lilla’s fumbling about illustrates my point: precisely when everything appears to be up in the air, fascism begins to thrive and has an opportunity to arrive.
“In countries as diverse as France, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Italy, efforts are underway to develop a coherent ideology that would mobilize Europeans angry about immigration, economic dislocation, the European Union, and social liberalization, and then use that ideology to govern. Now is the time to start paying attention to the ideas of what seems to be an evolving right-wing Popular Front. France is a good place to start.”
No, it’s not a “right-wing Popular Front”, but a fascist international.
“The prerequisites for a European Christian nationalist movement may be falling into place, as Hungarian president Viktor Orbán has long been predicting.”
Again, this is fascism in formation and we don’t need a Hungarian dictator to point it out. Lilla has no problem expressing awe for the supposed prognosticatory powers of Orbán, but he can’t bring himself to say as much about antifascists who have predicted as much for thirty years. Orbán, by the way, isn’t only ‘predicting’ such a social transformation, he’s actively bringing it about. That’s called a self fulfilling prophecy, not a prediction. And as long as academics such as Lilla continue to use the framework of liberalism vs populism to try and apprehend 21st century fascism, and comrades on the left ape that analysis, then Orbán and his fascist humunculi will be rendered as oracles, rather than the fascist meat sacks they actually are.
It’s good that Lilla is reaching for a way to apprehend this transformation of the European Right, but trapped as he is within the sociology of ‘populism’ and the liberal assumptions that go with them he does not have much to offer.
Yanis Varoufakis and Bernie Sanders are fumbling in a similar manner with their newly launched ‘Progressive International”, which is at once progressive, but not socialist, and international, but not internationalist. From this confused and confusing framework both continue to waffle on the so-called ‘issue’ of immigration, which is not an ‘issue’ at all, only an expression of racism vis a vis the eternal and inviolable right to movement, which it denies. In any case, about the time Lilla, Varoufakis and Sanders get their shit together to confront the so-called ‘populist threat’, the terrain has probably shifted again underneath their feet.
Academics and their postmortems.