Alain de Benoist’s “Le Moment Populiste”: A Review
It is difficult to understand the political events of the last decade without a concept of ‘populism’. Today, the majority of pundits and political scientists treat the word as a kind of disease. For Alain de Benoist however, the leading intellectual figure behind the French Nouvelle Droite and author of Le Moment Populiste (The Populist Moment), populism is neither a pathology of democracy nor a neutral development, but rather a manifestation of political health. In the book, the author elaborates on how populism represents a force that, in the midst of the disintegration of political forms, is able to bring about a new political configuration.
According to de Benoist, the distinction between left and right is becoming harder and harder to define. Voters often have the impression that right-wing parties conduct left-wing politics, and vice versa. The general impression is that while personalities and slogans change, the basic ideology remains the same. Both left and Right appear to have abandoned their major constituencies: the left the people, and the Right the nation, leading many to conclude that our leaders do not differ in their goals but only in their methods. The French author thus concludes that the discussion today is taking place only between left-wing liberals, right-wing liberals, and centrists.
Some people would consider it somewhat fitting that that ‘the end of the left-right divide’ is announced by a Frenchman, given that the very distinction grew out of the French Revolution. And yet the terms ‘left’ and ‘Right’ did not begin to function in the public debate then but much later, only in the last quarter of the 19th century. Neither during the Revolution of 1830, nor 1848, nor even during the Paris Commune were citizens using these concepts. There were no people of the ‘left’ and people of the ‘Right’, but reactionaries and progressives, republicans and radicals. No 19th century socialist would have identified as being on the ‘left’, for example.
De Benoist points to the Dreyfus affair as the moment when the left-right divide begins to capture the collective imagination. According to the author, this is when socialists and progressives unite in an alliance to defend the French Republic against the ‘Right’, i.e. nationalists, catholics and monarchists. This division only reinforced itself in the 20th century and it overlaps with three great debates: 1) around institutions, 2) around religion, and 3) around the “social question,” namely the consequences of the first industrial revolution. These three debates, on which the left-right axis was based, have since been closed.
There were many failed attempts to restore it, however. Norberto Bobbio, a very popular Italian political scientist of the ’90s who believed that ‘equality’ is the basis of the divide (with the Right its eternal enemy and the left its defender) is cited by the de Benoist as an example. But as the French author notes on each side there have always been fractions that saw certain inequalities as injustices. Marx himself rejected the notion of ‘equality’ as a bourgeois concept. To further prove his point, de Benoist also cites a 2016 French IFOP poll in which, when people who described themselves as ‘of the left’ were asked which value was most important to them, ‘equality’ ranked only third.
To many today, the dichotomy of ‘progress’ versus ‘conservatism’ is a valid one. However, as Burke wrote in Reflections on Revolution in France, a state which does not have the means to change itself also does not have the means to preserve itself. Conservatism and progressivism are empty words in themselves as we must define both what we want to preserve and what we want to progress towards. De Benoist here reminds us of Jean-Claude Michéa’s work, who argued that socialism, in its origins, had nothing to do with the idea of progress.
The Right and the left are not separated by an unbridgeable ideological chasm. Concepts, symbols, and figures circulate between one side and the other. Once, the Marseillaise was the hymn of the left, then it moved to the Right in the early 20th century. As de Benoist points out, eugenism, racism, and Darwinism were born on the left, just as colonial endeavors in France began with a leftist government in charge. Also in France, it was the left that feared giving women the right to vote because they thought it would bring back clericalism and strengthen conservatives.
According to de Benoist, any significant difference between the left and the Right has collapsed, as perhaps best signified by the abandonment of the people by the left and the adoption of purely materialistic values by the Right. The left further dissociated itself from the people because the progressive values it swore to uphold were often at odds with the people’ values. Here, de Benoist’s assessment is somewhat brutal:
“The stupidity of people on the left who believe that you can fight capitalism in the name of ‘progress’ is matched by the stupidity of people on the Right who want to defend both ‘traditional values’ and the market that undermines them.“
While the left has become the cultural vanguard of liberalism, the Right has assumed the role of its cultural ariergarde: they both follow the same flawed anthropology. They believe that man to be an atom, free of any ties, detached from the past and his community, knowing no limits, ready to construct himself as he pleases.
Political divides may change shape, but they never completely disappear. While the traditionally-understood horizontal division between left and Right has collapsed, a vertical one has emerged. This division can be summarized as the ordinary people versus the elite, with the former understood as the common people and the latter as the new globalist class.
Our current elites’ philosophy is characterized by nomadism, uprooting and resentment towards the “Deplorables,” as well as a deep conviction that the aspirations of those at the bottom are either irrational or downright dangerous. Echoing the work of Christopher Lasch, de Benoist quotes Italian dissident thinker Constanzo Preve for a vivid description of this cosmopolitan class:
“They travel frequently, communicate in ‘tourist English’, use drugs with moderation, use contraception, they are distinguished by androgynous and transsexual aesthetics, by multiculturalism devoid of any real curiosity about other cultures, and finally their philosophy resembles group therapy or gymnastics in relativism.“
The new political axis thus divides people into those who have benefited from globalization and those who have suffered from it. Recognizing this new alignment is itself a political act, as are attempts to obfuscate or obscure it.
De Benoist sketches out three stages of anti-populism. In the beginning, the term was used to describe the extreme Right. Later the term was extended to include all those who base their political outlook on the division between the people and the elite (this served to exclude from the debate not only the extreme Right but also various options that were accused of distracting the people from their civic duty of trusting their representatives). The third stage on the other hand, extended such stigmatization to the common people as such.
The scale of the oligarchy’s contempt for the people was best exposed by Brexit. Jean-Claude Juncker, then President of the European Commission, stated that “no democratic choice should be allowed on the European treaties.” There were also calls to ban the use of referendums in the treaties altogether, while Bernard-Henri Lévy declared that Brexit marked a victory for “the most foolish kind of nationalism.” ‘The people’ then ceased to be an issue to be fought for, and became instead a problem to be solved.
Despite what its critics say, populism is not anti-democratic. On the contrary, according to de Benoist, it demands more democracy, drawing attention to its deficit in political systems which have developed into oligarchies. It has also nothing in common with Fascism, as it seeks neither to overthrow democracy nor to create a new man, but seeks to defend those whose cultural and economic existence is in imminent danger. Populism constitutes proof, de Benoist concludes, that liberal democracy has exhausted itself. It’s not a coherent doctrine or a structured ideology but rather a certain ‘political style’.
Electoral victory is not enough to affect change. The biggest weakness of populism is that it hasn’t learned to think long-term. Big Tech and big corporations are gaining more political relevance than the political class itself because, unlike most political parties, they don’t think about the future in terms of a single electoral cycle. This lack of planning and strategic thinking is also what prevents populists from gaining ground in the culture wars, given that the latter requires prolonged efforts.
Anyone interested in populism should wonder what it means that Dominic Cummings left Boris Johnson’s government, or that Peter Thiel had so little influence in the Trump administration. Populism is frequently presented as a critique of what is now called a meritocracy. But a community from which a natural aristocracy of talent doesn’t emerge will not go very far. There is a long way from rebellion to competent governance, and populists in recent years have often proved themselves as unprepared for office.
While some people claim populism is “reactionism of liberalism,” its vision containing at most a return to the 1950s i.e. liberalism “without immigrants” and no counter-ideal — which ultimately deceives societies into thinking half-measures can deal with profound illnesses — there is no denying that the emergence of populism in the West invigorated people and movements. This is what Trump represented, according to Arizona’s US Senate candidate Blake Masters who, with Trump still in office, described his Presidency as the possibility to “end to an elite bureaucratic order that seeks to ban dissent; That vows to never again make the mistake of allowing a free people to make a free choice.”
When I reached out to de Benoist and asked him what populism represented to him, the author expressed regret over witnessing this new political ‘impulse’ too late for him to probably live long enough to see where it might lead. Populism only marks a moment and, with a certain melancholy in his voice, the author of Le Moment Populiste remarked that moments tend to pass. But one could say that the three debates of modernity, on institutions, on religion and on the “social question” — that is of how we respond to the fact that software eats the world — have been reopened, and that the divide between Right and left can reconstruct itself on new grounds. Only by asking ourselves what kind of institutions, what kind of religion and technology we want, we can figure out where we stand and who is against us.