Sometimes I get the feeling that the West really is intellectually and spiritually bankrupt. I take my cue here not from watching Eurovision or anything like its American equivalent, but from the fact that, despite how radically different our circumstance is from our predecessors, we can’t seem to get beyond political ideas that have been banging around since the 19th century. Instead of coming up with genuine alternatives we rebrand antique ideas. After all, isn’t “fully automated luxury communism” really just a technophilic version of communism which hopes to shed all association with breadlines or statues of strapping workers with hammers in their hands? Let’s just call the thing Marxism and get it the hell over with.
Yet perhaps nothing that’s in fact sclerotic and is trying to pass itself off as new is as bad as the so-called “alt-right” (personally I liked the term neo-reactionaries so much better). After all, it’s these guys who not only stand a chance of putting one of their own in the most powerful political office on the planet, they’ve actually already succeeded in dealing what may prove the first of many death blows to the European project with Brexit. No one should doubt that creeps on both sides of the pond are united in their push to tear down the liberal, globalist order.
So far, the alt-right seems to have gotten far more political traction than anything coming out of the left, which means we need to understand why this rise is taking place in order to counter it, and that means understanding the dark experience and emotions driving this micro-counterrevolution- that is impotence and fear. In this post I’ll focus on Europe, which will at least give me an excuse for not having to think about the comic nightmare that is Trump.
It’s specifically the situation in France that I think we should be paying the most attention to, for it seems to me that the Germans, given their recent history and despite their own ascendant right-wing, will probably maintain their sanity (and their humanity) on account of the depth of the scars left from their prior attempt to deconstruct and remake society based on the nightmares and fantasies of the right. (And for that matter many former East Germans, such as Angela Merkel herself, remember what it is actually like to live under the weight of a Marxism that had declared the whole tradition of civil rights and liberties to be nothing but a bourgeois fiction and become totalitarian).
It’s also the case that unlike the United States the French have lost all interest or capacity to support a globe straddling empire that, like all such empires, ended up embracing some version of often contentious pluralism and multiculturalism as part of the cost of the broad geographical extent of its influence and power.
Indeed, in France the far- right in the form of the National Front is represented by a major political party, and there many people apparently think that banning Islamic swimwear is a victory for women’s rights, or part of the French tradition of separating secular from spiritual power -laïcité– rather than a gesture of forced assimilation by Islamophobes.
Marie Le Pen sitting in the Élysée Palace in 2017 seems a far likelier scenario than Donald Trump assuming the presidency despite the fact that he faces a rival that is by all accounts weak, and by many measures, corrupt. Should the NF assume the leadership of France, the EU would be toast (I resisted the temptation to put french in front of that word), and one of the few, and the most culturally significant country to cling to the civic- nationalist tradition as an alternative to racial, ethnic and sectarian bonds as the basis for community would have asphyxiated in the face of a world becoming woven together ever more tightly through technology and the movement of ideas and people.
If you want to get a feel for this French experience of (or better fear surrounding) serrer le kiki by the “barbarians” it once tried to “civilize” one couldn’t do much better than reading Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novel Submission, for that book gives us a glimpse into the spiritual cul de sac that is the 21st century European soul, an experience of being crippled by history from even imagining, let alone creating, an alternative future, a feeling of imprisonment that feeds into dark calls to tear the whole damn thing down so society can return to a lost world that never really was.
Submission depicts a dystopian France of the near future (2022). The novel tells the story of the rise of an Islamist government in France, which then goes on to monopolize control over education and eliminate the political and social equality and sets out to rebuild the Roman Empire by joining the European Union and the Middle East.
François, the protagonist anti-hero in this story, plays no real active role for or against in these happenings. Nor does he really experience them emotionally, rather, he kind of floats along with them, less like a man than a leaf on the wind. A middle-aged professor of literature who specializes in the 19th century French author Huysmans, his main interest is in sleeping with his students, or maybe even more so, eating a good, ethnically-exotic, lunch.
I must admit that for how much I disliked the politics of the book it’s hard, even in the English translation, not to see Houellebecq’s genius as an author. You never really doubt his characters’ authenticity. The individuals he depicts are painfully human. As just one example, Houellebecq has a way of seasoning serious political and philosophical conversations between his protagonist and other characters with the former’s desire for a good falafel or blow job. In that respect, the novel, as some have pointed out, is deeply compassionate towards our human-too-human condition.
Indeed, at one point I thought he was leading me through a kind of spiritual pilgrimage in which François moves away from the empty hedonism of late modernity back towards the kinds of deep spirituality of the medieval era only to find such spiritual time travel impossible. (Apparently this was also Houellebecq’s original intent).
Fleeing the violence and threats of greater violence in Paris, but even more so his own impotent sexuality, ill health, and melancholy François travels to the monastery where an equally troubled and spiritually lost Huysmans converted to Catholicism over a century before. It’s perhaps the first time in the novel where we see the character experiencing something like hope, even to the point of falling into transcendence:
During my first visit I loved the Vigils, with the long meditative psalms in the middle of the night- as distant from Compline, and its farewell to the day, as it was from Lauds, which greeted the new dawn. Vigils was an office of pure waiting, of ultimate hope without any reason for hope (176).
Yet this pilgrim’s journey never reaches its destination derailed by François modern weakness and frustrations- his cigarette smoking keeps setting off the monastery’s smoke detector.
Had Houellebecq left it there his novel would stand with the classic tales of the anti-hero like Notes From the Underground or Metamorphosis. But he doesn’t stop there. Instead he encases his butterfly of a story about a modern man in search of meaning within the ugly chrysalis of an Islamist dystopia. He does this because he has a larger polemical and sociological (I hesitate to call it philosophical) point to make.
As can be seen in his prior novel The Elementary Particles (Atomized), Houellebecq is obsessed with the apparent chasm between a liberated sexuality (especially the sexual liberation of women) and the dependence of human societies and the human species itself on this sexuality to reproduce itself. These reflections occur within a context of steep demographic declines in Europe (which France seems only temporarily to have been able to slow).
In The Elementary Particles Houellebecq’s character Michel address this problem technologically- by perfecting human reproductive cloning. In Submission the author imagines we will solve this problem by embracing the inequality of the sexes and blatant suppression of women found in some Muslim societies.
It is impossible to take this position seriously.
Instead, Houellebecq in Submission is doing something eerily similar to what the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme did with his piece “The Slave Market”. At one and the the same time Gérôme managed to point out a real moral injustice- female slavery, judge a culture from position of moral superiority (France had outlawed the slave trade less than twenty years earlier), and no doubt managed to titillate the tight-buttoned gentlemen of the Victorian era.
In some ways Submission might also be seen as a novelization of one of the most influential philosophers of the European intellectual right, Pascal Bruckner. Indeed Bruckner book on the decline of marriage- Has Marriage for Love Failed? makes a brief appearance in the novel, and the novel’s play and tensions only makes sense when read from the position of Enlightenment claims to universalism which Bruckner so vigorously defends.
In the hands of Houellebecq Islam becomes a cure for the Western disease of cultural decadence and demographic decline that will ultimately kill the patient, namely the very Enlightenment values that society is supposed to embody.
Both Houellebecq and Bruckner’s obvious disdain or ignorance regarding the cultural diversity within Islam, especially the former’s inability or unwillingness to use his genius to craft even one genuine Muslim character, or to question the West’s role (both through foreign and domestic policy) in fostering the kinds of perversions found in political Islam are all symptomatic of his membership in what might be called Europe’s “Enlightenment Right”- its own version of American neo-conservatives.
It’s hard to argue that Houellebecq doesn’t possess such disdain given that, at one point in the novel the rector of the Sorbonne Robert Rediger who is trying to convert the sexually obsessed François to Islam “favorably” compares Islam (whose literal meaning is submission, as in submission to the will of Allah) to the erotic SN&M novel The Story of O. And even where the views of Houellebecq towards the Islamist government are somewhat ambiguous- as, for instance, his depiction of it implementing the policy of distributism– (a reorientation towards localism that I’ve seen everywhere from Paul Ryan to Douglas Rushkoff lately), it’s clear that the purpose of such policies is to dismantle the welfare state so that power will return to religious institutions and especially families and their heads-of-households.
What gave Submission instant notoriety and potency was that it appeared on the very day of the viscous Islamist attack on the French satirists of Charlie Hebdo, not only brought the novel notoriety, but seemed to confirm the very weakness in the face of radical Islam by French society that the book tried to convey. It is indeed the case that French society faces the very real danger of radical Islam. Banning the burkini is not a solution to this problem- finding a place in French society for French Muslims is, and Submission rather than helping on that score does just the opposite.
There are two problems here, only one of which is real. The first is that the problem of falling birthrates isn’t one of irreligious societies alone, and it’s not problem than the most admittedly paternalistic variants of Islam- such as the Wahabism found in Saudi Arabia actually prevent. Quite to the contrary, birth-rates are falling in the Islamic world far faster than they have in the West. The fear of an old-decrepit Europe overwhelmed by scores of Muslims breeding far-quicker because of their suppression is nothing but a dark fantasy, even if the current refugee crisis arising from the wars in Syria and Libya not to mention the far too under-reported crises in South Sudan and Eritrea are very real right now, as is Europe’s need to evolve into a migrant society or fall into the kind of economic and geopolitical stagnation seen in Japan.
The second, the real problem is quite different. We’ve reached a weird stage in our culture where the only intellectuals who need actual courage, to put their very lives on the line, are those too often motivated (or at least used as tools by) those driven by hate or disdain. Because courage is the necessary virtue of politics, and like all virtues, is only learned through practice, we find ourselves in a situation where only those expressing sentiments the majority of educated people find vile are actually able to practice political courage. It’s a society where elites lack all courage which has atrophied to the point of decadence and such decadence that is not far away from being overthrown by barbarians who are not only not lacking in courage, but would face so little martial defense of the liberal order they disdain should they decide to tear the whole thing down .