Alain de Benoist
Nous et les autres:
Problèmatique de l’identité
Paris: Krisis, 2006
Distinct to modernity — particularly to Europe and the European world of the last 200 years — is the question of identity.
Never, in fact, has this question been of greater pertinence than in this, our hyper or postmodern age.
For, in reducing the entire planet to the dictates of their market imperatives, the American-sponsored forces of globalization are presently uprooting and destructuring the world’s peoples in unprecedented ways, destroying those traditional and modernist affiliations that once constituted the basis for their identity — and with it, the basis for their sociability and sense of meaning.
In “We and the Others,” Alain de Benoist, the eloquent and immensely erudite chief of France’s Nouvelle Droite, offers his reflections on what he calls “the problematic of identity.”
In pre-modern or traditional societies, the question of identity, Benoist explains, was hardly conceivable, for “individuals” in such societies identified themselves in terms of their lineage, caste, or social group. In the European Middle Ages, for instance, the question was not “who am I?,” but “to whom am I loyal?”
The question of identity emerged only in response to the dissolution of traditional social ties, brought on by modernity’s advent. The question, moreover, took a distinctly European cast, for it was the moral “interiority,” the validation of the soul, nurtured by Christianity and later legitimized, secularly, in Descartes’ subjective rationalism, which turned the modern emancipated individual into an independent being, whose identity was to be realized in the moral actions he took and in the “authentic nature” he expressed.
Spurred by the humanist individualism of the Renaissance and Reformation and by the “dual revolutions” of the late 18th century, an emerging liberal modern social system centered on the national market sought, thus, to liberate the “individual” from those organic communities and inherited social relations “restricting” his self-realization — as if the “individual,” free of his blood and spirit (of his heritage as a being situated, and enowned, in time), would somehow have a fuller existence if deprived of all that made him who he was.
Modernity, as such, favored “an atomistic view of society . . . constituted by fundamentally free and rational individuals, who are to act as disengaged beings, liberated from any a priori determination and likely to choose on their own the means and values to guide their actions” (p. 26).
This liberal ideal of an independent subject (whose individual identity is considered primary and whose collective identity is incidental) sprang, unsurprisingly, from the same historical process that brought about the homogenization and neutralization of “natural distinctions” in the public sphere, as modernity’s “ideology of the same” severed men from their “organic” ties and promoted a standardized identity (as a rights-bearing individual free of external restraints) detached from all communal and transcendent points of reference.
Individuals in this sense were seen as inherently equal to one another, just as humanity was viewed as an undifferentiated mass of individual subjects — a humanity first conceived in terms of a European world in which no one was any longer a peasant or lord — then, potentially, in terms of the whole planet, as European savants and Pygmy forest people became, together, all alike in being equal constituents of the global market place.
The social anomie that followed this “liberating” atomization, as it dissolved those social and spiritual bonds that had traditionally made life meaningful, provoked among Europeans numerous counter-tendencies to re-establish alternative forms of solidarity and meaning.
Thus, against the ideals of bourgeois individuality and the homogenizing structures of the modern public sphere, indifferent to distinction and difference, there arose identities based on the formation of anti-capitalist parties and trade unions, on Catholicism’s rearguard defense of traditional moral practices, on regionalist or agrarian resistance to state centralization, on ethnoracial opposition to “humanitarian” universalism, as well as on certain state institutions, like the Army or the school — all of which forged new identities to replace those lost with the demise of the ancien régime.
Above all, the Counter-Enlightenment’s Romantic validation of the Volksgeist re-situated the subject in a national community — a validation that set off such anti-liberal movements as Pearse’s Easter Uprising, Codreanu’s Legionary movement, and the National Revolution of 1933.
Today, however, these former identities are long gone and what remains of established communities are once again under seize.
The radical destructuration caused by globalism’s total capitalization of social life is presently eroding whatever identitarian remnants of community still exist. The nation-state and other large-scale institutions, which once offered alternative identities and integrated social groups on the basis of “unified, controlled spaces built from the top down,” are also in crisis, no longer capable of generating meaningful or even satisfactory forms of social space and individual trust.
It is against this nihilistic destructuration that Benoist re-poses the question.
His understanding of identity is largely articulated in the discourse distinct to that North American school of social thought known as “communitarianism,” a school whose principal thinkers are Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, and Michael Walzer.
In one sense, Nous et les autres simply grafts Benoist’s earlier “differentialist” philosophy onto American communitarian tenets.
To those familiar with Benoist’s work, it will perhaps seem odd that this ardent anti-American should not only latch onto a communitarian “philosophy” that is American in origin, but one that speaks to issues largely specific to market-based, identity-negating, and “Anglo-Saxon” societies.
Regardless of whatever revealing psychological tendency this might express, the problems inherent in Benoist’s treatment of identity are related to those inherent in communitarian thought.
As a school, communitarianism arose in the 1980s, as certain American academics, most from the left, began to criticize the increasingly reified character of US social relations (evident in “alienation from the political process, unbridled greed, loneliness, urban crime, and high divorce rates”).
In criticizing the country’s progressive loss of meaningful communal relations, these critics charged that a liberal order organized around a rights-based creed, emphasizing individualistic and materialistic values (such as John Rawls’ 1971 Theory of Justice), was atomizing social life, making it increasingly hollow.
By the 1990s, the “community” championed by these communitarians, who countered liberalism’s “disengaged reason with incarnate reflections,” had become something of a buzzword. It thus entered the “third way” vocabulary of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and even influenced the language of so-called conservatives championing family values and traditional concepts of virtue.
Indeed, with the Cold War’s end and the advent of globalism, the need for community seem to take on new meaning, as “Western” societies coped not just with the increased dysfunctionality of their own national institutions, but with the intrusion of Third World peoples, cultures, and behaviors into their progressively more “diverse” public spaces.
Given the failure to assimilate these non-whites and satisfy their demand for a multicultural disestablishment of the majority’s European heritage, the communitarian response to the problems that came with communal dissolution — in representing man as “an incarnate being, a subject-of-the-world, who cannot be removed from his context without being mutilated” — never seemed more relevant.
Yet despite their searing critique of liberalism’s value-free (i.e., value-indifferent) policies, as well as their argument for the meaning-generating advantages of community, communitarians didn’t actually have much to offer policy-makers.
Part of this was due to the vagueness of their notion of community. What was it, who did it include, what held it together? — questions communitarians rarely pursued, except in a vacuous theoretical or philosophic sense emphasizing the importance of recognizing “the other” and of allowing “places of difference” to exist. At the same time, communitarians upheld a notion of community that distorted all former notions of community, seeking as they did to make ethnically dissimilar communities, often hostile to one another, harmonious cohere within the same social order, as if racial ghettos and conquered, colonized territories could actually make up a communal whole.
Moreover, their advocacy of new public spaces, structured by differences, rather than neutral to them, was resolutely centrist, opposed to any radical or meaningful alteration of existing social relations. (Hence their ready acceptance by the governing elites).
Liberalism may thus have undermined traditional Christian religious identities, but by no means did communitarians seek to re-establish prayer in school, allow Christmas crèches in public places, or repress the subversive materialism of the dominant economic interests. Similarly, feminism may have undermined the family and demonized male identities, but again they respected a woman’s right to abortion and sought no limitation of women roles. Christians and non-Christians, feminists and non-feminists were simply relegated to their respective “communities,” without any real thought given to how these antagonistic communities were to co-exist or how their differences were to enhance social cohesion.
Worse, the communitarians’ anti-liberalism was infused with the most basic of liberal principles. For despite their formal opposition to the anti-communal implications of liberal policies favoring market forces and the breakdown of “organic” communities, their call for communal renewal ultimately sought to revive “civil society” — the same civil society whose bourgeois values and market-based operating principles were the original inspiration for liberalism.
Even more serious, Benoist’s critique of France’s Jacobin notion of social-political integration (which treats all “particularisms as a form of secession,” as it “redefines the nation as a post-communitarian space”) ignores both its historical and demographic context — and thus ignores the most significant aspect of the question as it is presently posed (viz., its biocultural implications).
The problems, for example, that came when the Jacobin state imposed its centralized political system and cultural/linguistic homogenization on what in the 18th and 19th centuries was still an extremely “diverse” country (with half of all Frenchmen then unable to speak French, embedded as they still were in the Breton, Basque, Norman, Fleming, Alsatian, etc. heritages native to their provinces), he assumes, is not unlike the problem today, as the République strives to integrate the racially and culturally alien hordes presently occupying its “conquered” territories.
One could, of course, argue that Benoist here is simply being realistic in accepting the present porousness of borders, the dissolution of national identities, the international division of labor, Third World colonization, and the other globalist forces that make identity particularly problematical in our age.
Realism, however, is first cousin to “accomodationism” and, not infrequently, its consequence.
In interpreting the present postmodern dissolution of identity as simply an extension of earlier modernist assaults on identity, stressing the greater importance of identities that are acquired rather than ascribed, Benoist ignores not just the specificity of today’s problematic. He implicitly proposes a reformulation of identity alien to any historic or native European sense — in its willingness to accommodate non-European, and thus potentially anti-European, identities.
“Identity,” he writes, “is not that which never changes, but rather that which always changes without ever ceasing to be itself” (p.80).
This eloquent formulation, entirely supportable, is specifically directed at those pathological “essentialists” (like racial nationalists), whose exclusionary and absolutist “zero-sum perspective” (in favoring, say, the repatriation rather than the communal recognition of “the other”) understands identity as “an attribute which never changes,” rather than as the dynamic constituting process of what Benoist calls “the permanent narrative of the self.”
He is certainly right here to argue that a “fixed” identity is not necessarily fixed in the sense of never changing, but rather “fixed” in the sense that it experiences transformations in ways “true” to itself.
But like his American communitarian counterparts, Benoist is extremely vague about what this means in practice, just as he is vague about what groups (what people, Volk, or culture) he sees as constituting these communities (though he does suggest that these are likely to include those traditionally considered as “marginal” by the public, to lack permanence, and to have little to do with historic national identities).
Also like the postmodernists, he accepts that every individual partakes in multiple identities (a woman, for instance, being potentially able to identify herself as a feminist, a mother, a member of the Democratic Party, and/or a small business “person,” successively or at the same time); that subjective/acquired identities take precedent over objective/ascribed ones; and that these postmodern identities, whose differences need to be recognized and engaged in the public sphere, have become characteristically “flowing, exploded, and indistinct,” unlike the “relative permanence” of prehistoric, classical, medieval, or even modernist identities based on “organic” ascriptions.
The assumption here is that language, territory, family, even culture (though culture, as in “multicultural,” is often the basis of these new communities) are no longer requisite to identity formation. In effect, Benoist assumes that the present global order, however dysgenic, anticipates the shape of things to come.
There’s no need, as such, to re-consider “what is past, or passing, or to come.” What’s important is to allow individuals their communities, to accept that these communities will differ from one another, and, in order to ensure their harmonious symbiosis of “difference,” that they be recognized in the public sphere, in the form of some type of institutionalism or corporatism supervised by the state.
In rejecting all historic European conceptions of identity and community, along with any notion of “people” or “nation,” Benoist’s communitarianism here unambiguously accommodates the Third World colonization of European lands.
In addition, he insists that the recognition of communal differences is certain to reinvigorate “democratic citizenship” — as if democracy were possible within an ethnically fractured state, whose citizens lack a commonly shared culture and an overarching sense of kinship.
If nation, state, land, language, culture, kin, and ethnicity are thus no longer essential to identity, as he implies, then what matters most is not the realization of Europe’s unique destiny, but rather the affirmation of those nomadic, tribal, and implicitly Jewish communal identities spawned by America’s world-market system.
Ab Aeterno no.2 (March 2010)