So there was a fascinating article in last month’s issue of the New York Review of Books, Two Roads for the New French Right by Mark Lilla. In it, Lilla looks at the French (and, by extension, European) New Right—that is, the populist or radical Right. (An aside, we come up with a “newer” New Right about once or twice a generation. This is the most recent form of it.)
As I say, the article is fascinating for several reasons. Not least of these is that the French Populist Right, which Lilla sees as a community that is gradually building a new ideology in little journals and under-funded think tanks all over France, is a very different animal from our Populist Right. Indeed, it is almost impossible to see the two as being even remotely related.
For one thing, the French New Right is very much an intellectual’s movement. There are writers and philosophers in it, and they are busily thinking about what they want society to be, and why they want it to be that way. The American Trumpian Right, by contrast, is pretty much an intellectual-free zone. Oh, yes, there are a few mercenaries here and there at Institutes of This or That, being paid by corporations and billionaires to sound like Ayn Rand, or at least to justify the obscene wealth of the few at the expense of all the others.
(Okay, admittedly, Stephen Bannon is an exception to the rule. But I’ll argue that he is really more European than American, as evidenced by the fact that he got expelled from the Trump administration, and then from the magazine he’d help to make a success, and that he is now, in fact, trying to find a place in Europe among Europeans. I suspect that in the long run that’s where he’ll end up, and expat pure and simple, and a citizen of the very E.U. he claims to despise.)
Other than that, well, there isn’t much underway brain-wise in Trumpworld. Which, in fact, is the whole point. Anti-intellectualism is at the heart of the American Populist Right. Rejection of specialists, of scientists, of writers and artists, of anyone who is literate or thoughtful, of “all those smart-ass folks [who] say we come descended from monkeys” …that’s what the great Trumpian moment in American politics is all about.
The other thing that makes their Right different from ours is what they want. It’s interesting, to say the least. Lilla says the he met a good many of the New Right thinkers, and “it was striking how serious they are and how they differ from American conservatives. They share two convictions: that a robust conservatism is the only coherent alternative to what they call the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of our time, and that resources for such a conservatism can be found on both sides of the traditional left–Right divide. More surprising still, they are all fans of Bernie Sanders.”
Like our own Rightists, these (mostly young) French thinkers reject “same-sex marriage, and mass immigration.” That sounds familiar. But then everything gets weird. Says Lilla, “…they also reject unregulated global financial markets, neoliberal austerity, genetic modification, consumerism, and AGFAM (Apple-Google-Facebook-Amazon-Microsoft).”
And Feminism? Again, it’s complicated. The women of this incarnation of the Right are hardly Stepford Wives. But, they call for an “‘alter-feminism’ that rejects what they see as the ‘career fetishism’ of contemporary feminism, which unwittingly reinforces the capitalist ideology that slaving for a boss is freedom. They are in no way arguing that women should stay home if they don’t want to; rather they think women need a more realistic image of themselves than contemporary capitalism and feminism give them.”
Oh, these people are also radically green, calling for environmental protections on a scale that would make the Orange One and his minions suffer hemorrhagic strokes.
And a very good thing, too.
Lilla’s suspects that the real difference between our new and their new Right basically boils down to individualism. Our New Right…our populist Right…is all about the individual, who stands his/her ground with a pistol in hand, and greets the mugger, the immigrant, and the tax collector alike with an act of satisfying, if gratuitous violence.
The French New Right, by contrast, is much less focused on the atomized person. To it, “… nations are composed of families, which are organisms, too, with differing but complementary roles and duties for mothers, fathers, and children. On this view, the fundamental task of society is to transmit knowledge, morality, and culture to future generations, perpetuating the life of the civilizational organism. It is not to serve an agglomeration of autonomous individuals bearing Rights.”
Lilla concludes by offering a few warnings to the French establishment Right and Left. In particular, he says that you must take this newest New Right seriously, he says. It could catch on and challenge you at the polls…just as, thirty-something years ago, the then New Right of Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher surprised everybody by sweeping all before it. “The left,” he cautions, “has an old, bad habit of underestimating its adversaries…”
Which is all probably true…
The thing that gets me in this story is how very, very close we are to this New Right. Yes, it is still Right, and there is much here we don’t like and can’t tolerate.
Anti-corporatism and anti-globalism? Well, we like those, too. Environmentalism? Naturally. Concern about un-regulated, giant high tech companies? Right back at you.
Hell, even the “alter-feminism” wouldn’t be too difficult for us to support…or, at least tolerate. After all, alter-feminists aren’t saying that women must stay home and be wives and mothers. Merely that they ought to have the Right to do so, if that’s what they want.
Yes, we do have a couple of irreconcilable differences here—gay marriage and immigration, for instance. But, for a moment, let’s take a pass on those. (I’ll get back to them in the moment.) If we just focus on the things we have in common, and on the differences that we could overlook…then this kind of “radical” Right sounds kind of reasonable. It sounds like the kind of Right you could deal with…bargain with…
And, finally, these “Rightists” could be the sort of people you could tolerate in power, when you were out of it, and who would tolerate you, while you were in power…sort of the way that Democrats and Republicans used to be able to compete, yet not seek one another’s annihilation in the name of ideological purity.
My point? Simply this. The “radical” Right described by Lilla sounds actually far less radical, far less uncompromising, and far less fanatical than the Trumpian Right. It sounds better than what Donald Trump and his plutocratic backers have given us in Washington.
Don’t get me wrong. The European New Right of this article could go very bad, very quickly. This is, after all, the ideological community that includes the National Front…which is as close to a mainstream fascist party as France has seen since the Liberation of 1945.
But, come, let’s confess, the GOP as it presently stands—a corrupt and corrupting criminal organization, dominated by a few obscenely wealthy men and women, determined to gain absolute power regardless of the cost, and more than willing to gas children or let them die in thinly disguised concentration camps…
That’s not any better. And it could be worse.
As I say, I don’t think there is anything like the newest European New Right in the United States. That saddens me, because if there were, then there would be a very good chance that we could win it over to our side. I think we could make it into a branch of Progressivism without a whole lot of difficulty.
But since it doesn’t exist here…
Maybe…we can still do something positive.
Maybe we could reach out this new European Right…and somehow engage it in dialogue. Maybe we somehow reach some kind of detente with it. Maybe we could lead it gently toward an acceptance of same sex marriage, democracy, and immigration. Maybe we could learn from it something about the organic nature of society, and about the dangers posed by excessive individualism.
There might well be something to be gained by all sides from such diplomacy. At the best, we might convince a part of the Right, even if it isn’t our Right, that there is nothing wrong with our viewpoints.
And at the worst…?
We might shame the American Right…that great stone monolith of reaction, greed, and hatred…by remind it that out there, somewhere, there is a Right…
With a brain in its head.