Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Progressivism without progress

It's pre-election time in France. Next year, we will renew regional councils – the rough equivalent of State assemblies albeit with far less power – and, of course, all political parties are busy negotiating and jockeying for places and positions. A lot of people's jobs are at stake, and not only the councilors – they have assistants and advisers, remember, and a significant part of any party's resources come from its elected officials' wages. No matter what papers and politicians say, strategic considerations play more part in deciding who will ally whom than ideology. Yet, the old left-right divide stays surprisingly effective. It is particularly telling that we dismissed out of hand an alliance proposal from another home rule party because it was on the other side of this age-old fence, a decision I supported. This may sound absurd, as the policies right and left parties disagree upon are pathetically irrelevant to the predicament of industrial society. It reveals, however, older, deeper divisions, and asks a question all peak-oil activists should reflect upon : how can one be a progressive, without progress.

The modern concept of left and right emerged out of the French Revolution. Even their very names come from it. The first “leftists” were those who, refusing to grant Louis XVI the power to veto legislation, sat on the left at the first French constitutional assembly. The matter became quickly irrelevant as the head of state lost his own but the name stuck and the world “left” became associated with the followers of the various ideologies born from the enlightenment ideas while their opponent – a rather diverse bunch, by the way – coalesced under the “right wing” banner.

History of ideas is a very complex thing but on the long run, and despite temporary setbacks, the left won, which led to surprising results. As the partisans of the old absolutist or feudal order became more and more marginalized, conservative came to embrace the ideology of progress, reluctantly at first, then more and more heartily as the old aristocracy faded out of power. The left, on the other hand won more and more things to conserve.

The end result is that in modern European democracies, it is the right, which pushes for reforms, while the left opposes them without proposing much, except radical changes aimed a building paradise on Earth, which amounts very much to the same. Both have the same goal : building a future shinier than the present. Even the Greens do it, tellingthat by building windmills and solar panel all over the country they will enable us to perpetuate the upper middle class lifestyle most of their leaders follow.

Of course, this goal is utterly at odd with the reality of the coming energy peak. What we face is a long decline toward a more sustainable, but also far poorer, future and no amount of progress worshiping is going to save us from it. What we need is to focus upon the institutions which will enable us to survive the coming decline and save what can still be saved : local communities, neighborhoods and families. That most policies associated with the left, and indeed its very main goal, are obsolete, does not mean, however, that the core value underlying them are.

A number of thinkers on the fringes of the radical right have remained, or become again quite skeptical of progress. Americans will think of the Southern Agrarians or of modern paleoconservatives. Being an European, I will rather speak of the so-called New Right and of its leader : Alain de Benoist. While the New Right was born from an attempt of the far right to break with the string of defeats it experienced since the fall of the Petain regime de Benoist himself can hardly be called a fascist or even a traditionalist. He claims not to be a racist, and I have no reason not to believe him – a politician can lie about his opinions for electoral gain, not an intellectual whose only aim is to found a philosophical school. What de Benoist advocates is a world of local communities based upon non-mercantile values and with a renewed relationship with nature. Each one of those would have an inalienable right to its own culture and local, concrete, liberties inside the general framework of a loose European federation. He has recently written a book to support the idea of degrowth, which shows he understands, somewhat, the predicament of industrial society, even if his support for large-scale geopolitical constructs proves that he does not yet understands all its consequences.

The question is, of course, why do I fee so ill at ease reading him ?

I am hardly the only one in this situation. Supporters of degrowth were horrified by de Benoist's endorsement of their ideas, but for bad reasons. One can hardly blame de Benoist when he refuses to follow the degrowthers when they claim that by implementing their pet political project, they will get the perfect, classless, society two centuries of leftist revolutions consistently refused to give them. The fact is that degrowth is very bit as infused with progress mythology as the growth ideology of the old, traditional, left. They just differ on what is should be measured by.

The problem is elsewhere.

The ideology of de Benoist and his ilk may not be racist – at least in its pure form, most of its supporters are – it is definitely anti-egalitarian. We tend to assume that anti-egalitarianism is necessarily racist, because it is how it manifested itself during the last century. It is a mistake, however. You can base your anti- egalitarianism on virtually anything and de Benoist bases his own upon the idea of an intellectual elite, whose supposedly innate superiority would have its root in genetics. This means, of course, that he refuses democracy, since democracy is based upon the idea that every man is, at least in theory, able to formulate an informed opinion about the way public affairs are run.

It is also a celebration of closed society. Every society, must have some kind of closure, lest it dissolves away and it is likely that post-peak societies will be more closed than our own. There won't be any large state apparatus to hold them together, so they will have to rely upon organically enforced shared values for cohesion. There is however a difference between accepting this as a lesser evil and turning every culture into a kind of ethnic island where any departure from tradition would be ruthlessly punished.

De Benoist's utopia, is in fact Sparta reborn, with its insular economy and culture, its heroic, freedom-loving, armed citizenry... and its helots.

Most peak-oil activists, even those who consider themselves conservative, would find De Benoist's project abhorrent, and that is where lies the possibility of progressivism without progress. In a world of scarce resources, it is no longer possible to dream of the shining futures of the last century. It would even probably be dangerous to do so. This does not mean, however, that must renounce the ideal of a common human dignity beyond and above cultural, religious and political boundaries. By this, I do not mean the false universalism and real ethnocentrism the West imposed upon the world, and which is still popular down here, just this very simple idea : every man should be respected as such, no matter his condition.

This is this idea which lies under the failed utopias of the left and no matter how bad the coming decline turns to be, it is still worth defending