Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Illiberal Conservatism in France: An Interview with "L'Incorrect"

I am some times asked why I identify Darwinian conservatism as a liberal conservatism, or as a fusion of classical liberalism and traditionalist conservatism.  My explanation is that I want to distinguish liberal conservatism from the illiberal conservatism of authoritarian conservatives like Joseph de Maistre.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I was interviewed by a journalist with the new French magazine L'Incorrect, which began publishing last fall.  L'Incorrect is a conservative magazine designed to "develop the virtues of the multiple houses of the right" in France, according to its editor Jacques de Guillebon, in his opening editorial statement

Many of the people working with this magazine have some connection with Marion Marechal-Le Pen, who is the granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founding leader of the French National Front, a far right party, and the niece of Marine Le Pen, the recent presidential contender of the National Front.  In 2007, at age 22, Marechal-Le Pen became the youngest person ever to be elected to the French Parliament. 

Although last spring she announced her retirement from politics, she continues to be influential as a leader of a new conservative movement in France that seems close to the Trump movement in the United States.  Steve Bannon identified her as a "rising star" in French politics.

Marechal-Le Pen has been arguing for a coalition joining the National Front and some or all of the Republicans.  The Republicans are a center-right or liberal conservative party that was formed in 2015 by renaming the Union for a Popular Movement party, which had been founded in 2002 under the leadership of Jacques Chirac, the former President of France.

This suggests to me that if L'Incorrect is associated with Marechal-Le Pen's position, then the magazine should be identified with a liberal conservatism.  But my interviewer--Benjamin Demeslay--identified the French conservative tradition with the "anti-liberal tropism" of Joseph de Maistre and Charles Maurras.  I responded to this by criticizing the illiberal conservatism of Maistre and suggesting that French conservatives like Marechal-Le Pen are actually far more liberal than they realize, and certainly they don't embrace the absolutist authoritarianism of Maistre that provided the intellectual seeds for fascism.

L'Incorrect has published a short version of my comments.  Here I provide the full text--seven questions (in italics) and my answers:

1. You defend a "Darwinian conservatism" against "metaphysical conservatism". These expressions are enough to surprise the French reader. The French conservative tradition remains strongly impregnated by Catholicism, a certain counter-revolutionary and anti-liberal tropism (from Joseph de Maistre to Charles Maurras), even a mistrust of "the Technique" (the essays of the Christian Jacques Ellul or the last Heidegger). English conservatism, heir to Edmund Burke, is now attracting renewed interest, with the translation of the philosopher Roger Scruton. There is nothing comparable to your conservatism in France. How would you define it?

Metaphysical conservatism views human social order as grounded in a transcendent realm of cosmic design.  Evolutionary conservatism is empiricist in viewing human social order as grounded in common human experience as shaped by human nature, human custom, and human judgment.  Both forms of conservative thought can be found in Edmund Burke.  
In the United States, Russell Kirk spoke for metaphysical conservatism when he appealed to the conservative belief in “the state as a divinely ordained moral essence.”  Friedrich Hayek spoke for evolutionary conservatism when he appealed to the classical liberal idea that social order could emerge through the evolution of spontaneous orders in a free society.  My claim is that a Darwinian evolutionary science of human nature and human culture supports Hayek’s side.
          In taking Hayek’s side in this debate, I am defending a liberal conservatism that is a fusion of what Americans identify as classical liberalism and traditionalist conservatism.  Actually, even Kirk is a liberal conservative insofar as he rejects the illiberal conservatism of Joseph de Maistre.  (A brief statement of my reasoning here is my article on “Darwinian Conservatism Versus Metaphysical Conservatism” in the Fall 2010 issue of The Intercollegiate Review.)
          Although you identify the French conservative tradition with the Catholic “illiberal tropism” of Maistre, I doubt that French conservatives really agree with Maistre’s illiberal conservatism.  Do French conservatives agree with Maistre’s claim that all stable government requires belief in its absolute divine authority as enforced by the execution of heretics who deny religious orthodoxy?  Do French conservatives agree with Maistre’s defense of the violent persecution of heretics in the Spanish Inquisition as necessary to protect Spain from the disorder of Protestantism?  Do French conservatives agree with Maistre’s argument that all social order depends on the terror of punishment by “the executioner”?  I doubt it.
          In fact, Maistre’s theocratic authoritarianism would support radical Islam in its enforcement of Sharia.  But don’t French conservatives—like Marion Marechal-Le Pen-- reject this as contrary to French culture? If so, then they are showing their liberal conservatism in opposition to the illiberal conservatism of radical Islam and Maistre.
          You identify the French conservative tradition with Catholic Christianity, and I know that conservatives like Marechal-Le Pen have stressed the “Christian roots” of French culture.  But isn’t it true, according to some surveys, that most of the French people identify themselves as non-religious or even atheistic?  
By contrast, most Americans identify themselves as deeply religious.  Surely, this arises from the American liberal tradition of religious liberty and religious life in voluntary associations free from governmental coercion; so that a liberal idea has a conservative effect in promoting a religious cultural tradition in civil society without state enforcement.
You mention Roger Scruton as a Burkean conservative now being read in France, Scruton is an example of a metaphysical conservative who thinks a religious attitude is essential for a healthy moral order, and therefore that traditional religious experience needs to be defended against a Darwinian science that claims to explain the place of human beings in the natural world without any reference to a transcendent realm beyond nature.  And yet--like many other metaphysical conservatives--Scruton does not believe in the literal truth of Christianity or any other religion.  He wants to have a sense of the sacred that comes from religious emotions, but without the need to believe any religious doctrines.  
We know that God is dead, Scruton suggests, but we also know that human beings need to satisfy their religious longings for transcendence and redemption through religious art and ritual.  That's the truth that Scruton sees in Richard Wagner's Ring cycle.  To me, this atheistic religiosity is incoherent self-deception.

2. French conservatives are currently facing a "progressive" offensive: same-sex marriage, medically assisted procreation "for all", surrogacy, etc. Conservative resistance largely comes from Catholic circles. You are an advocate of "natural rights". How do you reconcile them with Darwin's legacy? Your project of a "biological ethics of human nature" is audacious.

My project of a “biological ethics of human nature” argues that there are at least twenty natural desires inherent in our evolved human nature, and that, if the good is the desirable, we can judge social orders by how well they allow human beings to satisfy those natural desires.  
So, for example, I think we have evolved natural desires for sexual mating, conjugal bonding, and parental care.  For most human beings, therefore, marriage and parenting are crucial to their human flourishing.  For Thomas Aquinas’s natural law teaching, marriage is natural insofar as it satisfies the natural desires for conjugal bonding and parental care.  
Is it possible that same-sex marriage could satisfy these two natural desires?  If so, then Darwinian conservatives would allow same-sex marriage as part of a free society.  There is an empirical question here.  Whether same-sex marriage satisfies or frustrates these natural desires—whether children are harmed by same-sex parenting—will have to be decided by our experience with same-sex marriage.
In any case, I assume that most conservatives today would not favor capital punishment for homosexuals, which was common not so long ago in Europe and North America.  Why the change?  Is it because we have discovered that homosexuality need not be harmful to the social order, and so it need not be punished as a capital crime?  Can we say then that illiberal Islamic conservatives are wrong in persecuting homosexuals?

3. Scientific data are generally absent from the debates in France. While ethnic statistics are "of course" banned in our country, even official immigration statistics are under dispute. The observation is often the same for economic problems. How would you describe the relationship of American intellectuals, and your own relationship, to science?

          To a large degree, the utopian Left is hostile to the science of human nature, because that science seems to put restraints on the malleability of human beings by social engineering.  So, for example, the Left rejects any scientific evidence that there are natural differences on average between men and women, because the Left dreams of achieving an androgynous society.
          Darwinian conservatives respect science as confirming our common experience that there really is a human nature, that that human nature constrains but does not determine human culture, and that human nature and human culture jointly constrain but do not determine our individual identities.
          Darwinian conservatives see this science as supporting the conservative view that the best social order is one of ordered liberty rooted in natural desires, customary traditions, and prudential judgments.
          Darwinian conservatives argue that human freedom is good, because when human beings are free from coercion, they will voluntarily cooperate in the evolution of social orders that are more successful in satisfying the twenty natural human desires than any planned order using coercive power to achieve its goals.  Consequently, social orders with more human freedom will be more adaptive in securing human well-being and happiness than are those social orders with less human freedom.
          These are empirical claims that require empirical confirmation by the scientific measurement of freedom and its consequences.  And, indeed, this can now be done using the annual Human Freedom Index published by the Fraser Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation for Freedom.  This is a comprehensive index of human freedom that combines economic freedom and personal freedom using 79 distinct indicators for 159 countries for 2015.  
          Here are the top ten countries: Switzerland (1), Hong Kong (2), New Zealand (3), Ireland (4), Australia (5), Finland (6), Norway (7), Denmark (8), Netherlands (9), and United Kingdom (tied at 9th).  The United States is at 17th, and France is at 33rd.  The bottom four are Iran (154), Egypt (155), Venezuela (158), and Syria (159).  This allows for an empirical science in measuring the correlation of human freedom with human happiness and of the lack of human freedom with human misery.

4. In France, the conservatives have for several years defended an idea inherited from the communist Antonio Gramsci: the "metapolitical" or cultural action would precede the political victory. What do you think of this strategy? Do intellectual debates really affect the cultural and political life of your country? Their themes are little known to us.
          In the United States, there are many avenues for promoting the intellectual investigation of the principles of traditionalist conservatism and classical liberalism.  The three most important avenues are private educational foundations, think tanks, and higher education.  Educational foundations—for example, Liberty Fund and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute—sponsor hundreds of conferences every year and publishing programs that influence cultural and political life.  Think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute promote the discussion of conservative and libertarian ideas.  And despite the pressures of “political correctness,” higher education does allow for some open discussion of these ideas.
          A good illustration of how intellectual and cultural activity in America has promoted Darwinian conservatism is the remarkable success of evolutionary psychology over the past 40 years.  In 1975, the publication of Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology provoked an intense outcry from the Left—insisting that any biological explanation of human behavior was strictly prohibited.  But now evolutionary psychology—as taught by people like Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Steve Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, Matt Ridley, and others—has had immense influence in psychology, anthropology, history, and the social sciences generally.  Now, even some leftists like Peter Singer defend a “Darwinian Left” that accepts limits on leftist social engineering from evolved human nature!
          This has implications for social policy.  For example, it has now become generally accepted that the evolutionary psychologists are right in arguing that evolved natural differences between males and females make young men (on average) more inclined to violence and social disorder than are women.  This confirms the conservative insight that every society has the problem of civilizing young men through good parenting and marriage.  (This and other Darwinian ideas are evident in James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein’s Crime and Human Nature.)

5. There are many transdisciplinary studies in the United States (psychology, biology, sociology and political philosophy). I think of Charles Murray's book Coming Apart, which analyzes the ghettoisation of American society on the basis of cognitive abilities and educational level, and the new "class racism" of some progressives. In France, these themes emerge timidly, but separately. For example, with the works of the geographer Christophe Guilluy on French Fractures; or the recent work of Dr. Laurent Alexandre on The war of intelligences. What do you think of these analyzes, and do you judge them influential?

          One illustration of how interdisciplinary studies might support Darwinian conservatism is the special meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in the Galapagos Islands in June of 2013, for which the theme was “Evolution, the Human Sciences, and Liberty.”  Participants included economists, psychologists, biologists, anthropologists, philosophers, physicists, political scientists, and theologians.  I presented a paper on Darwinian conservatism.  The general theme was how evolutionary science might support classical liberal and traditionalist conservative views of liberty and social cooperation.  This shows the interdisciplinary influence of Darwinian evolutionary ideas among classical liberals and conservatives.
          Charles Murray was at this conference, and he indicated that he agreed with everything I had to say.  Smart guy!  In fact, he is, in some ways, the epitome of a Darwinian conservative.  He is a libertarian or classical liberal who is also a Burkean conservative in his respect for the importance of traditional institutions in shaping the moral and intellectual virtues that sustain social order and liberty.  He sees all of this as rooted in the evolved human nature that can be explained by evolutionary science.

6. The question of "political identities" seems to have become obsessive in the United States. We think of the alt-right, or the defenders of positive discrimination, ... Of course, our two countries are profoundly different: France is of universalist and post-colonial culture, but identity and populism becomes more important. Our societies are experiencing major demographic upheavals, which announce political upheavals. What would be the conservative answer to these problems?
          The United States is also “universalist” in being founded on the universal principles affirmed in the Declaration of Independence.  Within that universalist identity, the United States also shows the cultural pluralism of diverse voluntary associations (so admired by Alexis de Tocqueville) and regional diversity across the states in a federal political system. 
          The United States is in general a deeply religious nation, but it has never had an established church at the national level.  The Constitution of 1787 was free of any religious establishment, and it declared “no religious test” for public office.  Some of the states had established churches for a few decades, but by 1830 they were abolished.  Now there is religious diversity across the states.  According to some surveys, Utah and the Southern states show weekly church attendance at 40% to 51% of the population, while the New England states show lower rates of 17% to 20%.
          This is what a Darwinian conservative would expect to happen in a free society: the evolved natural desire for religious understanding will lead to religious belief and practice, although there will be individual variation, and some individuals will live healthy, satisfying lives without religious devotion.
          In such a free society, people find their social identity in their families, their neighborhoods, their friendships, their churches, their clubs, and in many other voluntary associations.  That’s the way our evolved nature as social animals is must fully expressed.
          The alt-right is mistaken in suggesting that American culture depends on white racial or ethnic identity.  Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution says anything about racial or ethnic identity.  Of course, the United States has suffered from racial and ethnic conflicts, but despite that, American society has become remarkably peaceful in its multiracial and multiethnic pluralism.  I say that as someone who grew up in the American South, saw the violence of racial segregation, and then saw the amazing cultural transformation as the South became racially integrated.  Human beings have evolved propensities to tribalism, but they also have evolved propensities to cooperate for mutual benefit.

7. You take a critical look at Donald Trump in your articles. In France, his presidency continues to feed some hopes in conservative circles. We talk about its good economic results, even its action against "cultural Marxism". Others see the Trump Presidency as the "swan song" of genuine conservatism. What is your point of view?

           Look, let’s agree on the obvious truth before us—Donald Trump is a vulgar man, who has no moral or intellectual virtues.  Conservatives should agree that statesmanship requires good character, and therefore Trump’s bad character makes it impossible for him to lead in the enforcement of any good policies.  He is a silly narcissist who becomes resentful when he suspects people don’t love him as much as he loves himself.  He is a childish man who cannot control his childish impulses.  Consequently, his White House is, and must always be, utterly chaotic.
          Do the French conservatives deny this?  Do they believe that a man without moral or intellectual virtues can be a statesman?


W. Bond said...

This failure to distinguish older "right wing" throne/alter or blood/soil conservatism from classic liberalism seems to be related to some in that very throne/alter wing failing to distinguish between classic liberalism and progressivism and failing to distinguish between the French and American revolutions. Or, perhaps more charitably, some see progressivism as an inevitable outcome of classic liberalism. Along these lines, Patrick Deneen's new book "Why Liberalism Failed" has been widely reviewed. I have also found astounding these essays from Adrian Vermeuele (a constitutional law professor at Harvard!). In the first (bottom of 6th paragraph) he strongly suggests that classic liberalism might at root be Satanic! In the second he expresses his admiration for the constitutionalism of the pre-Nazi Schmitt. FWIW, as they say on the internet. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/11/a-christian-strategy

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, Vermeule's essays in First Things do provide astounding confirmation of the continuing influence of Maistre's illiberal theocratic absolutism among conservative Catholics today.

Vermeule clearly suggests that God is working through the providence of history to restore the theocratic rule of the Catholic Church: After liberalism destroys itself, "the Church would have a stupendous monopoly: its hierarchy would be nearer the political domination of the world than in the Middle Ages"! In the United States, the providential developments of history towards "the administrative state and presidential government" are "harbingers of a new monarchism."

So it seems that conservative Catholics like Vermeule believe that God favors the divine right of kings as determined by the Catholic Church ruling over a Catholic confessional state; and, as you indicate, liberalism's opposition to this is the work of Satan!

Since the death of Michael Novak, First Things has apparently turned away from Novak's Catholic classical liberalism towards Maistre's illiberal Catholic theocracy. And the support for Trumpism is somehow part of the Catholic strategy at First Things--perhaps like the conservative Catholic support for Franco's fascism in Spain. Very disturbing.

Anonymous said...

The political and social order of the future Western world will be strongly influenced by Islam.
Any theorizing that doesn't
take Islamic political thought into account has no practical use for us.
Most of the strains of Western thought that have informed the past will be lost,discarded or shaped anew by Islam.

Larry Arnhart said...

I have argued for Islamic liberalism in posts on 12/16/15, 1/4/16, and 6/14/16.

DEMESLAY said...

I would like to express my sincere thanks to you for the time that you have taken.

I mentioned Joseph de Maistre. I wanted to describe the culture of some conservative Catholic circles. However, in France, many conservatives defend an "aesthetics". There is sometimes a form of romanticism or nostalgia, and the relationship of the French to the 1789 Revolution (and especially 1793) is not simple. But, Maistre is best known for his literary style (in France, philosophers may have less influence than writers,...).

I have tried to describe very quickly (too quickly) a context for you and our readers. I was reductive. Of course, Marion Maréchal is much more pragmatic. However, I cannot speak for him.

I will read this discussion with interest !

Benjamin Demeslay