“We’re all liberals”: Marcel Gauchet at Sciences Po

Marcel Gauchet at Sciences Po. Photo: Florence Morel//France 3 Champagne-Ardenne

By Jimmy Quinn

Marcel Gauchet, the French intellectual and writer, spoke at Sciences Po’s Reims campus as an invitee of the Think Liberal association last week. Whereas many thinkers in the public eye are notorious for long-winded meandering, this emeritus director of the prestigious School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences gave a concise diagnosis of the problems facing the West’s liberal tradition.


Look no further than the front pages to understand the need for this societal soul-searching. The broader context of the past few weeks echoes a turbulent time in Europe’s past: Anti-semitic murder in Paris’ 11th arrondissement and politically-motivated violence in a university amphitheater in Montpellier faintly recall the specter of the violent 1930s. Anecdotal as recent news might be (these incidents remain anomalies rather than common and accepted occurrences), fears of liberal unraveling are not out of place. The prevalence of the idea that liberalism is on the edge of a precipice is recent, but today a sub-genre of books with titles like The Retreat of Western Liberalism and Why Liberalism Failed thrives.


Per Gauchet, the misunderstanding that feeds liberalism’s crisis simply reflects the truth that neither its critics nor its defenders understand it, and to understand liberalism one must understand the difference between its existence first as fact and then as ideology.


As fact, a practical application of ideas, liberalism is the societal model that we enjoy today, based on a civil society comprising individuals and associations where human freedom triumphs over centralized state power—think Democracy in America. Perhaps we take this situation for granted, but it’s a recent reality, born of a reversal of the terms of power from a time when society was subservient to the state. With this change came dynamism, liberty, and humanity’s ability to produce its own world.


This shouldn’t be overlooked: Civilizational advancement and liberalism are inseparable. Society is a dynamic force that creates, while state power is static by its nature. Progress is made by people who push existing boundaries to get what they need—the pursuit of these goals is rambunctious, disorderly, and beholden to no central authority. As Gauchet notes, “Historical invention needs liberty”.


By contrast, the liberal ideology—ideology is a scary word, he intones, but one whose definition is no more complicated than a justification of our political choices in systems of representative government—is known in relation to its two competitors, conservatism and socialism. The way Gauchet sees it, the basis of the ideological competition between these philosophical families has dominated Western representative democracy since the enlightenment. For conservatives, liberalism was chaos: Too much liberty granted to individuals would most certainly result in disorder and destruction. For socialists, liberalism was inequality: Free economic competition would disenfranchise society’s most vulnerable.


The last century belonged to these competitors: Totalitarianisms and revolutionary socialism were their manifestations in extreme forms. However, the tide turned in the 1970s, when a global economic downturn brought liberalism the fact to power: Associative life, individual liberty, free markets, and globalization won the fight.


Today, “we are all liberals”, though with differing interpretations of what this actually means. While socialism and conservatism as civilization-defining ideologies are as extinct as the dinosaurs, liberalism is the final major ideology left standing. However, Gauchet is careful to note that socialist liberalism and conservative liberalism still exist. Just as today’s mainstream conservatives don’t yearn for monarchy, most socialists have dropped the call for Bolshevik-style revolution.


There’s a catch, however. Globalization throws a wrench in the classical liberal ideology, which applies to society’s relationship with the nation. When we talk about migration and free trade, and applying liberal principles to new, global problems the old frameworks don’t hold, so neoliberalism fills the gap. This new cousin of liberalism is not an intellectual invention, according to Gauchet, but instead a fact of globalization that helps us regulate the individual’s relation to global practices.


Funnily enough, classical liberalism and neoliberalism aren’t necessarily compatible. Believing in limited state power vis-à-vis society doesn’t explain what you think of new, global issues. The introduction of supranational organizations (breathed to life by nation-states) and new international norms into the everyday affairs of normal people has thrown into stark exposure the fundamental contradiction of liberal democracy.


This model merges two contradictory priorities to make accountable representative government a natural outgrowth of a free society and a free society a necessary precursor of accountable government. International openness has left some feeling vulnerable, so they’re seeking the false refuge posed by circling the wagons at the expense of a free press and independent judiciary, among other essential elements of free societies.


Gauchet is not the first thinker to make this point, but the core of politics in the 21st century resides here: Neoliberals want liberty with limited democratic accountability—Brussels, while the populist nationalists want democracy without liberty—Budapest. Globalization threw the liberal democratic ideal into a centrifuge, and we’re left with a bifurcated political model that forces a difficult choice.


So what’s there to do? Gauchet’s diagnosis was just that, but other thinkers have some ideas.


The kind of free trade agreements (hundreds enacted since the GATT) and pro-market policies peddled by neoliberals (like the European Union directive forcing the SNCF to open itself to competition by 2019) have contributed to a world safer and more prosperous than at any previous time in human history. However, unchecked neoliberalism has also turned politics into an unaccountable spectator sport, leading voters to “take back control” by seeking refuge in tribalist identities based on race, religion, or culture. This culminates in the hard-edged nationalism that degrades liberal democracy.


Liberalism’s defenders should champion their own form of nationalism of the sort that Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk describes. He calls nationalism “a half-wild beast” that, when tamed, creates a freer and more just society. This is especially true for France and the United States, which Gauchet recognizes as unique for their foundations on universalist principles, the core of this cohesive nationalist force. The belief that all citizens in a republic share the same travail for the achievement of a better future brings them together and is an effective antidote for the identity-based reactions agitated for by the populists. Most importantly, liberal nationalism gives people a specific identity to rally around in a world set adrift by global opening.


Liberal nationalism is an old inclination—just look at the French and American revolutions—but its renewal holds a new significance today. Modern-day illiberal leaders should be confronted by a broad coalition of pro-republican forces, like last week when leaders of the extreme left and the extreme right were expelled from a demonstration in memory of Mireille Knoll, the most recent victim of anti-Semitic violence.


A caveat: While political unity should be encouraged to defend liberal democracy against its mortal enemies, Western societies should not fear a vigorous and sometimes bitter exchange of ideas. The major failure of neoliberalism is the political mind-meld created in its wake, an easy target for populist-nationalists that has led some to declare the end of right-left politics in lieu of a globalist-nationalist cleavage. This is the greatest danger of Emmanuel Macron’s “neither right nor left” politics. In the short-term it is a tantalizing electoral strategy and an energizing break from partisanship, but the consequences of the brewing counter-reaction are menacing. Political leaders should adapt the right-left divide to globalization rather than set out to reorganize politics around new poles.


Concluding his talk, Gauchet made an astute point: Responsible politics is about understanding your country’s intellectual legacy and attacking problems at the source. To defend liberalism, the West needs to find new ways to preserve old traditions.

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