The Game of Values

It seems self-evident that culture teaches values: not values culture, as might be implied by the political discourse of the West, bereft as it is of all historical perspective. There, human rights recast as universal values have overshadowed any notion of Occidental culture or civilization as anything worth curating, much less preserving intact. Indeed, the word culture barely rates a mention, even as a footnote: except of course as the nullity, multiculturalism, which is dinned daily into every ear. Where national culture comes into conflict with arbitrarily chosen human rights, the latter prevail: except of course when it appears necessary to bomb both of them simultaneously.

The relentless harping on unexplained ‘values’ hides a political vacancy that is yet to be filled. It is a marker for political hypocrisy and Europe’s strategic void. Where there is no strategy (goal), the void is filled by tactics and technocracy (The European Commission). Tactics (“more Europe!”) cannot be passed off indefinitely as strategy. In this interview with Le Figaro, the French writer Robert Redeker sets the record straight on the purpose of politics and education. Needless to say, he mentions no role for the Commission in either.

The goal of politics is the continuation of the nation in the long term

First published in French 16th December 2016, in Le Figaro

 Alexis Feertchak interviews Robert Redeker

FIGAROVOX/INTERVIEW : The word ‘values’ is popular on both the Left and the Right. The philosopher Robert Redeker denounces the use of this overworked expression, which conceals the bankruptcy of politics and the triumph of the ideological void.

FIGAROVOX: The word ‘values’ is everywhere in politics. We never stop hearing about the values of the Republic. What’s behind the omnipresence of this word?

Robert Redeker: Very little of substance. Values are neither ideas, nor concepts, nor principles. Politicians’ ritual invocation of ‘values’ is a very recent phenomenon. Delve into the political literature of just thirty or so years ago, listen to the speeches of the time, and you will notice the absence of this obsessional recourse to ‘values’. Instead of giving expression to a train of thought, the word values conceals it. Why? Because it is as vague as it is abstract. It can also hide the fact that nothing at all is being thought, that one has no firm convictions, justifying any change of direction. The same prime minister [Valls] can use and abuse 49.3* in the name of ‘values’, and then espouse its suppression in his bid for the presidency, in order to honour these same values!

“Values are only the framework within which politics can operate. They don’t add up to a programme, they are merely boundaries.”

Too many politicians labour under the illusion that values form the goal of political action. Why take up politics? For values! That is, for a nullity! Fatal error! One pursues politics for the nation, for France, for the people, for society, for history, never for values. Values do not constitute either the reality of a people, or a social project: these belong to the field of politics. Values are too flimsy to define a project of this sort. Values are only the framework within which politics can operate. They don’t add up to a programme, they are merely boundaries. Values are beyond politics, they are extra-political. Far from having to deal with values, politics addresses projects, realities, and above all, the nation and care for the common weal…

“The Left has abandoned its social project — to realize economic justice; and substituted for it an anthropological project — the exaltation of sexual and cultural differences.”

FIGAROVOX: On the Left particularly, this word is on everybody’s lips…

Robert Redeker: The empty rhetoric of values is the shroud that wraps the carcass of the Left. It’s the embalming process, the cadaver’s cosmetics. This tedious chanting about values recalls funeral orations. It is because it’s dead, because it no longer has anything to say, nothing to propose for the future that’s informed by its past (socialism), that the Left revels in strutting the stage with its ‘values’. Values offer the script for a peroration, delivered as substitute for the defunct promises of socialism (social progress, emancipation in and through work). The values-theme is the device that the Left has conjured up to transfer its support from the working classes — “the workers”, as it used to say: a word that, symptomatically, it no longer uses — to the sexual and ethnic minorities. The Left has abandoned its social project (to realize economic justice), and substituted for it an anthropological project (the exaltation of sexual and cultural differences). The discourse on values has enabled it to take this turn. In other words, the invocation of values is the means found by the Left to abandon the working classes. The extreme Right has reaped the benefit. Final point: this discourse on values has also freed the Left from a duty to take stock. The ridiculous performance of Ségolène Royal [Minister for the Environment] on the death of Fidel Castro is, in this regard, particularly telling: the Left cannot bring itself to fully condemn certain bloody dictatorships, and thus clear the air, because they claim to have been built on the very ideals (equality, justice, redistribution, etc…) of which it imagines itself the political instrument.

FIGAROVOX: During the primary for the Right, voters were required to sign the charter of values of the Right and Centre. To express their wish that the Right rediscover its identity, many evoke the “values-based Right”. Is this the wisest path for the Right to take?

Robert Redeker: There are three aspects to this. On the one hand, the Right permitted an albeit brain-dead Left to impose on it the obligation to appeal incessantly to values. The Right accepted this because it felt obliged to reply to the standing accusations of anti-republicanism, and to the latent suspicion of racism, fascism, even inhumanity, that the Left weighed it down with. We have in this suspicion, and in the propensity of the Right to respond to it, the last ashes of the Left’s ideological hegemony. Better: the last metastasis of anti-fascism. On the other hand, evoking “conservative values” serves to put them in perspective. Relativism pops up as soon as we separate values politically. If values exist, they are universal. It is more pertinent to speak of ideas and programmes of the Right or the Left.

To these two remarks, I must add one qualification. Values do not form the content of political action, but its boundaries. They express no positive idea, merely setting limits. They define an interior and an exterior. Secularism [laïcité], for example, which we raise to the level of a value, is one such boundary: it places a limit not to be exceeded on the public expression of religious feeling. As do all values, it operates like Socrates’ daemon: an inner voice that says ‘no’. Thus with all values. These boundaries impose themselves on the Right as on the Left.

FIGAROVOX: Is a civilization defined by values, customs, commitments?

Robert Redeker: Not exclusively. The aspects you speak about lend shading and uniqueness to the collective existence of a people. If you stopped there, you would be talking rather about a culture. Culture, always particular, always limited, always national, is the humus in which a civilization can germinate and develop. A civilization is defined by what it gives to the world; although this takes the imprint of the culture that nourishes it. France gives to the world, amongst other things, Molière and Stendhal, whose works would not have seen the light of day anywhere else. She gives to the world her architecture, her music, her thinkers, and even her gastronomy… It is the irreplaceable gift for which there is no substitute, that defines a civilization, rather than simply its values and customs.

FIGAROVOX: The reference to values often goes in tandem with the doctrinaire human rights narrative. Isn’t there a contradiction between values that can involve a form of relativism, and human rights that are considered natural and objective, prevailing over human wishes?

Robert Redeker: Human rights, which have become human laws, are a metaphysical invention of the 18th century. They have a tendency to swarm. They serve as principles guiding political action, and not, like values, as boundaries. They are affirmative, positive; not limiting or negative. The difference is this: from the outset, human rights have never been derivative; they are a political hypothesis, whereas values are a result, a political construction. Rather than a paradox, I’ll speak of a game: a value like secularism traces the boundary that freedom of thought and belief, as human rights, may not breach. Nevertheless, we mustn’t be fooled by these human rights: they are neither obvious nor necessary; they are a metaphysical illusion belonging to a certain civilization. They could not have been invented elsewhere than in Christian and rationalist Europe. They are the children of a certain civilization: ours. They are not universal, but they are capable of being universalized.

“What is public education, if not a vehicle for the transmigration of this soul, the nation, that is reborn generation after generation?”

FIGAROVOX: History is made up of words such as the nation or the Republic, that resemble beings, even fictive moral agents, more than they do concepts or ideas. Would you say that the abuse of the word value evinces a certain powerlessness of politics, which is no longer engaged with reality?

Robert Redeker: Supervised by relativism, the embalming of values makes us forget the essential, which is this: the goal of politics is to guarantee the survival of a people into the future, despite all vicissitudes, and consistent with due care for the common good. The Republic is a political structure, which, during our history, has also variously called itself a monarchy, an empire, or a ‘republic’ (in the sense of a democracy). The nation is the soul of this structure, and survives each individual life as well as every condition of the Republic (political regimes). It is a delicate spirit, which can disappear if not nourished (by transmission). What is public education, if not a vehicle for the transmigration of this soul, the nation, that is reborn generation after generation? Education is well and truly political metempsychosis. The ultimate goal of politics is the endurance of the nation in its irreplaceable originality, beyond the life and interests of each individual. It is this, far more than values, that Left and Right should be talking about. §

  • 49.3 : The clause in the French Constitution that permits the executive to force legislation through the National Assembly without a parliamentary majority.