The historian and essayist, Jacques Julliard, analyzes the conservative push to which François Fillon’s victory in the conservative primaries testifies. He shows how anthropological issues (principally transhumanism) are now feeding a debate that recalls that between Parmenides and Heraclitus.
The Return of Conservatism
First published in French 1st January 2017, in Le Figaro
In France, it’s an insult; in England, it provides the respected name for the country’s leading political party: the word ‘conservative’ is charged with passions and contradictions, as with all such labels that denote major political realities.
Yet under cover of the crushing victory of François Fillon in the conservative primaries of November 2016, the term ‘conservative’ in France is perhaps now ready to escape the long purgatory in which the Left had confined it for nearly two centuries. One daresay that its patrons are to be found anywhere from Chateaubriand or Guizot up to Pompidou — by way, some insist, of de Gaulle himself.
A harbinger of this nascent rehabilitation is the avalanche of books¹ dedicated to it, not to speak of the political polemics. Let’s start from first principles, from instinct. For its adversaries, conservatism is not just immobility, it is an injustice: if society is unjust, the desire for stasis merely reinforces that injustice. Conversely, for its defenders, to be a conservative is to fear for the status quo: it’s about betting on the real against the virtual, on actuality against nothingness. This fear for what exists, according to numerous analysts from Ramuz to Emmanuel Terray², is a characteristic of all Right-leaning thought.
And now, [thought] not only of the Right. It has always been generally accepted that you go to the libraries of conservatives for books, and into administration … for mortgages. Lately, though, the Left declared that we needed to conserve Nature. That it had recently ushered ecologists into its midst, whose principal objective was conservation, is a first. Never until now had the Left accommodated a party that openly declared itself conservative. To which I must add that on questions of society, the Left is the party of the preservation of gains, and the fearsome guardian of the status quo. Other than the CFDT³, no trade union is seriously seeking new conquests, calculating that with the current disposition of forces, what matters is essentially to save the furniture.
Jacques Chirac even wanted to inscribe this preference for the status quo in the Constitution. What exactly is this famous precautionary principle that he introduced without much resistance, not to say mistrust, in regard to all [social] change? During revolutionary or even reformist periods, it is rather the risk-principle that tends to be regarded as sacred….
All philosophers of History, beginning with Saint-Simon and his disciple Auguste Comte, have stressed that there have always been, over time, periods alternating between the organic and the critical, or if you prefer, between permanence and change. Ever since the pre-Socratics, the confrontation between Parmenides (permanence) and Heraclitus (change), has never ceased.
Why this current preference for Parmenides in the Zeitgeist? Because change brings fear! This is illustrated in relation to Nature and the climate: and since we find ourselves in the era of received guilt (“You are guilty of guilt”, says one of Bergman’s characters in The Wild Strawberries), instead of reforming, Man takes it on himself to wander around in sackcloth and ashes.
“”Man is a creature that must be exceeded”, as Nietzsche proclaimed, and he has lived ever since in fear of this Superman, to which he knows he could give birth at any moment.”
But it is in the domain of biology and genetics that anxiety is strongest. Man has always been a “distorted animal” (Rousseau), but today, through the idea of “transhumanism”, even the status of the species is put in question. If he were able by means of genetic manipulation to modify his nature, to distort if only to improve it, where then would lie that famous dignity that is supposed to engender self-respect, in the sense of Kant’s morality? Christianity has its response: Man is a being worthy of respect because he is made in the image of God, that is, of the absolute. But the “tragedy of atheistic humanism”, as Father de Lubac said, remains unanswered. Why respect this transitional creature for itself? “Man is a creature that must be exceeded”, as Nietzsche proclaimed, and he has lived ever since in fear of this Superman, to which he knows he could give birth at any moment.
The partisans of progress do nothing to calm this anxiety. There is amongst some a rage for renunciation that borders on self-hatred. It can be seen every day in relation to the question of sex, which some agents of dehumanization would like to reduce to a matter of types, that is, to sexes seen entirely as social constructs. This Prometheanism without bound or horizon plunges every one of us into metaphysical uncertainty.
It is not easy to descend from these heights and their truly dizzying issues. Politics itself, which has become the domain of the trivial and insignificant, is unable to escape them. It’s not for nothing that a large part of the debate within the conservative primaries, through issues related to sex [such as] procreation and marital status, has focussed on the political status of the human being. This is why [the debate] has provided fascination, beyond the participants themselves, to some four and a half million [electors].
“Typically, it was the Right that was ashamed of its name. Today, it’s the Left that is tending to hide behind the title of Progressivist.”
Such as it is, the debate within the Left risks appearing terribly insipid and traditional.
It is no less significant that the terms Left and Right are being eroded to the advantage of the Progressive-Conservative dichotomy. Typically, it was the Right that was ashamed of its name. Today, it’s the Left that is tending to hide behind the title of Progressivist, hoping, by the way, to pick up a number of centrists, idealists and the undecided. I shall tackle the current state of progressivism next time. Meanwhile, one can only rejoice at seeing politicians caught up in a reality as disturbing as it is aggressive, and forced to quit their own coop. When everyone’s problems become political facts, political problems soon become everyone’s business.
When it comes to animals, Man’s inhumanity knows no bounds. Thus, the [animal ethics] association, L214 has recently released images of the killing of pregnant cows, and the slow death by asphyxia of calves snatched from their mothers’ bellies and thrown onto garbage heaps.
Were there a true Green party in France, and not small, unstable groups of politicians running on the methane gas of their paltry ambitions, it would occupy itself with the fate of our inferior cousins. The lack of such a party invites the creation of a true animal welfare movement.
Let us then support the proposals of ten law professors, inviting the government to forbid by decree the killing of animals carrying foetuses in the last trimester of their development. This represents only the bare essentials of compassion, but it is the first stage in the revolt of the conscience.
Let’s also read La Cause des vaches [The Cause of the Cows] by Christian Laborde, who celebrates the beauty of these magnificent animals, and denounces the unspeakable cruelty of the agribusiness torturers. §
¹ Roger Scruton, «De l’urgence d’être conservateur», L’Artilleur, 2016 ; Jean Philippe Vincent, «Qu’est-ce que le conservatisme?», Les Belles Lettres, 2016 ; Laetitia Strauch-Bonart, «Vous avez dit conservateur?», Le Cerf, 2016 ; Gaël Brustier, a work dedicated to la Manif pour tous, Le Cerf, 2014.
² Emmanuel Terray «Penser à droite», Galilée, 2012.
³ CFDT: Confédération française démocratique du travail.