The Permanent Epiphany

The confrontation between two sensibilities, progressivist and conservative, is replacing the Left-Right cleavage, observes the historian and essayist. Having dissected the mentality of conservatism in our columns at the beginning of January, he now sketches out the idea of progress and of progressivism.

Jacques Julliard is leader-writer for the weekly, Marianne.

The Disillusionment with Progress

First published in French 5th February 2017, in Le Figaro

It was a few weeks ago, just before Christmas. I arrive by car at the Porte d’Orléans and read from a huge banner that blocks the avenue: The convergents [sic] of the future [sic] wish you a happy holiday. I feel myself seized with panic. Who had taken power in Paris in my absence? Extraterrestrials? A new Raëlian sect? [Emmanuel] Macron’s militants — excuse me, “helpers”? It was raining. I approach. It was not the “convergents of the future” [convergents de l’avenir] that was meant, but “the shopkeepers of the avenue” [commerçants de l’avenue]….

The three types of progress

There is scientific and technical progress. Then economic and social progress. Finally, cultural and moral progress.

The first is beyond doubt and incontestable. It is to this that we owe the increase in longevity and the retreat of abject poverty, which is unprecedented in the history of human kind. The second is hardly less so: the Left and Right quarrel only over the modalities (although growth has its partisans), but uniquely in the abstract; nothing is ever risked by promoting it.

As for the last, it is a chimæra. In matters cultural, nobody other than a few cynical art-gallery owners would agree that Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst represent progress relative to Titian and Rembrandt. Art is definitively not reducible to notions of progress. Similarly in the case of morality. One can rigorously deduce that socialism, forcibly introduced into a backward country like Russia, would yield the Gulag. But that one of the most advanced countries on the planet, Germany of the inter-war years, had ended up producing Auschwitz: that is what extinguishes forever any possible idea of the moral progress of humanity. Nevertheless, it is on this utopia that all progressivist thought has rested since Condorcet at the end of the 18th century, up until Auguste Comte, Marx and the Republic — according to Victor Hugo at the end of the 19th century. Condorcet, some months before taking his own turn to fall victim to the Revolution, constructs in his ‘Outline of an Historical Table of Progress of the Human Spirit’ [l’Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain, 1794], the grandiose picture of a Humanity rising through stages of technical development (that is, of mind applied to matter), of progress in production, then in prosperity, ending with the unification of a Humanity at last reconciled with itself.

“Our century has paid to find out that the idea of moral progress imposed on Humanity by the state, is not only utopian, but utopian and murderous.”

The classical French Left, which attained its apogee under the Third Republic, is the daughter of this philosophy of History. It took shape in the middle of the 19th century, when the liberal heirs of the French Revolution met on their travels a new social class: the industrial proletariat. The French Left, in its crystal purity and Promethean optimism, is the synthesis of faith in scientific progress and the dream of social justice. Radicals, socialists, then communists might well have differed as to their proposals or class-support, but their philosophical horizon was the same.

The Death of Progressivism

We are no longer able either to think or to hope in this way. Between Condorcet, Hugo, Marx and us, rises the grim portal of Auschwitz, the mortal cold of the Gulag, the hallucinatory shades of the Khmer Rouge. Our century has paid to find out that the idea of moral progress imposed on Humanity by the state, is not only utopian, but utopian and murderous: the bloodiest and most barbarous of all. Of course, it’s not progress itself that’s dead — we see it every day — but the philosophy of progress, at least of the sort that we wanted to highlight: Progressivism. That the blood-curdling misadventure that is the history of the century just ended, has not yielded any great project of reflexion (with the exception, perhaps, of Solzhenitsyn), speaks volumes for the philosophical triviality of our time, whose character is predominantly clownish.

“The lyrical illusion that for a century and a half has forced the Left’s intellectual and moral hegemony on whole societies, is evaporating.”

Let’s add that if justice has been corrupted, science has been no less so. The prodigious development of productive forces, one need hardly say, has delivered an unprecedented alienation of Man from Nature, of which climatic disturbances and the threat of planetary degradation are the symptoms.  The lyrical illusion that for a century and a half has forced the Left’s intellectual and moral hegemony on whole societies, is evaporating.

What then is this “progressivism” that is served up today, from [Emmanuel] Macron to [Benoît] Hamon, from the globalized bobos [bourgeois-bohèmes] to the lefty-intellectuals? In truth, two very different things, and in many ways contradictory.

From progressivism to change for change’ sake [‘bougisme’]

One the one hand, [this progressivism] contains the debris of the philosophy of the Left, which we’ve just mentioned.  Failing Humanity’s triumphal march towards unity and reconciliation, [it is] a demand for justice through a reduction in inequalities. This residual social democracy, so disparaged, remains the horizon of expectation for the working classes in France and around the world. It expresses itself in union demands, but also in populist aspirations, which plead for a more equitable redistribution. On this score, Marine Le Pen is more “progressivist” than Macron. The people no longer believe in progress, but they continue to demand justice.

Opposite this social progressivism arises more and more a type of “moral progressivism”, which we recognize in the transformation of manners by legal means. In truth, the winner is actually an individualism sharper than modern societies have ever known. Social progressivism relies on the actions of whole classes and of the masses generally. Moral progressivism has recourse to cultural movements, principally in the mainstream and social media, which seek to impose the recognition and even the predominance of the rights of ethnic and sexual minorities, while loudly affirming their distinctive identities in the name of the struggle against discrimination… To the heights of disillusionment with classical socialism, the distance already travelled is immense. That this socialism, this doctrine of solidarity, should have ceded its place to individualism; the era of the masses to that of the minorities; the demand for the unity of the human race to emphasis on its diversity; the philosophy of history to denial of the past; the industrial proletariat as midwife to History, to the diploma-waving bourgeoisie; all this speaks volumes for the mutation that we have come to recognize in the Left: the end of its fake proletarian gesticulations and of its pseudo-Marxist verbosity. This is why the people no longer recognise themselves in it, and will do so less and less.

“Michel Houellebecq saw in the ‘progressivist’ obsession with novelty “a sort of permanent epiphany, very Hegelian in its silliness”.”

From whence comes the substitution of a kind of ‘morality of movement’ (of change for change’ sake [“bougisme”] as Pierre-André Taguieff calls it) for the philosophy of progress. Listen to Emmanuel Macron: “mobility” is the operative word, and the answer to all ills. It’s already a long time since Jean-Claude Michéa denounced the mystifying effect on the people of this philosophy, and [he does so] again today in Notre ennemi le capital [Our Enemy is Capital]; since Michel Houellebecq saw in the ‘progressivist’ obsession with novelty “a sort of permanent epiphany, very Hegelian in its silliness”; and quite recently, Régis Debray set “progressivist history and retrograde progress” in opposition to each other. (Allons aux faits [Let’s get to the facts], Gallimard/France Culture).

History, precisely. In a lively and penetrating essay, Le Crépuscule des idées progressistes [The Twilight of Progressivist Ideas], Bérénice Levet sees the refusal to transmit [culture] through the teaching of history in schools as an expression of this rage for ‘de-identification’ and triviality, which has seized the Left-intelligentsia for a generation. In short, what has already happened to the Left-Right paradigm is now happening to that of Progressivism-Conservatism: each element defines itself almost exclusively in terms of the rejection of the other. Rejection of a murderous philosophy by conservatives. Rejection of an impossible opposition to change on the part of progressives. The new philosophy of history is summed up by Clov, a character in Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame: “Something’s going on”. To which the other derelict, Hamm, worried, responds: “Is it going… to… mean something?”. But they quickly reassure each other. They are truly meaningless. Or, in another context: the party’s over.

Slash and burn

This presidential election, what a charivari, what suspense! You’d think you were in an American cycle-race, where on each lap you eliminate the hindmost of the peloton. And you would like the French, who nowadays tend to suffer from depression, to renounce all that? The present massacre, which in three months has eliminated all the favourites, Sarkozy, Juppé, Valls and perhaps Fillon, is licensing sentiments not to be found amongst the most elevated of the human heart. At least it testifies to the vitality of the institution of the presidency at a time when, under cover of the Fifth Republic, a large part of the Establishment dreams of doing away with it.

The primaries played out on television: two debates allowed François Fillon on the Right and Benoît Hamon on the Left, against all expectations, to upturn the respective forecasts. In a country known for throwing itself when stressed into the arms of old men (Clemenceau, Pétain, de Gaulle), a premium is placed on youth: Hamon before Mélenchon, Macron before Bayrou, Fillon before Juppé, and even Marine Le Pen before Jean-Marie.

On the other hand, the alleged “rejection of the system” is a farce: both victors and vanquished are former ministers… The risk is rather of seeing the clay pigeon shoot become the rule for picking understudies instead of winners. With Jadot (Greens) and Hamon (Parti socialiste), and in the expectation of an eventual replacement for Fillon, everyone’s thinking about Plan B. And yet, when he imagined the institutions of the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle had understood that in order to get past the traumatic rift between the Ancien Régime and the Revolution, a president was needed who was at the same time an exceptional person and someone elected by universal suffrage. An exceptional combination of personal charisma and democratic legitimacy. I fear that given the whims of the “big animal”, Plato’s term for ‘the people’, charisma might disappear and political peace with it. It’s not Trump who threatens us; it’s René Coty. §