Thoughts on Gauchet’s L’Avènement de la démocratie

1 February 2018

Guest contributor Michael C. Behrent teaches modern European history at Appalachian State University (North Carolina). After recently publishing a review of Marcel Gauchet’s L’Avènement de la démocratie series for Dissent, Michael had a few further thoughts following Tocqueville 21’s recent interview with Gauchet.

This interview is an excellent introduction to Marcel Gauchet’s thought, and particularly to his recently completed chef d’oeuvre, L’Avènement de la démocratie. Part of the appeal of Gauchet’s work is the light that it can shed on contemporary events. Yet his work is also characterized by a genuine pensée, which, occasionally, gets occluded by his intriguing political and social commentary. Briefly, I’d like to bring to surface some of the key points of Gauchet’s thought that are mentioned above, without being fully fleshed out.


One issue raised in this interview is Gauchet’s definition of autonomy and what “counts” as autonomy. It is true, as the interviewer suggests, that various trends in modern politics seem to diverge radically from the idea of autonomy (both the authoritarian tendencies demonstrated in some populist movements, as well as the disempowering effect of neoliberal economics). Yet it is important to recall that, for Gauchet, once society ceases to be organized around primitive religion, there are virtually no historical forces that are not shaped by autonomy. Pure heteronomy, he maintains, is found only in societies organized around the principle that humans have no control over their affairs, that anything that happens in society is the work of supernatural forces. The reign of heteronomy ends with the birth of the state, autonomy’s first and most important vehicle. Autonomy is like the Big Bang: once it happens, its energies continuously and irreversibly shape history’s entire dynamic.


In other words, once autonomy has “happened,” pure heteronomy is no longer possible. The only question is the degree to which any particular manifestation of autonomy remains partially embedded in heteronomous forms. One of the crucial theses of The Disenchantment of the World, after all, is that Christianity itself—which, in the West, at least, is one of the main ways in which a kind of politics of heteronomy has manifested itself—has served as a major historical vector of autonomy (this is Gauchet’s idea of Christianity as “the religion for leaving religion”): the completely transcendent conception of God Christianity embraces (which Gauchet, controversially, sees as expressed in the idea of the incarnation) paradoxically clears the way for a world that is open to autonomous human activity.


For Gauchet, almost any historical force can be located on a kind of a spectrum between pure heteronomy and fully realized autonomy. The kind of dialectic at work in Gauchet’s thought is to be found in the interaction between autonomy and heteronomy, in which autonomy always, as it were, has the last laugh. The punchline of Gauchet’s analysis of totalitarianism is that, while seeking a kind of return to heteronomy, they can only do so with autonomy’s resources. Elections, parties, even the idea of the nation itself are political forms that are rooted in the very idea of autonomy (and specifically liberalism), even as National Socialists and Fascists used them to create a radically different kind of politics. Gauchet’s framework could be used to offer a similar analysis of contemporary populism and authoritarianism: it is intriguing, for instance, how much the idea of the free market (at least at a local or national level, even as they reject globalization)—an idea that is inseparable from liberal autonomy—remains important to many populist movements, despite their apparent rejection of the neoliberal order.


Another aspect of this argument that is worth mentioning is that, for Gauchet, autonomy is most effective when injected with a dose of heteronomy. This is, I think, one of his key normative claims (even if he often makes it only implicitly). The triumph of democracy after 1945 is, in his account, tied to the fact that it occurred in a social and cultural context that was still deeply shaped by heteronomy: the paternalism of Eisenhower, Adenauer, or de Gaulle, “the man in the gray flannel suit,” patriarchal nuclear families, and clearly-defined gender roles—these seemingly quaint cultural trends indicate how much the pursuit of autonomy was embedded in structures that remained, in Gauchet’s sense, residually religious.


This is what Gauchet means, I think, when he says that the “silent revolution” of the 1970s represents the final stage of the process of “leaving religion.” The problem with the neoliberal age is that it has too much autonomy. In saying this, Gauchet is not simply reiterating the conservative indictment of social permissiveness or the Marxist complaint that market freedom results in wage slavery. His point is that when autonomy lacks a clearly heteronomous enemy (e.g., the May ’68 protestor vs. de Gaulle), it is incapable of really understanding itself. The problem with present-day autonomy, for Gauchet, is not that it is excessive, but that it is blind: it no longer has a sense of what it is trying to achieve. The triumph of human rights over the other elements Gauchet sees as constitutive of modern democracy—the nation-state (as a vehicle for self-government) and an historical outlook focused on the future—is indicative of the curiously visionless condition in which contemporary society finds itself.


While I admire Gauchet’s thought greatly, one of the few unpersuasive elements of his argument concerns what the role played by the United States in his thought. Gauchet knows a great deal about American history, yet somehow, he manages to be oddly tone-deaf about its ultimate stakes. He remains far too confident in the idea that because the United States never had feudalism, it had no old regime, and thus had no real forces of heteronomy with which to contend. From the standpoint of autonomy, as Gauchet sees it, America has had two hundred years of happy sailing. Gauchet endorses, in practice, the consensus historians, as his reference to Louis Hartz in this interview makes clear. Yet shouldn’t slavery and its persistent legacy on race relations suggest that the story of the United States is something more than a conflict between different shades of liberalism? Gauchet has a knack for discerning the heteronomous reactions that liberal autonomy invariably provokes. He has much of interest to say about Charles Maurras and Houston Stewart Chamberlain; why does he overlook, say, John C. Calhoun and others who shared his ideas? Surely this political tradition suggests that the temptation of heteronomy (its tensions notwithstanding) have played a much deeper role in American history than Gauchet’s ultimately Pollyannaish account suggests. Recognizing this legacy would also shed light on the highly contentious character of contemporary American politics, which in many ways surpasses what one sees in Europe. It is the very perspicacity of Gauchet’s compelling historical vision that makes one wish for a more nuanced analysis of the United States.


Photo Credit: Jenna Day, Statue of Liberty, via Unsplash.


Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *