Liberalism, anti-liberalism, French democracy – Revue de Presse: 6 February 2022

6 February 2022



In an intriguing essay for Engelsberg Ideas, Samuel Gregg offers an introduction to the thought of Jacques Rueff – arguably one of France’s most influential liberal thinkers. A leading economist who advised governments under the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics, Rueff was an important advocate of laissez-faire and of restrictive monetary policies. In his essay, Gregg shows how Rueff’s economic liberalism was tied to a broader “civilisational” vision: for Rueff, civilisation depended on “true rights”, which monetary lassitude threatened to undermine.

A very different kind of liberalism is presented in Prospect, where Jonathan Rée reviews Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism, a newly-released collection of essays by the late American philosopher Richard Rorty. Whereas a previous review by George Scialabba focused on the philosophical consequences of Rorty’s brand of pragmatism, Rée centres his discussion on Rorty’s liberal politics. He highlights that for Rorty, pragmatism was above all “an attempt to let a sense of democratic citizenship take the place of a sense of obligation to a non-human power”.

Although a man of the Left, late in his life Rorty made enemies in his own political camp with his trenchant critiques of identity politics. Today, similar perspectives can be found in the work of Adolph Reed, an African-American political scientist who opposes what he sees as the capitalist co-option of anti-racism. Profiled in the New Yorker, Reed offers a pithy summation of contemporary American politics: “Either the Biden Administration and congressional Dems begin to deliver material benefits to the American people, to the working-class majority, or the right, which seems pretty uniformly bent on imposing authoritarian rule, will succeed in expunging nominal democracy.”



The potentially anti-democratic tendencies of the American right have, as ever, been a major source of intellectual controversy. Perhaps most interestingly, John Ganz of Unpopular Front has made another lengthy intervention in the ongoing “fascism debate” over the nature of Trumpism. Responding to Twitter commentary from Corey Robin, Ganz argues that “the question of fascism and Trump is really a question whether or not Trumpism represents a merely quantitative or an actually qualitative change in right-wing politics.” For Ganz, Trumpism reflects “a qualitative shift to another register of politics” – one that he channels Gramsci to characterise as “Caesarist”.

In his analysis, Ganz draws on a recent (and much-commented upon) Dissent article by sociologist Melinda Cooper. In her piece, Cooper argues that the social base of Trumpism is in family-owned private business, and that Trump’s appeal reflects shifts in how corporate ownership in America is structured.

Small-scale, independent enterprise has of course long occupied a central place in the American political imaginary. In an essay for Athwart, Julian Assele explores the work of Christopher Lasch, a thinker who did much to valorise pre-capitalist modes of economic production, and who has recently been claimed by the so-called “post-liberal” right. Assele argues, however, that what attracts the post-liberals to Lasch is in fact the paucity of his historical analysis. In Assele’s telling, the Laschian narrative is a fatalist one – a just-so story of decline that wrongly obscures the agency of the working class.

Post-liberal understandings of history are equally the theme of a critique by Morgan Jones in Renewal – a journal of social democracy. Responding to a Remembrance Sunday Unherd article by Mary Harrington, Jones considers what Harrington’s erroneous historical assertions can tell us about the conspiratorial beliefs underpinning post-liberalism. “[R]e-writing history”, she notes “is a much more interesting act than simply lying. Those who do it may not be being honest about the past, but they are being honest about their politics.”


French democracy

Anti-liberal ideas are of course hardly confined to the Anglo-Saxon world. Indeed, they are if anything more pervasive in France: in an interview published in Jacobin magazine, Frédérique Matonti discusses how reactionary thought has, over the past four decades, come to occupy a hegemonic position within French intellectual life. For Matonti, the key turning point began in the 1980s, when the Right mobilised against the threat posed by François Mitterrand’s presidency.

Mitterrand’s presidency is equally the subject of a Jacobin interview with Mediapart journalist Fabien Escalona, who focuses not on the success of the Right, but on the travails of the Left. Escalona recounts the rise and fall of the once-powerful Parti Socialiste (PS), whose presidential candidate Anne Hidalgo now languishes below 5% in most polls.

The central claim Escalona makes in the interview – that the PS destroyed itself by embracing right-wing policies – chimes with an argument appearing in Contretemps: that the PS, more than any other party or institution, bears the responsibility for imposing neoliberalism on France. In an extract from his new book – La résistible ascension du néolibéralisme – political economist Bruno Amable traces in detail how neoliberal economic ideas pushed by so-called “modernisers” came over the course of the 1980s and 1990s to predominate within the PS. In another of his recent books (reviewed here for Tocqueville21 by Pavlos Roufos), Amable located Emmanuel Macron within this tradition of “modernising” technocratic governance, highlighting the affinity of his political project with those of Jacques Delors and Michel Rocard.

However in an essay for last month’s Foreign Affairs, Blake Smith offers a different interpretation of Macron, focusing not on his political forebears, but on his philosophical mentor Paul Ricoeur. Reconstructing the development of Ricoeur’s thought over his lifetime, Smith argues that Macron embodies Ricoeur’s ultimate project of a hermeneutic politics. For Smith, Macron follows Ricoeur in seeing the state primarily in symbolic terms, as the institution responsible for reconciling French citizens with their history, identity, and place in the global economy.


Photo Credit: Eliens via Creative Commons/Pixabay.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Leave a Reply

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