France’s Anti-Liberal Left

France’s Anti-Liberal Left

In the ideas of Jean-Claude Michéa, we can see what a left populism fully divorced from liberalism might look like.

Jean-Claude Michéa pins the problems of liberalism on its intellectuals. (Hanna Assouline/Flammarion)

Where did liberalism go wrong? Since right-wing populist electoral victories upended American and European politics three years ago, the left has been plagued by this question. Different voices on the left have proposed different diagnoses of liberalism’s failures, along with corresponding remedies. Some, contending that liberals are too invested in identity politics, admonish them to embrace a more encompassing vision of the common good. Others maintain that liberals have, for decades, been the enablers of free-market capitalism, offering no economic alternative to the right. The left, they believe, should make a sharp turn toward social democracy, and perhaps even socialism.

Some advocates of these positions have made a related argument: the left must reclaim the label of “populism,” which is too important to concede to demagogues and bigots. The Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe has recently made a robust case for “left populism,” arguing that as neoliberalism enters a period of sustained crisis, the left must accentuate the cleavage between the “people”—broadly and inclusively construed—and the political and economic “elites” that have presided over mounting inequality. Left-of-center politicians have cozied up to these elites and endorsed a sterile politics of consensus that is tone deaf to their constituents’ concerns. In Mouffe’s view, embracing overt contention and anti-elitism—what she calls “agonism”—could help break the liberal impasse without ceding terrain to right-wing populism’s authoritarian and anti-pluralistic proclivities while maintaining a pluralistic and diverse society.

Not all left populists agree with Mouffe’s solution. The French philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa believes that the left, in its current form, is ideologically fated to betray the very people it once sought to empower. Michéa, virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, has written over a dozen books since the mid-1990s, earning him a reputation as a withering polemicist. Still, he is hardly a marquee figure, a “French intellectual” in the grand tradition of Jean-Paul Sartre or Michel Foucault. Michéa has never held a university position, nor does he live in Paris. He spent most of his career as a high-school teacher in the southern city of Montpellier. Few of his books have appeared in English; none have the cachet of being published by Verso or Semiotext(e).

Yet Michéa’s thought has exerted a subterranean influence on a new generation of anti-capitalist radicals in France. Through his writings and media interventions, he has become a kind of patron saint of a new wave of “little magazines” written by young people on both the left and right. For those who celebrate his work, Michéa’s relatively marginal position in French intellectual life adds considerably to his appeal. For it is intellectuals, Michéa contends, who lie at ...

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