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 the heart of liberalism’s problem. Their critique of social norms and breezy value neutrality are fundamentally at odds with popular moral instincts. Liberal intellectuals fail to see, moreover, how their moral preferences predispose them to becoming allies of the free market and its reverence for individual choice. In Michéa’s ideas, we can see what left populism fully divorced from liberalism might look like.
Michéa was born in 1950 into one of the most storied milieus of the French left: the subculture that blossomed around the Communist Party. His parents, who met as members of the French Resistance during the Second World War, were both communists. His father earned a living as the sports writer for L’Humanité, the party’s newspaper. Communism, as Michéa once put it, was his political “mother tongue.” His childhood was profoundly shaped by his family’s politics. He traveled to the Soviet Union and learned to speak Russian. Yet he remembers escaping from official tours long enough to meet ordinary workers and to discover what “really existing socialism” was really like.
Michéa left the party in 1976. Unlike the stereotypical ex-communist, he bears the party no grudge. He was never really disillusioned with communism, because he never saw it primarily as an ideology. Communism, in his experience, was first and foremost a community. “In neighborhood or company cells,” he reminisces, “one often met men and women of incredible generosity and courage . . . who would never for a moment have considered the Party as a stepping stone for their own personal career.” The lesson of Michéa’s communist education was not doctrinal, but moral: political commitment meant living daily life according to a set of shared values.
Even so, Michéa was, like many of his contemporaries, drawn to philosophy and Marxism. His first intellectual crush was Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. After studying at the Sorbonne, he began his professional career in 1972 as a prof de philo—a high-school philosophy teacher. Many prominent French thinkers, from Émile Durkheim to Gilles Deleuze, taught high-school philosophy before achieving intellectual fame. Michéa, however, considers it a badge of honor that he never abandoned his position for a supposedly more “noble” career in academia. In doing so, he sought to honor his father’s mottos: “loyalty to one’s working-class origins” and “the refusal to succeed.” The latter principle, embraced by early twentieth-century French anarchists, entailed a rejection of such bourgeois values as upward mobility, acceptance of titles, and other markers of personal success.
Michéa’s outlook owes much to his experiences as a provincial teacher, especially by observing the transformation of the French educational system in the wake of May 1968. Michéa recognized that traditional public schools had aided capitalism’s advance by creating a culturally homogenous citizenry instilled with disciplined work habits. Yet these schools had also nurtured communal practices that had little to do with money-grubbing utilitarianism, notably a commitment to “transmitting . . . knowledge,”—such as Greek and Latin—“virtues, and attitudes that were as such perfectly independent of the capitalist order.” These traditional functions came under attack in the name of the “liberalization” of education after ’68. The most famous of these reforms was the dismantling of the “stages” from which teachers had long harangued their charges, now dismissed as archaic and hierarchical. Students, not teachers, became the classroom’s focus, and they were encouraged to experience the giddy freedom that results from rejecting one’s “linguistic, moral, or cultural heritage.” By the late 1990s, European directives were instructing teachers to think of students as “clients,” a trend that Americans have encountered under the guise of “education reform.”
These experiences provided Michéa—a classic organic intellectual—with his trademark insight: free-market capitalism, by adopting the cultural radicalism of the sixties, had been given new momentum. His point was not that the ideals of ’68 had been coopted, but that complete, unrestrained liberation from social norms created virtually limitless opportunities for capitalist growth. Borrowing a neologism popularized by the eccentric communist philosopher Michel Clouscard, Michéa referred to this synthesis of capitalism and cultural radicalism as libéral-libertaire. Libéral refers to economic liberalism, while libertaire (a synonym for “anarchist”) means emancipation from cultural norms. The critique of the libéral-libertaire worldview and the search for an alternative have been the leitmotifs of Michéa’s thought.
Michéa’s outlook has been shaped by several thinkers belonging to what might be called a left-populist canon. The most important is unquestionably George Orwell, who gave Michéa a powerful analysis of the kinds of ideological reforms he had witnessed at the high-school level. In his first book, Michéa argued that Orwell’s famous novel 1984 was not a cautionary tale about socialism or totalitarianism, but a critique of progressive conceits—in particular, of the way that intellectual elites conspire to dismantle communal solidarities through turgid jargon, technocracy, and their will to power.
In a 1940 essay, Orwell praised Charles Dickens for his ability to capture the mindset of the “common man”—the impulse, as Orwell puts it, “that makes a jury award excessive damages when a rich man’s car runs over a poor man.” Left-wing intellectuals tend to dismiss Dickens’ stories as so much “bourgeois morality,” but Orwell argued that Dickens articulated the “native decency of the common man.” Orwell celebrated this gut-level morality, and he claimed to have “never met a working man who had the faintest interest” in “the philosophic side of Marxism” and its “pea-and-thimble trick” of dialectics. Michéa took this lesson to heart. “The socialist struggle,” he wrote, “is above all an effort to interiorize these working-class values and to spread their effects through all of society.” By contrast, progress was the ideology of intellectual elites and a threat to “common decency.” The scandal of Orwell’s thought, Michéa argues, is that it is simultaneously socialist and conservative.
That same combination is what attracted Michéa to another non-French author, the American historian and social critic Christopher Lasch. Lasch’s oeuvre is organized around the conceit that intellectuals have perverted emancipatory politics by unmooring them from any grounding in popular reality. Lasch argued that American intellectuals since John Dewey have been motivated by a cult of experience and authenticity that led them to embrace social reform and even political radicalism as ends in themselves, in ways that alienated them from mainstream values. By the 1970s, Lasch claimed, this navel-gazing radicalism had detached itself from any pretense of proposing a political alternative. It succumbed, rather, to a “culture of narcissism,” steeped in ideas of self-help and well-being that proved eminently compatible with capitalist mass consumption.
In his magnum opus, The True and Only Heaven, Lasch writes that where progressives remain committed to “a wistful hope against hope that things will somehow work out for the best,” the “populist or petty-bourgeois” sensibility asserts that the “idea that history, like science, records a cumulative unfolding of human capacities” runs “counter to common sense—that is, to the experience of loss and defeat that makes up so much of the texture of daily life.” Progressives believe, in short, that we can have it all—which is why, Lasch maintained, that however critical liberals may be of capitalism, they can never quite bring themselves to loathe consumerism. Populism, Lasch conceded, is less overtly radical than Marxism: it prefers evenly distributed property to the prospect of indefinite material improvement. It is a philosophy of limits, of curtailed horizons—and the moral disposition such an outlook implies.
These various ideas informed the critique of liberalism that Michéa developed in the 2000s. Its problem, he concluded, is its amoral character, or its value neutrality (neutralité axiologique). Liberalism, he maintains, was born as a philosophical solution to the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Political thought became obsessed with pacifying the violent passions unleashed by religious conviction. Two particularly promising cures were proposed: law, through a system of rights that applied to individuals as individuals, irrespective of their beliefs; and the market, which offered the peaceful pursuit of material well-being as an appealing alternative to the elusive quest for theological certainty. Liberalism began, in short, by making a virtue of its lack of virtue. To this end, liberals launched a “methodical dismantling” of communal practices based on common decency, which were now seen as impediments to personal liberty and material gain.
“Actually existing liberalism,” as Michéa calls it, rests on the illusion that a meaningful distinction can be drawn between economic liberalism, on the one hand, and political and cultural liberalism, on the other. Limitless growth is the necessary corollary to endless self-realization. By the same token, free markets only truly thrive in societies based on cultural and political liberalism. “Capital accumulation (or ‘growth’),” Michéa writes, “would not be able to go on for long if it constantly had to accommodate religious austerity, the cult of family values, indifference to fashion, or the patriotic ideal.” It follows that “a ‘right-wing economy’ cannot function in a lasting way without a ‘left-wing culture.’”
Michéa’s left populism hits its stride in his jeremiads against elite liberal culture. Among his favorite targets is Libération, the mainstream, left-of-center newspaper founded by erstwhile sixties radicals whose closest American equivalent is the New York Times. Postmodernism is another one of his bêtes noires. He expresses bewilderment at the success of Foucault’s book I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother, claiming that it exemplifies “the characteristic fascination of modern intellectuals for crime and delinquency.” Michéa sneers at anything that smacks of urban intellectual life, academic fads, the “hip” and the “cool.” Invariably, his punchline is that the cognoscenti are capitalism’s closest objective allies. “The Cannes Film Festival,” he scoffs, “is not a majestic negation of the Davos Forum. It is, to the contrary, its fully realized philosophical truth.”
Michéa’s scorn for liberal cultural elites clarifies how his conception of left populism differs from the kind proposed, for instance, by Chantal Mouffe. The French philosopher and the Belgian theorist agree that left-of-center parties have, by embracing neoliberalism, failed to offer a meaningful political alternative to the right. They also both object to heaping scorn on right-wing populists, recognizing that their supporters express genuine democratic opposition to prevailing orthodoxy. But for Mouffe, as she argues in her recent essay, For a Left Populism, the problem is political: by embracing consensus, the left has obscured the fundamentally conflictual (or “agonistic”) nature of politics. For Michéa, the issue is moral: by embracing liberalism (and not just neoliberalism), the left has muddied the ethical basis of its politics and diluted beyond recognition its commitments to solidarity and common decency. Inspired by post-structuralism, Mouffe cautions the left against returning to Marxism’s “class essentialism”—the belief that only the industrial working class can embody progressive aspirations. Michéa believes that essentialism—a moral essentialism, a conviction in its values’ inherent superiority—is the very core of the left’s identity.
At what point does this left-wing populism cease to be left-wing? Michéa reproaches liberalism for what many Marxists consider its undeniable achievements. He has notably criticized the left’s fixation on fighting racism and homophobia. He insists that he is not criticizing these positions per se, but showing how they provide cover for the liberal left’s increasing indifference to the victims of the free-market. In Michéa’s view, racism and homophobia can only be the result of a “moral ideology”—an attempt to articulate basic moral instincts into an airtight worldview. Claims that homosexuality is a sin or a bourgeois perversion are intellectual conceits, not the spontaneous moral inclinations of ordinary people. Michéa, in this way, tars bigotry and liberalism with the same brush: both disrupt the practices of mutual aid and generosity associated with “common decency.” Yet when Michéa contends that moral common sense can provide more credible protection against homophobia and racism than liberal notions of rights, one wonders if his confidence in popular virtues is not colored by a healthy dose of wishful thinking. Michéa argues that the liberal idea of tolerance is itself simply a “moral ideology” with little bearing on the struggle against discrimination. In his view, ordinary moral instincts provide a much sturdier bulwark against homophobia and racism than rights conceived in liberal terms.
Michéa has been embraced by more than a few activists on the right—though the groups that gravitate to him defy traditional categorization. Some of his conservative readers participated in the Veilleurs (“watchman”) movement, which, in 2013, protested France’s gay marriage law. They claimed to oppose the legislation on Christian principles, but they are also fiercely critical of financial capitalism and embrace “integral ecology,” a Catholic variant of environmental thought. In 2015 two activists from this milieu, Marianne Durano, a twenty-seven-year-old philosophy teacher, and her thirty-one-year-old partner, Gaultier Bès, founded the journal Limite, which champions many of Michéa’s ideas. “It is Michéa’s total, holistic vision,” Durano explains, “encompassing economics, ethics, and the social, his non-schizophrenic approach to problems, that seduces me.” Like Michéa, Bès and Durano denounce a “liberal-libertarian system founded on always needing more,” while berating “sixty-eighters [who have become] the useful idiots of the almighty market.”
Michéa also inspires radicals on the left, his own political family. Yet the concerns of these radicals overlap considerably with their counterparts on the right: both are critical of liberal capitalism, scornful of the sixties generation, and subscribe to an ethos of limits. Kévin Boucaud-Victoire, a young journalist and former Trotskyist who calls Michéa his “favorite contemporary philosopher,” recently launched a journal called Le Comptoir (The Counter). Its first issue called for a genuinely “popular” form of socialism, based on “premodern or pre-capitalist social, moral, and cultural values” and a concern for “ordinary people.” Boucaud-Victoire—who is an evangelical Protestant as well as a socialist—argues that France needs “social populism in the tradition of the Narodniks,” the Russian populists of the 1860s and ’70s who maintained that radicals must “go to the people.” This populism must break with “‘cultural leftism,’ which defines itself in terms of societal and minority questions, in favor of social [i.e., labor] issues and more unifying symbols, without, however, flirting with right-wing conservatism.” He sees La France Insoumise, Jean-Pierre Mélenchon’s left-populist party, which won 19 percent in the last presidential election, as approximating these ideals. In short, it is Michéa’s emphasis on moral conviction that explains much of his appeal to the young, whether on the left or the right.
Many aspects of the Michéa phenomenon reflect the distinctly French context in which it arose. But he is nonetheless symptomatic of a broader crisis in Western political culture. His appeal represents popular discontent not only with neoliberal capitalism, but also with the current alternatives to it. Beneath Michéa’s bitter harangues against hip urban elites and fashionable intellectuals lies a resonant message: any movement that seriously maintains that the neoliberal model is headed toward disaster can no longer make excuses for supporting, when push comes to shove, center-left parties that have consistently served as capitalism’s willing enablers. Mélenchon’s refusal, in the 2017 election, to support Macron over Le Pen is consistent with this position.
Michéa’s disciples seem, at least anecdotally, to share a sociological base. They belong to the new intellectual underclass: educated young people who struggle to find full-time jobs and cannot afford Parisian rents—France’s equivalent, perhaps, of the burgeoning reserve army of adjunct professors in the United States. Though often intellectuals, they have been marginalized by elite cultural institutions and lack the economic resources they afford. To those who feel screwed by contemporary society, Michéa offers the assurance that their resentment is legitimate and important.
Michéa seeks to explore the political consequences of a left-wing break with progressive values that have, as he argues over and over, furthered the interests of capital. A genuine populism must reject the ideology of boundless possibilities and adopt a philosophy of limits—economic, territorial, and cultural. A politics attuned to limits must take seriously the human need for community, or what philosophers call a “lifeworld”—an environment and sphere of relationships based on shared values and mutual understanding. Just as resources and the biosphere need to be preserved, so do human relationships and the traditions that nurture them. Michéa calls this the “conservative moment” inherent in all radical thought. His own vision forces us to consider what it would mean to sustain this moment, to put it at the center of anti-capitalist politics. He may be too schematic and visceral a thinker to persuade his critics. At a time when populism has upset the long-prevailing liberal order, Michéa forces us to ask whether the historic compromise with liberalism has sapped the left of its moral force. Whatever one thinks of his conclusions, his writing has the merit of clarifying the stakes of this crucial question.
Michael C. Behrent teaches history at Appalachian State University.