Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Houellebecq & Liberal Modernity

Michel Houellebecq
There's an interesting review at American Affairs of Sérotonine, the latest novel by French author Michel Houellebecq.

The reviewer is none other than Thierry Baudet, leader of the Dutch party Forum for Democracy, which made significant gains in the elections in The Netherlands earlier this year.

Baudet notes that the characters in Houellebecq's novels are portrayed as grappling with the alienating effects of liberal modernity - of a society which is focused on maximising individual autonomy to a degree that dissolves traditional forms of identity and belonging and which also makes stable, enduring relationships difficult to maintain:
At some point in the course of their lives, all of Houellebecq’s characters are forced to acknowledge that their romantic ideals have be­come untenable in the modern age, since individualism has made profound, long-term relationships impossible. This simple idea forms the fundamental conviction of Houellebecq’s work. It echoes, in certain ways, Marxist Verelendungstheorie: as technological inno­vations have made jobs boring and interchangeable, and as free trade has destroyed traditional farm life and honest labor, we now pass through life as atomized wage slaves in the service of incomprehensible, unfathomable government organizations and overwhelmingly powerful multinational corporations. Erratic consumer preferences, capricious fashions, and an unpredictable herd instinct dictate the opinions (or the whims and fancies) of most of us who no longer have a family, a home, a church, and a nation to reinforce our sense of identity. Unable to chart a course for ourselves, we are floating around in an empty sea. Rudderless. All control of life—andof who we are—is lost.

The fault lies on both sides of the mainstream political spectrum. As a European, Baudet labels these the social democrats on the left and the liberals (classical liberals) on the right:
Now this fundamental point which Houellebecq makes time and again deserves further reflection, because it challenges the very fun­damentals of both the contemporary “Left” and the “Right.” It challenges modern anthropology as such. Both the social-dem­ocratic and the liberal wing of the modern political spectrum (re­spectively advocating the welfare state and the free market) wish to maximize individual autonomy. Liberalism and socialism differ when it comes to the most effective way to achieve that objective, but they do not differ in the objective itself. They are both liberation movements; they both want the complete emancipation of the indi­vidual.

And both base their vision of society on the (unfounded but supposedly “self-evident”) principle that every individual enjoys certain “inalienable rights,” which by definition eclipse all other claims, and to which all other ties, loyalties, and connections must ultimately be subordinated. Over time, all such institutions that the individual requires to fully actualize a meaningful existence—such as a family and a connection to generations past and future, a nation, a tradition, perhaps a church—will weaken and eventually disappear. Today, even new life (in the womb) may be extinguished to avoid disturbing the individual’s freedom. In the Netherlands (where I live), suicide is facilitated to ensure that here, too, no constraints—such as the duty to care for your parents—are placed on the indi­vidual.

It is this fundamental assumption of the modern age—that individual autonomy (be it through free markets or welfarism) leads to happiness—which Michel Houellebecq challenges.

The weakness that Baudet identifies in Houellebecq's writing is defeatism. Houellebecq captures the descent skillfully but cannot see a way out.

There is much more in the review - I recommend clicking on the link and reading it in full.

1 comment:

  1. "a society which is focused on maximising individual autonomy to a degree that dissolves traditional forms of identity and belonging and which also makes stable, enduring relationships difficult to maintain"

    Once you see the link between he philosophy of liberalism and the alienation of modern life it's impossible to unsee. The evidence is all around us.