GA is not meant to replace the social sciences. But it can be of help in the empirical study of humanity by posing a minimal core of cultural behavior that supplies the framework of a human ontology. Humans are constantly creating new political configurations as they create new words and artforms, not to speak of new theories about the natural world. But it is important to have a hypothesis about what in the human is originary and what is derived. This distinction is always relative; the “absolute” beginning of the human is with the deferral of instinctual behavior, that is, the Sartrian néant. But the originary hypothesis allows us to rectify our conception of aspects of the human that have frequently been misunderstood.
In particular, since the beginning of the last century, the Western world has become habituated to understanding cultural basics from the perspective of child development or ontogeny. For example, Michael Tomasello’s exhaustive study of his own child’s linguistic apprenticeship as a path to understanding human language.
This tendency has been reinforced by Freudian metapsychology, which provides a template for tracing the child’s acquisition of its cultural heritage. But whatever the value of Freudian and related analyses for the understanding of the individual psyche, their contribution to the broader questions of human ontology reflects and reinforces the bias of Western metaphysics toward considering ontogeny as the fundamental source of anthropological knowledge. Just as GA is critical of the metaphysical perspective that takes language for granted, so its minimalism reveals the error of the ontogenetic approach to the categories of culture.
Whatever the possible inaccuracies in our model of the originary event, it is evident that language and culture originated in a public, collective setting among men. Although the presence of women at the originary event would hardly invalidate the hypothesis, the event surely did not take place in a family setting. (Masculine) rivalry’s potential violence is its motivational point of departure.
What this means is not that families, perhaps even monogamous ones, did not already exist, but that the new cultural element that defines the human was created on a public scene. Once human culture, even in its earliest stages, was established, it had to be taught to children “from without,” as a cultural imposition on their “animal” natures. And this imposition cannot be reduced to the enforcement of the power of the father and/or mother over the infant. The “superego” is not simply the introjection of the parental/paternal will; it is a communal discipline that is in principle imposed from without on the parents as well, often via a complex family hierarchy.
This point is crucial to the “question of identity.” An individual’s identity is best defined by his identification with the community that he experiences as primary in the fundamental cultural role of the deferral of violence. It is principally in the context of this community that the subject is empowered to acquire his unique selfhood, his firstness as intrinsic to the welfare of the group as a whole. Hence in today’s world, divided into nation-states, our primary identification is normally with our nationality, which occupies the highest level of the hierarchy of public order that, as we say, holds a monopoly on violence.
The modern conception of nationhood can be traced to the Hebrews (see Chronicle 468), although nearly two thousand years went by before “the Hebrew nation” was updated to the Western model. In the meantime, the Hebrew tradition, as expressed in the “Abrahamic” religions that derived from it, offered two principal modes of communal identity.
In the Christian West, religion is put on a separate plane from citizenship (“Render unto Caesar…”), and this essential feature of “Westphalian” nationhood has been the secret of success of these nations—as well as the source of their disastrous conflicts. Israel today is itself essentially a “Westphalian” nation, a fact that helps explain the difficulty of the Arabo-Islamic world in accepting its existence.
For the troubled nature of Islamic state governance reflects the univocal nature of Islamic universalism, which considers the entire human world to belong “naturally” to the Umma, not as what we call a “religion” but as a total way of life—Sharia in place of “the law of the land.” Those who inhabit the “nation of Islam” identify less with individual countries than with local, tribal entities, the source of familial rather than cultural values.
The trauma of the two world wars has made European, and to some extent, even American nationalism problematic. The uniquely terrible violence unleashed in WWII made not only Germany but the Western countries, users of the atomic bomb, wary of asserting national power and as a consequence, of the national principle in general.
The contemporary US still retains its sense of itself as a nation. Yet the rise of “identity politics” shows, not that these sub-national identities (race, gender, etc.) threaten to form distinct communities and (pace California) secede from the USA, but that in an increasing number of cases, individuals invest their firstness in identification with them in opposition to the nation, an attitude recently symbolized by a number of black football players’ highly publicized refusal to stand for the national anthem.
In these victimary identities, the individual presents himself as obliged to make unusual efforts to compensate for his oppressed status. But as opposed to the traditional Horatio Alger narrative of overcoming handicaps to achieve success, that is, to rejoin the citizenry of the nation, the point is to demonstrate one’s permanent alienation, the affirmation of one’s victimary identity—which only then becomes the basis for an appeal to the nation as a whole. Barack Obama’s election to the presidency is the archetype of this transformation.
And we need not accuse Obama of hypocrisy or dishonesty to note that, rather than embodying the transcendence of identity politics, as he had proclaimed and as most of his voters had hoped, his administration was the most racially divisive since the days of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. No doubt many middle-class blacks, affirmed in their self-image by Obama’s victories, experienced a welcome reduction of tension between their minority identity and their primary national one; but those who preferred a stance of victimary resentment were encouraged in their decision by many of the President’s policy decisions and individual actions.
Yet whatever the depredations caused by these victimary attitudes, which have parallels among feminist, gay, and now transgender groups, these groups remain at least nominally within the American framework of “double nationality”: we are all Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, gay Americans, even “Native” Americans. And the current nastiness toward “whites,” however ugly, is not all that different from the resentment against “WASPs” in earlier generations. The fact that, even with its increasing leftward movement, the Democratic Party remains within the mainstream of American politics suggests that its political evolution will be drastically affected by any sign that the American public no longer finds such attitudes acceptable. Thus the next couple of elections will be crucial in determining the party’s, and the nation’s, future direction.
The European situation is quite different. The American notion of “identity politics” would seem to have no real equivalent there. In this recent example, the term “identity politics” is used by a British defender of Brexit to criticize the formation of separate national communities, minorities not within but outside what can be called the British nation. Whereas in France, the term politique identitaire, in a sense diametrically opposed to the normal American one—which corresponds rather to the French communautarisme—refers specifically to the assertion of a “French identity” defined by souchiens, French of “Gallic” or at the very least, West European stock.
Europe’s current demographic crisis is easily misunderstood. Seen simply as a statistical trend, it would indeed appear to be leading to the “replacement” that Houellebecq’s Soumission satirizes, and that my favorite quote from Jens Orback, Swedish “minister of democracy”: “We must be open and tolerant toward Islam and the Muslims because [sic] when we become a minority, they will be so toward us” (see Chronicle 337), takes for granted.
But such replacements of one people by another do not take place imperceptibly. The electoral upheaval in Italy and that currently threatening in Germany and elsewhere on the continent, not to speak of England, where Labour’s scandalous pandering to Muslim antisemitism would doubtless lead to some very unpleasant interactions were Corbyn to become prime minister—although my money is on Boris Johnson, who looks eerily like a Latin-quoting Trump—are bound to lead to the increasing emergence into public view of the resentments currently being suppressed by government leaders fearful of any suspicion of “Islamophobia.” (I still find it difficult to grasp the mindset of the police and other officials who hushed up the Rotherham and related sex scandals. Fear of besmirching the town’s reputation or even of losing Labour votes hardly suffices to explain the shameful callousness of their collective inaction over many years, for which they have suffered virtually no punishment.)
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Muslims were a little over 8% of the Rotherham population in 2011. What will happen if they become 25, or 50% of the population? One doesn’t need a crystal ball to appreciate that in another generation, the immigration policies of Poland and Hungary will appear providential in comparison with the results of Merkel’s Wir schaffen das! or even with France’s far less artificial absorption of large numbers of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East.
Yet I do not believe that even Germany, still weighted down by guilt for a war that ended over 70 years ago, will simply resign itself to disappear. This can still be prevented if the new “nationalist” parties, assuming they attain a share of political power, make a concerted effort not only to limit new immigration and enforce functional borders, but to integrate (legal) immigrant groups into their national communities. It is too early to dismiss the possibility that the kind of integration that has succeeded in the US, and continues to function among the Spanish-speaking population—now our largest “minority,” but in no way comparable in disaffection to European Muslims—will be able to succeed in Europe.
I do not believe that Pierre Manent’s idea (see http://www.rene-girard.fr/57_p_44718/chronique-d-eric-gans) of creating a “French Islam” is an unrealizable goal, despite its incompatibility with the Islamist aim of world conquest. It seems clear that the widespread “radicalization” of young Muslims in Europe reflects less the advance of Islam than the démission of European patriotism—the kind of “post-nationalism” that Ryszard Legutko bewails in The Demon in Democracy (Encounter, 2016 ; see Chronicle 532), and that Poland and Eastern Europe in general have taken great steps to avoid. Islamic fundamentalism, like the victimary fundamentalism of the American left, reflects the failing of our modern societies to affirm their own national cultures, not the dynamism of their opposition, obliged to resuscitate often barbaric traditions of the pre-modern era. Chinese neo-socialism offers a more serious modern alternative, but short of armed conflict, the West as a whole can only benefit from some genuinely symmetrical competition.
Let us hope that the current wave of “populist” nationalism in Europe signals a reaffirmation of Western Civilization—the least successful civilization with the exception of all the others. Only a self-confident and inclusive politique identitaire can fulfill Europe’s ambition to make its multi-national community the model for the next stage of the world’s political evolution.