François Furet: A Man For Our Season
The Taking of the Bastille (wikicommons)

François Furet: A Man For Our Season

Joshua David
Joshua David
9 min read

Of all the many and varied compliments that can fairly be paid to Anglo-Saxon liberalism, modesty is certainly not among them. Since the Whig heyday in the first half of the nineteenth century, English-speaking liberals have claimed to have the solutions to everything from industrial relations to the prevention of war, all the while arguing that their doctrine is thoroughly undogmatic. And yet before one accuses liberalism and its adherents of arrogance, it is important to note that liberal policymakers, movements, and statesmen have been hugely successful in a wide array of endeavours, and played a pivotal role in fashioning the current world order.

In recent years, however, especially since the American and British electoral shocks of 2016, it has become commonplace among the commentariat to announce that liberalism’s death agonies have begun—on the Left this has led to a celebration of the passing of corrupt and oppressive neoliberalism, and on the Right to the claim that unnatural and oppressive globalism’s deserved destruction is imminent. Nonetheless, given the length of time in which the West has been saturated in liberalism, it seems unlikely that the last two years have killed it off completely, or even mostly.

The death of liberalism appears even more fantastical if one looks to Europe where, for all the noise about Viktor Orbán and Hungary’s decline into soft despotism, countries in which politicians desperately avoided the word “liberal” are now witnessing the rise of proudly liberal political movements. The most well-known example is of course France, where Emmanuel Macron captured the Presidency, and his electoral alliance secured a considerable majority of parliamentary seats. His brand of business-friendly centrism, unapologetic pro-Europeanism, and impeccably Establishment background managed to win over French voters of all political stripes—not only in the presidential election, in which he was aided by the unpopularity of his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, but also in the battle for the legislature.

This is not to say that Macron’s style and policies prove that a Gallicised New Labour 2.0 approach is all that is required for liberal rejuvenation. The vigour and violence of the recent gilets jaunes protests are a reminder that the tradition of French resistance to economic liberalism is alive and well. It is precisely the uniquely troubled history of French liberalism that makes it such an instructive example to study, and one that is often neglected in the English-speaking world.

Although, when it comes to revolution, France is internationally acknowledged to have been at the avant-garde of political history, like many other European nations, it often has its post-war developments discussed purely as reactions against or acceptance of Anglosphere innovations. This is an unfair characterisation, and much of what seems new and frightening to liberals in the post-2016 world has not only already taken place in France, but has been productively analysed.

An under-appreciated scholar who is highly useful for understanding the peculiarities of French and Anglosphere politics is François Furet, the late historian and political theorist, whose theory of political “passions” is very helpful for both analysis and action. Furet produced a non-Marxist critique of the French Annales School’s historiographical consensus that mentalités, or mentalities, which were seen as the worldviews of historical societies, offered the best lens through which to view history. Furet argued that this was far too static a viewpoint, as humans are capricious creatures, prone to significant and rapid changes in beliefs as well as circumstances. By way of an alternative, Furet advocated the history of “passions,” which he claimed were formed of a mixture of sentiment (feelings) and idées (thoughts). While he is most famous for his radical reinterpretation of the French Revolution, his theories can be used to help understand many different areas of history.

One important application of Furet’s ideas is to combat the ever-present spectre of presentism, in which contemporary historians and thinkers assume that the great issues of their day have been the same more or less and forever. This also tends to involve a moral indictment of much of the past, as those lucky enough to be living and writing in the present have the advantage of knowing the moral standards by which they are going to be judged. This has, ironically enough, been a problem for the entirety of recorded history, with only the specific heroes and villains changing. For example, during the Thirty Years War, a religiously driven seventeenth century European conflict, Catholic writers argued that the world had essentially been riven by an eternal conflict between Christendom and heretics, with the treacherous alliance between the Ottoman Empire and certain Protestant factions serving as apparently unimpeachable proof of this. Similarly, Marxists have portrayed the past as an unending class conflict, arguing that the Protestant Swedish peasants who killed Catholic Bavarian knights during the Thirty Years War were not in fact fighting for their God, but rather acting as unknowing agents of immutable History.

Furet offers us a less erroneous alternative framework with which to explore historical actions, as different eras have their respective primary “passions,” but these are subject to great fluctuation and change. The changes that they undergo are driven by a thousand different factors, from economics to climate change, but they are neither static nor inevitable. This need not lead to a quasi-postmodernist view that therefore nothing can ever be concluded about anything—everything, even people’s deepest beliefs, are constantly in flux—but rather allows the historian to understand each era on its own terms. Moreover, it allows the reintroduction of human agency into history, without assuming that the past is, in the words of Thomas Carlyle, “but the biography of great men.” This is particularly important when it comes to understanding both high and low politics, as they no longer have to be seen as the result of either impersonal historical forces or a few select Übermenschen.

That approach is specifically useful for understanding early twenty-first century Western politics, a topic which, as discussed above, allegedly became a radically different beast in the space of six months. As well as the assumption of liberalism’s death, the other talking point which is often heard is that the traditional paradigm of Right vs Left has suddenly become obsolete and that Western societies are now blown about by the winds of a complex multipolar politics in which the fight between globalism and parochialism is centre stage.

A phrase often used to encapsulate this rapid change is “Brexit, Trump, ISIS,” which is deployed when a writer wants to summarise the destabilisation that has so afflicted the global liberal order. The standard explanation for why these threats, and the decline they allegedly symbolise, are suddenly the central elements of Western politics relies on how two key social developments were resolved politically, and the mechanism that made that resolution possible. It has become such a constant element of media and academic discussion, and its assumptions held to be nigh on unchallengeable by serious people, that I will call it the Narrative.

The first of these developments has been mass immigration and the curiously delayed backlash that has seized much of Europe and North America. It was recently pointed out in these pages that concern about and resistance to large-scale immigration is a thoroughly international phenomenon. However, its place in the Narrative argues that although European countries have always been “nations of immigrants” (notwithstanding their orientalist racism), their publics have in the last five years rapidly decided that enough is enough and now loathe immigrants and immigration. As a result they are willing to embrace wildcard politicians and ideologies, from the Five Star Movement in Italy to Vox in Spain.

The second development has been the deindustrialisation of the West, coupled with neoliberal economic policies that have supposedly undercut the working classes. The argument runs that the factory closures of the 1970s onwards created millions of unemployed who have been, more or less, underemployed under the booms that deregulation and innovation have brought, and reliant on welfare during the busts. This has made them, very recently, mistrustful of social democratic parties who, in a misguided attempt to “get with the times,” sold out the cradle-to-grave dream that brought them so much electoral success, and so poorer voters are now attracted to the extremes.

How has this disastrous and foreseeable failure of the political class come about? Well, according to the Narrative, Western politics has become dominated by an isolated elite, who were educated at Oxbridge and INSEAD. While the social views of this elite are undoubtedly light years ahead of their Neanderthal electorates, their abandoning of the safety net, combined with a vicious right-wing media, led to misattributed working class hatred focused against poor immigrants instead of neoliberal, “citizen of nowhere” hedge fund managers. The Narrative also holds that the reason 68 percent of Muslims in Muslim-majority countries believe Westerners to be selfish, and 84 percent of South Asian Muslims want Sharia law to be the official law of their country, is not because Islam is a reactionary religion, but because global economically repressive liberalism and American cultural imperialism have provoked these understandable reactions.

The Narrative offers several advantages to commentators of leftist inclinations, as it manages to lay the blame for many modern afflictions at the feet of economic liberalism, and delivers a stinging rebuke to anti-immigration stances as little more than mildly gentrified racism. It is also not entirely untrue—the insufficient employment assistance provided for much of the Western working classes most affected by deindustrialisation in the 1980s and afterwards contributed significantly to the feeling of being left behind in a fast-changing globalised world.

However the Narrative is complicated when several key facts are considered. The Great Recession, as some call the 2008 economic downturn, is given a highly privileged role in this understanding of modern politics, as it is meant to act as the catalyst for people all over the world to suddenly wake up to their oppression. It also places great emphasis on the role of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as being wasteful and unjust imperialistic conflicts that caused much of the anti-Western sentiment seen in the Muslim-majority world today.

In March 1992, the political theorist Benjamin R. Barber wrote an article in the Atlantic entitled “Jihad vs McWorld” in which he laid out two stark futures for humanity after the Cold War. In “Jihad,” there is a great “retribalization of large swaths of humankind by war and bloodshed” and this would result in a world which rejects “interdependence, every kind of artificial social cooperation, and civic mutuality.” In “McWorld,” “the onrush of economic and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity” create a “commercially homogenous global network… one McWorld.” He goes on to explain how the two worldviews are on an inexorable path to explosive conflict, unless his preferred third option, a global “confederalized representative system,” is adopted.

One does not have to yearn for world government to agree in large part with Barber’s diagnosis of the two basic universal streams of thought. But what is particularly interesting, and fatally undermining to the Narrative, is the timing of the article, which came out in the very early 1990s, when British railways were public, American welfare remained unreformed, and the French immigration rate was 1 per 1000 people. If, by the spring of 1992, the epochal conflict between the Open and Closed visions for societies was already clear, then are racist responses to mass immigration, 9/11 and its wars, and neoliberalism’s discontents not effects rather than causes?

If so, then the Narrative, whatever its other merits, no longer provides an adequate explanation for the current political situation. Instead, a Furet-inspired analysis can help to show the underlying mechanisms for the surface political shifts. Furet argued that the primary driver of the modern democracy is the “egalitarian passion.” By this, he meant that one of the fundamental elements of democracy is a firm and unyielding belief in the equality of all people. This belief quickly runs into the reality that people are vastly different, and so equality has to be created. The resulting need for greater equality in democracies can express itself in many different forms, from the all-consuming violence of the French Revolution to social programmes intended to empower the most dispossessed. However, the impossibility of ever achieving true equality means that the egalitarian passion is an insatiable one—it has no end.

For some time in post-war Western politics, that did not seem to be such a bad thing: the various European economic “miracles” combined with flourishing social democracy and Rhineland capitalism both reduced inequality and enormously improved standards of living. However by the 1980s they were increasingly being hijacked by special interests and, with some notable exceptions, failing to adjust to the emergence of the knowledge economy. This happened at a point when a combination of post-colonial immigration and the discovery that the Gastarbeiter also had children meant that serious and novel ethnic tensions were emerging in much of Europe. To further complicate matters, the once impossibly bright star of Marxism had waned to the point that even the most flexible and “humanist” Marxist parties were not only facing electoral defeats but total political irrelevancy.

In France, this led to what Furet described as the “normalisation” of French politics, as the alleged Sonderweg of French history that had begun with the French Revolution had come to its disappointing conclusion, a state of affairs summarised by Furet in the title of the first chapter of his book Interpreting the French Revolution: “The French Revolution is Over.” Yet, despite the failure of its most famous manifestation, the egalitarian passion remained the fundamental driving political force of both French politics specifically and Western democracies in general. Furet feared that there now appeared to be a simultaneous deadening of politics as the apparently unchallengeable hegemony of quasi-liberal democracy grew, and a dangerous backlash against the system. The eternal risk of the egalitarian passion’s role in democracy is that “[d]emocratic society is never democratic enough… The promise of democracy is infinite [but] it is impossible to prioritise liberty and equality simultaneously… This exposes all democratic regimes, not only to the excesses of demagogy but also to the constant reproach that they have betrayed their founding principles.”

This is clearly a sentiment which strikes a chord across the West today, with accusations of “betrayal” having become commonplace in a variety of democracies. Regrettably, Furet does not offer any solution, simple or otherwise, to this conflict at the heart of the democratic system. But a diagnosis is essential before treatment of any kind can begin.

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Joshua David

Joshua David is a writer based in London.