top of page

Understand and Fight the Advent of Neo-Capitalism with Michel Clouscard

Note: While the Institute for National Revolutionary Studies does not advocate total acceptance of Marxism, the critiques of Marxists such as Michel Clouscard remain powerful enough to augment our own struggle for national and social liberation from the society of globalized mass consumption.

Michel Clouscard passed away on Febraury 21st 2009. The anniversary of his death is an excellent occasion to rediscover his thought, both original and faithful to Marxism, which remains stunningly timely.

Born in 1928 in Montpinier (Tarn), Michel Clouscard was the author of the most radical and complete critiques of capitalism at the end of the 20th century. This close associate of the Parti communiste français attempted to define the bases of a classless society, radically democratic, starting from the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx, holding that their respective beliefs registered themselves in the same line. The thinker from Tarn defined Rousseau as a precursor of democratic socialism, the founder of the moral concepts and modern definitions of egalitarianism and liberty. Opposed to the neo-Kantianism of Jean Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Claude Lévi-Strauss or even Roland Barthes, who were fundamentally counter-revolutionary according to him, Clouscard reproached them for having distorted the notion and liberty, and would pose, from 1972, the bases of his critique of the new face of capitalism, which he would qualify as liberal-libertarian.

“Capitalism turned left on the political-cultural level and turned right on the economic-social level.”

Mai 68: Everything is permitted, but nothing is possible

If Clouscard already made a name for himself, thanks to his thesis, “ L’Être et le code” in 1972, aided by the direction of the famous Marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre, it was in the following year that his thought revealed itself to the public with “Néo-fascisme et idéologie du désir.” In this pamphlet against “Freudo-Marxism” (among which he classed Gilles Deleuze and moreover Herbert Marcuse), he delivered an analysis – imperfect but revolutionary – of Mai 68 and its consequences for French society.

If the PCF – just like the CGT – supported the worker’s movement, the first social movement of the 20th century we recall, it had long despised the student’s Mai 68, which he qualified as “bourgeois” and guilty, according to him, of threatening the hegemony of the Party within the extreme left. But the movement was marked by contradictory inspirations – even if all were marked by the same hedonism – and a non-negligible part of the students, influenced by the ideas of Cornélius Castoriadis, Henri Lefebvre and Guy Debord, tried to revive the spirit of the Commune and combat the nascent society of the spectacle. Yet this “orginal sin” of Clouscard did not prevent him from drawing good conclusions about the consequences of what he named “the 1789 of the middle classes.”

According to him, Mai 68 was above all the revolution of the new educated middle classes that sought to become dominant within society. He saw there the culminating point of an era, which started with the Marshall Plan. By “aiding” the European countries, the Americans allowed the Old Continent to accede to the their consumerist model, which entered into conflict with the state capitalism of the epoch. A new market of desire was born, as well as a new middle class. According to the sociologist, the student movement marked the advent of the latter. He thus explained that it acted in a struggle contrasting three characters each symbolizing a different dominant class. A sort of role playing game between the “severe father (De Gaulle), the naughty child (Cohn-Bendit), the liberal debonair (Pompidou).”

For Clouscard, the student’s Mai 68 was “the cunning alliance of the liberal and the libertarian to liquidate the old order, which had to go.” Actually, if the president of the Republic of the epoch represented the traditional bourgeoisie, whose values served as a rampart against wild capitalism – without actually representing an anti-capitalist alternative – the same can’t be said for the two other contestants. The old Prime Minister, the ex-general directory of the Rothschild business bank, prefigures neoliberalism, that is to say inhumane capitalism that subjugates men by submitting them to the compulsive desire to consume. But this turn from traditional capitalism to liberal capitalism was curbed by the conservatism of Gaullism, which it had to destroy at any price. That’s when “Dany the red” intervenes, the (liberal) libertarian. The total liberalization of morals that he advocated permitted the emancipation of the French from their old values – certainly some were stifling – in order to make them submit to the ideology of mass consumption. This libertarianism – which has nothing much to do with authentic libertarianism – defends a liberalization of class consciousness to the profit of satisfying cravings. The seduction of capitalism could then attain its apogee and the consumerist illusion would seem unsurpassable. Mai 68 then announced splitting the cake between the three powers of the following consensus: social-democratic, liberal, and libertarian. To the first, they left administrative management, to the second economic management, and finally to the last those mores necessary for the advent of a market of desires. The consequence was the unprecedented subjugation in a society where everything seems permitted, but in reality nothing is possible.

“ ‘Libertarian’ social-democratic enjoyment has productivism, inflation, unemployment, etc, as a condition.”

Neo-Capitalism: Between Seduction, Desire, … and Repression!

The rest of Clouscard’s work is principally devoted to the analysis of the mutation of the consumer society put in place after Mai 68– sometimes resembling that of another ex-doctoral student of Henri Lefebvre, Jean Baudrillard. It notably represented by his major work, “ Le capitalisme de la séduction − Critique de la social-démocratie” (published in 1981, at the start of the Mitterrand era), as well as “De la modernité : Rousseau ou Sartre” (published in 1983, reissued in 2005 under the title “Critique du libéralisme libertaire, généalogie de la contre-révolution”) and in “Les Métamorphoses de la lutte des classes” (1996). According to the Marxist, “Capitalism turned left on the political-cultural level and turned right on the economic-social level.”

This combination permitted the creation of a “libertarian social-democracy”, that he also called “libertarian liberalism.” It’s a system of constant revolution: the old Marxist description of capitalism as perpetual movement which detests stability never was more relevant. The “new middle classes” played a fundamental role in this new mode of organizing production. Although it possessed neither capital nor the means of production, this part of the wage earning class was charged with the direction (on the cultural side) and the management (on the economic side) of libertarian liberalism.

While until now repression had permitted capitalism to put itself in place, it’s by seduction and the development of a new market of desire that capitalism really took off. Publicity and fashion became essential. The individual was taught to consume from a very young age and keep consuming in childhood, then again as an adult. A new falsely subversive mass culture – Clouscard spoke of “subsidized subversion” – was then created. It notably took form in rock – “the music of subversion and revolt” – which succeeded jazz, along with jeans, pinball, long hair, as well as drugs. According to him, this latter represents “the fuel of consumer society, even though its ideological image pretends otherwise.” In this context, sexual liberation rapidly mutated into “sexual liberalization” integrated into capitalism, which transformed women from womb to sex organ.

This apparent homogenization of everyone in society into consumers masks a still lively class struggle. The integration by consumption is actually accompanied by a differentiation in ways of life. Clouscard explains thus that “this egalitarianism of difference authorizes another system of hierarchies. While it pretends to surpass class hierarchies, it reinforces them by mundane hierarchies. At every moment, a sign means a barrier and a level. A cascade of differences, a cascade of contempt, a cascade of snobbery.” He also notes that this system is “permissive regarding the consumer and repressive regarding the producer,” which means that consumption is done for the benefit of the socially favored and to the detriment of the proletarian workers. The latter are actually kept in a state of constant desire, without being able to join into this mass consumption that society makes them dream about. The formula “everything is permitted, but nothing is possible” makes sense. But according to him, this “capitalism of seduction” is only transitory and for that reason he prophesied, since 1981, that: “crisis will reveal the deep nature of this system: austerity (the economic repression of the workers, essentially the working class) as a corollary, not only to maintain it, but to expand ‘libertarian’ social-democratic consumption. It’s during the full period of crisis that the ideology of computerization in the service of pleasantry is born. In the measure that austerity worsens, the revenues of the tourism, pleasure, leisure industries increase. They seem to be inversely correlated. ‘Libertarian’ social-democratic enjoyment has productivism, inflation, unemployment, etc, as a condition.”

“The state was the superstructural instance of capitalist repression. That’s why Marx denounces it. But today, with globalization, it’s totally the opposite. While the nation state could be the means of oppression of one class by another, it became the means to resist globalization. It’s a dialectical game.”

To Fight Against Capitalism and Resolve the Class Struggle

Yet Clouscard knew to surpass simple analysis in order to propose solutions as well. Astonishingly, for a Marxist, the defense of the nation state was part of his fight, without ever turning into mundane nationalism. On the subject, he places himself more on the side of Rousseau and Hegel than Marx. Like the first, he thought the state was the only legitimate organ to maintain the liberty and equality of the citizens. Like the second, he thought that the nation state is a historical construction “difficult to surpass”, without being “the end of history.” Ultimately, he thought that capitalism could only be subdued by the citizen’s social contract, which links all components of the economy. Since the Revolution of 1789, large advances have only been obtained by the nation state. So overcoming it today is not desirable. Liberal capitalism only expresses itself, in its modern form, through globalization and the European Union which destroys all room to economically maneuver. He thus explains in an interview to the Communist daily l’Humanité: “The state was the superstructural instance of capitalist repression. That’s why Marx denounces it. But today, with globalization, it’s totally the opposite. While the nation state could be the means of oppression of one class by another, it became the means to resist globalization. It’s a dialectical game.” That’s why Clouscard, understanding the danger of the single currency, engaged with the PCF against the treaty of Maastricht and for the defense of national sovereignty, the only defense of popular sovereignty.

The sociologist nevertheless desired a radical reform of the socialist state and advances some ideas in “Les Métamorphoses de la lutte des classes” and above all in “Refondation progressiste.” While capitalism organizes the deregulation of morality, Marxism contemplates socialist morality, that would not be repressive but engender responsibility. In order to counter libertarian liberalism and its permissiveness, Clouscard defends an ethic embodied in the moral production of the conditions of existence, christened the ethic of praxis. This, far from being a new moralism, bases itself on equilibrium between production and consumption, in order to make the relation between producers and consumers equitable.

To conclude, in order to resolve the contradictions posed by the class conflict, he proposes the creation of a “chamber of representatives of the working world” where the big options for society would be debated. This “parliament of the working collective” would have the goal of allowing for the democratic self management of the workers as a whole.

An intellectual far in advance of his time, Michel Clouscard was yet marginalized within his own camp, who preferred his rival Louis Althusser to him. To the point of leaving his legacy to be monopolized by the nationalist socialist Alain Soral, who he nevertheless insisted on disavowing him in his columns in l’Humanité before his death, notably explaining that he “had never designated him as the heir” and adding “to thus associate our names in an ordinary manner is akin to the misappropriation of funds.” If Clouscard, who ignored completely (even scorned) ecological problems or the so-called “minority” causes (feminism, anti-racism, etc), is not exempt from criticism, his teachings remain essential. He was actually the first to understand what – two decades after him – Luc Boltanski et Ève Chiapello would name “the new spirit of capitalism.” Perceiving in the rise of libertarian liberalism the advent of an educated and urbane middle class dominated by its desire and libido, the philosopher prefigures the literature of Houellebecq. So we we will remember above all that he understood how the liberalization of mores advocated by the petty bourgeoisie, without ignoring capitalism, joined the false freedom of consumption defended by the grand bourgeoisie.

13 views0 comments


bottom of page