Jean-Claude Michéa’s Populism or “with the Left against the Left”



Independent Researcher


Abstract: This article discusses Jean-Claude Michéa’s populism, centered on the triad: liberalism versus socialism, progress versus tradition, and intellectuals versus people. Michéa maintains that, in order to grasp the dynamics of the modern world, in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, we need to understand first of all two things. The first is that liberalism is the ideology that continually erodes tradition. The second is that ever since economy has been disembedded from the network of social relations, it has become an end in itself. Thus, capitalism, the economic form of liberalism, represents now an all-embracing ideology that governs social relations. According to Michéa, the only way out of capitalist regimentation is offered by the political thought of some of the early nineteenth-century socialists and by the political philosophy inspired by it and developed by thinkers like George Orwell or Charles Péguy. Michéa’s political thought rests on Orwell’s concept of “common decency”, which institutes the exchange of friendship and generosity. Michéa argues that “common decency” is rooted in “ordinary people”, and that any attempt of the Left to fight capitalism can be successful in so far as it returns to the people. Its refusal to do so can encourage society to turn towards far-right parties.

Keywords: liberalism, early nineteenth-century socialism, “common decency”,






Jean-Claude Michéa is a philosopher influenced by the different traditions of socialism grounded in the people, from Pierre Leroux, the early nineteenth-century utopian socialist who claimed to have invented the term “socialism”, to Charles Péguy, and from George Orwell to the American Christopher Lasch – but the author to whom Michéa’s thought is indebted the most is Orwell. Michéa attempts to rediscover the political philosophy of early nineteenth-century socialist thinkers, a political philosophy born out of the pressing needs of ordinary people, especially of labourers, whom the “modern world” (to use Péguy’s expression), starting with the Industrial Revolution, has deracinated. Michéa would accept Péguy’s definition of the “modern world”[1] as that thing the essence of which is to be against whatever is ancient and, in general, against whatever is different from itself. The “modern world” for Péguy does not have an alternative project of its own; it only gnaws its adversary – that could be called by the general name of “tradition” – while, at the same time, lives on it, in the sense that the “modern world” has no values of its own, and it is tradition, instead, that furnishes the essential values that make the very existence of society possible. Thus, the “modern world”, according to Péguy, instinctively does not want the death of tradition; instead, it needs its adversary barely alive to offer the primary conditions necessary for the existence of society. In other words, the “modern world”, defining itself only in relation to tradition, needs to be able to continually criticize the latter, in order to justify its existence, although tradition could no longer represent a real danger for the “modern world”. Once tradition will be completely ruined, follows Péguy’s argument, the “modern world” will succumb as well. According to Michéa, the ideology that, from the start, has defined itself in opposition to any tradition and that continually erodes tradition is liberalism, with its triple form: economic, political, and cultural. In Michéa’s opinion, the rediscovery of the political philosophy of the first socialist thinkers is highly important because it represents the only way out of the all-embracing capitalism.[2]

Michéa’s political thought is concentrated on the triad: liberalism versus socialism; progress versus tradition; and intellectuals versus people. According to the French author, the electoral landscape in Western countries is dominated by the alternation to power between the liberal Right and the liberal Left that, while separated by minor differences, accede both to the requests of international capitalist institutions to implement neoliberal economic programs.[3] Michéa shows that the economic version of contemporary liberalism (which defines itself as the “Right”) and its cultural and political version (which is championed by the contemporary Left) have common origins: the desire for peace and scientific progress, put at the service of one single purpose, i.e. that of individual accomplishment and happiness. The contemporary Right and Left, according to Michéa, are, in fact, the consequences of the principles of classic liberalism. Michéa propounds the definition of “liberalism” as the force that has become active in Western history once the Old Regime, the last bulwark – good or bad – of tradition, was destroyed. He starts from Karl Polanyi’s thesis according to which, if until the Industrial Revolution, economy was embedded in society, which had an ultimate end, in the aftermath of this phenomenon, economy has been disembedded from the network of social relations. Economy has become, thus, an end in itself or what Aristotle calls chrematistics, that is, economy that sets as a purpose wealth for the sake of wealth. In this sense, Michéa defines liberalism, like Leo Strauss and John Milbank, as the modern ideology par excellence that, deriving its legitimacy from the abstract, autonomous, a-social, and a-political individual, does not continue the tradition of classical and Christian political philosophy, unchaining, thus, the unlimited desire for power. Therefore, in his opinion, any association between liberalism and the republican ideal (that emphasizes ancient virtues), or that between liberalism and conservatism (that presupposes a holist conception of society incompatible with liberal individualism) is absurd. Although one could contend that there are different types of liberalism – Alexis de Tocqueville and Ludwig von Mises, for example –, Michéa maintains that liberalism could not be accommodated – at least not on the long run – to tradition. Contemporary liberalism (in its economic and cultural-political forms) is, in his view, the coherent liberalism, the logical and historical evolution of classic liberalism, an issue that, nevertheless, remains open to debate.




According to Michéa, liberalism postulates that, if the claim of some individuals or entities to hold the truth about the Good engenders the violent clash between people, it means, then, that the latter cannot live together peacefully unless governed by a Power neutral from a philosophical point of view. Carl Schmitt noticed the same thing before Michéa, and affirmed the fact that it is in the nature of liberalism to neutralize all conflicts by devaluing all values and changing them into market values, setting up an actual “polytheism of values”,[4] as Max Weber calls it. There emerges, thus, the “state devoid of ideas and values” that, according to Saint-Simon’s famous expression, replaces the “governing of people” with “the administration of things”.[5] Here lies the origin of the important role assigned to specialists and managers by our society.

Following in the footsteps of Orwell, Michéa maintains that all societies throughout history have been grounded in the unwritten law of “things that should not be done”. This unwritten law, to which traditional societies, as well as ordinary people from any type of society in general, would cling instinctively, engenders the moral sense or the common sense which, in ordinary people, is inherently linked to their spontaneous contact with reality, and, thus, secures the social network of solidarity. This is what Orwell calls “common decency”. The liberal society makes no exception in what concerns the acknowledgment of the fact that there are “things that should not be done” because no society can function in the absence of this. But it has limited extensively these things, so that in the end we arrive at either the neo-liberal-conservative stance, according to which a person cannot exercise her freedom only if she injures directly someone else’s economic freedom, or the liberal leftist stance, according to which tolerance cannot be infringed. The liberal Left, unlike the neo-liberal-conservative Right, maintains that the economic freedom of the individual can be legitimately limited so that other individuals could enjoy the freedom to do whatever they want from a cultural point of view. According to this perspective, what cannot be limited is the sexual-cultural freedom. Michéa argues that the essence of liberalism consists in removing as many obstacles as possible in the way of individual freedom. This worldview, Michéa believes, is shared by the liberal Left and the neo-liberal-conservative Right, the difference between them being that the liberal Left applies this tenet to the cultural sphere, while the neo-liberal-conservative Right applies it to the economic sphere. In Michéa’s opinion, not only that both perspectives are incoherent, but they support one another: the liberal Left provides the cultural foundation to economic liberalism, while the latter is perfectly consubstantial with cultural liberalism. In either case, there is no common good acknowledged above the individual will because, as David B. Hart puts it, “we have made a decision as a society that unfettered personal volition is (almost) always to be prized, in principle, above the object towards which volition is directed”.[6] Eventually, individual wills, as well as individual rights, enter into conflict. Therefore, the liberal state derives its legitimacy only from its role of arbitrator in the Brownian motion of competing atom-individuals, protecting an individual from the direct injury of another or making sure that, in principle, no individual, irrespective of what her/his claims are, is subject to intolerance – although tolerance is intolerant of the intolerant, therefore not all citizens can equally enjoy tolerance. But, Michéa asks himself, how does the liberal state distinguish between direct and indirect injury? Or, for instance, on what criteria does the liberal state decide that the mockery or the criticism of a religion does not injure the freedom of believers? Or what guarantees does the liberal state have that people will make rational (that is, “good”) choices and society will not be transformed into a society of “devils”? After all, does the Kantian idea, that good institutions can make functional even a society of devils, not contain the ultimate essence of liberalism?

Both the contemporary liberal Right and Left, according to Michéa, profess their devotion to a specific and limited understanding of freedom: “the power the human person has to act without being, essentially, determined by external factors”.[7] To this has been added the Sartrian metaphysical conception of freedom, according to which one could become oneself and, hence, authentically free, once one realized (s)he owed nothing to anyone and began a painful process of deracination from “the family, the social or the geographical background, supposed, by definition, to be hostile and alienating”.[8] The liberal Left has taken this metaphysical tenet and transformed it into a political one, or rather into a political demand stating that authentic political freedom means that the individual should be offered the right and the possibility to become her/his “own guinea pig”, as William Connolly puts it. This, Michéa argues, means that the Left has betrayed its initial mission of working for the benefit of “la classe la plus nombreuse et la plus pauvre”, as the early nineteenth-century French socialists would say, and has, instead, smoothed the path for capitalism to an extent that the latter had not even dreamed of. Thus, according to Michéa, the tragic process of deracination and of “Exilement” of the individual, initiated forcefully by the Capital, has become the joyful symbol of the “human condition, or rather its Redemption”, “the solved puzzle of human freedom and the accomplished end of History”.[9] What could better serve the “global unified Market” than the individual who willfully makes a tabula rasa of her/his background and is an enthusiast of global mobility? According to Michéa, even if the liberal Left were full of good intentions and wanted to stand against capitalism, it could not accomplish its purpose because it rests on a flawed understanding of freedom.

Early nineteenth-century socialist thinkers criticized particularly the process of deracination initiated by the Capital and apprehended the importance of the definition of freedom. Leroux, one of the authors who informed Michéa’s thought, argues that freedom should be defined in relation to the notions of fraternity and equality, and that otherwise, separated from the other two notions, freedom becomes identical with the right of the strongest. Leroux propounds the following definitions of freedom, fraternity, and equality, which are implicit in Michéa’s thought. Man’s strongest desire, according to Leroux, is to make his presence felt in the world and to act upon the things in his possession. This is freedom, which Leroux also calls sensation, in as much as it is purely subjective. Others, then, feel an individual’s presence/action in the world and are affected by it to different degrees. This means that the human being is not only active, but also sentient, that (s)he not only influences others directly or indirectly through her/his actions, but is herself/himself influenced directly or indirectly by others. Consequently, an individual feels the need that others would acknowledge sentiments born in her/him as a result of their actions. The awareness of these sentiments, which is the consequence of the mutual impact of our actions, represents the grounds for fraternity. The latter is, thus, a way of living, grounded in solidarity and in the Evangelical postulate, “just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise” (Luke: 6-31). The encounter between my sensation and the other’s sentiments, or the relation between freedom and fraternity, engenders reflection. And this is the meaning of equality: although people do not possess the same depth of thought, they all reflect on the surrounding reality; in other words, their experience as subjects within the human community engenders their reflection on justice and injustice, on suffering, life, and death.

As in the case of Leroux, Michéa notes, freedom, in Orwell’s socialist thought, is inseparable from common decency or from that instinctive popular civility contained within “a code of conduct which is understood by almost everyone, though never formulated”.[10] This code represents, in Orwell’s vision, the primary background against which is informed people’s respect for nature, for others, and, in general, “our intuitive sense of what is due to each person”.[11] Like Orwell later, Leroux, who, as Michéa rightly notes, propounded the notion of socialism as a response to that of individualism, saw in the liberal conception of freedom the danger of disbanding the idea of community-life itself. The liberal who denounces all popular traditions and all forms of belonging as oppressive arrives at the affirmation that “le monde est ma tribu” – but, in the absence of any form of belonging, what remains from “le monde” is the global market[12] that shows, in fact, a complete indifference for any individual drama. The liberal ideology that smoothes the path for the global market and that derives its legitimacy from its criticism of both “oppressive” traditions and utopias becomes, then, the most pervert form of utopia that claims to be adored as the “realm of lesser evil”. Thus, the most important meaning of the liberal state’s claim to guarantee the peaceful coexistence of individuals, says Michéa, consists in the fact that the individual Right replaces the Good and the self-regulated Market dictates the social content. The fact that the liberal state claims to be neutral means that the market assumes the active role to educate individuals, through its huge advertising industry.

During early nineteenth-century there existed, in Western Europe in general and in France in particular, a vivid debate between the conception of a society of rights, which liberals attempted to present as the just society, and the conception of a decent society, which was fashioned within the context in which masses of labourers (former disinherited peasants) had been moved into towns artificially constructed around factories – a phenomenon continued later and implemented much more violently by communism. This is the background against which are formulated the first socialist criticisms of liberalism and of the society fashioned by this ideology that, according to Michéa, “was encouraging, in fact, indecent behaviors evidently opposed to human dignity”.[13] Michéa emphasizes that early nineteenth-century socialist thinkers warned everyone against the fact that in a society that demands from its members only “the respect of their mutual indifference”, while “the members of society do not share a minimal common sense, the postulate vivre et laisser vivre changes, in fact, into vivre et laisser mourir”.[14]


Early nineteenth-century socialist thinkers view tradition and progress in dialectical terms. As for them, modernity represents, for Orwell and Michéa, a tension: they refuse, on the one hand, the hierarchy characteristic to the Old Regime, and want, on the other hand, to join the tenets of freedom and equality, put into practice by modernity, with the holist principle that characterized traditional societies. From this specific point of view, Orwell and Michéa are, like early nineteenth-century socialists, anti-progressivists and claim to remain anchored in the Christian European tradition, steadfast in their belief that it accounts for the fundamental feature of humanity, that is, common decency that, according to Orwell, is deeply rooted in “ordinary people”. In Orwell’s view, unlike the grandi, as Machiavelli names them, and the progressivist intellectuals who surround them, “ordinary people” are instinctively attracted by the virtues of righteousness, steadfastness, and truth, a natural attraction quenched by the social engineering put into practice in the name of abstract ideas, as Orwell shows in 1984, or perverted by the mechanisms of the self-regulated market.

In what concerns early nineteenth-century socialist thinkers, it can be argued that, specifically because of their steadfast resolve to defend common decency, they were also able to champion an idea of progress contained within the limitations of human life. Early nineteenth-century socialist thinkers spontaneously criticized a society that conjoined conspicuous forms of injustice with deadened and hypocrite moral norms, Michéa argues, and championed an idea of progress rooted in the Enlightenment. Their hope was that, materially, the technological progress would furnish all members of society with decent living conditions[15], and that, spiritually, all members of society would become able, through education, to actively acknowledge one another as free and equal human beings.[16] Early nineteenth-century socialist thinkers like Leroux were aware of the distinction between tradition and convention. In his Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy, Hans-Georg Gadamer explains clearly that, while tradition is employed in the justification of, or in support of, our moral decisions, convention is employed in self-justification. “Conventional morality”, then, serves “unequal individuals whose sense of solidarity and community with each other has vanished. What is convened here is what is convenient for the most powerful”.[17] For early nineteenth-century socialist thinkers, the fundamental question was the same as the “human question” identified by Gadamer in Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy: “what is the good for us” or “the good in human life”,[18] in other words, not an abstract question but a practical one. They found part of the answer in classical and Christian traditions, that is, in the holist conception of individual and of society, on the one hand, and in the Evangelical postulate of doing to others what you want others to do to you, on the other hand. Tradition informs in individuals, from generation to generation, that primitive attachment to community-life and to the primary conditions that keep the former alive, that is, the logic of the gift and the sense of belonging. According to early nineteenth-century socialist thinkers like Leroux, the hierarchical system (where one is kept in a permanent position of receiving the pity of the one who is in the permanent position of giving from his abundance) and the spirit of conquest (developed in the name of the sense of belonging to a culture considered superior to other cultures) represent conventions used in support of power, which parasitize tradition. Progress, for them, represents the active force that purges tradition of its parasites and brings into actuality its potential. In this sense, they argued that stupid and profitable (for some) conventions, such as accepting huge differences in status and fortune as natural, marrying someone against her/his will, or teaching some that their only vocation in life was to be burden-beasts, should be thrown away – for no one, unless pathological, enjoys being in that situation –, while tradition, with its rich social content, should be preserved. One can legitimately argue that it is at least naïve to believe that hierarchical relations and the rich social content of traditional societies are not interwoven, but it is equally legitimate to argue, like Orwell and Michéa, that hoping for the discovery of a new “community-content” in the aftermath of the destruction of the traditional one is a mere abstraction that has nothing in common with human life.

The Enlightenment philosophy contains in itself a double conception of progress. Beside the one already mentioned, according to which progress should serve human life, there is also the one according to which progress should reinvent human life, to replace what is organic, in as much as it is inherited from tradition, with an artificial new creation. This latter conception originates, on the one hand, in the endeavor, begun by Thomas Hobbes, to fashion a “social physics”, that is, to organize society on the grounds of “scientific and impartial” rules, without drawing on citizens’ virtues – thus, without any need to resort to traditional ancient and Christian sources. On the other hand, it also has its origins in the traumatic experience of sixteenth- and seventeenth-, century religious wars, which has engendered the unquenchable desire for peace[19], a peace which has been considered as dependent on the liquidation of the religious tradition that has led to the religious wars. Liberal philosophy, thus, is rooted, according to Michéa, in this notion of progress that has been later adopted also by the Left. Citing Christopher Lasch, Michéa shows that this notion of progress is closely related to the prosaic desire that each individual could take care of her/his own business in order to better her/his own condition.[20] In this context, argues Michéa, the only acceptable war is the war against nature, meaning that the human being does no longer relate to nature through the philosophical and the theological virtue of being astonished, but by taking it into possession with the help of science and technology. As argued by Michéa, already in the second half of the nineteenth century and in early twentieth century, (a part of) the Left has taken over this “metaphysics of Progress”, “the hard kernel of all bourgeois worldviews”, which has led to the progressive dissolution of the “original peculiarity of […] popular socialism in what will further on be called le ‘camp du Progrès’ [21], that is, the party of intelligentsia.

According to Michéa, the belief that big industry represents the only grounds for the organization of production, “capable of satisfying the requirements of the” future “communist society”, has raised a fundamental problem that marked the rupture between the Left and “ordinary people” – early nineteenth-century socialist thinkers criticized particularly the industrialization brought about by capitalism. First and foremost, according to Michéa, it was clear for Marx and Engels that there was no place at all for “either the artisanship, or the small enterprise, or the peasant agriculture […] in this abundance society that had to correspond inevitably to the communist mode of production”.[22] This, Michéa continues, could not but encourage in Marx’s disciples a negative valuation of these traditional classes.[23] The fundamental question, for Marxist intellectuals, then, is no longer “what the good in human life is”, but, says Michéa, what the Sense of History is, and who does and who does not fit in it. These traditional classes would fit in to the extent to which they would be subject to Progress and be transformed into proletariat. Otherwise said, these traditional classes do not fit in. It is in this suspicion with which the Left regards these traditional classes or “ordinary people” – characterized by whatever is “small” and “archaic” – that lies the profound and legitimate suspicion, according to Michéa, with which “ordinary people” regard the Left, as well as their consequent turn towards the conservative Right of the time (end of nineteenth century, beginning of twentieth century) and, starting with the 1929 crisis, towards fascism.[24] There might seem to be something ambiguous or incoherent here, in Michéa’s argument. Marx distinguished between traditional classes and the proletariat. While the latter were “reactionary” and attached to traditional, outmoded values, the proletariat, according to Marx, had no attachment to the values of the traditional classes, and in this sense it was a “revolutionary” force. There is raised the question, then: does not Michéa include the proletariat among “ordinary people”? But Michéa presupposes that Marx’s proletariat, just like the anti-conservative class, does not exist, in fact. What actually exists is the disinherited, traumatized peasant, changed into proletarian, who has, nonetheless, kept the values of “common decency”, characteristic to traditional classes. Michéa’s argument, then, is that the proletariat, despite urban changes, has remained a traditional category that – it is true – has been subject to change, but that, most importantly, has much more in common, in what concerns its values and ideas, with the (traditional) peasantry than with Marxist intellectuals.

Moreover, Michéa believes, in Marx’s time it could make sense to argue that “the capitalist mode of production contributed indirectly to the collective wealth” that would serve as a basis for the communist society to come.[25] Although, unlike traditional modes of production, capitalist economy never had as a purpose the production of goods that simply responded to real human needs, its historical development, during Marx’s time, still forced it to produce such goods. In this context trade-unionism itself made sense, writes Michéa. Protesting against the closing of their factory that produced goods that satisfied real human needs of society, labourers knew that they were protecting not only their interest, but also that of society.[26] Michéa argues that, once capitalism has been released from moral and religious limitations, and the market has become “free to produce, sell and buy anything that may be produced or sold at all”, as Hayek puts it, endlessly stimulating, thus, imaginary desires, it has been more and more difficult to see where the emancipative potential of capitalism, preparing the path for the communist society, could be. Michéa asks himself what kind of emancipated society could be the one born out of a world “devastated by concrete, large-scale industrial agriculture, radioactive wastes, omnipresence of cars and airplanes, or the never-ending multiplication of sophisticated and alienating gadgets”.[27] Particularly under fire here is Antonio Negri. Marx noted that capitalism destroyed, with always greater intensity, social relations and nature, but, at the same time, developed the productive forces and increased productivity, preparing, thus, the material grounds for communism. Therefore, Marx would not have argued that we should go hand in hand with capitalism up to the end, because there was a moment when capitalism would reach the climax of its development, and, from then on, could no longer be a factor of progress because productivity would begin to decrease. Negri maintains that capitalism dismantles, as well, the institutions of the old, reactionary world, one of the most important being the nation-state, emancipating, thus, individualities and turning them towards “mobility” and “flexibility”.[28] Once capitalism will have destroyed these bulwarks, it will destroy itself and will make place to communism. Capitalism reaches, then, the point where it inhibits productive forces and, at the same time, is no longer grounded in an ideology (that is, does no longer present itself as a domination exercised for the benefit of its subjects), but becomes sheer force. Thus, capitalism might have already reached its climax from the economic point of view, and might, as well, have already dismantled the nation-state. But, according to Negri, the main force that withstands communism now is represented by those identities informed by the nation-state and by the institutions of the old world, that is, the reactionary forces, or what Gilles Deleuze calls “microfascisms”, which are gradually eroded, but not yet destroyed, by capitalism, and which attempt to defend the reactionary nation-state and are, thus, caught in a nostalgic utopia, slowing the evolutionary process of history.[29] This is, in fact, the reason why the Left associates itself with liberalism and defines itself as multicultural and anti-classic in what concerns culture: it fights against the identities that withstand the “multitude” and slow the historical process.

The idea of Progress represents, in fact, the triumph of Reason, the historically victorious answer to the question: on what purely immanent grounds could society be founded? Reason (or Method, in Cartesian philosophy) represents this foundation. This idea has been inherited from the Enlightenment philosophy and has been initially put into practice by capitalism, according to Michéa – the victims of the Industrial Revolution, as they appear in Dickens’ novels, for instance, having been sacrificed in the name of Progress.

From a scientific or technological point of view, Galileo is superior to the ancients, Einstein to Galileo etc., in general the moderns are necessarily superior to the ancients. This scientific idea of Progress has been introduced by the liberal Left in the educational process too. Thus, because Progress is, evidently, in the future, truth also is in the future, while the latter is represented by children. In this sense, the purpose of education is no longer that of transmitting knowledge from older to younger generations. Education presupposes, instead, that adults should be reeducated by children. Following in the footsteps of the Enlightenment philosophy, the liberal Left associates the idea of progress with that of individual emancipation from any type of authority, because, according to the liberal Left, any type of authority fashions authoritarian personalities, on the one hand, and offends human dignity, on the other hand. According to Michéa, this unbridled devotion to the idea of progress means that our society “turns away from the sinister past of the humanity that existed before us” and simultaneously works at the “deconstruction” of all previous ways of living.[30] Michéa agrees with Lasch’s affirmation that the “deconstruction” of all types of traditional authority (family, school, society, and church) does not mean complete freedom, but, on the contrary, greater authority because “in the absence of adults we run to experts”, allowing them “to define our needs for us and then” wondering “why those needs never seem to be satisfied”.[31] At the same time, the market appears as “the only instance of ‘socialization’ compatible with individual freedom in so far as it does not ask of the individuals whom it brings together any particular moral or emotional commitment, neither, a fortiori, any counter-gift”.[32]



Since Reason or Method represents the only legitimate foundation of society, it follows, then, according to Michéa, that there is a method or a rational solution for any human problem. Michéa argues that, in this context, the intellectual elites that run such methodological programs resemble more and more with one another – be they from New York or Tokyo (an idea borrowed from Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites) – and less and less with their own people, forced to undergo their social engineering. Consequently, the school can by no means continue to be the institution that transmits knowledge, or at least that attempts to educate good citizens for the republic. Instead, it prepares the labour force for the supreme authority, the Market. And this labour force, according to Michéa, represents the grounds of classic liberalism, i.e., the abstract, autonomous, a-social, and a-political individuals, whom the Left prepares for the Market by emancipating them from any traditional authority and, thus, transforming them into individuals unable to distinguish between good and evil or between Mozart and Lady Gaga. After all, who has the authority to decide what good and evil are, or what intellectual and artistic values are? The individual right to live exclusively by one’s own standards, argues Michéa, makes sense only in the absence of a minimal consensus on the good life, and, therefore, from this point of view, there is absolutely no reason why anyone should conclude that solidarity is morally superior to egoism.[33]

Michéa maintains that Orwell identified two historical origins of socialism. One is represented by the people, more specifically by its instinctive ethical attachment to generosity and solidarity, and its hatred of privileges. The other is represented by the intelligentsia, more specifically by its rigid conceptual frameworks, independent of “elementary moral imperatives” that intellectuals despise as products of mystification.[34] If “ordinary people” rebel against an existing social order on the grounds of the fact that they, as well as those around them, undergo injustice, exploitation, and domination, intellectuals rebel against an existing social order in the name of scientific knowledge (or rather a dogmatic belief?) concerning the Sense of History. In his analysis of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, Gadamer argues that, when scientific expertise outstrips its own sphere of action and replaces moral judgment, it changes into an immoral art of pursuing self-interest or will-to-power – the most subtle form of self-interest, as we know from Dostoevsky. Orwell shares this perspective, believing that the essential divide within socialism is that between those who struggle for justice and those who struggle for power.

The intellectual alienated from the people and from its moral sense, argues Michéa in his analysis of Orwell’s 1984, is a person caught between the awareness of her/his own value and the indifference with which capitalism tramples down any value, experiencing, thus, the drama of the fact that society does not offer her/him the status (s)he deserves. At the same time, (s)he despises the “stupid” masses in whose morality (s)he sees a reactionary force that capitalism uses, in fact, in support of its own domination – the leftist intellectual believes that, unlike communism, capitalism does not openly declare that “old generations are always wrong”, but, on the contrary, relies on conventional hierarchical structures that, in his view, are essential for its survival and also inherently linked to tradition.[35] It is, then, not justice the intellectual craves for, but recognition. This indifference of society against which stumbles the “desire of recognition of the humiliated conscience” engenders resentment.[36] The latter, in turn, is the backbone of the will-to-power, as Dostoevsky argued before Orwell, because, Michéa states, “power fascinates, in general, only those who discover in it a radical way of taking revenge for endured humiliations”.[37] There are, then, rebellions with a legitimate cause that are, nevertheless, doomed to failure because of illegitimate means and purposes. The fundamental question, according to Orwell, in what concerns rebellions, is what one is willing to sacrifice, and for what. Winston Smith, from 1984, is willing to sacrifice others and even to trample down innocence for the mysterious cause of a mysterious organization that has nothing in common with the proletariat – he would be prepared “to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face […] if, for example, it would somehow serve” the interests of the supposedly dissident organization.[38] His failure, as Michéa argues, comes from the fact that he is prepared to do “things that should not be done”, Winston Smith being not a representative of the people – and not sharing, thus, their moral sense – but of “the inferior strata of the elite”.[39]

Despising the moral sense of the people, the intelligentsia looses contact with material reality and, thus, succumbs to abstraction. It is the strong sense of limitation that keeps “ordinary” people, instead, anchored in material reality. This sense of limitation originates in the moral sense or in the “common decency”, that primitive background characteristic to traditional societies, which revolves around the prohibition or “things that should not be done”.[40] At the same time, “common decency” presupposes the triad: to give, to receive, and to offer a counter-gift, whose meaning has become full when the modern idea of freedom – actually inherited from Christianity – has been added to it. As Michéa writes, the logic of the gift rests on the intuition that the counter-gift is not taken for granted, but is rather the manifestation of the other’s free will to return the gift. This exchange, accompanied by the freedom of exchange, institutes the exchange of friendship and generosity.[41] The unconscious anchorage of “ordinary people” in this primitive background is inseparable from “ordinary people” ’s relation to tradition, or from their essentially conservative attachment to places and human beings.[42] Their attachment to ancestors engenders the feeling that they have the moral responsibility before older generations to pass on to younger generations what they have been offered, a feeling diametrically opposed to that, presented above, of progressivist intellectuals. This feeling of “ordinary people” informs the desire to preserve the “primary conditions for all authentically human and common life”.[43] The “sense of limitation and the symbolic debts”, combined with freedom, represent, according to Michéa, the true and only way out of the world of sterile human relations regulated by the notion of individual right and by the market.

Michéa’s thesis is that socialism, that is, the ideal of a “free, equal and decent society”[44], can be accomplished only on the grounds of this primitive background because it depends on what people have in common, a common language, a common idea of the good life etc. And we do not understand anything from this thesis if we do not understand Michéa’s vision of human nature. On the one hand, he refutes the conception according to which human nature is fundamentally good and all evil originates in civilization. The conclusion that follows from here is that civilization should be destroyed so that “le bon sauvage” would be emancipated from any authority. According to Michéa, this approach ruins, in fact, the very idea of common, and implicitly human, life – it is hardly conceivable that a society that brings together atoms that share nothing in common except for the fact that they are human can be a “free, equal, and decent society”. On the other hand, Michéa refutes the conception according to which human nature is fundamentally bad and destructive, and the world can be preserved only through hierarchy. The conclusion that follows from here is that progress should be continually undermined. According to Michéa, this approach is meant to justify positions of power and ruins, too, common life. Instead, Michéa believes that human nature is potentially good, just as it is potentially bad. Humanity struggles for unity and harmony while, at the same time, is threatened with disunity and lack of harmony by its own passions. It has produced different forms of domination, from Oriental despotism to capitalism, while, at the same time, has struggled throughout history to realize an authentic community. Therefore, the primitive background of humanity, good in itself, can be used both in a good and in a bad sense.

At the core of the socialism embraced by Michéa, as by Leroux, Péguy, or Orwell, lies the belief that all people are capable of reflecting on justice, life, suffering, and are potentially capable of simultaneously pursuing the ideals of freedom, equality, and solidarity. In the socio-political sphere, everyone is entitled to an opinion, especially on the most important question, “the good in human life”. As Gadamer puts it, “in the question of the good, there is no body of knowledge at one’s disposal. Nor can one person defer to the authority of another. One has to ask oneself, and in so doing, one necessarily finds oneself in discussion either with oneself or with others”.[45] But so that such a discussion could be possible, people need to have first of all a common language, as Michéa maintains, a common language that could be “understood and accepted” by public servants, people working in private sectors, freelances, immigrants, in short, all kinds of people.[46] Michéa’s socialist project rests, thus, on the dialectic of heteronomy and autonomy. Under Orwell’s influence, Michéa affirms that people are born in a society that offers them the tradition of common sense, but, at the same time, society cannot exist in the absence of people’s critical reflection on it and on themselves. Society, thus, permanently reflects critically upon itself – and here lies the anarchic dimension of Michéa’s and Orwell’s socialism – but its reflection always rests on tradition, the fountain of “common decency” – and here lies the conservative dimension of their socialism.[47] In this sense, it is clear that Michéa, like Orwell, does not defend the past as a value and an end in itself, but the people, without succumbing nevertheless in a facile or demagogic idealization.



In general, according to Michéa, “ordinary people” tend to accept those elements of progress that correspond to and promise to accomplish the traditional values to which they are attached or the good potential present in tradition. Nevertheless, the primitive background, which can be used in a good sense, can be used, as well, in the opposite, bad, sense. When “ordinary people” feel their traditional values to be under attack – that is, when not only their being, but also the common world inherited from old generations and the heritage of young generations are threatened – they spontaneously react against the liberal (economic, political, and cultural) force. And, Michéa maintains, under circumstances of crisis, it is expectable that their reaction would be more or less aggressive. Thus, according to Michéa, if today we witness a reorientation of “ordinary people” towards right-wing parties, it is not because they are nostalgic of Grand Inquisitors, of the patriachal family, or of the absolutist monarchy, but because it is there that they believe their traditional values can be defended. But we should be aware, Michéa warns us, that, as it happened in the past, the “supposed attachment to traditional values of the contemporary Right” can be easily “manipulated” in favor of “most dangerous political driftages”[48], especially in a historical moment when almost all conditions are met for the Left to gain ground. After all, Polanyi’s argument in The Great Transformation is that fascism represented society’s reaction of defence against the all-embracing and dissolving force of capitalism. When “ordinary people” feel threatened by the “cult of Progress”, manifested in particular through “compulsory and generalized mobility” and through “moral and cultural transgression” – that is, when they are desperate and lack the proper education, which should have been the responsibility of the Left, as Michéa affirms –, they easily fall for political forces that promise to supposedly protect their traditional values – actually changing them into conventions – and to provide them with a corporatist capitalist economic model that offers them a certain amount of stability, while taking away their freedom.

The “eternal lesson of anarchism”, Michéa concludes in Les Mystères de la Gauche, is that no “cult of Progress” and no “Sense of History” can provide society with the good. Only the minute daily effort of being engaged in the quest of “the good in human life” and of continually examining one’s own relation “to the will-to-power and to common decency” can bring about a little change.[49] This effort begins and ends with the unity of thought and deed.



GADAMER, Hans-Georg, The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy,

translated by Christopher Smith, Yale University Press,

New Haven and London, 1986.

HART, David B., “The Pornography Culture”, The New Atlantis, No. 6, Summer

2004 [].

LABELLE, Gilles, “Que des ‘bonnes nouvelles’…? Lecture critique d’Empire et de

Multitude de Hardt et Negri”, Science et Esprit, Vol. 62, No. 1, Janv.-Avril 2010,

pp. 17-37.

LASCH, Christopher, The Culture of Narcissism, W.W. Norton & Company, New York,


MICHÉA, Jean-Claude, L’empire du moindre mal, Climats, Paris, 2007.

MICHÉA, Jean-Claude, Les Mystères de la Gauche. De l’idéal des Lumières au triomphe

du capitalisme absolu, Climats, Paris, 2013.

MICHÉA, Jean-Claude, Orwell, anarchiste tory, suivi de À propos de 1984, Quatrième

édition, Climats, Paris, 2008.

MONOD, Jean-Claude, La querelle de la sécularisation – de Hegel à Blumenberg, J. Vrin,

Paris, 2002.

ORWELL, George, 1984, n.p., 1949 [].

[1] When Péguy uses the expression “modern world”, he does not refer to modernity in general but to a specific (negative, in his opinion) set of ideas and practices that have triumphed over others (positive elements, in his opinion) in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The “modern world” is, thus, characterized in particular by a specific understanding of freedom, by elitism, and by intellectualism.

[2] It must be mentioned from the start that Michéa is somehow ambiguous when he refers to early nineteenth-century socialist thinkers whose thought represents, according to him, the only way out of capitalism. He mentions first and foremost Pierre Leroux as the main reference where we can find the principles that dismantle coherently form a philosophical point of view capitalism. And Leroux is indeed a coherent author from this point of view. We find similar ideas in the thought of Robert Owen and of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. But there also are, among early nineteenth-century socialist thinkers, Henri de Saint-Simon and the Saint-Simonians, on the one hand, and Charles Fourier and the Fourierists, on the other hand, to mention only a few, and most significant, extremes. The former were enthusiastic about the process of industrialization, which fashioned, according to them, the new humanity, while, at the same time, supported the idea of a dogmatic authority, similar to that of the Pope during Middle Ages, that would account for society’s unity. Charles Fourier and the Fourierists, on the other hand, believed that individual passions should be allowed to manifest themselves freely because they would spontaneously enter into harmony. Fourier’s understanding of freedom was a reaction against the “sad and blind” virtue. Saint-Simonian thought supports communism, while Fourierist thought supports liberalism (with its triple form: economic, political, and cultural). Only a part of early nineteenth-century socialist thinkers (mentioned in the beginning of this note), then, support Michéa’s thesis, but he does not make this clarification, which would be helpful. However, throughout this article I will refer to early nineteenth-century socialist thinkers, in general, because Michéa refers to them in general, but it should be understood that the expression refers mainly to Leroux and, also, at least to some extent, to Owen and Proudhon.

[3] Jean-Claude MICHÉA, Les Mystères de la Gauche. De l’idéal des Lumières au triomphe du capitalisme absolu, Climats, Paris, 2013, pp. 45-46.

[4] Max WEBER, quoted in Jean-Claude MONOD, La querelle de la sécularisation – de Hegel à Blumenberg, J. Vrin, Paris, 2002, p. 146.

[5] Jean-Claude MICHÉA, L’empire du moindre mal, Climats, Paris, 2007, p. 37.

[6] David B. HART, “The Pornography Culture”, The New Atlantis, No. 6, Summer 2004 [].  

[7] Jean-Claude MICHÉA, Orwell, anarchiste tory, suivi de À propos de 1984, Quatrième édition, Climats, Paris, 2008, p. 92.

[8] Ibidem, pp. 92-93.

[9] Ibidem, p. 93.

[10] George ORWELL, The Lion and the Unicorn, p.77, quoted in Ibidem, p. 89.

[11] Jean-Claude MICHÉA, Orwell, anarchiste tory...cit., pp. 89-90.

[12] Guy SORMAN, quoted in Idem, Les Mystères de la Gauche...cit., p. 36.

[13] Jean-Claude MICHÉA, L’empire du moindre mal...cit., p. 44.

[14] Ibidem, p. 54.

[15] According to Michéa, this positive conception of progress made sense during the incipient stages of modernization, when it added to the old world a fresh perspective. Idem, Orwell, anarchiste tory…cit., p. 126.

[16] Ibidem, pp. 123-124.

[17] Christopher SMITH, translator’s note, in Hans-Georg GADAMER, The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy, trans. Christopher Smith, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1986, p. 36.

[18] Hans-Georg GADAMER, The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy…cit., p. 30.

[19] Jean-Claude MICHÉA, L’empire du moindre mal...cit., pp. 21-22.

[20] Ibidem, p. 29.

[21] Idem, Les Mystères de la Gauche...cit., pp. 23, 20-21.

[22] Ibidem, p. 25.

[23] Ibidem, p. 26.

[24] Ibidem, pp. 27-28.

[25] Ibidem, p. 29.

[26] Ibidem, p. 70.

[27] Ibidem, p. 72.

[28] Michael HARDT et Antonio NEGRI, Empire, trans. Denis-Armand Canal, Paris, Exils, 2000, p. 402, quoted in Gilles LABELLE, “Que des ‘bonnes nouvelles’…? Lecture critique d’Empire et de Multitude de Hardt et Negri”, Science et Esprit, Vol. 62, No. 1, Janv.-Avril 2010, p. 34.

[29] Gilles LABELLE, “Que des ‘bonnes nouvelles’…? Lecture critique d’Empire et de Multitude…cit.”, p. 35.

[30] Jean-Claude MICHÉA, Les Mystères de la Gauche...cit., pp. 32-33.

[31] Christopher LASCH, The Culture of Narcissism, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1979, p. 25.

[32] Jean-Claude MICHÉA, Les Mystères de la Gauche...cit., p. 36.

[33] Ibidem, p. 122.

[34] Idem, Orwell, anarchiste tory…cit., p. 34.

[35] The paradox underscored by Marx is that, at the same time, capitalism erodes the traditional structures on which it rests. The reserve force of capitalism is represented by the peasantry and the nobility, but, in its historical evolution, capitalism transforms more and more individuals from these categories into proletarians.

[36] Jean-Claude MICHÉA, Orwell, anarchiste tory, p. 40.

[37] Ibidem, p. 158.

[38] George ORWELL, 1984, n.p., 1949, p. 102 [].  

[39] Jean-Claude MICHÉA, Orwell, anarchiste tory...cit., p. 157.   

[40] Ibidem, p. 33.

[41] Idem, Les Mystères de la Gauche...cit., p. 93.

[42] Idem, Orwell, anarchiste tory...cit., p. 95.

[43] Idem, Les Mystères de la Gauche...cit., p. 52.

[44] The expression belongs to Sonia Orwell and is quoted Idem, Orwell, anarchiste tory…cit., p. 158.

[45] Hans-Georg GADAMER, The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy…cit., p. 41.

[46] Jean-Claude MICHÉA, Les Mystères de la Gauche...cit., p. 16.

[47] Idem, L’empire du moindre mal...cit., p. 163.

[48] Idem, Les Mystères de la Gauche...cit., pp. 49-50.

[49] Ibidem, p. 132.