In The Realm of Lesser Evil, Jean-Claude Michea looks to revive the original socialist critique of liberalism in both its cultural or economic forms. For a person on the left, such as Michea, to attack economic liberalism is about par for the course; for a person on the left to attack cultural liberalism – that which rejects tradition, virtue, moral values, and “common decency” – is to be labeled “reactionary.” Michea’s work is of interest to “Sublunary Sublime” in that he echoes the ethos of the Christian Socialist tradition, beginning with F.D. Maurice.
According to Michea, cultural and economic forms of liberalism are governed by the same underlying logic, and the misguided attempt to disentangle the two only serves to reinforce the worst ravages of economic liberalism. The foundation of liberalism rests on a pessimistic anthropology – despite the best intentions of Smith or Hobbes – and the political desire to secure peace through the market. Government’s role is somewhat secondary, tasked to play the disinterested arbitrator, except that the market’s logic always triumphs over the state’s empty form. “Political liberalism always ends up finding its natural centre of gravity in economic liberalism,” writes Michea (32). This is because, as Michea goes on to argue, Law and Market are structurally and substantially identical (64 – 70). Michea delivers a bit of damning evidence here, quoting Milton Friedman, “who has described most precisely (or cynically) the real nature of this liberal tolerance, when he celebrates the Market as the magic mechanism enabling ‘millions of individuals to come together on a daily basis without any need to love one another, or even to speak to one another’” (54).
From the outset Michea recognizes that his argument will be a hard pill to swallow for many on the left, who typically like “to distinguish between a ‘good’ political and cultural liberalism and a ‘bad’ economic liberalism” (1). In truth, however, “the soulless world of contemporary capitalism is the only historical form in which this original liberal doctrine could be realized in practices. It is, in other words, actually existing liberalism” (2).
If there is no difference between good and bad liberalism, what then is to be done? For Michea, the task is then to revive the spirit of original socialism, as opposed to Marx, who is but “the direct heir of ‘English economic science’, i.e. of original liberalism” (41). As Anca Simitopol states about Michea’s work, “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 (italics mine).” Early socialism, according to Michea, was directly opposed to liberalism: at the heart of all early socialist manifestos is “the critique of egoism and the liberal atomization of society” (139). Standing at odds with liberalism, Michea wants “to anchor the fundamentals of socialists practices in basic human virtues”; that is, to revive the Orwellian sense of “common decency”: trust, generosity, working-on-oneself, and, most importantly perhaps, holding to a sense of limits as opposed to unending economic growth. Pace Marx, the reviving of virtuous socialistic practice is not reactionary. Orwellian socialism, as Michea clarifies, “is less the nostalgia for a vanished world than a determined opposition to the moral pessimism of the Moderns. It is the constant refusal to drown the ‘common people’ in the icy waters of egoistic calculation” of both liberalism and totalitarianism (113).
Although Michea presents a controversial thesis, he is absolutely right to point out that it is becoming more and more difficult to disentangle the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of liberalism out from under the all-mighty market. What’s worse, it is quickly becoming the case that liberalism is no longer content to cast itself as the least bad option. As Michea writes, “the realm of lesser evil, as its shadow has stretched over the entire planet, seems set on taking over, one by one, all the features of its oldest enemy. It now wants to be adored as the best of worlds” (140).