benoist, strauss, and the metaphysical problem

Dropping the mask of the political — for a moment — we see in the core of Benoist’s work a hatred of subjectivity; and perhaps fear is a better word. Fundamentally, he sees subjectivity as the ground for egalitarianism and universalism. [BHR, 21] On the face, it’s a strange line of thought; if everything is valid (as he defines relativism), why is egalitarianism the natural end? Why is there a natural end at all?

Benoist writes that a law which can be seen as for a man outside of social life would be inherently subjective. [BHR, 26] All legal rights — as they inhere in individuals regardless of their place in society — are subjective by definition. The natural question is whether or not all legal rights are merely legal rights. In the UN Declaration of Human Rights, it is easy to argue that many of the rights — while perhaps based on natural ones — are actually legal rights or, at least, legal prescriptions… or, at worst, nonsense. A right like Article 24 — ‘Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay’ — is so specific to a particular condition as to be absurd. If this is right, all of Benoist’s fury on the idea is justified.

Benoist approvingly quotes another writer, André Clair, who writes on the transition between rights as being ‘essentially present’ and now ‘a system of distributing and awarding lots’; but it is that latter definition that Clair sees as fundamentally subjective— not the former. Benoist follows this by claiming that rights are, indeed, merely law ‘contaminated by morality’ (via, of course, Christianity). [BHR, 34-5] It seems, from here, that Benoist really does reject natural right as well, not just legal right:

…the theory of human rights creates a radical novelty: a freedom independent of all participation in political affairs, a freedom of the individual seperated from the freedom of the political community to which he belong, an idea which in Antiquity would have been considered ‘absurd, immoral, and unworthy of a free man.’ (Carl Schmitt).

…the French Revolution tried to reconcile human rights with those of the citizen — a question which, in many respects, resembles of the old problem of the union of the soul and the body. …Revolutionary right aims, quite evidently, to reconcile the subjective right and the objective right, the natural right and the positive right, to ensure the union of citizenship and one’s membership in humanity. … Rousseau, for his part, had already declared that he was for the primacy of the citizen in a famous page: ‘We must therefore choose whether we will make a man or a citizen; we cannot do both.’ [BHR 91-2]

And Benoist is with Rousseau, here. (He also approves of Rousseau’s honesty in admitting his concept of the state of nature could be fictitious, see BHR 48.) Rousseau, along with Montesquieu and Jefferson, is the major proponent of the classical republican tradition in the 18th c, which places freedom within the concept of popular & parliamentary sovereignty. (Milton, Parker, Sidney, and ‘above all’ Harrington are its representatives in the 17th.) [BHR 113] This follows a surprisingly warm discourse on feudalism:

Describing the feudal regime, Fustel de Coulanges writes, ‘At the top of the hierarchy, the king was surrounded by his great vassals. Each of these vassals was himself surrounded by his own feudatories and he could not pronounce the least judgment without them… The king could neither make a new law, nor modify the existing laws, nor raise a new tax without the consent of the country… If one looks at the institutions of this regime from close quarters, and if one observes their meaning and significance, one will see that they were all directed against despotism. However great the diversity that seems to reign in this regime, there is, however, one thing that unites them: this thing is obsession with absolute power. I do not think that any regime better succeeded than that in rendering arbitrary rule impossible… Feudalism was an association of free men’. The end of the feudal regime marked the beginning of the disintegration of this system under the influence of Roman authoritarianism and the deadly blows of the centralised state. Little by little, hereditary royalty implemented a juridical-administrative centralisation at the expense of intermediary bodies and regional assemblies. While the communal revolution sanctioned the power of the nascent bourgeoisie, the regional parliaments ceased to be equal assemblies and became meetings of royal officers. Having become absolute, the monarchy supported itself upon the bourgeoisie to liquidate the last resistances of the nobility. [BHR 112]

This positive reading of the series of rights and obligations within feudalism is hard to reconcile with his love of popular sovereignty (discussed in the prior post, as well): Feudalism was essential hierarchical and not popular. While it would be easy to claim that natural right was more respected, and that legal right did not attempt to interfere with the normal political relations of members of society, it could only be a popular sovereignty in the dimmest sense. Benoist makes something of the election of kings (particularly in France, an anecdote he seems fond of, due to its repetition elsewhere), but these were not even elections by representative except insofar as a feudal lord may be able to be said to ‘represent’ his vassals; but the fashion in which he represents them is how a parent represents a child before the legal establishment. If you want to see the people as sovereign, you have to see those under lieges as children in one fashion or another. This ambiguity regarding the meaning of sovereignty is the most disturbing part of Benoist’s political philosophy; while I think ‘fascist’ would be too cute a term for him, the parallel is irresistible:

The Reichstag, 12.11.1941

Is this democracy?

Landsgemeinde in Appenzell, Switzerland (1973)

… or is this democracy?

The Reichstag never (formally) dissolved; the German people never voted to say, ‘we are no longer a democracy!’… so is there a mystic sentiment of the people than can preserve their sovereignty without direct rule? Benoist’s explicit recommendations all seem to be about the second picture; he approves the Swiss model, specifically. But his view of sovereignty is magical. Swiss democracy existed without a theory of democratic rights or the natural sovereignty of the people; it arose in response to real concerns and in context with the world around it. It preserved traditions of local governance, etc. How is Benoist’s insistence on popular sovereignty any less artificial or ‘subjective’ than the human rights laws he opposes?

[BHR], Beyond Human Rights


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