Does Le Pen Read Houellebecq?
Why European intellectuals’ despair could herald the continent’s next wave of dangerous politics.
Is it still possible to believe in Europe? If you ask the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who crossed its borders this year — even into Greece, as Syriza and the troika traded blows over the nation’s faltering economy — the answer is clearly yes. Certainly compared with that of the 1920s and 1930s, the Europe of 2015 is a vision of paradise. In less than a century, the continent has progressed from fascism, depression, and war to largely unbroken democracy, prosperity, and peace.
So it is all the more striking that, recently, there has been a revival in European discourse of some of the most ominous and despairing ideas of the interwar period. Not since the post-World War I era, when German philosopher Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West convinced a broad readership that Europe was doomed, have European intellectuals been so seduced by the tropes of cultural pessimism — the conviction that they are part of a dying civilization. The danger is that such apocalyptic feelings will set the stage, as they did a century ago, for apocalyptic politics.
In The Idea of Europe, published this year, literary critic George Steiner notes that the continent has always been haunted by an intuition of its own disappearance. What he calls “eschatological self-awareness” has been a constant since the Middle Ages, when Christianity dwelled on visions of the apocalypse. In light of the horrors of the 20th century, “a belief in the termination of the European idea and of its habitations is almost a moral obligation,” Steiner writes. In his view, with Europe’s supremacy ended, the continent’s only hope is to cultivate ironic indifference and serve as a sophisticated, secular rebuke to American culture.
For Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who became a Spanish citizen in 1993, even that supporting role on the world stage is beyond Europe’s grasp. The burden of his 2015 book, Notes on the Death of Culture, is that Western culture — which has spread from its European birthplace to encompass much of the world — is intellectually and morally bankrupt, with no right to any kind of leadership. On every count, he consciously reiterates the indictment made by José Ortega y Gasset in his 1930 classic, The Revolt of the Masses. Where Ortega y Gasset complained that “the mass” — the newly enfranchised populations of democratic Europe — “crushes everything different, everything outstanding, excellent, individual, select, and choice,” Vargas Llosa laments “the democratization of culture,” which “has had the undesired effect of trivializing and cheapening cultural life.”
The new cultural pessimism — the belief that European civilization has left its glory days behind — is in part a reflection of real-world challenges. It is not news that European institutions are deeply beleaguered by mass immigration, economic stagnation, Russian aggression, and the consequent rise of far-left and far-right parties hostile to the liberal consensus embodied in the European Union. Yet the pessimists are focused less on concrete solutions to these problems than on the fear that Europe lacks the energy and confidence to tackle them. It is no wonder, then, that the talk of decline so often crystallizes around the subject of demography, where the intuition of Europe’s demise is most dramatically played out. With its falling birthrate, Christian Europe cannot reproduce itself, the cultural pessimists note. As they see it, “Eurabia” — to use the title of a 2005 paranoid tract by the pseudonymous, Egyptian-born British writer Bat Ye’or — is a possible future.
An increasingly visible group of European intellectuals blames that potential outcome on Europeans themselves — specifically, on their inability and unwillingness to resist such a fate. In his 2010 best-seller, Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Is Abolishing Itself), Thilo Sarrazin blamed what he saw as Germany’s lax immigration policy and timid acquiescence to multiculturalism for allowing a threatening Muslim population to grow in its midst. Similarly, in France, Éric Zemmour’s popular 2014 book, Le Suicide français — whose title echoes Sarrazin’s — attacks the French cultural elite for undermining national pride, leaving the country unable to defend itself against social ills, among which the author counts immigration.
With his newly translated novel, Submission, Michel Houellebecq gives Europeans’ self-accusatory anger a new direction. His merits as a novelist may be debatable, but the best-selling French author is undeniably a brilliant diagnostician of Western European despair. Submission imagines a near-future France in which the leading parties are the anti-immigrant National Front and the newly founded Muslim Brotherhood, which promises to Islamize the country. And Houellebecq suggests that if this is a battle for the soul of France, it is one that the French secretly long to lose. The Muslim candidate wins the election with the backing of the Socialist Party, which will do anything to fend off a victory by the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. Immediately, the French adjust: Non-Muslims are forbidden from teaching in schools, women go veiled, and plural marriage becomes the law of the land.
Mischievously, Houellebecq shows his cast of French academics and intellectuals settling into this new order as into a warm bath. Western society, the author has always said, makes its denizens miserable, with its hypersexuality, its unrelenting individualism, and its empty consumerism. The return of patriarchy, under the guise of Islam, restores to France a sense of personal and cosmic order. “Europe had already committed suicide,” Houellebecq writes; the advent of Islam merely buries a civilization that was already dead.
This vision of Europe as a home for spiritual invalids, ripe for conquest by a more vital civilization, has deep roots. More than a century ago, Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw the rise of “the last men,” a tame and timid race addicted to physical pleasures and fearful of all forms of greatness. The intellectuals who supported fascism in the 1920s were seduced by its promises of restoring European vitality, its noisy cult of youth and strength. Today’s diagnoses of European cultural suicide could be preparing the way for a similar reaction. If Europeans are told often enough that their civilization is committing suicide, one day they will decide to fight back against the immigrants and elites who are allegedly responsible.
What Europe needs now is what it failed to find a hundred years ago: vigorous, committed defenders of liberalism and internationalism who can explain that peace does not equal weakness or passivity and that cosmopolitanism is not merely a surrender to demographic forces, but is the essence and strength of European culture itself. Otherwise, Europe’s pessimism will turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A version of this article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Foreign Policy under the title “The Pessimist’s Prophecy.”
Illustration by Mark Smith