At the end of the 1970s, Michel Clouscard debuted an analysis of the phenomena arising from triumphant liberalism. His approach was clearly a response to the PCF’s (then locked into a dogmatic “orthodoxy”) lack of comprehension regarding mutating capitalist society. Faced with serious leftist ideological drifting after Mai 68, he proposed updating theory and revolutionary strategies by taking the mutation of the dominant system into account.
That lead him to unearth the root of what he named “the capitalism of seduction.” He makes it the heart of capitalism’s praxis, that is to say the whole of the dominant class’ maneuvers to transform social relations and expel the class struggle from history. The discourse of seduction rests on the destruction of Being by seeming, of Truth by representation, of Intelligence by conditioning. Reinforcing the already existing exploitation and alienation in capitalism, it even destroys the consciousness of the working classes.
A Genealogy of the Transformation of French Society
In the work of Michel Clouscard, and especially in “The Capitalism of Seduction,” we find a complete critical review of post 1968 society. Aymeric Monville recalls the context this book was written in: “At the time where ‘The Capitalism of Seduction’ was released for the first time, in 1981 from Editions Sociales, this decryption of this new society’s initiatic rituals (pinball, jukebox, posters, jeans, long hair, hash, motorcycles, rock) seemed like an event. Structuralism had barely emerged and the ‘human sciences’ only seemed interested in the (otherwise exciting) initiatic rituals of the Bororos [Translator’s Note: A Brazilian tribe] If it suited some to update a few of these rituals, on the other hand, let us admit that the Zeitgeist, the collective unconsciousness, had not changed. At best, the spectrum of ‘protesting innocence’ had expanded.”
Through this exercise in the anthropology of mores, he showed that the pseudo-rebel postures of the bourgeois youth had become included in a global system. They are initiation rites into the consumer society that “libertarian liberalism” had established to assure the reproduction of the capitalist model. I must desire what everyone desires, normality reached through the integration of the false values of merchant society.
Michel Clouscard traces the origin of the Capitalism of Seduction to the Marshall Plan. This plan to aid reconstruction was a “gift” to Europe made through the economic force of the United States at the start of the Cold War France, after Great Britain, was the principal beneficiary of this totally disinterested manna from heaven.
The penetration of the American model was the start of the death of old traditional French society. The working classes, peasants and workers alike, put thrifty and rigorous values into practice, the basis of a strong communitarian consciousness, “the alliance of an ethic of necessity and a morality of thrift.” But the openness to the American economic and cultural model would overwhelm this society with the complicity of the national bourgeoisie. Michel Clouscard didn’t idealize this society of necessity, but he thought that socialism could inherit values from it.
The conquest of French consciousness was rapid, consumer society predicated the disappearance of traditional values. They were replaced by frivolity and mercantile attitudes. At the start of the 1960s, this marginal cultural model of ludic, libidinal consumption tended to become the model of the elements who were the least involved in the life of traditional society: youth and women. Note that it was not antipathy towards the youth or latent misogyny that lead Michel Clouscard to make this observation, but a study of the social structures of the era and the processes of production.
On the contrary, capitalism gave birth to a new category with veritable ferocity: parasitic non-productive jobs (a large category extending from the false artists of “modern art” to the intellectual sell-outs to the system, passing through publicists and other dealers).
The Reign of the Savage Beast
With Mai 68, the culture of seduction, selective and marginal until then, would stretch to cover global society. The sociologist then mentions the role of libertarian-liberalism in breaking down the last moral and cultural locks against the capitalist tidal wave.
According to Clouscard, “libertarian-liberalism” is not libertarian for everyone all the time. On the contrary, it’s a strategy that permits the reciprocal begetting of the permissive and the repressive, putting in place a system that presents itself, as Clouscard said, with the elliptical thoroughness that we often find in his prose, as “permissive regarding the consumer and repressive regarding the producer” (A. Monville).
In appearance, capitalism is the system that offers greatest chance to satiate ones’ basest passions. Impulses of every type are exalted by the ideology of “always more.” Henceforth, in the field of merchandise, every desire must be immediately satisfied as a need, through possession. Desire is placed on the level of vital needs. We exist according to what we consume and not through what we construct ourselves. The experience of a relationship to another is enclosed in the desire to possess the same attributes of success and individual performance. The dynamic of desire is manipulated in the service of capital’s development.
This social process aims for the atomization of the social body, which would be the end of the Political, everything will be available to the market of desire. Michel Clouscard wrote, “The savage beast, unbridled and insatiable, is the image chosen by Hegel to designate civil society when it’s merely a marketplace, when the hegemony of liberalism of liberalism (or neo-liberalism) is realized … Then capitalist conditioning becomes all powerful…”
Social classes must experience a break with their origins, with the historical culture that begot them. This rupture must be forgotten. Thus an increasing availability to other values appears and permits their integration into the system. The negation of the reality of class struggle is the priority of capitalism, it allows the negative consequences of its domination to be denied.
Capitalism leads to “the impoverishment of history.” Michel Clouscard remarks that “crisis has become a strategy for the management of crisis.” Society is perfectly frozen and blocked, “The more it rots, the better it holds! This stalemate that no longer allows any momentum is the impoverishment of history.” Society falls into depression and the individual closes up on himself. “Everything is permitted, but nothing is possible. The harsh reality of prohibition in crisis follows the permissiveness of mass consumption,” he wrote at the start of “Trentes calamiteuses” [Translator’s note: referring to the 30 years of stagnation following the economic boom of “Trentes glorieuses” of the post-World War 2 era].
Mad Love Against Every Simulacrum of Capitalism
How to escape this blocked situation? Michel Clouscard responds that it’s necessary to return to fundamentals. At the end of his life, he reaffirmed the importance of re-founding a collective destiny. “I defend the organic essence as such of this social body. It’s the substance of the state. It belongs to history and not to some survival instinct inspired by nature, collective interests transcend local divisions in the face of a common external peril … It already acts to combat the moral peril created trough the collaboration of internal reaction and external imperialism.” Faced with the globalization of capital, he affirms the necessity of the idea of the nation in a clearly revolutionary sense, “The state was the super-structural 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.”
He also endeavored to respond to the Capitalism of Seduction with a much stronger notion. His “Treatise on Mad Love” address the myth of Tristan and Yseult at length. In its medieval and Wagnerian versions, it would be a response to the evil that devours our society. For him, the interpretation of the myth reprises the Platonic conception of love. The Platonic reminiscence – that of lost unity, the reconciliation of opposites – is also the recognition of the Other, and the support, the means of looking forward, of the couple’s journey. Love is made from these tender moments which cannot be separated: retrospection and looking forward, attachment to the past and the quest for the future, obsession and seeking.
The transient agitation of desire is not love, it only leads to frustration. It’s only a simulacrum of souls eaten down by the spirit of the era. A quest towards the void that only leads to depression.
Michel Clouscard revisits the importance of this double anchoring in the ideal and reality that love offers. In Greek mythology, “Love visits Aphrodite in the day and spends the night with Psyche. Sharing the body and soul: structure. Libertarian liberalism tramples on what the human consciousness produces, its intimate debates, its freedom. Transgressive consumption erodes the Psyche. I propose conjugal life and the Psyche as a progressive foundation. They are the two loves of man, and his great grief, the double pursuit of the Eternal Feminine.”
Who was Michel Clouscard?
He was born in 1928, in a very modest peasant family from Tarn. “He crystallizes the course of a worker’s world, which, by seizing the means of intellectual expression, accesses consciousness for itself,” writes Aymeric Monville, who continues the re-edition of his principal works with éditions Delga.
After his philosophy studies (his thesis director was Henri Lefeuvre), he became the professor of sociology at the University of Poitiers from 1975 to 1990. From the start of the 1970s, Michel Clouscard developed a critique of “liberal-libertarian” capitalism and social-democracy. He proposed the ‘de-dogmatization’ of Marxism, without abandoning the theoretical work of Marx: “we must update the sociological schema of the class struggle, reconstitute the terms of the workers’ economic oppression in the context of the mode of serial production, analyze the anthropological and political-cultural mediation of the passage from use value to exchange value, address the social initiations to capitalist civilization, challenge theoretical subjectivism or economism in order to allow for a joint analysis of the market of desire and the new exploitation.”
Close to the Parti Communiste Français, he refused its reformist orientation in a radical manner: “We must change strategy and philosophy. No longer ape the PS and the third way. We must be those who endure, proposing serious issues. That’s what people expect. When I saw them have a fiesta at the Central Committee (Prada and others), I found that derisory. Communism means taking charge of the world’s misfortunes, without pathos. We aren’t here for conviviality. That’s what Jack Lang is for. What we must do, is to rediscover praxis. We must reshape a world where ‘action will be the sister of dreams’, to cite Baudelaire. To make an alliance between Prometheus and Psyche. The adversaries of Marxism have gotten a grip on psyche; we must take it back from them.” Retiring to Gaillac, Michel Clouscard passed away on February 21st 2009.
Published in Rébellion 46 (February 2011)