"Preface" to Impasse Adam Smith - Jean-Claude Michéa

Adam Smith

A provocative introductory essay by the author of Impasse Adam Smith that maintains that the Left, “which has always presented itself … as the sole legitimate heir of Enlightenment philosophy”, with its “religion of ‘Progress’”, “nourished on exactly the same philosophical sources as modern liberalism”, is not only alien to the spirit of the original socialism of the early 19th century, but is also intrinsically incapable of constituting a real challenge to contemporary capitalism, and that “the requirements of a coherent battle against the liberal utopia … render a radical break with the intellectual imaginary of the Left politically necessary”.

Submitted by Alias Recluse on October 16, 2013

“Preface” to Impasse Adam Smith – Jean-Claude Michéa

The propaganda displayed daily on the television screens of the modern world is invariably based on two essential but hardly reconcilable themes. On the one hand, as in any time of war, reports of victories succeed one another at a dizzying pace. The prodigious advances of modern technology, which the “Ministry of Truth” proclaims to the four corners of the earth, have allowed us to create, for the first time in History, the material basis of a Radiant Future and the imminent advent of its Earthly Kingdom. Not only does this Gospel (which we evidently owe to the spirit of enterprise and innovation for which our incomparable liberal society provides the framework) effectively proclaim an era of abundance and unlimited wealth, however. As we are reminded twenty four hours a day by this blessed propaganda, it also grants modern man an unprecedented power over his conditions of existence, a power that those who had the misfortune of having lived in earlier times could have hardly even imagined. This power of the industrial production of every conceivable object, on our expanding horizon made possible by “the new information and communication technologies”, effectively comprises the practical means to change everyone’s lives for the better and make everyone happy; and these means are accumulating to an extent and at a rate never before seen by previous societies. It would definitely appear that this is the advent of that moment in history (which is at the same time the end of history) that all of humanity has been dreaming of, with a Sony for anyone who wants one or who is ready to want one.

Meanwhile, and returning to serious business—that is, generally, when the People, logically seduced by these very promising sermons, no less coherently evokes the question of the real benefits that can be obtained from these incredible instances of progress—the tone of the “Ministry of Truth” becomes grave, and the enthusiastic rhetoric of Hugo now gives way to the glacial accents of Malthus. This is where the solid knowledge of the economists—so they tell us—is responsible for providing the indisputable proof that modern humanity has squandered its resources, that the good times are now a thing of the past, and that we have to face the fact that up until now we have been living far beyond our means. Now that these storm clouds are forecast, the most modest requests assume the guise of the most inaccessible luxuries; the simple demand to preserve a relatively stable and dignified job in a more or less human environment, to have a decent income, to be cared for in old age, a few dreams fulfilled, even a few periods of well earned rest—all these things, we are told, constitute a series of unacceptable whims, because they are contrary to the laws of the Economy. As Claude Bébéar, the former director of the AXA Group, sums it up, with the brutal frankness of those who were born to command their kind, this extraordinary accumulation of material and technological progress can only lead to one result as far as the vast majority is concerned: “it is obvious that they will have to work harder and for longer hours”. In short, if we have understood what it has been saying up to this point, what the official propaganda is trying to make us believe is that humanity, thanks to its Promethean technology and its boundless spirit of invention, increases the possibilities of reducing the expenditure of human effort and modifying the course of events, but we have to resign ourselves to admitting that the control of its destiny is no longer in its power; in other words, it is the vast quantity of means that humanity currently has at its disposal that explains the scarcity of concrete results that might have been expected.

I do not believe it is necessary to have a particularly sensitive or pessimistic spirit to conclude that a social system that tries to make us believe such fairy tales in order to legitimate its real mode of functioning is, in terms of its very principles, unjust and ineffective; and that we are called upon, at this point, to engage in a radical critique, that is, in conformance with the etymology of the word, a critique that analyzes the evil at its root and attempts to combat it on this basis.

The entire problem, as thus conceived, resides in understanding the mystery of how a system that is plainly so irrational was capable of transforming itself within a few decades into something that now encompasses the entire planet, and has done so without encountering any serious opposition from those whose existence it is destabilizing and whose vital forces it is mutilating; without arousing, let us say, a collective resistance on the scale of the damages it inflicts and its real impact. This problem may be formulated from another angle. For more than a century everyone, both friends and enemies, have agreed to use the term Left to denominate the broad political and intellectual movement that is officially opposed to the capitalist system and all the harm that it causes. How is it possible that a movement on such a scale (and whose ideas are predominant in contemporary culture) has never been able to effectuate a practical break with the capitalist organization of life, in order to replace the latter with a really human society, that is, one that is free, equal and decent? Such questions are not new. In 1936, at the conclusion of his investigation of the mines of Wigan Pier, George Orwell explained it this way:

“What I am concerned with is the fact that Socialism is losing ground exactly where it ought to be gaining it. With so much in its favour—for every empty belly is an argument for Socialism—the ‘idea’ of Socialism is less widely accepted than it was ten years ago. The average thinking person nowadays is not merely not a Socialist, he is actively hostile to Socialism. This must be due chiefly to mistaken methods of propaganda. It means that Socialism, in the form of which it is now presented to us, has about it something inherently distasteful….” [George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Chapter 11]

Orwell summarizes these “mistaken methods of propaganda” in terms of these principles:

“The kind of person who most readily accepts Socialism is also the kind of person who views mechanical progress, as such, with enthusiasm. And this is so much the case that Socialists are often unable to grasp that the opposite opinion exists. As a rule the most persuasive argument they can think of is to tell you that the present mechanization of the world is as nothing to what we shall see when Socialism is established. Where there is one aeroplane now, in those days there will be fifty! All the work that is now done by hand will then be done by machinery: everything that is now made of leather, wood, or stone will be made of rubber, glass, or steel; there will be no disorder, no loose ends, no wildernesses, no wild animals, no weeds, no disease, no poverty, no pain—and so on and so forth. The Socialist world is to be above all things an ‘ordered’ world, an ‘efficient’ world. But it is precisely from that vision of the future as a sort of glittering Wells-world that sensitive minds recoil. Please notice that this essentially fat-bellied version of 'progress' is not an integral part of Socialist doctrine; but it has come to be thought of as one, with the result that the temperamental conservatism which is latent in all kinds of people is easily mobilized against Socialism.” [George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Chapter 12—Translator’s Note.]

My objective is nothing less than to further develop these comments by Orwell. My efforts can be divided into two main parts. On the one hand, I am interested in calling attention to the fact, recognized by Orwell at the end of the above quotation, that the cult of Progress and Modernity, which is the center of gravity of all left wing propaganda, is profoundly alien to the original versions of Socialism, as they were constituted in England and France at the beginning of the 19th century. On the other hand, and this is the more important criticism, it is impossible to continue to believe that this kind of discourse is a symptom of “mistaken methods of propaganda”, which a Party of the Left (and even of the Extreme Left) can abandon or modify as it sees fit or, we may add, in response to the vagaries of its electoral base. It appears to me, to the contrary, that the systematic eulogy of “Progress” and “Modernization” pertains to the deep core of the metaphysical program of any possible Left, a program that it cannot renounce, even partially, without simultaneously renouncing its very essence. The reason for this is easy to understand. The Left, from its historical beginnings, has always presented itself, and with reason, as the sole legitimate heir of Enlightenment philosophy; that is, adhering strictly to the most classical definitions, as the Party of Change (steadfastly opposed to the Parties of Order) and the natural rallying point of all “the forces of Progress” and all the “advocates of Change”. It was only in this way, obviously, that it was able to lead, or attract into its camp, over the course of the last two centuries, an incalculable number of emancipatory struggles, as legitimate as they were indispensable, against the different forces of the Ancien Régime (beginning with those of the Church and the landowning Nobility) and against the unacceptable privileges and prejudices upon which the traditional powers had founded their rule.

The problem is that in the history of ideas, one train car conceals another, and that although men regularly find themselves facing situations they could not even have imagined before, they nonetheless set to work to defend their initial premises with the greatest passion. Applied to Enlightenment philosophy, that is, from the point of view of the beginning of our Modern Era, this perspective has led me to the following hypothesis: there is, in my opinion, only one way to continue to develop, in an integral and coherent manner, the ambiguous axiomatic of the Enlightenment: and that is by way of liberal individualism. And its political translation, which is its most radical and most logical expression, is found in the discourse of Political Economy, of which Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations represents the first perfected version. This amounts to saying that what we presently call the Left is nourished on exactly the same philosophical sources as modern liberalism (and it would not be absurd, after all, to consider Turgot and Adam Smith as men of the Left, in the context of their epoch). It is the existence of this original matrix, shared by both the thought of the Left and the Liberalism of the Enlightenment, which explains, in my view, the reasons that have always led the former to validate the spirit of the latter with regard to what is essential, although it always seeks (and will always seek) to attempt to fix (or regulate) this or that particular detail. Nor are these reasons based on the unique psychology of the majority of the leaders of this movement (their amour-propre characteristic of power and the sense of betrayal that this implies). These reasons are therefore essentially “ontological”, that is, they pertain to the intrinsic nature of the Left itself. Viewed from this perspective, the idea of a Left (or Extreme Left) “anti-capitalism” would seem as improbable as that of a renovated, or “refounded”, Catholicism that would relinquish the divine nature of Christ and the immortality of the soul. It is therefore the requirements of a coherent battle against the liberal utopia and against the increasingly classist society that it necessarily engenders (meaning a type of society where the indecent wealth and power of a few is based primarily on the exploitation and humiliation of the others) that now render a radical break with the intellectual imaginary of the Left politically necessary. We understand perfectly well that the idea of such a break poses many problems for us, some of a psychological nature, since the Left, ever since the 19th century, has functioned above all as a substitute religion (the religion of “Progress”); and we know that the primary function of all religions is to give an identity to the believer, and to guarantee that he will be at peace with himself. I imagine that many of those who read this will interpret this way of radically contrasting the philosophical project of the original Socialism with the different programs of the existing Left and Extreme Left as an otiose paradox, or even as an aberrant and dangerous provocation that plays into the hands of all the enemies of the human species. I think, to the contrary, that this way of viewing the Left is the only one that confers a logical meaning upon the cycle of successive historical disasters and defeats that distinguished the recently concluded century; and an understanding of which has even today remained obscure for many people, in a situation as strange as the one we have experienced. In any event, it might be the only unexplored possibility we have, if we really want to help humanity to escape, while we still have time, from the dead end of Adam Smith.

Jean-Claude Michéa

Translated in October 2013 from an anonymous Spanish translation of the author’s “Preface” to:

Jean-Claude Michéa, Impasse Adam Smith. Brèves remarques sur l’impossibilité de dépasser le capitalisme sur sa gauche, Climats, Castelnau le Lez, 2002.

Spanish translation of above “Preface” obtained online at: