Dwelling as One
La demeure des hommes: Pour une politique de l’enracinement. By Paul-François Schira, prefaced by François-Xavier Bellamy. Tallandier Essais; 332 pages; 19,90€.
What could the series of terrorist attacks on France through 2015 and the election of Donald Trump possibly have in common? In La demeure des hommes, Paul-François Schira interprets homegrown jihadism and national populism as comparable reactions to the same void at the core of Western societies.
Forming in the wake of the twentieth century’s totalitarian nightmares, Schira describes postmodern society as haunted by the spectre of collective pursuits, and bent on affording every individual’s tangible desires the largest measure of satisfaction. Individualism of this postmodern sort deems our discrete wants non-aggregatable into any kind of cohesive whole, promising us instead to reconcile them with the least possible discord through procedural guarantees in the form of the rule of law, free elections and free markets.
This social contract leaves the individual devoid of any sense of belonging to a community larger than his interests. Politics shrinks as a result, its role diluted to allowing our supposedly irreducible antagonisms to peaceably coexist. It becomes a quest for efficient means, bereft of any definite finality. Schira stakes the cure to this deepmost Western malaise on rekindling politics as the building, in Hannah Arendt’s words, of a dwelling suitable for mankind (“une demeure convenable à l’homme”).
From the rubbles of nazism and Stalinism to their sequel placing the individual as the endpoint of politics, Schira warns the pendulum has riskily swung too far. In a society that abhors the collective, the neighborly inclinations of the great-hearted are hung out to dry. A recurrent theme of their propaganda, Islamist networks mock this very state of deracination, seclusion and lack of higher pursuits to spark attacks by homegrown djihadists.
To the individual’s deficit of belonging, postmodern society responds with a mirrored reflection of his own deracinated condition, touting the bliss of living under no external burdens. Far from curing the ill, this way of countering the shortcomings of individualism with yet more individualism has fed the beast, exacerbating frustrations and leaving the liberal camp with scant symbolic tools to combat totalitarian impulses. By no accident did France only confront its own sense of “we” once under the threat of continued terrorist aggression. How else can individualist societies coalesce when the only uniting credo on offer is chacun pour soi?
But how can the aftermath of totalitarianism end up producing the very reactions it is premised on preventing? For Schira, this is no coincidence. In his telling, totalitarianism and individualism are two sides of the same coin, anchored in the same anthropological foundation. The tyrannies of the past century coerced the individual to submit to a higher, arbitrary will, while individualism voids any finality beyond the individual. Both negate politics as the path to gathering the polity around a shared purpose. Schira calls this the “ideology of deconstruction”.
If the West is trapped in a polarity where the flip side of totalitarianism feeds totalitarian reactions, how to escape? How to cater to our inner need for belonging so that no vacuum is left for djihadism to fill?
Schira prescribes what Simone Weil called l’enracinement in her eponymous 1949 essay, translated to English under the title The Need for Roots. In it she diagnosed the gradual dissolution of community ties and the withering sense of national purpose at work in France through the first half of the 20th century (déracinement). She cited rootedness as one of the human soul’s most fundamental needs, described as:
“A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”
Schira is a pur produit of the French elite. A graduate of the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the pipeline feeding France’s senior civil service, he is currently an auditor at the Conseil d’État, a privy council of sorts for the country’s all-powerful executive branch. In a country rife with social conflict and globalization malaise, he sits comfortably within the sort of gentry that seems to have locked down its hand in all affaires d’État, even in spite of growing populist sentiment and the uncertain future facing l’ÉNA.
That doesn’t mean he is content with la marche du monde. Behind the esoteric musings of his essay, he sighs over the footloose tendencies of a deracinated youth. This warning message is echoed by François-Xavier Bellamy in his latest book, Demeure, published shortly before the former philosophy teacher jumped into the last European race under the banner of the centre-right Les Républicains party (LR).
Le Point has described Schira as Bellamy’s “alter ego”. They surely share a great deal in common, not the least a bright future as conservative thought leaders. But with Bellamy’s dismal score of 8.5%, LR looks increasingly squeezed out by the Macron vs. Le Pen duopoly taking shape. The two would do well to keep enlisting all the conservative youth they can.