On the occasion of the release in bookshops of Nous et les autres, L’identité sans fantasme (Us and the Others, Identity without Fantasy) (Le Rocher), Alain de Benoist answers questions from Breizh-Info. The issue of identity runs through society from top to bottom. But what do we know about identity, philosophically speaking? What does it refer to? How can we understand it? Alain de Benoist, as a philosopher, addresses these questions – and others.
BREIZH-INFO: First of all, does this book stem from the desire to provide an answer to current debates on identity or identities, debates that are, curiously, monopolised by the media and by the far-left?
ALAIN DE BENOIST: I would rather say that it stems from the desire to gain more clarity in these debates which, today, resemble free-for-alls. Nowadays, everyone talks about identity, but most often in the form of a litany or slogan. When you ask those who talk about it the most to explain what they mean by it, what content they give to identity, what idea they have of it, you get perfectly contradictory answers. My book is an attempt to clarify. The first part, the most theoretical, tries to show how the concept of identity has been formed throughout social history and the history of ideas, notably in connection with the rise of the individual. The second, more current and polemical, analyses the truly delusional racialist identity politics of indigenous or ‘postcolonial’ circles.
I say in the introduction that identity is both vital and vague. Vital because one cannot live without identity, vague because identity is always complex: it includes different facets that can come into conflict with each other. The two mistakes not to make are to believe that identity is not vital because it is vague, or that it cannot be vague if it is truly vital.
To properly understand what is at stake in identity narratives, three categories of differences must be taken into account: between inherited identity, generally at birth, and acquired identity (which is just as decisive as the first: when one dies for one’s ideas, one dies for an acquired identity), between individual and collective identity, and especially between objective identity and the subjective perception that one has of it. The different facets of our identity do not, in our eyes, have the same importance, and this is what determines our sense of proximity to others. If I am a Breton, a Frenchman, and a European, do I feel more Breton than French or vice versa? More French than European or vice versa? If I am Christian, do I feel closer to a Christian from Mali than to a Norwegian pagan (for religious reasons), or the opposite (for cultural reasons)? If I am a right-wing lesbian, do I feel closer to a right-wing man (for political reasons) or a left-wing lesbian (for sexual reasons)? One can imagine a thousand questions of this kind. They show us that the different aspects of our identity do not necessarily harmonise with each other.
BREIZH-INFO: The era of globalisation and the advent of liberal society, particularly after the civil conflicts of the twentieth century in Europe, seemed to have partly erased the issue of identity, which is now re-emerging in other aspects. Is this a sign of a force far more significant than any economic issue in particular?
ALAIN DE BENOIST: The issue of identity does not return; it simply emerges. In traditional societies, the question of identity does not even arise. It begins to arise in modern times because the landmarks are fading, and more and more people are questioning who they are and what they belong to. ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who are we?’ are questions that only arise when identity is threatened, uncertain, or has already disappeared. This is what makes this concept intrinsically problematic. Supposed to provide the solution, it is also part of the problem.
It is a mistake to believe that the magnitude of identity concerns relegates economic issues to a secondary level. The economic and social aspects are also part of identity. Our economic, social, professional or other identity cannot be separated from the other facets of our personality. This is particularly true for the working classes, who are well aware that they are currently subject to both cultural and social discrimination: they feel like strangers in their own country and experience constant class contempt. They thus feel doubly excluded. Separating identity and social issues is nonsensical. This is what Eric Zemmour failed to understand, who believed he could resurrect the left-right divide by combining a highly anxiety-inducing anti-immigration discourse with liberal economic options. The working classes naturally preferred Marine Le Pen.
BREIZH-INFO: The beginning of the twenty-first century also seems to mark the return of the question of race and racialism in the identity debate, particularly due to indigenous movements (among others). Do you think this debate is fundamental or, on the contrary, constitutes a form of regression, essentialising identity through this prism?
ALAIN DE BENOIST: Races exist, and racial factors must be taken into account like all others. To give them a central importance, to want to explain everything through them, is inconsequential. I have already published three books against racism; I will not revisit that. The true nature of man is his culture (Arnold Gehlen): the diversity of languages and cultures results from man’s ability to free himself from the limitations of the species. To base politics on bioanthropology amounts to making sociology an annex of zoology and prevents understanding that a people’s identity is primarily their history. This is not only a reductionist regression; it is also deeply apolitical. The result can be seen with the racialist delusions of the ‘woke’ ideology, which are perfectly comparable to the delusions of American white supremacism: the lowest level of political thought.
BREIZH-INFO: Why did you choose to focus particularly on the question of Jewish identity? What does it tell us today?
ALAIN DE BENOIST: I devote an excursus to this question, placed as an appendix to my book. The reason is simple. Over the past two millennia, the Jewish people have constantly faced (and confronted) the question of their identity. While so many other peoples have disappeared throughout history, they have managed to maintain themselves in diaspora through constant intellectual discipline and by means of prohibiting mixed marriages. Without this strict endogamy, they would likely have disappeared. What is also interesting is that Jewish thought has always been torn between a universalist pole and a particularist pole. The answer that Orthodox Judaism gives to the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’ differs completely from anti-Semitic legislations that distinguish between ‘half-Jews’ and ‘quarter-Jews’, which does not mean much. According to the halakha tradition, the all-or-nothing law prevails: one is Jewish if born to a Jewish mother, and not if born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Of course, over the centuries, this has given rise to passionate discussions, which have intensified even more since the creation of the State of Israel. I chose this example to show that identity is never a simple thing.
BREIZH-INFO: You have dedicated most of your life to defending identity, particularly European civilisation. How have your perspective and your own perception of who you are and who others are evolved over several decades? And today, who are you, who are the others?
ALAIN DE BENOIST: My perspective has undoubtedly become more refined, but it has never changed. Personally, I fundamentally define myself as a European, in solidarity with its history and culture. At the time of the generalised crisis of universalist doctrines, I hope that Europe becomes an autonomous civilisational power. But this definition of ‘our-ness’ is not exclusive of others. It does not lead to xenophobia or the refusal to recognise the values and greatness of other cultures of the world, quite the contrary (in some respects, we should even take them as examples). In our relations with others, we must understand that all identity is dialogic: we have no identity if we are alone. Universalist systems strive to eliminate otherness in favour of a one-dimensional world. These systems are the main enemy because they want to eradicate the differences between all peoples.