Michel Houellebecq, trans. Shaun Whiteside
In recent years, French author Michel Houellebecq has been praised not just for his literary skills as a novelist, but increasingly also for his alleged abilities as a political oracle. In reviews, he has been credited with predicting the rise of incel culture, France’s Yellow Vest movement, and alarmist reactions to Europe’s demographic changes. When his latest novel, Serotonin, about a depressed French agronomist, was published in Europe in 2019, the UK Sunday Times was far from alone in describing it as if it were reported nonfiction, praising the novel for “highlighting a long-standing anger in the French provinces,” while the Telegraph wrote of Houellebecq’s magical ability to “predict the tragic fate of Western civilization.” The conservative National Review went further, calling this our “Houellebecqian moment” while triumphantly declaring that “society has begun to catch up” to the ideas of the French author.
Houellebecq is not just a reactionary, he’s also a critic of modern capitalism. He hates the permissiveness of social liberalism, but he also hates the homogeneity of modern consumer culture.
Last week, in an open letter published on Radio France, Houellebecq weighed in on the COVID-19 pandemic. He dismissed the voices of the French left who have predicted that the pandemic might lead to a meaningful reevaluation of existing power structures. Rather, Houellebecq thought it more likely to merely exacerbate the same technological trends—everything from video on demand to contactless payment—against which he has railed for years as dehumanizing and corrosive of Western civilization. “We will not wake up after the lockdown in a new world. It will be the same, just a bit worse,” he wrote. Characteristically candid, he concluded that the pandemic has ”succeeded in the feat of being both frightening and boring.”
For someone who writes explicitly political novels and who doesn’t shy from the sorts of bold claims in his letter, Houellebecq has been surprisingly coy about engaging publicly with the controversial political positions his writing espouses. For example, when Submission, which depicted an Islamist takeover of the French government, was published in 2015, writer Sylvain Bourmeau asked Houellebecq about the provocative ideas raised in the book, in a long interview for the Paris Review. However, Houellebecq dodged the questions with a skill for avoidance that I associate more with the likes of a Kellyanne Conway than with a public intellectual.
We needn’t speculate on his political beliefs, however. In his accumulated work, and in interviews over the years, a profile has emerged of a proudly illiberal antifeminist, who admits that he’s “probably” Islamophobic. Last year Houellebecq wrote an essay for Harper’s praising Donald Trump as one of the best U.S. presidents he’s “ever seen,” and he has said of Brexit supporters that their “courage cannot be denied.” At an appearance at the Louisiana Literature festival in Denmark last summer, he elaborated on his admiration for French far-right writers.
Yet despite holding these views, he remains not just tolerated but widely admired by many writers and thinkers on the left, in Europe and in the United States. One reason may be that Houellebecq is not just a reactionary, he’s also a critic of modern capitalism. In all of his work, from the early poems of the 1990s to his recent novels, there exists a sustained critique of contemporary neoliberal society, free trade capitalism, and radical individualism. Houellebecq’s protagonists hate the permissiveness of social liberalism, but they also hate the homogeneity of modern consumer culture, the automated checkout counters of Carrefour Express supermarkets, and the unremarkable business hotels that overlook the parking lots of midsize towns.
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A conservatism at odds with corporate capitalism is relatively novel in the United States, but in France it has deep roots.
While Houellebecq might have been given too much credit for predicting the rise of incels, gilets jaunes, and Islamophobia, he has not gotten enough recognition for anticipating this emerging strain of anti-capitalist conservatism. In this, he shares the ideological concerns of American paleoconservatives such as Pat Buchanan and white nationalist intellectuals who have long been vocal critics of globalized free markets and the “suburbanization” of urban landscapes deformed by multinational corporations. Now Tucker Carlson nightly attacks what he perceives to be the twin horrors of globalization: immigration and global capitalism.
This set of concerns has come to define an emerging group of hard-right Republicans and populists calling themselves “national conservatives.” At their inaugural conference in Washington, D.C., in 2019, invectives were aimed not only at traditional targets of the right, but also big corporations, urban homogenization, consumerism, and free-market capitalism itself. As Jennifer Schuessler wrote in the New York Times after the conference:
Conservatives have always prided themselves on being driven by ideas, and the big idea here was that nationalism—shorn of its darker associations—could provide an intellectual banner now that the conservatism based on free trade, libertarian economics and military interventionism that held sway for decades has run out of gas.
A conservatism at odds with corporate capitalism is relatively novel in the United States, but in France it has deep roots. After the left-wing revolts of 1968, the New Right emerged in France as a counterrevolutionary force. The movement’s main philosopher, Alain de Benoist, opposes free-trade capitalism, multiculturalism, and the humanism that links the French and American Revolutions. Conversely, he fiercely defends nationalism and national unity, distinct regional cultures, and ethnic separatism. Recently, de Benoist has said that he now identifies more with the left than the right and would have supported Bernie Sanders over Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. election, but his influence remains mostly confined to white nationalists and far-right networks. He regularly does interviews with far-right websites, and in 2013 he was the keynote speaker at the Washington, D.C., conference for white nationalist organization National Policy Institute. Steve Bannon has praised de Benoist for shaping his own worldview.
For de Benoist, as for Houellebecq, things started to decline in France after 1968. In an interview last year with the far-right website Counter Currents, de Benoist said:
We have to observe that there were two ’68s at the same time. Two big ideologies had defined it. There was a wing of the ’68 movement that I appreciated: the Situationists, like Guy Debord, the students of Henri Lefebvre and Jean Baudrillard, who offered a radical critique of capitalism, the society of the spectacle, and the logic of consumerism. Sadly, this was not the strata that came to dominate the movement, but rather the liberal, individualist, and hedonistic elements came to the fore, whose essential characteristic was the denial of authority. They quickly figured out that the consumer society is the best environment for them to realize their ideology based on desire, and they easily settled down within this system. But they retained their intolerance and anti-authority mentality, which has caused immeasurable damage, first and foremost in the educational system. Education was simply destroyed by the ideology of ’68.
De Benoist’s hatred of free-market capitalism is fundamentally rooted in the fear that it will erase national identity and regional culture. Frenchly, he describes his idea of a nightmare society as a place where “everyone eats hamburgers in Brooklyn.” For nationalists, of course, problems always come from abroad. The anti-Americanness of France’s New Right made it associate global free-market capitalism with U.S. corporations, as if global trade itself were a virus imported from the other side of the Atlantic. In the United States, national conservatives seem to be constructing a similar narrative where there is, on the one hand, a pure U.S. entrepreneurial capitalism of factories, coal mines, and small businesses, and, on the other hand, an intrusive international capitalism ruled by Chinese oligarchs in cohorts with vaguely defined “globalists,” or whichever anti-Semitic trope happens to be close at hand.
Houellebecq is one of the few mainstream contemporary novelists who engage with these ideas. He is also one of the few writers of literary fiction whose books actually inform global political debates. To ignore his power to push radical, often reactionary ideas into mainstream discourse would be to underestimate the power of literature.
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To ignore Houellebecq’s power to push radical, often reactionary ideas into mainstream discourse would be to underestimate the power of literature.
In Houellebecq’s Serotonin, the protagonist, Florent-Claude Labrouste, is a depressed and impotent forty-six-year-old agricultural consultant who has held jobs for Monsanto and the French agriculture ministry. Now, he is both a participant in the ruthless global corporate economy and a critic of it.
Over Christmas, to escape desperate loneliness, he drives to rural Normandy to hang out with his old friend Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde, a hotel owner with aristocratic bloodlines stretching back millennia. Now, he struggles to pay the bills and spends his nights getting drunk on cheap vodka, while ranting angrily about the European Union’s trade policy. When his business and marriage eventually fail, he joins a populist uprising that several reviewers have praised as the oracular Houellebecq’s fictional precursor to the Yellow Vest movement. In fact, d’Harcourt-Olonde is very clearly described as a man of inherited wealth, going back to the time of Charlemagne, and his fear of dispossession shouldn’t be confused with the working-class anger that energized the Yellow Vest movement. These class distinctions seem lost on some American critics, who tend to see all forms of rural anger as inherently working-class.
We also learn of Florent-Claude’s own attempts to advocate for a different society as an agricultural consultant when he shares his friend’s concerns for protectionist trade policies to save France’s rural farmers:
I had always produced realistic figures suggesting reasonable protection measures and economically viable short circuits, but I was just an agronomist, a technician, and at the end of the day I had always been told I was wrong, things had always toppled at the last minute towards the triumph of free trade, towards the race for higher productivity.
The italics are the narrator’s own, revealing bitterness about the futile struggle for a different economy, as well as a deeper sense of political despair and powerlessness. Eventually, Florent-Claude breaks down and cries: “Who was I to imagine I could change the course of the world?” Houellebecq’s narrators are known for their detached cynicism, but Florent-Claude is also an earnest idealist who dreams of a better world.
After breaking up with his girlfriend, Yuzu, he’s also desperately lonely. While Yuzu is busy filming her orgies with other men, Florent-Claude fantasizes, for the duration of the book, about a young woman he sees at a gas station wearing denim shorts. His casual misogyny is predictable at this point, but the specifics remind us that Houellebecq is now sixty-three years old and seems to have culled his sexual fantasies from ZZ Top videos viewed on MTV in the early 1990s.
The misogynist sex scenes in Houellebecq’s novels have often seemed deliberately provocative, but in Serotonin, they are childishly exaggerated. In the political context of the story, however, they serve a bigger purpose, as Houellebecq tries to drive home that the reason his protagonists are so desperately alone is that women no longer believe in loyalty, tradition and family. Like de Benoist, Houellebecq sees twin tragedies coming out of 1968: an opening up of global markets, and the death of traditional social mores—liberalization of the economy and of the bedroom.
In Houellebecq’s writing, supermarket franchises provide the comfort that the now-absent housewife no longer will, and are often described with more color, nuance, and tenderness than the female characters.
That’s why his protagonists end up all alone in the middle of the night, looking for an affordable snack in the frozen food section of the local supermarket. The essential act of a Houellebecq character is not paying for sex, but paying for a TV dinner at Carrefour Express. These supermarket franchises provide the comfort, and food, that the now-absent housewife no longer will. Revealingly, in Houellebecq’s two most recent novels, Submission and Serotonin, these supermarkets and grocery stores—the Monoprix, Carrefour, and Lidl that are ubiquitous in Paris—are often described with more color, nuance, and tenderness than the female characters. In Houellebecq’s poetry, Monoprix, Carrefour, and FNAC have long been recurring characters, so much so that French critics have dubbed him “the Baudelaire of the supermarket.”
In 2017 Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Houellebecq’s go-to U.S. publisher, released Unreconciled, a collected, bilingual volume of twenty-two years of Houellebecq’s poetry. If you suffer from the conviction that Houellebecq is an infallible writer, his poems might serve as an antidote. But they can help inform our understanding of Houellebecq as a writer. As in his novels, at the core of Unreconciled is a recurring theme of atomized individuals in the neoliberal city. The collection tellingly opens with a poem called “Hypermarché” (a play on the French word for supermarket, supermarché), which describes a young man having a breakdown in a cold, depressing supermarket. Numerous poems (all of which are untitled) return to this scene, for example:
There was really no hope any more.Down below, some women insulted each otherRight next to the Monoprix shut since December.
Many of the poems were written in the early 1990s, long before France had adopted the euro and supposedly sold its soul to the bureaucrats in Brussels. Yet the enemy is already anonymized, internationalized commerce. The names of the grocery stores and retail chains becomes shorthand for the emptiness of the neoliberal city.
So what is it that Houellebecq longs for in this cold, heartless city? A love that transcends the deep loneliness of urban life, sure, but also something bigger, much grander, a return to a pure France, a pure nation, with traditional values, respect for hierarchy, family values, national identity, faith, and meaning.
In Serotonin, Florent-Claude aches for this imaginary past, a return to a different France, before it allegedly was destroyed by feminists, environmentalists, secular liberals, and the bureaucrats of the European Union. Of course this idealized past, of which Houellebecq and his fellow national conservatives dream, has never existed in reality. As the author himself wrote in a memorable passage in Submission:
We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there, whether we lived well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful. So, for that matter, is the future. Only the present hurts, and we carry it around like an abscess of suffering, our companion between two infinities of happiness and peace.
Try to fit that on a red baseball hat.