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A Friendly Critique of Baudet’s Essay on Houellebecq’s Sérotonine

Today, Dutch online news outlets published alarming headlines about a major national politician that threatened women’s rights, euthanasia, and abortion. Thierry Baudet, leader of the Forum for Democracy (FvD) (Dutch), apparently had made objectionable statements in a literary review essay on the work of Houellebecq.

Being a member of the FvD, while leaving the VVD after twelve years of membership because they signed a treaty that endangered freedom of press, I care deeply about freedom. This freedom of the individual, as I understand it, is a freedom in relation to the social group or nation around the individual, and the persons constituting such social entities. As such, individual freedom is dependent on a healthy social context; individualism brought to it extremes, denying the group or devitalizing the nation, cannot endure.

Although I am not an active member of the FvD, I often engage in friendly discussions, both offline with friends and online with strangers. Sometimes I find myself at odds with the party line and public intellectuals such as Thierry Baudet. Does Thierry indeed cross the line by favoring some kind of traditionalism over individual freedom? Let’s read his essay; I will make a few comments on some of his written words.

Note: this is a long read. Some of my links to other sources on the web will be in Dutch; in such cases, I will make that visible like so: Dutch language (Dutch). Also note that I tried to publish it on the same day as the essay under critique came online; if I make any corrections in the future, I will add a note about it below the article. (Update: I already made a few corrections.)

So first read his essay, Houellebecq’s Unfinished Critique of Liberal Modernity.

Houellebecq’s Unfinished Critique of Liberal Modernity
by Thierry Baudet
REVIEW ESSAY: Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq
Flammarion, 2019, 352 pages
The article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume III, Number 2 (Summer 2019): 213–24.

Please continue only when you have finished reading it…

The main subject of the essay is the relation of individual freedom vis-a-vis religion and the nation. Most news media in Holland are left-leaning and often negatively frame Baudet. It is not the main subject that caught their attention; if anything, the text snippet below really explains most of the rage and hate that quickly emerged on social media after the essay was published:

Today, even new life (in the womb) may be extinguished to avoid disturbing the individual’s freedom. In the Netherlands (where I live), suicide is facilitated to ensure that here, too, no constraints – such as the duty to care for your parents – are placed on the individual.

Baudet gave the examples above to strengthen his main argument. These examples are ill chosen and he should be aware that abortion rights and euthanasia are very politically sensitive topics.

First, on abortion. His statement is true, but lacks further explanation. It is true that abortion is possible in The Netherlands, even without a medical necessity or in the absence of rape or other special conditions. It is also true that many feminists uphold this liberty, and that some women destroy their fetuses because of career or holiday plans. So, it serves as an example of individual liberty. But this fails to mention the women that are pregnant, not of their own fault, but because of rape. It fails to mention difficult cases in which the fetus has very serious medical conditions. It also fails to mention the fact that in The Netherlands, we had very low abortion rates, thanks to good sexual education and the free availability of the anti-conception pill. Religious communities here often had higher abortion rates, caused by their traditional constraints. Good intentions do not always equate to good results. Fighting abortion starts with good sexual education and free access to anti-conception.

Second, on euthanasia. I understand facilitated suicide as euthanasia. It is absolutely not the case that there are “no constraints” in our country. That is a false statement. If such were the case, then we would not suffer the train delays because of troubled people committing suicide by jumping before the train. Euthanasia protocols are very tight. Even then, medical doctors are not under obligation to perform euthanasia. Some of my friends are doctors, as is my girlfriend, and for them, these matters on life and death have a very high professional and personal-emotional weight. Modern medical technology enables us to keep some patients alive for months or years that would live for only a few days of weeks in the past; in some cases, such prolonged lives can be compared to months of torture. I also fail to understand how this would evade some “duty to care for your parents” as most of these individuals are old and have already lost their parents. (Update: I got that wrong, I meant that such children often do care about their parents…). I wonder if Thierry Baudet was really referring to euthanasia – and if he did, he might want to better explain his position on this sensitive matter.

So, while I understand both statements as mere examples, not as the main subject of his essay, I still feel that a reconsideration of further explanation on these sensitive matters of life and death are warranted. However, I would like to turn to the main subject now.

Update: Thierry delivered on this. On Dutch television, he stated to not oppose abortion rights, euthanasia, or working women. See Goedemorgen Nederland (Dutch).

In Houellebecq’s view, the very philosophical concept of “the individual self” is wrong. For without the ability to define ourselves in an unbreakable connection with our surroundings, there is nothing for us to derive meaning from and we end up depressed. Thus, the freest people who have ever lived have also come to live the least meaningful lives.

We have to credit the Greeks for using the word “politeia”; which is the title of the well-known book of Plato on the State. Hannah Arendt, in her book The Human Condition (Dutch), also understood the real political activity of the individual as something that could only exist in a political space, a polis. In a polis, political stories are woven and, as I understand it, in such a polis one can find meaning.

The relation between the individual and the community is difficult. Maybe that is a result of our genetic programming: our herd instinct, which is somewhat flexible because it allows us to have flexible groups and flexible identities, and our ego complex, which is necessary for the emergence of consciousness, as the Jungian psychologist Neumann wrote. In analytic psychology, multiple layers of a collective unconscious are assumed; on a deep level, something we share with all of humanity and maybe with animals; on a less deep level, unconscious images shared by a race or nation; and on a personal level, memories and visions not conscious to the ego complex. Regarding the genetic programming: that part is well explored by sociobiologist such as Edward O. Wilson in e.g. On Human Nature (1979).

There is an eternal struggle between the individual and the group. Static groups have no future; remember how the strong Spartan state could not evolve, being too static, too much based on rules and group cohesion. But without group bonding, no nations or political units are possible; no individualism is then possible.

Plato’s solution to this dilemma was weird, unorthodox and untested; he wanted to have a ruling class without property rights, selected not just on intelligence, but also based on courage in war. The most free ones, the rulers, would then also be the most bounded ones. His rulers would be aristocrats of the souls: the rare individuals that had the death-facing courage, mystical vision, and rational intelligence that would be able to transcendent common thinking and money. These rulers would be immune to deceit and money, thus able to defend their polis.

[…] we need to rediscover a territorial, social, and historical connection with others around us, a connection which transcends individual choice, momentary whims, and instrumental interests.

Here we have it; now the reader maybe understands the relevance of my earlier comments. Transcendence of the individual, material plane; for Plato, this necessitated a belief in a more real world, a world less temporary, of Ideas, Forms and gods. Jung build in the Ideas of Plato to construct his Archetypes, which are part of the collective unconscious. These archetypes are often expressed in religion and myth; individuation depends on becoming conscious of these depths of the mind. Jung was convinced that a good integration of the God-archetype, regardless of the actual existence of God, was important for individual and collective psychical health. Sociobiologists can comment on the evolutionary strategies of groups.

How did we end up being disconnected individuals, ultimately denying all the roots of our individual existence: our nation, our social context, our myths, our history, and so on? One of the founders of sociology, Max Weber, coined the term disenchantment. Technology brought a “rationalization”, one that should not be confused with the real rationalism of Plato, but a flattened “rationalism”, limited by the needs of technology and the technological society, including bureaucracy. I’m not sure if we can use methods of the past, from before the industrial revolution, for our current thirsty souls. But sure there can be found inspiration in our history. Can we re-enchant our culture?

Especially modern paganists call for this re-enchantment. Attempts to reconcile science and enchantment are made by various people, such as practitioners of Chaos Craft, the Dalai Lama, and yes even the Pope.

I’ve written a more personal story and analysis about the results of disenchantment in Schapen in Elspeet en veranderende tijden (Dutch).

This naturally implies a powerful nation-state that protects the social fabric, along with a high degree of skepticism towards immigration and free trade.

I don’t completely follow his implication. He mentions the word “civilization” several times, even “Western civilization”; I assume that he would agree that Western civilization consists of several nation-states. Although a strong nation-state is a good building block for such a civilization, one can wonder why we not just skip the nation-state and build a powerful civilization that protects the social fabric. That seems to be part of the reason that the NATO and the EU do exist.

On other occasions, Thierry Baudet already gave arguments for the nation-state. In my own view, the nation-state seems to be a construct big enough to function and defend itself, but not too large and too diverse, so it has just enough social capital, just enough unity of history, geography, ethnicity and language, just enough identity. Especially in Europe, one can observe that there are important differences in language, climate and culture; the nation-state has a better balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces than most other constructs. Civilization-level constructs should be limited in scope. The NATO is a fine, well-functioning example of such a civilization-level construct. The EU more and more suffers from wanting to be more than it can be and should be – it wants to become a state and comes into conflict with the nation-state members because of it. For more on how civilizations work internally and between each other, read the book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington. My review of his book is here (Dutch).

World map of civilizations, based on Huntington.

Source: Wikipedia

Houellebecq indicates that two much more fundamental challenges must be overcome: our sexual and spiritual liberation. […] Sex, in short, can be a threat – and not simply an aide – to intimacy and love. […] Now this may be true, or partly true, or there may at least be some truth to it. But whatever the case, it is not easy to see how we could possibly constrain the forces that we have unleashed. In this age of instant hookups and online pornography, renewed chastity seems very far off.

If renewed chastity seems “very far off”, then what to do? I really don’t have the answer, but some groups, e.g. around Tantra spirituality, try to re-enchant sexuality itself. These groups are far removed from Victorian sexual morals, but also far removed from the industrial disenchanted ideas on sexuality. I’m not arguing that the Tantra teachers have a working answer; I only observe that conservative and (post)modern attitudes on sexuality in the West are not the only option. Especially in young, cosmopolitan, (semi)spiritual people, I observe a growing interest in these alternative views. For example, read the interesting analysis by Krista Steenbergen (Dutch).

Then, religion: Houellebecq argues that we will always conceive of ourselves in terms of a metaphysical purpose. Those who believe that the heavens above us are devoid of a divine presence will invariably meet their existential needs in other ways: first with the superficial pleasure of a libertine lifestyle, and, in due course, with barely secularized heresies – such as naïve humanitarianism and one-worldism. This desperate moralism opens the doors to massive numbers of immigrants, undermines real political communities, and makes distinctive national and civilizational aspirations impossible.

Religion, for a long time, delivered a group identity above and transcending the state and the nation; only in 1648 was the Peace of Westphalia signed and the autonomy of the nation-state accepted. Even today, a few Christians of questionable education argue to open up our borders for mass immigration; I doubt their education because most theologians in the past always recognized the duty to defend the Christian homelands. In The Netherlands, the orthodox political party SGP does not make such a suicidal mistake and sides with the FvD on these topics of national security.

One-worldism is somewhat inherent in the Christian faith and a few other religions; but even then, nations are often recognized to be of importance for social order. For example, the Roman Catholic cardinal Robert Sarah is very outspoken on the dangers of migration. As another example, the Dalai Lama has some doubt on mass migration.

These religions place the soul, mind, or God above the material realm; therefore, although united by a higher Being (the universal), there still is reason to believe in Creation (the particular). A fine balance between the universal and the particular is achieved.

Although I enjoy the pleasures of a libertine lifestyle, I would say that, without a deeper and/or higher consciousness, such a lifestyle would indeed be empty and meaningless. In modern psychiatry, at least in Holland, there is currently a lot of awareness about the problem of meaning. Trying to make people happy seems not to be enough. Earlier psychologists, such as Jung, already knew this, but in a disenchanted world, even mental well-being is rationalized and measured, avoiding “negative feelings” and “negative thoughts”, treating humans like machines that should be kept happy. Now I don’t want to promote depression, but at least our old priests knew how to story-tell meaning into the difficulties and doubts that come with being a human.

So the political problems that Thierry Baudet presents to us, being mass immigration, the undermining of real political communities, and national collapse, are indeed linked to religion or metaphysical purpose. The problems of modernity are linked to unchecked individualism and hedonism, or at least with the disenchantment of our culture. His comments on feminism, abortion and euthanasia are to be understood in this context, as this is the main subject of his essay.

So the paradox is this: the freedom we desire eventually makes us unfree and unhappy, while the constraints that we reject eventually make us happy and free. We are profoundly incapable of defining ourselves as individuals (although we think we can). We constantly overestimate our own abilities to create a world on our own.

The conscious mind indeed is not aware of the strong unconscious archetypes, myths, symbols, instincts, memories and whatnot; all this unconscious material gives direction to our individual behavior and collective culture. As I hinted earlier: real individuation (freedom) only comes after integrating the unconscious. This also means, on a collective level, an activation of group myths and history. Without these connections, the individual (ego complex) is just a small box, controlled by forces not conscious to him. He always has some vague feeling of being controlled, unknown insecurities and fears, causing neurotic and often passive-aggressive states of mind. The paradox, restated, is that the freedom we desire cannot develop without the collective that gives it nutrition.

The way to handle this paradox is to find a balance between group and individual; between the universal and the particular. And such a balance needs to be multi-level: from the world (anima mundi), to the civilization (religion or race or Higher Idea), to the nation, to the state, to the family, to the individual. All these levels give a level of meaning.

Again, Thierry Baudet succeeded in linking modern and hotly debated political issues to deeper cultural discussions.

Today women, from an early age, are encouraged to pursue a career and be financially independent. They are expected to reject the traditional role of supporting a husband and strive instead for an “equal” relationship in which “gender roles” are interchangeable. […] But how has this really been working out for them? What happens when they hit thirty? […] An inevitable result of all this is the demographic decline of Europe. Another outcome is constant conflict, constant competition – and in the end, fighting, divorce, and social isolation – and a new generation of boys and girls growing up in such disfigured settings.

Honestly, apart from all correct opinions and reasoning: look around you, see how stable modern love and sex is. I know too many stories in my personal circles. I recognize this sad state of affairs in many young university-educated city dwellers here in Holland. Some of the young women want children but put all their vitality, energy, libido, time and money into their “career” that somehow seems to be unstable and meaningless to them when they, indeed, hit thirty.

But as before in this essay, Thierry Baudet does refer to earlier times, but offers no solutions for today’s world. That might be due to the fact that his essay is only a review of the work of Houellebecq and not a modern political analysis, let alone a political program offering solutions. But he mentions the demographic decline, the constant conflict, the high divorce rate, the loneliness we often see in modern cities… What to do, then?

Maybe returning to orthodox ways is indeed a solution. Orthodox reformed villages in The Netherlands don’t have most of the mentioned problems. But maybe there are unexpected ways out? Both the Tantrists and some divergent feminists, such as Camille Paglia, offer viewpoints that recognize transcendent meaning but are not so at odds with modern sexuality. It isn’t even that new; Plato offered interesting views on Eros and the meaning of it all in Symposion.

I’m sure that these statements on gender roles will ignite a fury of third wave feminists, about sexism and oppression, about baaaad Baudet, and whatnot. This kind of feminism has done a lot of damage, not only to society, but especially on many women. For a more elaborate analysis, see this blogpost from a prostitute: Feminisme (3/3) (Dutch).

In my view, mainstream feminism doesn’t understand the meaning of polarity (Dutch). I agree mostly with the early psychoanalyst Violet Mary Firth (also known under her pseudonym Dion Fortune) that, for most couples and situations, polarity is determined as such on four levels:

level / realm dominant
1. spiritual female
2. intellectual male
3. emotional female
4. physical male

She noted that although this is the most usual situation, there are often exceptions. But such a polarized world view is not compatible with modern feminism. By denying gendered roles, it hinders the healthy dynamic interplay of the sexes and does harm to relations and in the end, society as a whole.

Note that the woman is dominant in the spiritual realm, probably because she gives life in her womb. Like the Holy Virgin symbol, she (not he) gives birth, and also she first ate the apple. First by introducing sin; first by introducing the Son. First in both cases; first when Jung and Neumann analyzed the emergence of consciousness. The Great Mother appears before the Great Father in our consciousness. Maybe it’s because we, as infants, are so dependent on our biological mother.

The modern feminist depolarization reminds me of the disenchantment and mechanization of the human mind. If Thierry Baudet links this to modern problems, than I cannot disagree with him on his diagnosis. Modern feminism is a danger for the identity, happiness and freedom of women. For further analysis, I refer to the ideas of Camille Paglia.

We are now at the point where we must begin to think about what comes after – and this will necessarily be some form of traditionalism. Because individualism makes our societies so weak (resulting, as we have seen, in an unwillingness to defend our civilization, to resist mass immigration, and even to reproduce, among other things), our society shall either regress and regenerate, or it will be replaced.

I suspect that by “traditionalism”, really a capitalized Traditionalism is meant, linking it to a perennial philosophy. Various philosophers and mystics from the great religions have given thought to the higher, transcendent values of various religions. A few common themes and an integrated outlook is often called The Tradition. One of the thinkers in this regard is Julius Evola. I’ve reviewed his book Riding the Tiger (Dutch). Anyway, this is a kind of “traditionalism” that has little to do with the narrow-minded morals that so many readers associate with the word.

Is our civilization doomed? In Germany, already around one quarter of the population has non-German roots. The word “replaced” seems not to be exaggerated. Some European cities, and many more neighborhoods, have populations where the original inhabitants are outnumbered. Also many migrants are transferred to small villages. Such demographic shifts, together with the cultural, religious and resulting political shifts, will alter both the essence (mind, identity, nation) and material (bodies, architecture, laws, state) of European nation-states.

Democracy is founded not just on laws (“state”); it is founded on a common transcendent identity (“nation”) that gives the nation-state a common identity without which it, in my view, cannot function. If current trends continue; then, again in my view, the basis under the current political system will be severely weakened. Balkanized states make Balkan-like civil wars a possibility. Preparing our minds for the next expected development is not that far-fetched.

That being said, it is not obvious that we currently live in a democracy. In reality, we have a representative system in The Netherlands; we don’t have many referenda, and we outsourced much of the decision-making to the European Union. Currently Baudet, and his party the FvD, try hard to strengthen democracy in our country. They want elected city officials, referenda, maybe a few experiments with e-democracy, restrictions on undemocratic decision-making by the EU, more transparency, and so on. The FvD is one of the most pro-democratic parties in this country and might be a last effort to save our nation-state, European culture, transcendent values, and democracy.

That’s why I will vote FvD in the coming elections for the European Parliament.

Updates & corrections:

Deze blogpost werd in december 2022 overgezet van WordPress naar een methode gebaseerd op Markdown; het is mogelijk dat hierbij fouten of wijzigingen zijn ontstaan t.o.v. de originele blogpost.