What does Michael Gove have in common with Ukraine’s Azov movement? Not much, one would think. There is surely very little commonality between the published work of the liberal Conservative statesman and the ideology of the armed group, far to the right of any Right-wing populist, which is currently insinuating itself into the institutions of the Ukrainian state, apart from one thing: a familiarity with the works of the obscure Right-wing thinker Guillaume Faye.
The recent bout of Twitter hysteria prompted by Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, rashly sharing photographs of the family bookshelves, may just have been another pointless skirmish in the culture war, but it illustrated one thing very clearly: our self-appointed censors do not have even a passing familiarity with the political thought they seek to expurgate from the world.
By focussing their outrage on Gove’s ownership of a book by David Irving, Owen Jones and the other intellectual luminaries of Twitter progressivism skimmed over Gove’s far more interesting reading choices, namely works by Guillaume Faye and his partner in the French New Right, Alain de Benoist. One would think an engagement with the political thought of our nearest European neighbours would solicit, if not their approval, then at least their interest: but then there are few political movements as insular or intellectually incurious as late-stage British liberalism.
For their benefit, then, the French New Right, or Nouvelle Droite, began as a movement in the late 1960s to forge a new path for European conservatism, rejecting both the culturally dominant Marxism of the period, and the Atlanticism of the mainstream Right.
Influenced by the Konservative Revolution of pre-war Germany, particular the civilisational pessimism of Oswald Spengler, the merciless critique of liberal democracy assembled in the works of Carl Schmitt and the complex and hard to define body of work created by Ernst Junger, the Nouvelle Droite’s think tank GRECE (Groupement de Recherce et d’Études pour la Civilisation Européene, or Research and Study Group for European Civilisation) established itself, for a time, as an influential body on the French political scene.
In 1979, however, GRECE found itself cancelled by a campaign of demonstrative outrage in France’s liberal Le Monde newspaper, accusing the group of an entryist infiltratation of mainstream conservative institutions, particularly the Le Figaro newspaper. Marginal in electoral politics, GRECE nevertheless gained influence in the meta-political sphere, as part of what we could call the Gramscian Right; understanding that politics is downstream of culture, the Nouvelle Droite aimed to influence a new generation of Right-wing thinkers to reject the worldview of mainstream conservative and liberal thought in place of a standpoint quite outside standard Left-Right divisions.
The Nouvelle Droite rejected the domination of the European continent by what it characterised as an imperialist United States, which spreads capitalism and liberalism across the world through a vulgar and thuggish combination of hard and soft power, destroying individual societies and turning the world into an indistinguishable mush of rootless consumers.
Early enthusiasts of the work of Christopher Lasch, critiquing the emergent class of globalised elites, the Nouvelle Droite in some ways anticipated the current trend in both the United States and Europe towards post-liberal thought, though they followed this line of thought in another direction entirely.
Actively supporting Third World national liberation movements, decrying globalisation for its homogenising effects, and sounding urgent warnings of looming ecological collapse, de Benoist and Faye anticipated the anti-globalisation movement of the millennium, before it petered out into commodified pseudo-protest.
Equally, by warning that mass migration into Europe would lead inexorably to ethnic conflict and mass casualty terrorist attacks, and by railing against the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of globalisation and cosmopolitanism, the Nouvelle Droite anticipated much of the discourse of today’s populist Right, though they explicitly rejected what they saw as their petty nationalisms in favour of the unification of Europe and Russia into a single civilisational superpower.
Avowedly anti-capitalist, anti-American, anti-globalisation and pro-European unification, there is, unfortunately for the online censors, therefore very little evidence of Nouvelle Droite influences on Gove’s personal politics. Indeed, many of its lines of thought can be traced more clearly in European politicians as superficially distinct as Macron and Orban than in any British figure.
Its concerns over the prospect of Islamist terrorism resulting from migration into Europe can perhaps be discerned in Gove’s Celsius 7/7, though even here there is a major point of difference. Gove’s book contrasts global jihadism with a Western liberal tradition he urges us to defend; the thinkers of the Nouvelle Droite, by contrast, saw liberalism as the root problem and jihadism as a natural, if culturally alien response, parallel to their own rejection of liberal values.
Unlike Gove, whose book is situated firmly within the tradition of Western liberalism, Faye echoes Islamist ideologues by asserting that: “The rise of radical Islam is the backlash to the excesses of the cosmopolitanism of modernity that wanted to impose on the entire world the model of atheist individualism, the cult of material goods, the loss of spiritual values and the dictatorship of the spectacle.”
Of the two books by Faye on Gove’s bookshelf, both published by the London-based Arktos publishing house, Europe’s leading disseminator of radical right-wing political thought, the most interesting by far is Archaeofuturism, a collection of essays from the late 1990s republished in book format. Writing at the same time as liberal ideologues were declaring the End of History and politicians were assuring their voters that globalisation would bring with it an endless period of global harmony and prosperity, Faye posited a pessimistic worldview of what is now startling immediacy.
By the year 2020, he claimed, as a result of the inherent fragility created by a globalised financial and political system, civilisation would buckle under a cascading set of interlinked crises. Waves of pandemics, of political disorder and state collapse in the Middle East and Africa, of global financial crashes and ecological degradation would rebound off each other, escalating the pressures upon the international system to the point that the world of the late 20th century would become impossible to sustain.
In Faye’s words, “a series of ‘dramatic lines’ are drawing near: like the tributaries of a river, and will converge in perfect unision at the breaking point (between 2010 and 2020), plunging the world into chaos. From this chaos- which will be extremely painful on a global scale- a new order can emerge based on a worldview, Archaeofuturism, understood as the idea for the world of the post-catastrophic age.”
Writing before the 9/11 attacks, the last global financial crash, the bloody cycle of wars precipitated by the Arab Spring and the COVID pandemic, Faye’s concern over what he termed the “convergence of catastrophes,” seemed as outlandish and unfashionable then as it now does topical. Yet since the beginning of this century, a greater awareness of what is known as global catastrophic risk has begun to creep into mainstream strategic thought, mostly with climate change in the foreground and Faye’s other fears placed as second order consequences.
The 2007 Age of Consequences paper, issued jointly by the Centre for International and Strategic Studies and American Centre for New American Security thinktanks, echoed Faye’s apocalyptic warnings in almost every respect, warning that severe climate change would lead to the forced movement of hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people from the worst-affected areas, the collapse of liberal democracy in the rest of the world as a consequence, the unchecked spread of pandemics and jihadist terrorism, and the outbreak of wars within and between states as the global order collapses.
In this scenario, the report warns, “nations around the world will be overwhelmed by the scale of change and pernicious challenges, such as pandemic disease. The internal cohesion of nations will be under great stress, including in the United States, both as a result of a dramatic rise in migration and changes in agricultural patterns and water availability. The flooding of coastal communities around the world, especially in the Netherlands, the United States, South Asia, and China, has the potential to challenge regional and even national identities. Armed conflict between nations over resources, such as the Nile and its tributaries, is likely and nuclear war is possible. The social consequences range from increased religious fervor to outright chaos. In this scenario, climate change provokes a permanent shift in the relationship of humankind to nature.”
Furthermore, the report echoes Faye by warning of such “a dramatically new global paradigm that it is virtually impossible to contemplate all the aspects of national and international life that would be inevitably affected. As one participant noted, “unchecked climate change equals the world depicted by Mad Max, only hotter, with no beaches, and perhaps with even more chaos.”
While such a characterization may seem extreme, a careful and thorough examination of all the many potential consequences associated with global climate change is profoundly disquieting. The collapse and chaos associated with extreme climate change futures would destabilize virtually every aspect of modern life. The only comparable experience for many in the group was considering what the aftermath of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange might have entailed during the height of the Cold War.”
Only last year, a major Australian forecast warned that an apocalyptic near-future was at this point almost inevitable, describing its research as “a glimpse into a world of “outright chaos” on a path to the end of human civilisation and modern society as we have known it, in which the challenges to global security are simply overwhelming and political panic becomes the norm.”
Predictions equally dire as Faye’s have been made in less colourful language though with no less alarming conclusions by the medium-term strategic forecasts of the Ministry of Defence and by the Pentagon, all of which make for unsettling reading.
The European Union, similarly, links climate change to a cascading set of global security challenges , severely threatening both the global and European order. In its 2016 Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign And Security Policy, the overarching mission paper for the continental bloc’s approach to the near future, the EU’s strategists assert that:
“We live in times of existential crisis, within and beyond the European Union. Our Union is under threat. Our European project, which has brought unprecedented peace, prosperity and democracy, is being questioned. To the east, the European security order has been violated, while terrorism and violence plague North Africa and the Middle East, as well as Europe itself. Economic growth is yet to outpace demography in parts of Africa, security tensions in Asia are mounting, while climate change causes further disruption.”
Only last week, Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister, the Sociology professor Piotr Glinski, took to a two-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal to warn that the COVID crisis was a glimpse into a future of civilisational collapse, explicitly likening the modern West to the late Roman Empire.
While the date Faye settled upon for the apocalypse is a decade or two in advance of these more sober warnings, his doomy vision of the medium-term future, is, unfortunately for us, worried over at the highest levels of British, American and European strategic thought.
But perhaps more interesting, not least for its presence on the bookshelf of such a senior British government minister, is Faye’s proposed solution, the Archaeofuturism of the book’s title. Likely influenced by the American political theorist Samuel P. Huntington, Faye unconvincingly suggests the current global system world will coalesce into distinct civilisational blocs: a Chinese-dominated one, a greater North America, a sub-Saharan African bloc, “a Euro-Siberian unit,” a greater Islamic world and a vaguely defined Pacific bloc for the rest.
Once this is achieved, the scene is set for the total reordering of global civilisation, according to “a revolutionary model based on a self-centred and inegalitarian world economy, which may be imposed upon us by historical events, but which it would be wise to foresee and plan for in advance”.
Noting, as is now a commonplace opinion, that “the utopia of ‘development’ open to ten billion people is environmentally unsustainable,” Faye proposes a system of jaw-dropping global re-ordering, worth quoting at length:
“First off, most of humanity would revert to a pre-technological subsistence economy based on agriculture and the crafts, with a neo-medieval demographic structure… Communitarian and tribal life would reassert its rights… Even in industrialised countries- India, Russia, Brazil, China, Indonesia, Argentina, etc- a significant portion of the population could return to live according to this archaic socio-economic model.”
Secondly, Faye asserts: “A minority percentage of humanity would continue to live according to the techno-scientific economic model based on ongoing innovation by establishing a ‘global exchange network’ of about a billion people.”
“Finally”, he notes, “these vast neo-archaic economic blocs would be centred upon a continental or multi-continental plan, with basically no mutual exchange between them. Only the techno-scientific portion of humanity would have access to the global exchange. This two-tier world economy thus combines archaism and futurism. The techno-scientific portion of humanity would have no right to intervene in the affairs of the neo-medieval communities that form the majority of the population, nor — most importantly — would it in any way be obliged to ‘help’ them.”
In a short story at the end of the book, Faye paints a vivid if outlandish picture of this proposed future, where a small, global technocratic global elite pursues rapid technological and scientific advances, while the majority of the world’s population lives in subsistence farming communities at a level of technology broadly equivalent to that of the Dark Ages.
Developing his ideas further in the wildly imaginative series of short science fiction tales which make up his follow-up work Archaeofuturism 2.0, Faye’s vision darkens. Some societies can survive, for a time, by fending off the encroaching chaos and maintaining the rudimentary technology of the early 20th century. But, over time, the darkness settles and mankind is destroyed utterly.
The excellent academic introduction to Faye’s life and work by Stephane Francois in the recent Key Thinkers of the Radical Right notes that Archaeofuturism entails “the dismissal of modernity, born from the Enlightenment, and conservatism, since modernity shows signs of fracture and conservatism leads to nothing.” Summarizing Faye’s vision, Francois notes that:
“To avoid civilisational and ecological collapse, he proposes putting in place an authoritarian regime under the auspices of a “born chief,” a dictator defined as a providential man who knows how to set his peoples in motion, and protects his peoples’ identity and ancestry.”
It is perhaps partly for this reason that Faye’s work has proved so popular with Ukraine’s extreme right-wing Azov Movement, an armed brigade fighting Russia in the contested regions of the country’s east as part of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, which also provides policing functions — both officially, with the state’s blessing, and unofficially, as a competitor to the state — in the cities of Ukraine’s western heartlands.
Last year, shortly after Faye’s death, I interviewed Azov’s international secretary Olenya Somenyaka in the group’s headquarters just off Kyiv’s famous, central Maidan Square. Surrounded by bookcases filled with the works of the esoteric ultra-right writers currently undergoing a revival among disaffected Western conservatives, Semenyaka emphasised how central Faye’s work was in developing her worldview. In the world according to Somenyaka and Azov, Ukraine will play a starring role as a springboard for the reconquest of Europe from what she viewed as a collapsing liberal order, and lead the continent into a neo-pagan, Archaeofuturist dawn.
Presumably it is due to their unexpected popularity with a powerful armed force and challenge to liberal democracy in Ukraine that Faye’s works secured a place on Michael Gove’s bookshelf. Their placing next to an academic work on modern Ukraine would seem to indicate the politician’s interest in the country’s social and political development, laudable given the deployment of British soldiers there.
Indeed, Faye’s darkest warnings are echoed in British parliamentary politics only by the Green Party, one of whose most senior figures, the University of East Anglia’s professor of Philosophy and Extinction Rebellion spokesman Rupert Read, warns that: “We need to think about what comes after the likely collapse of this civilisation and plan accordingly. There are of course many sub-possibilities within this possible future, and some of them are very ugly. The successor civilisation could, for instance, be largely a reign of brutal warlordism. We have to try to do what we can to prepare our descendants for survival and for one of the better sub-possibilities.”
But even if we accept the proposition that Guardian columnists have the right to determine what books may and may not be read, it is unclear that Faye’s works deserve a place on their Index of forbidden knowledge. On the contrary, it is an encouraging sign that our senior politicians are reading obscure and outlandish works of political thought, given the times in which we live.
For good or ill, we are living in a springtime of ideologies, Gramsci’s “time of monsters”, where strange and unlikely political creeds proliferate on Twitter like sexual identities on Tumblr. Whatever the likelihood of our societies soon emulating Faye’s Archaeofuturistic vision — and it is presumably very unlikely — it is equally unlikely that we will return to the world of the near past.
The post-war global order enabled by American hegemony has gone, and will never return. The dominant category of books on Gove’s shelves, the autobiographies of American centrist politicians, represent a world as lost and irretrievable as the biographies of Europe’s absolute monarchs would have seemed exactly one century ago.
If we accept, as post-liberals as well as thinkers of far-left and far-right do, that the ideology of liberalism has exhausted itself, broken by its weak correspondence to reality, then we must accept that some successor ideology will eventually appear to replace it. Whatever that ideology will be, it most probably already exists, like Communism a century ago, as an obscure fringe belief waiting for a crisis in which to assert itself.
In the United States, discussions over the merits of Catholic Integralism are raging through mainstream conservatism, despite the minuscule likelihood of the American state reordering itself in such a direction. In Britain as well as continental Europe, citizens have been slaughtered by adherents of Salafi Jihadism, another radical challenge to liberal beliefs which posits itself as a successor ideology.
The merits and challenges posed by fringe ideologies such as these, rather than the petty concerns of party competition, are the grand matter of political thought, and it is reassuring rather than disturbing that our elected representatives are alert to them.
Some of the shrillest Twitter analysts of Gove’s bookshelves have spent years agitating for the political success of devotees of a murderous 20th century fringe ideology, itself now jettisoned on the wreckage of history. The radical left-wing publisher Verso — as far to the left of centrist thought as Faye is to the right, though more socially acceptable — has published all manner of strange and unlikely manifestos in recent years, from demanding the abolition of the family to asserting that we can live in a world of endless growth and consumption derived from mining asteroids.
Both ideas are absurd, but while we can be grateful that the last election saw their advocates firmly shunted away from political power, neither book should be banned, only considered on its own merits and then ridiculed. The existence of eccentric works like these is, however, broadly positive, in that it shows people are giving serious consideration to what should replace the intellectual and political framework dying all around us.
We should be pleased that our political representatives are reading offbeat ideas, not necessarily because they believe them, but because they represent the strange intellectual and political ferment of the early 21st century. The idea that There Is No Alternative to the neoliberal consensus is long gone. There are, if anything, too many alternatives, and they represent a future as dangerous as it is exciting.
As well as reading Faye, Gove and other British politicians should be investigating a wide variety of radical thinkers of left and right, from the post-anarchist work of Murray Bookchin to the idiosyncratic Marxist cultural criticism of Mark Fisher, the Catholic critiques of liberal democracy of Patrick Deneen and Ryszard Legutko, the rejection of modernity wrought in fiction by Michel Houellebecq and Paul Kingsnorth, and whatever other responses to what we can call the crisis of the 21st century are now circulating in the marketplace of ideas. After all, as Faye himself archly notes in Archaeofuturism, “modernity already belongs to a past that is over.”