“Questioning The Old Progressive Dogma:” An Interview With Jean-Claude Michea

Interview with an unclassifiable philosopher.

Translated from Le Nouvel Observateur,  September 22, 2011

Posted OCtober 10, 2020

But trucking is also work that relies on the commodification of the trucker’s body. This body has to be primed for maximum efficiency, pushing itself to the limits to overcome the inevitable routine obstacles and delays. Trucker’s work life is determined by an intersection of time and distance and at this intersection is where their money is made. (1)

COVID19  has thrown a new spanner in that equation, besidse the shutdown in commercial traffic in the early days of the pandemic: increased piracy.

Industry sources report a 56% increase in incidents of theft and 80% increase in the value of goods stolen in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same time in 2019. In April 2000 alone, thefts skyrocketed 300%. But actual thefts are notoriously under-reported because trucking companies don’t want to get a bad rep for not securing their trucks. The true figures are much higher and the reported figures misleading because there are incentives for all parties concerned to keep quiet. Since industry reporting is voluntary, the federal crime figures woefully underestimate the true extent of theft and piracy on the highways..

The type of goods stolen since the onset of COVID-19 has shifted too. Before COVID19, electronics scored high, with most electronics stolen by professional gangs that then shipped the goods overseas to South America to be broken down and sold in Asian markets. But with slowdowns in international trade in the first few months of the epidemic, thieves turned to food, bottled water, and other household consumer items. These goods are easy to unload on the domestic black market and thieves with a determined hustle can peddle food stuffs to mom-and-pop stores with virtually no ability to trace such transactions. As one industry loss expert says, “You can’t put serial numbers on almonds.”

 But as the economic pain from COVD19 spreads, the incentive to pirate trucker loads has only increased.  As good capitalists, criminals will tailor thefts for local markets; for instance, nitrate gloves were stolen for areas with shortages and stolen bottled water gets diverted to hurricane-struck areas where drinking water fetches premium prices. In one heist, 18,000 pounds of toilet paper were spirited away for black market destinations.

Another factor boosting opportunities for theft is lay-offs or absenteeism because of COVD-19 at shipping docks, which leaves less eyes to keep track of goods and gives thieves more opportunities. Even before COVID19, truckers faced a shortage of berths at truck stops and with COVID-19, many truck stops closed or cut-back staff and hours, forcing truckers to bunk down in less secure areas, which has led to a number of violent attacks. Trucks, for instance, have been commandeered at gun point. In one case, a trucker who had pulled over for the night in a parking lot in Detroit was shot and his rig set on fire,

Many of these attempts are small-fry crimes of opportunity where attempts to steal unprotected goods devolves into violence. The big boys use more sophisticated technique such as hacking into logistics computer systems, posing as legitimate cargo shippers and even setting up phony shipping companies.

The figures for shootings and other violent acts against truckers have mushroomed since COVD-19, leading some truckers to start a “Trucker Lives Matter” Facebook group to fight for the right of truckers to carry arms.  Trucking companies for insurance purposes forbid drivers to drive strapped and state laws don’t recognize gun permits held out of state so even a trucker with a permit in Oklahoma can be arrested for carrying the same weapon in Arizona. Truckers are demanding not only that companies allow them to carry arms for self-defense but also  are demanding a federal law letting truckers traveling cross-state to be armed without legal repercussion.

COVID-19 is having a ripple effect throughout U.S. society and if economic hardship grows, it logically flows that attempts to appropriate necessities by any means necessary may stand to increase too. The uptick in violence and piracy in the trucking industry is just one of those hidden, unacknowledged  markers of social disruption following in the wake of COVID-19. As one truckers posted on a trucker’s list said, “It’s wilder out here now than anything I’ve seen in 35 years of driving.”

Notes

1. See Benjamin H Snyder, Dignity and the Professionalized Body: Truck Driving in the Age of Instant Gratification,  The Hedgehog Review, Fall 2012. Accessed from https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/work-and-dignity/articles/dignity-and-the-professionalized-body-truck-driving-in-the-age-of-instant-gratification

Le Nouvel Observateur – How does the Orphée Complex, the title of your book, define for you the imaginary of the progressive left?

Jean-Claude Michéa – Just as a Pythagorean would have preferred to die rather than cross a field of beans, a leftist activist immediately feels a sacred terror at the thought that something could have gone better in the world before. Such an incorrect thought would lead him to question the old progressive dogma that there is a mysterious sense of history, driven by the inexorable development of new technologies, and which would mechanically lead humanity towards an ever more perfect world. – that it has the face of the “bright future” or that of “happy globalization”. Difficult then not to think of poor Orpheus who, to bring Eurydice from the Underworld, had had to commit to go forward forever without ever allowing himself the slightest glance back. But the comparison with the wandering Jew of Eugene Sue would have been equally appropriate.

How do Orwell’s “conservative anarchism” and his defense of a “common decency” of “ordinary people” remain for you?

Unlike Marx – for whom the socialist ideal was to rest solely on science – Orwell always thought that the critique of capitalism had its source in a moral feeling of indignation and injustice. He thus rediscovered the spirit of the founders of socialism, who first denounced in the liberal order a system structurally based on selfishness and the war of all against all. But the moral understanding that “there are things that are not done” (Orwell) presupposes very strict anthropological conditions. It implies, Mauss said, a system of face-to-face relations structured by the triple obligation of “giving, receiving and giving back” and which constitutes in this respect the “rock” (the term is Mauss) on which all community possible.

Admittedly, to be able to place the idea of common decency in the heart of the socialist project, it was necessary first of all to free it from all its historical limits (limits which held, moreover, less to the fact communitarian itself than to its various forms of hierarchical organization). Nevertheless, this critical universalization movement of common decency necessarily finds its anchor in these elementary structures of reciprocity, which have always founded the very possibility of a collective life.

But it is precisely these primary solidarities (the famous “primary groups” of Charles Cooley) that the unlimited development of the market and law (hence of the spirit of calculation and procedural spirit) now threatens to destroy irreversibly. Orwell was therefore quite right to emphasize the “conservative” moment of any revolutionary political project. The possibility of a true socialist society will largely depend on the ability of ordinary people to preserve the moral and cultural conditions of their own humanity.

Did the left abandon the first ambition of socialism, coined by Pierre Leroux in 1834?

I would say rather that it has become what it was before the Dreyfus affair. Until that time, the left – the name under which the different liberal and republican currents were grouped together – had always fought on two fronts. On the one hand, against the “clerical and monarchist peril” – incarnated by the “whites” of the conservative and reactionary right – on the other, against the “collectivist danger” – symbolized by the “reds” of the socialist camp firmly attached as for their part, to the political independence of the proletariat (that is why we will never find a single text of Marx where he would claim the left or, a fortiori, his union).

It was only in 1899 – faced with the imminence of a coup d’état of the Right of the Ancien Régime and its new “nationalist” allies – that the modern left would truly take birth, on the basis of a compromise – initially purely defensive – between the “blues” of the original left and the “reds” of the workers’ movement (despite the fierce opposition of the anarcho-syndicalists).

It is therefore this ambiguous historic compromise between liberals, republicans and socialists – a compromise sealed against the only “reaction” and which would give the left of the twentieth century its particular mystique – which was gradually called into question, at the beginning of in the 1980s, as the idea of any attempt to break with capitalism prevailed (that is, with a system that subjugates the lives of ordinary people to the goodwill of the privileged minorities who control capital and information) could only lead to totalitarianism and the Gulag.

It is above all in this new context that the official left has come to reconnect – under an anti-racist and citizen dressing – with its old modernist demons of the nineteenth century, when under the name of “party of the movement” it had already for  watchword “neither reaction nor revolution”.

And since the right of Ancien Régime has given way to that of the followers of the economic liberalism of Tocqueville and Bastiat (which, we forget all too often, both sat on the left), we can say that the opposition of the right and the left, as it functions today, is essentially no more than an updating of certain divisions which, at the end of the nineteenth century, already divided the old party of the movement (we would now say the party of growth and globalization). This gradual disappearance of the old white and red parties in favor of an internal electoral antagonism to the blue party alone explains many things.

How is capitalism, which you think is prosperous and limitless, historically suicidal?

Originally, liberalism was simply a doctrine of limitations that should be imposed on the control of the state, churches and tradition in order to protect individual freedom. In practice, this doctrine led to the defense of the model of an “axiologically neutral” (or secularized) society in which everyone could live as he pleased, provided he did not harm others (free trade only being the application of this general principle to the particular sphere of economic activities).

If this system has been able to work so consistently for a long time, it is however because it continued to rely implicitly on a certain number of values (of “cultural deposits”, said Castoriadis) which no one thought of questioning yet “evidence.” Almost everyone, for example, agreed that there were common sense criteria for distinguishing honest action from dishonest action, a madman from a sane man, a child of an adult or a man of a woman.

Now, from the moment when all existing forms of philosophical categorization begin to be perceived as mere arbitrary and discriminatory constructions (and cultural liberalism sooner or later leads to this postmodern conclusion), the liberal system necessarily becomes incapable of defining by itself. even its own limits. And just as an unlimited economic growth is condemned to gradually deplete the natural resources that make it possible, so the unlimited extension of the right of everyone to satisfy his least personal fads can lead ultimately to undermine all the symbolic foundations of life in common.

In the image of King Midas, who died of being able to transform everything into gold, it seems that the global elites of modern liberalism are now philosophically ready, in order to satisfy their greed, to destroy even the very conditions of their own survival.

Interview by Gilles Anquetil and François Armanet

Source: “Le Nouvel Observateur” of 22 September 2011.

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