The Spearhead Culture
America, the society-laboratory
During the Cold War, France had only two liberals: Raymond Aron and Jean-François Revel. Revel was a contrarian not only because of his defense of liberal ideas in a country where praise for Joseph Stalin was far more common than admiration for Adam Smith. He challenged one of dominant features of the Cold War France: anti-Americanism. With Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun, published in 1970, he sparked great controversy by proclaiming that America is not only more revolutionary than Soviet Union and Mao’s China, but that U.S. was capable of something that Europe was not: creating political and cultural “prototypes.”
The author of the only biography of Revel states that “with his profile of a 19th century publicist, Revel was perhaps the last great French liberal of the 20th century.” He considered the market to be a fundamental sphere of human relations and creativity and saw it as a protection from arbitrary government actions. The French writer once gave the following definition of liberalism: “confused set of resistances of humanity to the persistent idées fixes that attempt to purify it by enslaving it.”
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For Revel, liberalism should be inseparable from democracy, the most pragmatic of all regimes, as it uses the method of trial and error, exercising constant self-correction. He wrote that democracy was so mercilessly attacked by intellectuals, precisely because it was the only regime where they had the right to speak freely.
Many of them, he warned, willingly choose fanaticism over careful observation and empirical restraint. “Man’s capacity to construct in his mind almost any theory, to ‘prove’ it to himself, and to believe it, is unlimited. It is only equalled by his capacity to resist what refutes it,” wrote Revel in La Connaissance inutile.
Like Tocqueville, he drew comparisons between the American system and the French one. In the Fifth Republic, the president is much more powerful, his authority does not encounter the same barriers as in the U.S., leading to “presidential hypertrophy” and “ineffective absolutism.”
For Revel, however, the U.S. wasn’t just a backdrop for exposing the flaws of French political system. In his eyes, America is a civilization that, in contrast with Europe, still has “the ability to formulate cultural prototypes and prototypes of political societies.”
In Without Marx or Jesus, Revel intended to avoid both the pitfalls of pro-Americanism and anti-Americanism, labeling them as “irrational attitudes.” Following his time in the United States, the French writer concludes that America – like Italy, France and England in the past – represents now a “society-laboratory.” It is there, he believes, that the revolution can take place and nowhere else.
The first reason why the revolution can only happen in America is that the U.S. “enjoys continuing economic prosperity and rate of growth, without which no revolutionary project can succeed.” Second, it is where the frontier of innovation is constantly being pushed forward. Third, it is a country that is oriented toward the future, not mesmerized by the past. Fourth, it is a hotbed of rebellion against authoritarian control – Revel writes this having in mind the student revolts of the 1960s – where different lifestyles and ways of life proliferate. The American revolution is supposed to be the first modern revolution in which differences over values are more important than differences over means of existence.
The revolution that is to take place in America is destined to be an absolutely novel event in history, “not a settling of accounts with the past, but with the future.” The French writer imagines it as a burst of innovations and new economic solutions, without which it would not be able to keep its promises. Here Revel invokes the economists of the 18th century, for whom the feudal system of the ancien régime was not only unjust, but also unproductive. A true revolution means increasing productivity and efficiency relative to the regime it overcomes.
The new revolution is supposed to have nothing in common “with the revolutions dreamed of in the nineteenth century.” Thus, it will not come, contrary to the expectations of the European left at the time, either from the Soviets or from Maoist China. Revel notes that this is a hard truth to swallow for the left, which is ready to consider any eventuality, except that the U.S. – the country of exploitation, imperialism and Joe McCarthy – could be the source of a genuine upheaval. It views America as either a target or the greatest obstacle to revolution, not as its starting point.
Soviet Russia is no longer a source of revolutionary impulses, China, too, remarks Revel, offers no new radical vision for the world. Mao’s aphorisms from the Little Red Book have little to do with conditions in the industrialized countries of the West. They represent “emotional abstractions,” not visions capable of transforming the First World.
The Western left in the 1960s and 1970s argued that the revolution could come from yet another direction – the Third World. According to Revel, this belief is a manifestation of nostalgia for the pre-industrial era. He adds that there is no more counter-revolutionary combination than synthesis found in the Third World, namely that “of socialism with the past. Taken together, they have the effect of perpetuating economic stagnation while justifying political dictatorships.”
Nor is there any chance that the revolution will start in Europe. On the Old Continent the prevailing mood is that nothing new can really happen and every effort toward innovation is immediately suppressed. Before the Second World War, French essayist and poet Paul Valéry noted that Europe entered its Ptolemaic era: it had become a civilization of quotations and compilations, fixated on the past and devoid of creativity. Revel writes in a similar vein about the Old World, where everyone feels the need to return to the past, even if they intend to do something new, slave to the compulsion of invoking Bakunin or Marx, the 1789 Revolution, the Paris Commune or the Bolsheviks, Mao, Castro or pre-industrial society. During May 1968 revolt, Parisian students painted the famous slogan “imagination has come to power” on university walls. It meant nothing, according to Revel, as their imagination is confined to old doctrines and events of the past. For them the revolution becomes “a pale imitation of an earlier fiasco. And, since there is a multitude of historic failures from which to choose, it should come as no surprise that there are a correspondingly large number of ‘revolutionary’ movements’.”
One may ask whether nostalgia is always counter-revolutionary? After all, the revolutionaries of 1789 were largely inspired by the virtue of Roman Republicans, and the Bolsheviks imagined they were reenacting the feats of Robespierre and his companions. Today in America, many of the most future-oriented thinkers feel nostalgic for the technological optimism of the 1950s.
Back to Revel. In his eyes not only is Europe not future-oriented, but it also lacks the technological and economic preconditions to set a new course for the world. According to Without Marx or Jesus, among European countries only the UK can sustain the technological initiative. This observation remains partially accurate to this day: DeepMind, after all, was developed in the UK, not in France or Italy. In any case, Revel’s remark that Europe’s prosperity is based on research and technological breakthroughs made on the other side of the Atlantic is still pertinent.
In Civilization: How We All Became American, Régis Debray argues that, even Europe has fallen into decadence, it should not be a reason to despair. Decadence can be full of creative impulses, as illustrated by the example of Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was during the period of its decline that a remarkable creative flourishing occurred. In painting, figures like Kokoschka, Schiele, and Klimt emerged; in music, there were Schoenberg, Webern, and Mahler; in literature, notable names included Musil, Zweig, and Broch; and in the realm of ideas, one could mention Wittgenstein, Schumpeter, or Freud. Hollywood would be different without Fritz Lang, Sternberg or von Stroheim. Positivism, expressionism, Zionism, and Marxism – all originated in decadent Austria-Hungary.
However, Revel would not be convinced by this argument. In the absence of technological and economic dynamism, he questioned whether Europe can innovate in the field of culture and sensibility. He blames this inertia on the dominance of a certain type of intellectuals who not only focus excessively on the past, constantly rehashing old paradigms, but also harbor antipathy toward scientific thinking, using ideas with only one goal in mind: gaining status. The greatest ambition they can muster is to create their own local variant of what will appear elsewhere. “Certainly, Western Europe will undergo changes in mentality,” writes Revel, “but these changes will be dictated not from within, but from abroad.” Europe has ceased to be a spearhead culture.
According to Revel, Europeans cannot forgive America for making them aware of their cultural sterility. This entails a biased criticism of every phenomenon from across the Atlantic. When automation increases productivity, Europeans label Americans as slaves of technology, when they succeed in reducing poverty, the Old Continent scorns their consumer society, and so on.
Without Marx or Jesus makes the claim that “it is highly significant that the movement of dissent – the only original contribution to the technique of sedition to appear in the past decade, and perhaps since World War II – has originated in the United States.” Revel has in mind the protest movements from Berkeley and other campuses. He insists that information is the most important factor sustaining democracy, and the only way to resist manipulation by state institutions and the media is to make as much information available to the public as possible. The revolutionary dynamic was awakened precisely by information abundance. It led to an unique historical event: opposition to the foreign war arose in the country that led the war. Never before, argues Revel, had anything like this happened, never had the public rebelled against military expeditions or interventions that were intended to advance the national interest. At the same time, the French thinker notes that broad access to information has not always had the desired consequences, leading to “widespread and strong feelings of guilt, and a passion for self-accusation which, on occasion, tends to go to almost unbearable extremes.”
One could ask whether this particular type of rebellion – which Revel calls “dissent” – undermines the technological base, which itself forms a precondition for revolution. Bruce Gibney notes in The Generation of Sociopaths that “Studies in 1972 and 1974 by the National Science Board showed that of all age groups, those under thirty (at the time, a survey group composed entirely of Boomers) held the most negative views about science and technology, including that S&T changed the world too quickly and produced outcomes that tended toward the worse.” He goes on to say that Boomers, at best, failed to sustain the pace of technological progress, and, at worst, simply stunted it. Gibney accuses them of pulling away from an empirical mentality and shifting towards one based on feelings, a change that seems to be confirmed by examination of language. Since the 1970s – as hippie/dissent culture goes mainstream – the vocabulary associated with expressing emotions has supplanted the language of cool, empirical description.
Revel mentions three additional aspects of the American revolution that distinguish it from revolutions of the past. The first is the American aesthetic imagination, which is more vivid, in his opinion, than anywhere else in the world. It is easier to assimilate than European culture, pretentious and wrapped in an aristocratic mythology. Another distinguishing feature is that it leads to “cultural polycentrism”. “Technological plenty, in fact, opens the door to the formation of unexpected cultural minorities,” Revel argues, and there is supposed to be no end to the process of discovering new cultural variants. In the past, cultures created individuals; today, individuals will create cultures, increasingly liberated from national traditions and customs. Looking back, these remarks seem particularly pertinent. In the age of the Internet, more and more people are choosing the culture they want to live in, breaking away from the one they were born into, fashioning a world where, as Gwern explains, everyone has a “niche of his own, on respectful (if uncomprehending) terms with all the other subcultures.”
Revel maintains that the new American revolution will bring yet another great change: the end of national sovereignty, in which the French writer sees the source of all the problems of the modern world. In later years he would abandon this view, but in Without Marx or Jesus he contends that for the revolution to really happen, it must sweep the whole globe. In The Totalitarian Temptation, published a few years later, this conviction is still present, as he sees the nation-states as the greatest hindrance to imposing a global order, in which the economy will be governed by some overarching political authority and individuals will be free to make their own choices within a framework of “cultural polymorphism”.
This is the least convincing argument of Revel’s book. This shortcoming has been singled out by reviewers, as they pointed out that he pays too little attention to foreign relations, treating them in a manner that is not only reductionist, but simply utopian. Another weakness is the insufficient and superficial handling of the religious component, which the title itself announces. The French thinker mentions the vaguely religious nature of the dissent on the one hand, on the other argues that the appeal to God means clinging to the past, while the new revolution has to be completely detached from the old systems of beliefs. However, the scattered reflections throughout the book do not provide a satisfying treatment of the subject.
While not all of Without Marx or Jesus’ observations are still pertinent, it addressed a number of issues in a fresh tone, previously rarely heard in Europe. Two important books on the U.S., namely America by Jean Baudrillard and History Has Begun: Birth of a New America by Bruno Maçaes, seem to develop Revel’s insights.
Both articulate the thesis that America is a society-laboratory. According to Baudrillard, the U.S. represents the original modernity, while Europe is the “dubbed or subtitled version,” condemned to imitate whatever appears on the other side of the Atlantic. America is no longer under the influence of Europe, as Maçaes emphasizes when he argues that a new kind of culture, never before known to the West, is being born in the States. He insists that Tocqueville’s thesis of continuity between the Old Continent and the U.S. has turned out to be wrong. What is unfolding overseas is not the culmination of the European experience but a rupture and genuine transformation.
When the Portuguese diplomat suggests that America could abandon its current political or civilizational form in order to preserve its international position and thus appear in some entirely new, unknown shape to the West, he seems to align with Revel’s vision. Baudrillard, too, recognizes its distinguishing feature in the “unprecedented materialization of models.” Both, however, unlike Revel, seem to identify America’s distinct path with the creation of stories and fictions, with an “orgy of images” as Baudrillard puts it, or what Maçaes calls virtualism.
In his review of History Has Begun, John Gray highlights that Maçaes’ analysis “focuses on shifts in human consciousness, but it is changes in the material world that will be decisive in shaping the next stage in history.” In a world that has unmistakably acknowledged – first during the pandemic, then following the Russian invasion of Ukraine – how crucial the world of atoms is, the thesis of the future era of virtualism appears to rest on dubious foundations. In today’s context of resource nationalism, export controls and industrial policy, it is important to ask whether America’s transformation into what Maçaes describes as a “society of stories” could be seen as decadent. Ross Douthat concludes that virtualism, considered by Portuguese writer as the essence of the new American civilization and a manifestation of its vitality, is merely a transitional period.
On this particular point, there is a key difference between Maçaes’ thinking and Without Marx or Jesus. For the French writer, economic growth and technological development constitute necessary conditions for America’s revolutionary dynamism. Without them, the problems plaguing the U.S. cannot be solved, and without the ability to overcome them – America, in Revel’s interpretation, will cease to be itself, that is, a society-laboratory. History has Begun tries to convince us that this period of technological slowdown, deceleration of productivity and flight towards what Maçaes describes as “artificiality” – and what the Chinese perceive as “spiritual opium” – is the beginning of America’s highest period.
The proliferation of fictions that fascinates the Portuguese thinker means for the U.S., to steal a phrase from Cowen’s The Complacent Class, “essentially a low-innovation mode of existence.” For all its diversity and mind-boggling variety, virtualism represents the force of stasis. It is difficult to consider it as anything other than the exhaustion of the revolutionary dynamism that made America, according to Revel, a society capable of creating cultural and political prototypes. Maçaes is correct in suggesting that the intoxication with virtualism may be particularly strong in the U.S. However, it cannot be denied that it could lead the country down the path of decline. Keep in mind that for China, as Dan Wang notes, “hard tech is more valuable than products that take us more deeply into the digital world.”
After the publication of Revel's book, The Anti-American Obsession, the renowned Belgian sinologist Simon Leys wrote a letter to the author. He confessed that, while his arguments convince him, he cannot shake off some doubts: “How not to be afraid of America, he asks, and above all not to be afraid for America?” While many fear that America is sliding deeper into decadence during this period of transition, others worry about the shape it will assume when it emerges out of it. Of the many questions that the 21st century will answer, this is one of the most fascinating.
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