Identity and Difference, Part 2: Identity

Alain DeBenoist

Part 1, Difference


The question of identity (national, cultural, etc.) also plays a central role in the debate about immigration. To begin, two observations must be made. The first is that there is much talk of the identity of the host population, but, in general, there is much less talk of the identity of the immigrants themselves, who nevertheless seem, by far, the most threatened by the fact of immigration itself. Indeed, the immigrants, insofar as they are the minority, directly suffer the pressure of the modes of behavior of the majority. Pulled to disappearance or, inversely, exacerbated in a provocative way, their identity only survives, frequently, in a negative (or reactive) manner by the hostility of the host environment, by capitalist over-exploitation exerted on certain workers uprooted from their natural structures of defense and protection.

The second observation is the following: It is striking to see how, in certain ways, the problem of identity is situated exclusively in relation with immigration. The immigrants would be the principal “threat,” if not the only one, that weighs on French identity. But that is tantamount to overlooking the numerous factors that in the whole world, both in the countries with a strong foreign labor as in those without it, are inducing a rapid disintegration of collective identities: the primacy of consumption, the Westernization of customs, the media homogenization, the generalization of the axiomatic of self-interest, etc.

With such a perception of things, it is too easy to fall into the temptation of scapegoating. But, certainly, it is not the fault of the immigrants that the French are apparently no longer capable of producing a way of life that is their own nor to offer to the world the spectacle of an original form of thought and of being. And nor is it the fault of the immigrants that the social bond is broken wherever liberal individualism is extended, that the dictatorship of the private has extinguished the public spaces that could constitute the crucible in which to renew an active citizenry, nor that individuals, submerged in the ideology of merchandise, turn away more and more from their own nature. It is not the fault of the immigrants that the French form a people increasingly less, that the nation has become a phantasm, that the economy has been globalized nor that individuals renounce being actors of their own existence to accept that there are others who decide in their place from norms and values that they no longer contribute to forming. It is not the immigrants, finally, who colonize the collective imagination and impose on the radio and on the television sounds, images, concerns, and models “which come from outside.” If there is “globalism,” we say too with clarity that, until proven otherwise, where it comes from is the other side of the Atlantic, and not the other side of the Mediterranean. And let us add that the small Arab shopkeeper contributes more to maintain, in a convivial way, the French identity than the Americanomorphic park of attractions or the “shopping center” of a very French capital.

The true causes of the disappearance of French identity are, in fact, the same that explain the erosion of all other identities: The exhaustion of the model of the nation-state, the collapse of all traditional institutions, the rupture of the civil contract, the crisis of representation, the mimetic adoption of the American model, etc. The obsession with consumption, the cult of material and financial “success,” the disappearance of the ideas of common good and of solidarity, the dissociation of the individual future and collective destiny, the development of technology, the momentum of the exportation of capital, the alienation of economic, industrial, and media independence, these have destroyed by themselves the “homogeneity” of our peoples infinitely more than what has been done up to today by some immigrants who, by the way, are not the last to suffer the consequences of this process. “Our ‘identity’,” emphasizes Claude Imbert, “remains much more affected by the collapse of civility, more altered by the international cultural arm of the communication media, more eliminated by the impoverishment of language and of concepts, more damaged overall by the degradation of a previously centralized, potent and normative State which founded among us that famous ‘identity’.”[8] In brief, if the French (and European) identity falls apart, it is before all due to a vast movement of techno-economic homogenization of the world, whose principal vector is the transnational or Americano-centric imperialism, and which generalizes everywhere the loss of sense, that is, a feeling of the absurdity of life which destroys organic ties, dissolves the natural sociality and each day makes people be more as strangers to one another.

From this point of view, immigration plays much more a revelatory role. It is the mirror that should permit us to take the full measure of the state of latent crisis in which we find ourselves, a state of crisis in which immigration is not the cause but rather a consequence among others. An identity feels more threatened when it is known how much more vulnerable, uncertain, and undone it is. That is why such an identity is in its depth no longer able to become capable of receiving a foreign contribution and include it within itself. In this sense, it is not that our identity is threatened because there have been immigrants among us, but rather that we are not capable of facing the problem of immigration because our identity is already largely undone. And that is why, in France, the problem of immigration is only discussed by surrendering to the twin errors of angelism or of exclusion.

Xenophobes and “cosmopolitans,” on the other hand, coincide in believing that there exists an inversely proportional relationship between the affirmation of national identity and the integration of immigrants. The first believe that the greater care or greater conscience of the national identity allows us to spontaneously rid ourselves of the immigrants. The second think that the best way to facilitate the insertion of the immigrants is to favor the dissolution of national identity. The conclusions are opposites, but the premise is identical. Both the one and the other are wrong. What hinders the integration of immigrants is not the affirmation of national identity but rather, on the contrary, its erasure. Immigration becomes a problem because the national identity is uncertain. And conversely, the difficulties linked to the reception and integration of recent arrivals can be resolved thanks to a newfound national identity.

Thus we see to what point it is senseless to believe that it will suffice to invert the migration flow to “get out of the decadence.” The decadence has other causes, and if there would be not one immigrant among us, due to that we would not stop finding ourselves confronted with the same difficulties, although this time without a scapegoat. The obscuration of the problem of immigration, making immigration responsible for everything that does not work, obliterates in the same strike many other causes and other responsibilities. In other words, it carries out a prodigious diversion of attention. It would be interesting to know for whose benefit.

But there must yet be more questioning of the notion of identity. Raising the question of French identity, for example, does not fundamentally consist of asking who is French (the response is relatively simple), but much more in asking what is French. Before this question, much more essential, the singers of the “national identity” are limited in general to responding with commemorative memories or evocations of “great personalities” they consider more or less founders (Clovis, Hugh Capet, the Crusaders, Charles Martel, or Joan of Arc), ingrained in the national imagination by a conventional historiography and devotion.[9] Now this little catechism of a species of religion of France (where the “eternal France,” always identical to itself, is found in all moments ready to confront the “barbarians,” such that what is French ends up defining itself, in the end, without a further positive characteristic of its non-inclusion in the alien universe) bears no relation to but rather is very far away from the true history of a people whose specific trait, in its depth, is the way it has always known to tackle its contradictions. In fact, the religion of France is today instrumentalized to restore a national continuity stripped of all contradiction in a Manichean view where globalization (the “anti-France”) is purely and simplistically interpreted as a “plot.” The historical references thus remain situated in an ahistorical perspective, an almost essentialist perspective that does not aspire so much to tell the story as to describe a “being” that will always be the Same, which will not be defined as any more than resistance to otherness or the rejection of the Other. The identity is thus inevitably limited to the identical, to the simple replica of the “eternal yesterday,” of a past glorified by idealization, an already built entity which only remains for us to conserve and transmit as a sacred substance. In parallel, the national sentiment itself remains detached from the historical context (the appearance of modernity) which had determined its birth. The history then becomes un-broken, when the truth is that there is no history possible without rupture. It is converted into a simple duration which permits exorcising the separation, when the truth is that the duration is, by definition, dissimilarity, the separation between one and oneself, the perpetual inclusion of new separations. In brief, the national catechism serves itself by the history to proclaim its closure, instead of finding in it a stimulus to let it continue.

But identity is never one-dimensional. It has not always only associated circles of multiple belonging, but combines factors of permanence and factors of change, endogenous mutations and external contributions. The identity of a people and of a nation is also not solely the sum of its history, of its customs and their dominant characteristics. As Philippe Forget wrote, “a country may appear, at first sight, as a set of characteristics determined by customs and habits, ethnic factors, geographical factors, linguistic factors, demographic factors, etc. However, those factors can apparently describe the image or social reality of a people, but not realize what the identity of a people is as an original and perennial presence. Consequently, the foundations of identity need to be thought of in terms of the openness of sense, and here is the sense which is nothing other than the constitutive bond of a man or of a population and its world.”[10]

This presence, which means the opening of a space and time, continues Phillipe Forget,

should not refer to a substantialist conception of identity, but rather a comprehension of being as a game of differentiation. This is not to apprehend identity an immutable and fixed content, liable to be encoded into a canon … Contrary to a conservative conception of tradition, which conceives it as a sum of immutable and trans-historical factors, tradition, or better, traditionality, should be here understood as a weft of differences which are renewed and regenerated in the soil of a patrimony consisting of an aggregate of past experiences, and which are put to test in their own surpassing. In that sense, the defense cannot and should not consist of the protection of forms of existence postulated as intangibles; they should better be addressed to protect the forces that permit a society to metamorphose itself proceeding from itself. The repetition of the identical of a place or the action of ‘living’ in according to the practice of another lead equally to the disappearance and to the extinction of collective identity.[11]

As it occurs with culture, identity is also not an essence that can be fixed or reified by speech. It is only determinant in a dynamic sense, and is only possible to be apprehended from the interactions (or retro-determinations) both of the personal decisions as from the denials of identification, and of the strategies of identification which underlie them. Even considered from the point of origin, identity is inseparable from the use which was made — or which was not made — of it in a particular cultural and social context, that is, in the context of a relation with others. That is why identity is always reflexive. In a phenomenological perspective, it implies never dissociating its own constitution and the constitution of the others. The subject of collective identity is not an “I” or a “we,” a natural entity constituted once and for all, an opaque mirror where nothing new can come to be reflected, but rather a “self” which continually appeals to new reflections.

We will recuperate the distinction formulated by Paul Ricoeur between idem identity and ipse identity. The permanence of the collective being through ceaseless change (ipse identity) cannot be limited to what pertains to the order of the event or of the repetition (idem identity). On the contrary, it is linked on the whole to a hermeneutics of the “self,” to the whole of a narrative work destined to make a “place” appear, a space-time which configures a sense and forms the same condition of the appropriation of the self. Indeed, in a phenomenological perspective, where nothing is given naturally, the object always proceeds from a constituent elaboration, from a hermeneutic relation characterized by the affirmation of a point of view which retrospectively organizes the events to give them a meaning. “The story builds the narrative identity constructing the history by constructing that of the story told,” says Ricoeur. “It is the identity of the history that makes the identity of the personage.”[12] To defend one’s own identity is not, then, to be content with ritually listing historically foundational points of reference, nor to sing of the past to better avoid confronting the present. To defend one’s own identity is to understand the identity as that which remains in the game of differences – not as the same, but rather as the always singular way of changing or not changing.

It is not, then, to choose the idem identity against the ipse identity, or vice versa, but rather to apprehend both in their reciprocal relations by means of an organizing narrative that takes into account both the understanding of the self as well as the understanding of the other. To recreate the conditions in which it returns to being possible to produce such a story which constitutes the appropriation of the self. But it is an appropriation which never stays fixed, for collective subjectivation always proceeds from an option more than from an act, and from an act more than a “fact.” A people is maintained thanks to its narrativity, appropriating its being in successive interpretations, becoming the subject by narrating itself and thus avoiding losing their identity, that is, avoiding becoming the object of the narrative of another. “An identity,” writes Forget, “is always a relation of self to self, an interpretation of itself and of the others, by itself and by others. Ultimately, it is the story of itself, elaborated in the dialectical relation with the others, which completes the human history and delivers a collectivity to history. […] The personal identity endures and reconciles stability and transformation through the act of narration. The personal identity of an individual, of a people, is built and maintained through the movement of the story, through the dynamism of the plot which underpins the narrative operation, as Ricoeur said.”[13]

Finally, what most threatens national identity today possesses a strong endogenous dimension, represented by the tendency to the implosion of the social, that is, the internal deconstruction of all forms of organic solidarity. In this respect, Roland Castro has been able to justly speak of those societies where “nobody any longer supports anyone,” where everyone excludes everyone, where every individual has become potentially foreign for every individual. To liberal individualism one must attribute the major responsibility in this regard. How can one speak of “fraternity” (in the Left) or of “common good” (in the Right) in a society where each have been submerged in the search for the maximization of their own and exclusive interests, in a mimetic rivalry without end which adopts the form of a headlong rush, of a permanent competition devoid of all purpose?

As Christian Thorel had emphasized, “the re-centering on the individual over the collective leads to the disappearance of the look towards the other.”[14] The problem of immigration runs the risk, precisely, of obliterating this evidence. On the one hand, that exclusion of immigrants of which the immigrants are victims can make us forget that today we live increasingly more in a society where exclusion is also the rule between our own “autochthonous people.” How to support the foreigners when we support ourselves increasingly less? On the other hand, certain reproaches crumble by themselves. For example, the young immigrants that “have hatred” have been frequently told that they must respect the “country which hosts them.” But why must the immigrant youths by more patriotic than some French youth who are not? The greatest risk, finally, would be to believe that the criticism of immigration, which is legitimate in itself, will be facilitated by the increase of egoism, when in fact it is that increase which has more deeply undone the social fabric. There is, on the other hand, the whole problem of xenophobia. There are some who believe in strengthening the national sentiment by basing it on the rejection of the Other. After which, having already acquired the habit, it will be their own compatriots who they will end up finding normal to reject.

A society conscious of its identity can only be strong if it achieves placing the common good before the individual interest; if it achieves placing solidarity, conviviality, and generosity towards others before the obsession for the competition of the triumph of the “Me.” A society conscious of its identity can only last if rules of disinterest and of gratuity are imposed, which are the only means to escape the reification of social relations, that is, the advent of a world where man produces himself as an object after having transformed everything surrounding him into an artifact. Because it is evident that it will not be the proclamation of egoism, not even in the name of the “struggle for life” (the simple transposition of the individualist principle of the “war of all against all”), that we can recreate that convivial and organic sociality without which there is no people worthy of the name. We will not find fraternity in a society where each has the sole goal to “win” more than the others. We will not reinstate the desire to live together by appealing to xenophobia, that is, to a hatred of the Other by principle; a hatred which, little by little, ends up extending itself to all.


[8] “Historique?,” Le Point, 14 December 1991, p.35.

[9] Cf. in this respect the strongly demystified works of Suzanne Citron, Le Mythe national. L’Histoire de France en question (éd. Ouvrières-Études et documentation internationales, 2ª ed., 1991) and L’Histoire de France autrement (éd. Ouvrières, 1992), which frequently fall into the opposite excesses of those they denounce. Cf. also, for a different reading of the history of France, Olier Mordrel, Le Mythe de l’Hexagone, Jean Picollec, 1981.

[10] “Phénoménologie de la menace, Sujet, narration, stratégie,” Krisis, April 1992, p.3.

[11] Ibid., p.5.

[12] Soi-même comme un autre, Seuil, Paris, 1990, p.175.

[13] Art. cit., pp.6-7.

[14] Le Monde, 17 August 1990.

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