French best-seller: U.S. is a ‘Nihilist Empire’

11:48 13.02.2024 •

Emmanuel Todd

France is the first major European country (after Hungary, at least) to begin to acknowledge that the Ukraine war has turned into a major catastrophe for the West. President Macron still sings from the hymnal of Ukraine solidarity and the major voices of the center left and right still support unconditional aid to Ukraine. But cracks in the consensus are widening.

Now a Frenchman, the veteran and well-established social scientist Emmanuel Todd writes ‘La Défaite de L’Occident’ (‘The Defeat of the West’) which is at or near the top of French best-seller lists for four weeks, writes Scott McConnell, a founding editor of ‘The American Conservative’.

‘La Défaite’ opens with a recitation of the surprises to emerge from the Ukraine war. The hawkishness of Great Britain, the failure of France and Germany to stand up for their own diplomatic and economic interests, the effectiveness and will to fight of the Ukrainian military are singled out. But several others are particularly important, and serve as major themes of Todd’s book.

First, the Russian economy has successfully withstood the fierce American and Western financial sanctions. Widely expected to bring Russia to its knees, the sanctions proved something of a paper tiger.

Secondly, by last summer, it had become clear that the United States and the West lacked capacity to supply Ukraine with sufficient artillery shells. The West, led by Washington as the self-proclaimed “arsenal of democracy,” fortified apparently with 30 times the total income of Russia, was falling short of Moscow and its rag-tag allies. This raised the question of how much of the political economy of the neoliberal world was, as Todd suggests, “phony.”

Third, and perhaps most significantly, was the revelation of the West’s ideological self-isolation as the Ukraine proxy war has ground on. From the outset large democratic countries such as Turkey and India failed to embrace Washington’s sanctions regime. As the war has progressed, so has increasingly discrete global support for Russia, including quiet measures to help Russia circumvent the sanctions, on the part not only of so-called rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, but from putative American allies as well. Most of the world remains either indifferent or opposed to Washington’s long time insistence that Ukraine be turned into an American NATO base.

In delving into these surprises, Todd finds a breathtaking dogmatism across the spectrum of Western elites, a kind of ideological solipsism preventing them from seeing the world as it actually is.

A key example is the assessment of Russia’s economic power… Todd goes to cite several sectors where Russia has made stunning progress in the last 20 years (agriculture, internet access) before speculating about how it is that Russia, dwarfed by the United States in per capita income statistics, is somehow able to keep pace during wartime and produce as many armaments as the United States. An interesting clue is that 23 percent of Russians in higher education study engineering, versus 7 percent in the U.S. The result is that Russia, with a far smaller population, produces more engineers than the U.S..

If the resurgence of the Russian economy under Putin has helped Russia survive Western sanctions, so too is the fact that much of the world is not in the least invested in the notion that Ukraine and Washington represent freedom and progress and Moscow tyranny. One major argument Todd makes is that the Washington-led West simply has no clue as to how much of the world rejects the value system of contemporary globalist neoliberalism. He argues that the economic model enables mass consumption in the West through the outsourcing of factory work to the Third World is no longer welcomed by elites of the global south as it was before the 2008 economic crisis. (It is not beloved by working class populations in the West either).

He argues that most of the world is strictly patriarchal in family structure, as opposed to the more “bilateral” or more equally influenced by mothers and fathers structures common to the West.

This may have made the West more receptive to political liberalism, but it has also given rise to a gender radicalism which partially explains the “indulgence” granted Russia by the peoples and governments of Iran (traditionally highly distrustful of Russia), Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Some degree of feminism may have advanced globally, but not in Western form. The question of morals, Todd argues, has, probably for the first time, emerged as a critical factor in international relations.

With arrogant self-assuredness that it incarnates international morality, the West “has not understood that it has become suspect to the larger part of the world which is patrilineal, homophobic, and in fact opposed to the Western moral revolution.”

Many on social media have seen the memes mocking various Biden administration defense officials, men, prancing about in dresses and make-up. It is something else to see consequences of our new ideology drawn out in a best-selling book by a leading, trained in anthropology, French author.

Todd traces the moral collapse of the United States to the demise of the WASP establishment that formed it and led it for most of its history. Protestantism shaped America; Todd follows Max Weber in ascribing to it the dynamism of capitalism. For whatever reason, it is gone as a dominant belief system. The new American ruling class, newly ethnically diverse, feels no particular attachment to the American nation or people.

America, he concludes, is no longer a nation-state, but a nihilist empire, in constant revolt against its own past, with a ruling elite openly hostile to the country’s traditions. For France and the rest of the West to follow it invites disaster.

France is more moved by books than the United States or Great Britain, though Todd’s challenging work does not mean France will suddenly follow Viktor Orban’s lead and seek the reintegration of Russia into the European state system or abandon its alliance with the U.S. But French politicians read, and one can already see softer versions of Todd’s views appearing elsewhere in the French establishment.

If a sharply rightward turn in French politics seems not likely a revival of some sort of NATO- and America-skeptical neo-Gaullism is easily imaginable. It should not be unwelcome, Scott McConnell concludes.


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