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Maintaining Optimism in the Face of Reality. Occasional observations on the state of the world, society, business and politics. Usually anchored by facts, always augmented by opinion.


Kojeve's Latin Empire and Contemporary French Foreign Policy  | e-mail post

I just finished one of the most interesting and though-provoking pieces of writing I've read in recent memory. It is the English translation of French philosopher Alexandre Kojève's "Outline of a Doctrine of French Policy." The translation is from the August '04 issue of Policy Review, the Hoover Institution's journal. The issue also includes an essay, "Kojève's Latin Empire," by Robert Howse of Michigan. The editors introduction describes the piece accurately when it describes it as having, "scholarly, historical, philosophical, and-perhaps most startlingly-contemporary interest."

It's an amazing piece of writing, as it written from an intelligent and pragmatic point of view of a Frenchman immediately after World War II. The events of the prior war made it clear to Kojève that France could no longer exist in a truly autonomous fashion, the age of nations giving way to the age of empires, represented by the bipolar Anglo-American empire and the Slavo-Soviet empire. Kojève believed that ultimately, due to a distrust of Slavs and Protestant religious background, Germany would end up as part of the Anglo-American empire. Also, no matter what Germany does, Kojève sees defense against the idea of a rearmed Germany of critical importance.

For both these reasons, he envisions that the way for France to maintain her defense and political stature is to be the first among equals, pater inter pares, within a Latin Empire formed with Spain and Italy. One could say it is a big fish in a small pond strategy, but give him credit for being practical about how to maintain France's obviously diminished political stature.

The goal of Kojève's empire would be one not of expansion, but of protection, and hopefully peace in Europe, by maintaining a role of neutrality. He envisions that the Latin empire, not able to compete economically or politically (by which Kojève tends to mean militarily), will lead the world in the field in perfecting leisure and enjoying the sweetness of living. This is a great passage:
Generally speaking, the differences of the national characters cannot mask the fundamental unity of the Latin "mentality," which is all the more striking to strangers for often going unrecognized by the Latin people themselves. It is, to be sure, difficult to define this mentality, but it can immediately be seen that it is unique, among its type, in its deep unity. It seems that this mentality is specifically characterized by that art of leisure which is the source of art in general, by the aptitude for creating this "sweetness of living" which has nothing to do with material comfort, by that "dolce far niente" itself which degenerates into pure laziness only if it does not follow a productive and fertile labor (to which the Latin Empire will give birth through the sole fact of its existence).

This shared mentality - which entails a profound sense of beauty generally (and especially in France) associated with a very distinct sense of proportion and which thus permits the transformation of simple "bourgeois" well-being into aristocratic "sweetness" of living and the frequent elevation to delight of pleasures which, in another setting, would be (and are, in most cases) "vulgar" pleasures - this mentality not only assures the Latin people of their real - that is to say political and economic - union. It also, in a way, justifies this union in the eyes of the world and of History. Of the world, for if the two other imperial Unions will probably always be superior to the Latin Union in the domain of economic work and of political struggles, one is entitled to suppose that they will never know how to devote themselves to the perfection of their leisure as could, under favorable circumstances, the unified Latin West; and of History, for by supposing that national and social conflicts will definitely be eliminated some day (which is perhaps less distant than is thought), it must be admitted that it is precisely to the organization and the "humanization" of its free time that future humanity will have to devote its efforts. (Did Marx himself not say, in repeating, without realizing it, a saying of Aristotle's: that the ultimate motive of progress, and thus of socialism, is the desire to ensure a maximum of leisure for man?)
Kojève's imperial vision of africa

If the article piques your curiousity about 20th century European political history, there is a fantastic site for exploring it: the MCE European Navigator. It provides an enormous amount of information in a very unique and highly functional Flash interface. The documentary section provides a great overview of the various periods of postwar history in Europe, and the multimedia library has all kinds of maps, documents, treaties, photos, even original news articles (many with English translations). It's really quite an impressive site, both in content and execution.

I sketched the map of how Africa would be carved up in Kojève's imperial vision from the Navigator's map of colonial empires in Africa (1920).
Apparently, since the French are perfecting the sweet life, and because Kojève recognizes political expansion of the empire would be impossible, he sees the need to maintain the current colonial holdings, even lobbying the Allies for the return of Italy's North African colonies. In fact, in Kojève's mind, the colonies are the key to the empire.
It is the Empire as such which must establish a unique plan for colonial exploitation and provide all the means necessary for its realization. And it is also the Empire as a whole which must benefit from the advantages resulting from this joint effort of planning thought and organized work. All in all, it is the economic unity of the continuous bloc of the African possessions which must be the real basis and the unifying principle of the Latin Empire.
While Kojève does see control of Mediterranean as a critical strategic control point for the Latin empire, he also sees the empire as somewhat economically isolated (partially by design), relying largely on an ever-increasing consumer population, accelerated by an improved standard of living (and presumably those well-proven Catholic birth control practices):
This economy, for its part, would enable the standard of living in the future to rise in the whole Empire, which is to say, above all, in Spain and in southern Italy. By improving the material conditions of existence in these regions, we will undoubtedly see a sharp increase in the demographic curve in the coming decades. And this continuous (and, in principle, unlimited) extension of the domestic market, accompanied by ever-increasing employment, would allow the imperial economy to develop while avoiding the inevitable cyclical crises of the Anglo-Saxon economy, with its practically saturated domestic market, as well as the rigid and oppressive stability of the Soviet economy.
There are some great lines, including some wonderful displays of French pride, or shall we say arrogance; but at the same time Kojève is critical in the way only a patriot can be when he discusses the challenges of forming such an empire:
But it will be, without any doubt, very difficult to transform this general idea into a concrete "project" and to make it into the goal and the motor of a "realist" French policy.

This is, first of all, because of a very widespread anti-Latin prejudice which is probably nothing more than a camouflaged form of this "inferiority complex," sometimes "overcompensated," from which France is beginning to suffer.
Kojève's comments about "leftist intellectuals" are particularly choice, when he discusses how to enlist the support the French Resistance in building support in France for the Latin empire.
This choice is all the more necessary insofar as this movement monopolized, by force of circumstance, many fundamentally nihilistic elements called "leftist intellectuals" for whom nonconformity has an absolute value instead of being a sometimes necessary, but always regrettable, consequence of a concrete constructive will. These fundamentally anti-statist elements would have to be restricted to the literary domain which belongs to them alone, and from which they have escaped only because of chance events.
In many ways, Kojève's member of the literary domain made me think of all the celebrities who inject themselves into the political discourse, with very little political understanding or sophistication, but to simply be fashionable.

I found the entire piece interesting and relevant, by giving a flavor of the thinking at the time as well as considering how some of the thinking has informed French foreign policy and the creation of various European entities, beginning with the council of Europe and culminating with the EU. In many ways, the EU would seem to be the grandest realization of Kojève's vision, but France's status is diminished in the EU, as Kojève couldn't have imagined Germany becoming part of a pan-European empire and England's odd role of being in multiple "empires" (the British Commonwealth alone is 56 nations [map]).

I would suggest reading this in light of pieces on current French politics and foreign policy as well, like this piece from next week's New Republic [subscription required]. In addition, the focus on religion, nationality and culture as key bonds for the Latin empire may explain the difficulty Turkey is having trying to join the EU [Turkish Press].

It's interesting to imagine a world in which Kojève's vision had been realized. I strongly suggest giving this a read if you have any interest in philosophy, European history or contemporary European foreign policy, as well as to develop an understanding of just how different, and yet at times not so different, French thought about the world can be.


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