On January 7 2015, Cherif and Said Kouachi, two French Algerians radicalised by the war in Iraq, entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo. It was a Wednesday, and the writers had gathered for an editorial meeting. When the shooting began, the satirists thought it was firecrackers. The deaths of a dozen journalists shook France. It was the deadliest terror attack on French soil since 1961 when the OAS, a fascist paramilitary group, bombed a train killing 28 passengers.
At the time, the front cover of Charlie Hebdo bore a caricature of Michel Houellebecq on the front cover. In the unflattering cartoon, Houellebecq sports a childlike pointed hat, as a weary Nostradamus, as he celebrates Ramadan in 2022. This was a dig at his his new book, Submission, in which which he envisions an Islamist future for France. Due to the events in Paris, Houellebecq had to cancel his book tour and quickly disappear. The authorities were eager to put him under police protection.
In the wake of the massacre, Prime Minister Manuel Valls appealed to national unity: “France is not Michel Houellebecq. It is not intolerance, hatred and fear.” So the slogan would be ‘Je suis Charlie’, not ‘Je suis Michel’. Of course, for French Muslims it was neither. As the horrifying violence had already demonstrated, French society was far from united. Sure, the Socialist government publicly stood with Charlie Hebdo, and not with Houellebecq, but Francois Hollande made clear he would read the book anyway. It was impossible to ignore.
‘The stupidest religion’
Keep in mind, this is the very same author who was acquitted of inciting racial hatred – after he deemed Islam “the stupidest religion” – back in 2002. Having finally read the Qu’ran, Michel Houellebecq has changed his view to some extent. He now believes Islam can be “negotiated with”, though he has confessed his ‘Islamophobia’ he stresses this means ‘fear’ and not ‘hatred’. Yet the plot of Submission still resembles neo-fascist agitprop.
In the plot, the 2022 elections result in France being taken over by Islamists. This heralds the transformation of French society into an Islamic republic. Why does this happen? Faced with a terrible choice – either the National Front wins, or its the Muslim Fraternity – the Left sides with the Islamic conservative party. This is a parody of the 2002 election, where liberals sided with Jacques Chirac to smash Jean-Marie Le Pen. Soon after the new Islamic government imposes shariah over the country.
In his antipathy towards Muslims and Islam, Houellebecq vocalises common attitudes in France towards its impoverished Muslim minority. At the same time, the sexual obsession with Arab women, which can be found in Atomised and elsewhere, shows the flipside to this coin. Here we find contempt and carnal desire are joined at the hip. This may be the undercurrent of Algeria’s significance to French imperialism. It’s no coincidence that the horrors of the Algerian war of independence still cannot be discussed in France honestly.
None of this is a first for Houellebecq. In Atomised, you find Bruno turning to far-right politics. This is after two key events: 1) Bruno grows increasingly jealous of a black male student, and his supposed virility; and 2) on the onset of madness, Bruno exposes himself to a beautiful Arab student, much to her amusement. Platform is packed with dialogues on race. Sex tourists compare the ‘muscular vaginas’ of African women to white women. Here racial ressentiment converges with lustful misogyny. It’s highly regressive, and that’s probably the point.
Sexuality as capital
In Houellebecq’s view, the West languishes in affluent, shallow hedonism in a world where nothing has meaning and everything is permitted. Market forces have triumphed in every sphere of life, including in our sexual relations. His novels are less about plot and character development than the changes in Western society since the cultural tumult of the 1960s. It’s a picture of irresistible decay. The market is inescapable in its rapacious universalism.
With his pen Houellebecq traces a nerve and strikes it. He sees sex as just another commodity to be traded on the open market. But it’s more than that. Sex is another type of social differentiation, which parallels social class. If sexuality is a hierarchy, as he views it, then its structure may only serve as a barrier to be circumvented. Market forces break through all obstacles, but they need such blockages in the first place. As he put it in Whatever in 1998:
“Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperisation. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market’. In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.”
So the market has taken over our sexual relationships – what he describes as sexual liberalism, and “the domain of the struggle” – and his initial attitude was one of despair. This despair can be detected in the pages of Whatever and Atomised. Whereas in and Platform and Lanzarote, Houellebecq looks to accelerate this state of total marketisation: sex tourism as the next stage of progress. He hoped sexual liberalism will eventually tip over into sexual communism. This comes out of our intellectual traditions.
Karl Marx thought bourgeois society would lay the necessary preconditions for a post-capitalist future, such as a free-press, civil liberties, political pluralism and, crucially, a working-class. Once these conditions are set in place the struggle against capitalism can begin. This is why Marx supported Abraham Lincoln’s war to centralise the US into an industrial capitalist powerhouse. Certainly, Marx was right to see that this would wipe out chattel slavery. But the US is still not on the road to socialism over 150 years later.
Resistance is futile
Perhaps the real point is that it is all hopeless. This may be the reason why Houellebecq now seems to suggest political Islam is on the right track. In Submission, Houellebecq steps away from the universalist project of the Enlightenment – fetishised and disgraced in equal measure by many today. Instead, Houellebecq looks at Islam as a possible opportunity for a conservative push to reinstate the old superstructure in Western Europe.
The passive nihilism, which runs through his work, has itself tipped over into its opposite. The residue of sentimentality was never far behind. But this is not just any positive belief system. “I remain in many ways a Comtean,” Houellebecq told the Paris Review. “I don’t believe that a society can survive without religion.” He sees the answer in religion – even if he is an atheist – as a return to grounded values. This is the man’s rejoinder to the post-60s world.
If Houellebecq’s earlier work diagnoses the pathology, then Submission approximates a means of recuperation. As an Islamic state, France can establish social pillars to define its values which may ultimately cure the West of its ills. The hedonist can pursue multiple wives. The rational scientist can lead a life with transcendental meaning. What Houellebecq gets right is that liberal societies don’t have beliefs -except for the belief in the right to have beliefs! This is why Western neocons find liberalism much too flabby to confront radical Islamist fundamentalism.
Unlike French neocons and secular liberals, Houellebecq can see the problem and he decides to wallow in it. No doubt he takes pride in his perceptions. As much as he may be reprehensible, Michel Houellebecq finds solace in the the symptoms of an ugly moment in our history. It’s not like the lack of metaphysical sustenance in liberal societies will go away. It’s not like the revanchism of jihadis will either. It doesn’t make Houellebecq any less reprehensible. But it demonstrates why his work will be relevant for a long time to come.
Photographs by Joel Schalit.