Anéantir (2022), Michel Houellebecq‘s new novel, is -as it was also the case with his previous title Submission (2015)– a futuristic tale, drawn from hyperboles of the present. A fundamentally political novel, although lacking an explicit thesis, its plot and characters convey a disturbing parody of the French Republic in the global context of the new autocracies. A topic that runs through the fiction is that of the reactionary revolution in its alt-right variant, a phenomenon studied in recent years by thinkers such as Federico Finchelstein, Pablo Stefanoni, Beatriz Acha, and Anne Applebaum.
In the novel, the French State, as well as a particular family, must face the rise of explosive agendas, coming from the new Chinese hegemony and various forms of terrorism, the controversies over euthanasia and ecofascist activism, the increase of North African immigration and its multiple xenophobic and racist responses. However, from beginning to end, the text deals with the literature of modern reaction in an arc of readings not necessarily conservative or counter-revolutionary, ranging from Joseph de Maistre to Theodore Kaczynski.
At the beginning of the book, France’s Minister of Economy and Finance appears virtually guillotined in a video. Houellebecq reproduces, through a sketch similar to an Ikea instruction manual, all the components of the guillotine and their functions. From then on, the multiple threats to the security of France portrayed in the novel will be linked to the possibility of a right-wing revolution. An intellectual speculation emerging from the text comes in the form of an appropriation by the extreme right of the logics of insurrection and revolt.
Towards the end of the text, just as he explores the way in which the French government confronts terrorist actions by human traffickers attempting to violently defy the restrictions of governments such as Giorgia Meloni’s in Italy, Houellebecq quotes a passage from Sergey Nechayev’s The Revolutionary Catechism (1868). Although originally a Russian anarchist close to socialism, Nechayev, like Georges Sorel, was profitably read by communists and fascists in the 20th century.
In Houellebecq’s novel, Necháyev appears as a source of French eco-fascism, a movement indebted to the Unabomber as well as to Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist enemy of the “Islamic threat,” “cultural Marxism” and “feminism,” who in 2011 murdered more than 70 young people at a summer camp on the island of Utoya. Both in its pro-life variant, opposed to abortion and euthanasia, as in that of Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant ultra-nationalism, the anarchist heritage of the 19th century would be mixed with the fascism of the 20th century, in a new version of the modern revolutionary myth.
Another source of the French extreme right movement, according to Houellebecq’s novel, would be Maximiani Portas, better known as Savitri Devi, the French mystic, Hindu, pagan and pantheist, an admirer of Hitler and Nazi spy. Devi, of Greek descent, has been consecrated by the Golden Dawn Party and its leader Nikos Michaloliakos as the spiritual guide of Athenian neo-fascism and is often publicly praised by Trumpist ideologues such as Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer.
The protagonist of Houellebecq’s novel, although diametrically opposed to neo-fascism, alludes to Devi and states that “in its own way, Nazism had been a revolutionary movement that aimed to replace the existing system of values and had attacked all the other European countries not only to invade them, but to regenerate them”. Devi thought that Hitler was a reincarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu god, called to revolutionize and purify Europe by means of the Holocaust.
The vindication of the revolutionary event by this New Right, which to a large extent contradicts the doctrines of Burke, De Maistre and other classic authors of enlightened conservatism, is not only an intellectual operation, and one does not have to read Houellebecq’s novel to realize it. It is enough to consider some of the slogans chanted in front of the Capitol in Washington DC by Trump supporters, who on January 6, 2021 attempted to overthrow the U.S. Congress in order to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential election.
Slogans like “Liberty or Death” or “Make Guillotine Great Again” hark directly back to the American and French revolutions of the 18th century. The distinction, already blurred in the 20th century, between revolution and coup d’état, is reemerging in the 21st century within a new reactionary wave that, from the other side of the ideological spectrum, challenges the liberal and republican tradition that was taken for granted, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.