Dany-Robert Dufour, French philosopher, is the author of numerous books. In Baise ton prochain (Actes sud, 2019), he reveals an underground history of capitalism, of which Bernard de Mandeville had, three centuries ago, already defined the broad outlines of a social organization whose profound harmfulness we see today. These teachings are essential to help us understand and change today’s society. The interview was conducted before the Covid crisis, a crisis that can also be read in the light of Dany-Robert Dufour’s words.
Kairos: A bit contrary to the idea currently propagated that we have arrived in a society at the height of perfection, you discover, while researching Mandeville’s texts, an unpublished writing that is foundational because it explains that the system has reached perfection in its perversity. Can you explain why this text is essential to understand the society in which we live?
Dany-Robert Dufour: This text was written in 1714, at the dawn of the first English industrial revolution, and it is from there that the society that will be called capitalism from the 19th century onwards will emerge. Mandeville was extremely well read at the time, before he was swept under the rug, simply because he said things a little too bluntly. This text by Mandeville was carefully suppressed, hidden, concealed, until it was recently rediscovered, under the following circumstances. Two years ago, a major French publisher wanted to reissue Mandeville’s writings directly in paperback, and he offered me this editing and presentation work. So, after re-reading all of Mandeville, I chose five texts:Introduction to the Fable of the Bees, The Fable of the Bees, Remarks on the Fable of the Bees, The Essay on Charity and The Essay on Brothels.
We can recall what is » The Fable of the Bees « , an equally important text?
Yes, a key text. But when I reread all of Mandeville, I came across this other text that had completely disappeared. Truly, I fell out of my chair, if I may say so [rire] so powerful was it! It was first published in 1714 with The fable of the bees and is called Research on the origins of moral virtue. So let’s start with The fable of the bees. It is written in the style of La Fontaine’s fables, which is not surprising since Mandeville had been the translator in England. He studied philosophy and medicine in Leiden, and left for England around 1695 to establish himself as a specialist in « diseases of the head ». About ten years later, he translated thirty of La Fontaine’s fables in London, and in the process learned the techniques of versification and scansion. It is a good enough exercise for him to ask himself one day: « What if I wrote a fable? Thus was born The Fable of the Bees, in two parts. In the first part, it is a beehive, which takes up the animal device of the fable. The hive is rich because all its occupants are a little bit thieves. They swindle everywhere in all the exchanges, for example, the magistrates take a small commission when they judge cases, and from commission to commission, it increases. Everyone is more or less in this disposition, a bit of a thief, and this is reflected in the title of the fable, « Thieves become honest ». But why does it work so well? Because this money that accumulates through small kidnappings, thefts here and there end up creating pockets of money that then flow into society and make it function.
Is this the first time the trickle-down theory has been mentioned?
Yes, and it still applies today. That’s why it’s an important text, it’s at that time that this theory was invented.
300 years ago…
Yes. So, in the first part of the fable, all vices are used to create wealth, which is supposed to flow later. The problem is that the inhabitants of the hive are haunted by guilt. They see themselves as vicious and feel guilty. Overnight, they suddenly decide to become honest. This is the second part of the fable. At this point, the hive, which was growing by all these small accumulations, begins to wither, until the final fall. So that’s the price of honesty! Moral: private vices make public virtue, public wealth. When the second edition of the fable was published, it was a scandal, Mandeville was accused of being a satanic spirit who promoted vice; his name was changed from Mandeville to Man Devil.
He says what we don’t want to hear…
Yes ! So, Mandeville asks himself, in the first edition, the question « how to get such a sulphurous idea across? » By inventing an art of governing, described in this book Recherches sur les origines de la vertu morale . This art of governing is infinitely more devious than that of Machiavelli, since it does not concern only the Prince but the whole of the social behaviors.
The lessons of this fable have been forgotten, and we have instead retained the thesis of Max Weber, who sees in capitalist societies the imprint of puritanism…
To whitewash Mandeville in the next generation, there was Adam Smith, and then at the beginning of the 20th century, Max Weber, to make him forget. This is where Mandeville disappears. But let’s get back to his art of governing. We are in 1714, after the English revolution of 1689, which had laid the foundations of democracy. Mandeville’s question is central to political economy: « How do we make men live together, knowing that they are greedy, selfish, even wicked in the tooth and nail defense of their interests? » Before 1689, the yoke held men back. But, with the advent of democracy and the easing of constraints on individuals, this no longer works. Hence the question: how do we hold the men from now on? By trickery. Which one? Mandeville’s answer: » If they are to live together, they must moderate their greed and, since they are greedy, they must be paid . The problem is that we don’t have enough money to pay everyone. So we have to pay them with money that costs nothing, that is to say with wind, blah, blah, blah. By telling them the opposite of what they are. If they are greedy, they should be told: « My God, you are tremendously devoted to the public good! They are in fact served the fantasy of virtue. Some people believe in it and end up becoming virtuous; it creates a huge class of people who are bound by their appearance. They are vicious, selfish, but they want to appear virtuous and they end up standing on the margins of virtue.
However, there is a small class of people with whom this ploy does not work at all, the diehards who do as they please, in the eighteenth century, they are called scoundrels. But this second class of villains is very useful because it serves as a repellent to the virtuous. This is where Mandeville’s genius comes in, indicating that this partition is made for the benefit of a third class, an invisibilized class. It is composed of the « worst of them », the worst of men, those who play both sides, simulating virtue and concealing their greedy tendencies. The two apparent classes exist, in short, only so that the third class can finally rule political and economic affairs, holding most men by the fantasy of virtue, so that the wool can be shorn off their backs without them moving.
This is the politics of trickery. Mandeville was a philosopher and a « shrink », which was then called « doctor of the passions of the soul ». He is the first inventor of the theory of the unconscious: » men are not where they think they are, what they are is greedy, and what they want to appear is virtuous. « Two centuries before Freud, he postulates that the human psyche is marked by subjective division.
There is a passion of not knowing in man?
Yes, not knowing what it is. And this is exploited in a political way.
What’s great is that he links it to the division into classes…
Yes ! Mandeville creates two classes, the villains and the virtuous, the latter being the neurotics of today. The third class is that of the perverse, who will use the villains as a repellent in the eyes of the virtuous, who will then keep quiet. That’s the art of governing in Mandevillian. Nicely devious, isn’t it?
This third class is really reminiscent of our politicians…
Really? That’s bad thinking! [rire]
It is the capital of industry, as they are called. Belgium has been plagued by scandals, such as that of the Samu social. The money that was supposed to go to the poorest of the poor, those of the CPAS or the homeless, has been stolen by those who were supposed to redistribute it to them. These individuals have not been in prison.
You know, there are important « virtuous » people in France too… You have some, for example, like a CEO of Renault who gave work to everyone, increased the GDP of his company but did not hesitate to liquidate everything that was not profitable, which allowed him to create huge coffers from which he drew for his own profit.
It doesn’t stop, in fact… The contaminated blood…
Yes, for example, contaminated blood or one of the biggest car companies in the world, « virtuous », Rhineland, German, which falsifies air pollution tests while knowing very well that the air we breathe is responsible for a few thousand deaths per day in the world… Add these cases to each other and you will see that there is really a principle of social perversion which structures capitalism.
What is fabulous is that we always try not to conclude…
Ah, but of course!
We try to say that these are only accidents…
These are just unfortunate accidents and now we are going to become really virtuous…
I wanted to quote Guy Debord and his Société du spectacle. Instead of villains, he talks about mafia. He says that it is wrong to oppose the mafia to the state. They are never in competition! » The mafia is no stranger to this world, it is perfectly at home here. At the time of the integrated spectacular, it reigns in fact as the model for all commercial enterprises « .
Absolutely, Debord is right and I think that this was already established by Mandeville as the theory of the perverse third class, which functions as a mafia and hides itself as such, having all the means of information. In France, 98% of the large private press belongs to seven or eight large groups! The state’s stranglehold on public information is well known in France, especially in recent years. So they have all the means to hide this perversion.
As Alain Accardo says, they master the representation of reality.
Exactly! Perverse people put on a show of virtues, but if we dig a little deeper, we find a lot of perverse functioning, that is to say, people who aim at extracting the maximum profit from all their actions. It is precisely for this reason that Mandeville explains that the world must be entrusted to the perverts and not to the saints. It is true that in the past, goodness, charity and holiness were relied upon to make society function well, but saints are expensive to maintain and of little benefit [rire]If we put everything on the perverts, they will create money that will then flow. It flows so well that the wealth of the richest 1% of the planet corresponds to more than twice the wealth of 90% of the world’s population, or 6.9 billion people.
And 8% of the world’s people have as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity.…
Yes. Financial power increased dramatically with the shift to financial capitalism from 1971, when Nixon stopped pegging the dollar to U.S. gold reserves — which raised the question of the value of the dollar. The answer used to be that a dollar was worth a specific amount of gold. As of July 15, 1971, the value of the dollar was no longer indexed to gold. Milton Friedman, the head of the Chicago School explained the new doctrine: » Why is a dollar worth a dollar? Because you believe that a dollar is worth a dollar, as well as your neighbor, and your neighbor’s neighbor. In short, everyone believes that a dollar is worth a dollar « . In other words, from this turning point of financial capitalism, the dollar began to refer only to itself and its value was no longer based on something real (gold), but on the belief in its value…
Money becomes a commodity…
Money ceases to be the standard by which goods are exchanged, and the dollar then becomes a commodity like any other, which can be bought and resold. It becomes a financial product, next to other financial products, like insurance, premiums, subprimes, etc. From that time on, banking exchanges are represented by the following proportion: about 2% refers to the real economy (companies, raw materials, finished products, etc.) and 98% corresponds to a financial, virtual, fictitious economy. With its moments of madness, such as when overvalued real estate products were sold at very high prices to people who had no money to buy them, but who were lent to anyway thanks to the so-called subprime system, which created a bubble that finally burst and led to the 2008 crisis. It is a total mafia system, a bee fable multiplied by a thousand. So how did this happen? This is where we find the name Mandeville. He was designated as the Master Mind by Friedrich Hayek, founder in 1947 of the Mont Pelerin Society, with Milton Friedman and thirty eminent economists, financiers, etc., eight of whom went on to win the Nobel Prize, such as Gary Becker. These apostles of the Total Market later created the Chicago School, which ended up taking power over the Keynesians, supporters of market regulation, starting in the 1970s, and even more so with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. From then on, we entered this joyous world of financial capitalism which is now in the process, as we can see, of simply destroying the world.
You say that not all perverts are capitalists and that not all capitalists are perverts, but that to be a good capitalist, it is better to be a pervert and to know how to use the three characteristics of money.
Yes, of course.
Money that can be hidden in tax havens. Alain Deneault says that the first thing to do when there are problems is to stop and say: » All of this, or at least a lot of it, is due to tax evasion, but we don’t touch it, we continue . This is a first characteristic, to think that you can have a lot of money, hide it and still appear virtuous. Money allows you to buy everything, but also allows the most enjoyment.
Of course. The first quality of money is that you can hide it, for example in tax havens — which makes you look virtuous. The second is that it allows you to buy everything. For example, you can buy as many friends as you want on the Internet by like or, if you are president of the United States, you can buy love by paying a supermodel to be your wife, etc. So we have entered a world where money can buy everything, friendship, love, everything, including all pleasures. As for the third quality of money, it is related to the fetishism of money which has become the magic object of our societies. Money has the magical faculty of generating itself. I summarize: money has become the great fetish because it can be hidden and allows one to appear virtuous when one is not, because it allows one to buy everything and, above all, because it can generate itself by making money produce money.
We will talk later about the absence of revolt, but I would like to quote Mandeville: » In a free nation where slaves are no longer allowed, the most secure wealth consists in having a multitude of poor workers. Without these kinds of people, there would be no pleasure and no appreciation of what a country produces. To make society happy and for individuals to be at ease, even if they have no great possessions, a large number of its members must be ignorant as well as poor « . It’s fabulous, he said that at the beginning of the 18th century!
This is the great quality of Mandeville, he says everything when the others conceal.
And we also continue to pretend to fight poverty. Each year, Oxfam publishes a report on the subject…
This is sacrificial politics. In order for a certain number to be happy — a number that is getting smaller and smaller — a certain number — a larger and larger number — must be sacrificed. That’s it. Mandeville inspired the utilitarians Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who calculated the ratio of pains to pleasures. Some people have to suffer so that others can have fun. It is cynical and staggering!
It is necessary to remember the difference between the perverts and the villains. The villains, we can point to them, and so we create two groups, them the bad guys and us the good guys! We give each other legions of honor. Sarkozy had given it to our dear Didier Reynders in the middle of Kazakhgate! Next to that, we put in jail a thief of… toast! Those who are the most victimized by the system still keep in them values, an ethic anchored in the collective unconscious that postulates that we are still in a good society that would not rob us…
Mandeville’s cunning intelligence is to have understood something about human subjectivity before anyone else and to have known how to exploit it. He understood globally what a neurotic was (who functions on the phantasm of virtue) and what a pervert was (who simulates virtue and conceals the vice of greed) and to have been able to transform all this into a political system that has been in place for three centuries… And that’s why this text of Mandeville is so important. So why is Mandeville misunderstood? Because our knowledge system is subject to an academic division of knowledge. You have specialists in political economy, market economy, psychic economy, discursive economy… Everyone is locked into his or her specialty. Now, Mandeville’s logic mobilizes all these economies: his political economy results from a feature of the psychic economy, men are selfish and greedy. In order for them to live together, they must be paid: this is a market economy. But as we don’t have enough money we pay them in words: we are in the discursive economy. Who still knows how to juggle all these areas? No one else! So we don’t understand anything in Mandeville’s text, even though he says everything! This also testifies to our inability to read total social facts, as Marcel Mauss said. We cut them into as many slices as our human and social sciences can make intelligible. But as soon as it is a question of putting the slices back together, well, there is no one left! And so that’s where I tried to place my work. That’s how I finally managed to read this text which gives a fantastic insight into the origins and fate of capitalism.
There must also be a desire among intellectuals not to know, right?
Probably. But well served by the division of knowledge.
What is also essential is this lack of connection between the psychic, market economy and the class division of society, which has prevented a radical critique of capitalism.
And so there is not much deep criticism now. For example, the climate struggles, which seem to bring a huge consensus, still raise some questions for me, especially this habit of begging politics for answers, for changes… when I consider it a waste of time. With regard to this link with Mandeville, you should agree that we can hardly expect anything from them and that change will come from elsewhere?
Yes, of course.
Nevertheless, they continue and most people continue to believe in them…
Yes. This question that you ask is the most serious one that we have to face because it simply refers to the sustainability of the world. In relation to this, we will only be able to answer this question if we solve the question of sovereignty. Who is the Sovereign? Today, it is the invisibilized third class that runs everything, that 1%, or even 0.1% that we were talking about. If the Sovereign is these, then there is nothing to expect, it will continue by mobilizing mechanisms of dissimulation that it knows how to use since three centuries. The Sovereign should be the one who is aware of the dangers of this world.
The outlook is quite bleak, even if we want to believe in it, but at one point you talk in the book about the struggles and revolutions that never came to fruition. Only bourgeois revolutions have succeeded in the West. You say, » All revolutions in the industrialized countries have failed. The third class always pulls the strings, which in the end can only be explained by a lack of mobilization, of perseverance of honest people. Normal, they are good neurotics, as such more or less pusillanimous. »
That’s what we’re finding out now, and it’s amazing that people aren’t doing more. Even the climate struggles now are dying out. They are obviously instrumentalized by the multinationals who want a Green New
Deal, who want to put billions into the transition…
A green capitalism…
Green capitalism… So what do we do? Because to ask this question is not to act. But one wonders if what is being done at present is a real break with the system or only continues to accompany the system… I find in particular that in the phenomenon of the icon Greta Thunberg, there are certain blind spots, essential points that seem to be absent, in particular this question of the energy transition and of the peoples of the South… A very interesting book has just come out, by Stephan Lessenich, who says » Next to us the deluge » and which explains that in fact the climatic catastrophe, if you want to see it, you only have to go south, that it has already been there for a long time, both climatic and social catastrophe. Greta talks about it very little and we know that the energy transition will require draws, extractions in the south that will be monumental. I would like to quote Guillaume Pitron (La guerre des métaux rares. La face cachée de la transition énergétique et numérique, Les liens qui libèrent): » By wanting to emancipate ourselves from fossil fuels, by switching from an old order to a new world, we are in fact sinking into a new, even stronger dependence. We thought we were free of the shortages, tensions and crises created by our appetite for oil and coal, but we are in the process of replacing them with a new world of unprecedented shortages, tensions and crises « . You claim that the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies is feasible and that we now know how to replace materials extracted from the subsoil by materials from the sun. Solar energy in all its forms, direct or indirect, could quickly replace fossil fuels, coal, oil, fossil and fissile gas. Don’t you think that this is perhaps a story that we like to tell ourselves and that one of the only solutions is a drastic reduction of our consumption and production, which nobody wants to hear…
This is an extremely important issue. I refer to what was said earlier: this question will not be solved without solving the question of sovereignty. Those who should become sovereign are those who could break the current spell. It seems to me the only solution to avoid the worst, i.e. the destruction of the world. So if they become sovereign, then I think they will have to be wise enough to draw on the incredible techniques invented by capitalism in order to earn more and more. Among them we find the most destructive, but also others that could be eco-compatible. Let’s distinguish in technical terms between those that must be favored and those that must be stopped. We will have to look at these different techniques. For example, at present, the military-industrial-nuclear complex has chosen, in order to solve the energy problems, to build an EPR, which is almost impossible to build because the more it is built, the more it is realized that it contains serious defects that must be constantly repaired, etc. This has been going on for 10 years and the budgets have been exceeded by a colossal amount. But we forget that we know technically how to produce, for example, hydrogen. From what? Not from the hydrolysis of water since this would require a lot of electricity from nuclear power, which would bring us back to the previous question. But we now know how to produce hydrogen from biomass, which costs nothing and is an infinite energy resource because we are constantly producing organic waste. A small unit is currently being built in Strasbourg, which is extremely interesting. It will produce 650 liters of hydrogen per day at the price of tax-free gasoline. This is the Hynoca project, which is based on a process for producing decarbonated hydrogen using small quantities of biomass. So, are we going to choose to build the EPR behemoth or a number of small companies that could be managed in an associative, mutualist, joint manner, using biomass? No, we did not choose this path, we chose the nuclear military-industrial project! That’s why I say that there are techniques like these that absolutely must be examined, and this can only be done if the question of sovereignty is resolved.
So we need another paradigm?
Yes, but for there to be another paradigm, another Sovereign is needed. As the current Sovereign is from the 3rd class, he leans towards nuclear power and the exorbitant power that this technique gives. If the Sovereign was based on the People, a People today in search of its own survival, it would have the task of making the right industrial choices. It would not be enough, in this respect, to keep all the old industrial apparatus and decide to lower growth by a few points, or even to go to negative growth. For these would only be quantitative choices. However, even with 5% less growth, nuclear power would still be a threat. We must therefore move towards qualitative choices. Favoring eco-compatible techniques. For example, biomass and other renewable energies versus nuclear power. Because, after evaluation, choosing modes of production and management such as the Hynoca project in Strasbourg and implementing it, for example, in all municipalities with more than 10,000 inhabitants, against the EPR, also means being able to move towards associative and local forms that could bring considerable changes in the way our society functions. We are at the heart of the energy question and this involves political questions. The same could be said about agriculture. It involves either monocultures with mile-long fields that involve tractors and oil, modified seeds, glyphosate and whatever else you want, or permaculture, which has higher yields than monocultures and eliminates oil, tractors, tampered seeds, glyphosate, etc. These are also industrial choices. So there will be choices to be made and, as I said, it depends on who the Sovereign will be — this is for me a reason for hope in this world that is so bad. And I am also happy that we can steal techniques from capitalism, which has been characterized by an extraordinary inventive genius motivated, it is true, by « producing more and more », but some of which can be diverted or recycled to produce not more but much better.
To recover this sovereignty, I don’t see how it can be done without having free information.
This huge political question is contained in three lines in my text and I do not resolve it. Under the current conditions of misinformation, it is hard to see how this could happen. Except for what you are doing. Because you are doing counter-information, so there are a lot of intelligent groups and blogs on the Internet… Hopefully, in the long run, the balance will shift to that side. Because the feeling of catastrophe is growing in the world. In reality, it is not the feeling of catastrophe, it is the reality of catastrophe that is increasingly felt, it comes through signs that already reach the heart of our ecosystems and that show that the sustainability of life on earth is in danger. The report of the mega study coordinated by Pr. Barnosky and published in 2012 in the journal Nature shows that, between 2025 and 2045, one by one the planet’s major ecosystems are likely to tip over due to a threshold effect. When the catastrophe arrives, we end up not believing in the alienating narratives, since we see that the « always more » of capitalism is transformed into the actual risk of losing everything. In a way, the current catastrophe can be our ally in hoping that enough forces will arise to create the conditions for a serious alternative.
Thank you Dany-Robert Dufour
Thanks to you.
Interview by Alexandre Penasse