Today's date:
Winter 2008

Cloning: Central Planning of the 21st Century?

Fall 2004

French novelist Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles is a book of brutal truths about the cultural upheaval that spread across Europe and America from the 1960s through the 1970s. Unlike memoirs of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China that focus on the horrors of the time, this novel is about the personal and social consequences decades later of what we might call the Great Western Cultural Revolution.

Through the lenses of his characters Bruno and Michel, half-brothers whose mother left them to live unencumbered in California, Houellebecq ponders how liberation, sexual and otherwise, smashed not only authority and a sense of responsibility, but love itself. In the name of throwing off oppressive tradition, the protracted revolt of the '60s generation as it marched through society's institutions acted as a battering ram for the unrestrained freedom of market-mediated self-interest.

As Houellebecq sees it, by dismantling any meaningful commitment to community and others the liberatory movements of the later decades of the 20th century opened the floodgates to consumerism, allowing it to invade every aspect of life and turning all those liberated individuals into aimless atoms competing with each other for recognition. Thus the title The Elementary Particles.

If there are any heroes in this disturbing novel, it is Bruno's wrinkled old grandmother who unglamorously raises him with unconditional love, expecting nothing in return. She is not in the market. She just cares without calculation. Suddenly she dies and there is a terrifying emptiness.

In this critique Houellebecq shares the perspective of other French critics of totalistic capitalism from Régis Debray to Jacques Delors, who condemn American-led globalization as pushing not a market economy, but a "market society," on the rest of the world. Houellebecq's notion of free individuals as elementary particles is also similar to Pope John Paul II's view that, absent divine love and a moral order, men and women today live too often in "solitude without hope." "Bowling alone" is how the American sociologist Robert Putnam has put it.

But Houellebecq's brilliance comes in asking "what next?" He answers by imagining how our liberated civilization will mesh with the genetic revolution. It is this dark vision of posthuman history that may make Houellebecq the George Orwell of our time.

Being a French intellectual, Houellebecq sees the world in dialectical motion as phenomena turn into their opposite. The radical injustice of early capitalism gave birth to the overcompensation of totalitarian communism. Closer to his theme, the Frankfurt School critical theorists famously postulated that German fascism arose not as conventionally thought because of the authoritarian character of the paternalistic German family, but the opposite: The absence of the father from the home as he went to work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution led to the yearning for a Führer to fill the gap.

Similarly, for Houellebecq, a civilization anxious and exhausted from the incessant competition of radical freedom will too easily be drawn toward the happy womb of biological conformism. This is what is suggested by Houellebecq's character, Michel, a genetic scientist whose last name is the same as the founder of the Soviet KGB, Djerzinsky.

Accustomed to the hollowness of living without love, yet still consumers obsessed with youthful mortality, won't such a civilization, asks Houellebecq, turn to the predesigned survival of the fittest through cloning, the central planning of the 21st century?