The following comments are meant to situate the popular reactions to the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo within the overall defensive mechanisms our societies use to keep themselves together. To do this I will be approaching the issue in a somewhat roundabout way.
Since 2008 there has been a strong tendency among the populations of western countries to invoke the establishment values of a bygone era when they have been faced with the erosion, decline or loss of the “good” things that used to be under capitalism. This tendency has spread considerably among those who see themselves in a somewhat critical, oppositional relationship to the establishment order.
Thus responses to the neo-liberal assaults have been to call for a return to some form of Keynesian economics (in fact England, the US have been practicing what they often deny in public), re-extending the state apparatus, reversing cuts to the funding for education and the arts, and so on. The ability to develop a combative critical stance is blunted as many try to hold on to what is slipping through their hands instead of letting it go and working to bring about something new. It is not as though we are operating in nothing. There have been some effective attempts to create alternatives, but unfortunately they have not as of yet spread. So instead we are seeing in Greece, for example, Samaras or Syriza.
These policies of the past are based on misconceptions or delusions (that the real struggle is to try to extract more of the surplus from corporations as opposed to abolishing them altogether with the economic system that generates them) and certain presuppositions of what life should be about: consumption is one such value. A central aspect of the way of consumption is that in which life becomes life-style defined by brands (something already noticed as far back as in the fifties e.g. in Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd) and has been the way capitalism to a very large extent has been able to co-opt most of its opposition: the workers movement under a “social-democratic” direction through higher wages, the movements of the 60s, and the like. (This is somewhat one-sided here, and is only meant to suggest part of the context). The end result is a watering down of desire where consumption substitutes for passion.
We see a similar usurpation, a hollowing out of peoples passions (outrage, sorrow) in the recent spectacle that followed the massacres (actually there were two). Everything invoked the safe assumptions that frame the delusional defense system of our social order.
We see without any surprise the super-hypocrisy, the pure moment of the false which is the true essence of our political establishment: the various politicians and state officials of countries like the US which for example has been massacring civilians in Afghanistan, who have been persecuting immigrants and refugees in their own countries, or as in the case of Saudi Arabia flogging opposition figures or … we need not mention the Israeli government here.
What do we actually hear? That we are experiencing an assault on democracy (of course, what democracy is that? is a parliamentary democracy a democracy? this was questioned as far back as the 18th century, and yet this falsehood animates thought and imagination like a perpetual motion machine); or an assault on freedom of speech (which for the most part has been reduced to an empty platitude), but more to the point, the massacre is more about the sacrilegious than freedom of speech as such — this is a blindspot as many people hold on to the sacred even if in a much watered down version; of the french(!) values of Freedom, Equality and Fraternity, it is best not to comment here.
The establishment cynically is able to redesign itself as the defenders of values which in their mouths are empty words and tools of subjection. Thus their complicity in constructing and defending an order which excludes, oppresses, exploits and denies the dignity of many is inverted into a spectacle of holding hands with those outraged by what they have witnessed.
Maybe we will be surprised and the spectacle will crack and break and crumble …