We share below, in translation, a reflection by uruguayan essayist and activist Raúl Zibechi (La Jornada 07/08/2015) on the contemporary political paradigm of the concentration camp. With references to historian Josep Fontana and philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the short essay serves as an introduction to a way of re-thinking politics that is essential.
In all times, it has been important to know the ways in which the ruling classes dominate. A good part of anti-system thinking, in its most diverse expressions, has been dedicated to the understanding of these these modes, particularly in periods of change and shift, when those above create new forms of oppression, sometimes brutally, more often than not, subtly and invisibly.
The Catalan historian Josep Fontana published weeks ago a moving article entitled “The logic of the concentration camp” (Sinpermiso, July 19th, 2015), which states that Greece has become a concentration camp, where workers have no rights and will also have miserable pensions, which is the way to “eliminate those who are no longer productive.”
Fontana is one of the most respected historians alive, with a vast body of work and a solid Marxist training. He is not a person accustomed to unfounded agitation. In his brief article (which deserves the widest distribution) and based on the most recent work on the camps, he defends that they were not – only – places of extermination, but “industrial organizations managed with specific economic criteria, but very rationally, for the maximisation of benefits.”
He states that even the very annihilation of the Jews was thought according to criteria of profitability, forcing the prisoners to work to exhaustion and death in road construction, coal mines, farms and even in the synthetic rubber factory of IG Farben.
For Fontana, it is important to “think about the similarities between the logic
of the concentration camps and the austerity policies that are imposed on us”, given that the bases are the same: to reduce to a minimum the costs of labour and eliminate those who do not produce. The thesis sounds strong, but it is an invitation to think about the world in which we live, something that is urgent for us in Latin America.
Giorgio Agamben, in Homo sacer (Pre-Texts, 1998), warns: “The concentration camp and not the city is now the political paradigm of the West ” (p. 230). He says further: “From the concentration camps no return to classical politics”(p. 238). He reaches this conclusion through the concept of “bare life”; bare life, devoid of real rights, nothing but flesh,”indistinction between law and fact, norm and biological life.”
Agamben tells us that today domination consists in our lives having been stripped of all human quality, as if human beings had been reduced to vegetables or animal flesh.
It is not a matter of trying to think the concentration camp as a fenced space of
barbed wire and watchtowers, but as a more subtle (sometimes) mechanism, that reduces our lives to a mere coming and going from/to work (almost a slave), to consuming (both in hipersurveilled spaces with cameras). Biological life, where subjects have been deprived of any chance of regulating their time of work and of reproduction. Heteronomy in a pure state, as already happens in a maquila, but actually in all the spaces and times of daily life. The complete domination of time. Agamben thus notes that naked life, born in the great totalitarian states of the twentieth century, is now “normal” life.
At this point, we must ask: how to do politics in these conditions? How to work for emancipation? The best answer is that we do not know, we have to learn, reflect, try. Distrust those who already have the answer ready.
The decisive question: what left, what kind of movements, in the face of this kind of domination and control?
The recent experience of Greece can be a good start. To say that Tsipras is a “traitor” is the worst way, because it suggests that everything consists of putting someone in the place of another to resolve the dilemma. When the problem is, precisely, that anyone occupying that place can not do otherwise. In terms of the camp, those who occupy these positions can only play the role of guardian. Or s/he is annihilated.
From these considerations, for those who remain committed to resistance and emancipation, it seems necessary to reflect in two directions.
The first is to be able to discern the different modalities that the concentration camp paradigm assumes in our societies, how it manifests itself, what are the immaterial fences that surround us, who are the guardians, where the barracks are, and so have a clear picture.
It’s a central task, that allows us to position ourselves where we are, to see what
characteristics domination has, but also to see its weak points. In principle, and unless otherwise demonstrated, state institutions must be considered as part of the “camp apparatus”.
The second is to start building a type of organization to operate within the camp, with the prospect of escape and, at some point, to destroy it. So far, most of the organizations, leftist parties and popular movements have acted more like guardians than organisations of flight, although they are not aware of it.
It will require organisations that can build safe spaces “outside the control of the powerful “(James Scott), where it is possible to organise escapes and other actions. We are no longer in the era of the factory (discipline in closed spaces), when oppression was concentrated in the workshop, where the control of foremen was ridiculed. The same goes for women, who always created spaces of freedom from within oppression. “Bio-politics – Agamben writes – makes vain any attempt to found political freedoms in the rights of citizens” (p. 231).
To walk this path there are no manuals. Historical experience, that of the slaves and Indians, can serve us as inspiration. The community and the quilombo seem to be unavoidable references. The rest should be improvised. Except ethics and the desire for freedom.