When I see that young people are in the process of losing their old common values and absorbing the new models imposed by capitalism, running the risk of dehumanising themselves and being prey to an abominable aphasia, to a brutal absence of critical capacity, to a factious passivity, I remember that they were the characteristics of the S.S. – and I see spread over our cities the horrible shadow of the swastika.
Pier-Paolo Pasolini, Scritti corsari
In the world Empire of our times, talk of a “clash of civilisations” (or of “war of religions”, or of any post-colonial variations on the theme), can only function as an ideological obfuscation of our catastrophe. Capitalism is today in effect global, that is, its mechanisms of domination and exploitation, and its apparatuses of subjectivation, leave no corner of the globe untouched. Yet the geography of this Empire is not uniform; its uneven development is planned to the greatest possible degree to secure the conditions of appropriation and accumulation. “Land grabs” in Africa are paralleled by debt driven consumerism and hedonism in the centres of universalising networks of power. Capitalism demands a common subjectivity, while incapable of satisfying the explosion of desires that it leaves in its destructive wake.
In the 1970’s, Pier-Paolo Pasolini would testify to such a transformation at a national level, in his native italy. In describing this change, his language is dramatic. He would speak of an anthropological cataclysm, a genocide, that denatured a people under the thrall of mass consumption; of a metamorphosis that would artificially cover over the living tissue of the country’s multiple ways of life with an ensemble of insipid and uniform pragmatic values specific to an ideology of “well-being”. The cultural particularisms of the territory, with their bodily gestures, linguistic variations, their ethical self-sufficiency and refusal of other, competing ways of being in the world, would be swept aside in a generalised homogenisation of subjectivities. Something of the human was killed in this mutation, Pasolini would write, inaugurating thereby the fascism of today, a neo-fascism unlike that which reigned during the first half of the 20th century. And before it, liberation, self-liberation, necessarily had to be rethought.
Under this new regime of power, everything was overturned. The “progressive struggle for the democratisation of expression and for sexual liberalisation was brutally overcome and rendered vain by the decision of the power ‘of consumption’ to grant a wide ranging tolerance (even though false).”(22)* There were no longer innocent bodies, resistant subjects, to be liberated, or to liberate themselves, because they had themselves “been violated, manipulated, deformed by the power of consumption.”(22) No private pleasure remains, and thus their simple celebration against a presumably conservative, obscurantist authority is made politically ineffective.
[Charlie Hebdo’s front page in the edition after the events of November 13th is therefore equally impotent:
A message that would be sadly repeated by François Hollande, in the homage paid to the victims of the attacks on the 27th of November:
“These men, these women, incarnated the joy of life. It was because they were there that they were killed. … They were the youth of France, the youth of free people that cherishes culture. … The attack of the 13th of November will remain in the memory of the youth of today as a terrible initiation into the hardness of the world, but also as an invitation to confront it. … France will do everything it can to destroy the army of fanatics who committed these odious crimes … but France will remain herself, as those who disappeared loved her.” (Le monde 28/11/2015)
And in the meantime, france reveals herself her equal in a state of emergency that has served to cover over one thousand searches of private spaces/homes, hundreds of home arrests, and uncontrolled surveillance of all communication, none of which targeted anyone involved in terrorist activity. On the contrary, in the days leading up to the Paris Climate Conference that began this last weekend, it justified searches and arrests of environmental activists, “zadists” and anarchists. (Le monde 28/11/2015) And protests on the occasion of the conference and against the state of emergency ended in police violence.]
“Some ten years ago, I thought that an agent provocateur was practically inconceivable … among us, of the preceding generation: yes, his sub-culture would have distinguished itself, even physically, from our culture. We would have recognised it in his eyes, in his nose, in his hair! We would have immediately unmasked her/him and treated her/him as s/he deserved. This is no longer possible today: no one today could distinguish physically a revolutionary from a provocateur. The Right and the left have fused physically.”(33)
In sum, “the sub-culture of power has absorbed the sub-culture of opposition and has made it its own.”(34) The modern world of universal consumerism “is an inexpressive world, a world perfectly normalised and acultured. A world which, for us, last repositories of a multiple, magmatic, religious and rational vision of the world, appears as a world of death.”(38)
It is this world of death that is the mother of isis, and more particularly, of its militants, willing to kill and die for it. The religiosity that drapes their actions should not be taken as literal, for while their personal/social trajectory, some twenty years ago (and I speak here essentially of the european recruits of isis), might have pushed them to become criminals, today they appear as bearded warriors of islam. In other words, the assassins of Paris are the children of Capital, its disposable excess. While it animates proliferating desires, it can in no way satisfy the animal unleashed. And those left to the side, the humiliated, the stigmatised, the forgotten, the left to die, rebel, following a religious-political counter-seduction that promises they can be everything, when they are presently nothing. “Naked life” (Giorgio Agamben) arms itself and reacts according to the only gesture that it is familiar with: the taking of life.
Those who killed seemingly without concern for the identity of those whose lives would be brought to an end, on cafe terraces, a concert hall, a football stadium, were those who years earlier aspired to the same. The petty criminal lives that the european jihadists gave themselves over to in their adolescence and early adulthood, barred at every turn by law, public authorities, prison, would mutate into the mirror image of a society once so passionately desired, into the desire for death, the common bond of Capital and the religious-fascist response to it.
The pious, muslim immigrant of yesteryear, who expresses her/his faith in the warp and woof of everyday life, without resentment, is pushed aside by a caricature of the religious, where the everyday is displaced by the apocalyptic. In the generalised neo-fascism of standardised, consumer hedonism, in Pasolini’s words, frustration “or simply neurotic desires are henceforth collective states of mind.”(55)
“Consider an example: the lumpen-proletariat, until recently, respected culture and had no shame regarding their own ignorance; on the contrary, they were proud of their model of popular illiteracy, while nevertheless being able to apprehend the mystery of reality. It was with a certain haughty contempt that they looked upon “mothers’ boys”, the petty-bourgeoisie, from which they distinguished themselves, even when they were forced to serve them. Today, on the contrary, they come to be ashamed of their ignorance: they have abjured their cultural model … and the new model that they seek to imitate does not allow for illiteracy or rudeness. … Obviously, from the moment when they began to be ashamed of their ignorance, they also began to feel contempt for culture.”(55-6)
It is with this contempt of culture and parallel contempt for differing ways of life that the events in Paris can begin to be understood.
The old fascism is no longer imaginable, or even comprehensible. But in the italy of his time, according to Pasolini, a new fascism gained form, one which “founds its very power on the promise of ‘comfort and well-being’.”(63) Our thesis then is that those who killed in Paris are the children of the neo-fascism of global capitalism, its “failed” children, who from resentment, strike back at the failed father figure for a promise that transcends any single earthly pleasure, namely, a heavenly hedonism (though the former is not altogether absent from the world governed by isis).
It is however precisely in their shared desires with that which they seek to destroy that renders this fascism far more dangerous than its antiquarian forms of the last century. Animated solely by hatred of the Other, and in the end, self-hatred, it has no restraints, no ideological or political redemption. As with capitalism, it can find profit and solace only in destruction.
It is then a monumental error to interpret these violent jihadist actions as the inevitable consequence of islam, of an islamic incompatibility with “modernity” and “democracy”. As Pasolini was to write with regard to the young fascists and the anti-fascists of his day, one can say the same of the politically radicalised muslim of our time and of those who struggle to respond to them:
“… we had a fascist attitude towards the fascists (I speak above all of the youth) : hastily and without pity, we wanted to believe that they were predestined to be fascists by their race and that before this determination of their destiny, there was nothing to do. And let us not hide this: all of us have known, consciously, that when one of these young people decided to be fascists, it was purely fortuitous, it was a gesture without motives and irrational; a single word would have perhaps been sufficient for him to move on differently. But never has anyone among us spoken with them, or to them. We accepted them all immediately as the inevitable representatives of Evil, while they were undoubtedly little more than adolescents and eighteen year old adolescents who knew nothing about nothing, and who threw themselves head first in this horrible adventure by simple despair.”
“But we couldn’t distinguish them from others. … And this then is our frightful justification.”
“They were in sum young people like all the rest; nothing distinguished them in any way. … the new fascism … does not make them different: it is no longer rhetorical in the humanist way, but pragmatic in the american way. Its goal is the reorganisation and the brutal totalitarian leveling of the world.” (90)
In a criticism of Pasolini, Italo Calvino once wrote, “The young fascist of today, I don’t know them, and I hope never to know them”, to which Pasolini answered, “it is true that you will never have occasion to do so, because even if you should meet with them in a train compartment, in the street or in a salon, you would not recognise them“, because they are potentially everyone, everywhere. And to “wish not to meet young fascists, is enormous! We should, on the contrary, do everything to identify them and meet them. They are not the fatal and predestined representatives of Evil: they were not born to be fascists.”(98)
As regards the fascism of isis, and those who kill and die for it, we can only share the words of Pasolini.
* All references are to the french language edition of Scritti corsari: Pier-Paolo Pasolini, Écrits corsaires, Flammarion, 1976.