Paris: Seeing beyond pain and fear

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square

Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of terrorism is terrorism. The object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture. The object of murder is murder. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?

George Orwell, 1984

Emotion may blind as much as reveal.  And shock paralyzes.

The violent attacks against Parisians on the night of Friday, November 13th, at the behest of the Islamic State/ISIS, in which over 130 people were killed, and some 350 were wounded, many very seriously, in a series of coordinated actions aimed at murdering as many as possible in cafes, bars, a concert hall, a football stadium, leave one without words. And yet the urge to write overwhelms.

But how can one speak of horror without fitting it into our categories of understanding, and thus somehow domesticating it, making it manageable?  How can one endeavour to explain the violence without rendering it common, everyday?  The so called experts in international affairs and radical political islam, the sociologists and political scientists, politicians and journalists of all political affiliations, have already put their hands to the task.  Between analyses of geopolitical interests and the ambitions of arcane terrorist groups, of subterranean economies, of islam as a religion of violence or of peace, of the social causes of european youth setting off for religious wars, so much is spoken of, and yet how little is said.

The banality of the locations of the crimes and the anonymity of the victims paradoxically univeralise the murders, as well as radically individualise those killed: those who died could have been anyone, anywhere, but it was pure chance that determined who was killed.  Can one then speak of those who were cut down by almost blind machine gun fire without reproducing the same banality of the murders, that is, how can the victims be represented without the ultimate indifference that presides over mass murder?  For once the shock passes, it is indifference that reigns, the indifference that impedes the collective empathy and the collective action that could generate a common response to the tragedy; instead, State authorities fill the vacuum of thought and action, reducing populations to passivity before a generalised politics of security.

In such a setting, the imagination that places us in the position of the other is lacking, empathy fails, whether on the part of killers who act like robots, or on the part of those who are “witness” to the violence, but who are anesthetised to it by “explanations” and “narratives” that beg State responses, most notably war, in this instance a war on “terror”, and the inevitable parallel restriction of freedoms.

Empathy is not sympathy.  The latter suggests feelings of pity for the misfortunes of another, and is essentially passive, fleeting and discriminatory (e.g., the ISIS double suicide bombings of a shia neighbourhood in Beirut on the day before the Paris attacks, killing some 40 people, elicited very little sympathy outside the country).  Empathy, by contrast, implies the ability to understand and share the feelings of another; it requires thought and the moral capacity to be as if one were another.  And only on this basis can one endeavour to grasp events, such as those in Paris, and possibly act against what made them possible.

France is at war, declared the country’s president; a statement to be made a refrain by politicians and journalists.  And for François Hollande, france is willing and determined to respond to the attacks in Paris without pity. (Le Monde 17/11/2015)  But what war is this?  In the collective imaginary, war remains an armed conflict between states, justified by demands of retribution, territory, or simple conquest, with a beginning and an end.  Such an image however offers little resistance before the history of war of the last century.  Colonial wars, wars of national independence, revolutionary wars, asymmetric wars, the cold war, wars of humanitarian intervention: all point to the increasingly rare phenomenon of interstate wars.  Indeed, at the end of the 20th century, we no longer made wars, but peace, peace “imposed”, “maintained” and what wars there were, were referred to as “conflicts” or “crises” to be “prevented”, “managed” and “resolved”.

In the wake of September 11, 2001, the Bush government of the united states would make its own contribution to war: a global war on terror was declared, and security replaced any semblance of humanitarianism.  The country’s population was mobilised ideologically for a war not against a State, but a diffuse organisation of terrorists set on destroying the “american way of life”.  The war beyond the borders of the country is matched by a juridical war (e.g. The Partriot Act), with all of its attendant violations of formerly recognised legal and human rights.  In such a war, all is potentially permitted; the only limit is what is judged necessary for security, however this last is imagined or fantasised or desired.

The whole of france is now governed under a state of emergency (and will be for at least the next three months).  The right of public assembly and demonstration have been suppressed.  Since November 13th, french police have carried out over 400 searches of homes and other private spaces without legal warrant. (Le Monde 20/11/2015)   Dozens of arrests have been made, and over a hundred people have been placed under house arrest, with many of these cases having little or nothing to do with the events in Paris.  On the Sunday, after the attacks, the country’s air force was ordered to bomb ISIS territory in syria, and this is set to intensify.  A constitutional reform is in the making, a further body of anti-terrorist legislation is announced, while the army is called on to police the country, or the police is further militarised.  Right-wing nationalist politicians call on the government to take even further measures:  Sarkozy wants electronic bracelets and house arrest obligatory for anyone deemed a potential threat to State security (for french police, such persons become the subjects of an “S file”, of which there are some 11,500 in the country), the opening of centres for religious/ideological de-radicalisation, the criminalisation of anyone consulting jihadist websites, the expulsion of radical imams from the national territory, the systematic imprisonment of any person returning from syria, and the like, while Marine Le Pen calls for an end to the reception of syrian refugees. (Le Monde 17/11/2015)  But whatever the political party colour, the discourse remains essentially the same: an unhesitating apology for a permanent state of exception/emergency, that is, a police-military State that is deemed necessary for the conduct of a war that has no end in sight, and which can act against any dissident.

If ISIS is describable as a proto-State, with a territory and population that bestrides the national borders of former syria and iraq, a diverse economy of oil and agriculture, contraband, extortion, slavery that responds to both domestic and foreign markets, a public administration that is reasonably functional, an army and police, then a classical war is imaginable.  But ISIS does not fit neatly into the nation-State model.  It is first and foremost a nomadic war-machine with no defined borders, appearing and acting on a global stage, with imperial ambitions.  Its militants are not confined to any one territory; indeed, they can rise up anywhere, even at home (the assailants in Paris were french and belgian).  There is no battle front, no single agent responsible for the conduct of the war, no one army to be attacked, no final battle to be expected.  If ISIS emerges from the rubble of authoritarian states, creating its own State like forms, it is ultimately a movement, a radical political movement that openly contests existing regimes of power.  And if it finds strength in the control of territory (something Al-Qaida was late to understand), it is not reducible to it, for it is carried by an ideology of enormous power today.

The violence in Paris appears that much more grave because it seems to defy explanation by motive.  “Why did it happen?”, people insist on asking.  “How could anyone do such things?”  One could of course here return to the decades of european and u.s. politics that have consistently favoured violent and exploitative authoritarian political regimes in the middle east, when they have not directly intervened in the region, and that countries of the capitalist centre now reap the harvest of their blindness.  But this would still not explain Paris.  (Other regions of the globe have also suffered similar interventions, without giving rise to ISIS like entities).

But what motives are cited by ISIS come to us from another world. In a statement released by the organisation, in which it claimed responsability for the attacks, we read:

In a blessed attack which Allah rendered possible, a group of believers of Soldiers of the Caliphate … have targeted the capital of abominations and perversion, that which carries the flag of the cross in Europe, Paris. … Eight brothers carrying belts of explosives and assault rifles targeted carefully chosen places in the heart of the French capital, the Stade de France during a match between two crusading countries, France and Germany, attended by the imbecile of France François Hollande, the Bataclan [the concert hall in Paris where the greatest number of people were killed in the attack] where hundreds of idolaters were assembled for a party of perversity, as well as other targets … (Le Monde 17/11/2015)

Our imagination carries us back to religious wars, conflicts presumably driven entirely by aspirations of apocalyptic redemption.  The enemy is the absolute Other, infidel, heretic, apostate, with whom negotiation, a modus vivendi, is excluded in principle; one does not discuss with the forces of Satan.  Such a war can have only one resolution: the physical elimination of the enemy, which amounts to the destruction of evil.

ISIS is a great deal more than this, but it is also animated by such a vision.  This is not to judge a religion, in this case islam.  (Nor is it to argue for the need to respect another’s religion; no religion deserves respect as such; people do, and they do so if they are deserving of it)  As with most religions, there are resources to be found in history the of islam that can serve to justify almost anything, saintly or heinous.  But that a religious vision turned political ideology beats at the heart of this movement seems undeniable, even as ISIS appropriates power and wealth.  In other words, the religion shapes the politics, as the politics and all that it moves shapes the religion.

But as no war is properly religious, for other, more earthly interests are invariably present in the conflict, no religion lives divorced from the world in which it is nestled.  And here ISIS bears a closer affinity to those who today declare war on it than is often, if ever, imagined.

Walter Benjamin once described capitalism as a religion of pure ritual, the first, in which the end of salvation is celebrated and devoured in the means to salvation, for capitalism, in  production and consumption.  Purposeless, beyond its own senseless reproduction, capitalism creates a religion of nihilism, a religion in which the “rituals” of its perpetuation are sustained for their own sake.  And all that is necessary for the ritual, which is to say, the flows of capital and all that renders them necessary, must be secured at whatever cost.

ISIS has no difficulty with capitalism; indeed, it thrives off it, as it also serves the national interests of neighbouring states.  (And has not ISIS been the greatest of tools to suppress even further the promise of the “Arab Spring”)  What ISIS offers then is an explicitly religious/ideological version of the same nihilism that lies at the heart of contemporary capitalism.  Both have elevated bare life, however defined, as the only value.  All those who fail to abide by its sacralisation, in forms of life not fitting to their respective rituals of power, are superfluous, in excess, to be either cantoned in controlled spaces or killed off.  Both govern through spectacles of power that pacify and call for total allegience, sculpting subjectivities of obedience.  Both are fascist, and act under the spanish falangist motto: Viva la Muerte!

It is not enough then to explain causally the social, economic or political causes of the murders in Paris and the responses to it, in the sense of either reducing the assassins to victims of racism and exclusion and/or justifying the emerging security State.  What is at stake, what is in conflict, are ways of life, ethical visions of how we should live.  And the struggle must be fought there.  If the security State is the greatest threat that hangs over us, in whatever form it takes, the Paris events may become the moment when such a State, an increasingly global State form, refines itself still further, indeed, to the point where resistance to it becomes that much more difficult, if not impossible.

Beyond the pain and fear of Paris lies another possibility, the possibility (perhaps today exemplified in the Rojava revolution, as elsewhere) of people organising themselves collectively and autonomously beyond the violence of State-Capital and its monstrous children.

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