Frederic Neyrat: A reflection on the fires that burn

We share a recent short essay by Frédéric Neyrat, in translation, to see our way through the ravaging wild fires …

Fire at will: Necro-police, reactive nationalism, eco-fascism

Frédéric Neyrat (lundi matin #206, 02/09/2019)

Burning democracy. – Suppression of democracy, fire ravaging forests and cities: these two phenomena spread on a global scale, simultaneously, and feed each other. The more the territories burn, the more the thin layer of democratic institutions burn which covered social life; the more democracies are absorbed in authoritarian figures, the more CO2 is released into the atmosphere. Let us analyse this runaway movement, in the absence of knowing how to interrupt it.

State and the survival of force. – It is not surprising that the eradication of democratic institutions results in a reduction of legislative and judicial powers, an attack on the media, and a rise in the power of the police. That this withering away is manifest, without ideological accompaniment or tenacious attempts at concealment – simply with lies that are not intended to convince, but to disfigure the truth – is more troubling. For if the institution of democracy has always been overtaken by its limits as sovereign (the ability to legislate or decree in a flash on the exception before slowly including it in the norm, the openness to the plurality of voices against the background of the exclusion of those who object to the neutralisation induced by the expression of this plurality). The way in which this restriction is developed today in the open must be given our full attention: the deployment of force is not the effect of a representation of power, be it imperial, royal, or presidential, it is not first attached to a foundation discourse, religious or meta-political. What force is deployed has as its aim the preservation of force.

Nationalism, localism, and immunology. – That the State has in mind the survival of force underlies the formation of contemporary nationalism. These nationalisms are mainly reactive, and not active: they do not affirm a conquering identity, they are more reactions to globalisation (1) – in other words, attempts at relocalisation before the deleterious effects of capital and technological deterritorialization – rather than the expression of a sense of belonging that would oppose other nations for domination. It is not a question of denying that these reactive nationalisms use the springs of identity, the passions of identity that always work on the individual and collective subjects when they are unable to name their desire, but to understand the new function of nationalism: an immune function, which recycles the ecological discourse to ensure not the maintenance of identity, but the maintenance of the conditions of the material possibility of this identity.(2) It is safe to say that the question of these conditions will very quickly take precedence over the discourses of identity which still infect the public space today; future racisms will be eco-racisms fueled by the exponential increase of ecological exiles.

Necro police. – When democratic institutions are absorbed, the police exchange their policing power for the sovereign ability to found order in society – a capacity that the state is no longer capable of. Instead of containing the social, the police intervenes forcefully in it. It is not only delegated to serve the social control of the State, it now grounds the State in the social fabric. Intimidation, harassment, arrest, criminalisation, racism, and the killing of activists, counted and classified by Global Witness Report of 2019 (3): the police have a new global political mission. “To make live and let die,” said Foucault to define biopolitics; to scare and to let drown, one heard recently near Nantes.

Rather than biopolitics, which for Foucault defined a way of regulating the setting of populations in terms of birth, health, hygiene, and race, we should speak of necro-surgery (in reference to what Achille Membe has written about “necropolitics”)(4), surgical operations practiced without anesthesia on the bodies of populations, and to consider as political-surgical interventions the shooting of rubber bullets. Shooting out the eyes of the demonstrators or trampling on them creates bodies that have lost their power, they are attempts to inscribe socially a lasting disability, which would have less the value of punishment than the production of a new social status, and where to serve one’s time would become impossible. One could call necro-police the use of violence by the police for the purpose of political surgery.

Ecological collapse and ongoing political restructuring. – Hypothesis: the threat of ecological and material collapse of the underpinnings of human civilization is what underlies the current political restructuring. In other words, necro-police and reactive nationalism are two salient features of a general reconfiguration of nation-states threatened with extinction for ecological reasons. This does not call into question analyses in terms of race or racialisation, nor should it lead to underestimating the pervasiveness of resentment in the expression of the votes that led to autocratic rule in North and South America. In the case of the U.S.A., it is thus impossible to understand the Trump vote without grasping the situation of white males who see their patriarchal and racist base crumbling, trying desperately to slow down their end of the race announced in the trash cans of history. But the recent massacres in El Paso, California, and New Zealand, show that anti-immigrant white nationalism is reinterpreted in terms of anti-refugee environmentalism, calling for mass murder to save trees.(5)

The filter. – So everything happens as if the ecological threat infiltrates all speech, “left” or “right”, neoliberal or populist. But this threat is not interpreted everywhere in the same way. Firstly because the immediate and frontal exposure to land degradation and droughts, the one that leads to ecological exiles, is not the same kind of exposure as that which leads a village of whites, still taking advantage of the distant effects of segregation, to suffer flooding, and not the same as the air-conditioned perception of global warming. Air-conditioned perception is the possibility for privileged groups to protect themselves against the immediate effects of ecological disasters; however, even the passage from one air-conditioned place to another requires confronting, between two oases, the common hell. It is that political actions depend greatly on the filters which are interposed between the subjects who choose them and the Earth; one could also imagine political actions whose vocation would be to reduce the thickness of the filters in order to increase the level of global consciousness, to put on the same level the privileged classes and those who are not by cutting the air conditioning circuits, exposing the most affluent to the “desert of the real”. Let us be cautious, however, and ask ourselves what such an exhibition without protective glasses could provoke in terms of panic or even reinforcement of eco-fascism: emancipation policies must be based on the imagination of a just world, not on the cruelty of the real.

Eco-fascism? Analyses and scenarios. – By eco-fascism, one could define a form of governmentality imposing, in an authoritarian manner, an ecological politics. The difficulty is to understand what such a politics might be, knowing that fascism can not stop – since it proceeds – the root causes of ecological destruction: capitalism, patriarchy, phallocentrism, racism, (neo)colonialism. By eco-fascism, we should therefore not think of a politics capable of acting on the causes of ecological collapse, but a way of managing its consequences, this management demanding the restructuring of governmentality to save the power of domination and the social groups who identify with it. This first clarification is less obvious than it seems; it aims to show to those who dream of providential man – or a woman – that no authoritarian policy can end the capitalocene or the plantationocene, and it is important to abandon any idea of enlightened government which at the last moment – or just before it – could take courageous and just decisions for the good of recalcitrant populations: a fascism of the left would be inevitably ecocidal.

Eco-fascist would then be a politics that would be in charge of the strict rationing of food, energy resources, modalities of access to transport and communication, etc., in a national framework where there would be no counter-power, surmounted by a charismatic leader who would appear – a strange verticality – as a grounded savior, tyrannical but full of kindness, Noah whose nation-state would be the padlocked ark. It is not clear however why a fascist government would need to be concerned about the population: in times of ecological disaster, it is enough for the preservation of force to depend on drones, robots and artificial intelligence, biopolitics being nothing more now than a waste of time and energy. The most likely kind of eco-fascism would then be the one that would try to save the ruling class by eliminating the rest of the population if necessary, reduced to the minimum necessary for the technical maintenance of capitalist technologies still capable of functioning. This eco-fascism would no longer have any political ambition in the strict sense, and would favor without moderation the development of the necro-police.

Fire at will. – The governments currently in place in Brazil and the U.S.A. are a first step towards eco-fascism. Their common point is to burn the environment and the legal texts that protected it, to pillage without restraint – are not we therefore at the antipodes of any ecology? On the contrary, eco-fascism takes environmental destruction as the spearhead of political restructuring, as a negative ecology that replicates by integrating ecological collapse. In Brazil, the government plan is clearly deadly: it is to eliminate the native populations, to liquidate forest life, human and non-human. In the USA, the deregulation of ecological brakes leads to the release into the waters and the atmosphere of everything that human industry is capable of, as if eco-fascism was in a bootstrap phase, destroying “around” what a “center” would manage to indemnify. In this initial phase, eco-fascism is emptying out and preparing the more or less targeted killing of the population.

It is not certain that authoritarian neoliberalism leads to another end. In its defence of class based on the necro-police, authoritarian neo-liberalism will be able to turn around in the blink of an eye into eco-fascism, even if it would find more support in its early phases on tha bases of new “ecological standards” and an apparent consensus on the “necessary restrictions” imposed on the population, instead of on the obscene plunder of living environments and the obvious targeting of populations (black, native, Muslim). These differences of regime will diminish, each mode of governmentality will learn to exchange its qualities with the others, the fires in one part of the world increasing the restrictions of water and of democracy in another. At the last summit of the major economies of the world, one will agree on a treaty of non-interference in matters of eco-slaughter for domestic use.(6)

Sacred fire. – For those for whom the summit has never been occupied by a government or a god, the possibility of counter-fires has never been less. The will that presides over putting the world to fire and blood is inscribed in its geology, and it is a global destiny that must be opposed. Over a long enough time, this fate could be traced; but it is too late, unfortunately, to “cut the wick that burns before the spark reaches the dynamite,” as Walter Benjamin recommended. This, however, should not prevent us from realising what this same philosopher proposed in concluding his book One-way Street: “The living being overcomes the vertigo of annihilation only in the intoxication of procreation”. It remains for us to create as never before what in drunkenness will have known to consume the annihilation.

  1. Cf. Dalie Giroux, “Le fantasme du corps morcelé de la réaction globale, ou : la commune à venir. Notes sur la forme contemporaine du fascisme” (forthcoming).
  2. For eco-fascism, the search for a “living space” is conditional on the preservation of a survival space. On eco-fascism, cf. below.
  3. The report is here:
  4. Achille Membe, “Nécropolitique”, Raisons politiques, 2006/1 n°21, p.29-60.
  5. See “El Paso Terrorism Suspect’s Alleged Manifesto Highlights Eco-Fascism’s Revival,” Huffpost, August 4, 2019.
  6. This treaty will be named: Convergence for the Safeguard of the Earth.
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