Rodrigo Karmy Bolton: The ashes of the Republic

Reflections on the French police murder of Nahel Merzouk and the country’s July riots, by Rodrigo Karmy Bolton. (Lobo Suelto! 11/07/2023)

What does it mean when France burns under barricades? Perhaps, that not only France but also the Republic, as a modern model of the political, is in ashes. Towards the end of the 18th century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant described the event of the French Revolution that had burst onto the threshold of history as follows: “”The revolution of a people full of spirit, which we have seen carried out in our days, may be successful or fail, then, perhaps, to be so full of miseries and cruelties, that a right-thinking man, who could hope to start it a second time, would not decide to undertake an experiment of such costs: such a revolution, I say nevertheless, finds in the the spirits of all the spectators – who are not themselves involved in the game – such a participation in desire, that it borders on enthusiasm even if its expression is dangerous; such, in short, that it can have no other cause than a moral disposition of the human race.” The revolution can bring infinite costs, spread blood throughout history, but in the “cheers of the spectators,” it finds the crucial “enthusiasm” for which, despite the danger it entails, “participation in desire” shows that its “cause” is nothing other than the “moral disposition of the human race”. The French Revolution brings with it hope in the midst of humanity traversed by despotisms. Spectators can watch a game that borders on enthusiasm to the extent that the modern notion of progress stands out in it. In the French Revolution, it allows us to contemplate precisely that it will be the “human race” that “progresses towards the better”. Although there are setbacks, the Revolution marks a before and an after in the story of human moralisation.

If in Kant the Revolution marks the era of moral progress, the contemporary riots that have set the streets of Paris on fire mark the debacle of that idea, the end of modernity as the era of progress. They are the denunciation that progress has been nothing more than a single catastrophe, as Walter Benjamin was able to indicate in the lucid fragments dedicated the concept of History. Progress was nothing more than the design of destruction, the total mobilisation by which the oligarchies that dominate the planet share out the spoils of humanity. The France of Kant, which offered a horizon of progress, is no longer our France: the modern utopia has been entangled in the paralysis of devastation.

The French revolt, precisely, exposes progress in its catastrophic drift. It is no longer the “citizen” who rebels against the state of affairs, but those who have not become citizens, those who have been expelled from this said statute, those who live in the interregnum of papers that never arrive or that, being French, they are despised because of their skin color or religion.

The banlieues that cut cross different cities and harbour the barricades, the looting and confrontations with the police, know nothing of citizenship; they know only marginality, exclusions and daily violence. Nobody wants to admit that there is racism in France, except for those who revolt, nobody wants to admit that the republican project is withered, except for those who demand justice and truth for the murder of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk. The rebels are teenagers. As in the Palestinian intifada of 1987 where children from 10 to 14 years of age questioned the Israeli military, it is precisely these children who show the country that its promise of “integration”, of a “republic”, of “progress” are nothing more than empty words. Nahel was one of them. These are nameless kids who seem like they can only hope for recognition once they’re killed. Strictly speaking, Nahel operates in the form of a martyr: assassinated by the police, an anonymous boy for the radars of power, he becomes the medium that unleashes the popular imagination, which assaults the present by multiplying the barricades towards all cities.

Neo-fascism does not want to recognize the political intensity of the revolt and has imposed a “war framework” that diagnoses the problem in light of the “identity” question as a pivot of the fragmentation experienced by French society, thus denying the political nature of the insurgents: “The current urban riots are not political in nature. The gang members have no demands to make. They only want to destroy and plunder” –writes Alain de Benoist.

As if the political were played out only in the traditional form of “citizen” parties, organisations or movements that demand, that clearly express what they want and what they don’t. But this means conceiving said “subjects” as interlocutors and, therefore, as “citizens” of a Republic in which dialogue expresses the very human nature of the “rational animal”.

But the current revolts do not come from “humans”, because these are today a minority oligarchy of a global nature that enjoys money and weapons at the expense of the rest of the populations. By problematising the French colonisation of Algeria, Franz Fanon understood this point perfectly: we could say that “humans” are the minority of the planet and non-humans the majority that become “alien”. It is, by the way, about beings that, through the structural violence of capital and its forms of racism, have been deprived of their very condition of humanity. According to Mbembe, they have become “black” not as “skin colour”, but in terms of the position they occupy in the hierarchical relations of French society. Racism is never a skin issue, but a power issue.

Under this rubric, the neo-fascist François Bousquet indicates that the problem would in no way be the “class” violence that continues to reproduce itself in the banlieues, but: “It is France, its symbols, its identity, its sovereignty, which is in the spotlight.” The war of civilisations is the war of identity. Here is the neo-fascist reading that Le Pen-ism has not stopped capitalising on and that French public opinion seems not to have stopped embracing, in the face of a Macron classified as “weak”.

In this light, France does not need a colonial Algeria to show its murderous face. The banlieues are enough, redoubts in which the colonial dimension has been introjected under the new postcolonial rubric imposed by the new neoliberal era. It is them that the “Algeria” that France has not stopped producing from its own (im)proper interior that the catastrophe which defines the progress of the Republic, unfolds.

Perhaps, for this reason, the French situation shows us the global situation of which we are witnesses: unlike modern revolutions, contemporary revolts are not guided by the horizon of “progress” but, rather, by that of its destitution. In this sense, they are both more radical and labile than modern revolutions: “radical” because they call into question the modern horizon in its entirety, exposing its constitutive violence, but “labile” because they have not yet found another modulation for their intensity and organisation.

However, the decisive question is perhaps this: Kant’s France is not ours. When France burns, a certain notion of modernity scatters into ashes. Because it is not a question of noticing a “moral disposition of the human race” nor of a threatened “identity”, but of the dismissal of an era once contemplated by Kant under “enthusiasm” in a “moral disposition of the human race” for which, the current banlieues are nothing more than its crude practical refutation.

If the Republic has vanished in the ashes of neo-fascism – it itself exposes its thanatic nucleus, the one that, historically, made the Republic and colonialism converge -, we can only intensify the organisation of the uprising or, as Benjamin said: “organise pessimism”. Perhaps this is the most radical political task, before the police restore order and, as always, the “Republic” is infinitely grateful.

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