Santiago López Petit: The violence of the force of pain

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

Nahel’s mother, surrounded by her son’s friends, makes a motorcycle engine roar. Her son, murdered by a police officer, liked to ride a motorcycle a lot. The noise reminds her of Nahel. Last night, Jean-Yves Sioubalak together with other parents spent the night in the school to protect it, and when a group of young people approached them they were told: “You must not burn the school. The school is the future”. I can only imagine that the shadows cracked up in laughter. They are two scenes from the theatre of truth that has been represented in a banlieue in France. These scenes can also be accompanied by some text. For example, the tweet from the French police union: “We congratulate the colleagues who opened fire on a 17-year-old delinquent. By neutralizing his vehicle, they protected his life and that of other road users”.

It is not the repetition of the well-known play: the periphery on fire, looting, race riots… and the police trying to redirect the situation. There are many things that are new. First: the rebellion is not limited to the periphery of large cities, but has spread. For example, police stations have been burned in cities with 5,000 inhabitants and the destruction of surveillance cameras has reached the centre. Second: the “young protagonists” referred to by the police as “nuisibles” (parasites) are filmed on video together with people who could be their parents as they fill their food baskets. Third: the current outbreak following the death of Nahel must be part of a chain of resistance movements produced as a consequence of the imposition of neoliberal measures. As it is impossible to count the detainees and wounded, only one piece of information. On Saturday March 25, in Sainte Soline, 3,200 policemen threw 4,000 grenades over two hours against 30,000 people protesting against the construction of an agricultural mega-dam. Hundreds of wounded, mutilated, two people in a coma… and the organization responsible for the protest, Les Soulèvements de la Terre, outlawed. That is why it is wrong to talk about yet another rebellion on the periphery and about how brutal the police repression is. A script change has taken place. The class struggle returns, although in a form that is not the traditional one. A counter-society faces a war-State. There is a diffuse malaise that is no longer appeased with promises that fall from above. A war-state that is much more than a mere repressive police state, since it implies a politics based on pointing out the enemy. The enemy is the left-wing Islamist, who during the Covid pandemic asked questions, or the eco-terrorist. Naming the enemy is essential for a war-State that, ultimately, is nothing more than a apparatus of order. The term “nuisible” so dear to the police is very revealing. They are parasites who do not adapt correctly and who disturb society. Their inadequacy makes them anomalies. Anomalies are system failures that must be corrected.

What is repeated, pathetically, is the the condemnation of violence. K. Mbappé, the football superstar from his magnificent home, published the following text: “Violence solves nothing.” The response, painted on walls, has been: “Justice for Nahel. I neither forget nor forgive.” Faced with the unleashing of social war, two responses arise, as usual. That of the war-State is repressive and morally accusatory. A renowned neuro-psychiatrist paves the way to – Oh surprise! – blame the parents and even suggests fining them. “These guys are proud to fight the police. In this way they show their courage and believe they are repairing their wounded dignity due to the humiliation suffered at school, the lack of family, of culture. These are archaic processes of socialisation, clan-like, with gang leaders and initiation rituals through violence.” The Left and its social mediators are more understanding and refer to structural explanations. In both cases, however, the consequence is the same: victimisation. The victim charged with a greater or lesser burden of guilt, precisely in being a victim, is depoliticised; a de-politicisation that reaches the point of making parents responsible implies the dispossession of all political consciousness. But there is much more. The “young protagonists” are dispossessed of the only thing they have: hate. In short, they are “suicided” by society itself.

“My life, my life, what have you done with my life”, asked the Argentine poet Pizarnik before committing suicide. Life, for them, has the face of a security guard. It includes the teacher who is fed up and belittles them. It is a social death. The “young protagonists” – what to call these algorithm failures? –, they destroy their own neighbourhoods and therefore are the first to suffer, say the good people. Is this strange? If for society you are already considered a suicide, attacking what is apparently your own is nothing more than the logical conclusion. They destroy even destruction itself. An anomaly has already lived it all and knows full well that it has no future. It is a force of pain, a vector embedded in the body that only seeks where to aim. Suffering is not a political criterion. It has nothing to do, then, with an alleged force of pain that does not exist. Pain has no strength, quite the contrary, it bends bodies and intimidates. It is true, however, that some enjoy the presumption of innocence. Others, not even that. Racism is systemic and the greater part of the victims of police violence since 2017 are of African or Arab origin. But the force of pain is common, and at the same time, unique. Those who are scandalised by it are hypocrites.

It cannot be denied that on occasions, when the desire to live loses its ambivalence and becomes a pure instinct without a collective dimension, the force of pain points in an equivocal direction. There is beauty in a burning jail, in a school that burns. Only when power kills is it pure. Resistance always drags impurities. The force of pain is dark. The neuro-psychiatrist has no idea of the suffering that lives in it, although he faithfully fulfils the depoliticising function that has been entrusted to him. On the other hand, the policeman affiliated with the extreme right knows more because, at least, he implicitly recognises its political nature. It is difficult to politicise social unrest. Thinking of a possible unification as a social movement does not make sense. Furthermore, it would be to distort the liberating hatred of those who are always the great absentees. The force of pain is a vector, so it is necessarily condemned to loneliness. Fire unites and separates.

Despite everything, the war-State is weak and it is affected by a change in the status of the political. If the self-organised wage struggle of the working class acquired a political dimension that put the planning-State in crisis (and neoliberalism was its reaction), the current movements go beyond the very cause that produced them. They involve the whole of society and further delegitimize power. The Increase in fuel taxes (yellow vests); pension reform; the privatisation of water (Sainte Soline); rebellion in the peripheries… Whoever tries to think about politics as a common language deceives themselves and deceives. Politics is an operation that requires building the fiction of state sovereignty as well as that of a people understood as a political unit. These illusions have been carried away by the wind of history. Now, we have often seen how the force of pain organises itself within spaces of anonymity to the surprise of a defensive power. Not long ago, Barcelona’s Plaza Urquinaona in the centre of the city could be mistaken for a burning French banlieue. The police and sociologists still wonder who these rioters were. Trivialized anti-fascism is a smoke screen. Last week, a political representative warned the new mayor of the city that he had to be prepared, to avoid the contagion.

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