By Alex Cachinero-Gorman
Perhaps these are the times we live in.
If ever there was proof that liberal discourse cannot find its own tail, that it is not only a farce but literally a cheap magic trick–an act of misdirection leading our eyes to a false golden calf and away from the grotesque spectacle unfurling before us–this is it.
This image, this horrible, degrading image besmirching the memory of the dead–the only dignity they had left, if indeed they lacked it in life–should give us pause. While the growing mobs in France should be alarming in their own right, it is the readiness with which they are being presided over and sanctioned by European leaders which should worry us. Leaders who have claimed, like Merkel and Hollande, to be against extremist xenophobic nationalism.
Yes, Hieronymous Bosch would be proud. The most powerful potentates of the Western world–commanders-in-chief of airstrikes on helpless populations, consummate defenders of fatal austerity measures, and war-mongers, along with corrupt U.S. puppets, and stalwart keepers of the nationalistic faith–arms linked in thoughtless, morbid parody of movements the world over that have been forced to confront the very States these leaders represent, risking everything for freedom, independence, dignity, peace of mind. And yet today, here, there is no dignity, and there is certainly no risk: as the undulating crowds of an estimated 3 million broke moments of silence to begin “wildly cheering police“, it must have been clear to everyone involved that they were not, in fact protesting anything, nor mourning, but celebrating. And the question remains, celebrating what?
Was it a celebration of life? If this was the case, the march of necessity would have been a sobering moment for the Western world–a chance for some introspection about the failed policies and sadistic military experiments that consumed the Kouachi brothers, and an urgent appraisal of why, indeed, the chickens come home to roost. To celebrate life, France would, at the very least, need to immediately cease all coercive interventionist activity in the Middle East and North Africa, to refuse to participate in the War on Terror, and to create jobs and opportunities for France’s largely Arab and Muslim working poor, who are over-represented in the country’s prisons. But, as usual, today’s solvable social ills become seeping, infected chancres under the watchful eye of the modern State, carefully neglected and allowed to fester to bitter perfection.
There is no greater disrespect victims of such a bloody crime could be shown than to artlessly bandy about their names for the sake of political expedience–and yet, in shallow parody of regret and solemnity, this is exactly what has occurred. Even more importantly, the awkwardly grandiose proportions the Hebdo incident has assumed in international consciousness, as opposed to any other recent horrors (such as the 2,000 murdered by Boko Haram in Nigeria), has all but guaranteed that no unmolested mourning– to truly mourn the victims, and dare we say even the perpetrators for their misguidance–can take place. Would that we could mourn our world for the open wounds that have been cleaved in it and which we must desperately begin to nurse, and in our mourning, to confront the reality of hate for Muslims that has served as the backdrop for a politics of control for over a decade, long before Charlie Hebdo would throw its hands up in mock innocence of the racist pandering it frequently resorted to in the absence of more creative and biting satire.
As one commentator noted, it seems we must rather mourn the loss of our ability to mourn at all. For despite the somber procession, all sincerity has long since exited the conversation; in its place we find instead the usual cold, calculating hand of politics, “the extension of war by other means“. Foucault’s inversion of Clausewicz has never been more apt: the logic of war undergirds the entirety of public discourse around the Hebdo incident, and it is for this reason and this reason alone that the right-wing and brutally genocidal Benjamin Netanyahu–who himself has much to answer for in the way of free speech–could unironically assume the head of the rally as its self-appointed spokesperson (despite rumblings of dissent in the ranks). For the tragedy of the deaths of 17 people is really just another front, another theater in the total war that is the dream and horizon for the colonial West, wherein there are no safe zones and no neutral ground–only targets on a gradation of suspicion. This war already began long ago; Sunday’s rally only represents its re-imagined, re-ornamented debut on the world stage, this time shot with a kind of Hollywood savvy and with the unwitting consent of the public.
It seems we have come full circle from the era of global resistance and decolonisation: now even the State can make believe that it is against itself, that is, “with the people”, and play both sides of the fence with absolutely no irony intended. Like capital, modern politics consumes everything in its path and even invents novel ways of making statecraft look like ‘resistance’ in the face of adversity.
This is indeed a liar’s conversation, as Frederik deBoer writes, for the loudest voices in this shouting match “rail against an outcome that not one of them think is actually going to happen”. A non-existent Islamist future buttresses the feverish sense of urgency with which these deaths have been mobilised under broadly-appealing terms like “unity”. And yet, in true liberal form, we find amidst the gleeful, shimmering sea of tricolor flags that unity in fact means assimilation, affirmation of a kind of ineffable Frenchness that has been offended by the reminder that its casualties, the Wretched of the Earth, who unwillingly gave their bodies to give meaning to the nation, did not go away with time, but have even had the gall to grow even more embittered and resentful.
While some have expressed cautious optimism, let us be clear: as the State(s) and its shock troops recoup the narrative, what we are left with is no longer a funerary, but a war march, drumming up hysteria and setting the ground for the next in a long line of indignities for the Global South…by allowing the executioners to take the stage front-and-center, we have inadvertently affirmed the premise that begat this unseemly situation to begin with as our only possible solution: invasion, extraction, occupation, control, surveillance. Thousands of troops flood the streets of cities around France, and much like the Boston bombings last summer, we are seeing a scale of deployment much more ferocious than we ever knew. It is practically a truism at this point to say that the techniques we have justified for use against so-called “terrorists” have now been enshrined in precedent and practice, such that our Kafkaesque future remains a promise and not a possibility, now only a matter of time: we must sit and dwell on the fact that for any given reason, police-cum-paramilitary forces can now seize control of modern cities in a matter of a days and arrest people based on their online personae. It does not take a Gene Roddenberry to imagine all the dystopian possibilities that lie therein.
No, in a spectacle fit for the medieval kings of yore, this was a celebration of the State and its right to life, its right over life. We have ceased mourning, but have paved the way instead for the open celebration of death. The ceremonial rites and implements are all in place, and all that remains is their conductor, the high priest who will take it to ecstatic levels of indulgent social violence.
If it sounds too extreme, take note of the words of Aimé Césaire, penned over half a century ago:
People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: ‘How strange! But never mind-it’s Nazism, it will pass!’ And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, but the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack. Discourse on Colonialism, p. 3 (PDF)
For the mid-20th century fascist cult of death did not emerge ex nihilo, but as an outgrowth of a decadent colonial culture that had already laid the foundations for the dis-valuing of life and the totalitarian use of power in the colonies.
Spain, the coloniser par excellence, emerged into the modern period unevenly industrialised, corrupt, and over-extended; it is no accident that the fascists turned out to be seasoned veterans of Spain’s colonial campaigns in North Africa, looking to impose a simpler, crueler kind of order on the beleaguered country. In a typically misleading historical twist, their colonial inspiration earned them the popular sobriquet ‘moros‘ or ‘moors’. The roots of modern fascism in Europe, then–from Italian campaigns in Ethiopia to the Spanish ‘moors’ to France’s own Front National, headed by the increasingly popular and vainglorious Marine Le Pen–have always been colonial.
And despite the colonisers’ original intentions, they did not, for all their efforts, ultimately establish and finally prove the state of subjection of their victims. All of the extraordinary powers established to be extra-ordinarily imposed on ‘exceptional bodies’ proved instead the principle of exception itself, a legal fiction that could be endlessly innovated for any and all political crisis, at home or abroad.
As such, in its public deployment by these bringers of terror as a media spectacle, we could affirm what Foucault could not in saying that Hebdo–and its disingenuous spokesmen–represents far more than a mere logic of war, but of colonisation. And when there is nothing left to colonise, the boomerang inevitably comes back, and the war starts at home.
In the wake of the Hebdo & bakery massacres, we have already seen a number of reprisals. And with the ever-increasing lynch-mobs in Germany in peripheral view–along with the rest of the renewed and rising tide of fascism in Europe–one cannot help but think of the generations that preceded us, and whether or not they saw “it”–expulsion, pogroms, camps–coming. France has certainly done everything in its power to prepare the ground for that possibility, restricting the expression and political rights of its former colonial subjects, now merely laboring bodies to be kept subsisting until the next uprising. God only knows how long these cycles will be tolerated by the increasingly embittered white populace until it demands something more, as their Greek & German neighbors already have been. And as a child of the Spanish dictatorship, I fear that our Unamuno moment is around the corner (if it hasn’t already arrived), wherein we will hear that excruciating, bone-chilling portent–viva la muerte–proclaimed in public and without shame.
Here again, we must emphasise how liberal discourse succeeds in occluding exactly that which it claims to expose. Simmering beneath the surface of liberal handwringing over the loss of life is a concern, in actual fact, with which life, which bodies are being harmed, and perhaps how–not that they are being harmed at all. It is this handwringing itself, this overwrought concern with process which is supposed to distinguish the Western humanist from his counterpart. Taking a page from the headlines, we are supposed to be impressed, one supposes, with the lengths taken by the powers that be in order to exact some of the most thorough and abominable torture humankind has ever known. In the words of one socialist outlet,
It was not pencils and pens – let alone ideas – that left Iraq, Gaza and Afghanistan shattered and hundreds of thousands of human beings dead. Not twelve. Hundreds of thousands. All with stories, with lives, with families. Tens of millions who have lost friends, family, homes and watched their country be torn apart.
To the victims of military occupation; to the people in the houses that bore the brunt of “shock and awe” bombing in Iraq; to those whose bodies were disfigured by white phosphorous and depleted uranium; to the parents of children who disappeared into the torture cells of Abu Ghraib; to all of them – what but cruel mockery is the contention that Western “civilisation” fights its wars with the pen and not the sword?
If we counterpose the supposedly Occidental value of humanitarianism and freedom of speech with the “Other’s” obsession with death, then, we actually end up affirming an exponentially greater, more subtle, and more sinister kind of death-obsession, which in the West is par for the course–death by politics versus death by the gun. Teach a man to fish, they say…
The matter has left, shall we say, the stratosphere, and all the relevant parties that may have had something constructive to contribute to the conversation–such as a former Hebdo employee, perhaps–are trailing far behind the paparazzi, who appropriately snap away in a world totally of their own, star-struck by the dazzling lights of imagined celestial wonder. Far, far from the sludgy darkness of the complicated, and unimpressive everyday, they craft their meta-narrative, which, like a reality show, is even effective when the illusion is lost. Nowhere else is this so beautifully–or tragically, if you so choose–summed up than in this little number:
As we have said, shame is not a factor in modern politics, only timing. The Internet quickly exploded with denunciations and poignantly-crafted lists of the obscenities perpetrated by all those involved, but the damage had already been done, and no smoking gun would change that: world “leaders” had planted their feet firmly in the middle of this debate, and will continue to effectively use it to shore up more support for their regimes of surveillance and regulation of life within & without their national boundaries. They will continue to play strategic catch-up with the limitless bloodbaths of their own creation in an attempt to drive us all headfirst into ruin. And it is unclear how much longer down this burning rope of diminishing returns we can travel before we have to start asking serious questions about global infrastructure being able to sustain itself. For on its own it will deplete itself happily, but with our help and an open flame it could very well be accelerated.
What is certain is that every event, in the world as much in the media, sets a certain kind of precedent, tests the limits of possibility, and newly expands or contracts the threshold of what we imagine to be plausible, acceptable, and appropriate. What is also true is that said events are ultimately far less conspiratorial than the most excitable libertarian would have you believe. Last Sunday’s spectacle demonstrated for us all once more the unfathomable depths of the contemporary political establishment’s depravity, its complete lack of regard for actual human suffering, and just how quickly the collateral damage of the West’s civilising mission can be refashioned as its righteous raison d’etre.
Armed with the tools of social media savvy, it is ready now to inject itself at any moment into the zeitgeist with surgical precision. But behind these images of feigned concern which strain credulity, we must always see the fascist call-to-arms they invite (intentionally or through their boundless idiocy): viva la muerte, those words alive everywhere now in the heartlands of Europe, in the grenades and pigheads thrown at mosques–viva la muerte, as Unamuno once sat and heard and trembled, blanched and suddenly resolving to speak his Paulian truth to a crowd so hostile he was lucky to be escorted out of the room alive.
We might remember that Unamuno, too, was a satirist, and in the face of such a proclamation, he reminded his combative audience the true purpose of satire–not to please but to expose truth. And I am tempted to say, in citing his words below, that in the face of the utter mediocrity presented to us by these self-styled free speech advocates of the Hebdo variety, that we should also emulate his glibness, when he said:
But now I have heard this insensible and necrophilous oath…and I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent.