Were you to plot a perfect satirical novel of the contemporary world, you might end it with a mass public march, led by a series of oligarchical leaders holding a banner saying “Freedom and Democracy” — at the end of which everyone who participated would be arrested because they may well be enemies of such freedom and you can’t be too careful.

We are well on the way to that. Yesterday in Paris there was a march for “free speech”, occasioned by the evisceration of a satire/outrage magazine whose repeated focus gag was piss-takes of Muhammad, and to a lesser extent of Jesus, the Pope, rabbis, etc. The march was led by, led by, a group of characters including:

  • The Prime Minister of Turkey, the country which has jailed more journalists than anyone in the world
  • The Foreign Minister of Egypt, which has Peter Greste and two other Al Jazeera staff serving 10-year prison terms on absurd charges/convictions
  • Putin’s Foreign Minister, a government whose shadowy affiliated gangs have murdered dozens of journalists in the past decade and a half
  • The Foreign Minister of Bahrain (’nuff said).
  • The Prime Minister of Poland, whose government raided the Polish Charlie Hebdo equivalent when it “embarrassed” the government
  • The Prime Minister of Ireland, where blasphemy remains an enforced criminal offence
  • A sheikh from Qatar, where people are serving 15-year terms for “blasphemous” poetry
  • Leaders of Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian territories, who all jailed journos
  • Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Israel Defence Force lethally targeted journos during the Gaza invasion
  • UK Prime Minister David Cameron, where Defence Advisory Notices and super-injunctions keep a host of live information from the public
  • The Saudi ambassador to France, whose country has handed out a thousand lashes to a man convicted of blasphemy
  • The Secretary-General of NATO, which deliberately bombed the Belgrade station of Yugoslav public TV during the Kosovo operation, killing 16 journalists
  • The US Attorney-General, who works for a government which has cracked down harder on whistleblowers than any other.

(this list was ably collated by Daniel Wickham)

You couldn’t make it up. It is satire, enacted and performed. It is described as a march for “unity”. But there was no “disunity” among those who believe in a pluralist society and a free press. The disunity was between a wide section of the population who believe that a pluralist society should be exactly that — with a minimum of surveillance as an essential part of real freedom — and the leaders who are leading the march today, who are enforcing total systems of surveillance, with “public safety” as their justification. Practically no one in the West believes that journalists should be jailed or killed, save for a self-selecting group of thugs who can be found both among the small jihadist networks in the West and in the groups associated with the government of Russia, Arab states we are happy to deal with, and Turkey etc. The “disunity” would be within the march on an unspoken matter: some, perhaps many, of those marching would believe that free speech, a free society and limits on surveillance have no relationship. Latching on to the obvious thing — that it’s wrong to gun down cartoonists — they would most likely have no problem with the state jailing people such as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and the like.

So the “unity” march, and the rush of political leaders to get themselves at the head of it, is a brilliant ruse, by which the question of the state and surveillance is papered over, and the Charlie Hebdo solidarity “movement” is conscripted in the service of the state. It’s going to take a few days, maybe a few weeks, but eventually a lot of people who thought they were genuinely arguing for a free and pluralist society are going to wake up and realise how easily they have been had, and what they have been put in the service of. State power — the “Unity” march has shown how much commonality there is between ostensibly conflicted states such as the liberal West and self-described illiberal Russia — has conscripted Charlie Hebdo in its cause, not despite its outrageousness, but because of it.

Hebdo was a group of disappointed French ‘68ers, who had sought a radical edge in our post-everything era. To do this, they had tapped back into a pre-Leninist, pre-anarchist tradition, French anti-clericalism. From the mid-19th century into the mid-20th, French humanist culture waged a war against the dominance of the Church in public life. Essential to this was the creation of a secular state school system, genuinely as good as any private, religious option. This long march was a great success, perhaps the last one for the French Left.

When 1968 crested and fell, Paris became the centre of the crisis of the Left, generating pessimistic, post-political postmodernism, a late-flowering of Maoism, the gleeful nihilism of Houellebecq, and about 291 fractious and futile Trotskyist groupuscules. The “Hebdoistes”, scornful of the more abstruse despair, set themselves a new and limited goal (along with business-as-usual satire) — as their editor, the late “Charb’ put it, it was to make Islam as banal and criticisable as Catholicism. They expressed some of the undecidably Left/Right rhetoric that the late Pim Fortuyn had marshalled in the Netherlands before he was killed — that having got a liberal post-religious culture out of the ’60s, having won the culture war, the freedoms won were now under threat as Muslim immigration created a political base for a new social conservatism. Sections of the Left found it hard to talk about this, because they had unquestioningly backed large-scale immigration and multiculturalism — not willing to acknowledge that open immigration was a labour-market strategy designed, in part, to break the power of the labour movement to set wage/profit ratios, and that multiculturalism was the accompanying cultural technology whereby a given culture would be reshaped to labour market needs. Thus, Hebdo’s strategy of outrage was directed at this more limited aim. But it involved a sleight of hand, designed to give them purpose, and that was to pretend that Islam had anything approaching the power that the Catholic Church had had in 19th-20th century France.

“Sections of the Right are also hamstrung because they have spent a lot of time arguing that knee-jerk piss-takes and denigration of religion are corrosive to Western culture …”

Eight per cent of the population of France are Muslims. Many of them, as first or second-generation, are from countries that had secular and Marxist liberation movements, and are not particularly religious or observant. There is no Muslim French movement worth the name trying to make any sort of public “sharia” concessions in French social life. For a century, the Catholic Church in France controlled what people could read, see at cinemas, divorce law, abortion law, female suffrage, and fought a late battle to stop married women being allowed to open bank accounts in their own name. The “Hebdoistes” may have presented their war of outrage on Islam as political, and it was. But it was also nostalgic, a desperate attempt to have a politics of meaning — entirely different to Michel Houellebecq’s teasing nihilism, that Muslims were idiots allowing themselves to be caught up in a pointless puritanism which wouldn’t let them drink or fuck, about all that there was left to do.

The state leaders who have put themselves at the head of the “Unity” march have thus attached themselves to a largely useless politics. Charlie Hebdo never showed much interest in publishing revelations from WikiLeaks or Snowden/Laura Poitras/Glenn Greenwald, and if they had, one doubts that a march on their demise would have attracted so much state power. The “Hebdoistes” themselves were more Left than liberal. In the early ’80s, they, along with many of the French Left, had lobbied then-French president Francois Mitterrand to give amnesty to violent Italian Leftists — from the Red Brigades and other groups — who were being rounded up by the Italian state, after all protection of the right to a fair trial had been removed from the Italian system. Ostensibly, the most lethal terrorists were excluded from this. In fact, those who benefited had been murderous operatives who had been part of an outfit that had killed journalists and news photographers, among others.

Indeed, one could say that Charlie Hebdo, like Private Eye in the UK, and much piecemeal investigative journalism, had become part of a wider system — a release valve, to give the impression that we lived in a free society, while the apparatuses of surveillance and control were rolled out. It was against this state of affairs that Assange wrote his Conspiracy as Governance paper, and invoked the need for a new strategy: mass leaks of such volume that the state’s mass surveillance power is revealed, but its lack of competence and legitimacy also unmasked. That is why there will be no presidents-led march for WikiLeaks or Snowden, and why only the most genuinely counter-systemic states, such as Ecuador, will offer their full support. Because Charlie Hebdo didn’t really threaten anything, and these other groups are genuinely dangerous to entrenched power.

Yet even Charlie Hebdo’s calculated outrageousness is too much for many of the newspapers whose newsrooms posed pompously holding “jesuischarlie” signs. The solidarity movement dissolved into farce quite early. In the UK, Amol Rajan, editor of The Independent, owned by a former KGB agent, popped up on the UK morning news programs to say that yes, we are all Charlie, but, no, The Independent wouldn’t be publishing any of the more controversial covers to illustrate the story out of “safety concerns for our staff”. But we will not be cowed etc. All UK newspapers were the same, including the Murdoch Press. So was The New York Times.

This already marked the whole cause of as an absurdity. Many papers had also decided not to publish the Danish Muhammad cartoons in 2007. There was a legitimate reason for that. The Danish cartoons were dodged up by a right-wing newspaper to create a very specific outrage. If you didn’t believe that was worthwhile doing, you weren’t obliged to be a carrier of them. Some made the same argument about Charlie Hebdo, with less grounds I think. It wasn’t necessary to print a hundred covers as some European newspapers had done. But the story was of a lethal attack on a magazine that had an ongoing style. Seeing the sort of stuff that had actually got them killed was necessary to getting the full story (although given that they were easily accessible on the internet, a lot of it was symbolic grandstanding as well). Whether it was the sort of humour that a newspaper would normally have published was beside the point — one could publish quite abhorrent stuff (i.e. neo-Nazi propaganda, in quotes as it were) without it being an act of support.

Across the global Right, the method was becoming obvious: let Charlie Hebdo’s acts stand as a sort of substitute courage. Because they have done it, you don’t have to.

Sections of the Right are also hamstrung because they have spent a lot of time arguing that knee-jerk piss-takes and denigration of religion are corrosive to Western culture, weakening of it, and part of a secular-modern plot to undermine the strength of Western values. The full Escher-like twist on that was the Jerry Falwell position that 9/11 was the fault of “liberals and homosexuals” — a position taken to avoid criticising people of strong religious views. No one on the Right can do that with this, because you would then be blaming the victims, and would thus have ended up on the same side as the straw-man progressives who allegedly say that the Hebdo crowd brought it on themselves. Thus Andrew Bolt, interrupting his Proust-reading holiday suggested that:

“This fearless magazine dared to mock Islam in the way the Left routinely mocks Christianity …”

Ignoring the fact that Hebdo was of the Left, routinely mocked Christianity and was happy to publish a cartoon of the Pope doing a nun from behind on more than one occasion. And would have despised someone like Andrew Bolt, for all he would like to suck up to them.

Meanwhile, in The Australian today, Henry Ergas wants this attack on free speech to result in “vigorously enforcing our laws against incitement to violence, including by actively running cases against the Arabic language stations …”

We do that anyway, Henry, you dope. It’s a non-solution. And a strange way to defend the right to be offensive. Maybe that’s for white people only.

Finally, adding to the hilarity was the intervention of people like Chris Kenny, who was very willing to use the deep pockets of News Corp to attack exactly the sort of outrageous stuff the magazine used to do. If Chris Kenny had been a Parisian journalist, in a place where absurd and repressive British-Australian libel laws do not run writ, Charlie Hebdo would have had him up a dog, on their cover, in three months flat, and there would have been damn all he could have done about it. Within 72 hours of the event, the hypocrisy of the Right was knee-deep.

But large sections of the cultural Left were also in deep trouble, wanting to stand with Charlie, even though their oft-stated position had been that such outrageous material should not only not be published, but should be subject to rulings of legality by the state. Thus, Guardian Australia had a “jesuischarlie” newsroom shot even though their op-ed page (and that of the UK paper) has become a repository for the most censorious forms of feminist and pro-multiculturalist cultural politics. Guardian Oz’s star defender of liberty, David Marr, is very quiet at the moment, perhaps because he became a vocal supporter of 18C — and if Charlie Hebdo had been subject to 18C it would have been shut down in six months.

“Few are willing to ask the real question. What are we facing, what are we confronting, with the Charlie Hebdo attack, and the related attacks? The answer is, most likely, not that much that’s new.”

Gratuitousness — the aspect of speech that removes an 18C defence of “fair comment” — was central to the activity. Artists, in Marr’s exhausted Left-liberalism, should have the freedom to do as they please, but the rest of us must have the offensiveness of our speech regulated by the state. Much of the Left’s response to Charlie Hebdo was some fairly obvious stuff about free speech not demanding that you provide a platform for everyone whose speech rights you wish to defend, and some of the usual stuff warning against a new outbreak of Islamophobia — desperate vamping, in the absence of anything much to say. In any case, if 18C had been set in concrete by the Abbott government’s cowardice last year, it has been welded in now. No one is going to touch that thing, for the very good reason that it may well actually do what it says — keep the public temperature low enough to avoid outbreaks of violence. That is not for me a compelling reason to keep it — but all governments are “public safety” governments now. Just as it was former prime minister John Howard who kept immigration going at such levels that we became a post-European society, while all the time mumbling about multiculturalism, so too the Abbott government has become the defender of 18C while crying freedom.

Indeed, the spread of the “jesuischarlie” meme was in its own, the victory of identity politics over liberal politics. The “identity” in this case was journalists and cultural workers, who found it easier to identify with a magazine staff, than with Nigerian villagers or Yemeni civilians. The stated concern, for free speech, was only one part of it. The other was a shock that people whose lives were like ours — lives with projects and careers — could be killed. Those killed in the global South have lives bound up with subsistence, with families, with villages. However much we might abstractly acknowledge their full humanity, we cannot help but see the deaths of those like us as meaning more. That attitude, that rush to identification out of personal need, devalues the lives of others. There won’t be any great fuss about two thousand Nigerians killed, because we’re all too busy, commemorating these mediatised and cultural A-list events.

Piggybacking on the “taped mouth” campaign directed at the imprisonment of Peter Greste and his colleagues, “jesuischarlie” had none of its political engagement, because there was no clear demand that would have been meaningful to the Islamist terrorists, and no suggestion that there was a reasonable argument in favour of their acts. To a degree, “jesuischarlie” assuaged the need of many journalists to feel that their profession was meaningful at a time when many suspect that they are simply writing screen filler to pay the mortgage, competing for eyeballs with a thousand other websites, where once they had regional, ready-made audiences. Whatever else you can say about them, the Charlie Hebdo team had a firm purpose, and it was clearly tempting to grab a slice of it vicariously.

Few are willing to ask the real question. What are we facing, what are we confronting, with the Charlie Hebdo attack, and the related attacks? The answer is, most likely, not that much that’s new.

Despite more than a decade of official fear from the Right and the national security state, there has been no great upsurge of violent jihadism among the Muslim populations of the West. The extreme murderous ruthlessness of their terror — 3000 dead at 9/11, 220 in Madrid, 60 in London — masks the fact that they have created nothing like the stable, ongoing groups such as the IRA or the Red Brigades, who were, for a number of years, capable of mounting something that could reasonably be called a social war. From a Northern Irish Catholic population of around 800,000, the IRA was able to recruit up to 1500 men and women who were active “soldiers” at some time over a 25-year period, willing to kill and die, another 15,000 or so active sympathisers, willing to undertake tasks, and around 50,000 supporters willing to argue the case for armed struggle.

The Red Brigades had a shorter time and a smaller organisation but were still capable of mounting more than a 1000 operations and encounters over a seven-year period. They too had a lot of public support among certain groups of workers, Leftists, students, etc. Over nearly 15 years since 9/11, they have failed to create anything remotely like that in the West. Their loose networks are often self-starting, amateurish, franchised loosely to al-Qaeda. Their actions are sporadic, and they are often voluntarist crimes — truckies driving into a crowd — based on white-hot anger at what they are seeing on global cable TV, about Gaza or Iraq etc.What is remarkable about the jihadist movement is its failure to create the sort of wave of ongoing terror that would push states to the wholesale suspension of civil liberties such as occurred in the UK and Italy. What was arresting about the Charlie Hebdo raid was that it did look like an old-style terror action, distinguishing between targets and civilians, and done quickly and efficiently. As it turned out, les freres Kouachi were pretty B-team, leaving photo ID in their abandoned car. But for a while we had a glimpse there of what a real systemic jihadist terror wave would look like. We may still get it, but one doubts it. If they haven’t got it together by now, with every Muslim citizen presumably now under some sort of surveillance, they ain’t gonna.

There may also be a hard-Right backlash and a rise to new heights of Le Front National, but that is far from certain too. It is quite possible that the FN long since reached their voter saturation point, from voters far more exercised about changing neighbourhoods, illusory job theft, tall tales of immigrants getting free stuff etc.

What one suspects is frustrating to many people who have spent decades seeing politics as a focus for meaningful activity, is how deadened politics has become — to such a degree that even a violent attack that effectively kills a magazine central to some parts of French culture (whatever continues under the name Charlie Hebdo is not going to be the same, and everyone knows it) provokes only a couple of dozen violent actions against mosques etc. Once again, you have to know a little history to realise how low temperature this is: the US “white riots” of the ’10s and ’20s, where 50-100 black people could be killed in a night on a single rumour of a rape, the eruption of virtual civil war in Belfast that gave birth to the Provisional IRA as a defensive organisation, and so on. You also need to remember that movements who wanted to make a political point were able to exclude carpetbaggers.

When you march for ‘Unity’ behind a Saudi ambassador, Netanyahu and the Russian prime minister, then whatever you think you’re doing, you’re not marching for free speech. You have become part of a post-political happening whose role is now a substitute for politics. That is because there is no politics possible. What could anyone do now, that would possibly have the character of a political act? Expel all Muslim non-citizens? Fifty per cent of Western Muslims are born-citizens, half the other 50% are old men and women, and if you seriously tried to expel them, then you really would create a mass movement, against such — and an effective militant movement arising from it. Nothing like that is going to happen. The West no longer has a content of its own, a simple concrete identity it could draw on to confidently define itself against this “Other” (unlike Russia or China, as counter-examples). That’s why people, in their search for a politics, reach for the vapid cause of liberalism, as if what they are facing is a mass movement of anti-liberalism, which is what communism and fascism once were. But even the new hard-right parties (Golden Dawn being the exception) talk the language of process and universality, couch their language in abstract ideas such as “organic community”.

The urge to politics, the urge to a politics that has vanished, lingers across the West. You see it in the “Unity” march, in “jesuischarlie”, in the hope eternal in the Trot-Left that something will kick things into high gear and a “real” politics will emerge all over again. You see it in Australia in events like Gough Whitlam’s funeral, in which a one-time event — the social modernisation of an Anglo-imperial settler country — is harked back to as a time when political giants strode the earth, and a desperate nostalgia for that contestation appears. And you see it in the Right as they work deeper into their long crack-up, dabbling in eugenicist musings about tying the dole (i.e. income for remote Aboriginal people) to forced contraception, jacking up the Islamophobic rhetoric about “all Muslims being responsible for jihadist cancer”.

Since Murdoch’s largest co-shareholder (and stalwart supporter) is a Saudi prince, even he doesn’t believe his own crap. The old man is just whacking off in the hope that his bloated old political prostate can still push out a bit of juice. I doubt that such ramblings by either he or his compliant columnists will produce anti-Muslim pogroms, but that’s not the point of them. The point is to have a global multicultural society of maximum labour flexibility, while supplying an Anglo/European readership with a group of permanent second-class citizens who can be despised enough to generate a sense of identity on behalf of the despisers. No pogroms, but a lot of assaults, graffiti, torchings, and children going home crying.

The companion move to that is to, with a mix of sleight of hand, and right-wing elite conniving, gain support for the advance of mass surveillance on a grand scale. Even though it doesn’t work — as Assange and others noted, when your killers had already done time for terror offences, extended surveillance is building a haystack in which to lose the needle you’ve already found — it will be relentlessly pushed. With the sudden rush of world political leaders to join the front of it, the purpose of the “Unity” march has been co-opted (if it was ever opted for anything other) to give an impression of consent for any given new measures. Right on cue, George Brandis appears in the Australian arguing the need for more metadata. Australia’s most incompetent cabinet minister has done it again. France already has the sort of metadata collection that BrandX thinks would prevent such attacks here.

In the UK, Boris Johnson, speaking at a rally in defence of Charlie Hebdo said, “I don’t agree with all this civil liberties nonsense”. The genius of it is to take the killing of a magazine that took risks, in order to mount a campaign that will be based on an amorphous idea of “public safety”. Satire, the release valve for anger with unchanging power, is defended, while the free public sphere is abolished, and state and society become a “Unity”. You couldn’t, as they say, make it up.

Peter Fray

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