Well it’s an awful way for it to happen but the Charlie Hebdo massacre and related incidents has brought on something coming for a while — a real crisis of politics on both Right and Left. Yes, fans of my 591-part series “how fucked is the Right?” will have to be patient, if they are looking for a one-way spray. This one will go in both directions. Ewwwwwww. But it’s more interesting than that, for the Charlie Hebdo events have also shown a failure of meta-politics and anti-politics among many of those who have been arguing for a more intelligent and overarching view of the era we inhabit. When push came to shove, they were still old politickers after all, desperately hoping for some Event that would carry sufficient force and meaning to get the old rag-and-bone show on the road again.
Let’s go the Right first.
The Right is falling apart as a political formation so fast you’d need stop-action photography to catch the process. Bruce Petty was quite correct, in his cartoon this week, to draw the Right sloping to the drawing board to sketch out a new plan for surveillance and control. But he was wrong, I think, to draw it as a great beast. It’s more a Caspar Milquetoast/Monty Burns figure, barely able to hold up the pencil. The failure of Iraq, free-wheeling capitalism, the collapsed legitimacy of Western Right governments, and increasing wars between its liberal and conservative factions sees it without a program, coherent worldview, common sense, or much cheer as far as I can see.
The Hebdo massacre brought all these contradictions to the fore. Hebdo’s nihilism is actually culturally corrosive, as conservatives charge such obscene desacrilising with being. Conservatives know that a viable culture is a closed system to a degree, and unless it has pinion points — usually religious — which are not themselves subject to a general back-and-forth, then it is quickly in trouble. This week, sundry idiots have been suggesting that “free speech is part of our cultural tradition”.
Until the 1960s, hundreds of books, films and plays were banned, even in the US, as way of maintaining the limits of what was publicly talked of, in terms of sex, religion and the like. That maintained a Christian division between profane body and sacred soul. Once abolished, Christian Western culture collapsed. A transitional period lasted into the 1990s. Remember the furore over Madonna’s hokey video “Papa Don’t Preach?”. Remember when the porn industry was some marginal thing, and not another career option?
During that period, like bohemians with their furniture, we chopped up the culture and burnt it for fuel. The urge to transgression which had been part of modern high art, became part of the process of commodified popular culture. Google “the last taboo” and see how many crappy newspaper articles you get about any number of things. Charlie Hebdo may have had a political purpose to its anti-religiosity — but it also had a market corner to fight for.
In now-very-post-1968 Paris, where jaded group sex has become the last thrill of the elite, nothing else but a potentially lethal blasphemy is going to give you a thrill. Indeed, there was a strange air of fatalism to their acts. “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees,” said Charb, their late editor. Well, better to stay alive by getting proper security, not one cop, a glass door and a key pad, if many many people have said they are going to kill you, and have already firebombed your office.
So for the Right, putting Hebdo at the centre of their message is a terrible situation to be in, further eating away at the threadbare mantle of conservative tradition that no longer covers them. The more the Right has insisted on putting the “right to offend” at the centre of its message, the more ridiculous it has looked. Editors who actually got a look at the Hebdo covers before publishing them — for Freedom! — suddenly realised what puerile provocations they were, sometimes funny, sometimes just lame. The crisis has pushed them further from the sort of public culture they would want to restore — the sort of culture they need to restore as a cover for an unrestrained neoliberal capitalism that has taken apart every aspect of social life. The more that ticks over, the more you need a concrete shared culture to bind people together. You can see that in the east-Asian post-liberal capitalist economies, which Western corporate power admires so greatly.
“The more the Right has insisted on putting the ‘right to offend’ at the centre of its message, the more ridiculous it has looked …”
Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and China wouldn’t descend to this bullshit for a moment. These are the sort of societies that Western Rightists evince more than a mild sympathy for, and envy of, and it is related directly to the determined willingness to enforce a culture that not only holds things together (amid serious socio-economic division), but creates a field of meaning in which each life — no matter how beaten down — can feel of worth by being part of a great enterprise, and undergirded by their several religions, held in conditions of varying degrees of mutual respect.
The true emptiness of the #jesuischarlie “pseudo-movement” was that it was ostensibly replying to a contrary movement that didn’t exist. Had the Hebdo attack prompted a slew of people suggesting that religious vilification laws be put in place, enforce blasphemy etc, then a “free speech” movement would have made sense. But no one did. So the movement by default became a protest to say that it was wrong to gun people down because you were offended by their speech. “No one should have to risk being shot for their ideas,” was one asinine quote. No one should have to risk being shot while working the night shift at a convenience store, but it happens. The idea of a protest against crime itself — as if there was any suggestion of its legitimacy — was a sign of deep confusion. The persistence of a degree of illegal violence is the sign of a free society — since any society that removed it would be so practically or ideologically oppressive as to be utterly unfree.
Getting behind Charlie Hebdo was the final act in a process the Right have been undertaking for a long time — establishing their identity by defining themselves against global Islam, a system which offers to its world what Christianity once offered to the imperial West: a simple and solid ground of belief that nevertheless manifests itself in infinite ways. Whatever problems the Arab world has had with completing modernisation, they are not ones that have afflicted the world of Asian Islam. Indeed, the simple monotheism of Islam — a religion that has removed the regressive and magical elements that Christianity re-introduced to the monotheistic tradition (see the man-God Osiris/Mithras/Jesus rise from the dead!) — may well be a better fit for stable, conservative modernisation. Giving its followers an external moral framework that (outside of Wahhabism and other sects) is not onerous, or burdened with internalised psychological guilt, it would appear to create a framework that allows individuals to be prosperous and entrepreneurial, but constrained from avarice or corrosive envy.
Modernised Islam is, in other words, exactly the sort of society that conservatives wanted for the West. Instead they are lined up behind a bunch of cartoonists who scorn all strong beliefs. That explains their utter disarray, their inability to think straight about it. They’re busking it. Whatever was once a difference of emphasis is now wide divergence over positions that have no meaning. In The Age, UK conservative Janet Daley says that calling such attacks a “war” dignifies their criminal psychopathy with intent, and implies an excess of respect for the perpetrators. In The Sydney Morning Herald, conservative Paul Sheehan says it is part of a world war against a ferocious enemy, and implies that anyone who denies it is a foolish appeaser. In The Telegraph (UK), London mayor Boris Johnson says that it is the jihadists who want war, but we must not fall for it, and thereby reward their self-assured hatred. Yet on The Drum, Chris Berg argues that the perpetrators are weak, best seen as people with a terrible feeling of inferiority to a pluralist culture. And on and on.
There are important differences between all of these people, yet they are all united by a set of shared beliefs about liberal institutions, the market and the state, the meaning of 20th century history, to suggest that they are a core political focus. They do not merely disagree about emphasis — they do not have any sort of grounded, or every roughly empirical view of the matter. It’s as if one had made a 4×4 grid, generated 16 possible positions, and assigned one to each right-wing opinionista.
From the flurry of right-wing opinion it is not only impossible to read off anything resembling a strategy, it is impossible to assemble a model that the Right apply to the world; a theory of action. It’s one reason why a populist, but nevertheless major news service like the US FOX News Channel can air an interview with a man, Steve Emerson, who informs his US audience that Birmingham, UK, is a wholly Islamic city, that non-Muslims do not go there, and that religious police in areas of London beat the improperly dressed. When unmasked as a charlatan, Emerson simply apologises for his error, as if he had mispronounced a name. This is political communication so unmoored from anything that resembles even effective propaganda, as to lose any touch with the subject matter at hand.
The Right is treating the event as a void, absent its own content, which can be used to define its own politics, as it slides into electoral crisis and decline in the UK, Australia and the US. But because the formation has already collapsed entirely — ithout really knowing it — there is no coherence to the different pitches by which to define a new ‘Western’ project against its other. It is not merely fantasist charlatans like Emerson who populate the movement. The crackpots start to outnumber the sane, and the latter become the former. Thus Gary Johns, the Labor minister turned classical liberal, has now become an outright eugenicist, exaggerating the problem of extra-child payments for the unemployed, in order to legitimise a forced contraception scheme that would fall most heavily on the Aboriginal population. Johns’ passion for years has been not merely the assimilation but the dissolution of the Aboriginal people, ideas advanced under one cover or another, while their author gained the support of Noel Pearson, Warren Mundine and others. Such positions have to then be contested — by Greg Melleuish in today’s Oz — not merely because they are odious, but because they undermine the moral ground of both liberalism and conservatism, the rights of the individual, and the sanctity of given life. The formation is falling apart, and it is around the Hebdo massacre that its full disarray becomes revealed.
But much of what remains of the organised Left has revealed its own exhaustion and bankruptcy too. Though Left figures were not the first to repeat the “this has nothing to do with Islam” meme — Merkel and Cameron joining Hollande in repeating that mantra — many were quick to adopt it, and to focus on a revival of Islamophobia due to such an event.
The event itself was barely glanced at, not even in an analytic way. The only response to the ludicrous pseudo-politics of declaring for free speech when no one had declared against it, was to reconstitute Western Arab-originated/descended Muslims as a whole, a subject of history, and then become their representative against oppression. The old, old accordian, got out for one last wheezing squeezeplay. But the wave of attacks against Muslims failed to eventuate. Maps of such events showed about 20 such — not good, but no Muslim-pogrom.
It was cautioned that the attacks would create a surge of support for the French anti-immigration party Front National. But there was no sign of that (though it may come), giving a strong suspicion that the FN had reached near-saturation level. Charlie Hebdo’s nihilistic style was taken as racism, its physical depiction of Arabs vastly exaggerated. Some jokes against the Right, using their language, were taken as witless Bill-Leakesque curmudgeonliness (the eternal fate of the satirist — if Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ were published today it would have a Beyond Blue tagline, a body image trigger warning at the top, and a “Visit Ireland” Google ad pop up). This shoehorned French political style into Anglosphere political divisions, where such a robust space for pre-identity politics Leftism has largely ceased to exist. Implicit was a causal model, which constructed Charlie Hebdo as having a FOX News-ish right-wing, pseudo-populist style, which it was using to rag on racial-religious minorities only — this effectively accusing it of a certain naivete as regards race and oppression, with lethal results. As Daily Kos’ selection of some of Hebdo’s anti-imperialist cartoons showed, that wasn’t the case at all.
But the causal/determinative model dies hard. And one popular article tweeted around was one about the “anomie of the banlieues”. Ah, the anomie (i.e. lack of meaning) of the banlieues (the featureless, high-rise housing around Paris and other cities) — Shift-F1 on the keyboard of a certain type of feature writer. The article made some obvious connections. The Kouachi brothers were Paris born and bred, and lived among the same sort of culture, not particularly religious, that the UK 7/7 bombers had lived in — subcultures of distinct popular music, rap, global cable TV, the gym, loose gangs that morph into something else, and eventually become entangled with Islamist radicalism. That the banlieues ‘ave l’anomie goes without saying. Nothing like living in a vast box of flats outside la belle Paris to tell you your place in the world. But the implication of such constructions is always the same: that the religion is merely an ideological scrim, distorting a potentially radical and assertive movement into the satisfactions of violence for simplistic ends.
Such explanations still ignored the full content of the attack — that it was a well-planned, decisive action, limiting its violence to its targets and police. The “anomic banlieues” have been this for close to half a century, and people have long since made their lives there. When they erupted in riots and car-burnings a decade ago, the late Jean Baudrillard commented that there was in fact one car burning a day in such zones across the country: “an eternal flame to the never-completed disappearance of politics” he called it.
After a further lethal attack, on a kosher supermarket, by another member of the small network from which the Kouachis had emerged, the country went into overdrive with thousands of troops put out on the streets. But as with the 7/7 bombings and the 9/11 bombings there was no follow up. There was no movement, no soldiers, no hinterland. From huge and somewhat disaffected populations, only a handful of operatives had self-selected for a violent political act.
“Nothing like living in a vast box of flats outside la belle Paris to tell you your place in the world …”
This trend, across the last decade and a half of violent Islamism in the West, indicated that, well, you can’t even rely on brutal religious fanatics to revive politics anymore. Yet what was curious was that even those who were normally most resolute in critiquing any desperate search for a re-emerged politics, did so. Thus in The New Statesman Slavoj Zizek indulges in the sort of positivist psychologising he would normally condemn, arguing for the weakness and envy of Islamist terrorists in their relationship to Western liberalism, and that the failure of Western liberalism to genuinely stand up for its own values — of liberty, equality and fraternity — in turn breeds fundamentalism. What will save liberalism? Yes, you guessed it, a renewed Left! The same one Zizek has been spruiking for two decades — a Left without content, program, or a specific account of reality.
The bandwagon jumping is tiresome and dishonest. Zizek had written approvingly about the moral acceptability of terror before, most recently in In Defence of Lost Causes, where he argues that the environmental crisis gives sufficient justification for a revolution, establishment of a regime of radical equality, and subsequent reign of terror that will prevent any capitalist resurgence (there you go Rightists — now you don’t have to read 400 pages for that nugget). For all his mealy-mouthed condemnation of the Hebdo killers, his disagreement with them is one of ends, not means.
Spiked, me old muckers, have equally taken leave of their senses (or are playing some inscrutable game a few too many moves ahead for me to see), throwing themselves holus-bolus into the “jesuischarlie” nonsense, even as it became the sort of vapid and grimly self-parodic event they would have earlier rightly identified as a form of public emotionality forestalling politics. Presumably it’s a strategic decision, which, together with a few homiletic articles of the “recruiting sergeant” style — an attack on us all, etc — gets them closer to the centre of blowhard opinion. But it has them sounding exactly like the Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, etc “moral leaders” of the West, urging us towards the Iraq War.
Strategic or not, I suspect it’s a disastrous move, an upsurge of the millenarian politics of their Trotskyist origins. No matter how much one has cooled one’s own Bolshevik ardour in decades of disappointment, the need for a politics of Meaning is as strong in a latter-day Trot as in a violent Islamist, their hunger for transcendence pretty similar in character. When the thick fog of absurdity that currently isolates the continent begins to clear, such enthusiasms will look as ridiculous, far more so, than the “freedom fries” ebullience and hysteria of the period between 9/11 and Iraq looks now.
The hardest thing for political animals of all sides — crusading Western liberals, Islamists, Trots, would-be fascists — to accept is that the sort of transcendental deliverance that politics offered throughout modernity has vanished, and only extremely unlikely events would bring about its return. The transformative movements that will come, that are starting to self-assemble, will mix social process, self-transformation, technology and politics together in a manner that is now simply beyond the understanding of political hacks of Right and Left who have remained with the humanist and interpretive frame, and cannot now understand the world as it is being reconstructed.
There may be others after violent Islamism ebbs and flows: a Chinese suprematism that morphs into a type of fascism with both Maoist, hyper-capitalist and pro-Asian racialist ideas; death cults — suicidal rather than homicidal — in a declining West; any one of a half-dozen possibilities in the US. But they will all play out the same desire for deliverance and promise of human salvation spruiked in works from The Communist Manifesto to the promulgation of “manifest destiny”, from Lenin’s The State and Revolution to Atlas Shrugged, Mein Kampf to The Constitution of Liberty to Khieu Samphan’s PHD, to the thoughts of Mullah Omar to This Changes Everything.
This event changed nothing, but reflected everything. “Jesuischarlie” was the funhouse mirror of May ’68, and the absolute conclusion to that era, certainly in Paris and perhaps in the West overall. The masked killers slipping into a nondescript news office were a last page of whose first page was Sartre in a leather jacket selling Maoist papers in St Germain-Des-Pres.
Tomorrow, three million copies of Charlie Hebdo, featuring its lamest, most sentimental cover ever — with Muhammad shedding a tear, saying “tout est pardonne” (all is forgiven) — will hit the streets of Paris, and London and other cities. Its jokes — incomprehensible in standard French in any case — will have been translated into 16 languages. Funded by Google, the commercial extension of the NSA, these snowdrifts of souvenir issues have become an instrument of Western foreign policy, as leaden and unsignifying as a nuclear-armed destroyer.
In the end, even the Hebodistes couldn’t escape their conscription into the exact opposite of all they had ever been. The killers won the day, when they stormed those offices. They went on, long gone, to win the week as the West became a hardened shell of its own living impulses, on the mountains of the Holy Land, a fortress with nothing to guard.