CapitalismEssaysThe Left

Seven Steps toward Enlightenment: The Case of the French Killings

When a crystal breaks, it breaks along lines of pre-existing weakness. Thus traumatic assaults, like the one in Paris, can serve as X-rays into the body politic that endures them. Certainly, the US invasion of Iraq, a response to 9/11, serves as a paradigm case of how a terroristic attack can provoke the blind aggressivity otherwise obscured and disguised in the self-professed guarantor of world peace. By examining the range of responses to the massacre at Hebdo, we can learn something more about ourselves, and perhaps correct our mistaken stance. In my view there are seven levels of response to these attacks, each a mixture of ideology and truth, progressing closer and closer to something comprehensive and just, albeit also elegiac and incomplete.

1. Liberal moralism

The simplest response to the attacks is a moral one: this is an outrage against our common humanity. We have to hunt these people down and ultimately kill them. It is impossible to deny that all people of good will feel something like this, and it is important to affirm this. However, it is patently insufficient as we are dealing here not with a crime like rape or murder but with a pattern of self-proclaimed Islamic terrorism. Therefore the first level of response identifies the enemy with what Gorge Packer in The New Yorker calls a minority current within Islam, Islamism. So far, so good, but this is obviously reflexive and insufficient, calling forth:

2. Liberal techno-moralism

The second level of response introduces a faux-historical and social element to liberal moralism. It refuses to simply blame Islamism for the continuing acts of terror, nor does it swing to the opposite extreme and blame American imperialism, but rather connects terrorism and anti-terrorism to one another through the paradigm of “modernity.” Supposedly what constitutes modernity is high levels of technology linked to connectivity and globalization, which make possible, on the one hand, the surveillance state, drone attacks, and a permanent state of war, and, on the other hand, continuing terrorist attacks by individuals who sometimes grasp the technological aspects of modernity, like aviation, but fail to grasp the moral elements, like human rights. This advances liberal moralism slightly, but it is still too abstract, lacking politics and social analysis, giving rise to the third response:

3. The Clash of Civilizations

Here we enter the Toynbee-Huntington way of thinking, which has real purchase. The idea is that world history is to be understood in terms of civilizations and that one civilization — Western — has achieved ideals of rationality and justice that have transcended their origins and have become truly universal. Origins, in other words, don’t matter: once such innovations as science, religious tolerance and individual freedom have been invented almost everyone grasps their indispensability. The problem of terrorism, then, arises because there is one civilization — Islam — that has systematically worked to undo or ward off such universal achievements. The key book here is Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong, which looks at a series of historical turning points at each of which Islam rejected modernity. This, however, is also rather simplistic, leading to the introduction of a complicating factor:

4. Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism. The obvious problem with the focus on the clash of civilizations as an explanatory model is that it stigmatizes a great world religion, Islam. After the killings at Hebdo, Netanyahu opportunistically used the civilizational model to justify Israel’s violent and imperialistic stance as a defense against Palestinian terrorism and thereby to link Israel and “the West.” While this is obviously self-serving it does bring to mind that the civilizational explanation cannot be restricted to Islam, but rather that racism, chauvinism and nationalism have been at the center of twentieth century history, and that anti-Semitism was the predecessor to today’s Islamophobia, just as the terror directed at European Jewry presaged the mirror of terrorism and anti-terrorism that we see unfolding today. This raises a host of questions concerning the role of monotheism and Christianity in forming today’s tragic impasse but more importantly it forces us to look back to World War Two and see how that war illuminates the present situation, which brings us to the relevance of the Marxist tradition and earlier thinking on the Left:

5. Primitive Leftism or Economism

Adam Schatz’s piece in the London Review of Books is an example of primitive Leftism in that it introduces the indispensable but simplistic element of socio-economic environmentalism. Directed against George Packer’s arguments, Schatz of course condemns the killings but he explains them as the outcome of French discrimination against the Beurs, the North African immigrants in Paris. Relying on public opinion surveys he discounts the religious element in the repeated acts of terrorism, and stresses discrimination in employment, the forbidding of the veil, inadequate housing and the like. Schatz is to be praised in bringing in the Marxist element, albeit in its reductionist form, but the explanation is implausible. More comprehensible are the words of Hayat Boumeddiene, allegedly one of the conspirators in Paris. “When I saw the massacre of the innocents in Palestine, in Iraq, in Chetchna [sic.], in Afghanistan or anywhere the Americans sent their bombers, all that,” she reportedly said, “well, who are the terrorists?” This brings us to a sixth level of explanation:

6. Imperialism

It was Martin Luther King who refused to condemn the so-called “riots” in American ghettos in the 1960s, explaining that the US government was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” And to be sure the US has entered into the decolonizing worlds of the Middle East and North Africa as a fireman with a hose full of gasoline, raining violence down on whole peoples. During the Cold War the US destroyed the progressive alternatives in the Middle East like Nasserism, in the interests of short-term economic interests. As is well known, Al-Qaeda was created by the US as an anti-Communist religious force. After the Cold War, the US took its three great opportunities, the three times that the world turned to it for leadership — 1989, 2001 and 2008 — and failed to articulate a comprehensive or just alternative to violence. From this point of view we can historicize the model introduced by techno-liberalism, namely the fact that Osama Bin-Laden and Bush/Obama are mirror images of one another, like a Bruce Nauman video loop in which two men — or a man and a woman — keep insulting and hitting one another, back and forth, forever. How can we break out of such a loop? That leads us to our final stage of enlightenment:

7. Marxism

What distinguishes Marxism and allows it to include what is of value in all the preceding six approaches and integrate them into a comprehensive framework is not the narrow economic explanations of discrimination or even oil-imperialism, but rather its focus on politics. Marxism is a product and an expression of the Left, which rejects the ahistorical liberalism that predominates today and seeks to actually change the structure of society and the direction of history.

Leftism, however, is not self-sufficient It depends on a critical relation to liberalism. What drives modern history, I argue, is not the relation of Left and Right, but rather the relation between liberalism and the Left. This gives us the framework we need to understand the attack on Hebdo. The reason World War Two succeeded and fascism — an earlier form of racism — was defeated was because of the alliance between liberals and the left, the so-called Popular Front. The reason the neo-liberal era is going down in flames is because it has been based on the alliance between liberalism and the right (the so-called Blairist or Clintonian New Democrats or Third Way). Neo-liberalism as opposed to Rooseveltian liberalism, is based on the isolation and stigmatization of the Left. As Cinzia Arruzza argues in Public Seminar, the Hebdo attack, and the confusion it has provoked, must be situated in the context of the ongoing crisis of the French Left, which like the American Left, divided in the 1970s between liberals, who hold to abstract universalism, and supporters of identity politics and the victim psychology, which is at its core. Ultimately the continuing pattern of terrorism and counter-terrorism reflects the violence inherent in capitalism, which an abstract liberalism both conceals and endorses. Only when we get back to the left-liberal alliance that succeeded in the twentieth century will we be able to address terrorism and its liberal double.

Eli Zaretsky

  • Chiara Bottici

    thanks for this interesting post, but i wonder whether lewis’s “what went wrong” is just simplistic and not also mistaken: it seems to me that the greatest critics of modernity are to be found in the west itself! and although speaking about civilizations clashing is a helpful shortcut to name the ideology itself, we should not forget that “civilizations” per se do not act, reject or criticize anything: individuals do!

    • elizaretsky

      i think it is important to analyze islam as a “civilization”– of course not only islam! But of course that is only one angle, as my article argues. As to ‘what went wrong.’ This is obviously a biased question. We may well ask what went wrong in America! Still, I do not wholly rule out the role of Islam in the present world crisis.

Previous post

The weird global media event

Next post

A Postcard from France: A Canadian in Avignon