Notes on Freedom

5 lessons from the French elections

1. The post-war political arrangement has broken down. For the first time, the Socialist and Gaullist parties were both absent from the second round of a presidential election. This means that France is the only major country where the parties of left and right have been pretty much wiped out, removed from the political scene. (The Gaullists came third but were nearly pushed into fourth place by a leftist party formed only last year, while the Socialists scored a paltry 6%). Throughout the election campaign, there was a great deal of instability, with parties rising by 9% in the space of a month or two, or falling correspondingly. Fourty-four percent of the vote was gained by parties formed in the past year. This wipe out of left and right is about time: it has been well known that these labels meant little for the past 20 years or more. It is in principle a good thing that the illusion of ‘zombie parties’ has been removed.

2. There is a public hunger for political representation. All the candidates were forced to respond to public exasperation with the political system and appetite for something else. One watchword of the election was ‘ras-le-bol’, an expression of being fed up, someone who has had it up to here. All the candidiates had to play the card of being outsiders and against ‘the system’, however much they were in fact part of it. There is a palpable political tension: a feeling that the current set-up is unbearable and has to change, and a desire for people’s concerns to be represented in the public sphere.

3. This sentiment has not yet found an adequate form of expression. The names of the parties in this election read like something out of a revolutionary uprising: ‘France Unbowed’; ‘Together!’, ‘The Republicans’; ‘France Arise’. Emmanuel Macron’s ‘En Marche!’, or ‘Forward!’, has now cranked it up to become ‘La Republique En Marche!’ for the legislative elections. But this populism is largely a question of dressing up, mouthing words, with members of the political elite changing names and parties and putting on new costumes. The inside of the book is different to the cover. Emmanuel Macron’s best-selling book is called ‘Revolution’, but the inside is full of bland Blairite homilies. The Front National, meanwhile, has settled for a pick-and-mix of policies, embodied by the fact that it wants to have the euro and franc circulating simultaneously.

4. The French elite remains stable. Macron and Le Pen have accused each other of being part of the establishment, which of course they both are. (Macron calls Le Pen ‘l’héritière’, the heiress, while Macron was educated at the prestigous elite school ENA and is a former minister). The cohesion of the French elite and state has always been more important than that of the volatile party system. This is why many Gaullists and Socialists have been flexible and rallied around Macron, offering their services for the legislative elections and ministerial positions. He is similarly pragmatic: he won’t even force them to leave their other party in order to stand for his. So even though the French elite is showing signs of corrosion, it remains stable in comparison to Britain.

5. The most significant shifts are the establishing of the Front National, and the rise of the ‘vote blanc’. FN: With nearly 11 million votes, the Front National won more than double its score from the 2002 second round. The party’s appearance in the second round was neither a surprise nor a shock: the FN is now an established part of the political system. Since Macron doesn’t really have a party (he is advertising for candidates on the internet) this means that the FN stands as the primary developed political force in France.

Votes blancs: Meanwhile, blank or null votes in the second round reached a record level of 12%. There are ‘vote blanc’ movements, which pose the casting of a blank vote as a political statement (‘I want to participate but the options you propose don’t suit me’). In a way, the blank vote is perhaps the most adequate expression of the anti-system feeling and the inchoate desire to be represented. The blank vote sees through the fake slogans and says these are not what it is looking for, but it doesn’t withdraw or not bother. Someone made the effort to go to the booths; they wanted to vote, but refused to affirm any of the options available. Ultimately, the the blank vote points towards the future – to the development of political forms that are adequate to public frustrations and desires.

Sexting and the pornification of intimacy

What is worrying about sexting is not that people pass nude photos around their friends or post them online. It’s far worse that they were supposed to keep them secret: that these photos were supposed to have the status of a private, intimate exchange.

To send a sext is, basically, to objectify yourself, to make yourself into a porn object. Porn deals with a stereotyped, abstract sexuality; it is a question of organs, arousal, acts. Sexting has the same objectified language: it has the same focus on isolated organs, showing the penis or breasts without the face. Or it has the same stereotyped poses, pouting and sticking your bottom out; or the pre-fab lists of ‘sexy’ things to say.

So, on recieving a porn photo, it is not surprising that someone might pass it around their friends – have a laugh, post it online. It looks like a photo for general consumption; there is nothing intimate about it. To pass it around is the natural thing to do. It’s especially not suprising that young people do this, since at this age sexuality is largely a question of exploit and bragging to their peers, rather than of a close or trusting relation.

What is less natural is that sexting should be considered part of an intimate relation; that people should relate to one another through penis and breast shots.

Here, the sexual relation loses its quality of closeness, a private language and mutual sensuality. With sexting, the one-to-one relation is mediated through the exchange of photos and texts, through the production and consumption of images. The private sexted photo makes a gift out of your objectification (I did this for you) and also shows off (look at how big it is/how desirable I am). The other person then consumes this image.

The exchange of sexting occurs at a different pace and on a different plane to a real relation. In some cases, naked selfies are a prelude to a relationship: whereas once boys would want to touch a girl’s breasts (and brag about it to their friends) now they ask for a photo (and send it around). The photo is a prelude to, and temporary substitute for, someone else’s body. People relate through images before they relate through touching – some online daters make cyber sex a prelude to real sex.

As well as being more objectified, sexting is also a more privatised relation – it is the realm of private fantasy, the private relation between a person and the sex image. This means that sexting proceeds at the pace of fantasy rather than a real relationship. Women report that they meet someone nice and go to dinner – then, ‘bam’, receive a penis shot. It goes from talking, to penis shot, with nothing in between: ‘how am I supposed to respond?’ This isn’t the slow build-up of intimacies, but nor is it like jumping straight into bed with someone. Instead, the leap straight to the penis shot is a leap to the one-way offering – the objectified private fantasy.

One woman says that her ex-boyfriend broke up with her but keeps on sending filthy texts; he finished the relationship, and has no interest in seeing her, but continues sexting. Here, the person reading the texts is playing the role of mediator for someone’s private fantasy, a conversation he could be having in his head but is instead acting out through his phone.

So while most of the discussion is about young people sharing naked selfies online, this is actually the least significant aspect of sexting. What is more significant is its spread into intimate adult relations, such that intimacy starts to be mediated through the exchange of porn.


Microaggressions – fostering the alienated self

enhanced-buzz-1002-1386285201-29-2The current trend of identifying ‘micro-aggressions’ is not about social categories of exploitation or dominance. Nor is it just about personal touchiness or sensitivity. Instead, it is a prism through which social life and the world is experienced, as something set against and hostile towards the self.

This was shown in a perceptive satire of microaggressions by University of Michigan student, Omar Mahmood, in character as ‘womyn of color’. The satire captures how the experience of aggression structures every aspect of a person’s relations and environment. Even the falling snow: ‘The blistering cold did not turn my eyes from all the white privilege falling around me.’ The ‘womyn’ slipped over on to some steps and was approached by ‘a white cis-gendered hetero upper-class man’; she detected the ‘patronising sneer’ behind his words, ‘Cold, isn’t it?’; and when the man offered her his hand she observed ‘a manifestation of the patriarchy patronizing me’. In the end, the womyn realised that it was not about her colour but her left handedness (an awareness triggered by the cis-man’s comment, ‘I was just trying to do the right thing!’):

The right thing… The right thing… I became so aware at that moment of the left hand that I had thrust out before falling, and suddenly my humanity was reduced to my handydnyss. The words rang in my eardrums, and my blood throbbed.

The satire captures the arbitrary nature of the categories being employed. Categories such as ‘WOC/cis-male-hetero’ are detached from social structure: they do not represent groups or their relations, any more than does left-handedness or snow. Some of these categories are taken from past relations of inequality, but they exist as utterly transformed (which is why they use different terms and are described in an often unrecognisable jargon).

Instead, micro-aggressions represent the polarisation of everyday relations. The offer of a hand, or a consoling comment, is experienced as an act of hostility. In micro-aggressions, to be black, or female, or gay lacks much positive significance; there is little celebration of black or gay pride, or feminist sisterhood. The role of the category (of women, colour, handydnyss) is to give form to the feeling that social relations undo us, are aggressive. That others are set counter to us.

A glance, a question, the direction of someone’s gaze is experienced as a devaluation or an aggression for the individual. One Latino student complains about the way another student ‘noticed my Frida Khalo lighter and was more concerned about her appearance than the actual painting on it’, which was representative of ‘white supremacy at work’ and the exclipse of Mexican art by Eurocentric art. Another student complains that cashiers are not sufficiently cheery with them, perceiving a greater cheeriness with white people before and after them in the queue.

Often, the reality of the situation shines through: you can see the ‘aggressive’ person is just being curious, or making conversation, or making a guess, or a mistake. They ask why you don’t speak Spanish or whether you can read a Japanese character. They call you Jaime Garcia rather than Jaime Rodriguez. A person is offering you their hand and the gesture is transformed into an aggressive act, only because everyday sociality is experienced as a form of hostility.

It is sometimes the case that genuine acts of racism and sexism get called microaggressions, but these are in the minority. The essence of the category (which is why it has a new name) is the individual experience of dissonance with the world. This is why many of the complaints are highly subjective: you can sense a person’s upset and anger, but you cannot understand what the problem was. Why is it a problem that someone said ‘you do not look like the type of person that is interested in watching sports’? Why is this an invalidation?

Groups of all kinds are experienced as toxic, hostile, uncomfortable and painful, even those of one’s own identity category. One gay black woman complained that:

The queer community on this campus can be so incredibly toxic & policing, especially for womxn of color. Identifying as queer is such a hard experience on this campus because of all the heavy internalizations of queerphobia, but not feeling able to sit fully and comfortably with my qwoc self in queer/qpoc spaces is the most painful.

It is notable that the category of micro-aggression is authored by the victim. In effect, they are authoring the narrative of their own non-subjectivity, and the cis-hetero-male aggressor is constructed as a part in this narrative. The cis-man is holding his hands up, saying hey, I was only trying to help, I didn’t mean anything by it.

This means that the category of microaggression doesn’t only express the individual experience of dissonance with the world; it also actively fosters it. Experiencing the world in this way means that someone becomes attached to their alienated condition. A person starts to cultivate dissonance, to almost to revel in their non-identity with the world. The self becomes attached to the experience of alienation; it creates itself as alienated.

This new basis of identity is the reverse of the classical individual, who was based on the extent to which a person distinguished themselves. The personalities of ancient heroes were defined in the extent to which they left established boundaries, and went out seeking voyages, quests, ordeals. By contrast, the micro-aggressed self is defined in terms of what has been inflicted upon it. Therefore, they stake themselves upon their unfreedom, upon their object-character to the wills of others.

Yet of course, this is not an individual at all, but the eclipse of individuality. The same act that estranges the individual from the social, also estranges a person from themselves, from their individual abilities and qualities. Someone becomes not Carol or Jane, a specific individual with a specific inner life, but a ‘qwoc self’, with the self as a composite of queer-woman-of-colour-etc etc. As the satire put it: ‘Suddenly my humanity was reduced to my handydnyss’. Such a person is, at base, uncomfortable – with others, with themselves.

Therefore, the new phenomenon of micro-aggressions reflects neither exclusion nor oppression; nor is it merely the over-sensitivity of people who must be told to buck up. Instead, it reflects a new social structure; a new alienation in social relations, which is reaching into the most everyday encounters and people’s experience of their own personalities.

The solution can only be in combating these structures, and posing against them the truth and innocence of the everyday encounter, the person who is just offering you a hand up or asking about you because they are curious. We must also affirm the individual who is comfortable with themselves, who is not a category but a person, and who is not glowering and counting offences but throwing themselves into the curiousities and delights of our varied social world.

In defence of borders

blake-god-creating-the-universeEveryone is breaking down borders now. They are crossing lines, breaking down distinctions between academic disciplines or categories. Everything is trans this, inter- or multi- that. They are opening up things that had been closed, celebrating the virtues of visibility or transparency: buildings must have glass walls and open doors, offices must be open-plan. The virtues of the day are mixing, fusing, crossing.

Any kind of line draws objections: anything that says, ‘this is A, that is B, they are different’. There is no difference between men and women, art is not distinct from life, or life from art. Any category or line is an invitation for it to be challenged, questioned, overcome.

Many of the distinctions that were fundamental to the modern nation state are being broken down. In the eleventh century, church canon lawyers developed the distinctions between church law, state law, and personal morality. They drew lines. They said: this is a matter for the individual and their conscience; this is a religious offence and a matter for the church; this is a crime and a matter for the state (1). Thus the domains were established; the different arenas with their different actors were marked out. (This contrasts with primitive or tribal law, where everything is mixed up and crimes are listed alongside moral or religious offences or violations of etiquette.)

Now the state is deliberately crossing the line between law and morality, violating domains. Officials make laws about matters of etiquette: in several councils, it is now a crime to shout or swear or to be rude. The state is breaking down the distinction between law and life, between crime and rudeness, such that there is a general difusion of coercive instruments into the interstices of everyday life. When two categories blur in this way, both are lost.

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard observed that social phenomena of many kinds are escaping their bounds, diffusing from their own domain into every other sphere. ‘Every individual category is subject to contamination, substitution is possible between any sphere and any other: there is a total confusion of types. Sex is no longer located in sex itself, but elsewhere – everywhere else, in fact’ (2). The same goes for sport, for art, for politics: everything else is aestheticised, politicised, sexualised, or sportified (turned into a sort of performance or contest). The spread of politics or art into every sphere was pursued as a progressive and heady act. People had jobs taking art practice into science or science into art. They had jobs putting cyber cafes in libraries or museums in cafes.

Yet how could we be so against the border per se? The first law, said Aristotle, is the law of non-contradiction: A is not-B. A man cannot be a man and not a man at the same time. Thought starts with the question of distinction, of drawing lines: of saying this is A, that is B, they are different. The Chinese categories of Yin and Yang separated the phenomena of the world into two polarised categories: male and female, hot and cold, wet and dry, active and passive, and so on, with elements of human character mixed up with physical forms in this drawing of an essential line. The Pythagoreans of ancient Greece traced all things to 10 oppositions, including finite and infinite, odd and even, good and evil, square and parallelogram.

An excellent book by the French philosopher Régis Debray, In Praise of Borders (3), stands against today’s blurring of categories. As he points out, the frontier was the basis of a community: Romulus’ act in the founding of Rome was to draw a line on the ground with a plough. A city is marked by its walls; a home by its threshold. Debray notes how the shapes of communities and the domains of social life have been marked out physically on the ground, with gates, walls, bridges, doors. A space such as a tomb is separated from the everyday; it is isolated and concentrated, made sacred and not profane.

It is the line that makes something itself and not something else: something has an essence, and an autonomy from other things. Many creation myths conceive of the moment of creation as one of separation: of separating day from night, the earth from the sky. In Greek myth, Kronos forced his father sky away from embrace with his mother earth: the sky fled upwards into the heavens. In Genesis, God divides the light from the darkness, the heavens from the waters, the waters from the land.

This can be seen even at the level of the molecular cell, says Debray. The cell exists because it has a membrane, which makes the distinction between inside and outside. Indeed, the progress of evolution draws a line more and more between inside and outside: to have a skin, to maintain one’s own body temperature, to bear one’s young inside one’s body, to feed them one’s own milk. The characteristic of a more developed organism is that they are more distinct from their environment: they are more autonomous, more self-regulating; they maintain themselves apart to a greater degree. The higher the level at which they exist, the sharper becomes the line between an organism and its environment.

Debray also makes the point that a distinction or a frontier is also a relation – it is not an absolute separation but a means of passage. The cell membrane, just as the city wall or river, are lines that provide a means of transport from one side to another. Indeed, it is because of the separation that there can be a relation: it is because of the division between states, or households, or cities, that these cities can have a hostile or friendly relation.

Having said all this: it is also the case that many of the best thinkers in the past sought to show the provisional nature of categories. This is the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, with his statements that ‘hot and cold are the same’ and ‘wet and dry are the same’. But this meant not that these things are actually the same, but that they exist in a relation of opposition (hot is only hot in relation to cold); and also that they exist in a state of transition (things that are hot are becoming cold).

Hegel, who loved Heraclitus, sees every social form as existing as part of a totality: so morality, or law, or art, exist as elements of a social body, as interrelated, just as the leaves of a tree are related to the trunk and cannot be detached from it. Hegel also sees every form as existing as a moment in a process of transition, as a stage in a series. And yet he has not abolished categories or distinctions: the categories of the individual and state, morality and law remain cut out in sharp distinction from one another. He is showing the relations and transformations of distinct things.

Today, categories are being overcome not by universalism or revolutionary change: instead, lines are being crossed for the sake of it. Just as Isis is driving its bulldozers over the Syrian/Iraqi border, people are breaking down disciplinary boundary stones or crossing social spheres as an end in itself. They make a project out of the crossing of lines,  declaring lines null and void. We are left with formlessness and confusion. At base, this is making the process of intellectual and social corrosion into a virtue and a project.

(1) Law and Revolution, Harold J Berman, Volume 1, Harvard University Press, 1990

(2) The Transparency of Evil, Jean Baudrillard, 1990, p8

(3) Éloge des frontières, Régis Debray, Gallimard, 2010

Kicking babies off trains: the heartlessness of proceduralism

 A much-shared video shows a woman carrying a baby being denied a seat by first-class train passengers. An elderly lady had her bag on a seat; the mother asked her to move; an argument ensued and the other passengers joined in.

What was striking about the exchange was the absence of any humane or civic lines of reasoning – as in, here is an empty seat, here is a woman with a baby who needs to sit in it.

Instead, the dispute pitted various formal rules and procedures against one another. Some passengers insisted on the santity of first-class: the woman didn’t have a first-class ticket, therefore no rights to the seat. Other passengers said that they heard the train’s first class had been ‘declassified’, which means the woman now did have a right to sit in the seat. Finally, the mother herself noted that it was a ‘priority seat’, reserved for groups such as mothers with young children.

The question of right or wrong – and of our obligations towards one another – appears as a competing series of procedural rules. People on a train are as bubbles, surrounded by a forcefield, and their relations are only made possible by the pecking orders handed down from above. These procedures are not something we have made, apparently – there is no intuitive sense of everyday ethics – but something handed down, written on the train walls or announced over the microphones.

To be ‘civic’ today is often to care disproportionately about the correct enforcement of the rules. It is not the case that everyone is just sitting there and ignoring each other: they are policing, watching, comparing each other’s behaviour with that specified. Even if it doesn’t affect you then there is an impulse to survey and insist that procedures are correctly followed.

This can mean that the majority of a train carriage (on a train to Brighton!) can shout at a woman with a baby to leave what had been an empty seat. The public sphere can be a hostile place; you do not know how people will behave. Mothers with young children was one of those groups intuitively helped out, assisted, but now any ‘special treatment’ is only condoned if specified. You do not have to give up your seat unless you are in a specially marked ‘priority seat’: only in these seats do babies have a (quasi-legal) ‘priority’ over others.

The video ends when a man offers to give up his seat for the mother. Such acts of assistance are no longer the enacting of general civic assumptions and normal forms of comportment. Instead it is strangely touching, personal; an act of personal kindness, one-to-one. It is a moment that breaks through the proceduralism that has become our hollow civic virtue.

The role of Islam in terrorism

After the terror attacks of the past two weeks (gays in Florida, police officers in France), the primary response has been to assert that the attacks have nothing to do with Islam.

French and American leaders studiously avoided the word ‘Islamic’ or ‘Islam’ in their condemnation of the attacks. It is strange: both attackers left theatrical dedications to the leader of Islamic State. The killer of the French police officers recorded a 12-minute discourse in which he urged the Muslim community to attack unbelievers by any means possible and to ‘make France tremble’ (Allah would inflict painful punishments upon them if they did not ‘march forth into battle’). Yet the attack cannot be called an Islamic terrorist attack, and Islamic State cannot be called Islamic State but instead must be called Daesch or ‘so-called’ Islamic State.

The attackers are described as evil, homophobic or disturbed, as if the violence is a result of mental disorder or prejudice. Some lefties see Islamic terrorism as a twisted form of protest or politics, the result of historic foreign intervention or segregation within French society (for which they apologise). While the terrorists are obsessed with drawing lines (you and us, believers and unbelievers), there is a great effort to avoid any lines whatsoever – to, as they say in France, avoid any ‘amalgame’ between terrorists and Islam.

Of course, the attacks are not the result of Islam per se; this is not the faithful rendering of the teachings of seventh-century caliphs. And yet this religion is not incidental either. Radical Islam is at present playing a particular historic role: to provide a guise for tendencies towards destruction and collapse, which in this religious form appear as something substantial and transcendent. It is thanks to the Islamic guise that commonplace nihilism appears to be on the other side of a line: to be for something else, for another people, another place.

In their actual content, the recent Islamic attacks are relatively indistinguishable from attacks such as the US school shootings. The attackers are largely frustrated no-hopers, some of whom failed in their attempts to get into the police or army. There is a rage against the world and a desire for a great explosion. ‘I’m going to make everything explode’, was the way two of the Paris attackers independently described their actions. There is a stated desire to humiliate, to make things pop or burn, to make France or Europe or America tremble.

The attacks have the vanity of the school shootings: the videos, the desire for notoriety and to show that they have done something big. The murderer of the French police officers streamed his testimony live while still in the couple’s house, while the Florida shooter phoned 911 before he had finished shooting. Militarily these are not sensible actions, but narcissism overrode practical considerations. There was a desire not just to act but to have their act recognised: to take ownership of it and say ‘look what I did’, and this was as important as any actual results. There is not a concern with killing great numbers of people, only to commit an act of destruction that you can make a speech about before you die.

There also appears to be the death wish of the school shootings – terrorists want to go out anyway so may as well take others with them, make it a party. And yet this nihilistic content appears in quite a different guise to that of the school shootings. Islamic nihilism appears in the form of a war, a battle; the attacker is a soldier. His acts are shown on videos overlaid with nasheed warrior songs and galloping horsemen. He stands on another side of the line from the people he is attacking, or the place he has grown up. He stands outside Europe and condemns it as a place of ‘nonbelievers’: the fantasy world of Islamic history has become another place to belong.

The murderer of French police officers addressed his video to his ‘dear brothers’ in the worldwide Islamic community, and gave instructions for how they can follow up his glory: he gave a list of targets, including prison officers, police, journalists, politicians, and rappers, as well as a list of particular public figures who he believed deserved to get it. His personal gripes are announced as a political programme. His death wish is also universalised and made transcendent: ‘It’s enough to throw yourself forward, to die, and you will arrive in paradise. At that moment there will be no more worries, no more tests, only an enjoyment.’

Some observers of Islamic terrorism have insisted that it is not merely nihilistic, that it also idealistic and transcendent: it aims at sacrifice for a cause, at serving something bigger than yourself. Yes, it has these two elements of destruction and transcendence, hence the insignia of Islamic State, the black flag and the finger pointed skywards. But the transcendent element is merely a delusion: it does not point towards something about to rise from the ashes, or to any mystified will or wellbeing of Muslim people.

We are now seeing a desocialised brand of Islam, stipped of relations with Muslim communities or schools of Muslim thought. Previous forms of political Islam provided a religious guise for particular social interests and forces. Political Islam had a social content, whether that was anti-colonialism, or the mobilisation of civil society against corrupt elites. The Iranian revolution translated Marxist concepts such as civil society and party into pseudo-Islamic terminology: Islam acted as a veil for social forces, a means by which they could be articulated.

Similarly, the Islamic duty of jihad is a mystified expression of one’s duty to defend one’s community (1). Every Muslim has a holy duty to defend his community when it is being attacked; he has a provisional duty to join his community’s wars for expansion. This collective duty of self-defence would have been familiar to members of a Greek city state or indeed modern Christian nations. It took a particular priority in Muslim lands, as a means of welding disparate desert peoples into a unified fighting force.

Now the Islamic duty of jihad has been stripped of its collective meaning, and has become reduced to the immediate whim of each person. Anything they want to do is immediately raised into the divine obligation of ‘jihad’. Similarly, ‘ummah’ has become an abstract, fantasy construct, to be chucked around in your own self-justification. The will of Allah seems to always precisely coincide with terrorists’ own: Allah is an imaginary friend, giving his blessing and urging them on. Faisal Devji notes how Islamic concepts have lost any systematic or established content, and are ‘available only in fragments’ (2).

The ground for this desocialised Islam has been prepared by recent neofundamentalisms such as Salafism, which are set against all existent forms of Muslim communal life as well as European and Western culture. Whereas the political Islamists of the 70s were modernist and socialist, neofundamentalists seek to build an Islam from scratch: they are firmly opposed not only to Western influences, but also to local Islams and practices as well as to schools of Islamic theology or jurisprudence and existent religious authorities. Theirs is the purity of asociality, the setting of religion against culture and intellectual inheritance.

Islam in its globalised form becomes a detached‘marker’ (in the words of Olivier Roy (3)), a free floating transcendent element to be used for any purpose. The role of Islam in terrorism is not because of anything specific about Islamic history or the situation of Muslim communities in Europe (around 25% of European jihadis are converts). Instead, it is by taking an Islamic form that nihilism can be pursued as if it were a universal cause.

So the attacks are not the result of Islamic theology or doctrine, and yet Islam is playing a particular historic role at the moment, quite unlike that of any other religion or cultural principle. It is only this religion – the only rival universalistic monotheism to Christianity – which provides the means by which internal tendencies towards collapse and destruction appear as an oppositional principle and a revelation.

(1) L’Islam et La Guerre, Jean-Paul Charnay, Fayard, 1986

(2) Landscape of the Jihad, Devji, Hurst and Co, 2005

(3) Holy Ignorance, Olivier Roy, Hurst, 2010

What Clausewitz would say about Isis

The classic modern war, says Clausewitz, is ‘called forth by a political motive’ and is ‘a political act’: it is the mobilisation of a state, a people, in defence of the interests of that state (1). The form a war takes is determined by those interests, and the stronger the interests and passions the closer will the war approach the extremes of an all-out military conflict.

Now, in Syria and Iraq, we have a quite different model of war: war as the unravelling of political formations. As the war progresses, the various factions become increasingly numerous, fragmented, and estranged from any kind of popular base. There is a return to pre-modern tactics such as siege warfare and mutual avoidance, with skirmishes and deals rather than all-out battles. The cartography of a region or a city resembles a patchwork, with not one or two fronts but fronts everywhere, between or within neighbourhoods. In the city of Ramadi there are now Iraqi government and ISIS flags only yards from one another.

For Clausewitz, the essence of the war was the battle, the combat: ‘the combat is the single activity in war’. The war has the cell form of the duel: it is the ‘shock of two hostile bodies in collision’, each seeking to force the other to ‘do their will’.

Now, people are dying but often not in combat per se. Major cities have been won or lost with only a few dozen casualties. The Iraqi city of Mosul was won by ISIS in June 2014 with few casualties on either side: the Iraqi army just upped and left. Here is a city of 2.5 million people with 500 million dollars in the bank and military helicopters in the airport, and the army would not fight for it. Ramadi and Fallujah were taken by ISIS when the Iraqi army withdrew from the cities, after a dispute with local Sunni tribes: they walked into a vacuum. (The winning back of Tikrit in April 2015 by Shiite militias, led by Iranian commanders, was the exception that stands out as a more old-school battle, with significant fight and casualties on both sides).

Most notable is the woeful weakness of Iraqi state army: commanders defy orders to defend a district, soldiers take off their uniforms and go AWOL. Tribal militias will fight more than the state will fight. The Shiite militias ‘are stronger because they are ideological’, said one Iraqi, explaining why they now prop up the Iraqi army. The tribal and religious is what remains of ideology: they are the ones able to give meaning to battle and to risk their lives.

When Napoleon’s citizen armies first faced the elite, mercenary armies of Europe, the mercenaries were astounded at their numbers and their will to fight. Watching Mosul fall is like watching Napolean’s army in reverse: the state army is now the weakest thing, it is singularly lacking in ‘ideology’. The Americans did not build an Iraqi state but created a racket, a layer of people in their pay, a structure of phantom soldiers and kickbacks which crumbles at the touch.

The avoidance of battle is most glaring with the Western states of the world, who are uniquely obsessed with this patch of Syrian desert but will not put a foot in it. France pledged to ‘destroy’ ISIS but straight away ruled out any kind of ground troops. After a few weeks it admitted that it was ‘running out of targets’: ‘air strikes are of no use while there is no ground force to retake territory’.

There has been a fragmentation too of any international coalition, which were united in the first Gulf War, semi-united in the second, now split into as many parts as the Syrian opposition, often bombing sides being armed by other parties. They tell each other what they are doing only to avoid crashing into one another. Each nation has their favoured targets, which are developed in secret and change without warning – today Russia is bombing the opposition, then ISIS, then the opposition again. France admits that it is bombing Rakka because the government created the ‘narrative’ of the problem being Rakka.

International interests are primarily negative, set against a party, rather than for anybody. They were anti-Saddam, now anti-Assad, anti-ISIS, but they do not have clients or allies. They can destablise but not build; they can weaken but not take territory. It seems that the lesson of the war in Iraq was only not to try to build, not to try to occupy the country you are attacking. To attack them without trying to take them, without having a stake there, without being for anyone there. (Or not to actually know or control the people you are arming – as with US arms to Syrian opposition ending up across the border to be used by ISIS against the Iraqi army).


Battle is no longer the most meaningful thing. The drama lies in other ways of killing: suicide attacks, beheadings, air bombings. These are forms of killing which don’t involve meeting or grappling with the other party. They are not assertions of the will in a duel, but forms of demonstrating your power in a theatrical manner over a prostrate subject.

The bombing functions as a pristine display of power, as in the past two Gulf wars. The French theorist Jean Baudrillard said that the bombing of Saddam in 1991 was an ‘illusionism of force’, the Americans presenting ‘to themselves and to the entire world the spectacle of their virtual power’ (2). Now, films of Russian planes show the military hardware in all its splendour, superior and aloof; you see the bombs fall but not where they land. Or there is the asceptic footage familiar from the last Iraq war of planes fixing on their target, a green square, and then the resulting explosion. The post-Paris French airstrikes on ISIS were mocked by French jihadis, who claimed there had been no casualties and that millions of euros of high-tech explosives had been pounded into dust.

ISIS’s execution videos are dealing with the enemy at a more intimate level, but still this is not a grappling in combat but a null staging of prowess. They don’t even look at the person they are about to kill, they wave their knife at the camera and address watchers of the video or world leaders. The methods of killing are chosen largely for their performative value, the way the person will look as they die. Hence beheading: so unnecessarily difficult! When they are shot then the moment of the person buckling is shown in slow-mo and rewound; the film is all about this moment of buckling. It is a theatre of staged dominance, where the captive stands in for and is made to play the part of the Western adversary.

This theatrical parading of captives goes back to Saddam Hussein’s performance with the captured US airmen in Gulf War 1. At least they were airmen, fighters; the current captives are nobodies, anybodies, bit parts dragged in to be swaggered over and to have their veins spurt blood at the right moment. This great drama around execution is unusual. Execution is normally done surreptitiously or clinically – it lacks the drama of battle, the grappling of wills, there is no glory in it.

Suicide bombings are like drone or air strikes in that they allow you to attack in an area where you have no stake. You can destablise an enemy without trying to take the terrain. Suicide bombings are ISIS’s most feted deaths in war; it is the suicide bombing that is seen as the ‘highlight of the battle’. There is perhaps something ignominous now about dying in battle, dying at hands of enemy, and losses are often covered up and denied. Suicide bombings alone seem to have meaning, and there are many videos of ecstatic bombers about to set out on their mission of blowing up a checkpoint or walls of an army base. Their smiling faces are superimposed over the resulting explosion to indicate their achieved spiritual state.

The suicide bombing is not a grappling with the enemy but the pure sacrificial offering, unsullied by a tussel with another party. The fact that you blow yourself up means your death in a war is can be seen as a gift for God which leaves nothing for the enemy. Suicide bombings are indicative of a battle where you are not seeking to prevail over the other party but to seek destruction per se. You die not in a failed attempt to impose your will in battle but in the great blast you yourself have made. They seem to see a transcendence in the all-encompassing explosion that dissolves its author.


It is in this condition that ISIS can dominate – a condition in which all other interests, particularly regional and international state interests, have fragmented and pull at cross purposes to one another. Many of the cities ISIS now hold were abandoned by state forces, left for the taking.

For several decades, the process of Islamicisation has paralleled the emptying out of politics. Islamicisation means a mystification of the ends of battle, the basis of a conflict, and the basis of the organisation of a society. Since the Iranian revolution and the war in Afghanistan, questions of left or right or national popularism increasingly took an Islamic guise, as cover, as the underlying political motives weakened in their proper ideological language and justification. Now the political interests at the heart of a conflict have eroded further until it is practically only the Islamic mystification which remains.

ISIS is now the sole actor in the region with a universalising claim. They are centralised, coordinated, expansive; they have a body of people who will fight and die. They represent the grand mystification of any underlying political motives to the conflict, whether that is Sunni Arab political ambitions or Syrian national-liberation hopes. Their current dominance shows the inability of political interests to be posed as such, and the lack of viability of Western models of statehood or political interest formations.


(1) Carl Von Clausewitz, On War

(2) Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Power Publs, 2006

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