I don’t need to tell you what happened. You’ve seen it already, the images of carnage, the collective mourning, the shaking anger, vows for reprisals, calls for restraint. And then the near-simultaneous retaliations in multiple countries by anti-terror police, new crackdowns, increased arrests, tightened security.
You’ve seen it already. You just saw it, but you’ve seen it before–really.
I’m referring, of course, to the attacks in the city of Paris. But I could just as easily be referring to any attacks, in any ‘modern’ city, and all the ensuing madness. What happened in New York is what happened in the London Underground which is what happened in Moscow which is what happened in Paris which is…
You get the point.
Many of our readers are younger than I. I don’t feel old, usually, until I find myself referring to the WTO shut-down in Seattle, or the massive anti-war protests during the beginning of the ‘War on Terror,’ or the G8 summit in Genoa, and suddenly I realise the person I’m talking to doesn’t actually remember any of this stuff. Then, I feel a little tired, quite dizzy, and understand something about ‘getting older’ (I still haven’t grown up): without collective memory, we are easily ruled.
And though I’m only 38, I figure I should tell you all what I learned from watching this happen before.
To Authority’s Hammer, We Are All Nails
There’s this trick you start to notice when the same thing recurs. History doesn’t really ‘repeat itself,’ but it’s full of repeating forms. What worked to control people in one generation, one century, or one situation is likely to show up again elsewhere. It makes sense, really: use a hammer to hit a nail once, and you might use it to hit another nail, or–depending on what sort of person you are–bash someone’s head in.
In each of those previous cases, ‘democratic’ Capitalist governments immediately introduced new security measures. The PATRIOT act in the United States was the first example, but anyone who studied the thing realised quickly it wasn’t actually about protecting anyone from another event like the plane-crashes in New York.
Rather it, and similar measures elsewhere, contained new laws, new powers, and new punishments which tightened the grip supposedly democractic governments held over the people they ruled. Worse, many of the new laws didn’t actually target those who’d committed terrorist acts, but created an expanded definition of terrorism which included environmental activists, peace campaigners, animal-rights advocates, and anti-capitalists.
The same happened elsewhere, and the same is happening again, because a hammer is an awfully useful thing.
Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine outlined the process many had noticed but few had quite been able to articulate. Traumatic events that occur to societies can be used by those in power to increase their power. Terrorist attacks are one example; natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Tsunami in Indonesia in the middle of last decade both led to increases in corporate, Capitalist, and governmental power.
The Shock Doctrine works because traumatized, wounded, or otherwise victimized people have a difficult time fighting back or standing up for themselves. If you just escaped a traumatic event (or had one constantly re-created for you through the media), you are in a weakened position, unable to think quite clearly, and more ready to accept powerful people coming in and ‘fixing’ the problem.
We can see this in the reaction to peoples in Europe and the United States regarding the refugees fleeing Syria. People who might otherwise have been friendly towards the idea of settling war-victims–or even utterly indifferent about the matter–suddenly react awfully about the notion, prompted towards such hatred by politicians and anti-immigrant groups.
The Means of Production of Meaning
The swiftness with which such violent rhetoric spreads shouldn’t surprise us, though. A terrorist attack or natural disaster is an event that exists in a realm of Meaninglessness. It becomes a break in the fabric of the every-day, doesn’t fit in to our understanding of the world, and confronts us with a crisis. Our minds struggle to understand the horror of such a thing, and it’s at such moments when we begin to look towards those who create meaning.
Basically, we look to our ‘priests,’ those who can tell us what something means.
Priests aren’t all religious. The Media is also a kind of priesthood, foretelling the weather, telling us stories of other places, and fitting it all within a neat, Capitalist/Democratic narrative. In this way, politicians are also priests, as are other political groups, and the events after a trauma become a pitched battle for control of meaning.
There are several hammers that Authority can wield over people to control them. Direct violence is a bloody maul, but it’s hard to rule over people when you constantly have to break their arms. Economic violence is another: starving people are easier to control, but it’s also hard to extract taxes from those who have nothing. The third, and the one least addressed by any political theory I’ve yet seen, is to control Meaning.
Consider the Catholic Church’s stranglehold over the souls of the people. To disobey the Church was to lose one’s soul, to be exiled from ‘community’ (ex-communication), to lose access to the Divine, and to find yourself forever seared by eternal flames. Such control over the souls of people took various forms, but ‘belief’ was the primary bludgeon. Christianity controlled the meaning of the universe, the meaning of human love (through marriage), the meaning of death, and the pattern of the year–all things which shape the meaning of our lives.
The Roman Empire did something similar before them through the ‘interpretatio Romana’ and ‘evocatio’ (a ritual which convinced a god to leave their people and go over to the Roman side).
Capitalism and Modern ‘Democratic’ governments do the same thing. Capitalism does this by defining how humans relate to each other, shaping our views on poverty, on what we are worth, and what we should be doing with our lives (that is, work). Governments shape how we understand and identify ourselves (‘American,’ ‘French’), determining what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ (trespassing is bad, hoarding lots of money is good), punishing those who oppose them (be they murderers or environmental activists), and claiming to be our ‘protectors.’
Against Terror, Against Authority? We Dance
So, in a terrorist attack like what happened in Paris (London, New York, etc. etc. etc.), it’s essential that we look not just at the event, but how powerful people are attempting to shape the way we see the event. Calls for retaliation, adding a French flag to a Facebook profile, massive anti-refugee sentiment…these were all shaped by people eager to control the meaning of those attacks.
We must resist all of this. Identification with a Nation is a means of control (and a control of meaning)–I am no more “American” than I am French, unless I choose to let someone decide that for me and accept that identification. The terrorists didn’t attack ‘Civilization’ or ‘Democracy,’ unless we let others decide that’s what happened.
What all this ‘means’ is completely the wrong question. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote, after September 11th, 2001:
It is the system itself that has created the objective conditions for this brutal distortion. By taking all the cards to itself, it forces the Other to change the rules of the game. And the new rules are ferocious, because the stakes are ferocious. To a system whose excess of power creates an unsolvable challenge, terrorists respond by a definitive act that is also unanswerable.
That is, terrorist acts push the self-destruct button of Western Civilization. When a terrorist attacks a city where Authority has become so perfect as to become invisible, it re-appears and rushes to show itself as powerful, just, and righteous. Capitalism is supposed to be perfect, Democracy is supposed to create peace, and governments are supposed to have the sole monopoly on violence.
Terrorists prove that all of that to be illusion, attacking Authority with its own game, which sets in motion a series of events which show Authority to be what it really is–just another violent regime which treats its own people well and other peoples viciously.
This isn’t to say we should thank the terrorists or even sympathize with them. Like watching a stand-off between a white supremacist and police, we should take neither side. Instead, we should look for the moment of our own liberation while violence is pre-occupied with violence, while terrorists–and the Authority which creates them–destroy each other.
Our liberation comes from reclaiming our meaning. If Paganism teaches anything, it’s that our meaning need not come from authoritarian priests or violent warlords known as ‘governments.’ Rather, our meaning comes from ourselves, our gods, our dead, our forests, and the whole dance of creation which we stand in the middle of, witches and mages, poets and rogues, singing in an other world.
Resist giving up your ability to create meaning in the world, which is the very essence of your magic.
And fight everyone who would steal that magic from you.
(For more on Authority and the Creation of Meaning, see this essay.)
Rhyd often lives in a city by the Salish Sea in occupied Duwamish territory. He’s a bard, theorist, anarchist, and writer, the editor of A Beautiful Resistance and co-founder of Gods&Radicals, author of Your Face Is a Forest and a columnist for The Wild Hunt. He growls when he’s thinking, laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, and does all those things when he’s in love. He worships Welsh gods, drinks a lot of tea, and dreams of forests, revolution, and men. His words can be found at Paganarch.com and can be supported on Patreon.com/Paganarch