An article that explores the culture of fear as a tool for establishing the Power of a capitalist, neocolonial, and genocidal governmental system.
From Mirna Wabi-Sabi
“Just as the Indian was branded a savage beast to justify his exploitation, so those who have sought social guerrillas, or terrorists, or drug dealers, or whatever the current term of art may be.” (Piero Gleijeses, as cited by Noam Chomsky)
The culture of fear has been part of Brazilian life for many years, most recently exemplified by the dictatorial military regime of the 1960-80s. To generate this fear in the population, the State used terrorist tactics to impose its control, such as censorship, murder, physical and psychological torture. State terrorism is vastly recorded as a phenomenon of governments that have formed from revolutionary factions. What is recorded is only a fraction of reality, and the little recorded is an interpretation of a small fraction of the population: a white elite.
Chomsky is an example of a white intellectual elite who succeeded in elevating the theories of Latin Americans on the topic of “genocidal and dictatorial democracy” (1996). In the same way Sartre helped elevate Fanon’s work, so we can not ignore our reliance on white people to inscribe Other thinkers in history. With or without recognition and records, State terrorism still exists today, and it’s not motivated by revolutionary interests, but instead by the reactionary interests of the elites and the preservation of the status quo.
The CIA’s supposedly secret 1969 document, The Situation in Brazil, describes the continuity of US political manipulation and praises the economic development brought about by the military dictatorship. All the men concurring describe the preliminary symptoms of the insurgency as “sporadic urban terrorism” executed by “disorganized” and “weak” “revolutionary fanatics”. At the same time, the opposition being “demoralized” through “censorship” and “oppression” is only considered an effective strategy to prevent the rise of a symbol of resistance.
Today in the United States, the categorization of ‘terrorism’ is somewhat recognized as inconsistent and racist: Arabs “are,” and white people are not. Nevertheless, being black and angry has been criminalized by so-called “Black Identity Extremists” being labeled terrorists. It’s necessary to recognize terrorist acts of the State in order to avoid racist inconsistencies such as ‘black people’ and ‘Arabs’ ‘terrorize,’ while the government and the police don’t (a clear example of institutionalized racism). To dissect this racist double standard we can look at the media as an instrument of cultural manipulation, and at what the motivation behind this manipulation is.
When the media reports, it also records history and influences opinions. There is an excess of sensationalist reports of crimes committed by poor black people, which generates widespread anxiety. The streets of Salvador are soaked with fear and remain empty at night, a desolation which in turn leads to more danger, and this way a vicious cycle is sustained.
“Today in Salvador from 8:00 p.m. it’s rare to find people strolling around in most of the neighborhoods.” (Report of a local from Salvador)
The motivation behind sensationalism is not only grabbing and expanding an audience, it is also feeding the culture of fear. This culture of fear creates a pretext for military police violence, for the racist devaluation of black lives, and consequently for the genocide of black people in poor communities. The “excess contingent” that does not benefit the capitalist system can be exterminated under the pretext of protecting the supposedly peaceful and non-criminal bourgeois white life.
The unstated and unrecorded reports are the ones from those who are devalued for not benefiting the system. The culture of fear itself has great pro-system power, it institutionalizes social control, street dynamics, product sales, and urban development. Most parts of Salvador seem to have been built for cars since many people are afraid to walk the streets. Shopping Malls, fashion, security, and segregation are profitable industries that rely on fear, they were created to benefit the bourgeoisie, and they symbolize the rebranding of apartheid.
Why do white people hide in fear and fail to rupture with this system, while others are mass murdered? White innocence is not really naive, it’s deliberate. Because in this deliberate innocence we can preserve our advantage while at the same time not be considered a racist. Which is an extremely cruel thing to do, because we destroy with one hand what we build with the other.
It hurts to recognize the violence to which we are accessories, but it hurts more for the foremost recipients of this violence. We have to see the problem clearly in order to begin solving it, and those who seek genocide as a solution to the failure of capitalism will undoubtedly be our enemies.
Considering that the Brazilian government deploys military forces to attack its own people, the so-called Nation this war aims to protect is not only white but also male. Women in particular are afraid to walk alone on the streets after sunset. Women are even afraid to drive their cars alone. They disguise themselves as men with caps, the wealthier women hire male drivers, and many just don’t go out at all. Needing men to protect women from other men is not a solution to patriarchal violence, it’s a perpetuation of it.
Trans women are not even safe at hospitals (TW: transphobic violence), much less on the streets. Even though there has been steady growth of empowering media representation, and a strong protective community, Brazil has had horrific records of transphobic violence.
Whenever a black child is murdered by the military police, they leave mothers and other family members completely devastated and hopeless. Their endless pain is exacerbated by the impunity, and by the continuous presence of the police in their communities and around other black children.
State terrorism affects all women; white, black, trans, rich or poor, though some more than others. I believe that acknowledging the urgency of this problem and coming together to solve it will finally lead to changes in this world. Coming together means listening to the voices of the silenced, not enabling oppression whenever you can with small daily acts of resistance, denouncing the army, opposing borders, and not waiting for ready-made solutions. It’s best to devise your own strategies which are most effective in your own context, because if you want a boss telling you what you need to do then maybe this is the moment to reevaluate what anarchy means to you. In the words of Tina Fey in Bossypants:
“When people say, “You really, really must” do something, it means you don’t really have to. No one ever says, “You really, really must deliver the baby during labor.” When it’s true, it doesn’t need to be said.”
PS: Brazil is not the only country being lead by genocidal white men right now, so I hope you don’t finish this article feeling sorry for a ‘developing nation’. We are all connected and we are all responsible
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article was published in Portuguese in the first edition of the Salvador based anarchist magazine Enemy of the Queen.
Mirna is an intersectional feminist and decolonial activist from Brazil currently investigating Indigenous heritage. She publishes zines (Something Printed for Reading), and organizes educational events (DIY Workshop).
Mirna is our new co-editor, and we rely on reader donations to pay her and our writers. If our work inspires you, could you please consider helping us continue? Thanks, and resist beautifully!
The old rules we thought the world was playing by don’t seem to apply any longer. Entire countries are in ruins, sending refugees fleeing into lands full of people paralyzed by fear. Governments attack their own citizens without even attempt to apologize, police gun down Black and First Nations folk without reprecussions.
Entire political orders are changing, old agreements which kept nations from fighting each other shredded to placate xenophobic terror. Senseless attacks on defenseless people in the middle of celebrations or in the middle of sleep, perpetrated by people convinced the deaths of immigrants, or gays, or the disabled would make the world a better place.
Contentious elections bringing to the surface some horrible ideas have us reeling, while those who hold hateful views find themselves emboldened to speak without fear of others’ outrage. Churned up in the sudden free-for-all that’s gripped many societies, statements about race, or gender, or sexuality we thought had finally become artifacts of a less-enlightened past are now resurging with violent force, defended by those we were certain knew better.
Few of our leaders seem willing–or even able–to stem this tide. This shouldn’t surprise us, even as it disheartens us. When talk of angry Blacks or criminal immigrants, of perverted homosexuals or dangerous Muslims becomes the currency of popular fear, leaders are always quick to cash in. Some even sow these fears, eager to harvest the power we give them.
It seems we can no longer avoid what’s happening. Ignore the news and turn off your computer, but you’ll still hear the rumblings of such a storm in the cafes, at your jobs, in the bars or on the street. You can avoid all media and still find yourself finding out another Black man’s been murdered, another terror attack has occurred. It’s written on the faces of strangers, of friends, of neighbours, of lovers.
Beyond all the political events are the increasing storms, the heatwaves, the floods. The environment’s a wreck, and the unthinking machines we rely on can only churn out more carbon, not less. More species extinct, new species threatened, water crises, polluted air, while politicians and corporations argue whether people with darker skin than them are the cause of the world’s problems.
It’s enough to cripple us with fear, enough to paralyse our hearts, send us hiding into more distraction, weaken our resolve, lead us deep into despair.
But we must not fear.
It is fear which causes so much of this horror in the first place, fear of the other, fear of change, fear of uncertainty. Fear for our safety, fear for our security, fear that life might not always be easy, fear that others might make life hard.
When you live in fear, you will see enemies everywhere. You’ll see harm in each voiceless glance, danger in every indifferent stare.
When you live in fear, you’ll see enemies everywhere, and arm yourself against their imagined schemes. Colour of skin becomes the banner of a foe, foreign dress their uniforms of war.
When you live in fear, you become a combatant in a war you yourself declare. You’ll seek victory over imagined slights, summon armies to conquer those you decide have stolen your joy.
When you live in fear, you seek to become the fear of others. Unwilling to be brave, to stare unblinking into the Abyss of the soul, you spread the terror which keeps you awake at night, multiplying the shadows you cast which you refuse to call your own.
When you live in fear, you become fear, a void in the meaning of the world, a ghost of hunger starving out the light of others.
Only courage and love can stop this.
As the world seems to get worse, as more and more events make us question what we know of ourselves and each other, we need to find new ways of being, new ways of relating. When the official politics don’t work, we’ll need to find new ones. When minding our own business no longer keeps us safe, we’ll need to learn how to bridge our isolation. When people we hoped might lead us give in to the hatred and fear, we must learn to be our own leaders. When economies collapse and social systems fail, we’ll need to find new ways to support ourselves and support each other.
For all of this, we will need courage. We’ll need to be bold, unafraid what others might think, no longer worried we might fail. We’ll need to stop apologizing for the world we want to live in, and start building it.
Courage need not mean standing between a gun and a victim, but it might. Courage need not mean standing in the way of harm, but it might. Courage might not mean sitting in front of tanks, but it might. Courage might not mean physically disrupting the plans of the powerful, but it very well may.
Love-like courage–is rarely polite. Though love may sometimes mean gently talking bigotry and fear out of someone, it may also mean directly stopping the damage they do. Love might require only patiently listening to the fears of others, but it can also require strongly standing in the way of the actions their fear causes.
We’ll need both courage and love to steer through these storms, to find ourselves again upon ground where we are equal and safe, liberated and free.
Don’t be afraid.
Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s been trekking about Europe for the last two months, with more to go. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.
In the first essayof this series, I discussed the relationship of several recent events (Brexit, the strikes in France against the Loi Travail, and the massacred of Oaxaca) to Liberal Democracy and what appears to be its impending collapse. This essay will discuss the core of Liberal Democracy: violence.
As a reminder, Liberal Democracy is a specific relationship between Capital and The State, and is currently the dominant form of government in the world. With it comes apparent great benefits, like peace, stability, protections of individual rights, and a general trend towards freedom.
But does it really? If so, why are the largest Liberal Democracies always at war with weaker—and usually non-white—nations? Why are so many unarmed Black people killed on the streets in the United States, why do so many armed police show up to anti-war and anti-capitalist protests? Why do so many Liberal Democracies have standing armies with large military budgets? Why so many prisons? Why so many police?
The answer is both deeply complex and also very simple. But to get there, we need to look at the matter of violence and our own relationship to it.
“Nasty, Brutish, and Short”
Thomas Hobbes famously wrote those lines in his manifesto on State power, “The Leviathan.” According to him, life in a ‘state of nature,’ –that is, outside a strong State– was violent, full of retributive justice and vengeance killings, civil disorder, greed, and chaos. Without strong leaders, people remained in a state of violence, unable to live peaceful lives and strive towards more than just subsistence living.
It was a grand work of propaganda, one which most of us have an awful time unraveling. Because we did not live in the past—and because there’s no one around from those times to interview—we can only ever build an understanding of what life was like back then by imagination, informed by ‘history.’
That ‘history’ is actually the story of civilization, and one that is constantly open to interpretation. The well-known adage that ‘history is written by the victors’ is actually a bit misleading. Most historians were involved in no wars of conquest and subjugation. Rather, they’re individual academics trained to narrate the past. And they disagree, often vehemently, crafting sometimes warring narrations about events and historical processes.
Historians themselves aren’t the victors; they’re just academically-trained storytellers. It’s the State and Capital (particularly through the media) who chooses which narratives to privilege and which narratives to silence.
Certain histories benefit the continuation of a civilisation, other histories threaten its survival. Histories which tell useful stories to the powerful get favored; histories which tell darker tales and remind of the violence perpetrated by the powerful are at best ignored but, more often, actively marginalised and silenced.
An example from the country I know best will help show this. The dominant history of the founding of the United States, taught to every child in every school, is that a group of religious Pilgrims settled on the eastern shores of North America in search of religious freedom. They were fleeing religious persecution, and came to America in home of a better life.
Every American knows this story. Few Americans think much about the pilgrims in question, the Puritan sect of Protestants who smashed statues in European churches, heavily persecuted and attacked Catholics and heretics, and for a little while possessed great power in England. When they were no longer in power, they in turn became the ‘persecuted.’ Many fled first to extremely tolerant Holland before being ejected for being too violent, and took a charter from England to colonize the ‘new world.’
This other part of the story doesn’t get told much. It greatly complicates the founding myth of the United States, and most children might be turned off from such details. And though such details are well known and considered historical consensus, none of the powerful people in the United States have any interest in correcting the public perception.
This same selection occurs for the history of violence and the State, as well. While violence certainly existed before Liberal Democracy, it has not gone away now. States have always been violent, and Liberal Democracy is not different. But Liberal Democracy has perfected a trick that previous forms of government never quite could.
That trick? Violence in your name.
Hobbe’s Leviathan deserves a little more examination. Examine the frontispiece from the original edition for a moment–The image shows a sovereign giant made up of millions of people, the model for the ‘commonwealth’ and later Liberal Democracy:
Liberal Democracies are generally ‘republics’ or constitutional monarchies. In both cases, the government is given the power to rule on behalf of the people. In such an arrangement, the leaders are elected to act as representatives of the entire public, either directly as in France or the United States, or elected as part of a parliamentary party as in the United Kingdom or Germany.
Whatever the government does, then, is considered to be the ‘will of the people,’ done for them and done on their behalf as if the people themselves have done it. Because the government leaders are elected by the people, the decisions of the government then act with what can only be described as a divine mandate.
Previous governmental forms sought sanction from religious leaders in order to gain this divine mandate. This is why European kings, queens, and emperors were crowned by Popes and Archbishops, and why the state priesthood in the Roman Empire had so much power. Though that mandate now comes from people rather than gods in Liberal Democracy, it still functions the same way.
Likewise, kings and emperors once sought the blessing of religious leaders to justify large military actions. Why? Whether or not the Christian god actually approved of those wars is not something we can know, and actually, it was probably never the point. Instead, leaders needed the approval of ‘god’ in order to win the support of their own people.
It’s hard to convince someone to go die for you, even if you’re offering money. And judging from the tales of my friends in the US military, soldiers are never paid well. To pay soldiers enough to justify the likelihood of death would drain the coffers of any king or government.
Religion can often succeed where direct threat or bribe fails. It’s a lot easier if you’ve got something to tempt them with, be it innumerable virgins in paradise, a full drinking horn in Valhalla, or reduced time in purgatory. And in each of those offers there is also a threat, because once the god/gods have given their blessing on a war through their priests, to not join, to not support or—much worse, to act against the war—is to go against your community and the divine itself.
Liberal Democracy (mostly) dispensed with the need to gain support for violence from what we normally think of as the divine. But it still relies on all the same sort of divine blessing that previous governments required. The ‘divine’ is now the people, the Leviathan itself, with the leaders at the head.
That is, we are the ones who grant legitimacy to State violence, even if we never say yes.
State Monopoly on Violence
I’ve used the word ‘violence’ quite a few times so far without defining it. In fact, we face a problem whenever we try to define violence if we live in Liberal Democracies—we can rarely agree on what actually counts as violence because of the State’s monopoly on it.
By ‘monopoly on violence,’ I mean simply this: the government is the sole legitimate agent of violence within Liberal Democracy. That is, agents of the state (police, military, etc.) are legally empowered to perform violence on behalf of the people, and all acts of violence not by the State are illegitimate (that is, illegal).
If you kill someone, or assault them, or take their property, or raze their house and burn their fields, you have used violence illegally, regardless of your reasons. The victim in this case may have been someone who slaughtered your family and poisoned your water and raped you: regardless of that, you have used violence illegitimately, and if caught will be subject to state violence. Only the State is allowed to do such things within Liberal Democracy.
What sorts of violence the State can use is supposed to be restricted by laws. Those laws, of course, are passed by the government (through representatives elected by people, or in rare cases by referendum), and though States often make appearances to obey these limits on its power, the State—being the only one empowered to enact violence–is always able to make exceptions.
The State, being the only legitimate agent of violence, is empowered within Liberal Democracy to enforce laws and punish those who break them. When the State enacts violence against individuals or groups within the Leviathan, it’s called Justice. Violence outside the Leviathan—that is, against other states and foreign individuals—often also falls into the category of Justice, especially in the last hundred years, despite the fact that laws can only apply within the State which makes them.
Justification for foreign wars doesn’t come from their legality, though—it derives solely from the assumed consent of the people, the ‘divine mandate.’ The State has all sorts of tricks to maintain that consent, including propaganda, religious rhetoric, identity politics and other ways to manufacture consent (including, unfortunately, the social justice framework, which will be addressed in my next essay).
Justice for Most
While all Liberal Democracies enshrine some concept of equality in their founding documents, none actually deliver that equality. In the United States, for example, though everyone (except felons and those who cannot afford identification documents, usually poor and people of color) have the right to vote (assuming their ballots are counted, assuming they can take time off work), it hasn’t always been the case. Originally, only white men were allowed to vote, and it took more than a century for women to be given that right.
The United States, like European Democracies and other former British Colonies, is mostly ruled by white men with money. In all these countries, white men without money are given more privileges by the powerful (note the language here: privilege is something given, not something inherent to the person) than others, in return for their support of the governing class.
Not all Liberal Democracies are white (but most are!); however, they all follow the same pattern of favoritism given to a lower class of people who resemble the people in control.
Those who are given fewer privileges tend to dislike having fewer. In fact, they tend to resent this greatly, and either demand more rights (as in the Civil Rights movement in the United States) or stop seeing themselves as part of society—unconsciously withdrawing from the Leviathan. Those in that latter case have less respect for the laws (many of which are designed to keep them in line anyway) and for the unspoken sacredness of certain institutions and modes of being. That is, they become criminal.
That’s not to say that criminals are all making conscious choices to reject the ruling class, or that criminal behaviour doesn’t have other causes too, like abject poverty. In fact, Liberal Democracies actually create the conditions which lead to criminal behaviour, including defining criminal behaviour in the first place.
And what does the State do to criminals? It uses violence against them, violence derived from its supposed ‘divine mandate’ from the people.
That violence takes many forms, and here’s where we can finally start to define violence. Police employed by the State are empowered to physically detain, assault, subdue, imprison, and even kill ‘criminals’ on behalf of the State. Of course, this is all before a trial has occurred to determine if the victim of state violence was actually ‘deserving’ of these actions (that is, was ‘guilty’ of a ‘crime’).
Of course, if the victim is dead, there is no way to determine their guilt or innocence, so in many places (especially the United States), killing a ‘suspect’ is actually a wiser choice than arrest for many police officers worried about civil rights lawsuits for wrongful arrest.
Since police officers are employed as agents of State violence, and since the State acts on our behalf, than the police, also, are acting as our agents of violence. When we call the police because of a robbery or assault, we are notifying the police that we would like them to find and enact violence against those who wronged us, rather than us doing so ourselves. And though there are many cases where someone else perpetrating violence on your behalf makes sense, it is the victimization of one person (or group) which then demands the victimization of those who perpetrated the violence.
In essence, the police act as agents of violence for others, no different from hired mercenaries or assassins except in one specific way: they are actually paid for and under the employ of the State, not by the victims.
Within Liberal Democracies, the people (who give the divine mandate to the State) are both separated from the violence the state enacts and also intimately connected to it at the same time. When police kill a murderer, we feel a sense of relief and of justice being ‘served,’ though we did nothing at all and may not even be able to know if the person actually murdered anyone. We become accustomed to believing that the police, because they act on our behalf, are doing good things, and except in rare cases we tend never to question their actions.
If anything, our relationship to them is similar to that of a fan of a sports team, overly identifying with players they’ve never met. “Our team won” means nothing at all, unless you are on the team or one of the owners of the sports franchise, yet that identification is unshakeable. That same identification occurs between us and the police and the military, particularly if we are within the class of people who are given more privileges than others by the government–and thus less likely to be on the wrong end of a police officer’s nightstick or assault rifle.
Violence is always subjective—that is, subject to our perceptions. A fist to the face is violent, certainly, but it’s less violent if we feel that the person deserved it, or if that fist was meant to stop more violence. A rape is violent, absolutely, yet those who are more likely to identify with the perpetrator than the victim are quick to re-conceptualize that violence through that same logic (how was she dressed, how drunk was he). Basically, we skew our judgments about justice according to our identification with those involved.
Liberal Democracy benefits greatly from this process. In fact, it encourages and abuses it, wielding our identifications and subjectivity as a bludgeon against enemies both foreign and domestic. As much as we all mitigate violence through identification with either the victim or the perpetrator on an individual level, we do the very same thing to a greater (and more destructive) degree with State violence.
Did any of the recent unarmed Black men in the United States ‘deserve’ to be killed by police? The answer, unfortunately, depends on whether or not any of us have done the work to see beyond our identifications with State violence. It also depends on whether or not we identify more with the interests the State is trying to protect by such murders, or with the victims. A white Capitalist who relies on the police to prevent theft from his business in a Black neighborhood is likely to identify with the police, rather than victim.
Do anti-capitalist protesters deserve to be beaten, pepper-sprayed, and arrested? That depends on how much we identify with the State and its protection of Capital and Property, or with the concerns and actions of the protesters.
And what about in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria—do the people there deserve to be killed by ‘our’ soldiers? Again, it depends on whether or not you identify more with the military or the people being killed by them, and for the majority of people in the countries whose governments are engaged there, the soldiers are more culturally, racially, and linguistically familiar than the victims are.
There’s one vital thing that none of these examples addresses, though. In each case, the question is whether or not the use of violence is justified, and this is always a subjective question. But what is almost never questioned is the role of the State (the police, the military) as agents of violence.
This is how Liberal Democracy is able to obscure its true violence from us, whether we identify with the unarmed Black men or the police officers who shoot them. Liberal or Conservative, ‘Social Justice Warrior’ or Right-wing racist, none actually threaten the State’s monopoly on violence, only question its uses and demand it be used to implement their vision of Justice.
And so Liberal Democracy has been able to carry on, unchallenged in its core violence, a lumbering Leviathan with tanks and guns, until the zero-sum game of Terrorism began.
The Upturned Table
Acts of non-state violence in the cultural and financial centers of Liberal Democracies have occurred for centuries, both from the ‘right’ and the ‘left.’ Regardless of their causes and justifications, so-called acts of ‘terrorism’ challenge the Liberal Democratic state more than any progressive or reactionary ever could.
The reason is simple: while Left-wing or Right-wing political movements can at any time take over the government, they never actually threaten the existence of the government. Communists on the Left and Fascists on the Right only want to claim the State for their own to enact their political goals. “Terrorists,”on the other hand, destabilize the State, forcing it either to abdicate its monopolistic claim on violence (which they’ll never do) or to further solidify its monopoly on violence.
That, unfortunately, is where we are now. Every Liberal Democracy has enacted anti-terrorist legislation and claimed new powers in order to combat the threat of non-state violence. To do so, they have necessarily had to curtail the freedoms granted to the people they rule over, and no longer bother much even with the appearance of law and constitutional guarantees.
One can argue, as Georgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt all have, that this process started much earlier than the recent ‘wars on terror.’ Liberal Democracies began to pass ‘State of Emergencies’ all throughout the 20th century, particularly during times of war, but not until World War II did these exceptions start to become the rule.
It was a Nazi jurist, Carl Schmidt, who first defined for all later governments the justification for the suspension of law. “Sovereign is he who decides the exception,” he wrote, asserting that it is the very fact that a State can suspend all rules in order to survive that grants the State power, not the supposed ‘divine mandate.’
From the actions of recent governments, it’s clear Liberal Democracy took his words to heart. “Free speech zones” in the United States, individual interdictions (including house arrest) from attending protests in France, suspension of freedom of movement and just-cause in the name of anti-terrorism in the UK and elsewhere—Liberal Democracies have responded to terrorism precisely as Fascist theorists would have urged them to.
And just as we tend not to question State violence against those we do not favor, we are now caught in an even greater trap. As terrorist actions continue, we are faced with the apparent choice of either supporting the restrictions of our freedoms ‘for our own good,’ or risking our lives when the next bomb or mass shooting happens. And since acts of terrorism only increase whenever the State goes to war, the cycle is likely to accelerate, pushing all of the Liberal Democracies into crisis for which, unfortunately, Fascism has always offered an answer.
It’s one we must not accept.
Next–“Assuming the State” (on Social Justice, Human Rights, and the Crisis of ‘The Left.’)
(for more on Leviathan and recent events, see Heathen Chinese’s essay at The Wild Hunt)
Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.
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