Letter From Paris
Terrorism and the Socialist Police State
It was a shock but we weren’t surprised.
After years of wars and barbaric acts, Guantánamos, daily bombardments, societies destroyed, millions of displaced people and refugees, hundreds of thousands dead, thousands tortured, unhinged minds seeking comfort and vengeance in the irrational and in religious fanaticism—after all this, how and why could we escape the barbarism which the powers of the so-called civilized world have engendered and fed? The new, unexpected movements of the “Arab Spring” succeeded in beating two powerful dictatorship in the Middle East, but, regarded with suspicion, were ultimately encircled and snuffed out by religious figures and the old overlords disguised as democrats, supported without hesitation by the great powers.
We have no right to be astonished, even if we are disgusted, for the dead died in a war which is not ours but which is waged in our name. A war that continues. We demand the right to know why it happened. Not everyone shared this wish: hardly had the commando of the Islamic State at war with the French State, carried out the massacre in Paris, did the media set limits to our thinking: “A question with no answer: in whose name?” headlined one paper. This journalistic utterance clearly stated that the question had no answer—and questions without answers are not justified. If this is just another example of the attempt to control ideas in the interests of the dominant political and economic power, it’s a risky and fragile one, for we know that the mind abhors a vacuum and always looks for answers, whether rational or irrational. In the present case, it seems obvious that the objective was to avoid any awakening of the critical spirit—like minutes of silence and official ceremonies, “psychological support groups,” candles, prayers, and all the other gadgets intended to stifle the rage that shouts “enough!” and denounces those responsible. The Prime Minister even suggested that any attempt to understand the events was to excuse them. Understanding thus became a nearly criminal attitude, not far from collaboration with the enemy.
The Paris massacre produced, in one day, a number of dead like the number counted every day for three years in Syria. The dead, the massacred, the assassinated are not terms of comparison for human thought; horror cannot be reduced to numbers. However, one of the terrible features of the “civilized” world, today as during the colonialism of yesterday, the dead are valued differently depending on whether they come from “civilized” countries or countries “in need of civilization.”
Shortly after the Paris massacre, one of those responsible for that permanent horror, the French state, instituted a state of emergency, quickly revealed as a police state, a variant on the Chinese model of social control, where the judiciary power is, in part, replaced by the police. The government’s project is now to prolong it under an institutional form, that is, to dilute what they call the “state of law” in a more or less permanent “state of exception.”
Here we must open a short parenthesis to remind whomever might have forgotten that we are speaking of a socialist government, one which aspires without shame to enter history as one of the most reactionary French governments since the Second World War—which is saying something, if we remember the previous ones. The socialists, as we know, never want what they do and never do what they say. They have always sold damaged goods, the idea that capitalism can be reformed. They have always led their societies into enormous human butcheries. For socialist leaders love patriotism and wars, bloody practices that give meaning to their existences as powerless reformers. At war, they have the feeling of power. The French socialists have won big prizes in the field of barbarism: from the First World War through various colonial wars to the recent wars in the Middle East, they have always been actively present. Today, they are the special allies of the Americans and the British, and now of the Russians. They bow before the great “defenders of the free world” like the Saudis, the Jordanians, and other tyrants. Domestically, the police state of emergency is a political response familiar to them, much utilized in France during the colonial period. It establishes a juridical state of affairs that permits war against part of the population without blocking the functioning of the capitalist system. The French socialists put it into practice during the Algerian war, when Mitterrand was Minister of the Interior. Last but not least, the French socialists, like socialists elsewhere, are experts, as a result of their attraction to authoritarianism, at creating the political and social conditions for the rise of the extreme right. It is thus not astonishing that they are openly taking for their own the propositions of the National Front as a basis for the security-oriented and anxiety-producing climate of the moment: among others, the denial of citizenship to persons implicated in acts considered terrorist and the enlargement of police powers.
However, the institution of the state of emergency, along with the patriotic and warlike propaganda that goes with it, shows that the Islamic State has achieved its primary objective, that of weakening the French state and installing a lasting state of fear and paranoia in a society in which the mix of proletarian populations is a source of energy for social struggles. Of course, on their side, the leaders of the French state insist that their political choices are the only possible response to “terrorism.” But, in recent years, more than ten anti-terrorist laws have been passed without any effect other than to accelerate the authoritarian transformation of a discredited parliamentary democracy. Thus, the police easily killed a young peaceful demonstrator during an ecological demonstration, while the organizers of militarily terrorist attacks are still at large. And we know that what is called terrorism functions perfectly in symbiosis with an authoritarian society divided and atomized by fear.
So: In whose name—and why—is there the state of emergency?
Monsieur Nacer, worker in a factory of the multinational company Veolia, near Marseille, has several elements of an answer to this question. He is a union activist and is rather disliked by his employers, who denounced him to the police as radical, strange, French but of immigrant origin—suspicious characteristics in today’s climate. One night, several days after the Paris massacre, a commando (of the French state, not the Islamic State) invaded his apartment, breaking down the door before the terrorized eyes of his children and wife. The police of the anti-terrorism brigade searched the whole apartment, finding a Koran and, more serious, a photo of a bearded man hung on the wall. Al Qaeda—off to prison with Nacer! However, an analysis by intellectual specialists working for the Ministry of the Interior revealed that the picture was a reproduction of an engraved portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. Apparently, Nacer had artistic interests. The Ministry explained that it had made a mistake. Nacer’s children are receiving psychological counseling, Nacer has lost his job and is thinking of moving because the neighbors no longer speak to him.
There was no error: this is only a new way of dealing with rebellious elements, of managing social problems under the state of emergency. The war against terror is being introduced into workplaces, onto the field of social struggle. This was later confirmed by the police intervention into the two big Paris airports, which contain one of the greatest concentrations of workers in the greater urban area. Around 100,000 workers and employees were interrogated by the anti-terrorist police, more than 30,000 workers’ lockers were opened and searched. Those who owned Korans—or books by Marx or Bakunin—had to explain themselves, for all those bearded guys are suspect and the police has a limited intellectual level. Finally, this was an operation that came at the right moment, just after demonstrations by Air France workers in the course of which one of the managers had his shirt ripped off. The police showed their teeth again in the construction zone for a new airport at Nantes, where work has been blocked by activists. And the handful of Goodyear workers who locked in the management in the course of a strike have just been condemned to nine months in prison. In the face of this increase of repression, the Union bureaucracies explained weakly that it is necessary to respect “freedoms” even if it is necessary to support “security” measures.
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that terrorism is useful for the powers that be, for “antiterrorism” serves as an excuse for state terrorism, forcing people to submit to their policies, while spreading fear, suspicion, and division. There is no need for conspiracy theories ands other intellectual contortions to understand this. In a way, the Western powers have no alternative. Without being deterministic, one could argue that, given the total inability to emerge from the long crisis of the economy—increasing unemployment, general impoverishment, and the concentration of wealth—the governing classes make politics out of the disastrous outcomes they produce and with respect for the interests of the powerful military-industrial complexes and the oil capitalism to which they submit.
Let us return to the question without an answer. In a recent small book (Le piège Daech, Éditions La Découverte, 2015), Pierre-Jean Luizard, a Middle East specialist, clarifies the place of the Islamic State in recent history and the confused role of the Western capitalist powers in this new situation. He shows how the emergence of this new political and territorial organization constitutes an historical response to the recent wars and destruction visited on the region. Whatever the outcome of the current bloody events, the whole region of the Middle East carved up by Westerners in 1916 with the Sykes-Picot Agreement has now been reorganized. The states created at that time have been destroyed by recent wars and the Islamic State is struggling to emerge as a new territorial and political configuration with a basis in religious fanaticism, the Sunni community, and supported by the remains of the Iraqi and Syrian Baathist states. The disappearance of the old Iraq and Syria seems irreversible, making way for a new political configuration which the West and Russia will sooner or later have to recognize. According to Luizard, the “Daesh trap” is, precisely, the present-day military involvement of these powers with the Islamic State, in a desperate attempt to reconstitute the original partition of this region into states, which permitted them to control the region and its petroleum wealth. “Western diplomacy seems not to have taken the measure of the irreversible character of what is happening today in the states of the Middle East. […] It is evidently difficult to predict the future of the Islamic State. […] But its military defeat will settle nothing if the causes of its initial success are not taken into account. […] The ‘civilizing mission’ of Europe has served as a cover for boundless colonial appetites. The refusal to acknowledge the past explains the difficulties of Western diplomacy in predicting a future for the Middle East.”
“In whose name?” thus has an answer. Those killed in Paris and in the Middle East die in the name of this struggle, these stakes, these interests. In regard to the First World War Anatole France wrote, “You think you’re dying for your country but in reality you die for industrialists.” Unfortunately, we have not left this fraud behind. It is explained to us that no one knows why people die, but actually they die for clearly identified capitalist interests. French capitalism has been involved in this region of the Middle East since the end of World War I; it supported and participated in all the recent wars that have destabilized the region, from Libya to Afghanistan; it has more than 10,000 soldiers engaged in foreign wars; it has sold and continues to sell weapons to all the tyrants of the region; its airplanes daily bombard Iraq and Syria. For years the official discourse has made no reference to this military engagement. The war simply didn’t exist! Today, the war has left the TV screens to leave corpses in the streets of Paris. The discourse has changed and the formula is now: “They’re at war with us!” The lie is big, and serves only to justify the way things go. Since the days of Hitler, who was a great connoisseur of mass manipulation, big lies have been the easiest to put over, for the “masses” only tell little lies and can’t even imagine that big lies are possible. The democracy of emergency laws shamelessly practices the principle of France’s former enemy, from whom the victors took many ideas: one more ambiguity for which we pay in an iniquitous economic and political system that is leading us once more to the abyss.
In the near future, the only way to oppose terrorism and war—the “civilized” form of terrorism—is to oppose the authoritarian drift of democracy, the paranoias and fears, the divisions between the exploited, the hate of the Other. Given the paralysis and the sensation of powerlessness engendered by the horror, the proposal seems almost utopian. Nevertheless, there are a few signs that the French have not lost their capacity for social conflict. Strike movements keep breaking out; there are demonstrations despite official interdictions; mobilizations against environmental destruction continue. Under present conditions, with the strengthening of state authoritarianism, these oppositions to the logic of the system are surprising. In them lies hope.
CHARLES REEVE lives and writes in Paris.