As a Bruxellois, confronted with the terrible events in Zaventem and the Maelbeek metro station, terrorism has reached my doorstep. More than ten years after September 11th, my reaction to these attacks is very different to the one I had back then.
“When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh.” – M.L. King, 1967
I think I was 19 when fundamentalist terrorism started to enter my consciousness, with the attacks on the Twin Towers. As an alternativist, Western-European, lower middle-class kid, coming of age in the all too boring nineties, I must admit that I felt excitement at the time: the feeling of watching History with a capital H, as it actually happened! My sensitivities mingled with some entirely misplaced criticalism and anti-Americanism. I am ashamed to say that I would probably have followed Baudrillard’s example at time, if I would have known him, in almost happily ‘explaining’ the attacks by pointing not to the terrorists themselves but to the overwhelming albeit invisible self-destructive force of American capitalism. The reactionary religious fervour of the attackers did not escape me entirely, but I immediately translated it into terms of class. Maddening, truly.
Shortly afterwards, in the Netherlands, where I lived at the time, right-wing populism grew rapidly. Pim Fortuyn, its initial leader, was shot dead by an animal activist. Only a few years later filmmaker-provocateur Theo van Gogh was stabbed to death by a Muslim radical. My wishes were fulfilled: History with a capital H started to radically reappear in full glory.
What was my initial reaction to History unfolding? I sighed, and concurred with most of the ‘educated progressives’, of which I was now becoming part, that Muslim fundamentalism was rooted in the alienation of third generation immigrants – in turn rooted in disastrous (lack of) integration policies which ostracized the migrated families from our communities from the start, by labelling them as ‘guest workers’. Correct, of course, in a way. I was happy to think that right-wing populism and Muslim fundamentalism gained in traction vice versa each other. To kill the ‘downward spiral’, I assumed, government should invest in integration projects, well-being, the social sector, and especially education. It might take some time, but finally this was the only way in which the issue could be resolved.
All correct, of course, but only partly.
Taking fundamentalism and populism seriously
Part and parcel of my former ‘soft approach’ was to not consider the fundamentalist convictions itself as the real problem. Now I think differently. I think this was naive. And don’t be afraid: I will not at all start making the favourite gesture of established social-democrats nowadays, and give some lukewarm account of my conversion to security measures, starting from a self-critique of my former lack of attention for ‘culture’ in the past, while en passent defending the ‘necessity’ for cuts in social welfare and ‘cracking down’ on fundamentalism and other ‘scum’. I refuse to! Never will I give in to the Dark Side!
However I now think that my position was precisely too weak, too crippled, indeed too ‘soft’, already losing in advance to fundamentalist terrorists as well as aggressive right-wingers, whom for the last 15 years have successfully managed to cut down on our freedoms, replacing them with fear and bloodshed, patriot acts, mass surveillance, bombings of Iraq and Syria, camera oversight, increasing competences for police and secret services, ‘pre-emptive’ strikes and arrests, militarization our borders, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
What we need, I believe now, at the very core of things, is a far more powerful, more radical, more decided reference to love. I am a convert to Badiouianism, on this point. Because what has gone wrong exactly? I note the following.
Under the lead of well-established sociologists progressives have learned not take seriously the powerful force that is driving religious conviction – precisely by reducing such conviction too quickly to terms of class, as some variation on ‘false consciousness’… This strategy was useful once, perhaps, in the attempt to emancipate the 19th century working classes, in highly hierarchized societies where people were actually listening to ‘the educated’. Today, however, the invocation of this barely recognisable Marxian spectre is not only hopelessly outdated, but has degenerated into a cheap fuel for codified intra-elitist claims of intellectual or moral superiority. As such, it effectively bars any productive answer to actual contemporary terrorism.
Similarly, we have learned not to take seriously right-wing populist anger as an intellectual project or challenge. We learned to overrule it with an ‘educated’ but weak and dishonest multiculturalism – dishonest because this ‘educated’ progressive position has never been truly allowing for a multiplicity of voices, radically intolerant as it has been for anything or anyone out of line with its own ‘proper’ categories.
Baudrillard is by far not the worst in this regard – it is rather the Bourdieusian hubris: categorising ‘society’ in neat little boxes and ‘social fields’, and reducing a persons’ beliefs to a social constructivist ‘habitus’. And all this is under the pretension of progressing toward barely articulated emancipatory goals on a supposedly Scientific sociological basis. Yes, it is true, Bourdieu even managed to translate the wonder of artistic inspiration into a dry and ugly game of social positioning. This is quite a feat in itself, perhaps. But quite rightfully, one may ask, how could this ever further the emancipation of anyone?
To the degree that anyone wants to come across as well-educated nowadays, he or she is apparently obliged to adopt such a deadening sociological rationale. Of course, terrorist and populist violent outburst are regrettable and must be radically opposed – but currently one is apparently supposed to look down upon its energies as the best strategy to transform it. Terrorist and populist anger shall be seen as ‘actually’ rooted in social or cultural class divisions!
The best proof of this problematic practice is undoubtedly this repetition ad nausea of ‘education’ as the ultimate solution against radicalism, with the obvious paternalist imperative ‘you should become like us’ as its maddening sub-text. Today such intellectualist arrogance does not promote but instead obstructs true emancipation and proper democracy. It reinvigorates Islamic and Western xenophobic populism, rather than competing with it for effectively channelling its underlying energy. It is certainly not a coincidence, in this regard, that vigorous battles for emancipation are today often regressing, literally categorically, into flat discussions over politically correct terminology – meanwhile leaving all the space to terrorists and right-wing populists to spread their poisonous pseudo-revolutionary creeds. The progressive position has become way too paternalist and elitist. It misses out on all too real-felt anger and frustration, which cannot be reduced to economic class, religious formulas, or ethnic categories – but is quite simply what it claims to be: a justified anger of being excluded from the process of government.
But the most terrible thing of all is that we, who are on the side of love and goodness, have learned to censor ourselves. Sociological education has taught us that free, ‘unlearned’, direct expression, in whatever form it may take, is a dangerous thing. We have learned that is not ‘well-educated’ to talk with love, anger, spirituality or a passionate need for liberation. Consequently, we tend to think that even the very attempt to speak and act openly in public with such conviction is endangering our personal chances for a better future, rather than our only hope for achieving one. Indeed, perhaps because of the realisation that there is something very wrong and elitist about this all, some have stopped believing in democracy and emancipation altogether.
The new emancipatory project
Faced by terrorist and right-wing populist barbarism, it has become crystal-clear that the classic ‘educated sociological’ position has become too weak, too crippled, too ‘soft’; even to the point that it is counterproductive. Any chance for improvement lies in the realisation that its impotence is not caused by naïveté, but by arrogance: the ‘educated’ are thinking that they know better about the proper motives of terrorists and right-wing populists than terrorists and right-wing populists themselves. A better understanding of the bloodshed requires methods for which elitist, Bourdieusian, class-reductionist sociologist class evades at all cost: the ‘radical’ idea of politicising, identifying and thinking from lived and experienced reality rather than from a pre-fixed well-structured Idea.
Admittedly, these experiences can be very weird indeed, and yes, one may occasionally deal with hatred, or even a desire for bloodshed and violence. It might not be an easy thing to do – but we no longer have a choice. Right now, the experiential approach is monopolized by fundamentalist Muslims and aggressive right-wingers, whom are rapidly advancing their cults of violence, undermining our solidarity and freedoms, replacing them with beheadings, patriot acts, mass surveillance, bombings of Iraq and Syria, suicide attacks, camera oversight, increasing competences for police and secret services, ‘pre-emptive’ strikes and arrests, border checks, militarisation, and so on. A death-dealing mixture of ‘divine’ and juridical violence, to draw on Walter Benjamin, has been unleashed and is seemingly without end.
We have to reconquer the experiential – and it is at this point, and only at this point, that it is not at all exaggerated nor inappropriate, but rather crucially important, to strike a direct link between terrorism, right-wing nationalism, and the crack-down of democracy in Greece, the post-democratic crisis of the EU and our national governments, climate injustice, the TTIP, the Panama papers, and the infuriating and inhumane deportation of refugees back to their camps – all under the rule of the one percent, the financial-fiscal complex of bankers, corporate lawyers and notaries, the Troika, the Eurogroup, the ‘Davos-consensus’. The right-wing populist as well as the fundamentalist sensitivity, the feeling of desperate powerlessness in the face of governmental elites that are essentially outside of any popular control, is simply correct. ‘Democratic’ establishment politics – whether called social-democrat, liberal or conservative – is altogether missing out on what it is supposed to do: re-presenting the multiplicity of voices they preside over. Crucial is that right-wing populist and fundamentalist creeds secretly play a one-on-one with such establishment politics: legitimizing their need for pushing surveillance ever further.
It is now more than crucial, I believe, perhaps more than ever before in history (without a capital H), that we emancipate ourselves, that we come together in our multiplicity, and learn to truly speak again, directly, in whichever way, and in so doing temporarily abolish our multiplicity for claiming back the self-government that our democracy should be about.
There is some hope, because this call for a radical love and taking back self-government, after the terrible attacks that just happened, does not stand on itself. It is merely a restatement, replicating and reinforcing the call of a political ecology, the call of Yanis Varoufakis and DiEM, the call of Jeremy Corbyn, the call of Bernie Sanders. It is reinforcing the call of the Hart Boven Hard movement in Belgium, of Podemos and the Indignados in Spain, of Syriza in Greece, of RAZEM in Poland, of the climate movement, of the Arab spring, of May ‘68, of Prague ‘68, my friends in the green and left parties in Western-Europe, but also of plenty of muslim- and christian-democrats, and even including some liberals.
Ultimately, this emancipatory spirit, this spirit for a ‘radical’ imagination, for reassembling ourselves, can never possibly be monopolised by any particular group. It calls not only on the left, but also on liberal politicians, conservative politicians, anarchists, libertarians, intellectuals, artists, bureaucrats, rich, poor, the unemployed, or even corrupted bankers, or even the neo-aristocratic business elite. It is a call on hiphoppers, metalheads, classical music lovers, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Catholics, protestants, Hindus and agnosts – and especially on those professional categorisers called sociologists, scientists and intellectuals. It is a call not to be afraid and to continue what we already do, but explicitly root in love whatever it is we occupy every day – without any compromise. Only then can we emancipate ourselves and reclaim our democracy, through rediscovering and reinventing it. And only then will we be able to overcome the fundamentalism and nationalist xenophobes that we are confronted with today. We must be momentarily inclusive with a radical respect for difference and dissensus, and then be able to differentiating and disagreeing with radical respect for an underlying unity. The switching can only be achieved with reference to love from time to time, against indifference – love, simply by lack of a better word, cautious or more explicit, depending on how courageous we are – for difference itself. This is not soft, nor some mawkish emotionalism that should be left to the private sphere, but extremely hard and something of thoroughly political.
As I am already far too affected by sociologicism myself to be effective in this regard, I want to end with referring to a lengthy quote from Martin Luther King’s 1967 Riverside Church Speech, delivered just before he was shot. Where it was powerful then, it is perhaps even more powerful today.
“A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
“This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighbourly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another (Yes), for love is God. (Yes) And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. . . . If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.
“We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”
“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood—it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.”