I left off my last post writing that I would consider what we could do about incidents like the one that shook Paris to the core on November 13th,
Pundits and commentators all over television and the web are suggesting possibilities for putting an end to extremist violence from bombing Syria to hell, killing all Muslims, getting more spiritual and following the word of God, thinking positive thoughts, getting at the Saudis for funding the Islamic State, and that’s only for starters. These kinds of events bring out the most outrageous ideas in us. Most ideas about doing away with extremist violence are fear-based to be sure, and they invariably target ‘the other’ and hardly ever involve changing our own ideas or behaviours.
Frankly, I don’t think that there is currently any way of stopping extremist violence regardless of where it arises and who the perpetrators might be.
The violence that was unleashed in Paris last Friday was an expression of deep-seated contradictions and conditions in our very own social relations, relations that are now evident all over the world. In our rush to secure our continued prosperity we accept that our governments need to protect the institutions and organizations we’ve come to recognize as the underpinnings of our prosperity, that is business and private accumulation of wealth. This has been true for centuries. There is no need to recite the litany of violence and carnage that litters our history. The underlying conditions that accounted for the slaughter of French Protestants and peasant riots in the 16th Century have not materially changed. Before the rise to dominance of capitalist productive relations in Europe the wane of the social relations around what we call the Middle Ages produced disruption and dislocations unprecedented previously, especially when combined with the terrible consequences of the Black Death in the middle of the 15th Century. Actually, the Jews were considered responsible for the plague in some quarters and ‘large groups of them were massacred.’* Eventually people were torn away from the land they had occupied for centuries and forced into labour in cities, a process that escalated tremendously after the mid-18th Century. No, mass murder and destruction in human society are not new. Ironically, as Ernest Becker points out in Escape from Evil, most murderous rampages in history were perpetrated by people with the intention of eliminating evil, that is whatever they considered might hinder the prosperity and health they determine is their birthright.
In the absence of rational and reasonable explanations for ‘natural’ disasters or man-made ones like the recent massacres in Paris, Ankara, Beirut and elsewhere, people generally resort to fantasy or fantastical explanation. The veracity of claims of blame is a victim of the fear and loathing of ‘the other’, those sub-human beasts who dare to threaten our prosperity although with our economic imperialism, colonialism and the need for capital accumulation, we have felt perfectly justified in threatening theirs. Can we really believe that the population of Africa welcomed European conquerers during the partitioning of the African continent between 1873 and 1896 among European powers determined to make business safe for exploitation wherever it chooses to extract raw materials or exploit cheap labour? Can we not see the connection between our colonialist exploitation of peoples all over the world and their sometimes violent opposition to said exploitation? When and how do people think the countries of the Middie East were created and by whom?
I don’t know what motivated the gunmen and bombers who chose to terrorize Paris last Friday. One explanation I cannot accept is that they were mad or insane although I wouldn’t deny that in some cases there may have been elements of madness in their actions. Madness, according to many theorists among them Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing, is socially constructed and is a label attached to people in certain contexts and situations where they ‘fail’ to conform to social norms like dissidents in the Soviet Union for instance.
I’m afraid that our individualistic explanations just don’t cut it when it comes to violence. What we are faced with in acts like those that occurred in Paris is the institutionalized acceptance of violence embedded in every aspect of our culture and social relations. We should not be surprised when we are faced with this kind of terror. In fact, I am surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.
No, I see no end to the murderous rampages that we experienced in Paris this past Friday, at least not until we completely revolutionize our social relations, especially those that create poverty and diminish people because of who they are, what they look like or believe or what ‘resources’ they may be sitting on. People will not be convinced by rational argument, either. They will react irrationally to any threat they perceive to themselves, their families, countries and the value systems that encompass them all. They define evil as anyone and anything that is ‘other’.
The only hope I have is that we may eventually come to think of evil as corporate concentration, environmental degradation and the impoverishment of vast numbers of people on this planet. I’m not holding my breath.
*This quote is from Norbert Elias’ book What is Sociology? (New York: Columbia University), page 26