Alain Badiou analyses the events of the Charlie Hebdo attack in their global and national contexts, making the case for the incompatibility of the red flag of communism with the Tricolore of French national identity.
1. Background: the world situation
Today the figure of global capitalism has taken over the entire world. The world is subject to the ruling international oligarchy and enslaved to the abstraction of money – the only recognised universal. Our own time is the painful interval between the end of the second historic stage of the communist Idea (the unsustainable, terroristic construction of a ‘state communism’) and its third stage (the communism that realises the politics of ‘emancipating humanity as a whole’ in a manner adequate to the real). A mediocre intellectual conformism has established itself in this context – a both plaintive and complacent form of resignation that goes hand in hand with the lack of any future. Any future, that is, other than rolling out what already exists in repetitive fashion.
And now we see the emergence of its counterpart. This is a logical and horrifying reaction, a hopeless and fatal one, a mix of corrupt capitalism and murderous gangsterism. Giving subjective form to the death drive, it maniacally retreats into the most varied identities. This identitarian retreat in turn sparks arrogant, identitarian counter-identities.
The general plot of this story is the West – homeland of the dominant, civilised capitalism – clashing with ‘Islamism’ – the reference point of bloody terrorism. Appearing against this backdrop we have, on the one hand, murderous armed gangs or individuals with stockpiles of their own, which they wave around in order to force everyone to honour the corpse of some deity; on the other hand, savage international military expeditions mounted in the name of human rights and democracy, which destroy entire states (Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Sudan, Congo, Mali, the Central African Republic…). These wars have thousands of victims, and they never achieve anything more than negotiating a precarious peace with the worst bandits in order to secure the oil fields, mines, food resources and enclaves where big business can prosper.
Things will go on like this until real universalism – humanity itself taking its own fate in hand, with the emergence of the new, decisive historical-political incarnation of the communist idea – deploys its new power at a world scale. At the same time, this will put an end to the enslavement of states to the oligarchy of property-owners and their servants, to the abstraction of money, and finally, to the identities and counter-identities that ravage peoples’ minds and call them to their deaths.
The world situation is a delay – the delayed arrival of the time when every identity (for there will always be different, formally contradictory identities) is integrated into the destiny of humanity in general in an egalitarian and peaceful way. Its arrival is delayed, but it will come, if enough of us want it.
2. The French specifics: Charlie Hebdo and the ‘Republic’
A child of the rebellious leftism of the 1970s, Charlie Hebdo became – like many intellectuals, politicians, ‘new philosophers’, impotent economists and various jokers – a both ironic and feverish defender of Democracy, the Republic, Laïcité, freedom of expression, free enterprise, sexual freedom, the free state… in short, the established political and moral order. There has been a proliferation of this type of renegade – as spirits grow old across changing circumstances – and in themselves they’re not of much interest.
More of a novelty is the patient construction of a domestic enemy of a new kind – the Muslim. Such an effort began in France in the 1980s, and has proceeded by way of various truly criminal laws, pushing ‘freedom of expression’ as far as the painstaking control of people’s clothes; new prohibitions concerning the historical narrative; and new cop series on TV. It has also advanced via a sort of ‘left-wing’ attempt to rival the irresistible rise of the Front National, which since the Algerian war practiced a frank and open colonial racism. Whatever the variety of causes we could discuss, the fact is that the Muslim – from Mohammed to our own time – became Charlie Hebdo’s ‘bad object of desire’. Mocking Muslims and making fun of their mannerisms became this declining ‘comedic’ magazine’s stock in trade, a bit like how a century ago Bécassine made fun of the poor (and at that time, Christian…) peasants who came from Brittany to wipe the arses of the children of the Parisian bourgeoisie.
So at root all this isn’t so new. In this war of identities, France tries to distinguish itself by a totem of its own invention: the ‘secular democratic Republic’ or ‘Republican pact’. This totem glorifies the established French parliamentary order – at least since its founding act, namely Adolphe Thiers, Jules Ferry, Jules Fauvre and other stars of the ‘republican’ Left massacring 20,000 workers in the streets of Paris in 1871.
This ‘republican pact’ to which so many former leftists have rallied – including Charlie Hebdo – has always suspected that trouble was brewing in the suburbs, the factories on the periphery and the gloomy banlieue hang-outs. It has always sent big police battalions into these areas, and under countless pretexts filled its prisons with the suspect, ill-educated young men who lived there. It infiltrated its snitches and grasses into these ‘gangs’ of youths. Moreover, the Republic carried out a vast array of massacres and implemented new forms of slavery in the interests of keeping order in its colonial empire, torturing ‘suspects’ in the smallest African or Asian village police station. Indeed, it was Jules Ferry – who was without doubt, a fighter for the republican pact – who outlined the programme of this blood-soaked empire, exalting France’s ‘civilising mission’.
But you’ll see that a considerable number of the young people in the banlieues are not only good-for-nothings with a flagrant lack of education (strangely, the famous ‘republican school system’ seems not to have been able to do anything about this… but it can’t accept that this its own fault, rather than somehow being the kids’ responsibility). Moreover, they have proletarian parents of African origin, or else they themselves came from Africa for survival’s sake: and as such, they are often of Muslim faith. In short, they are both colonised and proletarian. Two reasons to distrust them, and to deal with them using heavy repressive measures.
Let’s imagine that you’re a young black man, or a young man of Arab appearance, or perhaps a young woman who’s decided to cover her hair because it’s forbidden and she wants to rebel. Well, in that case you are seven or eight times more likely to be stopped in the street by our democratic police (and very often detained at the police station itself) than if you look like you’re ‘French’ – which means, and only means, that you have the features of a person who is probably neither ex-colonised nor proletarian. And not Muslim, either, of course. In this sense, Charlie Hebdo is just imitating the police’s old habits.
Here and there, people say that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons aren’t attacking Muslims as such, but rather the fundamentalists’ terrorist activity. That is objectively false. Let’s take a typical example of their cartoons: we see two naked buttocks and the caption ‘Et le cul de Mahomet, on a le droit?’ (‘And what about Mohammed’s arse – can we use that?’). So is the Muslim faithful’s Prophet, a constant target for such stupidity, a contemporary terrorist? No, that’s not any kind of politics. It’s got nothing to do with the solemn defence of ‘freedom of expression’. It is a ridiculous, provocative obscenity targeting Islam itself – and that’s all. And it’s nothing more than third-rate cultural racism, a ‘joke’ to amuse the local pissed-up Front National supporter. It may be amusing for the comfortably-off, but it is an indulgent ‘Western’ provocation against not only vast popular masses in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, but also a very large section of the working population in France itself: the people who empty our bins, wash our plates, man our pneumatic drills, hurriedly clean luxury hotel rooms and clean the big banks’ windows at 4 a.m.
In sum, that part of the people who through its work alone but also through its complex life, its risky journeys, its knowledge of many languages, its existential wisdom and capacity to recognise what a real politics of emancipation would be, deserves at least some consideration and even – yes – admiration. Putting aside any question of religion.
Already in another time, in the eighteenth century, all these seemingly anti-religious sexual jokes – which were in fact jokes mocking the people – had provided a certain ‘barracks’ humour. Look at Voltaire’s obscene comments on Joan of Arc: his La Pucelle d’Orléans is entirely worthy of Charlie Hebdo. This dirty poem about this sublimely Christian heroine is alone proof enough that this third-rate Voltaire didn’t provide much illustration of the real shining lights of critical thought. It shows how wise Robespierre was to condemn all those who made anti-religious violence the heart of the Revolution and thus achieved nothing but popular disaffection and civil war. It invites us to consider that what divided French democratic opinion was whether people (knowingly or not) were on the side of Rousseau’s really democratic and constantly progressive approach, or else on the side of the lascivious wheeler-dealer and the wealthy speculator who also happened to be a hedonist and a sceptic. This latter was a sort of ‘devil’ on Voltaire’s shoulder, who in other cases did sometimes prove capable of mounting real struggles.
But today all these jokes stink of a colonial mentality – as indeed the law against the ‘Islamic’ veil provided a much more violent re-run of Bécassine mocking the Bretons’ head-dress. These are all points where lurid cultural racism fuses with blind hostility, crass ignorance and the fear that the vast mass of Africans or banlieue residents – the wretched of the earth – inspires in the hearts of our self-satisfied petty-bourgeois.
3. What happened, 1: a fascist type of crime
And the three young Frenchmen who the police so quickly finished off?
Let’s mention in passing that their killing saved us from a trial that would have meant discussing the situation and where blame really lay – and most people were pretty happy about this. It also meant forgetting about the abolition of the death penalty: returning to pure public vengeance, like in the Westerns.
I would say that they committed something that we ought to call fascist-type crimes. A fascist-type crime, in my view, has three characteristics.
Firstly, it is not blind, but targeted: its motivation is an ideological one, of a fascistic character, which means a narrowly identitarian one: national, racial, communal, folk, religious… In this case, the murderers visibly targeted three identities that classical fascism often attacked: journalists considered to represent the enemy camp, policemen defending the hated parliamentary order, and Jews. So in the first case it was a matter of religion, in the second case a nation state, and in the third case a supposed ‘race’.
Secondly, it is an extreme violence: an unabashed, spectacular violence, because it seeks to give the impression of cold, absolute determination – also in a suicidal vein, with the murderers accepting that their own deaths will likely result. That is the nihilist allure, the ‘viva la muerte!’ sentiment behind such actions.
Third, in its sheer enormity, extraordinariness and surprise effect, the crime is intended to sow terror, and as such to provoke the state and public opinion into excessive reactions. The idea is that this response will be nothing more than the assertion of a vengeful counter-identity; and in the outlook of the criminals and their patrons, this will justify the bloody attack post facto, by way of symmetry. And that is indeed what happened. In this sense, the fascist crime did achieve something of a victory.
This type of crime requires killers whom their manipulators can abandon to their fate once the action has been accomplished. These are not great professionals, secret service agents or seasoned killers. These were working-class kids drawn away from lives in which they saw no meaning – and thought they had no escape from – by the fascination of the pure act. Then add a few wild identitarian ingredients into the mix, as well as the sophisticated weapons, the travels, the gang identity, the forms of power, the pleasure [jouissance] and bit of money that they were thus able to access. Already in the France of another era we saw how recruits to fascistic groups could become murderers and torturers for the same kind of reasons. Particularly during the Nazi occupation of France: this was true of many of the miliciens that the Vichy régime employed under the banner of the ‘National Revolution’.
If we want to reduce the risk of fascist crimes, then we have to draw some lessons from the picture I have just outlined. We can clearly see the factors that were decisive in allowing these crimes to take place. There is society’s negative image of these young people – with their background in global poverty – and the way in which society treats them. There is the unconsidered way in which we throw around questions of identity, and the unchallenged – or even, encouraged – use of racist and colonialist categories, and the truly criminal laws that impose segregation and stigmatisation. There is also, without doubt, the consideration that political proposals apart from the ruling consensus – proposals of a revolutionary and universal nature, able to organise these young people around an active, solid, rational political conviction – are disastrously weak, internationally. (That is not to say they do not exist at all – in our country there are activists full of ideas, and who are linked to real people). Only on the basis of a constant activity working to change all these negative factors, with a call to change the dominant political logic from top to bottom, might public opinion have been made to understand the real importance of what was going on. This could have allowed for the subordination of police activity – which is always dangerous when it’s left to its own devices – to a capable, enlightened public conscience.
Yet now the government and media reaction has done exactly the opposite.
4. What happened, 2: the State and Public Opinion
Indeed, right from the get-go the state instrumentalised the fascist crime in an extremely dangerous and unhinged way. It responded to a crime with identitarian motives by advancing another, symmetrical identitarian cause. It unashamedly counterposed the good French democrat to the ‘fanatical Muslim’. It took the disgraceful theme of ‘national unity’ or even the ‘union sacrée’ – which in France has only ever served for sending young people to die for nothing in the trenches – back out of the mothballed cupboards again. And we also saw the identitarian and bellicose nature of ‘national unity’ when Hollande and Valls – followed by all the media – struck up the tune of the ‘war on terror’, a tune Bush composed for his sinister invasion of Iraq (whose absurd, devastating effects are today plain to see). And that’s true even if after this isolated, fascist-type crime, they didn’t actually exhort people to hole up at home or to stick on their reservists’ uniforms and head for Syria at the sound of the clarion.
The confusion reached its climax when we saw the state calling on people to come and demonstrate – in true authoritarian style. Here in the land of ‘freedom of expression’, we have a demo at the state’s command! We might even wonder if Valls thought about imprisoning the people who didn’t show up for it. Here and there people were punished for not going along with the one minute’s silence.
Amazingly, at the low point of their popularity, our leaders could get a million and more people to march, thanks to three perverted fascists who couldn’t have dreamt that they would score such a triumph. The people who attended were simultaneously both terrorised by ‘Muslims’ and nourished on the vitamins of democracy, the republican pact and the superb grandeur of France. Even the colonial war criminal Netanyahu could march in the front rank of the demonstration, supposedly in the name of freedom of opinion and civil peace.
So let’s talk about this ‘freedom of expression’! Was that the demonstration was about? No, quite the contrary: amidst its sea of tricolores it asserted that being French firstly requires that everyone have the same opinion, guided by the state. During the first days of this affair, it was practically impossible to express any opinion contrary to the one that consisted of making paeans to our freedom, to our Republic; damnation of the corruption of our identity by young Muslim proletarians and the horribly veiled girls; and virile preparations for the war on terror. We even heard the following slogan, a fine example of freedom of speech: ‘We are all police!’
And besides, how can anyone dare speak of ‘freedom of expression’ today in a country where, with very few exceptions, all the papers and TV stations are in the hands of the big private industrial and/or financial groups? Our ‘republican pact’ must be flexible and accommodating indeed if we are to imagine that these big groups like Bouygues, Lagardère, Niel and all the others are ready to sacrifice their private interests on the altar of democracy and freedom of expression!
In fact, it’s only natural that the law of our country is that of a single way of thinking and fearful submission. Does freedom in general, including freedom of thought, of expression, of action, of life itself, today consist of us all helping the police hunt down a few dozen fascist brigands; universalised grassing on dodgy types with their beards and veils; and constantly casting a suspicious gaze toward the banlieues, heirs to the faubourgs where the Communards were slaughtered? Isn’t the central task of emancipation, of public freedom, in fact to act in common with as many of these young banlieue proletarians as possible, and with as many of these young women – whether veiled or not, it doesn’t matter – as possible, within the framework of a new politics? That is, a new politics that is not based on any identity (‘the workers have no fatherland’), and which prepares the egalitarian future where humanity finally takes charge of its own destiny? A politics with a rational perspective for getting rid of our merciless real masters, the wealthy rulers of our fate?
In France there have long been two kinds of demonstration: protests marching under the red flag and those marching under the tricolore flag. Believe me: the tricolore flags controlled and used by our masters aren’t the right kind. Even if what we want is to reduce murderous, identitarian little fascist gangs to nothing (and no matter whether these fascists are promoting sectarian forms of Islam, French national identity or the supremacy of the West). No: it’s the other flags, the red ones, that we need to bring back into the fray.
By Alain Badiou
Translated by David Broder.
An abridged version of this piece was originally published in French in Le Monde 27 January.