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Save Those Who Weep

Sophie Wahnich15 February 2017

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Sophie Wahnich argues we need to expand the notion of civil war to include the whole set of social and political practices that destroy the social bond. Since market relations destroy sociability, we must unfailingly turn our attention to those who are falling through the cracks. First published in Libération. Translated by David Broder.  

Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution in Alphaville (1965). 

In Alphaville — imagined by Jean-Luc Godard in 1965 — the city’s all-powerful master Professor von Braun has abolished human feelings. A computer, Alpha 60, governs the whole city. The secret agent Lemmy Caution is charged with "destroying Alpha 60...and saving those who weep."

Who is weeping today? A young student nurse in a geriatric service in the Paris banlieue whose superiors — far from training her in the humanity of care — aggressively tell her that she is their subordinate. A young politically-committed African-American who hears Trump explaining that if Black lives do matter, they only matter in Africa. An Eritrean student who confronts every day in fear, and who sometimes cracks, because at 16 years of age he knows that he is "Dublinised" — that is to say, that the Dublin Accords allow the French authorities to send him back to Italy, where his asylum application was filed on an EU computer once he had survived the journey to the shores of Lampedusa…

The subaltern, the undesirable, the expellable are weeping and losing confidence in the world. But this loss — which Hannah Arendt so tellingly described as she spoke of the stateless — today concerns a mass of people who consider life no longer accessible. They think that they have to just survive, and perhaps submit to the relations of domination, stoically and without any tears.

For Saint-Just, a civil war imaginary rears its head wherever forces are working, deliberately or in effect, to undo the social bond and social trust. The city thus loses its cohesion. No régime of familiarity comes onto the horizon; as we act with others, we instead think in terms of danger, prudence, strategy, and potential traps, just like in court.

Thus there reigns a war of all against all, the everyday guerrilla, without a front line and with insidious weapons. Yet without mutual trust men hide away, and no longer are they capable of thinking that they are free precisely because of the links between them. They end up believing that others are always mere obstacles to their own freedom.

Civil war is not the clash between two determinate and clearly visible blocs. It is simply the state of war that undermines a state of civility; a state of war that renounces any conception in which freedom only exists through reciprocity. The peculiarity of this civil war is that it destroys this conception of freedom, on which revolutionary civility relies.

Civil war could, then, have an extended definition, namely the set of social and political practices that destroy freedom as something reciprocal — the foundation of equality — and lead toward a state of war. They lead to relations of might, and not of right.

In the spring of the [revolutionary] Year II, Saint-Just understood that the fatal weapon in this war consists of the effective dissolution of men’s sensibility, their capacity to become indignant, to revolt, to resist.

Making citizens apathetic, indifferent, and weary would truly be to kill the polity. "Crime" and "perversion" — in the vocabulary of Year II — could then prosper unabated. "Immorality is a federalism in the civil state, through which each person sacrifices all like him to himself, seeking only his own particular happiness, and being little concerned whether or not his neighbor is happy and free," Saint-Just wrote in 1794. What do those who want neither virtue or terror want?, he asked. Corruption.

For Saint-Just, what corrupts the social bond and social trust comes from economic relations. According to Montesquieu, the ambivalence of trade can lead to the abandonment of moral values — the values that stop us always simply rigidly dealing in our own interests, and which allow us to overlook them in the interests of others. Contractual relations, which he called the convention, "put man himself in trade: he traded in his own self, and the man’s price was defined by the price of things. Yet since each thing was certainly unequal in value, civil opinion confused men and things: one man and another were unequal just as things are unequal." Trade in men, making them commodities, marked the decline of natural feelings, in favour of relations based on strength.

In this regard, Saint-Just anticipated Foucault, taking alarm at the disappearance of society. For Saint-Just, apathy and isolation are not synonymous with independence. After all, independence does not prevent human beings endowed with affects from seeking connections among themselves. When such independence exists affects become thus something like money, but here allowing the circulation of people, and not of mere traded objects. That is why, already then and still now, we have to "save those who weep."


Filed under: france, political-economy, political-theory, war