Blog post

Totalitarian catalysis

The West is burying its head in the sand as Israel decimates Palestinians in Gaza with impunity. Frédéric Lordon writes that in the face of Israel's genocidal campaign, the pro-Palestinian Left is right to resist the demand that they denounce 'terrorism'.

Frédéric Lordon 2 November 2023

Totalitarian catalysis

This article was originally published by Le Monde Diplomatique blog on 15 October 2023.

There is a general economics of violence. Ex nihilo nihil: nothing comes from nothing, there are always antecedents. Unfortunately, this economics knows only one principle: negative reciprocity. When injustice has been brought to a head, when a group has experienced mass murder and – perhaps worse – this mass murder has been rendered invisible, how could this not result in vengeful hatred? Strategic rationales – to derail Arab-Israeli normalisation, to reinstate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the international stage – while real, have nonetheless found among their resources the fuel of murderous vengeance.

‘Terrorism’, a dead-end word

La France Insoumise has not made the mistakes it has been accused of. But it has made one mistake, and a big one. In an event of this kind, you don’t go straight to analysis without first expressing horror, shock and abomination. The bare minimum of compassion is not enough, and you can’t get away with a few verbal offerings thrown in for show. Even if what is given the Palestinian people ignores the bare minimum, on this occasion it was necessary to stick to this duty – and shame the prescribers of asymmetrical compassion.

However, this real failure has been seized upon and displaced, transformed in the public debate into an accusation on which La France Insoumise, this time, is entirely right not to yield: denunciation of ‘terrorism’. Should ‘terrorism’ be, as Vincent Lemire says, ‘the starting point of public debate’? No. It’s not even the point of arrival: it’s just a dead end. ‘Terrorism’ is a dead-end word. That’s what Danièle Obono says, and she’s right. It’s a word that is designed to focus solely on the prospect of eradication and to block out any political analysis. ‘Terrorism’ is a non-political category, a category that takes us out of politics. Macron’s proof: ‘unity of the nation’ and so on, repeated eight times in ten minutes of hotchpotch. Suspension of conflicts, neutralisation of differences, a decree of unanimity. Logically, then, demonstrations in support of the Palestinian people are demonstrations in support of terrorism, and even terrorist demonstrations, which is why they are banned.

Conceding ‘terrorism’ means cancelling out the fact that what is happening in Israel-Palestine is political. To the highest degree. Even if that politics takes the form of war – in Clausewitz’s words, a continuation of politics by other means. The Palestinian people are at war – they have not been given much choice. An entity has formed within them to wage it: where did it come from? ‘We have made Gaza monstrous,’ says Nadav Lapid. Who is ‘we’?

There is no need for ‘terrorism’. ‘War’ and ‘war crimes’ are, alas, quite sufficient to describe the depths of horror. They are also sufficient to describe the abominable massacres of civilians. The reason why the category of ‘war crimes’ has been coined, without any pleonasm, in the context of war, which is in principle killing, is to designate acts that take something that is atrocious in itself to a different level of atrocity. In any case, this is the moment when the general economics of violence needs to be borne in mind: crimes that lead to crimes – crimes that preceded crimes. The determination to make people say ‘terrorism’ only satisfies the needs of passion  – rather than any intellectual requirement.

In reality, ‘terrorism’ and ‘war crimes’ are two categories that keep merging into each other, rather than drawing any stable dividing line. Hiroshima is, strictly speaking, in line with the UN definition of terrorism: killing civilians who are not directly involved in hostilities in order to intimidate a population or force a government to perform a certain act. Did we ever hear talk of ‘terrorism’ for the Hiroshima bomb? Or for Dresden? – like Hiroshima, terrorising a population in order to get its government to capitulate.

But for those who, in the present situation, have made it a required denunciation, ‘terrorism’ has an irreplaceable virtue: it makes violence seem devoid of meaning. Or of causes. Pure violence, coming from nowhere, which calls for strictly no action other than extirpation, possibly in the form of a crusade: the clash of civilisations, the axis of Good, which cannot be questioned. This is the logic of Miguel Valls, in which understanding is contradictory to being moved, and necessarily diminishes the feeling of horror, thus adding to complacency. The empire of stupidity, like an oil slick, never stops spreading.

The passion not to understand

Above all, therefore: don’t understand. And that takes effort, because the evidence is overwhelming and anyone with eyes open can understand. An entire people are being martyred by an occupation that has been going on for nearly eighty years. They are locked up, parked with a view to driving them mad, starved, killed, and not a single official voice has said a word about it. Two hundred dead in the last ten months, but not a word – at least not remotely comparable to the words given to the Israelis. Video testimonies galore of Israeli crimes still fresh: not a word. Peaceful Palestinian marches to the border in 2018 – 200 dead and not a word. Snipers kneecapping 42 people in an afternoon, but not a word – yes: ‘the most moral army in the world’. Former soldiers from the most moral army in the world express their disgust and the inhumanity of what they were made to do to Palestinians: not a word. For every one of Hamas’s abominations this weekend, there are so many more committed by the military or the settlers, yet they hardly make ripples on the water. Israeli tragedies are embodied in poignant testimonies, Palestinian tragedies agglomerated in statistics. Speaking of statistics: we’d like to know what proportion of the Hamas men who went on the attack this weekend had held in their arms the corpses of their loved ones, the bodies of mangled babies: men for whom life no longer has any meaning apart from revenge. Not ‘terrorism’: rather the molten metal of revenge cast into armed struggle. The eternal engine of war. And its atrocities.

In any case, this is the feeling of injustice that binds the group together. A life deemed not worth the same as another is the greatest injustice. You have to be pretty dense to be unable to imagine that – if only from simple strategic foresight rather than actual human understanding. That a collective martyrdom could be rendered non-existent, that Arab lives could be denied any value, and that this should remain indefinitely without follow-up, was a colonial illusion.

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The bourgeois bloc and ‘importing’

Now for the most striking fact: the whole of the official West is united in this illusion; in France to an astonishing degree. There is a great deal of concern about the risks of ‘importing the conflict’. Without realising that the conflict is already being imported on a massive scale. Of course, ‘importing the conflict’ is a barely coded word for ‘Arabs’, ‘immigrants’ and ‘banlieues’. But that’s not the real import channel at all, it’s right there in front of us, as wide as the Panama canal, foaming and bubbling: the channel for importing the conflict is the bourgeois bloc. Its entire apparatus – political staff, a tightly-knit editorial class, and ‘special edition’ media – was instantly set in motion for importing. Why the fixation on terrorism? Because of La France Insoumise, of course; here we go again. This time, however, with a new point of view, that of self-interested importing. When the bourgeois bloc rallies behind Israel abroad, it seizes the opportunity to rally against its enemies at home.

What’s needed here is an analysis of the reflex solidarity of the bourgeois bloc with ‘Israel’ (an undifferentiated entity: population, state, government) and the affinities through which it passes. Bourgeois affinities: the same taste for adulterated (bourgeois) democracy, the same structural position of dominance (national dominance, regional dominance), the same advantageous media representations, in this case of Israel as a bourgeois society (start-ups and fun in Tel Aviv). Everything leads the bourgeois bloc to spontaneously recognise itself in the ‘Israel’ entity, and therefore to espouse its cause.

And the French bourgeois bloc is more Israeli than the Israelis. It refuses to say ‘apartheid’ when even Israeli officials say it; it refuses to say ‘racist state’ when part of the Israeli left says it, if not more; it refuses to call out the crushing responsibility of the Israeli government when Haaretz does; it refuses to say that the Israeli government’s policy is increasingly deadly when a host of senior Israeli officers admit this. It refuses to say that Hamas committed ‘war crimes’ when the UN and international law say so. Gideon Levy: ‘Israel cannot imprison two million Palestinians without paying a cruel price.’ Daniel Levy, former Israeli diplomat, tells a BBC journalist that the Israelis on the verge of annihilating Gaza are ‘defending themselves’: ‘Can you really say something like that without batting an eyelid? That kind of lie?’ The bourgeois bloc: ‘Israel is only defending itself.’ It says ‘terror’ when the Russians cut off resources to Ukraine, but says nothing when Israel cuts off all resources to Gaza. The bourgeois bloc is experiencing a flash of identification that nothing can disarm.

It is experiencing this all the more intensely because the struggle against the enemies of the bourgeois brother abroad and the struggle against the bloc’s adversaries at home reinforce one another. It’s like a gigantic unconscious resonance, which takes on its full force in a situation of organic crisis when the contested bourgeois bloc has become ready to do anything to maintain itself.

The bloc looks around and sees only one significant remaining enemy: La France Insoumise. The Socialists, Ecologists and Communists have all been neutralised, so there’s no need to worry about them. They represent no danger – if they’re not useful auxiliaries. Not La France Insoumise. There’s an opportunity to destroy it: don’t hesitate for a second. As with Corbyn and Sanders, the claims of anti-Semitism had already reached cruising speed, but an opportunity like this was unhoped-for. La France Insoumise’s initial misstep was providential: everything will be able to flood into this breach: open lies, shameless misrepresentation, bogus polls on fabricated statements or lack of statements, and wild accusations. The BBC refrains from saying ‘terrorist’ but La France Insoumise has to say it. Leading academics produce analysis on TV shows, but the same analysis provided by La France Insoumise is a scandal. The party’s position is very close to that of the UN, but it is called anti-Semitic. ‘What is Jean-Luc Mélenchon looking for? To endorse Islamist terrorism?’ asks a ‘nuanced’ Nuance magazine.


The violence of the spasm in French politics has no other cause. The event has acted as a powerful reagent, revealing all the current tendencies of the regime, and bringing them to a point that not even the July riots had brought them to. The catalytic effect has been overwhelming. As crisis follows crisis, the pre-fascist dynamic has continued to take shape and deepen. Meyer Habib, an Israeli-French MP from the far right, put it this way: ‘The Rassemblement National has entered the Republican camp.’

Moments of truth always hold some advantage: we now know what the Republican camp consists of. It is the camp that bans dissent, that bans public expression, that bans demonstrations, that imposes unanimity or silence, and that has its police threaten anyone who might be tempted to continue to engage in politics around the Israel-Palestine question. It is the camp that has university institutions issue warnings against student union communiqués, that is quietly considering prosecuting organisations like the NPA or Révolution Permanente, and that is probably already secretly thinking of dissolving these organisations.

It’s much more than a spasm, in fact. By definition, a spasm eventually relaxes. Here, it crystallises: a phase precipitates. And not just any phase: totalitarian catalysis. ‘Totalitarian’ is the obvious category for any political undertaking to produce unanimity under duress. Intimidation, forced alignment, vindictiveness, systematic distortion and the reduction to monstrosity of any divergent opinion are the primary operations. Next come prohibition and penalisation. Showing support for the Palestinian people has become a criminal offence. Displaying a Palestinian flag is punishable by a €135 fine – you can look in vain for a presentable legal basis. ‘Free Palestine’ is an anti-Semitic graffiti according to CNews, which has become the arbiter of elegance in this area, a sign of the times when people colluding with anti-Semites hand out accusations of anti-Semitism, and those who colluded with Nazis hand out accusations of Nazism. With the silent approval of the rest of the political and media world. In the corridors of the entire Bolloré galaxy, the laughter is nonstop. while at LREM, at France Inter and on all the Trucmuche programmes on France 5, this is taken at face value. The Republican camp is the camp that suspends politics, freedoms and fundamental rights, the camp united in anti-Arab racism and contempt for non-white lives.

The Arab world, and not only it, is observing all this, and it is all being engraved in the memory of its peoples. When the nemesis comes, because it will, the Western leaders, dumbfounded and arms folded, will once again understand nothing. Stupid white men.



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