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19-Century Anarchists, Western Capitalism, And The Paris Attacks

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1894 PARIS
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On 12th February 1894, Parisians awoke to newspapers overflowing with rage. A few hours earlier, a bomb had been thrown into a café packed with people enjoying an evening of light orchestral music. One person was killed, dozens injured. "Our current laws are far too lax to deal with these individuals, whose criminal boldness becomes every day more hateful," declared Le Journal des Débats. Le Matin screamed, "No legal measures should be denied to those who would put an end to this sect, which claims no homeland and operates outside the law."

After the explosion, the young perpetrator had run away, still firing a pistol at his pursuers, but he was eventually captured and taken to the police station. In his pocket he carried a lock of hair tied with a red silk ribbon. He used a generic pseudonym - "Le Breton" - his real name, he said, was not important, since he was an anarchist and had given up his personality for the cause. "This act, which you consider to be monstrous," he told the police, "is entirely natural for the rest of us. The bourgeois race must disappear in order that we may arrive at the era of justice and true liberty, which will be the happiness of the world."

[C]apitalism in the West is reverting, after a long aberration, to its 19-century "normality" of high wealth concentration and low economic mobility.

Attacks by anarchists on political and civil targets created persistent anxiety in Paris throughout the 1890s. They arose from a theory of the "propaganda of the deed", according to which spectacular acts of assault would seize media attention and so galvanise others who shared the feeling that modern society had become intolerable. International anarchism supplied both the theory and the practice for such acts: Italian, Spanish and French anarchists shared an organisational structure of independently operating cells, exchanged bomb-making knowledge, participated in each other's operations, and encouraged each other with ideas of warrior glory and the redemption to come.

Such violence wreaked by French citizens (and other Europeans) on the everyday fabric of French society all but disappeared during the 20th century. Of course, Paris was rocked by several terrorist attacks during the Algerian war, but these were an integral part of that war itself, and had rational military objectives. Broadly speaking, Paris in the 20th century did not know that specific bewilderment accompanying the events of February 1894, which emerged from a far more fantastical - even psychopathic - place. But in the 21st century, Paris has learned that lost feeling again, this time on a more terrible scale.

[T]he re-emergence of an indiscriminate war committed by Westerners against the very fabric of Western society is part of this general sinking back into 19th-century realities.

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Thomas Piketty has given us other reasons to look to Le Breton's era in order to better understand our own.

By now, we know his insight well: capitalism in the West is reverting, after a long aberration, to its 19-century "normality" of high wealth concentration and low economic mobility. The aberration was most pronounced during the 30 years following the Second World War, when there was an uncharacteristically wide distribution of capitalism's fruits. It was this exception, however, which produced the West's greatest moral appeal: it established an unprecedented level of consensus around capitalism, it enabled nation-states to absorb many previously dissident energies into the mainstream - so dampening their explosive force - and it allowed a great range of people from outside the elite to see in capitalist democracy the possibility of their own advancement.

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We should not be surprised if now, 30 years after those egalitarian 20th-century economic trends began to reverse themselves, the associated moral appeal has also begun to dissolve. And the re-emergence of an indiscriminate war committed by Westerners against the very fabric of Western society is part of this general sinking back into 19th-century realities. Events like the recent Paris attacks are of course extremely complex in their origins. But they are also about politics, plain and simple: they have to do with the closing down of possibilities for those in the bottom tiers as Western economies return to 19th-century-style stratification - and the resulting loss of identification with society, systems and nations.

These sons and daughters were not drawn to religion, which offers so many forms of consolation for earthly suffering. No: they were drawn, rather, to conflagration.

In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, CNN reporters were at a loss to understand how so-called "Islamic" terrorists displayed so few of the personality traits they associated with such individuals. "They did not seem, up until very recently, [to have] the kind of really radical mindset," commented one CNN anchor. "They had actually been out drinking, they'd been out partying, one of them owned a bar... These people apparently became radicalized so quickly, in some cases ... in about a week - that's terrifying."

Such bewilderment arises from the naïve idea that contemporary terrorist violence has its origin in Muslim piety. But religious piety is markedly absent from the picture we have, say, of the Paris attackers. They were in fact precisely the kind of people CNN said they were. I met such people when I stayed in a Muslim quarter of Brussels two years ago: second-generation immigrants without social advantages, for whom the main way to make money was to move cocaine around - which ensured both that they would never inhabit the mainstream of European society and that they received the most rapacious and decadent impression of it. These people lived in the dreary, informalized, bit-work periphery of Europe, and the world they looked out on was Piketty's: don't ever expect anything to change.

What we are seeing in contemporary Europe is, as the French sociologist Olivier Roy has already put it, "not the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism."

Their parents had experienced a time of much greater possibility, having arrived in Europe before the destruction of its working class. When the father of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, mastermind of the Paris attacks, moved from Morocco to Belgium, he found work in a mine; over time, his condition improved significantly, and he bought first one and then two clothing stores. Members of this generation were hopeful about Europe, and often they actually were pious - qualities that ensured that their sons and daughters would keep them in the dark, first of all about their alcohol, drugs and petty crime, and later about their fantasies of vengeance on European society.

These sons and daughters were not drawn to religion, which offers so many forms of consolation for earthly suffering. No: they were drawn, rather, to conflagration. They wanted to exchange their role of do-nothings for that of warriors, which is why they were drawn, implausibly, to Syria, the zone of total destruction from which nearly everyone else is trying to escape. Just as anarchism had done for terrorists in the 19th century, the expertly organised propaganda of radical Islam - most of which is accessed not through mosques but online - gave these young Europeans both an explanation for their feelings of resentment and alienation, and the possibility of a glorious role in the world's millenarian destruction and renewal. Like the anarchists before them, these apparently normal human beings privately adopted a worldview according to which everyone - even and especially the contented masses who went out to hear music in the evenings - was guilty of the universal corruption. They saw a world that was psychopathic and adopted the predictable response: to become psychopaths.

[S]ometimes we are too hypnotized by war and religion, and we ignore the more general political and economic background to the rise of radicalism that is going on every side.

What we are seeing in contemporary Europe is, as the French sociologist Olivier Roy has already put it, "not the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism." Part of the evidence for this is that many of those who decide to become warriors in the service of Islam are not Muslims at all: about 25% of those who left France to fight for ISIS were people who converted to Islam just so they might have a role in the battle against 21st-century reality. After all, the intellectual currents which carried aloft those 19th-century anarchists, and so many later revolutionaries too, have all but died, and in our own day religion is the only viable place to invest your energies if you long for a radically transformed world. In this era of increasing inequality and stasis, those desires are becoming more intense, and radical Islam is only the most conspicuous beneficiary. Pentecostal Christianity, in fact, is the world's fastest-growing religion, which has everything to do with its power to explain and mitigate the intense condition of 21st-century global capitalism. Though it is growing fastest in Africa, Asia and Latin America, there is a dramatic recent advance in Europe too: Brussels itself, which had 11 Pentecostal churches in 1980, now has 85.

***

There is no doubt that our contemporary world is in a dangerous and explosive condition, and the violence that has taken over great swathes of it produces many further retorts, sometimes far away. But sometimes we are too hypnotized by war and religion, and we ignore the more general political and economic background to the rise of radicalism that is going on every side. Radical Islamic propaganda has expertly tied the feelings of disaffected Europeans to the battle going on in the Middle East - and the mainstream press has gladly gone along with that connection - but the fact is that these Europeans were declaring war on Europe, and it was at home that their feelings began and ended.

Many people across the world are falling out of our global economic system, which does not need them. The spread of radical ideologies... is also about this simple fact.

Such connections between places are set to become more dire. Much of Africa and the Middle East have very young populations who are losing access to the kind of livelihoods their parents had, and who are moving to cities for a life of over-anxiety and underemployment. The shift of focus of so many economies in the region from agriculture to natural resources has left enormous numbers of people superfluous to the economy, since the latter employs a fraction of the former. In Nigeria, for instance, the rise of the oil economy has been accompanied by a collapse of other kinds of employment: while 30% of the population lived below the poverty line in 1990, the current level is about 70%. This shattering economic outcome must surely be connected to the fact that Nigerians expressed the greatest level of approval of ISIS - 7% of Christians and 20% of Muslims -in a recent Pew Research Center poll.

Many people across the world are falling out of our global economic system, which does not need them. The spread of radical ideologies, and the development of warrior personae for these superfluous people, is also about this simple fact. If we want to prevent people from trying to destroy what exists we need to look at basic political questions: how can what exists be made to serve our species, rather than the other way round?

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