The Unity Trap

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a renewed movement against racism in Europe is desperately needed.

After the armed attack on the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, the political and media exploiters of the emotional reaction to these events made a catchphrase of the words “national unity.” In so doing, they masked the attack’s social and geopolitical causes, and began a witch hunt against anyone who refused to submit to their agenda.

The “war on terror” — a weapon of theirs based on the supposed defense of “freedom” against “obscurantism” and “barbarism” — thus serves to consolidate the social and political order that contributed to this violence in the first place. Indeed, it suppresses any struggles that challenge these structures — including the fight against Islamophobia.

Social struggles and the political fight against structural racism have made real progress in recent years in France, despite their systematic marginalization. And those attempting to restore the French situation to what it was prior to these successes have opportunistically seized on this attack. That is also true at an international level: these forces have contributed to the colonial counter-revolution in Third World countries, particularly in the Arab world, after the political upheavals and revolutionary movements of 2011.

The January 11 march called by the French state — which included not only the global order’s main representatives but also the Third World leaders indentured to this order — sealed this national unity pact. Nonetheless, given the dangerousness of the current situation, these events have also shifted the terrain and opened up possibilities for counter-movements.

The Social and Political Context

The emotional shockwave that the attacks and their political and media representation provoked have created a political climate of institutional violence in France. Indeed, the government insisted on a minute’s silence the day after the attack, and there were reprisals against those who refused to respect it: some lost their jobs, while others were reported to the police.

Within just a matter of days, a number of people had been charged with “justifying terrorism” and were brought to trial. This crime carries a mandatory prison sentence, even though all they had done was post comments on social media.

This repression also extended to the classroom — the demand that students and teachers report those who step out of line is clearly a million miles away from any sort of pedagogical ethics. Children and teenagers who showed their “defiance,” most of them from immigrant families, were reported to the police and the public prosecutor. These measures seek to force everyone into line with national unity, silencing anyone who might dare challenge its political goal of reinforcing the social order that engendered the spiral of violence.

At the same time, the media have unleashed a campaign attacking those who have criticized Charlie Hebdo’s Islamophobia. This campaign has mobilized some of the leading Islamophobic voices in France, who have seen all this as an opportunity to abdicate any responsibility for the social climate that led to this tragedy and deny that the fight against Islamophobia has the slightest legitimacy.

They seek to suppress the struggle against their privilege, by invoking a freedom of expression that is in fact indentured to this same privilege. So “freedom of expression” thus becomes a pretext for silencing those who have the least access to it: as we already saw in summer 2014 with the repression of pro-Palestine demonstrations and, before that, with the ban on Dieudonné’s shows (this black comedian’s anti-semitic tendencies apparently can’t be indulged in the same way as Charlie Hebdo’s Islamophobia).

Understood in this context, “freedom of expression” takes on the opposite meaning — and is being used instead to impose a reign of intimidation and fear.

In short, the political/media treatment of these events seeks to systematically mask the attacks’ social and geopolitical causes. Moreover, it reproduces the structural conditions that were their feeding ground. The trajectories of Mohammed Merah, the Kouachi brothers, and Amedy Coulibaly are rooted in a context of social breakdown and structural racism. They embody the “boomerang effect” violence about which Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre warned.

Moreover, they can only be understood in connection to the wars in the Middle East, linking France’s structural racism to imperialism, the global “colonial” order, and the sociopolitical conflicts taking place in Arab societies. In this sense, the extreme violence of “peripheral” contexts is now returning from whence it came.

The asymmetrical compassion for the countless victims of this global process, both domestically — particularly in terms of police violence against immigrants and the descendants of immigrants — and abroad, thus only expresses the objective power relations that underlie it.

As such, one of the attacks’ main causes was precisely the lack of collective struggle and absence of political alternatives, feeding despair and producing this reactive violence. This is to the advantage of the existing order, which benefits from being able to exploit this violence politically.

The social context in the wake of these attacks merely demonstrates the reality of the conflicts cutting through French society. However, these have been obscured not only by efforts to impose a “clash of civilizations” narrative, but also by the predominantly a white and colorblind left, which refuses to consider them for what they are.

Instead, the discussion becomes one about “the class struggle,” or even worse, vague humanist principles. While the “unity march” did indeed mobilize large numbers from among the country’s white population — and, unfortunately, from the entire organized left (unions and parties) save for the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste — it received little support and sparked hostile and mocking reactions among the people on the receiving end of structural racism and its social violence.

In particular among black and Arab people in working-class districts, who for some time have already had no faith in the sacrosanct principles of the Republic that discriminates against them while claiming to be “integrating” them.

Certainly the march involved some people of Muslim and immigrant backgrounds. But these participants were almost exclusively drawn from the ranks of the “clients” of the established order. In particular, religious leaders in hock to — and promoted by — the state; those who have been most assimilated into French society and, conversely, recent immigrants just “discovering” the French context who are more easily seduced by the mirages of integration.

Perhaps these minority supporters wanted to show their common humanity, which we can understand. Perhaps they were refusing to give weapons to racism and suspicion, having repeatedly been warned that they needed to take action. But they also sought to express their belonging to the national community and their integrationist convictions.

Yet national unity serves to exclude them and to demand their submission. The first consequence will be to strengthen the colonial treatment of Islam and the inferior status imposed by the French state. National belonging and the ideas of “togetherness”and “diversity,” are a trap as well as an illusion. They are lies which we can only overcome by transforming social relations in a concrete way and building a different kind of majority, putting collective identities in perspective.

The “Clash of Civilizations” Strategy

Today’s national “restorationist” efforts in France make up part of the trajectory of the global colonial order, racial domination, the “clash of civilizations” strategy, and their social, economic, and ideological stakes.

In recent years the French state and imperialism have been shaken. Despite its marginalization and relative weakness, political anti-racism has succeeded in giving rise to a significant Palestine solidarity movement, putting Islamophobia at the heart of public debate and building various mobilizations of the descendants of postcolonial immigration. This marked a break with the ruling parties and in particular the white left.

Despite the French far left’s resistance to understanding these conflicts in terms of race, it was beginning to give some limited support to these movements. This took place in a global context characterized by revolutionary movements in the Arab world; geopolitical changes bound up with China becoming the world’s greatest economic power; military quagmires for the Western powers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa; and the general weakening of imperialism.

The ruling order has exploited the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the reactions to them in order to take back the ground that it had lost. It has responded by reducing the issues to the equation that best suits its purposes: its own “war on terror.” This is a war whose primary targets are Muslims and which imperialism has itself engendered — in particular, due to its military interventions, which now have one more alibi .

In this sense, organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS are macabre products of imperialism and the postcolonial Arab regimes whose actions encouraged their development. They all together make up one system, to the detriment of structural struggles and the populations who are caught in this noose. Moreover, the “war on terror” deals in concepts that are vague enough to allow for amalgams, meaning that it can extend the terrain of battle at will.

If national unity serves any purpose, it is above all to consolidate the white consensus and push back structural struggles. That is to say, it is another blow struck for the oppression of not only the Third World but also the “Third People” within France.

From this point of view, we ought to understand the “clash of civilizations” strategy as part of the wider trajectory of the colonial order and of racial domination; that is, in terms of the conflictual social relations that universalist language and the mirages of unity mask. It is these social relations that make sense of this strategy, and they are not a “diversion” from some other, supposedly more fundamental discussion.

While this strategy reflects and intensifies racial polarization, it also blurs what social and political stakes are really being fought over. Using supposed “barbarism” as its foil, this strategy perpetuates myths like “freedom” that serve to reproduce the established order. Yet this order is the most complete negation of freedom, first of all for those who are subjected to it. They want to make out that Islam is at the heart of the problem, when these attacks are in fact the expression of a radicalizing structural violence that will also pave the way for other similar trajectories  in future.

When the French left opposes this strategy but refuses to give any consideration to racial domination, it is merely serving the social and political conditions in which it has prospered. But the only thing that can fight this strategy is the growth of decolonizing struggles.

In this sense, our struggle for liberation is also the condition of the emancipation of whites, particularly those who have the least to gain from the order that this vicious cycle perpetuates and the effects that it produces. As against the lies of national unity, we can build a decolonizing majority that breaks with the racist, imperialist, and capitalist system, and instead offers a solution that can liberate everyone. Such an overturning of our perspective implies a different understanding of the sweep of history as well as of today’s current political and social conflicts.

Indeed, one of the main factors behind the “nihilism” of the (currently very few) “young people” from immigrant backgrounds and working class neighborhoods today engaged in blind, dead-end violence is the weakness and marginalization of decolonizing struggles in France. In addition to the difficulties inherent to any project fighting such an unequal contest, their weakness also owes to the powers that be systematically sabotaging them. That is, through repression, symbolic delegitimization, and the French state’s and political parties’ co-optation of individuals through patronage.

The religious and community “leaderships” imposed by the state play a fundamental role in this. However, decades of forced integrationism and submission have not at all put the brakes on racism and racial polarization. They have merely contributed to the reproduction of domination, unequal power relations, and the blurring of the real stakes of this polarization.

The Left’s own abdication of responsibility is also indirectly responsible, as well as its inability to see social conflicts in terms of racism. This has not helped it mobilize the white working classes (more and more absorbed into the ranks of far-right voters) or the populations on the receiving end of structural racism and, thus, paradoxically feeds the very divisions that the Left deplores.

So we need to turn the problem on its head: the struggle for decolonization is the condition of an ever-more-urgent countermovement that can get us out of the vicious cycle in which the calls for national unity seek to trap us.

The Prospects for a Counter-Movement

In short, we need more than ever to build a countermovement. This first of all flows from the struggle for decolonization. We, the indigènes of the French Republic, have to organize politically, since we are the primary targets of structural violence. Without a political movement for decolonization that unites France’s domestic “colonized” people, we will arrive at an impasse, and be exposed to all sorts of abuses.

If our young people have no hopes, alternatives, or political connections, then they will be constantly at risk of following the worst of path. They will thus become more of a target for repression and symbolic violence.

Building a movement for decolonization should be an opportunity that all those with an interest in breaking with the racist and imperialist order ought to take, for at the same time as according them privileges this order also contributes to their own domination. It is an opportunity that the anticapitalist left ought to take if it wants to emerge from its current impasse.

It is, finally, the only way that we can get out of the current vicious cycle in politics and society. And it is impossible to overcome this “clash of civilizations” strategy with vague humanism, paradoxical universalisms, and the old slogans of those who “keep the Marxist faith,” refusing to historicize and politicize social race relations for what they are.

In this sense, the shockwave after the Charlie Hebdo attacks initially served to unite white power, and threatened our struggles with not only repression, but also the possibility of being forced into a retreat. Nonetheless, it also had the inverse effect: thanks not only to force of circumstance but also the need to explore new paths in order to escape the current vicious circle, it has allowed the indigènes’ resistances to recognize themselves.

It has shaken up what were fixed positions on the decolonizing struggle, and opened up the perspective of possible future alliances. The battle is not yet lost: far from it, it’s only just begun.