The political psychology of self-immolation

A simple act of protest that can take on mythical proportions.

Here he is. Matches in one hand, petrol bottle in the other. He removes the bottle cap, drops it to the ground and douses himself in liquid. He does everything slowly, methodically, as if it were part of a routine he has practiced for years. Then he stops, looks around, and strikes a match.

At this moment nothing in the world can bridge the gap that separates the self-immolator from the others. His total defiance of the survival and self-preservation instincts, his determination to trample on what everybody else finds precious, the ease with which he seems to dispose of his own life, all these place him not only beyond our capacity of understanding, but also outside of human society. He now inhabits a place that most of us find inhabitable. Yet, from there he does not cease to dominate us.

“As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”

Journalist David Halberstam describes the death of Thích Quàng Đúc, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963. The quieter the self-immolator the more agitated those around him. The former may slip into nothingness, but his performance changes the latter’s lives forever. They experience repulsion and attraction, terror and boundless reverence, awe and fear, all at once. Over them he now has the uncanniest form of power.

The experience is so powerful because it is so deeply seated in the human psyche. In front of self-immolation, even the most secularized of us have a glimpse into a primordial experience of the sacred. Originally, the sacred is defined as something set apart, cut off from the rest, which remains profane; what we feel towards such a radically different other is precisely a mix of terror and fascination. Self-immolation is a unique event precisely because it awakens deep layers of our ultimate make-up. In a striking, if disguised fashion, self-immolation occasions the experience of the sacred even in a God-forsaken world like ours.

Self-immolation has little to do with suicide. “Suicidal tendencies almost never lead to self-immolation,” says Michael Biggs, one of the few sociologists who have studied the phenomenon systematically. Self-immolation is a deliberate, determined and painfully expressive form of individual protest. Under certain circumstances, the gesture of an individual self-immolator is enough to ignite large-scale social movements. Thích Quàng Đúc’s self-immolation triggered a massive response, which resulted in the toppling of the Ngô Đình Diem regime in South Vietnam. Only six years later, Jan Palach, a Czech philosophy student, set himself ablaze in protest to the Soviet Union’s crush of the Prague Spring. His death did not cause a regime change right away, but it shaped in a distinct manner the anti-communist dissidence in Czechoslovakia. Twenty years later, in 1989, it was a “Palach week” of street protests and demonstrations that set in motion the Velvet Revolution. More recently, in December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, stroke a match that not only burned him to death, but set the entire Arab world on fire; we are still witnessing the aftermath of his gesture.

Self-immolation is a fearsome, compelling act, but it would be wrong to infer that whenever it occurs it has significant political consequences. Michael Biggs estimates that between 800 and 3,000 self-immolations may have taken place over the four decades after 1963. Yet, only a handful of them had any political impact. What makes a death by self-immolation politically consequential is its capacity to become the focus of a community’s social life. Self-immolation is “successful” in this sense when it is not anymore about the one who performs it, but about the community in the midst of which it occurs and which suddenly recognizes itself in the predicament of the self-immolator, it feels “shamed” by his gesture and compelled to act. Thus, that individual death is re-signified, and turned from a biological occurrence in the history of someone’s body into a “founding” event of mythical proportions, something that renews the community’s political life.

Politically “successful” self-immolations are extraordinary events. There are no “recipes for success” here; no science can satisfactorily explain when they should occur or why they shouldn’t. To use some kind of analogy, they are not unlike artistic masterpieces; you can recognize one when you see it, but they cannot be produced “on demand”. As such, they are inimitable and unrepeatable. Bouazizi, Đúc and Palach had many imitators, but they never managed to get out of their masters’ shadows; the more they were the less their gestures meant.

This brings home the point that a politically consequential self-immolation is usually the first one in a series. Since February 2009 no less than fifty-one Tibetans, mostly Buddhist monks and nuns, have self-immolated in Tibetan parts of China, yet they have not caused any significant political changes so far. Why? Because fifty-one self-immolations may be fifty too many; the more Tibetans self-immolate the clearer it becomes that there are no Quàng Đúc, Jan Palach or Mohamed Bouazizi among them.

The fact that self-immolation as a form of political protest could even appear in Tibetan monastic circles may seem puzzling. Buddhism notoriously rejects violence; moreover, Tibetan Buddhism is eminently based on compassion towards all sentient beings. One of the four vows that any Tibetan monk has to take when joining a monastery is “never to take a life”. The Dalai Lama’s total embrace of Gandhi’s satyagraha is only the logical corollary of such a religious mind-set.

Yet, the explanation has to do more with political, rather than theological, factors. The Chinese occupation of Tibet has been unusually oppressive and much of the violent repression has been directed against Buddhist monasteries, seen as the symbol of a “backward,” “feudal” Tibet. Violence only breeds violence. For all its anti-violent stance, when its very existence comes under threat, Buddhism could sometimes find the resources, and even the theoretical justification, for violent resistance; the PLA experienced this first-hand in the Tibet of the 1950s, when monasteries would often fight back. Moreover, most of the recent self-immolations have taken place in what used to be, before the communist take-over, Amdo and Kham, regions populated by fiercely independent people, combination of warriors and monks, that almost no central authority could subdue in the past. The Kampas could be as brutal as the PLA soldiers.

That self-immolation, by all means an extreme and extraordinary act, tends now to become a routine form of political action is a very dangerous development. And, yet, just as the Chinese authorities do not signal that they want to make concessions, the Tibetans find it inconceivable to give up. The fact that all those who set themselves ablaze are young (some are teens) is telling. These are people who don’t have the memory of a pre-communist Tibet; all they could possibly have is the hope of a post-Chinese one. But, then again, with Tibet’s new demographic structure and China’s super-power status, even such a hope is unsustainable. So all they are left with is despair.

In the long-run Tibetans’ despair may be China’s worst nightmare. What a routinisation of self-immolation as political protest can lead to the Chinese authorities may not be even able to comprehend. And, yet, they should not be surprised; maybe it is time they start re-reading the little red book: “Where there is oppression, there is resistance.” In his grave, Mao Zedong is dreaming in Tibetan.

Costica Bradatan is Fellow at Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study in the US. He is the author or editor of several books, most recently "Philosophy, Society and the Cunning of History in Eastern Europe" (Routledge 2012). Currently, he is writing a book on “dying for an idea”.

The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, who self-immolated in 2010, holds up his picture. Photograph: Getty Images

Costica Bradatan is Fellow at Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study in the US. He is the author or editor of several books, most recently "Philosophy, Society and the Cunning of History in Eastern Europe" (Routledge 2012). Currently, he is writing a book on “dying for an idea”.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Unite stewards urge members to back Owen Smith

In a letter to Unite members, the officials have called for a vote for the longshot candidate.

29 Unite officials have broken ranks and thrown their weight behind Owen Smith’s longshot bid for the Labour leadership in an open letter to their members.

The officials serve as stewards, conveners and negotiators in Britain’s aerospace and shipbuilding industries, and are believed in part to be driven by Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding opposition to the nuclear deterrent and defence spending more generally.

In the letter to Unite members, who are believed to have been signed up in large numbers to vote in the Labour leadership race, the stewards highlight Smith’s support for extra funding in the NHS and his vision for an industrial strategy.

Corbyn was endorsed by Unite, Labour's largest affliated union and the largest trades union in the country, following votes by Unite's ruling executive committee and policy conference. 

Although few expect the intervention to have a decisive role in the Labour leadership, regarded as a formality for Corbyn, the opposition of Unite workers in these industries may prove significant in Len McCluskey’s bid to be re-elected as general secretary of Unite.

 

The full letter is below:

Britain needs a Labour Government to defend jobs, industry and skills and to promote strong trade unions. As convenors and shop stewards in the manufacturing, defence, aerospace and energy sectors we believe that Owen Smith is the best candidate to lead the Labour Party in opposition and in government.

Owen has made clear his support for the industries we work in. He has spelt out his vision for an industrial strategy which supports great British businesses: investing in infrastructure, research and development, skills and training. He has set out ways to back British industry with new procurement rules to protect jobs and contracts from being outsourced to the lowest bidder. He has demanded a seat at the table during the Brexit negotiations to defend trade union and workers’ rights. Defending manufacturing jobs threatened by Brexit must be at the forefront of the negotiations. He has called for the final deal to be put to the British people via a second referendum or at a general election.

But Owen has also talked about the issues which affect our families and our communities. Investing £60 billion extra over 5 years in the NHS funded through new taxes on the wealthiest. Building 300,000 new homes a year over 5 years, half of which should be social housing. Investing in Sure Start schemes by scrapping the charitable status of private schools. That’s why we are backing Owen.

The Labour Party is at a crossroads. We cannot ignore reality – we need to be radical but we also need to be credible – capable of winning the support of the British people. We need an effective Opposition and we need a Labour Government to put policies into practice that will defend our members’ and their families’ interests. That’s why we are backing Owen.

Steve Hibbert, Convenor Rolls Royce, Derby
Howard Turner, Senior Steward, Walter Frank & Sons Limited
Danny Coleman, Branch Secretary, GE Aviation, Wales
Karl Daly, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Nigel Stott, Convenor, BASSA, British Airways
John Brough, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
John Bennett, Site Convenor, Babcock Marine, Devonport, Plymouth
Kevin Langford, Mechanical Convenor, Babcock, Devonport, Plymouth
John McAllister, Convenor, Vector Aerospace Helicopter Services
Garry Andrews, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Sunderland
Steve Froggatt, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Jim McGivern, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Alan Bird, Chairman & Senior Rep, Rolls Royce, Derby
Raymond Duguid, Convenor, Babcock, Rosyth
Steve Duke, Senior Staff Rep, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
Paul Welsh, Works Convenor, Brush Electrical Machines, Loughborough
Bob Holmes, Manual Convenor, BAE Systems, Warton, Lancs
Simon Hemmings, Staff Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Mick Forbes, Works Convenor, GKN, Birmingham
Ian Bestwick, Chief Negotiator, Rolls Royce Submarines, Derby
Mark Barron, Senior Staff Rep, Pallion, Sunderland
Ian Hodgkison, Chief Negotiator, PCO, Rolls Royce
Joe O’Gorman, Convenor, BAE Systems, Maritime Services, Portsmouth
Azza Samms, Manual Workers Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Dave Thompson, Staff Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Tim Griffiths, Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Paul Blake, Convenor, Princess Yachts, Plymouth
Steve Jones, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Bristol
Colin Gosling, Senior Rep, Siemens Traffic Solutions, Poole

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.