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Slavoj Žižek: The Cologne attacks were an obscene version of carnival

Were the recent Cologne sex attacks a deliberate assault on western values and a middle-class sense of decency?

Who are the “hateful eight” in Quentin Tarantino’s film of the same name? The ENTIRE group of participants - white racists and the black Union soldier, men and women, law officers and criminals – they are all equally mean, brutal and revengeful. The most embarrassing moment in the film occurs when the black officer (played by the superb Samuel L. Jackson) narrates in detail and with obvious pleasure to an old Confederate general how he killed his racist son, who was responsible for many black deaths. After forcing him to march naked in cold wind, Jackson promises the freezing white guy he will get a warm cover if he performs fellatio, but after the guy does so, Jackson reneges on his promise and lets him die. So there are no good guys in the struggle against racism – they are all engaged in it with the utmost brutality. And is the lesson of the recent Cologne sex attacks not uncannily similar to the lesson of the film? Even if (most of) the refugees are effectively victims fleeing from ruined countries, this does not prevent them from acting in a despicable way. We tend to forget that there is nothing redeeming in suffering: being a victim at the bottom of the social ladder does not make you some kind of privileged voice of morality and justice.

But this general insight is not enough – one has to take a close look at the situation which gave birth to Cologne incident. In his analysis of the global situation after the Paris bombings1, Alain Badiou discerns three predominant types of subjectivity in today’s global capitalism: the western “civilised” middle-class liberal-democratic subject; those outside the west possessed by the “desire for the west le desir d’Occident,” desperately endeavouring to imitate the “civilised” life-style of the western middle classes; and the fascist nihilists, those whose envy at the west turns into a mortal self-destructive hatred. Badiou makes it clear that what the media call the “radicalisation” of Muslims is Fascisation simple and pure:

“this fascism is the obverse of the frustrated desire for the west which is organized in a more or less military way following the flexible model of a mafia gang and with variable ideological colorisations where the place occupied by religion is purely formal.” 

The western middle class ideology has two opposed features: it displays arrogance and belief in the superiority of its values (universal human rights and freedoms threatened by the barbarian outsiders), but, simultaneously, it is obsessed by the fear that its limited domain will be invaded by the billions outside, who do not count in global capitalism since they are neither producing commodities nor consuming them. The fear of its members is that they will join those excluded.

The clearest expression of the “desire for the west” are immigrant refugees: their desire is not a revolutionary one, it is the desire to leave behind their devastated habitat and rejoin the promised land of the developed west. (Those who remain behind try to create there miserable copies of western prosperity, like the “modernised” parts in every third world metropolis, in Luanda, in Lagos, etc, with cafeterias selling cappuccinos, shopping malls, and so on).

But since, for the large majority of pretenders, this desire cannot be satisfied, one of the remaining options is the nihilist reversal: frustration and envy get radicalised into a murderous and self-destructive hatred of the west, and people get engaged in violent revenge. Badiou proclaims this violence a pure expression of death drive, a violence that can only culminate in acts of orgiastic (self)destruction, without any serious vision of an alternate society.

Badiou is right to emphasise that there is no emancipatory potential in fundamentalist violence, however anti-capitalist it claims to be: it is a phenomenon strictly inherent to the global capitalist universe, its “hidden phantom”. The basic fact of fundamentalist fascism is envy. Fundamentalism remains rooted in the desire for the west in its very hatred of the west. We are dealing here with the standard reversal of frustrated desire into aggressiveness described by psychoanalysis, and Islam just provides the form to ground this (self)destructive hatred. This destructive potential of envy is the base of Rousseau’s well-known distinction between egotism, amour-de-soi (that love of the self which is natural), and amour-propre, the perverted preferring of oneself to others in which a person focuses not on achieving a goal, but on destroying the obstacle to it:

“The primitive passions, which all directly tend towards our happiness, make us deal only with objects which relate to them, and whose principle is only amour-de-soi, are all in their essence lovable and tender; however, when, diverted from their objects by obstacles, they are more occupied with the obstacle they try to get rid of, than with the object they try to reach, they change their nature and become irascible and hateful. This is how amour-de-soi, which is a noble and absolute feeling, becomes amour-propre, that is to say, a relative feeling by means of which one compares oneself, a feeling which demands preferences, whose enjoyment is purely negative and which does not strive to find satisfaction in our own well-being, but only in the misfortune of others.”2

An evil person is thus not an egotist, “thinking only about his own interests”. A true egotist is too busy taking care of his own good to have time to cause misfortune to others. The primary vice of a bad person is that he is more preoccupied with others than with himself. Rousseau is describing a precise libidinal mechanism: the inversion which generates the shift of the libidinal investment from the object to the obstacle itself. This could well be applied to fundamentalist violence – be it the Oklahoma bombings or the attack on the Twin Towers. In both cases, we were dealing with hatred pure and simple: destroying the obstacle, the Oklahoma City Federal Building, the Twin Towers, was what really mattered, not achieving the noble goal of a truly Christian or Muslim society.3

Such a fascisation can exert a certain attraction to the frustrated immigrant youth which cannot find a proper place in western societies or a prospect to identify with – fascisation offers them an easy way out of their frustration: an eventful risky life dressed up in a sacrificial religious dedication, plus material satisfaction (sex, cars, weapons…). One should not forget that the Islamic State is also a big mafia trading company selling oil, ancient statues, cotton, arms and women-slaves, “a mixture of deadly heroic propositions and, simultaneously, of western corruption by products”.

It goes by itself that this fundamentalist-fascist violence is just one of the modes of violence that pertains to global capitalism, and that one should bear in mind not only the forms of fundamentalist violence in western countries themselves (anti-immigrant populism, etc), but above all the systematic violence of capitalism itself, from the catastrophic consequences of global economy to the long story of military interventions. Islamo-Fascism is a profoundly reactive phenomenon in Nietzschean sense of the term, an expression of impotence converted into self-destructive rage.

While agreeing with the overall thrust of Badiou’s analysis, I find three of its claims problematic. First, the reduction of religion, the religious form of fascist nihilism, to a secondary superficial feature: “Religion is only a clothing, it is in no way the heart of the matter, only a form of subjectivisation, not the real content of the thing.” Badiou is totally right in his claim that the search for the roots of today’s Muslim terrorism in ancient religious texts (the “it is all already in Quran” story) is misleading: one should instead focus on today’s global capitalism and conceive Islamo-fascism as one of the modes to react to its lure by way of inverting envy into hatred. But is, from a critical standpoint, religion not always a kind of clothing, rather than the heart of the matter? Is religion not in its very core a “form of subjectivisation” of people’s predicament? And does this not imply that a clothing IS in some sense the “heart of the matter”, the way individuals experience their situation – there is no way for them to step back and see somehow from outside how things “really are”… Then, the all too fast identification of refugees and migrants with a “nomadic proletariat”, a “virtual vanguard of the gigantic mass of the people whose existence is not counted prise en compte in the world the way it is”. Are migrants (mostly, at least) not those most strongly possessed by the “desire for the west”, most strongly in the thrall of hegemonic ideology? Finally, the naïve demand that we should:

“go and see who is this other about whom on talks, who are they really. We have to gather their thoughts, their ideas, their vision of things, and inscribe them, and ourselves simultaneously, into a strategic vision of the fate of humanity”.

Easy to say, difficult to do. This other is, as Badiou himself describes, utterly disoriented, possessed by the opposing attitudes of envy and hatred, a hatred which ultimately expresses its own repressed desire for the west (which is why hatred turns into a self-destruction). It is part of a naive humanist metaphysics to presuppose that beneath this vicious cycle of desire, envy and hatred, there is some “deeper” human core of global solidarity. Stories abound about how, among the refugees, many Syrians are an exception: in transition camps they clean the dirt they leave behind, they behave in a polite and respectful way, many of them are well-educated and speak English, they often even pay for what they consume... in short, we feel they are like ourselves, our educated and civilised middle classes. 

It is popular to claim that the violent refugees represent a minority, and that the large majority has a deep respect for women… while this is of course true, one should nonetheless cast a closer look into the structure of this respect: what kind of woman is “respected”, and what is expected from her? What if a woman is “respected” insofar (and only insofar) as she fits the ideal of a docile servant faithfully doing her home chores, so that her man has the right to explode in fury if she “goes viral” and acts in full autonomy?

Our media usually draw a distinction between “civilised” middle-class refugees and “barbarian” lower class refugees who steal, harass our citizens, behave violently towards women, defecate in public... Instead of dismissing all this as racist propaganda, one should gather the courage to discern a moment of truth in it: brutality, up to outright cruelty towards the weak, animals, women, etc, is a traditional feature of the “lower classes”; one of their strategies of resisting those in power always was a terrifying display of brutality aimed at disturbing the middle-class sense of decency. And one is tempted to read in this way also what happened on New Year’s Eve in Cologne – as an obscene lower-class carnival:

“German police are investigating reports that scores of women were sexually assaulted and mugged in Cologne city centre during New Year’s Eve celebrations, in what a minister called a ‘completely new dimension of crime’. According to the police, those allegedly responsible for the sex attacks and numerous robberies were of Arab and north African origin. Over 100 complaints were filed to police, a third of which were linked to sexual assault. The city centre turned into a ‘lawless zone’: between 500 and 1000 men described as drunk and aggressive are believed to have been behind the attacks on partygoers in the centre of the western German city. Whether they were working as a single group or in separate gangs remains unclear. Women reported being tightly surrounded by groups of men who harassed and mugged them. Some people threw fireworks into the crowds, adding to the chaos. One of the victims had been raped. A volunteer policewoman was among those said to have been sexually assaulted.”4

As expected, the incident is growing: now over 500 complaints have been filed from women, with similar incidents in other German cities (and in Sweden). There are indications that attacks were coordinated in advance, plus right-wing anti-immigrant barbarian “defenders of the civilised west” are striking back with attacks on immigrants, so that the spiral of violence threatens to be unleashed… And, as expected, the politically correct liberal Left mobilised its resources to downplay the incident in the same way it did in the case in Rotherham.

But there is more, much more, to it: the Cologne carnival should be located in the long line whose first recorded case reaches back to Paris of the 1730s, to the so-called “Great Cat Massacre” described by Robert Darnton5, when a group of printing apprentices tortured and ritually killed all the cats they could find, including the pet of their master’s wife. The apprentices were literally treated worse than cats adored by the master’s wife, especially la grise (the grey), her favorite. One night the boys resolved to right this inequitable state of affairs: they dumped sack-loads of half-dead cats in the courtyard and then strung them up on an improvised gallows, the men delirious with joy, disorder, and laughter... Why was the killing so funny?

During carnival the common people suspended the normal rules of behavior and ceremoniously reversed the social order or turned it upside down in riotous procession. Carnival was high season for hilarity, sexuality, and youth run riot, and the crowd often incorporated cat torture into its rough music. While mocking a cuckold or some other victim, the youths passed around a cat, tearing its fur to make it howl. Faire le chat, they called it. The Germans called it Katzenmusik, a term that may have been derived from the howls of tortured cats. The torture of animals, especially cats, was a popular amusement throughout early modern Europe. The power of cats was concentrated on the most intimate aspect of domestic life: sex. Le chat, la chatte, le minet mean the same thing in French slang as “pussy” does in English, and they have served as obscenities for centuries.

So what if we conceive of the Cologne incident as a contemporary version of faire le chat? As a carnivalesque rebellion of the underdogs? It wasn't the simple urge for satisfaction of sexually starved young men – this could be done in a more discreet, hidden way – it was foremost a public spectacle of installing fear and humiliation, of exposing the “pussies” of the privileged Germans to painful helplessness. There is, of course, nothing redemptive or emancipatory, nothing effectively liberating, in such a carnival – but this is how actual carnivals work.

This is why the naive attempts to enlighten immigrants (explaining to them that our sexual mores are different, that a woman who walks in public in a mini skirt and smiles does not thereby signal sexual invitation, etc.) are examples of breath-taking stupidity – they know this and that's why they are doing it. They are well aware that what they are doing is foreign to our predominant culture, but they are doing it precisely to wound our sensitivities. The task is to change this stance of envy and revengeful aggressiveness, not to teach them what they already know very well.

The difficult lesson of this entire affair is thus that it is not enough to simply give voice to the underdogs the way they are: in order to enact actual emancipation, they have to be educated (by others and by themselves) into their freedom.


1See Alain Badiou, Notre mal vient de plus loin, Paris: Fayard 2015. (Numbers in brackets refer to the pages of this book.)

2Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques: Dialogues, Hanover: Dartmouth College Press 1990, p. 63.

3See Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Petite metaphysique des tsunamis, Paris: Editions duSeuil 2005, p. 68.

4Quoted from this article.

5Quoted from this article. Original source is Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, London: Basic Books 2009. The following description is condensed from Darnton's book.

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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood