A Ludicrous Platform
The “je suis Charlie” protests became an overnight sensation throughout the world, as millions of people stood up, presumably to support the right to free speech over and against censorship from either the State or other social groups. But it went generally uncommented that the submersion of a free-speech movement into the figure of one subject—Charlie—did not do much for the championing of the liberal virtues of individuality. In fact, it brought out the worst in ochlocratic thinking by dissipating individuality in a sea of grey conformity; one must be this thing, or suffer. The personality cult overwhelms society, and the prevailing geistoverrides sincere critique.
The movement is, really, a global personality disorder of neoliberalism.
This is why the liberal edifice of the symbolic structure quickly deteriorated. Free speech was the bait, dangling before the face of the French liberal who would otherwise pale at joining ranks with the foulest of chauvinists. The “Je suis Charlie” movement could tie together liberal and strictly conservative across both support for rights and hatred of Muslims, belief in political debate and abject fear of immigrants. Sarko’s infamous maneuvering to the front of the world leaders marching against censorship, obviated not only the ludicrous nature of the protest, but the ease by which the conservatives could co-opt it.
It would appear that this kind of populist base could not have come at a better time for the faltering Socialist Party, which saw its popularity decline rapidly after ascending to power on an anti-austerity platform and promptly capitulating. The policies of the Socialists toward Africa have only worsened the plight of people already suffering from drought in the Sahel and political repression in Central African Republic, turning many from the former colonies on the terrifying trek of migration to France.
From Free Speech to Surveillance in Three Easy Steps
That Charlie Hebdo chose to ridicule those migrants who perished on their voyage in their latest publication only proves the shallowness of their concern human rights.
As Charlie trots up to the stage to receive its PEN award, the lower house of France’s parliament passes a bill that critics call a “French PATRIOT Act.” The bill provides new powers to surveil citizens of the Republic in pursuit of “terrorists” in order to “prevent attacks on the republican form of institutions.”
According to the New York Times’s Alissa J Rubin, “The measure, which must still pass the Senate, was a strong reaction to the security threat vividly displayed by the January terrorist attacks in and around Paris, including at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher grocery that left 17 people dead.”
Rubin did not comment on the awkwardness of linking a “free speech” movement to a bill granting widespread permission to surveillance of private citizens. They did, however, quote Pierre-Olivier Sur, the head of the Paris bar association: “It is a state lie. This project was presented to us as a way to protect France against terrorism, and if that were the case, I would back it, but it is being done to put in place a sort of Patriot Act concerning the activities of each and everyone.”
The Populist Movement
The reality is that the current left-liberal support of the “je suis Charlie” movement waves off such inconvenient problems by replying, for instance, that privacy has nothing to do with free speech. But it does. Surveillance stifles what one would say, based on fear that it would provoke an inquiry from the state.
The new laws grant increased powers of investigation of radicals who would push the Socialist Party to the left, or resist its imperial tendencies, as well as ecological activists like the ZADists resisting industrial infrastructure, mines, and deforestation. Thus, the “je suis Charlie” movement allows the Socialist Party to abandon, well, socialism, lending the economic and political field to repressive austerity, on one side, and the Herrenvolk Democracy and welfare chauvinism of the National Front, on the other.
Ironic, then, that the supporters of the “je suis Charlie” movement (from such periodicals and news sites as The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and The Nation, no less) decry the “elitism” of those who criticize it, insinuating that those who step back from the marriage of neoliberal austerity and xenophobia act like prudes. What these would-be plebian commentators ignore is that a single attack on a publication by a group of people with extremely marginal views has facilitated a virtual state of emergency, giving white supremacists space to declare open season on people of color while bringing about arcane and iron-fisted laws that extend unchecked governmental powers against citizens. What they are doing is uncritically joining in a populist movement that empowers state repression, divides socialism, and encourages the National Front.
The disproportionate nature of the reaction reveals the tendentious nature of the faux-populist decrial of supposed-elitists who stand up against state repression, surveillance, racism, and xenophobia, but it also suggests that the status quo in France is being tightened, like a tourniquet, around an unpopular system that has been hemorrhaging credibility. It is no longer about whether the critique of the “je suis Charlie” movement can be distilled to a vulgar “they had it coming” (that wasn’t the point, anyway). As with the 2005 riots, which galvanized greater support for the National Front’s heinous ideology, the handling of the Charlie Hebdo reaction has played directly into the hands of what Cas Mudde calls “the populist radical right.”
So Much for Socialism
Doubly-ironic (talking of élites) is the personal appearance of Manuel Valls during the passage of France’s new PATRIOT Act. Valls resigned in the turmoil that struck France late August of last year, as economy minister Arnaud Montebourg accused Hollande of being worse than Margaret Thatcher and Charles de Gaulle (the latter having led the dissolution of the Fourth Republic). After firing Montebourg and dissolving his entire government, Hollande demanded Valls form a new cabinet. Montebourg was promptly replaced by Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker at Rothschild & Cie Banque (his career highlight was brokering a deal with Nestle and Pfizer).
A philosophy buff, Macron helped edit the Christian hermeneutist Paul Ricoeur’s La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (by all accounts a brilliant, though imperfect, work); however, several months after being tapped for Hollande’s cabinet, he told BFM TV that he had quit the Socialist Party, compelled perhaps by a certain philosophie de la misère. Ramming through austerity is more important than party loyalty for Macron. But this course of socialist self-immolation has been papered over by the celebration of Charlie Hebdo.
Somewhere Jean-Marie Le Pen and Charlie are laughing about this, or have they been collapsed into one terrible joke played on all of Europe?
If, as Ricouer writes, “History is the development of spirit at the heart of humanity,” the Socialist Party is losing both its spirit and its heart, and its time is running short. In virtually every historical case, the demise of a Republic has been brought about in the name of saving it. Not once did a leader of the optimare or populare stand before the Rostra of Rome in a contio and argue against the interests of the populus Romanus. From Julius Caesar to Napoleon Bonaparte, history’s emperors have had themselves crowned under the aegis of the people. And so it is that the defense of “the republican form of institutions” actuates the further passage of the Fifth Republic into the hands of a dissolute group of austerity-dealing oligarchs for whom the slogan “je suis Charlie” simply obscures the older one, “L’etat, c’est moi.”
Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.