The Swimsuit that Overthrew the State


As the latest example of the kind of zany hi jinx accompanying what Antonio Gramsci described as the interregnum between the dying old world and the new that cannot be born, French authorities in the last week had conniptions over someone wearing a ‘burkini’ or full-bodied swimsuit on a beach in Nice, banning them from 15 beaches. The rationale put forward for this bizarre turn of events was phrased in terms of ‘public’ concern over this variety of swimwear having something to do with the Bastille Day truck attack, in which 86 people died and 307 were injured. The presumption before the facts are in that the problem is with Islam; corporate media hegemony as our Italian buddy here pointed out enables a trial by media where facts are irrelevant, but you know it’s all good because it’s all for the greater good of democracy or something.

Let’s put aside the fact that the so-called War on Terror, which was supposed to stop those kind of tragedies from happening, not only didn’t stop them from happening, but in destabilising the Middle East, vastly increasing the likelihood of random terror attacks taking place in the west and creating ideal conditions for the rise of Islamic State. That fact which despite glaring in the face of all said to the contrary is consistently ignored with a militancy that can only be willful, this particular response to the tragic mass murder of 86 people and the incalculable pain and suffering caused to those left behind follows the typical line of thinking of the neoliberal political class in that they stick their head in a bucket of water because their arse is on fire.

What this means in more precise terms is that they render themselves cause and cure of the same problem in the process of opportunistically using the tragedy for political mileage in a way that provides an iron-clad, 100% money-back guarantee that, as the the endless cycle of fear, blame and retribution continues, so will the outrages. In that respect the one in Nice is no different to the ones that came before — long before, when old mate Gramsci was talking about the aforementioned crisis and the context for the great variety of morbid symptoms that appear — and the many to come, which as I have pointed out previously leaves one with the distinct impression that the War on Terrorism has been won already, and not by us.

While the sticking the head in the bucket of water might seem like a crude and inappropriate metaphor it is analogous to sticking one’s head in the ground, ostrich-like. And when it comes to the broader context and the inconvenient facts that are known, but that somehow disappear mysteriously down the memory hole when something like this happens with the precision that would make a Jura watchmaker mess their underwear, that is exactly what they do. The cycle of international stupidity is now an internet meme; I keep it stored in my Facebook profile now to put up every time there’s an attack because they are bound to continue permanently as long as arms sakes for the global moral panic over terrorism (the one that should properly be called the Terror Scare) provides a permanent pretext for the permanent war that provides a permanent Military Keynesian stimulus to a failing global economy. That is of course the one where the rate of profit is falling because of a permanent decline of Cheap Natures.

It makes no sense that the Nice attack is even on the radar of terrorism other than it fits the established narrative that the aforesaid political classes employ because it serves the abovementioned purposes. The dude responsible for the attack, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, was a French resident of Tunisian extraction, and to all appearances had no affiliations to any religious fundamentalist organization beyond starting to grow a beard two days before he carried out the attack, which some might associate with the stereotype of an Arab terrorist, which proves nothing. He was clearly a loose cannon. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, as they predictably would have given the clear propaganda value in terrorising westerners (Omar Mateen was another example of the same thing). Naturally the western media and politicians up to and including French Prime Minister Manuel Valls were more than willing to accommodate and enable them in that respect, Islamic State publicists the New York Times trumpeting that the Nice attacks represented terrorism’s new reality.

Like I always say though, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. So now Burkinis are to blame for the fact that the neoliberal political class need a scapegoat for the morbid symptoms of a world system systematically devoted to frustrating social change. It doesn’t say much as ever for the capacity of western democracy to demonstrate the courage of its convictions; what is fascinating in this instance is the photos of the morality police on the beach, enforcing the cultural orthodoxies of the conspicuously authoritarian society that is so afraid of ideas it doesn’t like that it has to micromanage the lives of its citizens to make sure no one gets out of line. If this sounds at all familiar to anyone, maybe it can be taken as cause to pause and reflect on the perils of becoming everything we claim to oppose and the kinds of assumptions that might give rise to that kind of cognitive dissonance. From where I’m standing they sure look exactly like the morality police who enforce hijabs in fundamentalist paradises like Iran.

Postcript: Hilariously enough sales of Burkinis have gone through the roof. Interestingly the designer is Australian; we have something of a love affair with full-length swimwear, eg. champion runner Cathy Freeman, champion swimmer Michael Phelps. They help keep the masses pacified with the provision of spectacles for the old bread and circuses routine though, so not terrorists.

Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).