Taking notes 52: Philosophy and understanding Paris and the on-going crisis: 10 theses

capdeath_V. Briskin

by Jeff Noonan

1. At the basis of all concrete identities: “Muslim,”  “Sunni,” “French citizen,” etc., lies a core human being, a capacity for self-making within the objective contexts of natural and social life.  Selves are made, identities forged, reproduced, modified, and developed through processes of work and affective-symbolic interaction with other people within and across societies.  Work relations and social interactions are contradictory– they are both creative and alienating,  mutualistic and antagonistic, peaceful and violent.  When politics loses sight of or ignores for partisan advantage the underlying human capacity for self-making and re-making it fixates on the abstractions.  A fixation on the abstract markers of particular identities leads to their reification, and  their reification leads in turn to false, quasi-natural explanations of conflict (the problems in the Middle East are the consequence of a  ‘clash of civilizations,’ racism is a result of the ‘natural’ inferiority of the demonized race, etc).

2. Digging beneath the surface identity to the core human activity  of identity formation, reveals it as the result (always modifiable) of a process of practical and symbolic labour that unfolds in dynamic interaction with other selves and the objective world. Other selves, the natural world, and the social institutions that mediate the relationship between individuals and nature are themselves dynamic and change in response to changed activities.  Foregrounding this dynamic process and using it as a wedge against the stereotypes of reified thinking is the constructive political role that philosophical thinking can play. While philosophers will also be motivated by concrete political evaluations of the relative legitimacy of conflicting positions, if they are to be active as philosophers, they must ground their political assessments in the deeper understanding of human self-making activity explained above.  By demonstrating the ways in which all sides to the conflict are struggling to forge a coherent and satisfying individual and collective identity and the social and environmental conditions in which that identity can be secured, the underlying humanity of all parties to any conflict is made clear.  Once this underlying humanity has been made clear, invidious contrasts between positions according to which one side is inhuman and monstrous, the other side human and pure, (positions which, because they are reversible, do nothing but ensure cycles of violence) break down, and the opposing sides can begin to think about the reasons why the other side behaves as they do.

3. History proves that human beings, when they identify themselves as a member of a community under existential threat, can convince themselves that the most abominable acts are justified as matters of group survival.  No religion or culture, or ethnicity, or nation-state is prone by its very ‘nature’ to violence, but all can become violent when they are set in conflict with other religions, sects, nation-states in ways that impair the ability of the group to survive, develop, and flourish.  When these conflicts are interpreted as zero sum games, such that the victory of the opponent would mean (or is feared to mean)  the elimination of the group to which the self identifies, a logic of exterminism can be unleashed.  Victory becomes associated with the complete pacification through the total destruction of the other side.  Once this logic is unleashed, it appears impossible to arrest the cycle of violence, because any voice calling for restraint and negotiations will appear not only weak (which is typically politically unacceptable) but also suicidal.


[Credit: AP.]

4. Nevertheless, those voices, the ones that sound most irrational and out of touch with “political realities” are the only ones in touch with the deeper reality, namely, that no matter how abhorrent the tactics adopted, the struggle is comprehensible and defensible in human terms as a struggle for security over the natural and social conditions of life. Killing in response to killing is not the mark of a strong leader, but of a person who is behaving predictably, i..e, the way a machine would, and not like a rational human being.  When thought is directed towards the causes of the opponents’ actions, the cyclical nature of violence becomes apparent.  A political conflict degenerates towards a violent confrontation, which further degenerates towards a logic of exterminism, which amps up fears on both sides and makes it appear that the cycle can be resolved only by superior violence, i.e., by completely destroying the enemy.  However, the struggle to destroy the enemy contributes to the destruction of the community one is trying to protect. The main victims of ISIS are Syrian and Iraqi civilians, hard won democratic freedoms have been undermined by the War on Terror.  Further steps down this path of ”victory’ via extermination can only further destroy all parties to the conflict.

5. There is a time to assign blame and evaluate the relative merits of the opposing parties’ demands, but assigning blame and evaluating legitimacy, if it occurs outside of this deeper context and frame of the cross cultural human struggle to forge identities and secure the natural and social conditions of their development, will only allow the conflict cycle to repeat.  Philosophy seems useless because it thinks at different time-scales than politics.  Sometimes, the longer time scales in which philosophy thinks are useless–decisions sometime have to be made right away.  But peaceful co-development between cultures formerly at odds with each other takes longer to develop and can only be grounded in mutual recognition of the different ways different groups can express their underlying human capacity for self-determination and self-making and the satisfactions that come with realizing that capacity.  The practical value of philosophy is not only to bring to light that underlying capacity, but also to defend the need for long-term perspectives on conflict resolution which depend upon transformations of self-understanding and re-interpretation of the reasons why former ‘enemies behaved as they did.

6. The duty of philosophy in cases of violent conflict is thus not first of all to pick sides but to encourage each side to consider itself in light of the way the other sees it, and in light of the actual success or failure of its tactics.  ISIS might think that it is conducting a heroic struggle against Western imperialism, but on its current path it will accomplish nothing but ensuring the ever more complete destruction of the lands and cultures of those areas of Syria and Iraq that it occupies. Western leaders might think they are defending the highest values of Western civilization against barbaric terrorists, but they have eviscerated the highest constitutional principles that past democratic struggles have achieved and killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians across the Middle East, stoking the very anger and hatred that fuels the desire for revenge that leads to terrorist attacks.  Both sides are destroying themselves as they try to destroy each other–irrationality at a mass scale.

Paris_Jeff Mitchell -Getty Images

[Credit: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images.]

7. Pointing out this reciprocal irrationality is not a substitute for concrete political struggle, but rather a precondition of turning those struggles in efficacious directions.  All efficacious political struggles must be directed at the precise cause or causes of the problem threatening the groups.  In the case of the current crisis across the Middle East, the depth causes are:  the history of Western imperialism in the region, the destruction of the infrastructure of life-support by the “War on Terror,” and cynical exploitation of sectarian and ethnic differences by major Western powers and their regional allies.  Simple Western withdrawal from the region, while a precondition of solving the domestic conflicts, will not be enough to ensure lasting peace unless a constructive politics emerges within the region.  That constructive politics must stop targeting individuals in the West and justifying such attacks as justified vengence.  Such tactics undermine support for the legitimate demands of the peoples of the Middle East, embolden racist-militaristic forces in the West, encourage backlashes against Muslim and Middle Eastern citizens of Western countries, as well as refugees and ordinary Muslim travellers.

8. Within the West, the political struggle has to be focused not only on particular governments and their policies, but the structural causes of military intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere.  That which must be contested is the principle that the world’s resources are valuable to the extent that they are controlled by Western corporations and exploited in the interests of their ability to maximize money profits and the world’s people valuable to the extent that they serve these interests (and legitimately destroyed to the extent that they resist this subjugation). Both sides must work towards recognition of the deeper,  common life-interest in living in a society that ensures the satisfaction of their fundamental life-requirements, that is governed by institutions that allow individuals to make decisions democratically, and that is open to mutualistic, respectful interaction and growth between distinct cultures.

9. Critics will respond to the last point in thesis 8 with the argument that there are radical differences between an enlightened secular cosmopolitan society and the reactionary, atavistic, irrational fundamentalism that drives groups like ISIS.  There can be no reconciliation between western liberal democracy and the reactionary fundamentalism of the caliphate, critics will rejoin, because to do so would betray not only our own ideals, but also the goals of the majority of people in the Middle East struggling to create liberal democracy.  In response, while I agree that Western philosophers should not make any excuses for religious fundamentalism of any stripe, at the same time we must not lose sight of the political dimensions of the conflict in the Middle East, i.e., we must not fall into the trap of seeing it as nothing but a problem of irrational sectarian hatreds.  A group like ISIS might have irrational elements driving certain of its more horrific propaganda stunts, but a careful analysis cannot but uncover legitimate demands amongst Sunni’s in Iraq and Syria for protection against the violence of the Syrian and Iraqi states.  ISIS may be destroyed, but another movement will take its place until some political rapprochment is worked out by the parties to the domestic conflict themselves.  At the same time, it is appropriate to criticize religious justifications of the tactics that target Western civilians.  The legitimate critique of religious illusion should not be confused with Islamophobia (especially since most Islamophobes are Christian fundamentalists, who are equally irrational from the standpoint of enlightenment reason).  By the same token, the value of enlightenment ideals of rational analysis and argument should not be exchanged for an uncritical pluralism, or worse, a belief that groups like ISIS should be celebrated for their uncompromising anti-imperialism.  The struggle internal to the peoples of the Middle East is precisely  to create a broad, democratic, anti-imperialist alliance of secular left and critical Islamist movements (the latter might be understood as an Islamic version of liberation theology).  Overall,  an effective philosophical analysis and argument needs to identify the rational and the irrational in the opposed camps in order to demonstrate the possibility of future co-development in which cultural, religious, and sectarian identities open towards their outside.  Beyond this outside exclusive communal closures give way to dynamic and democratic cultures that cross-fertilize and encourage creative ways of organizing human societies at all scales.  One historical example of this process is the triple cross-fertilization between the remnants of Greek antiquity, the Islamic society of the Middle Ages, and Europe.  When the Roman Empire closed the Greek schools and after Christian fanatics had burned the library of Alexandria, the works of Greek philosophy contributed to the flourishing of philosophy and medical science in the Islamic world, where they were preserved, built upon, and ultimately re-introduced to Europe through Morocco via Spain.

A rose with a sign reading 'In the name of what?' is pictured in a bullet hole in the window of a Japanese restaurant next to the cafe 'La Belle Equipe', Rue de Charonne, in Paris on November 14, 2015, following a series of coordinated attacks in and around Paris late on November 13. At least 128 people were killed in the Paris attacks on the evening of November 13, with 180 people injured, 80 of them seriously, police sources told AFP. AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCE (Photo credit should read LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images)

[Credit: LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images.]

10. Nevertheless, it may also be objected that this argument is naive because it imagines that Western politicians will have to sit down with ISIS, that the caliphate will have to be reckoned with diplomatically and politically, its sins forgiven, and that it is inconceivable that such meetings could ever take place.  The actual process of political problem solving cannot be predicted at this point, only that the attempt to bomb ISIS out of existence will fail and provoke more attacks in the West.  The current moment does not bode well for a political, non-violent solution.  Nevertheless, thirty years ago, it was equally inconceivable that America would sit down with the Iranians who held American diplomats hostage and negotiate in good faith with them. Yet, this past year, American and Iranian negotiators worked out a treaty on the Iranian nuclear program.  It is thus true, as Lord Palmerston said, that nations have no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interests.  What he did not understand–and this point is the most important–is that those interests are the permanent life-interest of the human beings who make up the citizenry of all nations, not the raisons d’etat that have typically treated those human beings as expendable cannon fodder and collateral damage.


[Thank you indeed Jeff for this piece. This article first appeared on Jeff’s blog. Lead graphic: V. Briskin]

The writer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Windsor, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. His most recent book is Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2012. More of his work can be found at his website: http://www.jeffnoonan.org

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