Saturday, October 17, 2009

Deconstructing Terrorism

This was Correspondence's first pamphlet, printed in September 2009. Most pamphlets are shorter, more lucid, and obviously less comprehensive than the essays in the magazine.

‘All incidents in India that have occurred recently, which go by a blanket name “terrorist attacks,” have been viewed as self-explanatory. A terrorist and his acts don’t need any explanation. A terrorist is like any other professional who is supposed to do what he is trained for. Why does he do that - is not a question to be asked. It is his own “free will” which clashes with others’ free will.’1 The old ‘criminal as victim’ argument took into account the fact that though free on surface, in the final analysis, a person is determined by her/his circumstances.We however have stopped using it as though overuse has sucked out wisdom and relevance from the cliché.

Before we go into an analysis of “terrorism”, let us briefly look at “violence”, as a way protest. It is no secret that most non-violent protests go unnoticed. In such circumstances, is our outright disgust for those who use violent ways really justified? One must ask oneself why the arguments we deploy against terrorism never go beyond a condemnation of the means to a consideration of the situations giving rise to the discontent that translates into violence. Why are we so content with the manner in which gross overuse (perhaps misuse) of the precept of non-violence (accompanied by the incessant pleas of news anchors and their esteemed guests to not “politicise” the issue) presents all acts of violence, as those of “brainwashed” or “psychopathic” murderers? Are a group of people, as exploited as they usually are (one can look at any account of the atrocities at the hands of the military that people face in J & K, or in the North-east) to be blamed if the only way out points towards violent means? While violence may not solve anything, it does give its perpetrator’s a sense of power and agency which is usually denied to them (studies and interviews show that militants in J & K join militancy because it helps them erase the state of helplessness and indignity they live in). But if violence is still utterly revolting to our morality then we must also question an asymmetry in our response to violence when the perpetrator is the government or military. Why does our response in this case lack the same amount of disgust and readiness to accept violent “remedial” measures, which we show when the violence begins on the other side? We also need to question processes and bodies (like editorial committees) which decide which news of violence reach us and which do not. Perhaps we need to understand and question this system in its entirety—because then we realize that violent means are employed because no others seem reasonable and actually do not work.

It is a remarkable state of affairs in which a system produces a way of life, it produces a bunch of people who desire the way life but cannot get it, and it also produces those who get embittered and try to destroy it. It is an unequal society in which some hold wealth and resources while most don’t. The upper classes hold all the resources. The middle class aspires towards wealth, and as a result allies itself with its superiors. Those who are completely marginalized keep to the fringes of society. When those marginalized react against their situation their attacks are obviously directed against what they perceive to be the centre of power. The expression of the discontent produced by this unequal society is suppressed by the state that, far from being the protector of equality, is the guardian of the unequal society. The point of this digression was to reassert the fact that, because inequality is inherent in the system, reactions to inequality are also not extraneous to it.

However the state represents these phenomena which are inherent to the system, as works of irrational and even evil people. It does this with the help of the media and through institutions like the education system by giving us a skewed picture of reality. Since we are made to believe that these people are in some sense inhuman, it becomes easy for us to accept the violence that the state inflicts on them, to preserve “civilization.” What we see is the violence that terrorism inflicts on civilization, and the idea of trying to understand this violence seems nonsensical because we understand them as unreasonable and irrational in the first place.

Capitalism right from its beginnings which lay in colonialism has depended on a continuous destruction of peoples and identities. At that point based solely in Europe, it survived on a globalizing market for commodities, it was the globalization of distribution. The phase of capitalism which dominated the 20th century and what we call imperialism was nothing but the globalization of finance. Globalization as we know it now refers to the globalization of production. This logic of expansion is by extension also the logic of forcing peoples to comply with the needs of capitalism. All difference, whether in terms of culture or religion and or anything else is flattened so these interests are served. The tool that capitalism puts to use is violence. The story that began with the destruction of the original inhabitants of the Americas and Australia never ended and still continues under names like “war on terror”. Everything ranging from ecosystems to value systems are destroyed either to procure raw material for industry (natural resources or “human resources”) or to facilitate the functioning of the market.

In these circumstances with their lives and value-systems destroyed in the blink of an eye, people unable to act can only react. The lack of self-consciousness and agency implicit in the word “react” helps us understand the rationale behind the allegedly “irrational” acts of violence that these cornered identities indulge in. Unable to understand the logic (which in the last analysis is that of cash-nexus) of the hegemonic system, people hold on to the beliefs which once gave them meaning, and try to assert them in circumstances in which these cannot be understood.

Violence and especially fundamentalist violence brings out the most essential contradiction in capitalism. On the one hand it tries to homogenise, or to use the earlier phrasology, tries to flatten difference. On the other hand, because it survives on competition it also needs difference; it tries to preserve heterogeneity. While every brand of soap might actually produce the same product, there will nonetheless be a million brands. In the same sense capital also allows for what in modern terminology is called identity assertion. Recent occurances in Maharashtra become a case in point, where the lack of employment and educational oppurtunities got articulated (admittedly because of timely intervention from fascist MNS) as the competition between North indian and the Marathi identities. Each group holds onto its beliefs and in the system defined by competition they compete according to the system’s rules. So called civilizational conflicts are resolved within the paradigms of the system that has destroyed these civilizations. ‘Reduced to reactive agencies within the hegemonic game-plans they can only react to each other’s moves…Today’s terrorism is a desperate cry to make others listen to what subjects/terrorists are unable to express and what “others” either refuse to hear or are unable to understand. It is the failure and crisis of self-representation let out in the hegemonic language of coercion and terror. This seems absurd but this is as absurd as the absurdity of the conjuncture.’ 1

A very important factor that this pamphlet does not deal with is the ideological impetus that determines the direction that anti-systemic violence takes. For instance, to say that Maoist violence and the violence of a Kashmir-based Islamist organisation are different would be a huge understatement. These differences need to be explored on the grounds of ideology, vision and other such factors. One can try to understand how the state is able to use the latter to further its hegemonic process and, in fact on many occassions, feeds it, while the anti-hegemonic potential of the Maoist project is far greater. However, the focus of this pamphlet was somewhat different and we will try to deal with these other, though as important questions, in a later pamphlet.


    1. Pratyush Chandra, Terrorism, Mass Hysteria and Hegemony in India, <>, accessed on 01.08.2009.
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