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Anticipated terrorism

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Saturday, Jul 7, 2007

The Buttonwood column in the most recent Economist takes up the topic of terrorism in the wake of the recent foiled plots in the U.K. Despite the “frightening prospect that terror tactics perfected in Baghdad might be brought to the streets of Britain on a regular basis,” financial markets barely reacted, and investors seem “completely unconcerned.” This leads the columnist to virtually speculate that terrorism is accepted as a given aspect of society, that it’s already built into the structure of things and factored in to the decisions made on capital’s behalf.


Perhaps this points to an admirable sang froid on the part of investors. Terrorist attacks kill far fewer people than car accidents, so why should they have a long-term impact? After all, mainland Britain survived 20 years of bombing by the IRA and Spain’s economic growth has not been thrown off course by the activities of ETA, the Basque separatist group. Provided the violence is sporadic, people have to carry on with their daily lives.


The radical place to go from this sort of thinking is to conclude that of course terrorism is presumed as given; capitalist society itself, with its gale-force winds of creative destruction, can be viewed as inherently terroristic. The random disruptions of terrorists plots, successful or not, are possibly analogues for the instability necessary for continued innovation, for the insecurity that finds redress in the stable certainties supplied by consumerism (“We never close”).


This is close to the ideas sociologist Henri Lefebvre advances in Everyday Life in the Modern World, where he conceptualizes the terroristic society in terms of compulsion carried out at the level of the quotidian. He seems to have in mind the pervasive ideology of competitiveness and individualism and materialistic hedonism that makes it a draining struggle to resist the currents pulling people toward passive consumption, convincing people to be satisfied with material comfort as opposed to fulfilling, meaningful activity. Terroristic society, Lefebvre argues, presents limited human potential (being realistic) as a precondition for what one experiences as freedom (accumulation of goods). But in such a society, terror is so omnipresent it becomes invisible:


  In a terrorist society, terror is diffuse, violence is always latent, pressure is exerted from all sides on its members, who can only avoid it and shift its weight by a superhuman effort; each member is a terrorist because he wants to be in power (if only briefly); thus there is no need for a dictator; each member betrays and chastizes himself; terror cannot be located, for it comes from everywhere and from every specific thing; the ‘system’ (in so far as it can be called a ‘system’) has a hold on every member separately and submits every member to the whole, that is, to a strategy, a hidden end, objectives unknown to all but those in power, and that no one questions


What Lefebvre conjures here is a panoptic sort of society, where individuals in perpetual competition police each other and themselves in accordance to a ideology that champions atomization, etc. Everything that bears mainstream ideology (other-directed success on society’s prevailing terms) becomes terroristic—he singles out fashion and the ideal of youthfulness as exemplary of the operations of a terrorist society.


Obviously this is not the kind of terrorism that involves randomly blowing up buildings in the name of a religious creed. The question is whether such bomb-exploding events disrupt the fabric of the “terroristic society”—the panoptic prison where we presumably live lives of quiet desperation—or are an integral, structural part of it. Do they succeed in opening a rift in the seamless operation of the “system” or are they merely part of that system, flying a false flag?


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