Terrorism and class struggle

by Rob Horning

5 July 2007


Is Islamic terrorism an expression of class struggle? Or, in other words, is it a consequence of the deprivation that comes from disparities of income and the injustice that derives from systematic exploitation? Is it merely a religious expression of proletarian discontent? In his Capital column in today’s WSJ, David Wessel takes a look at the research Princeton economist Alan Krueger has done on the closely related question of terrorism’s relationship to poverty levels.

“As a group, terrorists are better educated and from wealthier families than the typical person in the same age group in the societies from which they originate,” Mr. Krueger said at the London School of Economics last year in a lecture soon to be published as a book, “What Makes a Terrorist?”
“There is no evidence of a general tendency for impoverished or uneducated people to be more likely to support terrorism or join terrorist organizations than their higher-income, better-educated countrymen,” he said. The Sept. 11 attackers were relatively well-off men from a rich country, Saudi Arabia….
“The evidence is nearly unanimous in rejecting either material deprivation or inadequate education as an important cause of support for terrorism or of participation in terrorist activities,” Mr. Krueger asserts. The 9/11 Commission stated flatly: Terrorism is not caused by poverty.
So what is the cause? Suppression of civil liberties and political rights, Mr. Krueger hypothesizes. “When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed,” he says, “malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics.”

This line of inquiry reminded me of some of the issues at stake in Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. (I expended so much mental energy trying to extract coherent ideas from that dense thicket of opaque abstraction that I’ll grasp at any occasion to make reference to it now.) Looking at the Marxist tenet that the working class has a unique interest in socialism, they argue that politics may not necessarily spring from economic interests—that the politics and the ideology supporting them may develop independently, that they are contingent and constructed ad hoc by discursive practices at any given moment. (In some ways this is an elaborate way of making Frank Luntz’s or George Lakoff’s point about framing. Carefully crafted language can shape the debate surrounding issues in ways that influence people regardless of what their economic interests dictates they should believe.) Hence demagogues or interloping intellectuals can attempt to contrive a unified movement around basically any idea that generates a reaction, that seems to address sources of discontent, which themselves may be recharacterized in various ways by a skilled rhetorician.

If politics, when separated via language and identity-construction issues from economic grievances, indicates the possibility of the “radical democracy” Mouffe and Laclau theorize, then terrorism detached from economic misery may not be an symptom of the lack of democratic values, as Krueger and Wessel suggest in the article, but may instead be a twisted expression of them, a misguided belief that the “people’s will” is being implemented directly rather than through institutional change, whether it be revolutionary or incremental. The idea that politics is merely a matter of discourse, of momentary tactics of garnering attention and magnetizing eyeballs, opens it to the conceivable possibility that it can be shifted dramatically not by building up awareness of class struggle, formalizing class unity, intensifying the contradictions inherent in the relations of production and so on—working with a theorized praxis backed by a historical analysis—but instead through sudden irrational interventions, terrorist acts designed to assign a different valence to governing notions in circulation. Such a theory of “radical democracy” may make desperate acts seem credible and efficacious. If you rule out subjects in history and plausibel ends such subject may have, then terrorism—a means with no achievable end—seems a reasonable political practice.

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