Two events have gripped public attention during this increasingly febrile summer: the failed military mutiny in Russia and the violent protests in France. Although the media has covered both in detail, a feature they share has passed unnoticed.
Looting and arson attacks spread through France after police shot dead a 17-year-old boy called Nahel in the Nanterre suburb of Paris on 27 June. In cities across the country, rioters erected barricades, lit fires and shot fireworks at police, who responded with tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades.
Events took an even more ominous turn when the police began to act as autonomous agents, threatening to revolt unless President Emmanuel Macron resolved the crisis. The police released a statement that was nothing less than a crack in the edifice of state power: reacting to the riots, hard-liners in the police threatened to act against their own state.
The predictable leftist narrative is that the police is racially biased, French égalité is a fiction, young immigrants rebel because they have no future, and the way to solve this crisis is not more police oppression but a radical transformation of French society. Anger has been building for years and Nahel’s killing was the latest detonation that brought it into the open. Violent protests are a reaction to a problem, not the problem itself.
There is some truth to this narrative. When protests broke out in 2005 – after the deaths of two teenagers who were electrocuted while being pursued by police – the matrix of prejudices and exclusions that define the lives of immigrant youth in France was revealed. Yet overhauling society to solve the historic problems of identity, economic exclusion and colonial injustice is a problematic solution. It assumes a progressive outcome when none seems forthcoming.
The protesters’ targeting of local buses, for example, so crucial in transporting workers from the low-income suburbs on the edge of Paris, indicates two things: the riots have wrecked the infrastructure that sustains the livelihoods of ordinary people, and the victims of the destruction are the poor, not the rich.
Public protests and uprisings can play a positive role if they are sustained by an emancipatory vision, such as the 2013-14 Maidan uprising in Ukraine and the ongoing Iranian protests triggered by Kurdish women who have refused to wear the burka. Even the threat of violent action is sometimes necessary for political resolution. Two historic victories canonised by the liberal commentariat – the rise to power of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa and the US civil rights protests led by Martin Luther King Jr – were only possible because they were backed by the prospect of violence by the radical wing of the ANC and more militant black Americans. The negotiations over ending apartheid in South Africa and abolishing racial segregation in the US succeeded because of these threats.
Yet this is not the situation in France today, where violent rebellion is unlikely to end with any kind of progressive settlement for the wretched of the Earth. If law and order are not promptly restored, the final outcome may well be the election of Marine le Pen, the leader of the hard-right National Rally party, as the new president. The anti-immigrant nationalists are in power in Sweden, Norway and Italy – why not in France? Macron has presented himself as a technocrat with no firm political stance. But a position that was once seen as a strength now looks like a fatal weakness.
In Russia, it was difficult to miss the comic nature of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s march on Moscow. It was over within 36 hours after the Kremlin offered him a deal. Prigozhin has avoided a legal trial but has been forced to withdraw his mercenaries from Ukraine and move to Belarus. We don’t know enough to say what really happened: was his march meant as a full-scale attack to occupy Moscow, or was it an empty threat, a gesture not meant to be realised, as Prigozhin himself has suggested? The entire episode may also have been a brute form of business negotiation – an attempt to prevent the passing of a law which stipulated that irregular forces such as the Wagner Group had to fall under the command of the regular armed forces.
Whether it was an attempted coup or a business negotiation-by-mutiny, the event bears witness to the reality that Russia is becoming a failed state – a state that has to treat uncontrolled military gangs as partners in a grubby deal.
The events in France and Russia are part of a trend in Europe towards instability, crisis and disorder. Today, failed states are not only in the Global South, from Somalia to Pakistan to South Africa. If we measure a failed state by the crack-up of state power, as well as the heightened atmosphere of ideological civil war, deadlocked assemblies and the growing insecurity of public spaces, then Russia, France, the UK and even the US should also be understood in similar terms.
On 19 June 2022, Texas Republicans approved measures declaring that President Joe Biden “was not legitimately elected” and rebuked the Republican senator, John Cornyn, for taking part in bipartisan talks about gun control. They also voted on a platform that declared homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice” and called for Texas schoolchildren “to learn about the humanity of the preborn child”.
The first measure – declaring that Biden’s election was invalid – is a clear move towards a “cold” civil war in the US: the delegitimisation of the political order. In France, talk of a coming civil war is de rigueur on the hard right. Speaking on French radio on 30 June, the hard-right politician-polemicist Éric Zemmour, described the riots as the “beginnings of a civil war, an ethnic war”.
[See also: The plain-speaking philosophers]
In this general situation, the left must assume the slogan of law and order as its own. One of the most depressing facts in recent history is that the only case of a violent revolutionary crowd invading the seat of power was on 6 January 2021, when Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol in Washington DC. They viewed the election as illegitimate, a theft organised by corporate elites. Left-liberals reacted with a mix of fascination and horror. Some of my friends cried, saying: “We should be doing something like this!” There was both envy and condemnation as they watched “ordinary” people breaking into the pinnacle of state sovereignty, creating a carnival that momentarily suspended the rules of public life.
By launching a popular attack on the seat of power, has the populist right stolen the left’s resistance to the prevailing system? Is our only choice now between parliamentary elections controlled by corrupted elites or uprisings controlled by the hard right? No wonder Steve Bannon, the ideologist of the populist right, declares himself a “Leninist for the 21st century”: “I’m a Leninist. Lenin… wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” While the populist right was ecstatic about 6 January, the liberal left acted like good old conservatives, asking for the National Guard to crush the rebellion.
At the roots of this weird situation, we find a unique combination of anarchy and savage authoritarianism. We are entering a time of insurrection and mobocracy, as well as the unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of a few. It is what the philosopher Catherine Malabou calls “the combination – at once senseless, monstrous, and unprecedented – of savage verticality and uncontrollable horizontality”. And as the state’s “social function” has been eroded through years of austerity, it can now only express itself “through the use of violence”.
That is why it is crucial not just to dismiss the state as the instrument of domination. In natural disasters, public health catastrophes and periods of social unrest, progressive forces must try and seize state power and use it, not only to calm people’s fears in times of emergency, but also to fight those fears – racist, xenophobic, sexist, anti-progressive – artificially concocted to keep populations in check.
The left shouldn’t be afraid to add to its tasks ensuring the safety of ordinary people: there are clear signs of the growing decay of manners, of youthful gangs terrorising public spaces, from stations to shopping malls. Mentioning this decay is often dismissed as reactionary, with the insistence that we must look at the “deeper social roots” of such phenomena, such as unemployment and institutional racism.
Yet if the left disregards public safety, it is conceding to the enemy an important domain of dissatisfaction that, in a time of anarchy, pushes people to the right. Everyday insecurity hurts the poor much more than the rich who live calmly in their gated communities.
[See also: Do we really need John Rawls?]
This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia