Politics as theatre. ‘Je suis Charlie’ once again

It took a few days but I’ve recovered from the initial fright: I am not the only one doubting the official account of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the equally horrifying dessert from the kosher supermarket. The perpetrators have all been killed. As their motives and who their handlers were, their voices will never be heard. Sure, from Yemen the message arrived that al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks, but that took a while, until well after the French press had ‘established’ this first.
In the media the heads of government were presented as if they headed one of the large demonstrations. However, as shown in the picture below, taken from a more elevated angle, they only played the role, including the determined expressions on the faces.

Politics is a matter of theatre. That was the insight of Nietzsche, Mosca, and other thinkers who at the close of the 19th century asked themselves how those in power, that is, the economically and politically ruling class, which by definition is a minority, yet can remain in power in a mass society. How? By organising a gripping performance that will make people blood rush (I summarise). Today that means, waging war as long as it takes. Everything to keep from view the crisis into which an economy that doesn’t work any more, has thrown the natural environment and society alike.

The theatre directors have little to fear from the media, on the contrary. The Amsterdam newspaper, Het Parool, more recently has distinguished itself by occasionally lifting a tip of the veil: thus Netanyahu had actually agreed to stay away, but when he heard that his rivals in de upcoming Israeli elections (who are even further to the right than he himself) were coming to Paris, he turned up after all (this should be added to my previous blog). With the help of a few of his bodyguards he then succeeded in wrestling himself to the front row. His theatre performance after all is the first in the season’s schedule. Is the world indeed destined to become, not just the terrain in which a War on Terror is being fought along the lines of the Israeli scenario, but also of the country’s election campaigns?

The other newspapers and radio and TV of course, have fallen into line. Islam is coming, no time for any further discussion, just stand shoulder to shoulder, it is war! Our Patriot batteries have now been in Turkey for two years, Dutch military are in Iraq to assist in the fight with ‘ISIL’, etc. etc.

It is more than urgent that we begin to understand the function of modern terrorism in political theatre. Let nobody think that it was solely the Nazis who could think of blaming the Reichstag fire in 1933 on the communists. In Italy in the 1970s a series of sometimes very bloody bomb attacks were committed that were blamed on the Red Brigades and other ultra-left groups. The aim was to push Italian politics to the right and block the ascent of the communist party, PCI, by fostering the association of the ‘left’ with chaos. However, in the trial of V. Vinciguerra, a key fixer of the neo-fascist Ordine Nuovo, it was not only established that several of these attacks had been committed by ON. Vinciguerra also complained that he no longer wanted to have anything to do with the organisation because in the meantime it had been retooled into a covert arm of the state.

To understand what is at stake here, this sort of revelations are indispensable, but not enough. We must also see that once an economic crisis becomes a political crisis, the need to reorder social forces and classes is such that it is almost impossible to achieve this without violence. That holds for 1933 in Germany and for the 1970s in Italy and elsewhere. In 1976 the American magazine, The Village Voice, published the text of the Pike Report to the House of Representatives, convened to investigate the role of the CIA in the 1960s and 70s, a report that the House itself had actually decided to suppress. One of its conclusions was that ‘US foreign policy lacked a long-term direction and that the government often resorted to covert action by the CIA as a short term solution to problems that really required long-term remedies’.

After the disjointed, ad hoc operations of the 1970s, the next decade saw the rise of a new capitalist order under Thatcher and Reagan, in which the power of labour was cut down to size, the world of finance occupied the commanding heights, and a new arms race and a debt crisis took the place of détente and the (vague) plans for a New International Economic Order.

In the wake of major successes such as the collapse of state socialism, this new capitalism has meanwhile run aground completely. Once again the world is in the grip of a severe crisis which will fundamentally test the ability of the political class to hang on to the steering wheel. Much has changed since the 1930s and the 1970s, but once again it will depend on political theatre played to a frightened public, with war against often invented enemies, and assorted fireworks, to ensure that everyone remains in step.

That too is an aspect of the attacks in Paris.

Kees van der Pijl

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