Spotlighting The Voyeurs

“ Knowing the families, knowing some of the people who have been killed, do you think that we back here in the West should be sharing those images of mutilated toddlers, of kids quite literally with their heads having been blown off, because while on the one side people argue, actually, yes, it has raised consciousness, it has told the world exactly what this kind of war is, but on the other hand, it’s also, you know, these are some young people’s most treasured items or possessions belongings ever, and they’re being disseminated around the world, sometimes, one would have thought, well, in quite a voyeuristic way?”

-Philip Boucher-Hayes, Liveline, RTE Radio 1, Tuesday 22nd July.

Philip Boucher-Hayes’s question about “voyeurism” echoed an opinion piece in the Guardian the previous day. Columnist Suzanne Moore had diagnosed the sharing of bloody images on Gaza in terms of “semi-aroused outrage”. For her, “such images of war, of obscenity, of the “reality” of what sophisticated weapons do are everywhere. There is no more privacy”. Moreover, “all notions about respect for the dead have been ripped apart by the advent of social media”.

This kind of preoccupation shifts the focus of responsibility away from the perpetrators of death and mayhem, and onto the individuals who might view and distribute images that document it. The main problem for a Western public, then, is no longer its government’s tacit or explicit support for Israel’s bombing campaigns, invasions, annexation and occupations, but the way certain people are pruriently or neurotically disrespecting Palestinians’ right to be murdered in private.

It’s very easy to criticise the use of social media in general, to speak of its users as if a seething crowd given over to the latest sensational trend and incapable of consequential thought; that is why so many people do it. In reality, things are a lot more complex. The sharing and viewing of images as part of a wider set of cognitive and communicative activities; reading, writing, listening, thinking, speaking.

No-one beholds images of mutilated or dead children in isolation and in a void. I don’t mean to say that beholding such images is beneficial or indeed harmful – just that it always occurs in a particular context depending on one’s personal experiences and concerns, and that such considerations are cast aside when things are presented as a matter of the savage online crowd.

Isn’t a bit strange that you should find yourself weighing up your own sense of propriety and respect for Palestinian privacy when Palestinians are being massacred, their hospitals bombed and their homes are being blown to bits by a state your government considers an ally?


When I heard Boucher-Hayes’s question I thought about this image above. It’s from the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps people at the time seized on the image and thought it was showing grave disrespect for the victims of war. Maybe they thought it was a violation of the family’s privacy. Maybe they thought that the government ministry that created the image was borne by some kind of sexual neurosis or some kind of moral superiority complex. Maybe it was seeking to appeal to the voyeuristic tendencies of the international public.

Because those are the really important questions, right? What really matters isn’t about a just, peaceful and democratic future threatened by the racism of states that bomb civilian populations, including hospitals. It isn’t about seeking accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It isn’t about subjecting such states to social, political and economic isolation. It isn’t about any kind of active citizenship or international solidarity. It isn’t about seeing other people’s children as if they were your children, your family. It’s about onlookers delving into their unconscious, turning the spotlight on themselves, and making themselves respectable again. How, after all, can we expect public opinion to count for anything when it can’t keep its neuroses in check?

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Regime Humour: The Way of The Lord

What is the point of Irish Times parliamentary sketch writer Miriam Lord? My Twitter timeline regularly coughs up gobbets of approval for her articles, from people who appear to hanker after some kind of critique of the political arena, but not one that proves too acidic, or too corrosive of the goings-on in the Dáil. The appeal of her kind of humour does of course depend on one’s personal taste and personally I find it vile. At best, the effect of her jokes puts me in mind of the worst moment in a stand-up routine, when the comedian says or does something that receives polite applause from the audience for having contrived something that is clever, rather than funny, deserving of the audience’s admiration, but never its laughter.

At worst, and she is consistent, the effect of her sketches is to trivialise and ridicule any hint of the political conflict that is an essential element of democratic exchange. Not that I think that the Dáil is in any way an exemplary democratic assembly- on the contrary.

For the parliamentary sketch writer, the basic assumptions are largely the same as the political correspondent. But whereas the political correspondent worries about how the deeds of different political actors might play out in the polls, the sketch writer is concerned with the human strivings behind the grind of political machinery: the tics, the idiosyncratic expressions, the self-importance and the self-delusion. With this close-up on the personal side of things, with the references to politicians by their first names (“Leo”, “Joan”, “Paschal”, “Mary Lou”), and even by nicknames (“Inda”), the constituents, and the idea that public representatives are there to speak on behalf of their constituents, fade away altogether. Politics is severed from its origins as a civil passion, and reduced to a family affair. There may be rows and disagreements and occasionally shocking behaviour, and one may have to please think of the children from time to time, but only as you might get with any family. For the intended reader, politics is something you look in upon and tut about, affectionately here, exasperated there, but not much more than a soap opera. Just as in Eastenders the truth always gets out eventually, in the Dáil your hopes of these characters ever getting their act together are forever dashed.

Lord’s glib confections are a kind of fire blanket for potentially dangerous political passions, a warning that politics taken seriously turns you into a stock character, a self-important figure of fun whose political interests are usually a cover for pecuniary or egotistical interests instead. But hers is far from a pox-on-all-your-houses approach. Her affection and loyalty rests with the parties of the political establishment -witness her “Go for it Joan!“- article in sentimental celebration of Joan Burton’s recent Labour leadership victory, and she conserves her more bilious contortions for Sinn Féin. As is regularly the case in Ireland’s media, Sinn Féin, in Lord’s writing, functions as a totem for the unschooled, uncouth and untrustworthy plebs: the kind of people who cannot speak Irish properly, the kind of people who speak in accents that are inherently threatening, the kind of people who may one day cross a line and put all of this at risk.

Yesterday Lord’s report concerned the remarks by the Fianna Fáil Senator Ned O’Sullivan concerning seagulls. She rebaptised O’Sullivan as “O’Seagullivan”, the kind of thing Hale and Pace might have cut for lacking inspiration. O’Sullivan’s intervention was right up her street.

As usual, Lord conserved the real scorn for Sinn Féin, and its moment of silence for the victims in Gaza, wondering if her beloved “Joan” -who had been in thrall to Israeli propaganda when answering questions on Israel’s crimes and their Palestinian victims- ought to have granted a debate on the crisis in Gaza, which in Lord’s eyes would have prevented Sinn Féin from staging what she described as an “effective political stunt”, that is, a show of international solidarity with a besieged people subjected to the terror of an overwhelming bombing campaign and the horror of children perishing in massacres. Her pooh-poohing of such ‘stunts’ – which took place in national parliaments across the world – was replicated today with sharpened outrage, from political correspondent Stephen Collins. It is worth pointing out that the establishment culture discomfited by this kind of act holds that the height of political maturity is to go and get your head blown off in the trenches of an imperial war in the hope that the imperialist power will look kindly on your sacrifice.

The fact Sinn Féin senator Kathryn Reilly had earlier raised the matter of Gaza, specifically Israel’s murder of four children on the beach, in the Seanad prior to O’Sullivan’s frivolous complaints about seagulls “dispossessing” children in Dublin did not figure as important in Lord’s mind. Can’t be having dead bodies turning up in a colour piece. Not if it makes Joan look bad. Maybe it’s worthwhile thinking of Lord and O’Sullivan as elements of the same phenomenon, part of the same repertoire of cultural practice: whimsical meandering with the purpose of trivialising and de-politicising; the deployment of humour in support of a regime that relies on moments of familiarity and intimacy to maintain credibility; an irreverence intended to reconcile, not undo.

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Translation: Routine apologies for terrorism



This is a translation of an article by Santiago Alba Rico, originally published in, 17th July. It concerns the way in which mass media are complicit in feeding the Israeli war machine and the destruction of Palestine. It may be of particular interest to an Irish readership given that the ‘syntactical manipulations’ and the ‘bar-room brawl’ framework of understanding have both been used by the Irish government on the floor of the Dáil in recent days, both by the new Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, and by the new Tánaiste Joan Burton. Thus the writer’s warning concerning mainstream media applies equally to the Irish government: that it is following Israel down a path strewn with the corpses of justice, law, democracy, and its own credibility.

Routine apologies for terrorism

Palestine always generates a double and contradictory unanimity: the unanimity of international solidarity, which is appalled by Israel’s crimes, and the unanimity of mainstream media, which justifies and even applauds them. Major media outlets and agencies that may differ on other matters (Le Monde, El País, The New York Times, AFP, Reuters) and even human rights organisations that can be very severe in other cases (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International) accept and transmit as true beyond doubt the two basic myths of Israeli propaganda.

The first is that the bombing raids on Gaza are a “response” to a Palestinian act of aggression. Here, syntactical manipulation plays an essential role: “Israel bombs Gaza following rocket fire on Tel Aviv and Haifa”, or “Hamas launches three rockets into Israel and Israeli air forces hit Gaza”. This syntactical twisting is furthermore applied to mitigate Israel’s responsibility for the deaths of civilian victims. Israel never directly “kills”; rather it appears mysteriously linked to the appearance of Palestinian corpses, who, as the grammatical subject of the sentences, seem somehow guilty for their own deaths: “Ten children die following an Israeli bombardment.” Following! As if the children had perfidiously chosen that moment to die of pneumonia or a playtime accident!

In a bar-room brawl it’s difficult to know who started it. But not in a colonial relation: it is always the occupying power, which controls the life of the natives either directly or indirectly, who started it. The ethical and professional imperative of responsible media outlets who are interested in helping to resolve such a long and painful ‘conflict’ ought to be to remind time and again of the original aggression of the occupation. But at the same time they ought to faithfully reproduce the timelines -the first rockets from Gaza were launched in response to a brutal Army operation conceived to inflict collective punishment on the Palestinians after the murder as yet unclarified of three Israeli colonists [in Spanish, 'colono'; the usual term in English is 'settler']- and help to denounce the policy of Israel, which bombs when it wants and for whatever reason it wants, in a routine act of existential self-affirmation, independently of the resistance of its victims. Instead of this, mainstream outlets broadcast the ‘bar-room brawl’ version when it comes to Israel, in which the historical background is lost and the timelines of violence inverted. The idea that Israel “is defending itself” entails two false tacit assumptions: that Israel is “defensible” as a project, and that it is subjected to the implacable siege of an irrational enemy.

In this ‘bar-room brawl’ it is very important to feed a second illusion: that of balance or equality of forces. There is an ‘escalation’, an ‘exchange’, a ‘war’ between two equivalent armies. To achieve this there is a need, among other things, to turn Qassam rockets into missiles, or, at any rate, exaggerate their destructive potential or focus on the number of launches (600!) as if there were some kind of possible proportion between 600 flies and 600 cans of insecticide (it is as insects that they treat the Palestinians) applied in to a hive. It is scandalous, for example, that Le Monde should publish an article headed “What is Hamas’s military capacity?”, thus turning Hamas into the enemy and moreover into a dangerous enemy, whilst saying nothing about the weapons of the fourth most powerful army in the world. This ‘balance’ moreover requires stripping of importance, if not censoring, the almost 200 Palestinian victims, many of them children and women, and calling attention, by contrast to the Israeli victims: nine injured and 52 panic attacks. The search for ‘balance’ means accepting that a wounded Israeli is worth more than 20 dead Palestinians. If the Palestinians are insects, this can even appear an excessive concession.

One of the pensées of philospher Blaise Pascal is a rhetorical question: why kill me if you are the stronger? One might think that Pascal thinks murder unnecessary wherever one holds sufficient power. But one can also interpret it as if Pascal were suggesting a tautological response: why kill me if you are the stronger? And Israel responds: “It is precisely because of this, because I am the stronger. Because I can kill you, because I have the means to do it, because killing you confirms my existence”.

Worse is when, besides being the strongest, one also wants to be the most moral [el mas bueno]. If one has the means to kill, one kills. If one has the means to kill and one wants to be the most moral, one creates propaganda. A long history of blame for the West and pressure from Israel has configured a gargantuan propaganda apparatus routinely dedicated to turn the lamb into the killer and the killer into the lamb. Our major media outlets still fall for it. Ordinary people do not. Almost no-one believes any more in the lamb-like goodness of a State that flagrantly disregards international laws, has occupied lands that do not belong to it for more than 60 years, turns Gaza into a ghetto with no exit and bombs its hospitals and mosques from the air. It may be the strongest but it is not, by any means, the most moral. The propaganda no longer works. Israel, just like Bashar Al-Assad (his own people’s Netanyahu) relies only on naked force and, the more it conclusively loses the respect of those who cannot be fooled, the more it will use it and in more destructive ways. The mass media should not follow it down that path, in whose ditches there already lie the corpses of justice, law, democracy, and that of its own credibility.


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Forcing Freedom: A Response to @HC4N

The Hardcore for Nerds blog has a response to my post from yesterday about Ireland’s abortion laws and the claim the State lays to democratic legitimacy. This is in light of the State’s failure to respond adequately to concerns raised by the UN Human Rights Committee, and, in particular, the claim by Department of Health Principal Mary Jackson that Irish abortion law was compatible with the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

HC4N suggests that the position Ireland initially articulated –and subsequently withdrew- wasn’t so much an effort to justify Ireland’s abortion legislation –and any violations of Article 7 that might stem from it- as an attempt at explaining the difficulty of introducing legislation that might adequately address the concerns expressed by the Committee, given the commitment to Article 25 and the political constraints such a commitment imposes.

I think this is a fair enough assessment. At the same time I don’t think it alters the course of my argument much. Assuming HC4N is right, Ireland’s position is still that there are particular democratic processes that have to be respected and contended with before the concerns about violating Articles 6 and 7 can be addressed, and that position still rests on the common sense assumptions I mentioned in the previous post.

At this point, HC4N refers to the ‘counter-majoritarian’ quality of human rights law, the way in which ‘formally defined ‘rights’ trump any attempt to counter them by passing legislation’, and notes how human rights law expresses a contradiction of liberalism: that one must be ‘forced to be free’.

Perhaps I’m being a bit sensitive here, but I think HC4N detects a naïve faith in human rights law on my part, and, in particular, faith in the idea that legal documents take on solid form when they express principles that I (or whoever) find congenial. That isn’t really what I was getting at.

HC4N discerns two ‘counter-majoritarian movements’ – human rights and Catholic doctrine, and proposes that for an Irish government to legislate for abortion in keeping with other inalienable rights of the person enumerated by international law, the government would ‘need to face down a very vocal minority, both within parliament (and its own parties) and outside, as well as a broad reluctance to pursue ‘liberal’ goals’.

Moreover, ‘to do so.. even with the supposed authoritative force of international law, over another, deeply culturally embedded, is to pursue a stalemate of ‘rights’ that only highlights their limitations in the face of politics.’

But for my part, I didn’t mean to suggest that the present Irish government ought to take the initiative to do anything with the backing of international law. I do not see it inclined to do so, to say the least. Nor did I mean to suggest that political action on the matter of abortion and other forms of social oppression ought to mean appealing to one moral superego –a sternly disappointed human rights lawyer, say- over another –a sternly forbidding bishop, for instance. My concern is rather: what political and legal instruments can people use to undo social and political oppression? (Here I think it is worth noting that the two ‘counter-majoritarian’ movements HC4N mentions have quite a lot in common. For one, they articulate certain values that have widespread -when not universal- democratic appeal, only for these values to be placed in the service of particular projects – usually some modern liberal capitalist regime, or modern ‘illiberal-liberal’ capitalism, in the case of the Catholic Church.)

In the particular case of human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wasn’t the product of a narrow counter-majoritarian movement; congealed in it are values emerging from long rebellions and struggles against capitalism. Demanding that these rights be vindicated by one’s government; highlighting the failure of the political regime under which you live to adhere to them; exposing the rift between formal democratic appearances and tyrannical realities: these are not at all things to be left to human rights authorities, but rather, things can serve as the grounds for popular democratic political struggle. Seen in these terms, it isn’t a matter of calling upon some exterior body to force one’s freedom, but of breaking with the resigned expectation that one’s government, in spite of all the evidence of its anti-democratic inclinations, should provide political leadership simply because it is the government.


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Will of the People: A Likely Story

If Garth Brooks were chairing Ireland’s 4th Periodic Review under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, perhaps tomorrow’s papers would be filled with headlines about how the country’s international reputation is now in shreds.

There are a number of items in which grave shortcomings have been identified, but I am going to focus on just one in this post.

A report by Kitty Holland in today’s Irish Times outlines how the Ireland rapporteur on the UN Human Rights Committee said that Ireland continues to criminalise abortion ‘even in circumstances in which we deem (member) states to be under an obligation to allow safe and legal abortion.’

If that weren’t bad enough, the initial justification for Ireland’s current legislation, which subjects pregnant women at risk of suicide to examination by three clinicians, bordered on the farcical.

Mary Jackson, principal officer at the Department of Health, responding to Ireland rapporteur Yuval Shany’s questioning about how Ireland’s current regime could be reconciled with Articles 6 and 7 of the ICCPR, which guarantee the right to life and prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, said that ‘Ireland’s approach to legislating for abortion complied with Article 25 of the Covenant which guaranteed all citizens’ right to vote and self-determination.’

Article 25 reads as follows:

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:
(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;

(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.

Ireland’s position, then, was that torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment could be administered provided that it arose from the free expression of the will of electors.

Or perhaps it could not be torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, given that voters had freely chosen to administer it.

Whatever. Mary Jackson’s reasoning was rejected in the strongest terms by the Committee, and subsequently withdrawn. Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Justice and Equality, recognised that ‘the will of the majority cannot derogate from the State’s human rights obligations‘. But it’s worth thinking about how a top civil servant could end up expressing such a view.

If we cast our minds back to the public debate concerning the introduction of changes to Ireland’s abortion legislation last year, there was little or no discussion concerning whether the electorate ought to have a collective right to subject anyone to torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.The guiding assumption in media coverage was that ‘the people’ had the ultimate say over what ought to be done with pregnant women.

This stance was succinctly -and uncritically- outlined in a column by Fergus Finlay, CEO of Barnardos, in the Irish Examiner:

We live in a country where the people have decided, very clearly and very explicitly, that we fundamentally value the lives of unborn babies. The people have also decided, equally clearly and explicitly, that we do not want under any circumstances to prevent any woman who wishes to terminate her pregnancy abroad from doing so. And the people have decided, again clearly and explicitly, that no woman whose life is in danger — for whatever reason — should be denied a termination here at home. That’s a clear and unequivocal position. And it’s the position of the Irish people, as expressed time and again in the ballot box.

As I wrote at the time, this means that the ‘people of Ireland’ can call on the institutions of the State to enforce a prohibition on abortion as it sees fit, and this is regardless of the views of the woman who is pregnant. It is only if the woman is at risk of death that an abortion might be allowed, but this has nothing to do with what the woman thinks: it is a matter for an expert or group of experts with sufficient legal and medical qualifications, appointed by the State, to adjudicate.

Hence the particular prohibition on abortion needs to be seen in terms of the common sense understanding of democratic politics in Ireland. Whatever emanates from decision-making processes with a formal democratic appearance are by and large regarded as democratic in themselves, regardless of whether they undermine such things as human rights enshrined in international law.

This understanding also applies to matters such as the introduction of public policy and legislation that create impoverishment and undermine access to decent standards of health care, education and other public services for large sectors of the population. Under the current economic regime, any such consideration is treated as subordinate to the imperatives of economic growth and the enforced requirement to pay off socialised bank debts. Since this is a course of action taken by a government elected at a general election, it is portrayed as democratic, even though the beneficiaries are not the general population, but those who profit from privatisation and a competitive (read impoverished) labour force.

The reasoning of the principal officer at the Department of Health shows sharp disregard for fundamental human rights. That ought to give grave cause for concern. It is a sign that democracy does not loom large in the delivery of health services in Ireland, though a visit to a hospital or a GP surgery will also make this fairly clear.

However, the reasoning is not at all out of joint with Ireland’s dominant political culture. Attending to the demands of ‘the markets’, the general will of money, first and foremost, is the self-evident necessity, and the basic logic to political life according to conventional wisdom is that only once these things are attended to can the general public have access to the services it requires. Among the general public, those with property and money come first.

The ‘will of the people’, by these lights, is really the compliment the vice of the rich pays to virtue, and in the particular case of abortion, the ‘will of the Irish people’, beyond the fact that it does not care what any particular citizen -or non-citizen, as Savita Halappanavar and other horrifying examples attest- subjected to its will might think, has it that those of affluent means can usually find a way around legislation that oppresses the majority, and especially those in the most precarious of situations, at no great cost.

It’s good to see the higher reaches of Ireland’s State bureaucracy exposed for their anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian tendencies in full view of the world. It’s good that international institutions should shine a light onto the tawdry reality behind the projected image of progressive generosity.

But then the question is: why do so many people in Ireland put up with this shit? Why is such arrogant mediocrity so widely tolerated? International opprobrium and sanction can play a role in building a more equal and democratic society, but only when the driving force for change comes from below, confronting the fact that Ireland’s formal democratic appearances -in the absence of any actual democratic content- in fact serve primarily kleptocratic purposes. Given this scenario, a demand for the vindication of basic rights -of the kind already enumerated in international human rights legislation- might hold revolutionary potential.

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Michel Foucault: a new political imagination

This is a translation of an essay by Amador Fernández-Savater, originally published on the 24th June 2014, on the Interferencias blog on, the day before the thirtieth anniversary of Michel Foucault’s death.

Michel Foucault: a new political imagination


Michel Foucault

There is a scene that can help us begin this reflection on the relevance of the political thought of Michel Foucault, on the thirtieth anniversary of his death.

At the end of 1977, socialists and communists are arguing over the elaboration of a ‘common programme’ to be presented jointly in the French general elections of March 1978.

The moment has come, some are thinking, to translate the May ’68 revolt into an electoral and institutional victory, through the required ‘left unity’. It is the time for ‘politics in capital letters’ and for serious things, now that so much self-management, direct democracy and self-organisation have proven patchy as a means of transforming reality.

At the same time, two publications are organising a meeting among people committed to intervention in specific spheres of society such as education, health care, urban planning, the environment, and labour.

Michel Foucault, perhaps the brightest star in the intellectual firmament of the time, attends the meeting and signs up for the ‘neighbourhood medicine’ workshop. Le Nouvel Observateur (no. 670) records his impressions at the end of the sessions in a short interview titled “A cultural mobilisation”. Among other things, Foucault says:

“I write and work for people like those who are there in that workshop, new people who are posing new questions. The questions that ought to interest intellectuals are the questions of nurses or the questions of prison guards. They are infinitely more important than the curses that the professionals of Parisian intellectual life cast upon each other.”

“During the two days of intense and profoundly political debates and discussions, given that it consisted of questioning relations of power, of knowledge, of money, none of the thirty participants in the ‘neighbourhood medicine’ group used the words ‘March 1978′ or ‘elections’. This is important and significant. Innovation no longer occurs through parties, syndicates, bureaucracies, politicians. It consists of an individual, moral concern. We no longer ask political theory what we should do, tutors are no longer necessary. The change is ideological, and profound.”

“A major movement has emerged during the last 15 years, for which anti-psychiatry is the model and May ‘68 a moment. Among the strata that once guaranteed the happiness of society, for example doctors, there are now entire populations that are becoming unstable, that are on the move, on a quest, beyond the customary vocabulary and structures. It is..I would not dare say a cultural revolution, but undoubtedly a cultural mobilisation. It cannot be recuperated politically: at no moment do they feel that the problem for them would change if there was a change of government. And I am glad of that.”


It is a highly provocative gesture. For the greatest of philosophers, a simple workshop is more relevant than the argument over the “common programme” of socialists and communists, it is this workshop that connects directly with May ‘68 and not the potential electoral victory of the left front. Political invention comes from a small group of people who appear indifferent to the eventual change in government. It is as though ‘rising to the occasion’ consisted of positioning oneself way below, as if ‘politics in capital letters’ were in reality written in lower case.

Provocative, but not whimsical. Foucault’s gesture is perfectly consistent with his theoretical developments at the time. What did Foucault understand then by power (if it were not a matter of political power)? How did he think about resistances (outside the party paradigm)? What to him was an intellectual contribution to emancipatory practices (if it did not have to do with signing manifestoes or giving one’s opinion on the conjuncture)?

Power, knowledge and resistances are three fundamental problems throughout the career of this French philosopher. I am not a specialist in his work, nor would I dare try and pull together in a few lines the full complexity of his thinking on these problems, but I would like to note down a few things in order to try and understand better where the value of this ‘cultural mobilisation’ lay and in what sense I think we still need it today.


First of all, the question of power

“In both political thought and analysis, the king has yet to be guillotined’, writes Foucault in 1976. What does this mean? Foucault is alluding here to the figure of a majestic power, concentrated in a particular place, always at a remove and on high, radiating its will down vertically upon its subjects/victims.

The king may be replaced by the State, the rule of law or class domination, but the way of understanding power is reproduced: a kind of “control room” situated at the apex of society. Foucault’s entire work seeks to break with this conceptual/mental scheme.

Instead of a power that is concentrated in or derives from major figures (State, law, class), Foucault proposes that we think of it as a ‘social field of forces’. Power does not descend from a sovereign point, but rather it comes from all sides: a thousand relations of force pass through and configure our way (practice) of understanding education, health, the city, sexuality, and labour.

These relations of force are not merely codified in legal terms (what one can and cannot do according to the law), but rather consist of an infinite plurality of extra-legal procedures that operate by adjusting bodies and behaviours to norms (that differ from a law). Let us think for example of a prison: its explicit law says that it is a space for the reintroduction of the prisoner into society, but a thousand everyday procedures produce something rather different: a branding, a stigmatisation of the criminal as criminal, an exclusion. The exclusively legal analysis of power is blind to these determining forces.

In this social field of forces there are, no doubt, ‘points of special densification’: the State, the law, societal hegemonies…These are the major nodes of the network of power. But Foucault proposes that we think of them (by radically inverting the normal perspective) of ‘terminal forms’. That is, not so much causes as effects of the interplay of relations of force. Not so much primary and generating instances, but rather secondary and derivative. Profiles, contours, tips of an iceberg. State apparatuses, laws and societal hegemonies are the visible figures that stand out from the dark backdrop of everyday battle at permanent boiling point.

Terminal, but not passive, forms. The visible figures of power are the result of the social field of forces and are sustained by it, but at the same time, they fix it (though never definitively). That is, they set in chain different concrete and local relations of force thereby producing all-embracing effects and overall strategies. A very clear quote from Foucault in this regard, in argument with the dominant marxism of the 70s: “It seems to me that it is not the bourgeois class (or whichever of its elements) that imposes the entirety of the relations of power. Let us say that this class takes advantage of them, it utilises them, it modifies them, it tries to intensify some and attenuate others. There is not, then, a single focal point from which all of them emanate, but rather an interlinking of power relations which, on the whole, make possible the domination of one social class over another, of one group over another’.

José Mujica and Jordi Évole

José Mujica and Jordi Évole

In Jordi Évole’s famous interview with Pepe Mujica, the Catalan presenter asked the Uruguayan president if he had fulfilled his electoral programme: “Not at all”, Mujica responded in laughter, “do you think that the president is a king who does what he wants?” And he gave him a little ‘Foucauldian lesson” by explaining to him how what political power can and cannot do is conditioned by the social field of forces (the legal framework that neoliberalism erects to meet its ends, the very desires and expectations of subjects in society, etc.).

Power is not an object to be found in a privileged place that can be occupied or laid siege: it is here that the hegemonic revolutionary paradigm of the 20th century goes into crisis. Without relation to the social field of forces, this place is empty and this power is impotent. This all needs to be rethought, not to discard the revolutionary demand, but rather to reactivate it from a new perspective.


Second, the question of resistances

“Wherever there is power, there are resistances” is a famous Foucauldian maxim. The idea that power is not concentrated in a single point (the leaders, the political caste, etc.) but is rather generated, and springs from every corner of society, is not a pessimist thesis on the omnipotence of domination. On the contrary: to define power as a relation of forces means understanding it as the relation between one action and another action. One action of command and another action that responds to it. Force is not exercised upon a passive object, but rather upon another force that is always capable of action and a response that is unpredictable.

In an interview in 1977, Foucault names all these resistances as “the plebs”. First of all, the plebs is a concrete, local and situated response to a procedure of power that is equally concrete, local and situated. There in fact lies its potency: it responds to power wherever it is exercised and not somewhere else. “The plebs is less the exterior of the relations of power than its underside, its limit, its counterpoint; it is what responds to any advance of power with a movement to rid itself of it”.

Secondly, the plebs is not a sociological reality (those who share a social condition or interests), but rather a breakdown in given identities. It is not the people, nor the poor, nor the excluded: “there is something plebeian in bodies, in souls, in individuals, in the proletariat, also in the bourgeoisie, but expanding out in various forms, energies and singularities”. There is no binary division between the bloc of power and the bloc of resistances: power and resistance pass through everything (and everyone).

Finally, the plebs is not a substance, but an action. “The plebs does not exist but there is a plebs”. Like when we say “friendship does not exist, but there are shows of friendship”. It is something that happens or simply does not exist. It is a fact, a manifestation, an event.

Can the plebs, such a mobile, heterogeneous and complex reality, be organised? The answer is yes. Just as power sets in chain and interlinks different concrete and local relations of force to produce all-embracing strategies, resistances can be ‘strategically codified’ into producing general effects: revolutions.

How? It entails avoiding at least two shortcomings when thinking about organisation: 1) simplification (only that which is identical can be organised) and 2) separation (to be organised one must ‘move out’ of the concrete places where resistances unfold). The ‘political subjects’ that we have known throughout the 20th century (the political party and the armed group) follow this model: thinking of themselves as the head and the articulation of the resistances, building themselves in reality as spaces that are homogeneous, closed and isolated from the worlds where resistances live.

So? It would entail reimagining organisation in terms of ‘circulation’ between the different points of resistance. To assume the dispersed and specifically located character of resistances not as an obstacle to be gotten rid of, but rather as a potency. To think not in terms of how to pull together the resistances under centralised forms without any organic relation to their worlds, but rather how to build ‘transversal links from knowledge to knowledge, from one point of politicisation to another, the points of crossing and exchange’.

The plebs becomes organised through communicating and expanding its practices of resistance. If Foucault enjoyed those 1978 workshops so much, it was no doubt because they opened up a space where resistances could meet up and share without setting aside their differences and their own worlds.


And finally, the question of knowledge

“Each time I tried to carry out a theoretical work, I did it starting from elements of my own experience, always in relation to processes that I saw unfolding upon me”, Foucault explains. To elucidate lived experience, Foucault could go very far in time and space (remote centuries, obscure figures, lost texts) but his entire erudition is placed in the service of thinking the “problems, anguishes, wounds and preoccupations” of the present.

It is the difference between thinking streetwise and thinking literally. In thinking literally, books send you off to other books. In thinking streetwise, books resound with the problems of individual and collective life.

One emerges stronger, more intelligent, more joyous after reading Foucault and yet he only complicates everything further. How is this possible? My intuition tells me this: joy in thinking has nothing to do with how comfortable the conclusions you reach are, but rather with the fact that we discover we are capable of reaching a place by ourselves. It is an experience that leaves a lasting imprint: if we have proven capable of thinking something (whatever it is) for ourselves, we can do so again.

It is the opposite of what Foucault called ‘the prophetic stance’, often associating it with marxism: a mobilising thought that in reality achieves the demobilisation of thought. How? 1. By confusing historical necessity and the goals to be reached, as if these were already written in the very course of the real (‘the end of capitalism is nigh’, etc.); 2) by covering up ‘the dark and solitary aspect of struggles’: the difficulties, contradictions and chiaroscuros of reality, the phases of silence and invisibility in which a struggle does not take a leading role in media or receive the spotlight of attention; and 3) all the time seeking out our adherence to certain theses, but without demanding of us any kind of personal labour.

Instead of the prophetic stance of superiority, which is like the voiceover that describes what is happening without us ever knowing where it comes from, Foucault understands theory as a ‘toolbox’. Not as a theoretical system that is forever valid, but rather an instrument forged to decipher the logic pertaining to a concrete relation of forces. Not as a closed and perfected diagnosis, but as lenses that one must learn to focus for oneself. An unfinished thinking that requires (in both senses) the activation of the other. “I would like to produce truth effects such that they can be used in a battle that is possible, conducted by whoever might desire it, in forms yet to be invented and organisations yet to be defined, I leave that freedom at the end of my speaking to whoever wants to do something with it”.

The intellectual (whoever) that understands theory as a toolbox is not a guru, an oracle or a guide, but rather what Foucault called a ‘specific intellectual’. Not the spokesperson for universal values, but for concrete situations. Not one who traces lines to be followed, but who brings tools that can be used freely. Not the voiceover that knows everything, but the prolonging of the potency of a struggle.


Thinking in plural

In those 1978 workshops discussions unfolded that were ‘profoundly pollitical’ but nonetheless Foucault preferred to speak of ‘a cultural mobilisation’. Why? I think that what Foucault perceived there was an alteration in the ways people were seeing and thinking. That is, a cultural or paradigm change. Certain elements of the ‘new political imagination’ that he sought.

Perhaps we could then define one of these elements: thinking in plural. For example, not to understand power as a monopoly of the State, but rather as a social field of forces. Not to understand resistances as a monopoly of political parties, but rather as possibilities in reach of whoever, in whatever place. Not to understand knowledge as a monopoly of specialists and the Voices of Explanation, but rather as a toolbox with neither author nor owner, of which we can all make use and to which we can all contribute.

Our historical moment is of course very different from the 1970s, but is there not still an overwhelming necessity to think in plural, without a centre? To think and practise social change, not as something that passes through a single plane (parties-elections-political power), but through a plurality of times, spaces and actors?

One criteria for distinguishing between ‘old politics’ and ‘new politics’ could be, rather than a temporal criteria, this key: thinking in plural or thinking about oneself (as the centre).

In this way, the old politics would be that which re-centralises the whole time, absorbing all social energies into a few times, places and actors. These few centres would accumulate power at the cost of the passivity and departure from the scene of everyone else (always in the name of efficiency etc.)

For its part, the new politics would be that which empties the centre time and again by empowering the remainder. That which opens possibilities for political intervention instead of corralling them in to privileged spaces, that which multiplies the capacities of whoever (to do, to say, to think) instead of producing spectators, that which activates conversations and not monologues.

One of the Foucauldian lessons that we can pick up today is that maturity of political thought does not consist of passing from the small to the great or in ‘leaping’ from the streets into the institutions (nor in the reverse), but rather in guillotining the king once and for all and inventing language and maps for pushing through a change that will be (in) plural or it will not be at all.

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Translation: Podemos and The Media

This is a translation of an article by Santiago Alba Rico. It concerns the strategy of criminalising Podemos adopted by the Spanish right wing. It was originally published in Rebelión, 1st July. Pú is reporting today that Podemos is taking legal action against the former president of the Madrid regional government, Esperanza Aguirre, and an El Mundo journalist, Eduardo Inda, for publishing claims that Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias was a supporter of ETA, and that the grouping had received illegal funding from the Venezuelan government.


In a recent article in El Confidencial, journalist Esteban Hernández made an astute diagnosis. He said that in light of the electoral threat from Podemos, and in order to win back votes, two opposing strategies had been adopted on the left and on the right: whereas the PSOE and IU have decided to imitate Podemos, the PP has decided to criminalise it. One could reasonably add that both imitation and criminalisation show that Podemos has been able to mobilise common sense and is heading towards seizing and transforming the very backbone of political and cultural hegemony in our country.

Though it has probably come too late, the imitation of Podemos on the part of IU and PSOE has an objectively healthy effect. With regard to the PP’s criminalisation, we should not confine ourselves to interpreting it in a triumphialist vein: “their lying shows they feel under threat”. True enough, the “caste” feels very much under threat. But that does not mean it is defeated. And one would be very naive to assess the defamation, the attacks, the lynchings by media as an infallible sign of Podemos’s future electoral victory. If the right wing and its media -including El País, since the PSOE is simultaneously playing the card of emulation and that of criminalisation- have set about this villainous campaign against Podemos, it is not merely because Podemos is on the move: it is because they want Podemos to retreat and they know from experience that such journalistic baseness has an effect. Many things have changed since Julio Anguita was and nearly murdered, in the 90s, due to a brutal and abject campaign by the press, but the power of the mass media cannot be treated with contempt. If there is moreover a focus on ETA and Venezuela it is because these same media outlets (El Mundo, El País, ABC, La Razón, along with most television channels) have spent years manipulating public opinion in order to demonise Chavismo and, even worse, to prevent a peaceful resolution to the problem of co-existence in the Spanish State. Some outlets and some journalists -Isaac Rosa and Eduardo Maura each drew attention to this in excellent articles- have and continue to do all that is possible so that any moderate and sensible alternative to resignation auto-destructs as “terrorist” or “totalitarian”.

Demagoguery and populism are very lenient terms for defining this strategy, but there is no doubt that it gives off a demagogic and populist flavour, which becomes particularly deplorable when you add, as in this case, a hint of necrophilia. They are playing with the pain and moral horror of ordinary people in order to destroy a political opponent; it is being carried out by precisely those who do not want peace in Spain, those who felt threatened not by ETA but by its disappearance, and who, when now threatened by the appearance of a political option that simultaneously rejects terrorism and the caste that has fed upon it, have no trouble in calling forth ETA once again, only in words for the moment, in order to criminalise its spokespersons. It is this demagoguery and populism of the right that has been for years postponing the solution to the central question of the constitution of the State, which has given rise to so many deaths and so much intolerance, and thereby eroding, day in day out, rights and democracy. Proof of this can be found in antiterorrist legislation, a hideous electoralist card that has above all served to repress those who politically and peacefully oppose the policies of the dominant two-party rule.

Because what bothers me most about the media campaign unleashed against Pablo Iglesias is this. This campaign is evidence, not that Podemos is creating more of a disturbance than anyone might have imagined a few months ago, but of the widespread absence of democracy from our political institutions and our press. I would call it “corruption”. The news item yesterday in El Mundo that linked Pablo Iglesias with ETA, and those that have preceded it in other outlets, and those that will follow, are the intellectual equivalent of “economic corruption”. Wherever there is corruption there is no democracy. Wherever there is corruption there is a mafia: games, if you like, of caste. If there is no democracy and there are games of caste, the danger should Podemos might take on a real position of leadership, that it might win majority support from the public, is that things might move from words to deeds -the case of Italy is quite recent- and that there may be a resort to any means to prevent Podemos from ever democratically governing our country.

In a recent article Carlos Fernández Liria advised Pablo Iglesias to hire a bodyguard. It is no joke. The corruption of certain media outlets, their explicit declaration that they will not respect the rules of the democratic game and the journalist’s code of conduct, is cause for much more than disgust: it is cause for fear. El Mundo has committed the outrage of associating Pablo Iglesias with an organisation that in reality no longer exists and whose past actions he rejects; I, for my part, would link the media campaign against Podemos to a terrorist organisation that does not yet exist but whose first victims are intellectual honesty and political decency. That is, journalism itself, which will need to be rescued from the hands of the caste by the thousands of honest, committed and democratic journalists who are unemployed or who are working precariously, like at Burger King or a call centre, for these corrupt big businesses.

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