[Column] A leftist plea for law and order

Posted on : 2023-07-18 17:02 KST Modified on : 2023-07-18 17:02 KST
Is our only choice between parliamentary elections controlled by corrupted elites or uprisings controlled by the populist right?
Supporters of Donald Trump descend on the US Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, to block the joint session of Congress from declaring Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election. (Reuters/Yonhap)
Supporters of Donald Trump descend on the US Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, to block the joint session of Congress from declaring Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election. (Reuters/Yonhap)
By Slavoj Žižek, Global Eminent Scholar at Kyung Hee University

Two events attracted public attention at the end of June 2023: the failed military coup in Russia and the explosion of violent protests in France. While our media cover both events in detail, what passes unnoticed is a common feature they share.

Let’s begin with the French protests. After a 17-year-old boy identified as Nahel M. was shot dead by police officers on the morning of June 27, 2023, chaos exploded in France, with initial protests descending into looting and arson. Rioters have erected barricades, lit fires and shot fireworks at police, who responded with tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades.

However, the events took a much more ominous turn when the police began to act as an autonomous agent, posing a threat even to the government. The police said they were “at war” with “savage hordes” of rioters and two of the top unions representing officers threatened to revolt unless President Emmanuel Macron stepped in. “Today the police are in combat because we are at war,” they said. “Tomorrow we will enter resistance and the government should be aware of this.’”

These statements announce nothing less than a crack in the state power edifice. In reaction to the popular protests, the hard-liners in the police threatened to act on their own against the state power. The predictable leftist narrative is that the French police is racially biased (Nahel’s murder was totally unjustified), French “egalite” is a fake, young immigrants violently protest because they don’t see any future ahead, so the way to solve this problem is not more police oppression but a radical change of the French society itself, the elimination of its de facto racism.

Subterranean anger was accumulating for years, and Nahel’s death just made it explode openly. Violent protests are a desperate reaction to a problem, not the problem, and have to attack the problem at its roots.

There is a profound truth in this narrative: already when the first wave of protests exploded in 2015, analyses brought out the thick network of prejudices and exclusions that determine the daily life of immigrant youth. Precise and very realist proposals were made on how to ameliorate the situation, but nothing came out of it. However, while true in an abstract sense, this solution is all too easy: I find it problematic on multiple accounts. The targeting of local buses by the protesters, so crucial in transporting workers from the low-income suburbs on the edge of Paris, indicates two things: the riots aimed at destroying the infrastructure that sustains the daily lives of the ordinary people, and their victims were the poor, not the rich.

Public protests and uprisings definitely can play a positive role if they are sustained by an emancipatory vision — suffice it to remember the Maidan event in Ukraine and the ongoing Iranian protests triggered by Kurdish women who refused to wear burqas. Even the threats of violent action are sometimes necessary: Our media like to mention as the two successful negotiated solutions the rise of the African National Congress to power in South Africa and the peaceful protests led by Martin Luther King in the US — in both cases, it is obvious that the (relative) victory occurred because the establishment feared the violent resistance (from the more radical wing of ANC as well as of the American Blacks).

This, however, is decidedly NOT the case now in France. If law and order are not promptly restored, the final outcome may well be Marine Le Pen as the new president.

Russia has its own version of Le Pen already in power there. It is difficult to miss the comic nature of Prigozhin’s march on Moscow. It was over in 36 hours, and a deal was made: Prigozhin avoided legal trial, but had to withdraw his troops from Ukraine and go to Belarus. We don’t know enough to say what really happened: Was his march really meant as a full attack with the goal to occupy Moscow, or was it an empty threat, a gesture not meant to be fully realized, as Prigozhin himself later indicated?

Putin has to balance between different factions of his insider elites — a process that takes place in a non-transparent way, totally outside the public space. The fact that the Russian state needed a private army like the Wagner Group is in itself a clear sign of a failed state.

The conclusion from all this mess is that today failed states are not found only in the Third World, from Somalia to Pakistan, with South Africa approaching this abyss. If we measure a failed state by the cracks in the state power edifice, the atmosphere of ideological civil war, and the growing insecurity of public spaces, we should add to the list Russia, France, the US, and with the signs of such decay in the UK. In this situation, the left has to gather the courage to fully 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 took place on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump’s supporters broke into the US Capitol in Washington. They viewed the election as illegitimate, a theft organized by corporate elites. Left-leaning liberals reacted with a mix of fascination and horror. Some of my leftist friends cried, saying: “WE should be doing something like this!” There was a bit of envy in their condemnation of “ordinary” people breaking into the sacred seat of power, creating a carnival that momentarily suspended our rules for public life.

Does this mean that the populist right stole the left’s resistance to the existing system through a popular attack on the seat of power? Is our only choice between parliamentary elections controlled by corrupted elites or uprisings controlled by the populist right?

So we shouldn’t be afraid to add to the tasks of the left the care for the safety of the daily life of many ordinary people. There are clear signs of the growing decay of public manners, of youthful gangs terrorizing public places, from bus and train stations to shopping malls. Just to mention this decay is often dismissed as yet another rightist obsession directed at immigrants, and the standard reaction is that we have to look at the “deeper social roots” of such phenomena.

However, if we act like this, we are conceding to the enemy an important domain of dissatisfaction that pushes many to the right. Everyday insecurity hurts the poor much more than the rich who live calmly in their gated communities.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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