This was originally published in pathsandbridges and republished here with permission.
The Coldest Monster
In Thus Spake Zarathusta, Nietzsche called the state the coldest monster and we might add there is no state as cold as a thanatocracy. At present few genuine thanatocratic regimes actually exist but even using the most stringent definition (we use the loosest here), Syria unambiguously qualifies. Syria is a thanatocratic state whose kleptocratic ruling elite have tried to maintain their rule by freely resorting to genocide, systematically torturing and killing people on an industrial scale while using death, directly and indirectly to husband the populace in an escalation of governmental strategies to winnow targeted demographics and destroy those social ecologies felt to nourish rebellion. The genocidal destruction or disaggregation of some social groups by the thanatocratic state is accompanied by efforts to hothouse other demographics seen as compatible with the one overriding imperative: survival of the ruling elite.
Of course in the largely pacific global North and elsewhere many would look askance at the suggestion that Assad (and his allies) are responsible for the estimated half a million or more Syrian’s killed since 2011 as Assad certainly is. That is over half a million people killed out of a population of 22 million people while 5.6 million people have fled the country creating a grim refugee crisis with millions forced to live in sprawling camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and millions more displaced inside Syria. In his war to crush the revolt of the Syrian people, Assad and his allies have used tanks, fighter planes, rocket attacks, barrel bombs, white phosphorous, chlorine gas, sarin and other weapons, besieging towns, suburbs and villages – and their civilian populations.
Thomas Hobbes in Damascus
In a brief article ‘The Danger of a ‘State of Nature’’ written in September 2011 only months after the ‘Syrian Spring’ began, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, the veteran activist who spent many years in Baathist prisons under pere Assad, Hafez, first voiced alarm about the degeneration of the popular rebellion against Assad. Saleh traced this dangerous turn to the revolution’s defensive militarisation – a shift that was itself a reaction to Assad’s pitiless counter-revolution (1).
The Syrian revolution (and the ‘Arab Spring’) is the most important historical event since the collapse of the Soviet Union but has received little of the attention it deserves. This is perhaps because the ‘Arab Spring’ whose ground zero was Tunisia, encountered powerful headwinds after the early period of rising struggle between 2010-11. The Egyptian revolution was fatally thrown back when the country’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi was removed after only a year in office, in a counter-revolutionary coup d’etat staged by Egypt’s military. Another reason for the Syrian revolution’s neglect is the failure of the global left, especially in Europe and North America, to build a solidarity movement in its support. Rather insofar as solidarity was extended to any party in Syria, Assad’s thanatocracy has been the main beneficiary. The global left has been largely indifferent to the crimes of a regime where life is subordinated to death and biological precarity is the rule – with physical, social and cultural death imposed on incomprehensible numbers of people.
Despite the suffering of its people, Syria is commonly observed through the prism of post-truth and nihilistic scepsis. Much of the global left has joined the burgeoning ranks of cranks on social media peddling conspiracy theories promoting the demonstrably false view that Assad’s murderous regime was the target of attempted US regime change while viewing Assad’s revolutionary opponents through the spectacles of orientalism and Islamophobia. This diabolical consensus omnium parroted Assadist propaganda portraying Assad as an embattled secularist fighting opposition dominated by Salafist jihadis. In seven years of Assad’s brutal struggle to smash the ‘Syrian Spring’, few have tried to acquaint themselves with what is actually happening in Syria or listened to the voices of ordinary Syrian’s – people who despite their suffering are literally either invisible or ciphers for the paranoid fears and anxieties of the global North’s citizens.
In an arresting appropriation Yassin al-Haj Saleh invoked the seventeenth century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes to grasp the danger that faced the Syrian revolution, the morbid signs it was descending into a “primordial” ‘state of nature’ because of the brutal counter-revolution of Assad’s ‘neo-Sultanic’ state (as Saleh later characterised the Baathist state). Ominously, Saleh believed the revolution had begun to mirror the counter-revolution in the course of defending itself. Adversity engendered a struggle dominated by the “politics of survival” while the ‘state of nature’ was in principle antithetical to reason – the foundation of any politics. The fall into the ‘state of nature’ foreshadowed the destruction of politics and politics was the lifeblood of any revolutionary struggle as it embodied the autonomy and self-determination of the people (2).
Descent into the ‘state of nature’ indicated society was “losing its self-control” and the crystallisation of a social trend present in the revolution itself. Within months the open, “civic minded” nature of the revolution’s early days apparent in the role of a variety of civil society groups, the visible activism of women and so on, started to erode as the people fought Assad’s “brutal power.” Saleh argued the degeneration was apparent in the readiness to resort to arms for self-defence and the growth of religious influence that saw inherited identities displace more inclusive, secular identities within the anti-Assad camp. Inevitably there was a transition from slogans repudiating Salafism while underlining the democratic aspirations of the revolt to slogans with more traditional Islamic or religious connotations. In the revolution’s early weeks, the street protests were “civil, emancipatory, and humanist” but quite rapidly the revolution’s “public face” began to speak the “language of Islam” (3).
In subsequent years Saleh revisited the changing role of violence in Syrian society – the atomisation of the populace brought about by Assad’s ‘torture state’ and the problems the revolutionary camp faced as violence as self-defence became more indiscriminate and threatened to demoralise and undermine the revolution itself with the transition to “ultraviolence” or “militant nihilism” as Saleh would characterise it, in particular connecting the latter to the millenarian goals of religious fundamentalism in his own evolving evaluation of the political role of Salafism.
Reflecting on Assad’s “killing machine” Saleh pointed to the impact of earlier military and civil conflicts in the region, the civil conflict in Lebanon and the coalition invasion and occupation of Iraq, to illustrate the elective affinity between civil war and sectarian war or what Thomas Hobbes called the ‘war of all against all’ – the ‘state of nature’ where hatred fed hatred and killing led to more killing in a mimetic cycle similar to the cycle of violence and bloodletting Rene Girard thought defined the periodic sacrificial crisis that visited any society. As Saleh observed:
“This is the supposed ‘natural condition’ of mankind, in which everyone is at war with everyone else, much as Thomas Hobbes described in his ‘Leviathan’, during the middle of the seventeenth century. But the state of nature is not in fact a ‘natural’ condition; it is a historical conjuncture” (4).
Intriguingly the political and social backdrop to Hobbes’s ‘Leviathan’ (1651) was the English Civil War, a significant upheaval in what was an emerging capitalist society. The exact death toll from the three different phases of the civil war is not known though many historians estimate casualties as high as 180,000 dead from fighting and disease – about 3.6% of the population. A large proportion were combatants though about 40,000 civilians were among the dead. About 2% of the population are estimated to have been displaced. In comparison 2.6% of the British population was killed in the First World War though it must be conceded the English Civil War simply doesn’t compare with the modern mass fratricidal conflicts of either the C20th or our present century, where the nature of war and conflict clearly occupy an entirely different level altogether.
In a recent, astonishing article ‘Love, Torture, Rape…and Annihilation’ written in exile, Saleh explores the relationship between hate, torture and rape against the backdrop of the Syrian experience. Saleh begins by noting how generally love unites humanity, especially the exclusive erotic love of lovers – it unites by separating ourselves from ourselves and so allows us to find ourselves. Love is revelation, mutual recognition and love as intimacy blurs boundaries as one becomes two or One of Us. In utter contrast torture annihilates boundaries in a quite different way, so as to pursue its victim into herself. Unlike love, torture is not a relationship but rather a non-bond of destruction that is brutally invasive and is conducted with a variety of goals and motivations by a torturer or the “torture state.” Saleh’s discussion is subtle and evidently derived from the experience of having spent many years in Baathist prisons. Yet the interest of Saleh’s analysis is its apprehension of certain global arguments about the nature of our age. Saleh distinguishes between three types of torture or violation. The first interrogatory or investigatory torture broadly aims to create a civil war within the individual victim so they betray themselves. In this circumstance an individual’s survival instinct and their commitment to a “higher obligation” or “social being”, are pitted against each other. In Syria before 2011 such objectives of torture might also include the destruction of proscribed opposition groups without necessarily aiming at the physical destruction of individuals. The second type of torture is retaliatory torture that aims to humiliate its victims and lead to either the physical or psychological destruction of the individuals. According to Saleh, Hafez Assad’s Tadmor prison and Bashar’s Saidnaya prison both aimed to “create an unforgettable memory, addressed far beyond the tortured person” to intimidate and deter the populace against rebelling. Thus, the tortured body was a “billboard” for obedience. The third type of torture, exterminatory, was self-explanatory.
The transition from death under torture to death by torture was consequential. It was a symptom of the systematic killing of people en masse on a regular basis over a more or less extended duration of time. In his essay on ‘necropolitics’ (discussed below) Achille Mbembe invoked the work of the Italian historian of the origins of the Holocaust Enzo Traverso who explored the affinity between the Nazi’s extermination camps and the industrial like processes of the production line characteristic of Fordist modernity. In 2013, a photographer employed by the Assadist state, known as ‘Caesar’ released 53,000 photos that constituted a routine bureaucratic catalogue of the emaciated waxy cadavers of those who had died under torture. In doing so ‘Caesar’, who fled Syria, provided a bleak glimpse of the state as organised killing machine – or as we contend, a thanatocracy. Saleh himself notes that all three types of torture have in practice blurred into the other two types while at a more general level pointing to a historical transition from one form of torture to the adoption of another form. For example, from the early 1970s until the early 1980s Syria may be said to have overstepped certain long established social boundaries or solidarities with the normalisation of torture. The ‘lesson’ of torture was intended to be internalised by everyone including the torturer who was transformed into a willing instrument of the ‘torture state.’ The transition to exterminatory torture – in our terms the transition to thanatocracy – was part of a genocidal continuum that disclosed the state had obtained “absolute freedom” to overstep human standards and boundaries without any normative or ethical limit other than the practical limit (5).
An important question arising from the Syrian tragedy is how much of what has unfolded in the last seven years encapsulates wider global trends in social conflict and war and how much events derive from trends immanent to Syrian society, to the specific nature or psychopathology of the Baathist state and its singular historical evolution? The answer to that question must surely be that a great deal is specific to the nature of what Saleh calls Assad’s ‘neo-Sultanic state.’ Yet it is also clear that Syria has a global significance in a variety of ways. For example, as Saleh argues in an interesting passage:
“There is a strong international dimension to the Syrian genocide that is almost unmatched in history and that could be linked, with further investigations, to emerging Islamophobia, as the most prominent form of racism in today’s world.”
Elsewhere in the same article Saleh pointed to the existence in Syria of a “permanent ‘state of exception’” specifically in relation to the fate of victims of torture. Also Saleh was alluding to an important debate about the contemporary nature of sovereign power (the state) in the globalised era especially the relations between the state, violence, the citizen, nomos, biopolitics, power and the state of exception. It was the Italian thinker and political theorist Giorgio Agamben who prompted this key debate about the nature and trajectory of sovereign power and the global state of exception in a number of works, particularly ‘Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life’ (1995) and ‘State of Exception’ (2003). Agamben did this by bringing together the threads of two different contributions to political theory in two different eras. Firstly, there was the subterranean debate between the conservative juridical thinker Carl Schmitt, who occupied important positions in the German legal establishment under the Third Reich, and Walter Benjamin about the ‘state of exception.’ The other strand drawn on by Agamben was Michel Foucault’s account of the biopolitical, biopower and governmentality.
Borrowing a neologism Achille Mbembe used in his influential essay ‘Necropolitics’ (2002), Assad has created “death-worlds” – deploying his “war machines” (6) in spaces or ‘zones of exceptions’ characterised by a unique form of social existence that has proliferated in the globalised era of late capitalism where whole populations become the object of the destruction unleashed by untethered or autonomous “war machines.” Populations are scattered, made “stateless”, exterminated, brutally subjected to resource or wealth extraction, deprived of the ability to make a living, besieged, subjected to “invisible killing” through starvation, coerced into becoming soldiers of the “war machine” and so on. Mbembe cited a Zygmunt Bauman article from 2001 suggesting sovereignty had become blurred in the era of globalised and asymmetric war. The emergence of martial non-state agents blurred the division between public and private and in some zones of the world overthrew the state’s monopoly of violence. This development was apparent with the appearance of “war machines” that could be said to function like private free booting mercantile organisations similar to the East India Company in the late eighteenth century. Often these “war machines” were at one remove from the state, or an extension of the state like a contractor able to work hand in glove with the state though this was not always so, and the relationship could be adversarial with the “war machine” fighting one or more states. The “war machine” might exploit transnational links and networks while operating in lawless crisis zones where the authority of the state was either weak or had broken down in a new age of ‘uncivilised wars’ as it was characterised by John Keane (7).
The collapse of formal economies or the struggle for resources or wealth might reinforce the dominance of the “war machine” or create the conditions for their rise such as the “militia economies” in civil war-torn parts of Africa. In some of these dystopian scenarios the “war machine” might aspire to displace or takeover the state and constitute itself as the sole sovereign power occupying a demarcated territory, effectively becoming a putative state. But in ‘New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in the Global Era’ (1999), Mary Kaldor observed that in some of these zones of conflict, the state encouraged the formation of armed groups or militias that would essentially operate at one remove from the state but on its behalf. For Kaldor the anatomy of war and conflict had been reshaped by neoliberalism and globalisation challenging the old Westphalian model of the inviolability of the state’s sovereignity and territorial integrity by bringing to the fore new transnational forces, potentially destabilising identity politics, the globalised war economy and the decentralisation of violence (8)
In this age, the coming age of thanatocracy as we will describe it, biological precarity was generalised as it touched more groups and populations. Also “governmentality” (Michel Foucault) is reshaped as contemporary forms of the subjugation of life to death – Mbembe’s necropolitics – change and populations become the object of the imposition of new techniques of policing and discipline. Mbembe’s overall argument strongly echoes Agamben’s own reworking of Michel Foucault’s account of modernity and biopolitics that Foucault sketched in his late 1970s College de France lecture course (9).
Agamben was interested in how biopolitics as a distinct aspect of sovereign power (the state) excluded certain groups, how the state or governmentality was characterised by a growing tendency to intervene in the lives of citizens to maintain a homogenous, racial identity. So how biopolitical strategies of sovereign power shaped the body politic with sovereign power capturing or promulgating ideological-imaginary narratives of racial and national identity and helped determine who was ‘inside’, a part of the citizenry, and who was ‘outside’, became a central issue of contemporary political thought (10).
Like Foucault’s biopolitics, Mbembe suggested the origins of necropolitics could be traced to the evolution of the modern state with its extension of the dispotif pouvoir underlining the powerful formative relevance of racism, colonialism, imperialism on necropolitics. The necropolitics of the state precipitated whole groups into the status of the “living dead” or placed particular groups outside of a population – literally as a foreign body. Groups like migrants and refugees were “becoming-object” and regarded as less than human. The modern state as the dominant sovereign power in most parts of the world, determined who mattered and who did not, who was a citizen and who should be cast outside the charmed circle of citizenship, who, finally was “disposable” (Mbembe). Populations who were marginalised or rendered invisible, could also be deprived of the full ability to make a living, forced to occupy an economically liminal space. An obvious example was the siege strategy of the IDF in Gaza and the West Bank, a peculiar combination of medieval and modern. Here we literally have a state of siege that is permanent, an indefinite form of the ‘state of exception’ whose end is hard to imagine or conceive. Whole populations were deliberately cut off from the possibility of pursuing any normal daily life in what was effectively a late colonial occupation where three powers overlapped and were condensed in sovereign power: disciplinary, biopolitical and necropolitical – with the power to give (shape) and withhold life.
Mbembe oddly claims that a weakness of Foucault’s conception of biopolitics was its failure to address the central issue of racism; that a population could be racially hierarchised. Elvira Basevich levelled a similar charge at Agamben claiming that the latter’s conception of the modern state retained a normative element because while the state qua sovereign power tacitly presupposed a legitimate citizenry invariably defined by the exclusion of the Other, so far as Basevich was able to judge Agamben hadn’t fully appreciated the degree to which the Other was identified on the ideological-imaginary grounds of ‘race’ or ethno-nationalism (11).
Necropolitics or thanatocracy?
Mbembe’s necropolitics thesis was a provocative reflection on war and conflict in the globalised era but there was a danger of downplaying the continued relevance of the state as sovereign power, of inadvertently proposing a normative understanding of the state when in fact the history of the state with the arrival of modernity, indicated the state to be a much less stable, more fluid entity than a dichotomy between state <> “war machine” would suggest. The state was still fundamental in the neoliberal, globalised era. It was a common misconception that the ‘neo-liberal turn’ of the 1970s meant a major scaling back of the state’s influence whether it was at the expense of transnational institutions or the world market. The picture of the changing role of the state – from the start the state was at the heart of the ‘neoliberal turn’ – was a great deal more complex than some of the misleading narratives of the state’s retreat. In addition, a defining axial feature of the global system was that it was still an ever shifting competing hierarchy of states though this wasn’t the only defining axial feature of late capitalism. This cautionary note proposing the state’s continued salience is not meant to imply Mbembe has radically misread the state’s fate but simply highlight that Mbembe’s understanding of necropolitics explicitly assumes the field of necropolitics is not exclusive to the state, that a non-state agency aspiring to sovereignty including exercising law making and law preserving violence as a manifestation of power (Walter Benjamin) in specific demarcated territories, could also practice necropolitics. Even so taking these strictures to heart and granting the relevance of necropolitics in the globalised era, we need to make clear what follows focuses on modern thanatocracy: loosely a state that regularly, systematically and actively puts significant numbers of its people to death (12).
The Assad State as Thanatocracy
To suggest the Assadist-Baathist state is a full blown thanatocracy doesn’t necessarily imply that it emerged from an unfolding internal logic defining all states or that thanatocracy merely occupies an identifiable location on a spectrum or typology of the modern state. Abstractly we may grant that any state could become a thanatocracy but of course in reality this is an extremely unlikely scenario for most states. That does not mean the Assadist-Baathist state as a thanatocracy is wholly singular or unique but recognising the Assadist-Baathist state as a thanatocracy merely takes us to the threshold of the analysis. Clearly all nation states claim a (territorial/defensive) monopoly of legitimate violence and ultimately that legitimacy refers not to the limits of violence any state might conceivably exercise but instead relates to the question of sovereignty: what power or authority is it that is able to exercise violence to maintain the social order and security of the state? The implication is that there exist no theoretical (or ethical) limits or boundaries to the violence that a state as sovereign power, might unleash, only practical limits. Ultimately, this is what makes a nuclear holocaust and humanity’s extinction, eminently possible. Exterminism was perhaps the reverse side of the coin of Jacques Camatte’s belief that global rebellion or social revolution was dead because capital had escaped the dance of death with its notional proletarian nemesis while humanity was undergoing a process of ‘domestication’ in late capitalism. Death and genocide were the heart of the state’s secret nature and this fundamental reality of the modern state was difficult to fully comprehend with sober senses (13).
Sovereign power (the state) might appear to accept the ethical imperative or the popular will of the people (democracy and so on) or even diplomacy (international treaties and obligations) as limits or checks to the exercise of legitimate violence but this is deceptive because what sovereign power can apparently accept one moment, it may repudiate the next. Within the state, sovereignty ultimately resides in the cockpit of the executive, more or less insulated from any external popular pressure or influence. Therefore, in the final analysis, sovereign power will always resort to violence to safeguard itself as sovereign power. Leviathan would never repudiate itself.
When did Syria become a thanatocracy? Clearly Assad’s ferocious counterrevolution mobilised to crush the ‘Syrian Spring’, marked a qualitative step change in the murderous activity of the state’s extensive repressive apparatus but equally we might argue Syria had already crossed that Rubicon and become a ‘mass murder’ or “torture state” (Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s characterisation) at some point in the preceding four decades of Baath party ascendancy. This is the argument we favour because while it’s obviously true the killing has massively escalated since 2011 due to a scorched earth defence of Assad’s rule, a large proportion of those deaths would still have happened in the ‘normal’ course of Assadist rule but within the security and prison apparatus as they did before 2011 (14).
Perhaps Syria is the only fully fledged thanatocracy within the global system today though a country like North Korea with its extensive if recently rationalised chain of gulags, that annually claims the lives of unknown thousands through starvation, shooting, disease and being worked to death, must be also be a candidate for this exclusive club. Yet there are other countries that are potential candidates for being classified as a thanatocracy. Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines is a marginal candidate and another – perhaps – less marginal candidate is Myanmar that has pursued the genocidal ethnic cleansing of its Rohingya Muslim minority. Yet while this brutal onslaught against the Rohingya Muslim’s is grave and horrific, it has been a temporally delimited act in terms of the military’s escalation of violence and terror whose chief objective is driving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims into neighbouring Bangladesh while encouraging other ethnic groups to settle in the Rakhine region. However, we concede that as a borderline case this interpretation of Myanmar is open to dispute and invites further investigation. However, there should be no doubt the fate of the Rohingya people is not one whit less horrifying whether or not Myanmar is labelled a thanatocracy. Significantly, the Rohingya people have been denied citizenship in Burma/Myanmar since a 1982 Citizenship Law was introduced that extended citizenship to many different groups and ethnicities that are treated as part of the multi-ethnic social fabric of the country. This Citizenship Law was reinforced in July 2012 – only two years after the widely acclaimed arrival of democracy and return to civilian rule – when the civilian government released a list of the groups and ethnicities taken to be legitimate parts of Myanmar’s population. The Rohingya were omitted from the list.
Globally the subterranean biopolitical logic that assumes specific groups of citizens are discrete ethno-nationalist demographics belonging to a particular territory organised by this or that state, is increasingly visible and becoming an explicit theme of discourse across the political spectrum. In relation to Syria Yassin al-Haj Saleh traces the degeneration of the ideology of Pan Arabism, a faux radical ideology of the post-war years linked to anti-colonial, anti-Zionist radicalism, into its offspring Absolute Arabism of the 1970s. The telos of Absolute Arabism was paranoid, coercive uniformity and hostility to internal and external enemies (the former were the agents of the latter). After Hafez Assad’s seizure of power in 1970, Absolute Arabism eventually degenerated into a sectarian suspicion of the Sunni majority in Syria who were the object of a determined attempt to marginalise them and hold them down. The ‘official’ culture of the Assad ruling clique was seemingly secular and modern, supposedly setting its face against traditionalism. But this appearance (often intended for the consumption of the West) was extremely deceptive and in reality the ruling elite’s Absolute Arabism was profoundly contemptuous of the Syrian masses – racist and elitist and an echo of the West’s Islamophobia. In Syria, the ruling elite determinedly blocked genuine social mobility and operated like an internal First World complete with orientalist discourses. They sought to bolster their rule, wealth and power by favouring their own sects and allied clans. In Assad’s Syria, the sect has become a new form of fate – in Mbembe’s terms, the elite were practising a form of necropolitics by imposing a form of “invisible killing” on the marginalised masses (15).
In this context it is hard to deny that while the state as thanatocracy is relatively novel as a contemporary development, globally thanatopolitics is increasingly visible with the inflation of racism, nativism and nationalism in the context of social, economic and political crisis and decentralised war and conflict. As thanatopolitics metastasises the defence of the ethno-nation or its citizens defined against the Other becomes increasingly shrill, as Italy’s new coalition government of the Northern League and the populist Five Star Movement indicates. This newly elected government has wasted no time in attacking the Roma and refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe. The Other becomes a placeholder for all social ills of society, real and imaginary and the target of various moral panics that foreshadow the coming eco-malign emergencies and catastrophes of tomorrow. One ideological-imaginary technique that reinforces the faux ethno-nationalist identity, the imagined homogenous community where difference is eliminated, is to create a division between us and the Other that reflects the discursive bifurcation of inside/outside. The Other belongs outside not inside. If the Other somehow finds itself inside it is identified so it can be policed and administered and therefore eventually expelled or removed. The parabola of this logic is ultimately totalitarian.
Today Fortress Europe exemplifies this malign political logic as the refugee and migrant are painted as the socially disorientating carriers of disease, crime, unemployment, embodying reviled, unwanted religious faiths and cultures. Migrants and refugees are rarely regarded as potential citizens or the citizen elect as the disturbing drift of political tides in Italy, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Austria and elsewhere indicate. In Germany, which welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees many of them from Syria, Angela Merkel’s political capital is all but gone as her Coalition partners compel her government to row back on recent generosity toward migrants and refugees. Yet the free unfettered movement of labour – though a significant progressive social gain without any doubt – only existed within the borders of the European Union between its member states. Recently the Europe wide United for Intercultural Action (a network consisting of 550 antiracist groups), issued a report compiling the names of all the 34,361 refugees and migrants known to have died trying to reach Europe since 1993 of whom 27,000 of those named drowned in the Mediterranean. The UIA group admits this is a gross underestimate as many more unknown, unnamed refugees and migrants have died trying to reach Europe. Since 1993 European governments, of whatever their political complexion, have adopted draconian, repressive and racist measures against migrants and refugees while diverting more resources to stopping this tragic human exodus reaching Europe (16).
The growth of nativism and racism across Europe is a barometer of the metastasisation of thanatopolitics or necropolitics as the defence of the citizen against the Other, who is a cipher for the coming eco-malign emergencies, a presentiment of catastrophe that increasingly colours global politics. As thanatopolitics spreads throughout political discourse and the national and global conversation, it threatens to extinguish all politics. The coming global thanatopolitics is inseparable from renascent fascism and comprehension of their malign troika is a precondition of effective resistance to them.
by Jules Etjim
(1) Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s article ‘The Danger of a State of Nature’ pp.65-76 appears in a ollection of his writings on the Syrian revolution ‘The Impossible Revolution: The Making of the Syrian Tragedy’ (2017).
(3) Ibid. p.68.
(4) Ibid. p.75. Interestingly C.B Macpherson has queried the traditional, near universal reading of what Hobbes was arguing with his ‘state of nature’ hypothesis – suggesting that it wasn’t intended as an actual historical account of pre-state societies or proposing that a ‘war of all against all’ was inevitable in the absence of a sovereign power (the state) to “overawe” all ‘men.’ This is an argument we intend to revisit in the near future. See C.B Macpherson ‘The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke’ (1979 edition) pp.19-46.
(5) Yassin al-Haj Saleh ‘Love, Torture, Rape…and Annihilation: A letter to Samira’ is online.
(6) The coinage “war machines” originally belongs to Deleuze and Guattari but is adopted by Mbembe. Typically provocative but also loose in Deleuze and Guattari’s hands, the concept of free booting, autonomous “war machines” while insightful, should be treated with care and properly contextualised. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari ‘Nomadology: The War Machine’ (2010 translation).
(7) John Keane ‘Reflections on Violence’ (1996).
(8) Mary Kaldor ‘New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era’ (1999) p.138.
(9) See Achille Mbembe ‘Necropolitics’ (2002), Giorgio Agamben ‘The State of Exception’ (2003) and Michel Foucault ‘The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-79’ (2010).
(10) Also see Giorgio Agamben ‘Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life’ (1998).
(11) In defence of Foucault contra Mbembe, Foucault explicitly identified racism as a central and formative ideological narrative co-opted by the newly coalescing “governmental rationality” of the modern state. Racial homogeneity was the normative assumption underpinning the modern state’s definition of the ‘legitimate citizenry’. The racially defined citizens indicated the arrival of the biopolitical model of governmentality. For Elvira Basevich’s critique of Agamben see ‘Agamben on Race, Citizenship and the Modern State’ (2012).
(12) Walter Benjamin made the distinction between law preserving and law making violence in ‘Critique of Violence’ (1921). Benjamin considered law making and law preserving violence to be “rotten” because it derived from the phenomenal realm of law, power and violence, the profane realm of the state or ‘what is’ as opposed to the kingdom of justice.
(13) Jacques Camatte’s essay ‘On Domestication’ (1973) is collected in ‘This World We Must Leave’ (1985) pp.91-137.
(14) In fact the repression meted out by the torture prisons acted as a spur to the rebellion once the demonstrations and protests in Syria had already begun as people took to the streets inspired by the social unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. For example, on the 25 May 2011 the mutilated body of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb from Deraa, an early hotspot of revolt against Assad, was returned to his parents. Hamza had been picked up by Air Force Intelligence on a protest march and tortured: he suffered castration, broken bones, cigarette burns and gunshot wounds. The pictures his parents posted on social media caused outrage. See Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’ (2016) p.49.
(15) Yassin al-Haj Saleh discusses this sectarian, orientalist underpinning of the Assad elite’s rules at some length in ‘The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy’ (2017), see pp.98-113 and 213-287.
(16) See The Guardian Special Issue published on World Refugee Day that carried the names of all 34,361 refugees and migrants who are known to have died since 1993.
4 thoughts on “Notes on Syria and the Coming Global Thanatocracy”
Thank you for this incredibly astute and compelling analysis of the current, truly tragic realpolitik. One can only hope that the right people read it, and react accordingly.
I haven’t even finished this fantastically in depth work but cant help but discover early of so e tell tale signs of early Syrian efforts happening here in America. Thank you for this. Philosophically, the manipulation is obvious, but the layman hesitates to understand because the impact is so slow as to never be an alarm.
Most accurately in response to this article I could say “errrrrr” and not “errrrrr”. The first 5 paragraphs are very good and point to a different article than the remaining ones. The rest, ending with “The coming global thanatopolitics is inseparable from renascent fascism and comprehension of their malign troika is a precondition of effective resistance to them.” Comprehension was marred by too many terms and too many dangling philosopher-thinker references (ranging as a group from the highly abstract to very concrete historical analysts). Got to Hobbes and the C17 English Civil War, and wondered what Saleh was on, and not just in terms of scale of causalities. The technology of the English Civil War was about about horses, long sticks with blades on (pikes) and primitive iron tubes filled with black powder and shot (ie numbers mattered relatively more than technology). Your comment “The fall into the ‘state of nature’ foreshadowed the destruction of politics and politics was the lifeblood of any revolutionary struggle as it embodied the autonomy and self-determination of the people.” Reminded me of the delusional far-left who saw the Spanish Civil War as a failure of revolutionary politics, rather than the victory of advanced fascist supplied weaponry. They believed in a fantasy of revolutionary fervour against certain annihilation, that blurred the lines and made Franco’s troops and passive populations behind the lines as just other workers. Advanced necropolitics of Holocaust and Syrian Genocide are not crazed mirrors of an industrial age, but made possible by technology. The mass can be butchered because they are less of a practical threat. You say “The answer to that question [will there be other Syrias?] must surely be that a great deal is specific to the nature of what Saleh calls Assad’s ‘neo-Sultanic state.” Assad’s state built on horizontal division entrenching sectarianism. Also depends on that State’s external links, with blank cheque of support from Russia-China-Iran mainly (as Saleh admits in 2013, Help Syria now. Tomorrow it may be too late. ) Then we move on to Jacques Camatte, you say “Exterminism was perhaps the reverse side of the coin of Jacques Camatte’s belief that global rebellion or social revolution was dead because capital had escaped the dance of death with its notional proletarian nemesis while humanity was undergoing a process of ‘domestication’ in late capitalism.” Surely global rebellion against any system of organized oppression (notionally capitalist or not) is dead, when the oppressor has a sufficient technical advantage? The “state” wields power without limit is presented in the article with a supporting team of philosophers as the original sin. Who will lurch into marking sections of populations as “other” non-citiziens on the basis of any attribute, probably race. Your argument for anarchy seems to be stated explicitly in “Within the state, sovereignty ultimately resides in the cockpit of the executive, more or less insulated from any external popular pressure or influence. Therefore, in the final analysis, sovereign power will always resort to violence to safeguard itself as sovereign power. Leviathan would never repudiate itself.” No future for normal sort of democracy here then. Rather bleak. Get ot end of article wonder (1) Is there a grammar of radical thought with jargon and references that distances it from the kind of everyday language where gaps and absurdities can be comprehended by comparison to other areas of reasoning? (2) OK the state is crap, but then so was any former organized power structure. Is widely shared radical skepticism about democracy justified, or does it result from a lack of skepticism about radical thought? Is the enemy really lack of core ethical belief underpinning democracy, together with a lack of transparency in government and economics? Does anarchy answer either, without assuming a utopian idea of human nature? How muach of the horrors of this age a symptom of change in technology? Dangling reference here = Orwell and “democratic weapons”. Much as I know, still great article, because the references are very useful, rethink Saleh, important ideas well presented, very good question where is the discussion of the Syrian Genocide effect on the World…………hope you believe me, but cannot control that.
Most accurately in response to this article I could say “errrrrr” and not “errrrrr”. The first 5 paragraphs are very good and point to a different article than the remaining ones. The rest, ending with “The coming global thanatopolitics is inseparable from renascent fascism and comprehension of their malign troika is a precondition of effective resistance to them.” Comprehension was marred by too many terms and too many dangling philosopher-thinker references (ranging as a group from the highly abstract to very concrete historical analysts). Got to Hobbes and the C17 English Civil War, and wondered what Saleh was on, and not just in terms of scale of causalities. The technology of the English Civil War was about about horses, long sticks with blades on (pikes) and primitive iron tubes filled with black powder and shot (ie numbers mattered relatively more than technology). Your comment “The fall into the ‘state of nature’ foreshadowed the destruction of politics and politics was the lifeblood of any revolutionary struggle as it embodied the autonomy and self-determination of the people.” Reminded me of the delusional far-left who saw the Spanish Civil War as a failure of revolutionary politics, rather than the victory of advanced fascist supplied weaponry. They believed in a fantasy of revolutionary fervour against certain annihilation, that blurred the lines and made Franco’s troops and passive populations behind the lines as just other workers. Advanced necropolitics of Holocaust and Syrian Genocide are not crazed mirrors of an industrial age, but made possible by technology. The mass can be butchered because they are less of a practical threat. You say “The answer to that question [will there be other Syrias?] must surely be that a great deal is specific to the nature of what Saleh calls Assad’s ‘neo-Sultanic state.” Assad’s state built on horizontal division entrenching sectarianism. Also depends on that State’s external links, with blank cheque of support from Russia-China-Iran mainly (as Saleh admits in 2013, Help Syria now. Tomorrow it may be too late. ) Then we move on to Jacques Camatte, you say “Exterminism was perhaps the reverse side of the coin of Jacques Camatte’s belief that global rebellion or social revolution was dead because capital had escaped the dance of death with its notional proletarian nemesis while humanity was undergoing a process of ‘domestication’ in late capitalism.” Surely global rebellion against any system of organized oppression (notionally capitalist or not) is dead, when the oppressor has a sufficient technical advantage? The “state” wields power without limit is presented in the article with a supporting team of philosophers as the original sin. Who will lurch into marking sections of populations as “other” non-citiziens on the basis of any attribute, probably race. Your argument for anarchy seems to be stated explicitly in “Within the state, sovereignty ultimately resides in the cockpit of the executive, more or less insulated from any external popular pressure or influence. Therefore, in the final analysis, sovereign power will always resort to violence to safeguard itself as sovereign power. Leviathan would never repudiate itself.” No future for normal sort of democracy here then. Rather bleak. Get ot end of article wonder (1) Is there a grammar of radical thought with jargon and references that distances it from the kind of everyday language where gaps and absurdities can be comprehended by comparison to other areas of reasoning? (2) OK the state is crap, but then so was any former organized power structure. Is widely shared radical skepticism about democracy justified, or does it result from a lack of skepticism about radical thought? Is the enemy really lack of core ethical belief underpinning democracy, together with a lack of transparency in government and economics? Does anarchy answer either, without assuming a utopian idea of human nature? How muach of the horrors of this age a symptom of change in technology? Dangling reference here = Orwell and “democratic weapons”. Much as I know, still great article, because the references are very useful, rethink Saleh, important ideas well presented, very good question where is the discussion of the Syrian Genocide effect on the World…………hope you believe me, but cannot control that. Some answering comment would be good.