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‬6‭. ‬The French Revolution IV‭ - ‬The Political Legacy‭

6. The French Revolution IV

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: 6. The French Revolution IV - The Political Legacy

Author: Uthman Ibrahim-Morrison

Publication date: 06/10/2012

Civilisation and Society I: Politics of Power

6. The French Revolution IV - The Political Legacy

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation & Society Programme of the MFAS. This is the sixth of 12 sessions which make up the Politics of Power module. The entire session will last approximately 1 hour and comprise a lecture of around 40 minutes, followed by a 5 minute interval, and ending with a short question & answer period. You are encouraged to make a written note of any questions that may occur to you for clarification after the lecture.

This is the last of four consecutive lectures focusing specifically on the matter of the French Revolution and its enduring impact, before we go on next week to look more specifically at what we might call the ‘post-nation’ state. Last week we attempted to examine the extent to which the French Revolution has served as a template for the formation of the modern state and its social, political and economic modalities, particularly as they have become manifest in the most ‘advanced’ societies represented by the EU and the USA. Of the ten key features of modernity that we identified last week, there are four in particular (namely numbers 3, 4, 5 and 10), whose direct and continued bearing on current social and political configurations will form the basis for this week’s assessment of the extended political legacy. Let us begin with the transfer of sovereignty.

The Transfer of Sovereignty 

To reiterate what we observed last week, the result of the French Revolution was that the authority previously enjoyed by the absolute monarch has was completely transferred to the arena of the parliamentary or representative assembly. Referring to the accession to power of Napoleon, Furet pointed not only to his total authority but also to the fact that he was now ruling over a nation of:

 “… equal individuals, relatively defenceless against the power of the state.” [A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution]

This was the state of affairs for the general populace under Napoleon more than 200 years ago, when any remnant of the excessive revolutionary energy which had gathered up to purge itself of the leading Jacobins (including Robespierre himself) had to be broken down or dissolved, and various ‘achievements’ gained at great cost to life and property under the Revolutionary Republic were to be reformed, replaced or even reversed; ordered control needed to be re-established. Davies describes a good case in point:

“Hereditary nobility, for example, was abolished in 1789, together with the other social estates. Under the Republic, all people were reduced to one rank, citoyen or citoyenne (citizen). Bonaparte introduced the idea of advancement by merit, la carrière ouverte aux talents; and the Empire adopted a hierarchical system of new ranks and titles, an aristocracy of princes, dukes, and counts, based on state service. The Légion d’Honneur (1802) was Napoleon’s own idea for an order of merit.” [Europe ND p. 711]

As we were reminded last week, Napoleon was an absolute dictator both by personal disposition and habit, with very few qualms about the use of compulsion. However, what we see here is a practical example of the subtle implementation process whereby the spontaneous and ‘dangerous’ expressions of social solidarity and dynamism which had served their purpose in clearing the old ground, would be gradually displaced by a deliberate appeal to career opportunism, personal advantage and individual distinction under the stimulation and supervision of the state. 

At the opening to the twenty-first century, as far as the matter of the individualisation of society is concerned, it is possible to say without hesitation that the process is far more complete, pervasive and far-reaching than anything Bonaparte could have imagined even in his most unbridled fantasies. From the cradle to the grave, the modern citizens of today’s democracies are subjected, 24 hours per day and 7 days per week,  to the combined panoply of technologically enhanced methods of advertising, propaganda, manipulation by the news media and subliminal persuasion. The almost immeasurable influence of the entertainment industry, further amplified by the possibilities of the internet, is embodied in the inescapable reach of the Hollywood ‘movie machine’. 

Western public education systems, from the nursery school to the most reputable universities and advanced research institutions, form a vast and coherent machinery for the mass preparation of the entire population to enter into their expected economic and social roles within the national apparatus without a deep questioning of, or effective resistance to, the undemocratic modes of coercion and the political contradictions inherent in its operations. Our colleague, the educationalist Muhammad Medinilla, has recently highlighted this matter in the follow way:

“Nietzsche, as we well know, was completely against the idolatry of his time. However, he was also able to see what the forces of the “new world” were heading towards […] Nietzsche warns against losing the sovereignty of culture and putting all cultural efforts at the service of the state. The same is true of education; the aim of education should not solely be to serve the state. The Prussian State was one of the first examples of culture and education being used in this way and it can be seen again in another agricultural state, the USA.

Furthermore, it is important to understand that in industrialised England the function of the school as transmitter of family and societal values changes significantly from the late 18th century, with the French revolution and the industrial revolution. Now, the need for centralisation and uniformity within both the population and the new economy, determine the features that up to today, define education. The state school system arises from the convergence between these political and economic interests.” [Medinilla, M. Islamic Education versus Assimilation]

As far as individualistic psychological attitudes with respect to personal identity and the high degree of emotional attachment to the notion of independence from others are concerned, a combination of socio-economic factors, modern educational priorities and PR indoctrination, as well as various legislative pressures, have operated as a ‘social engineering’ mechanism which has resulted in a societal climate that undermines and impedes the natural propensity for people to live freely within and rely upon ‘traditional’ family and community networks, or beyond that, to organise themselves openly and autonomously into other forms of free association for the purposes of advancing shared economic interests and for their own mutual benefit and assistance. 

With regard to the family structure, the everyday perception of the tribe or clan have long since been consigned to the quaint world of ancient folklore or the academic fields of the social sciences and natural history. The so called extended family is rapidly heading in the same direction, whilst even the nuclear family as the necessary minimum configuration suitable to the urban requirements of the industrial age, now also finds itself in retreat before internal as well as external threats. On the interior front the kitchen and the ‘family table’ have all but disappeared with the advent of fast food, takeaways and the microwave on hand to heat frozen pre-cooked and packaged individual meals. These meals are consumed seated in front of the TV set, or at the computer screen, or plugged into iPods, with Blackberrys and iPhones at the ready; everyone instantly accessible to every remote intrusion or invitation to communicate at the expense of those in the same house, or even in the same room: separate lives under one roof. Gone forever are the days when the household telephone sat in the hallway or the living room issuing a defiant challenge to attempt a private conversation!

On the external front, each member of the nuclear household is obliged, in one way or another, to maintain various levels of direct individual accountability and accessibility to the State and its agencies or representatives. The paterfamilias may no longer, figuratively speaking, stand at his threshold and confront the invasive approaches of the Inland Revenue, Social Services or the Local Education Authority, as the sole means of access to the family domain. In addition to this, ‘new’ family forms have begun to emerge, necessitated as the logical consequence of circumstances that combine unprecedented rates of divorce, technical advances in gender reassignment and assisted human reproduction, the unlimited exploration of personal sexuality, the ascendancy of consumerism and lifestyle possibilities legitimised by the human right to freedom of choice.

If we now turn to look beyond the family structure to see what has happened in society at large, the situation reflects a similar state of affairs. Traditional guilds and similar friendly societies have long ago gone the way of the tribes and clans into the mists of medieval history, whilst the truth of the matter is that their considerable economic power and social functions were simply broken up and subsumed by the State and further devolved to technical colleges, trades unions, insurance companies and the so called ‘third sector’ organisations. Since the late 1970’s in Britain and elsewhere, as a result of the implementation of reforms aimed at limiting their capacity to mobilise, the decline in trade union membership continues to reflect the enmity of the State towards autonomous collaborative action within the working population. The following information is to be found in Wikipedia:

“[…] in the wake of the neo-liberal turn in politics ushered in by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan, union membership has also been declining. As noted by the Federation of European Employers:

‘Over the last twenty years there has been a widespread decline in trade union membership throughout most of western Europe. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, unionisation in many eastern European states has collapsed at an even more dramatic rate. In Poland, for example, today’s 14 % level of unionisation is in marked contrast to that of the Soviet-controlled era, when almost all workplaces were unionised. Most of those who remain trade union members in Poland work for former state-owned companies.

In only 8 out of the current 27 member states of the European Union (EU) are more than half of the employed population members of a trade union. In fact, the EU’s four most populated states all have modest levels of unionisation, with Italy at 30%, the UK 29%, Germany 27% and France at only 9%.

As a consequence, three out of every four people employed in the EU are now not members of a trade union. Furthermore, in every EU country outside Scandinavia (except Belgium), trade union membership is either static or continues to decline.’”

The overall percentage figure for union density in the USA stood at 12% of the paid workforce in 2007.

Assembly Politics as a Veil

I will begin this section with an important series of passages from the controversial political theorist Leo Strauss. The quotes are taken from his influential notes on The Concept of the Political written by the groundbreaking legal theorist Carl Schmitt in the 1930’s, whose penetrating political insights we will return to later on in the module. Strauss writes:

“The present situation is characterised by the fact that a process three hundred years old has ‘reached its end’. The age at the end of which we find ourselves is ‘the age of neutralizations and depoliticizations.’ Depoliticization not only is the accidental or even necessary result of the modern development but is its original and authentic goal; the movement in which the modern spirit has gained its greatest efficacy, liberalism, is characterized precisely by the negation of the political.” [Notes on The Concept of the Political p. 84]

It is by now clear to us that the apparently contradictory and irrational nature of liberal democracy in practice derives from the denial of the deadly revolutionary reality of the ‘politique’ which operates at its heart. However, let us allow Strauss to continue:

“[…] the manifest inconsistency of all liberal politics is the necessary consequence of the fundamental negation of the political. What is needed rather is to replace the ‘astonishingly consistent systematics of liberal thought,’ which is manifest within the inconsistency of liberal politics, by ‘another system’, namely, a system that does not negate the political but brings it into recognition […] the ‘specifically political distinction… is the distinction between friend and enemy. (Underlining added) [ibid. p. 84-5, 86]

Towards the end of the essay, Strauss goes so far as to express what Muslims would undoubtedly understand as the decisive confrontation that is yet to come between the “technicity” driven worldliness of kufr and its as yet unidentified opposite. Understandably, it would be tempting at this point to jump immediately to stake this claim for the Deen of Islam as the perfect candidate to replace the tendency to ‘negate’ of the current system with the Shari’ah’s clear and unambiguous propensity towards affirmation of the political in these terms. However, although I do, in fact, believe that to be the case, it would be premature to make such a leap prior to offering a complete exposition of how this is to be arrived at independently of the theoretical discourse and analytical parameters which have produced the status quo. Therefore, it is my intention to return to this at a later point in the course of this module, insha’Allah. Let us come back then to the matter in hand, which is to examine how assembly politics functions as a cover. In his pursuit of Schmitt’s critique of liberal democracy, Strauss arrives at the very crux of the matter:

“Liberalism negated the political; yet liberalism has not thereby eliminated the political from the face of the earth but only has hidden it; liberalism has led to politics’ being engaged in by means of an antipolitical mode of discourse. Liberalism has thus killed not the political but only understanding of the political, sincerity regarding the political. In order to remove the smokescreen over reality that liberalism produces, the political must be made apparent as such and as simply undeniable. The political must first be brought out of the concealment into which liberalism has cast it, so that the question of the state can be seriously put.” (Underlining added) [ibid. p. 84]

To complete this section we will now turn our attention to a substantial extract from the writing of  Dr. Ian Dallas (Time of the Bedouin), which not only exposes in no uncertain terms the democratic modalities by which assembly politics has provided the decoy that has successfully distracted attention away from the ‘questioning’ of the state, but also leads us into our next theme; the rule of democracy as dictatorship and terror. He writes as follows:

“The policy of the imposition of democracy has specific conditions without which it cannot fulfil its purpose, which is, of course, to be a firewall between the financial élite and the impoverished masses. The first condition is the universal franchise. This means a political class and leadership chosen by a vast number of people whose only requirement is that they are registered voters. Uneducated, illiterate, often victims of a most sophisticated ‘marketing’ by media in turn controlled and owned by the Sect, psychotics among the neurotics, academics among the ignorant - this vast conglomerate selects that figure who, somehow, has managed to please them all. The lowest common denominator.

The second condition is that the elected are appointed to a multi-party governing body which is intended to produce a ruling party versus an opposition. The resulting verbal battlefield is supposed to demonstrate the society’s freedom to debate and achieve majority decisions. This model derives from the Assembly of the French Revolution, which at the height of the Terror had the State Prosecutor propose the setting-up of a guillotine between the opposing parties to remind them continually that power lay elsewhere.

The effect of this comical system is a constant switching from government of Party A to government of Party B and so on, each having been appointed through proving the incompetence and corruption of the previous regime.

Thus an election is founded on political promises. Government is founded on a failure to fulfil its promise. A change of government is merely a re-phased set of promises.

The third and dominant condition is that government must not interfere with the market. The market, as has been indicated, represents the coded political term for the financial nexus, the unique domain of the un-elected and one-party system that represents a growing and near-total amount of the world’s wealth, land and commodities, the Dominio of the Sect.

The leading legalist of the last century, Carl Schmitt, defined sovereign power as being manifest not in the normal running of affairs but rather when the rule of exception is imposed. This implies that when a crisis demanding a suspension of the norm occurs, the special rules reveal the true identity of the power brokers.” [ToB pp. 239-41]

The Rule of Democracy as Dictatorship and Terror

It is extremely important here to establish the realisation that the Reign of Terror was not simply a specific historical episode limited to the Revolutionary context of 1793-1795, as it has conventionally come to be understood. The reality of these events only becomes clear once it is appreciated that the entire revolutionary process represented the very unfolding of terror as a political modality that is repeatedly enacted down to the present day within the structured apparatus of the democratic State.

With regard to the realities of representative democracy in practice, as distinct from the venerable theories which inform its high sounding principles, the scenario we are faced with is one of smoke and mirrors in which everything frequently appears to be something other than it actually is; and the harder one looks the more bewildering it becomes. On the surface, or looked at from a particular angle, democracy offers a kind of peace and political stability because the potential for deadly conflict in the zone of internal political relations has been substituted with a war of words and democratic debate between different parties, which vie for leadership of the country on behalf of the voting electorate, or at least the majority of it. From this angle, the ‘real’ world outside of the Westminster ‘bubble’, or Capitol Hill, or the Duma, or the Reichstag, as the case may be, where everyone else lives their daily lives, it is also possible to enjoy a peaceful existence because the potential for violent competition for goods and resources is played out vicariously in the arenas of free market capitalism. One only needs to observe the fashion for Sun Tzu (The Art of War) on the reading list of every self-respecting MBA course and on every ambitious executive’s bookshelf. Also of crucial importance in this respect (peace and stability) is the ready availability of various forms of entertainment and distractions to fill the evenings, weekends and holidays.

Looked at from another angle, or from behind the veil, another dynamic becomes visible. The democratic State built upon the revolutionary template has preserved the modus operandi that allows it to set aside or suspend the ordinary juridical and constitutional procedures in the event of a serious threat to safety or a dire emergency. We saw this principle in action in revolutionary France under the autocratic direction of the Committee of Public Safety, and it was fully apparent again when the three-man Consulate took control under Napoleon as First Consul in 1799 but with the strikingly familiar addition of being confirmed by national plebiscite. Furet puts it unequivocally:

“A dictatorship of public opinion intended to consolidate the Revolution, the Consulate was thus also, in Bonaparte’s mind, the ‘beginning’ of its history […] To begin the real history of the Revolution was to treat in terms of practical reason problems with which his predecessors had dealt as metaphysicians, and to establish a modern state on a foundation of experience and realism. This was the other side of the Consulate, which Bonaparte used to modify the model of despotism to suit the new post-revolutionary society.” [A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution]

As I also indicated last week, we need look no further for proof of this model in action than the example of first, the American response to the national emergency triggered by the destruction of the World Trade Centre in September 2001 and then, at their coercion, the sequence of events leading to the effective subordination of the democratic machinery across the ‘International Community’ of ‘independent’ nation states and supra-national agencies such as NATO and the UN, to project an international crisis requiring the strict marshalling of their combined administrative, legislative, media, security, military and financial resources, in order to prosecute the infamous, ongoing War on Terror launched, as we observed in last week’s lecture:

“… in a blizzard of anti-terrorism legislation and special homeland security measures, as the imperative response to external threat by Bush’s Republican government, which is now being continued under Obama’s Democratic administration in a prolonged campaign of military terror, torture, assassinations and kidnappings across the Muslim world, juridical anomalies such as Guantanamo Bay and the declaration of war against an undetermined abstraction, and the general exercise of almost unlimited new powers of surveillance and coercion on the domestic population at the expense of long established constitutional freedoms.” [Morrison, U. The French Revolution III p. 7]

The full title of the notorious Patriot Act of October 2001, USA PATRIOT, is a ten letter acronym that reveals its agenda in no uncertain terms: Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism. Under the command of what can effectively be described as a Neoconservative coup d'état, the new measures significantly extended the powers of law enforcement agencies to collect intelligence; they increased the government’s authority to investigate the financial transactions of individuals and organisations; they gave the security apparatus greater discretionary powers to detain and/or deport suspect foreigners. The legislation also made it possible to extend the range of application of these powers by expanding the definition of terrorism to include activities within the domestic arena. Similar legislative measures with similar implications were mirrored in other leading democracies amongst the “coalition of the willing”. 

In Britain the Blair government was second only to the USA in terms of demonstrating the absolute nature of the authority inherited from the monarchs of the Ancien Régime via the Napoleonic sunna.  Writing in 2004, our colleague the legal specialist Tareq Ali, provides the following summary of the Anti-Terror, Crime and Security Act passed into legislation by the British Parliament in 2001:

“This Act has been described as a ragbag of diverse provisions, some of which are completely unrelated to terrorism, and was brought into force in the wake of and riding on the publicity of the Twin Towers affair.

In summary this Act contains the following measures:

(1) It enables the police to access confidential information held by government departments and public bodies for the purpose of any criminal investigation, including passing the details on to other police forces around the world (ss17 to 20). There is no need to produce any evidence of a crime having been committed, nor do the police require judicial authority. The information they are allowed to access includes financial and medical records. One commentator stated that the police could now access such information on the ‘flimsiest of excuses’. The scope for abusing this power is considerable and it can be invoked without scrutiny.

(2) It requires communications providers to store details of users' communications as the Home Secretary orders and provide them to the police for the purpose of any investigation (ss102 to 107).

(3) It allows the Home Secretary to extend criminal justice and anti-terrorism legislation via secondary legislation and without prior parliamentary approval (s24) thus allowing the government to legislate on criminal justice matters by decree, a power usually exercised by dictators.

(4) It permits the indefinite detention of foreign nationals.

The Home Secretary has been given the power to certify that a foreign national is a suspected terrorist and a threat to national security, based on his (or the security agencies') suspicions (ss21 to 36). That person can then be detained indefinitely if he cannot be deported, subject to reviews held in secret, where evidence that would normally be inadmissible in a UK court can be adduced, and such evidence can be kept secret from both the accused and his lawyer.” [Ali, T. An Important Notice]

Before we turn finally to the matter of total war, I will conclude this section with the Time of the Bedouin’s terse and forbidding summation of the process democracy has passed through in order to arrive at its inevitable descent into terror and self-destruction:

“Terrorism’s necessary elements are - a tyrannical and unjust regime, a dissatisfied under-class, a secret security police, police infiltration, media mis-information, a prior corruptible intellectual class of liberals, and gullible discontented and dispossessed men. In its first stage, host society and its terrorists are one. In its second stage, it turns on the society, that is, on itself. In the third stage, the terrorists are crushed and the people oppressed by security laws. In the fourth stage, the State is obliged actively to set up terrorist events, thus returning to the first stage. It is at that point that the State is structurally doomed. The terrorists did not do it, since they are no more. The State has committed suicide.” [ToB part 2 book VI pp. 274-5]

The Institution of Total War

Finally and briefly, we come to the issue of total war. Last week we described the standard definition of total war as, “the maximum use for the war effort of all available civilian and military resources.” We added to that the fact that little or no distinctions at all are made when the modern state is on the attack between combatants and non-combatants, or between military and civil targets, and that the concept of ‘collateral damage’ has become the standard euphemism for the destruction that results from this military strategy. The modern state has transformed and extended the limits of total war into an engagement which is genuinely without limits - war is now waged against anyone and everyone,  at any time and any place… including, as we have seen, its own population, in the form of draconian legislation that enables the state to suspend ordinary civil liberties, to invade privacy, to imprison on suspicion without trial, to impose deadly force and ultimately to fabricate ‘false flag’ terrorist events and stage terrorist crimes at home and abroad to create the enemies that are necessary to justify the terror it must inflict. 

We need only look at the Iraq war of 2003 and the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties (estimated by some at well over 1 million) and the incalculable damage caused to the country’s cultural fabric and civil infrastructure. The real totality of the war was seen in the secret use depleted uranium and other experimental biological weapons of mass destruction with indifference to their effect on their own troops (male and female) in the field; the participation of private armies of security personnel who to all intents and purposes outnumbered the military; and the training and recruitment of local nationals to the war effort. The same pattern is being repeated in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, etc. However, the demands of these asymmetric  wars require strategic adjustments which ensure that casualties are totally minimised on the part of the aggressor and totally indiscriminate on the part of the enemy: the weapon of choice for this purpose is the unmanned drone.

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. In our next lecture we will continue to look at the progressive degeneration of liberal democracy and the notion of the ‘post-nation’ state. For both further and preparatory reading I would recommend the paper by Leo Strauss (Notes on Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political), ToB part 2 section VI (pp. 263-304), and the recent report by Stanford & NYU (Living Under Drones). Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.

Bibliographical References

Dallas, Ian. The Time of the Bedouin: On the Politics of Power. 

Cape Town: Budgate Press, 2006.

Davies, Norman. Europe - A History. London: Pimlico, 1996

Furet F. and Ozouf M. (edit.) A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution 

(trans. Arthur Goldhammer) Belknap Press, 1989

Strauss, Leo. Notes on Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (trans. J. Harvey Lomax). 

Chicago, 1932. Reprinted in Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (ed. and trans. 

George Schwab). University of Chicago Press, 1996


Ali, Tareq. An Important Notice

MFAS Archive, 2004

Medinilla, Muhammad. Islamic Education versus Assimilation

MFAS Archive, 2010

Stanford & NYU Law Schools. Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan, (September, 2012)