issue 218 - April 1991
Solid chains, soft fibres.
The Gulf War has been seen as a battle between crude dictatorship
and Western democracy. We hear plenty about how the former
controls and subdues its population - but what about the latter?
Peter Hughes makes a case that may cause discomfort.
Saddam Hussein is a despot who openly uses execution, torture and genocide as a means of consolidating his power. We, on the other hand, are democrats. As we are constantly reminded, the struggle is one of Good against Evil: a just or holy war. But how sure can we be in our self-righteousness?
In the eighteenth century French writer Jacques Servan wrote that a ‘stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas.'
He went on to say that the chain was, 'all the stronger in that we do not know of what it is made and we believe it to be our own work; despair and time eat away the bonds of iron and steel, but they are powerless against the habitual union of ideas, they can only tighten it still more; and on the soft fibres of the brain is founded the unshakeable base of the soundest of Empires.’
Now, let us just suppose that Servan’s remarks apply to our own society and that the only lesson Saddam Hussein needs to learn from democracies is how to subdue entire populations conclusively. The vital political question then becomes: if we are living in a state of total subjection how has it acted on the ‘soft fibres’ of our brains such that we mistake it for freedom?
But, hang on, surely such a judgment really a mistake? Surely, power is distributed in democracies for the well-being of the people. We are its masters or mistresses and its servants. We are not oppressed but wholly implicated in the laws and regulations that constrain us. We are free to obey.
‘Quite so!’ Monsieur Servan might respond. ‘That is why democracies are relatively mild societies. The people are rendered powerless by the force of their ideas. They normalize themselves into submission. In such societies a despot would be a pointless luxury.’
This normalizing procedure is the ‘unshakeable base’ of the society in which we live. Democracies and their populations are everywhere the same. Everywhere the same cans of Coca-Cola, the same monotonous political subjection to the magical power of interest rates and inflation, the same fashion stores. Our civilisation is so lacking in difference and diversity and surprise that, as the French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva observed, it is, ‘outside the stock exchange and wars … bored to death.’
And how do we normalize ourselves? Beneath the rhetoric of freedom and democracy are a multitude of ‘disciplines’ which constitute an entire normalizing technology. Just as a mechanic tinkers with the engine of her car to improve its performance, the ‘disciplines’ tinker with the machinery of the body to produce a docile, obedient individual.
As another French thinker, Michel Foucault, has pointed out, the site of these ‘disciplines’ is not the torture chamber as traditionally conceived but the family home, the classroom, the barracks, the office, the university, the church, the end point of which is an endless series of categories, classifications, records, vaults and data banks that normalize the democratic citizen.
There can be no escape from the tyranny of the ‘normal’. If you refuse to obey the law you will not be punished but corrected. If you are mad you will not be exiled but ‘cured’. To homogenize bodies into a unified, obedient, fighting force, is typical of the way that power circulates in democratic societies. If entire populations can be disciplined into behaving ‘normally’ or ‘sensibly’ then the excesses of despotic terror can be discarded and condemned.
The disciplinary roots of our society lie in a pathological fear of waste and in the laws of capitalist economics which demand that we have a use for everything, that nothing be discarded, that bodies and goods be accumulated endlessly. Why punish or exile when the use-value of ‘correction’ or ‘cure’ has a far greater economic value? Even as we enjoy the most intense wargasm the world has ever seen we are obsessed with ‘surgical’ or ‘precision’ bombing: even in the heat of the battle there must be no unnecessary waste.
Saddam Hussein does not operate in this way. He is not one of ‘us’ and this truth is self-evident. To us he is the evil, insane, spectre of undisciplined force. We are scandalised not by the rupture of any specific law but by his refusal to be subjected to the very principle of law.
I do not doubt the sincerity of the revulsion expressed by the allies against this ‘brutal dictator’. What I want to suggest is that our relation to Saddam Hussein is much more ambiguous than we seem prepared to concede. This ambiguity is to do with his symbolic status as radically ‘other’ than us. He stands outside the scope of the disciplinary technologies that confine and normalise us.
This marginal status presents a profoundly schizoid spectacle to our democratic eyes. On the one hand, we demand that he become like us, that he subject himself to the same discipline as everyone else; on the other, we envy his freedom, his complete lack of discipline, his glory and his capacity for waste.
Saddam Hussein stimulates us; he tempts us with a liberty we are forbidden to exercise. With this provocation he ensures our subjection and his demise by making us feel with greater intensity than before the necessity of a triumphant discipline and the righteousness of a moral crusade. He is the savage icon that emerges on the democratic landscape when the ‘soft fibres’ of our brains have long since lost their struggle for freedom and given up the hope for something new.
Peter Hughes is a British writer, philosopher and journalist who divides his time up between adult education and BBC local radio.