Fatal Fascination, or, Counterinsurgency as Suicide

Andrew McLaverty-Robinson

Andrew McLaverty-Robinson is a freelance researcher and political dissident based in the UK. His major works include a three-volume introduction and critique of Homi Bhabha, now available from Lulu (2020); the co-authored “Power, Conflict and Resistance in the Contemporary World” (2009); a co-edited book on riots and militant occupations (2018); and dozens of academic articles on critical theory and world affairs. He writes a regular column online for Ceasefire Magazine.

The post-9/11 counterinsurgency project was meant to establish full-spectrum dominance in a permanently deterred reality. Yet it has not only failed to prevent insurgency; it has also created the conditions for the system to come close to destroying itself. Baudrillard already saw this in his writings on terrorism in the 1980s and after 9/11. This article will explore his theories from several points of view. After summarising his general analysis and his views on terrorism in particular, it will examine the field of insurgency and counterinsurgency to show how his analysis has been borne-out. Finally, it will show how the current COVID-19 crisis marks a moment of attempted suicide, where the system deploys its counterinsurgency techniques in a way which cuts off its own lifeblood. Baudrillard’s analysis is thus shown to be prescient.

Baudrillard, Terror and the Collapse of Meaning

On my reading, Baudrillard broadly adheres to the Situationist view of capitalism-as-Spectacle (Vaneigem, 1967; Debord, 1970). In Situationism, the system stands for death or living-death, against the forces of life, joy, love, and creativity. The system requires a constant supply of lifeforce which it can vampirise and recuperate as a source of value, and tends to drain or exhaust this source through its endless life-destroying and meaning-destroying activity. The system dominates by reabsorbing (not exploiting) previously excluded and emergent phenomena into the code. This leads to a constant back-and-forth of escape (detournement, derive) and capture (recuperation). Other examples of this approach include Bey (nd.), who sees recognition of art in the Spectacle as sapping its vitality, and Perlman (1983), who sees the system as a kind of death-machine. For Baudrillard, the production of affective meaning through symbolic exchange is particularly important. The system “milks” the masses of their capacity to produce affective meanings, similar to the way so-called narcissists “milk” victims for “narcissist supply”, or support for their grandiose ego-construct, or sadistic authoritarians “milk” subordinates through pain. However, it also needs to resist symbolic exchange so as not to become reversible itself. The system flees its own death by shutting down symbolic exchange – placing people in ever greater solitude, facing their own death. The system relies on a non-reversible aggression which accumulates power and wealth because it cannot be reciprocally returned.

Baudrillard cross-breeds Situationist neo-Marxism with strands from existentialism, psychoanalysis, and anthropology. Like most French writers in the 1970s, Baudrillard was a firm believer in the unconscious, if not in its Freudian incarnation. (Today’s critical scholars, psychologists, and radicals are mostly in denial about the unconscious, or at best disavow it). His vision of the functioning of affect and meaning – focused on his concepts of “symbolic exchange”, “seduction”, and “reversal” – draw variously on Lacan, Bataille, Nietzsche and Mauss. Baudrillard’s lifeforce is darker, more Lacanian, than the Situationist variant; it is tightly entangled with the death-drive. Symbolic exchange is the sole source of enjoyment (jouissance), and it allows signs to “mean” something by connecting them to the level of lifeforce.

It is hard to unpack what Baudrillard means by symbolic exchange, though it clearly relates closely to gift economy and reversals of the Clastrean kind (see Mauss, 2002; Clastres, 1980). Simulation is an exchange of signs with other signs. Symbolic exchange is an exchange between signs and “the real” (presumably in the sense of the unconscious, or the Lacanian Real). A social world which does not repress symbolic exchange looks like indigenous societies as depicted by Mauss: excess rather than accumulation, initiation into affectively intense social meanings, events are destined and meaningful (not aleatory/random), playfully inventive, operating as groups (not individuals or masses), and making cyclical returns for whatever is taken (eg. from nature). Symbolic exchange also causes the breakdown of binaries, as in Turner’s (1967) accounts of liminality. It breaks down subject-object relations; for example, an observed object always stares back.

The ability to carry out exchanges with death, or between life and death, is the main thing which is repressed. “Death” here encompasses metamorphoses, ego-loss, and returns to indeterminacy, as well as literal deaths. The first of the many exclusions from society was the exclusion of the dead – of the social nature of death and of exchanges between living and dead. Capitalism and modern bureaucracies do not know how to die – or how to do anything except reproduce themselves.

At the symbolic level, opposites are identical. Excluding death also brings it close. It has put down a kind of transparent veil which prevents symbolic exchange among humans. Like Vaneigem (1967), Baudrillard argues that the system replaces the goal of life with survival. One is compelled to survive in order to be useful, unless one’s death is decided by law or medicine.

Symbolic exchange is the exclusive source of meaning. Meaning should be understood here in an affective rather than a representational sense: something “has meaning” when it is cathected with libido, when a relation is formed between the affective and social worlds. Baudrillard is often hard to follow because he uses terms like “meaning” and “the real” in different senses – sometimes to refer to the code and representation, sometimes to symbolic exchange and affect. Capitalism has to destroy affective meaning because meaning contains the possibility of its own death.

For Baudrillard, symbolic exchange is is missing in consumer capitalism. The system functions as a cybernetic code which operates at a surface level, generating assemblages from blueprints and plugging individuals into the resulting systems as outward-directed nodes. The system stops providing “use-values” oriented to concrete humans (who are necessarily within symbolic exchange), and focuses on its own endless reproduction. This, in turn, involves the denial of its own mortality and the possibility of reversal – a denial built deeply into the capitalist drive for endless growth and accumulation.

Consumerism is not a hedonistic practice which provides pleasure for concrete humans; it is a compulsory status-ranking system which involves puritanical self-regulation of bodies to conform to external systems (Baudrillard, 1998). Baudrillard is here entirely in line with the Situationist view. People are alienated from their bodies, which are managed for performance. What appears to be hedonism is actually a crafted, compulsive role-performance. People are also encouraged to identify with a doubled version of themselves which only exists as an image. An increasingly radical gap appears between the meaningless field of representations and the emotions of concrete people. In the classic Situationist view, this leads to a rupture in which the system’s irrelevance to real pleasures is a basis for revolution. In Baudrillard, it takes a more ambiguous form. The system constantly drains lifeforce from everything, but implodes in two ways. Any meaning it allows or generates – such as the fascination and ecstasy produced by the media – threatens a return of symbolic exchange. But the destruction of meaning causes a collapse through loss of energy.

Capitalism traps desire through ambience – a diffuse, mobile experience of life with a lack of situatedness and territories. The sign-values attached to objects partly compensate for this, making people object-like. The code, a relation among objects and nodes, replaces symbolic language. People are excluded from history. This is rendered bearable through simulations of participatory activity, and through a televised presentation of history as scary and exclusion from it as security. This is not so much repression as forced participation sustained by the (perceived) absence of any way of saying no.

Without signs which symbolically “mean”, passion is lost. Instead, people are tied to the system through various other affects: fascination, ecstasy, etc. When things are reduced to their surface appearances or external performances/operations, they lose the meaning and cathexis which otherwise attaches to them. They become equivalent signs, unable to produce intense emotions. Fatigue and boredom corrode the consumerist system, destroying its aura of producing meaning or reality. The system needs to constantly regenerate this aura by generating emotional responses. If it can’t do this through the appeal of commodities, it needs spectacular media events or recuperates forces from the ever-shrinking outside. Portraying everyday consumerism as threatened is a way to revive its aura, its grandeur and sublimity. In the Gulf War for instance, audiences consented to be gently terrorised without losing their basic indifference. This was enough to save the appearance of war and politics for awhile.

The system cannot understand the psychosocial forces operating within it. It only understands its own survival. This is why changing its contents is so ineffective in generating real change. The system keeps working in the same, oblivious, superficial, self-reproductive way. People are commanded to communicate, desire, enjoy, and reveal their (symbolic) secret (eg. through surveys, polls, consumption choices, social media), even when the system’s lack of affect prevents this, when generalised simulation means there is nothing there to reveal, that responses are simply “correct” answers implied in the question, etc. This process effectively involves a demand for an endless reproductive labour of supplying meaning and affect to the system so it can keep reproducing itself. The system ‘hounds out’ negativity, singularity and conflict, establishing a viral violence which operates by contagion (2002:94). This provokes a general resistance of all singularities, without any unifying agenda. People secretly desire a return to existential territories where symbolic exchange operates – a reestablishment of cathexes in the world. Shadowy figures sometimes seem Unheimlich and threatening because they remind people of the repression of symbolic exchange and the forgotten dead.

The system would not survive if it was entirely without meaning. It relies on certain “cool” types of meaning, such as ecstasy and fascination. Ecstasy characterises the fashion system, providing an almost vertiginous sense of peering into an abyss of excess. Ecstasy tends to metastatise and spread across different social fields. People seek ecstatic excess of almost anything – even boredom or misery. Fascination occurs when symbolic exchange reappears, through an entry of an opposite term into a primary term – of truth with the power of the false, reality with unreality, etc. The system is a kind of violence without consequences which survives through fascination with its operations and generalised disempowerment (deterrence). Ecstasy and fascination are “cool” or “cold” passions, with little intense connection. There is also a general panic arising from the collapse of meaning. However, this capture of the masses through fascination is a Pyrrhic victory. The masses are a ‘stupefied, hyperreal euphoria’ (1994:91-2) which absorbs the system’s energy in inertia and quiet resistance, denying it the meaning it needs. The masses supposedly struggle to neutralise or distort the meanings the system tries to permeate through society. They are fascinated, but in an active, destructive way which involves symbolic exchange. They undermine the system by withdrawing their will from it – refusing to know, will, or desire anything.

Baudrillard suggests a political goal of “catastrophe”, or complete decathexis of the system. We need to ‘become the nomads of this desert, but disengaged from the mechanical illusion of value’ (1994:153). We need to avoid becoming fascinated with the system’s death-throes, and thus giving it more meaning. He also seeks a return to symbolic exchange, as found in practices such as graffiti. Sometimes he suggests a need to raise the stakes to the level of symbolic exchange or symbolic disorder so as to “outbid” the system, making a bid it can only meet with its own death. ‘The secret is to oppose to the order of the real an absolutely imaginary realm, absolutely ineffectual at the level of reality, but whose implosive energy absorbs everything real and all the violence of real power which founders there’ (1983:119). This is not an insurrection which explodes the system – a metaphor appropriate in the growth phase of capitalism, as the system was still expanding – but an implosion which abolishes meaning, value and the real (1983:120).

The system is incapable of symbolic death and symbolic killing. But it perpetrates a kind of cold-blooded extermination by means of devivification (see below). The difference has to do with whether it recognises a symbolic relation to an other in its conflicts. For Baudrillard, the dominant western regime has an inability to contemplate Evil or the Other (2002:65-6). It only ever recognises one subject: itself.

Death, along with madness, violence and sex, is (or was) repressed rather than exchanged. This makes it fascinating. Most deaths are carefully managed and concealed, and do not disrupt society. Accidental and violent deaths are the only type talked about, and thus, a source of fascination. These particular deaths (the victims of 9/11, Bataclan, COVID-19…) become the last refuge of symbolic exchange, sacrifice and ritual, a potential revolutionary force because of their uselessness. Suicide is also a revolutionary act. And people resist health and safety rules, because this seizes back power at the expense of risk – restoring symbolic exchange.

The system tries to plan everything so as to avoid any disruptive “event”, to prevent accidental death by generating planned death. But crises continue to proliferate at grassroots levels, almost like a continual state of disaster. Deterrence does not prevent this low-intensity crisis; it prevents it from having system-level effects. People are subject to an anonymous terror which might exterminate them, not to kill them, but because they don’t matter statistically. A split thus emerges between a quasi-real world of precarity, crisis and survival, and an alienated system of signs insulated from it. In a simulated world, events are prevented because no social logic or story can be deployed according to its own logic.  A social force risks annihilation if it tries this.  This leads to an evacuation of any historical stake from society. Since the system identifies itself with reality and meaning, it encourages types of reality-checking which in fact check against the system, and it blackmails people with loss of meaning and with threatening chaos if they go outside it.

The system is involuting or imploding, collapsing in on itself. The weight of its own simulations swallows the energy it predates on; the snake eats its own tail. Too many simulacra destroy meaning and the reality-effect. Signs stop meaning or motivating; people stop caring about them. Meaning circulates at high-speed, without any guarantees. Functions replace meanings. But this turns functional failings into existential disasters. The system wants responsible subjects but mass-produces irresponsible ones. The media have become a means of manipulation in all directions at once. They carry both the system’s simulation and the simulations which destroy it. They amplify terrorism at the same time as condemning it.

It is in this context that Baudrillard theorises terrorism. For him, terrorism is a kind of “overbidding” – offering the system a gift it cannot reciprocate except by collapsing. It puts an end to the situation of deterrence, but actually doing what is usually deterred. Initially, Baudrillard has in mind primarily the Baader-Meinhof group, and thus leftist and not far-right or Islamist “terrorism”. But he repeats his analysis regarding 9/11. What is important for Baudrillard is not the element of mass-murder (the system also murders) or the ideologies involved (for Baudrillard, the effects are anti-ideological), but rather, the return of symbolic exchange inside the system’s terrain of simulation. ‘In the terrorist act there is a simultaneous power of death and simulation’ which must not be confused with a ‘morbid taste [for] death’ or with the Spectacle (1983:113). Terrorist acts are acts of reversal which return ‘the “political” order to its nullity’ (1983:113). Terrorism offers ‘the purest symbolic form of challenge’, a ‘condensed narrative’ which disrupts the appearance of reality with ‘the purest form of the spectacular’ (1983:114). It does not succeed through political victory. Rather, it makes everything ambivalent and reversible (1983:115). There is never a clear victory or defeat. The illogical methods and errors, the difficulty telling if suspects were murdered or committed suicide, all add to the effect. ‘It is this uncontrollable eruption of reversibility that is the true victory of terrorism’ (1983:116).

Counterinsurgency becomes caught-up in the symbolic effect of terrorism. The media seek to narrate ‘the victory of order’ but cause its opposite to reverberate (1983:113). Repression does not reverse the rupture, because it ‘traverses the same unforeseeable spiral of the terrorist act’ – nobody knows where it will end or what setbacks it will face (1983:115). Both media and terrorism produce a ‘fascination without scruples… a paralysis of meaning’ to the benefit of singular events (1983:114). This ‘paradoxical’ mix of symbolic and simulation/Spectacle is the only novelty of recent times and ‘subversive because insoluble’ (1983:115). ‘Around this tiny point, the whole system of the real condenses, is tetanized, and launches all its anti-bodies. It becomes so dense that it goes beyond its own laws of equilibrium and involutes in its own over-effectiveness’ (1983:120). Terrorism is thus a kind of fatal seduction, which provokes the system to collapse under an excess of reality (1983:120) – forcing the system to face the possibility of its own death.

In many ways, terrorism simply makes explicit the terror underpinning the system – but as a real event rather than a threat. The system is terroristic in four ways. It holds the masses hostage through their dependence on it. People are held hostage by being held responsible for the system’s survival. The system threatens to take the world with it if it collapses; people are ‘psychologically programmed to destroy ourselves’ if it does (1990:60). It offers a kind of deferred death. Baudrillard (1975) had earlier argued that the masses are already hostages, because proletarian status and forced labour are substitutes for a deferred death (an argument based on the origins of labour in enslavement of prisoners-of-war). It gently terrorises people with images of real history and symbolic exchange as terrifying insecurity, depicted both in news and fiction (Baudrillard sees the adverts between TV shows as the consumerist offer of security, contrasted with the affectively intense but undesirable content of the shows). Finally, it operates a kind of terrorism through mutually assured destruction, in which it “deters” war by making it too costly, and threatens to take everyone with it in the event of its destruction.

But this is a one-way terror which stops short of the act and is disempowering. The system is saturated with terror, in ‘homeopathic doses’ (2002:59). Securitisation is ‘a veiled form of perpetual terror’ (2002:81). Terrorism forces the west to terrorise itself, in a ‘war of armed security, of the perpetual deterrence of an invisible enemy’ (2002:82). Baudrillardian deterrence is a simulated conflict which exists to preclude a real conflict or real antagonism. Instead of mobilising energies in conflict, it mobilises or demobilises them in inertia. Terrorism can be subversive in two ways: it passes from the deterred threat to the event, and it reverses the one-way violence of the system. It reinvests social space with symbolic meaning – even if this meaning is suffering, horror, etc. Baudrillard is worried about attempts to interpret the event, rendering terrorists just another node in the system. Interpreters try to ‘exterminate them with meaning’ (1983:117). Baudrillard is particularly worried about debates on “what really happened” becoming so fascinating as to mobilise, pacify and dissuade – thus serving the system (1983:123).

Baudrillard’s response to 9/11 follows from this analysis. 9/11 was the first event that was a setback for globalisation in a long time (2002:4). It was revolutionary because it managed to combine the symbolic logic of sacrifice with the ‘white light’ of Spectacle (2002:30). The outpouring of responses is a giant ‘abreaction’ – a cathartic acting-out – of the fascination caused by the event (2002:5). Everyone dreams of destroying American hegemony because of its excess, but admitting this in the west is forbidden (2002:5). Such a desire is reactance, rather than a death-drive. “Good” cannot destroy “Evil” because it necessarily provokes it as a kind of blowback. Ideology is irrelevant; enemies play the system’s game only to disrupt it. By monopolising power, the system forced its enemies to change the rules. The system is powerless against the terrorist reversal which is like its shadow, because it is viral (2002:10-11). The event unfolded as if the towers themselves committed suicide in reply to the attackers’ suicides. It creates a tiny void around which power gazes, fascinated, then perishes (2002:18), which contrasts with the huge effort and derisory effects of the system’s non-wars (2002:23).

Today’s terrorism means turning one’s own death into ‘an absolute weapon against a system that operates on the basis of the exclusion of death’ (2002:16). The system has no reply available, since it cannot outbid death. Such a death, given as a gift, is symbolic and sacrificial. The only proportionate reply would be its own death (2002:17). ‘The terrorist hypothesis is that the system itself will commit suicide in response to the multiple challenges posed by deaths and suicides’ (2002:17). Terrorist suicides both mirror the system’s violence and model a symbolic violence forbidden to it: its own death (2002:18). The fascination with one event intensifies subsequent panic and jumping to conclusions as following events are attributed to the enemy (2002:33).

Crucially, terrorism is a return of symbolic exchange. Terrorists are united in a pact with sacrificial obligations, not an employment contract (2002:22). The true point of terrorist acts is to reverse and overturn power, not for a higher truth, but simply because such a global power is unacceptable. The fundamental rejection, not specific fundamentalist beliefs, is central (2002:73-4). 9/11 caused an economic but also a moral recession (2002:31-2), a victory for the terrorists because it reduces the west to their level and reduces its soft power. The slippage from “freedom” to police-state globalisation is a defensive self-regulation by the system which internalises its own defeat (2002:32-3). Terrorism is similar to viruses: both are everywhere, both threaten the system’s disappearance, and both render the system powerless (2002:11). Conspiracy theories and fake news are also feared because they destroy the illusion that the dominant system is itself “real” rather than denialist (2002:80-1).

This happens in the context of what Baudrillard calls a Fourth World War in which western capitalism seeks to conquer the globe (Coulter, nd:3; Baudrillard, 2002:11; cf Bey, 1996). Terrorists kill because they are fighting in the Fourth World War – a war started by “globalisation” (2002:10). This is a war of globalisation against itself (2002:11), ‘a fractal war of all cells, all singularities, revolting in the form of antibodies’ (2002:12). Today’s terrorism is directed mainly against globalisation, hypermobility, and homogenisation. For example, tourism is targeted because it imports simulation. Perpetrators are reacting not to deprivation, but to humiliation – to receiving the system’s supposed gifts without an opportunity to reciprocate (2002:100-1). It is not simply madness, and not the impotent rage of the oppressed (2002:53).The WTC was primarily targeted for symbolic reasons; its fall symbolises the collapse of global power (2002:43-4). The attacks did not damage political, economic or military power. They struck a symbolic blow at the system’s credibility and image (2002:82).

The point of counterinsurgency is to substitute simulated non-events and non-wars for real, unique, unforeseeable events, and thus retain the precession of simulacra (2002:34). Set-piece wars like Afghanistan are attempts to restore the idea of war, but in fact, the Fourth World War is everywhere, dispersed (2002:12). The response thus fails. Violent responses to terrorism retaliate for the aggression, but not the symbolic challenge (2002:101). The system tries to exterminate adversaries, whereas terrorism is a kind of tit-for-tat, a genuine antagonism (2002:26). A terrorist act cannot be traded, it has no equivalent (2002:74). This is why, for Baudrillard, terrorism tends to bring about the system’s suicide. One needs to think of this in terms of the unconscious impact of terrorism. In the unconscious, reversibility is always active; things are fluid and ambivalent and opposites are reversible or equivalent. There is also a constant interplay of repressed wishes with other forces. Hence the traumatic effect of giving people what they secretly want (or more accurately, what a component of their desire-structure wants or wanted, but has put aside or repressed due to opposing desires or fears) – which is what Baudrillard thinks happened on 9/11. Terrorism restores symbolic exchange because of its emotional intensity, the almost carnivalesque interchangeability of meanings, the “romantic” group affiliations (even in the form of larger-than-life supervillains), the autoproduction of emotional meaning without reference to the code, the “gift” of suicide (which stands for symbolic exchange), and the symbolic importance of death which can stand for life. Hence Kellner (2005) suggests that Baudrillard saw 9/11 as a return to strong events, which ruptured the previous period where only weak, deterred events occurred. Similarly, Kampmark (2002) suggests that bin Laden became hyperreal. His body and image were constantly suspect as to whether he was present or absent, living or dead. His supporters do not need his body, since he continues to operate as a phantasm.

In relation to the current situation, it is also important to remember that any rupture can have a similar effect, even without a “terrorist” actor. To the system, natural disasters are equivalent to terrorism, as is the existence of any refractory culture which contradicts its appearance as obvious Good (Baudrillard,  2002:98-100). McCallam (2012) follows up this analogy by suggesting that terrorism works in a similar manner to earthquakes, exploiting faultlines the system relies on. ‘To what degree’, he asks, ‘might the Earth itself be conceived of as “terrorist”?’ (2012:216). Fascination is associated with the sublimity of nature, and by extension, by its horrifying power.

Reactive Networks and the Return of Meaning

The system cannot see the level of symbolic exchange, and therefore, can only process insurgency and armed opposition (which it labels “terrorism”) on the level of its surface expressions and effects. Yet it is primarily an affective phenomenon. There are shadows of Baudrillard’s “imaginary realm” in all the small-world networks (Sageman, 2004) which construct distinct worldviews without reference to “society”, worldviews which are emotionally powerful but often entirely irrational. They often use initiations, rebirth metaphors, and intense symbolism. There is not necessarily anything politically radical about them (many are far-right or fundamentalist); however, they carry a charge of symbolic exchange which renders them threatening to the system. There is always a danger that they will simply be captured and used as sources of meaning to prolong the system’s halflife. In small wars, the unwinnable nature of “terrorism” creates hurting stalemates which can defeat powerful adversaries or force compromises; “terrorism” here overlaps with the field of “deterrence”, where the power of several forces to destabilise structures is the source of peace or war among them.

As “society” implodes, fails to produce meaning, and suppresses or casts out growing swathes of people, the tendency to form “counter-societies”, to regenerate symbolic exchange and meaning without reference to the dominant system, becomes prevalent. I have discussed this elsewhere (Robinson, 2018) in relation to ASMs. However, it is equally true of groups such as gangs (Charles, 2002) and armed opposition groups (Sageman, 2004). The system thus contains a strong tendency to throw off fragments on lines of flight away from it. The containment of the 1960s/70s revolutionary wave (which drew strongly on this tendency) has taken the form of systematic antiproduction of the reproductive power of countersocieties – attempts to destroy their means to proliferate and survive, such as territorial power, moments (such as protest) where control breaks down, reproductive practices such as squatting, and cultural expressions. In cases like state collapse in Somalia, the process of dispersal is sufficient to collapse systemic power (see Menkhaus, 2007; Lewis, 2008). The system has tried to keep its implosion within manageable limits through antiproduction and devivification. Such loss of vital force affects ASMs worse than RSMs, and drives RSMs to become increasingly nihilistic and misanthropic. Antiproduction has limited leeway in suppressing forces rooted in the death-drive, ie. the same forces as itself.

What is being returned in mass atrocities is historical trauma. The system functions without meaning except on the surface. But below the surface, everyday violence arising from historical traumas and persistent scarcity is very common (see Fanon, 1963; deGruy, 2005; Duran and Duran, 1995). The cluster of meaning-seeking/thrill-seeking activities driven by desperation and self-deadening range from reckless actions to addictions. There is also a latent rage born of humiliation. The reversal of such violence in spectacular atrocities is in fact a systematic effect of the dominant system, what it is and what it does, but it seems to come from nowhere because the everyday suffering it “reverses” is invisible (and in any case, is not of a kind that the system could “see”, since it is non-cybernetic, affective, unconscious).

If one cross-reads different works, there is an emerging “class structure” in Baudrillard’s theory. The shrinking included layers (including much of the left) continue to believe the system has meaning and to contribute reproductive labour to sustain it. The masses resist in a sense, but passively. Finally, the desert of meaning creates a new wilderness in which more actively inclined groups reconfigure as neo-tribes, seizing back bits of symbolic exchange. Here, things get complicated, because neo-tribes may or may not be politically radical. I have previously attempted to theorise this issue in terms of the Deleuzo-Nietzschean distinction between active and reactive forces (Karatzogianni and Robinson, 2009). However, autonomist neo-tribes have declined of late, leaving much of the field to the reactive variant. As Baudrillard suggests, most of the left has become complicit in the self-reproducing logic of the Spectacle, providing free reproductive labour in keeping up the illusions of production and meaning. This has worsened since Baudrillard’s day; social media pile-ons are a perfect example.

The pursuit of meaning continues on a grassroots level. Without left or autonomous channels, this pursuit often takes either rightist or apolitical forms. For example, Middle East scholars generally recognise that Islamism has captured much of the affective power which was previously held by left-populist Arab nationalists, but lost by the latter through a mixture of betrayals and historic defeats (particularly neoliberalisation). It draws on the restive youth stratum with no place in the dominant society, but also on emergent, subordinate fractions of capital which rely on moralised networking for success, and on poor and middling rural groups excluded from modernist ideology. The “relative surplus population” (Clover, 2016; Karatasli et al., 2015) with no stake in “society” are particularly drawn to countersocieties.

In his Gulf War essays, Baudrillard recognises that symbolic forces are still partly active in the Middle East. In his theory of the masses, Baudrillard is talking about conformist people in the global North and possibly the middle-classes of the South. What are sometimes called the “popular classes” are not yet fully part of the masses. It should also be noted that the Southern popular classes were not so easily drawn into lockdowns during the COVID-19 crisis. They are not as spectacularly “managed” as “the masses”.

The armed opposition groups and aggrieved “lone wolves” who are classified as “terrorist”, generally belong to the broader field of reactive social movements (Karatzogianni and Robinson, 2009). These are groups which actively cathect desire, producing a kind of group phantasy and symbolic exchange, but which are also expressive of the reactive structure of desire which is produced by conditions of scarcity and the loss of meaning. This echoes Reich’s (1940) observation that fascism is ambiguous and contains an anti-capitalist component. Counterinsurgency discourses of “radicalisation” and “conveyor belts” – which treat people as cybernetic nodes who simply receive and duplicate signals, and seek to stop the process by escalating repression against unwanted signals – must be dispensed with. People become part of social movements (including RSMs) because these movements provide channels for desires, needs, aspirations, and forms of life. RSMs provide the “relative surplus population” or “restive youth stratum” with a source of meaning, recognition, political power, status, fellowship, and in some cases money

The structure of desire in reactive social movements may well be similar to that theorised by Theweleit (1987, 1989). It must be emphasised that this is not the standard “toxic masculinity” theory, though it overlaps with it; the standard theory has much in common with counterinsurgency ideology, in that it remains on the surface, focuses on bad ideas, and emphasises self-change. Instead, Theweleit uses dynamic models of the psyche, with a strong focus on bioenergetic flows and the unconscious. Just as a blocked river does not disappear, but is rerouted or increased in force, so psychological damming does not make forces disappear. There is a particular soldier-male type who turns to fascism, and probably to fundamentalism, ethnopolitics, or gangs, because of a formation of desire generated by the context of cybernetic meaninglessness which Baudrillard theorises.

It is useful to cross-read Baudrillard with Theweleit, so as to situate armed opposition in a reactive context. The soldier-males who turns to fascism (and possibly all the reactive ideologies) do not develop ‘autonomous life-sustaining functions’ such as scrutiny and sublimation, insread outsourcing these via their body-armour to institutions and rulers (1989:259). There is not a  natural death-drive, as Freud thought; rather, the apparent death-drive is the form taken by the desire for release from chronic bodily tension in a pain-body structure.

Their root personality is symbiotic (1987:45; 1989:211), or what is elsewhere called schizoid (Klein, 1996; Lowen, 1967). This is what happens when there is too little pleasure or the body shuts down to avoid feeling unbearable displeasure. Egos are either weak or fragmentary (1987:204). They are not “Oedipal” and seem incapable of object-relations. They use language mainly to annihilate others (1987:215). Unable to form standard egos based on the body surface, they form substitute egos based on external structures, constituted through bodily pain, and taking the form of an armoured body which fits easily into similarly-armoured aggregates (1989:164). This kind of ego is literally beaten into people through harsh punishment or education. The person’s interior is saturated with aggression, which is generally kept in some degree of check through character-armour. But there is also fear that these boundaries will dissolve through contact with outer intensities or “floods” (1989:220). They identify their id with ego and chaos, and further identify these with any external forces which threaten their rigidity. This is not an illusion; Theweleit believes they literally do succumb to ego-decomposition in the face of outer “floods”.

These reactive actors fear annihilation, and thus both internal desire and engulfment by the other. With pleasure blocked, a fragile secondary ego is created through the experience of the body as a site of pain. Their metaphors contrast the rigid rock they wish to be with all kinds of floods, flows and morasses, experienced as threats. Flows which might otherwise bring pleasure are perceived as a threat of destruction, of “going under”, and thus to be dammed (1987:266). Images of rigidity – of becoming a rock or iceberg – are commonly valorised (1987:322). These images reflect a standard response to terror: freezing up to prevent feeling. When aroused, they become afraid and make themselves rigid to master their emotions (1987:199). They both desire and fear collision with threatening “floods” (1987:233-4). Sexual desire barely appears. Instead there is a desire for fusion with others and for altered consciousness (1987:206). Denied symbolic exchange through the pleasure-principle, they develop a pain-principle which is a kind of fatal revenge of the drive for release. They form asexual male brotherhoods as an alternative to sexuality, an anti-sexual alternative (1987:54-6), seeking ecstasy in violence. This leads to the replacement of sex by violence, which is often described in sexualised terms (1987:43-4). ‘The principal goal of the machine seems to be to keep itself moving. It is entirely closed to the external world’ (1989:154).

They operate mainly through devivification – stripping the threatening life-force from anything which lives and flows, including themselves. This can include idealisation and negative stereotyping, as well as killing and controlling. Prejudice is not the driving force, but a side-effect of the fear of flows and life. They do not simply project onto others, but imaginatively annihilate what they perceive and replace it by fixed ideas (1987:87). The targets are typically those which are full of life or affect, and thus threaten rigidity.

They seek a kind of negative orgasm in experiences of destruction. They scan the environment for threats (life, flows), deanimate these with their gaze, then destroy them (1987:217). Hence, ‘the soldier male’s activity is constantly directed toward the attainment of three perceptions: the “empty space”, the “bloody miasma”, and the inundation of consciousness in “blackout”’ (1989:271). These means operate precisely as substitute forms of symbolic exchange for people denied exchange in the sexual and social fields – and is thus the internal defeat of devivification. In a massacre, the body-armour hammered into the fascist dissolves ‘to allow his emotions to erupt with all their true intensity’ (1989:38). This involves trying to become an ego, by destroying the unconscious identifies with the other (1989:384). However, it is also a symbolic experience of fusion, and a release for the hated id. Killing or devivifying a threatening, living thing brings a sense of relief (1987:191). Killing satisfies contradictory desires to penetrate or be close, and to push away. It is described in mystical terms, and carried out in a trancelike state which escapes guilt and responsibility, because it involves one’s own ego-dissolution (1987:190, 197, 204-5).

The current capitalist code is a machine for moulding soldier-males, much like the drill-camps discussed by Theweleit. Today it is not drill-camps so much as psychological abuse which produces pain-bodies. A comparison with Berardi (2015) shows how similar today’s processes are. Experiences of petty discipline, disposability, rejection, and a tide of banality and sadism, produce reactions of rage, misanthropy which echoes the system’s own indifference, and a desire to mean something by becoming a “hero” through death. This explains the return of fascism, but also more. People who cannot become fascists due to race, nationality, and suchlike may form other male brotherhoods with a similar libidinal structure. Antifascism all too often counterposes its own emotionally plagued, pain-body reactions with their own fascisant logic to those of fascism; fascists, “terrorists”, macho gangs, channers and fandoms, can all too easily be seen as threatening flows of desire and affect (hatred, anger, sexuality, pleasure…) against which others must turn to stone.

Dominant theories wrongly think about reactive ideologies as cybernetic signals or narratives, to be blocked or silenced. In fact, reactive ideologies are effects of a pre-existing reactive mode of being, which they rationalise or channel. Misanthropic violence is not an error in thinking, but a set of feelings – at root, the fact that pleasure is replaced or supplemented by negative feelings (1987:416-17). One needs to be able to feel how the desiring-machine works to fight it (1987:226). One cannot simply disrupt these movements. Take them apart and the egos collapse, but the pieces ‘go flying across the landscape like shrapnel’ (1989:207). And there is a deep complicity between the fascist body-type and counterinsurgency ideology itself. Counterinsurgency is an ideology of devivification, and it is highly disruptive of the active movements which produce pleasure-type symbolic exchange.

Systems which decompose pleasure-bodies and build pain-bodies are fascogenic. The code saps pleasure and encourages fear; this is embedded in the micro-control mechanisms of performance management in policing, schools, workplaces, etc. The post-9/11 police-state globalisation process is fascogenic; it matters little if it also touts “inclusion” and uses counterinsurgency methods against fascists. In any case, counterinsurgency is also fascisant in its antiproductive distaste for life, and its preference for sterile controlled spaces. Cybernetically-informed social movements operate like the code’s own control systems, relying on outer nudges, feedback mechanisms, spatial control, and shaming to coerce “behaviour change” on the assumption that people are effects of outer relations. Psychoanalytically-informed social movements look more like those of the 1960s-70s – disinhibitory, tolerant of idiosyncrasy, suspicious of rules and institutions, and productive of flow-states and peak experiences. This is the kind of movement which can destroy fascism, since it offers something – pleasure – which the enemy cannot outbid.

The Absurdities of Counterinsurgency Ideology

Counterinsurgency theory blames armed opposition attacks on “radicalisation”, which they blame in turn on “extremist ideology”. Their working model is that “vulnerable” individuals (who differ only marginally from the norm) are injected from outside with bad thoughts joined together in a bad narrative, which become habitual and preconscious (there is no unconscious in this theory), and eventually generate “behaviours”. The response is to seek to cut off the process of “radicalisation” either by stopping exposure to bad thoughts (using censorship and criminalisation), by cutting the process off before it reaches its conclusion, or by isolating the bad actors from the population so as to contain “radicalisation” to manageable levels. People are assumed to be cybernetic nodes who exist entirely on the surface and on the outside of the body; insurgency is a problem of controlling which signals are sent and received. The grievances (individual and collective) underlying opposition are downplayed; they are recognised in the COIN literature, but may not be voiced in public, since this fuels the bad “narrative”.

This theory does not recognise affect or symbolic exchange; there is no inner self, only cybernetic nodes. This leads to a contradiction of insisting that people are entirely effects of external cybernetic systems and yet nonetheless fully responsible for their “behaviour” (a claim generally appended to the end as if to contain the implications of what went before – as if this is some kind of secular/religious split where scientists must be careful not to debunk dogma). In COIN, the system does act as if it is in a constant war; whoever is in power falls in line with the same rhetoric and model, and the opposition, judiciary, and media imitate it. That Baudrillard is right about global war is clear from the responses: in peacetime, only normal laws apply; since 9/11, securitised exception is the norm. Rebels are treated like enemies – in fact, usually worse than prisoners-of-war – and media coverage follows the counterinsurgency script in a wartime manner. Of course, part of this script is denying that there’s a war on.

There is also a standard Third Way strategy which seeks to manage the meaninglessness of the system’s reproduction and/or its inhuman effects through the addition of an ethical, educational, therapeutic, or spiritual/religious level which acts as a supplement to the system’s functioning, requiring of individuals a work of self-change and mutual policing (with social credit as the end-point). This self-change work is unremunerated reproductive labour which serves to recreate a sense of meaning which attaches itself to, and thus sustains, the system, but which the system itself does not have to generate.

Counterinsurgency ideology does, however, correctly see and respond to the symbolic force of “terrorism”, even without understand it. The term “glorification of terrorism” – a thought-crime in Britain – suggests fear of the symbolic dimension of prohibited beliefs, their ability to develop romantic, sublime or passionate affects. (Recognising the sacrificial, “martyrdom” aspect of suicidal attacks is one of the prohibited statements). Draconian practices of seeking to deny “terrorists” or their sympathisers a media “platform” using censorship, special laws, closed trials, closures of social media accounts, prison communication bans, supermax regimes, suppression of “manifestos” and so on, suggests an awareness that these discourses possess symbolic force. Yet such measures also involve a fundamental denialism. They are a fundamental threat to the right of the public to study and understand terrorism, and to the historians of the future, as well as to the people directly silenced. (Had this regime existed in the past, we would be denied the works of Gramsci, Negri, Bakhtin and others; Theweleit’s work would also have been impossible). It is effectively an attempt to “shoot the messenger”, to prevent the effect without looking at why particular discourses have symbolic resonance – to devivify and not to resolve. One can compare the similar absurdity of police killing people to prevent them from committing suicide, which has happened, at least, in Tibet – and in America, if one includes cases where police kill during “welfare checks” on suicidal or self-harming people. (China also covers-up spree-killings); not to mention the treatment of hoaxing, and innocent practices which trigger security alerts (such as protests at airports), as “terrorist” simply because of the overreaction to them.

Counterinsurgency theory ignores two particularly large elephants in the room: firstly that drastic (and often suicidal) acts are motivated by extreme suffering and desperation, and secondly that reactive desire-structures are cathexes of libido in particular circumstances of suffering and scarcity. The root causal logics of insurgency take place at the level of symbolic exchange. Having studied Baudrillard, it is hard not to see “reversibility” in the gesture of meeting mass-murder with mass-murder, of meeting the ruination and disposability of one’s own life by returning ruination and disposability onto “society”. It does not escape from the logic of devivification; it intensifies it to the point of implosion. It does not prefigure a better society, but it does fatally reverse the concentration of power. It might continue to fascinate and horrify, but it is not in any sense mysterious. The system wants to have causes without consequences, an endless one-way violence which wages war without its ever being returned.

Ecstatic Media Events and Devivification as Counterinsurgency

The main counterinsurgency method in the information sphere is the treatment of “terror” attacks and disasters as ecstatic media events (Chouliaraki, 2006). Ecstatic media events are created by covering a particular crisis with the highest intensity, encouraging identification (not just sympathy) with others’ suffering, and creating an imperative to act. The suffering depicted is constructed as “our” suffering, with a sense of ‘everywhereness’ lacking localisation, extensive live and discontinuous coverage, and an emotive tone (Chouliaraki, 2006:10-11, 158). It appeals strongly to emotions, but dresses itself up as ‘hard evidence’, concealing the emotions to which it appeals (2006:169-70). It singles out particular sufferers as the privileged objects of compassion, care, and retaliation, despite the much larger suffering elsewhere (2006:180). To the extent that people fall for it, they become participants in a managed emotional plague (cf. Reich, 1945) in which the powerful monopolise the means of emotional production. It thus has an event-like quality of interrupting normal time (Dayan and Katz, 1992:60-1). In ecstatic events, “forced to permit” disappears; there is only “unable to prevent”.

The script is all too predictable: a massive attack generates an ecstatic media event, which creates a climate where exceptional “lockdown” measures are tolerated and even bayed-for; this climate is used as a shield for real counterinsurgency measures (roundups of “suspects”, violent raids, house-to-house searches, terrorisation of minorities, frame-ups…) which take place with little scrutiny. Securitisation rests on a distinction between exceptional and normal spheres (Waever, 2003). Ecstatic media events thus make it easier to securitise particular issues, and even generate demands from the masses to securitise, in excess over the system’s needs. There is always disproportion involved which seems absurd to anyone who is not part of the emotional outpouring; few die from “terrorism” compared to car accidents, suicide, domestic violence, poverty (and few die of COVID-19 compared to curable diseases like tuberculosis and AIDS). Ecstatic media events operate through a focus on a single, hypervisible, emotionally compulsive issue, as if it trumps everything else.

I have previously argued that panics and securitisation involve a kind of madness in the social hivemind (Karatzogianni and Robinson, 2019). This reflects Virilio’s observation: ‘We are facing the emergence of a real, collective madness reinforced by the synchronization of emotions… We have entered a time of generalized panic’ (Virilio, 2012:75). This is fuelled by a “communism of emotions”, a synchronisation of emotional responses brought about by telepresence, and the resultant ability for people worldwide to feel the same (manipulated) emotions. ‘The hivemind is watching; failure to register the correct emotional response in personally tailored self-expressions is taken as sympathy with the attacker, and therefore as risk. Social credit, western style.’ (Karatzogianni and Robinson, 2019:np)

Atrocities and disasters in the global South are not typically ecstatic media events in the North. Of course, they also attract widespread coverage which is criticised for racism, Orientalism, colonialism, essentialism, and exterminatory imagery (Mirzoeff, 2005; Dabashi, 2008:ix-x; Said, 2003:206, 1981; Razack, 2004; Malkii, 1996). This can also lead to western atrocities and localised disasters. However, the resultant disaster tends not to affect the west itself. The entire framing of the situation rests on the contrast between the deterred, secure, managed North and zones of chaos “outside” it. Critiques of the racialised nature of the frame, its elision of Northern “complicity”, and its ahistorical mythmaking, generally overlook the important Baudrillardian fact that it also repeats the standard media cleavage involved in the split between programming and advertising. Zones of crisis have to be “othered”, not primarily to reinforce western egos, but to create the illusion that the system’s reproduction is providing something meaningful. The viewer is encouraged to invest the scenario, not as a superior rational ego, but as a hostage who is passively protected from such horrors.

The media largely determines whether a given event becomes ecstatic. It does this in line with news values which are implicitly (but indirectly) politicised. However, it seems to need some degree of cross-partisan appeal, and support from the political establishment. Police murders of black people never become ecstatic events. Chouliaraki theorises three frames or coverage styles within a hierarchy of pity: adventure news (short, emotively light coverage), emergency news (standard to faraway crises, evoking pity and some degree of call for action), and ecstatic news. There is a ‘hierarchy of pity’ as to which suffering is ecstaticised (Chouliaraki, 2006:189). 30 deaths in Paris are worth more ecstatic outcry than 500 in Mogadishu. But the response must not be to further expand ecstatic fascination to more and more people so as to render them grievable (the standard leftist tactic today); this aids the system’s counterinsurgency structure.

People generally will not accept exceptional responses, or comply with requests for extensive participatory self-management, in relation to ordinary events. They will do so on a huge scale in ecstatic events. In the COVID-19 emergency one sees how easily people sacrifice long-held commitments (from religion to friendship to sexual freedom to the right to protest); in Brussels one saw how people will curtail their own social media posting and even spam and disrupt others, in line with police requests for a media blackout. Yet the ecstatic nature of the event decreases with time; so, too, does “compliance” with COVID-19 lockdowns, and they begin to be outright ignored the moment the story is eclipsed in the news cycle.

One feature of ecstatic media events is that they impose norms of compulsory emotional participation. This is facilitated by the emotive force of social media and resultant ‘mobile witnessing’ (Reading, 2009; cf Papailias, 2016). It involves media coverage with a tone of ’emotional correctness’ (Hume, 2020), in violation of earlier objectivity norms. There is an immediate, superficial classification of dissent as an emotional and moral failing – for instance, “not caring about vulnerable people or the health service”; or it is implied, very simplistically, that such a person is “in denial” about “reality” or “necessity”. Certain claims are forbidden, either directly (criminalisation, social media censorship) or by being placed outside the Overton window. This is certainly not an improvement on the old “objectivity”. The discursive exceptionalism is overwhelming: there is a denkverbot on relativising, for example by comparing “terrorism” to war or COVID-19 to flu, “whataboutism”, “conspiracy theories”, questioning the veracity or official account, blaming “terrorism” on justified grievances or on “foreign policy”, or saying “one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” are effectively off-limits. As a result, the exceptional response is shielded from scrutiny – whether rational or emotive. The moral decision is made, not by each viewer, but by the media hivemind (see Berardi, 2016). This moral outsourcing (Nichilista, 2016) leads to an Eichmann-like moral idiocy, so effectively parodied in the NPC meme. Incidentally, the paragons of university ethics courses and left-leaning social science all too often embrace the tendency towards moral outsourcing under kitsch-Levinasian or relationalist cloaks (for example, the idea that it is possible and desirable to “teach values”, rather than values arising from an embodied ethos).

Ecstatic media events attempt to neutralise the symbolic terror of “terrorism”, but they only partially succeed. Baudrillard rightly argues that “terrorism” disrupts meaning because it fascinates. The audience may be terrified, enraged, condemnatory; the important point, however, is that they are glued to their screens, torn out of the normal cycles of everyday life, paralysed in terms of thought and action – and thus stop providing the reproductive labour the system needs in order to keep up the appearance of meaning. Ecstatic media events, with their compulsory emotional participation in counterinsurgency, are the recuperation of fascination by the code. The inactivity of populations (such as not posting on social media) becomes a source of meaning the system can use. But it can use it only indirectly: the paralysed population is useful because it clears space for an active agent (the police or similar agencies) to engage in active counterinsurgency. As Baudrillard already suggested, ecstatic media events involve ‘general mobilization, dissuasion, pacification and mental socialization’ through a crystalization of attention (1983:123). If fascination is held by meaning (in the sense of representation, not affective meaning), the system survives its near-death experience.

An ecstatic event is not simply fascinating – although it is fascinating. It is also managed in such a way as to produce a supply of meaning to the system and sustain its reproduction. In effect, these events “milk” the audience of its capacity to generate affective responses by triggering affects of terror and panic. The process of “milking” audiences as limited to strata which are fully massified, yet not fully deadened of their capacity for meaning. It is less effective among the global poor, or the more marginal strata in the North; it does not affect those who distrust the mainstream media. It also tends to decrease through time in relation to a given class of event. The more “normal” such events become, the less ecstatic they seem, and the harder it is to keep up counterinsurgency.

Ecstatic media events obtain visibility for armed opposition groups. They also serve as a channel or cathexis for desires to destroy or regenerate meaning, to avenge grievances on an epic scale, etc. It is no coincidence that the label “al-Qaeda” – apparently invented by America to give a false image of coherence to a loose network, and thus convert a belief-system into a fictional organisation – was rapidly taken up by a plethora of small groups, some of which (such as the Algerian GSPC) were previously unknown, as a way to increase their visibility. It seems likely that people now carry out mass-casualty attacks because they generate these kinds of events. Hence the significance of beheading videos. Islamist groups do not simply commit atrocities. That is common enough among states, but relies on invisibility; its appearance in the Spectacle (the Abu Ghraib photos, the Wikileaks revelations, videos of murders or beatings by police…) destabilises the system. Islamist groups are different. They display their atrocities as Spectacle, put them on display, boast about them. The idea of using atrocities as propaganda for recruitment purposes is unprecedented. Most viewers are no doubt horrified, but just as significantly, fascinated. Some, presumably, are fascinated and also inspired, to the point where the videos function as propaganda. Atrocities rae propaganda because they offer symbolic exchange, but in a reactive form.

Evidently the process is not well-controlled; there is a slippage (whether from the active securitisation of issues by political actors, or the news values of media) towards the extension of the “terrorist” exception to all kinds of other problems, from gang feuds to school shootings. It also tends to expand beyond human actions. For the system, natural disasters are not primarily humanitarian catastrophes, but threats to its control. The main issue is to stay rigid, to avoid an excessive proliferation of uncontained actors, to ensure operations are “coordinated” (with the weight of the fascist Gleichschaltung), so the system can keep disavowing its own collapse. The cost, however, is that the system stakes its existence more and more on devivification. And it corrodes more and more the reproductive labour it repleis on. “Society” is less and less the substance or even the illusion of life, but becomes something which is turned on and off at will. As

we shall see, this is how counterinsurgency becomes suicidal.

The Failure of Counterinsurgency

Deviance amplification and reactance theories have long demonstrated that repression usually fails in its explicit goal. Repression may disrupt or displace temporary structures, and reduce the capacity to act, but it also increases the antagonism between deviants and the system and increases the will to act. The media plays a role in this: moral panics provide appealing models of symbolically effective deviance and tend to produce the problems they initially invent or exaggerate. Assessed in the short-term, a crackdown will often seem to “work” – a targeted form of deviance in a targeted area will statistically decrease – but in the medium-term, deviant actors will work around the blockage and in many cases “radicalise” (for example, the drug trade shifts from counterculture home-brewers to organised gangs).

The “war on terror” has failed in exactly this way. It never reduced the number of attacks (the US eventually stopped talling global figures for this reason); but it disrupted the modus operandi of existing groups and created an appearance of success. This appearance was broken decisively after 2011, as Syria, Libya and Yemen fell into civil war, and latent desires found sites of expression. ISIS may be more “extreme” than al-Qaeda, and closer to the western stereotype of what al-Qaeda was. And its pulling power was significant: thousands travelled to fight and die in Syria, far more than in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2015, mass-casualty attacks were back on a huge scale, this time using tools and weapons (such as vehicles and knives) which get around the blockages created by counterinsurgency. They were soon to be joined by similar attacks by a much wider range of social actors outside the Islamist constituency: neo-Nazis, incels, militia members, radical individualists, apolitical individuals. The far-right and anti-Muslim component is particularly revealing in that it is in many regards Baudrillardian overconformity: an identification with, and following-through of, the fatal dimension of counterinsurgency reasoning itself (a Nazi who slaughters Muslims is in many regards doing what the system told him to do, but to an extent that is dangerous for the system – indeed, which is similar to what the system incited Islamophobia in order to prevent).

The tactical and affective similarities among the different classes of attacks shows the fallacy of the earlier focus on “extremist ideology” as the driver of armed opposition; ideology is a channel which renders insurgent affects ego-syntonic, a replaceable and unnecessary component. (The connection of mass killing to militarisation – the number of attackers of all types who have some connection, real or imaginary, to the army or police – is also clearly linked to the impact of post-9/11 securitisation and the growing militarisation and securitisation of society, reinvested and given symbolic force). There were, of course, far-right and apolitical massacres prior to securitisation, but they have become more frequent and more fragmentary. In the longue duree, this shows how counterinsurgency has failed, and indeed, made things worse. Yet part of the counterinsurgency script is its own naturalisation; the relationship between armed opposition, global inequalities, and war has been turned into a public secret. As a result, it is hard for anyone to recognise failure when it happens. Instead, people keep “escalating”, deploying the same scripts (cf Illich, 1971). Counterinsurgency has been naturalised, and the duty not to undermine the narrative too often trumps exposure of such failings.People continue to believe in the “war on terror”, but the idea of winning this war is increasingly absent; the real logic of the situation – a series of increasingly random and arbitrary acts of control (Negri, 2005:245) – is increasingly apparent.

The Implosion of Counterinsurgency?

Counterinsurgency has not only failed; it has turned into a kind of suicide of the system. This becomes clear in the COVID-19 crisis. An emerging issue obtains media salience; people bay for action. An ecstatic media event emerges. The system looks powerless. The system responds in the manner which has become habitual when faced with the threat of its own collapse: lockdown. In this case, it is widely recognised as devivification (Vaneigem, 2020; Agamben, 2020; Sanguinetti, 2020). But lockdown does not stop the crisis, and it drags on indefinitely. The system destroys the very bases for its simulation of meaning: the economy, everyday social life, regularity and order.

People are unable to take seriously a threat which comes through the media. When it arrives, they look to the system to “restore order”. Then they struggle to handle the real consequences of devivification, to take responsibility for the new rules they demanded. Everyone is “for” the lockdown because the polls are just tests: to not be “for” the lockdown is to be beyond the pale. But people break and bend the rules in a million ways, sometimes oblivious to the fact that they are doing so.

I have suggested elsewhere (McLaverty-Robinson, 2020) that COVID-19 lockdowns are a kind of securitisation, which has crept across from the security field and not from inside biomedicine. The “new threats” discourse securitised a wide range of social problems, primarily for purposes of prevention and deterrence, but with the risk that any crisis in any of these areas could carry a charge of symbolic exchange (in state jargon, an “existential threat”). There is nothing logical in responding to a health crisis with police and troops. Creeping securitisation, along with health cuts and moral panics, encourages a securitised response. Social distancing stems logically from the common tendency in the system to portray other people as risky or contagious. It is a type of devivification which shuts down life in general to stop unwanted, fatal exchanges. Yet securitisation of healthcare may be counterproductive even for the system. The timeframes involved are far greater than those in “terror” crises.

Baudrillard refers to the system blackmailing people into conformity by surrounding them with threats of their own death, metaphorically burying them in a sarcophagus to stop them from dying (1976:177). Lockdown is this logic carried out literally – and maybe fatally. Baudrillard suggests that the system may implode when it launches its antibodies at the one point of rupture which becomes so dense as to involute the system’s effectiveness (1983:120). This seems a good model of what has now happened. Securitisation trumps other issues to such an extent that the system neglects its own survival, bringing about an immense economic collapse. As in terrorism, western populations are forced into history. This is experienced as insecurity, and the system attempts to restore simulation by shutting down life.

Lockdown would not be possible were it not for the fact that consumption practices are already undercathected, so that turning them on and off does not produce outrage. Yet suspending consumerism restores some of its value. The closing and reopening of McDonald’s lead to queues and crowds reminiscent of Black Friday. The libidinal importance of televised sports or religious services is foregrounded by their absence.

Leftists have all too often defanged the disruptive effects by rallying to technocratic rule and focusing on point-scoring against populists such as Trump and Bolsonaro. Yet the populist style identified with Trump (but now common among world leaders) is also a form of paralysis-by-fascination: Trump is successful because he makes it hard to look away (Ott, 2017; Hall et al., 2016).

It has devastated the economy, making the economic crash (which was coming anyway) much larger in scale; it has deadened social life to the point where the minimal reproductive labour needed to keep up appearances is lacking; it has overstrained compulsory emotional participation to the point of psychological collapse. Just as significantly, it has produced a collapse of meaning expressed in suicides (Hollyfield, 2020). The crisis has been severe enough to “deter” social life as such. “Terrorists” have attacked concerts, tourism, mass gatherings – but never managed to shut them down for more than a few days (even then, mainly via the police-state reaction). Now the west has done to itself what its enemies dreamed of.

Conclusion: Where Now?

It remains to be seen how deep the damage to the system has been, whether it can revive some kind of meaning, and whether the immense repressive machineries built-up since 9/11 will be sufficient to keep some kind of structure in place. The system will have to find a new way to generate affective meaning if it is to recover into a new phase. But this suicidal gesture shows structural problems which may be insuperable. Whether it survives or not, the system will continue to fail to produce affective meaning. Baudrillard has previously called for a move beyond respect for life into respecting in the other and oneself ‘something other than, and more, than, life… a destiny, a cause, a form of pride or of sacrifice’, and a ‘higher freedom’ one can dispose of ‘to the point of abusing or sacrificing it’ (2002:68-9). Once more, this echoes Situationism – and especially the concept of nima developed in the anarchist work Bolo’Bolo (PM, 1983). Such grassroots recomposition is the way forward to recreate symbolic exchange and affective meaning.


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Andrew McLaverty-Robinson


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