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Economy of violence

This music video by MIA can be difficult to watch or stomach. It is a provocative view into the latest security protocols practiced in such places as occupied Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan by the occupying ‘police’ forces.

It reminds me of something from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, in which an untouchable is beaten for the perceived crime of threatening the social order. Twin children watch as the police essentially murder their friend. The video and Roy’s writing also brings to my mind the atrocity of media depictions of some prolonged police brutality against the innocent who are externalized as radicals or immigrants or what have you by a government such as in Canada, the US, or India. In such cases a person might be beaten (or tasered) to death on spontaneous suspicion of criminality (say, potential terrorism), later found innocent, and then follows the media coverage of the incident. The police brutality is often falsely represented as psychological breakdowns or madness within individual police officers (merely a glitch in the system) rather than depicting the beatings as a natural response of a system doling out an economy of violence.

From Roy’s The God of Small Things:

The twins were too young to know that these were only history’s henchmen. Sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke its laws. Impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal. Feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear – civilization’s fear or nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness.

Man’s subliminal urge to destroy what he could neither subdue nor deify.

Men’s Needs.

What Esthappen and Rahel witnessed that morning, though they didn’t know it then, was a clinical demonstration in controlled conditions (this was not war after all, or genocide) of human nature’s pursuit of ascendancy. Structure. Order. Complete monopoly. It was human history, masquerading as God’s Purpose, revealing herself to an under-age audience.

There was nothing accidental about what happened that morning. Nothing incidental. It was no stray mugging or personal settling of scores. This was an era imprinting itself on those who lived it.

History in live performance.

If they hurt Velutha more than they intended to, it was only because any kinship, any connection between themselves and him, any implication that it nothing else, at least biologically he was a fellow creature – had been severed long ago. They were not arresting a man, they were exorcizing fear. They had no instrument to calibrate how much punishment he could take. No means of gauging how much or how permanently they had damaged him.

Unlike the custom of rampaging religious mobs or conquering armies running riot, that morning in the Heart of Darkness the posse of Touchable Policemen acted with economy, not frenzy. Efficiency, not anarchy. Responsibility, not hysteria. They didn’t tear out his hair or burn him alive. They didn’t hack off his genitals and stuff them in his mouth. They didn’t rape him. Or behead him.

After all, they were not battling an epidemic. They were merely inoculating a community against an outbreak.

This economy of violence springs from the foundation of the state/government which in its inception perpetrates a violent exclusion in order to define its narrow identity. Even worse, it repeats and reproduces the violence by insisting on a universality that falsely claims absolute freedom for those who comply. This is what people who are deemed external/other or in contradiction to the system of power are often faced with on national and international stages.

Judith Butler from a chapter entitled Restating the Universal within the book Contingency, Hegemony, Universality:

Thus  the government is established on the basis of a paranoid economy in which  it must repeatedly establish  its  one  claim  to universality by  erasing  all  remnants of  those wills  it  excludes  from  the domain  of  representation.  Those  whose wills  are  not  officially  represented  or  recognized  constitute  ‘an  unreal  pure will’, and since that will is not known, it is incessantly conjectured and suspected. In an apparently paranoid fit, universality thus displays and enacts the violent separations of its own founding. Absolute freedom becomes this abstract  self-consciousness  which  understands  annihilation  to  be  its work,  and effaces  (annihilates)  all  trace  of the alterity that clings to  it.

I remember a video clip of an armed US solider in Iraq yelling like an angry schoolmaster at Iraqi civilians around him: “We’re here for your fucking freedom!” I might shake my head in disgust at this but there’s a perverse logic to what he says. I think he’s talking about a completely different definition of freedom, the freedom of an unrestricted ideology: the illusion of freedom delivered by a dominant power representing its specific ideals as (a false) universal. It is the freedom of power in contrast to the freedom of people, and, especially at the margins of international power such as in Afghanistan, it can be delivered “within the condition of absolute terror”.

  1. George Schmidt
    May 8, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Wow, the video is amazing and your analysis is accurate and impressive.
    I think there are few other journalists who report in this profound way.
    Keep up the good work.

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