There is a strange pattern of intellectual retardation on the Left, when otherwise sophisticated individuals are encountered with the nexus of topics relating to anti-Muslim racism, antisemitism, political Islam, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, etc.
Richard Seymour’s new article in Jacobin on the Paris attack on the office and journalists of the Charlie Hebdo is the latest example of this.
Seymour’s article portrays the attacks in an extremely general way, as if they are somehow a natural (though too violent) response to anti-Muslim racism in France and Europe, rather than being the specific strategic actions taken by specific actors. In his account, even pointing out the specific radical Islam linkages behind this, amounts to supporting state repression against Muslims in general.
While Seymour is absolutely right to warn against an anti-Muslim backlash -- already, multiple mosques have been attacked, and there is reason to fear an increase in an already hostile mood towards Muslims in Europe -- the article is so distorted, that it raises a mystery. This is because his approach here so drastically departs from his otherwise sophisticated analysis of actor groups and strategies.
Seymour’s strength is his deployment of a hegemony theory to understand the development, resilience, and remaking of power blocs. He treats these not as homogenous and undifferentiated objects, but as amalgams of different groups, group interests, and motivations, which sometimes purposefully, sometimes unintentionally join, or are joined together, by common projects.
But in his article on the Paris attacks, this sophisticated approach to social dynamics is entirely lost. It is replaced by mechanical movements between two homogenous forces, a racist French public and an anti-racist Muslim response. Of course, he does not say this so explicitly, but this is the general parameter of his argument that is so upsetting the magazine’s readership. At the root of these vocal objections to Seymour’s portrayal is his article’s silence on the radical Islamic motivations of the actors behind the killings.
In stark contrast to Seymour’s generalised and mechanical portrayal, Juan Cole presents an argument which one might expect of someone like Seymour, and what one can find in the latter’s writings, when dealing with the actor groups and the intentions of competing hegemonic forces. Cole argues that the perpetrators of yesterday’s shootings are linked to a specific group of actors with a specific political strategy.
Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.Here we have a specific focus on actor groups taking strategic action within a specific social context. You can usually find this kind of analysis in Seymour’s other writings, but not when it comes to this topic.
The interesting point here is not simply the stark contrast between portrayals, but the contradiction between Seymour and himself; between his portrayals in his better writings, on actor group plurality and strategic action on the one hand, and his generic and mechanical portrayal in the Jacobin article.
And it is not an uncommon reversion for otherwise intelligent people.Think of Judith Butler’s repeated defense of Hamas and Hezbollah as “left and progressive forces”. In both of these individuals, you cannot convincingly trace these political utterances back to a stable set of theoretical ideas which they hold. It is a disjuncture.
But are these just idiosyncrasies, or is there is a pattern at work, which drives otherwise sophisticated people to trip up, to stumble, to lose intellectual sophistication, and to begin spewing dogmatic cliches?
That’s the real puzzle. Why do otherwise intelligent people revert to vulgar representations and dogmas, when the topic turns to these issues? Why do these complex of issues retard the intellect of intelligent people? That is a mystery.