Terror - it's a truly bourgeois tradition

July 15, 2005

As the debate on terror intensifies, Terry Eagleton delves into the philosophy of terrorism and finds its origins in middle-class anarchy

Terrorism is a surprisingly new invention. Of course human beings have been butchering and dismembering each other since the dawning of time - but terror as a political idea or philosophical "ism", terror graced with an upper-case T rather than the common-or-garden variety, this is of fairly recent vintage. It dates, in fact, from what many would regard as the founding event of the modern epoch, the French Revolution. It was Edmund Burke, in his great polemic against that bloody episode, who gave us what may well be the first English use of the term "terrorist". In this sense, terror and modernity were twinned at birth. In this sense, too, terrorism began as state terrorism, which is how it has, for the most part, continued. Terror has an impeccable bourgeois pedigree. Right from the start, the notion of terror reflected the sense that this new sort of social order - capitalist modernity - had something inherently lawless about it. It could survive only by perpetual transgression. The original anarchist was the entrepreneur. As Brecht remarked: what's robbing a bank compared to founding one?

It was Hegel who first noted this anarchic terror at the very heart of the bourgeois order. The French Revolution, he considered, was the triumph of absolute freedom, or what he scathingly called "the freedom of the void". It was a liberty so pure that any material act could only contaminate it, and it was therefore self-devouring. In striving for everything, it lapsed into nothing. Bourgeois or market freedom is a negative kind of liberty that knows no inherent bonds or bounds, no end or origin, and is thus in Hegel's eyes a form of terror or sublime fury.

Because it is divinely self-generating, it knows no natural closure, like a narrative by Defoe or Beckett. Like desire, it exists secretly for itself.

And for all its materialist disdain for whatever it can't sell, swallow or snort it harbours a virulent hatred of materiality - for the material is thwarting, obstructive stuff, and this ferociously unbounded freedom acknowledges a limit only to transgress it. It needs limits, obstacles and antagonists to be itself; just as the human subject needs an object to emerge into being. But it can flourish only by annihilating them.

So, to translate the matter into a rather more contemporary idiom: if the Soviets have disappeared, you can always try the Muslims. The West needs to keep conjuring enemies into existence, a task conveniently facilitated by the fact that there is no shortage of people who eagerly detest it. But, at the same time, this Western sort of freedom is scandalised by the sheer fact of human finitude and frailty, the creaturely boundedness of the human; and it is thus a dangerously disembodied force. Power lacks a body, and so, as King Lear comes to recognise, it is incapable of feeling the injuries it wreaks on others. Because it is severed from the flesh, it can blow it to pieces without too much compunction. It can see limits only as barriers to humanity, not as constitutive of it. And it is therefore the very epitome of idealism - of that brand of philosophical madness that comes when, like Oedipus or Lear, we are unhinged from the vulnerable body and lose touch with the roots of our own being. It is the kind of crazed hubris that in tragedy can be cured only by being hauled through hell. The world is imperilled not by cynical, hard-nosed pragmatists, but by zealous, wide-eyed moral idealists, most of whom are known as Americans. Idealism of one stripe or another has always been the philosophical rationale of grossly materialist Western regimes. They are, as it were, at once too angelic and too demonic.

Absolute freedom is curiously self-undoing. To subjugate the world, it must first bleach it clean of inherent meanings and values, so that it becomes protean, plastic, infinitely pliable stuff - whether we are speaking of the Middle East or of Michael Jackson's nose, between which I discern a deeply significant connection. Behind the fashionable postmodern vision of plasticity and plurality lurks an iron will that needs to soften the world up so as to reshape it in its own image. Yet what point is there in imposing your imperial will on a world drained of inherent value? It is now the self that legislates meaning and value for a world from which these things seem to have haemorrhaged, but what confers legitimacy on the self? At the apex of its triumph, then, absolute freedom is struck entirely vacuous, and the human subject begins to implode upon itself. It becomes, in Kierkegaard's phrase, a sovereign without a country. In the manic depressive condition of bourgeois modernity, the exultant cry "I am monarch of all I survey!" is only a breath away from the whimper "I am so lonely in this world!".

It should come as no surprise, then, that the dominant myth of the modern West has been the Faust legend - that insatiable aspirant doomed to perpetual disenchantment. For if freedom or desire is infinite (and desire, I would suggest, is simply the robust freedom of the revolutionary bourgeois will seen in the light of its later disenchantment) then how can it not be disappointed by any one of its unavoidably finite expressions? The realisation of desire is a threat to desire itself. This unstaunchable hankering is anguished by the contrast between its own sublime potential and the dingy reality of its own products. For all its ruthless instrumentality, this voracious freedom or desire is in the end all about itself - self-born, self-founding and self-delighting, like those two other candidates for such autotelism, the Almighty and the work of art. (The latter, in fact, is in modern times for the most part a secular substitute for the former. Most aesthetic concepts are theological ones in disguise.) Absolute freedom needs an object to assure itself that it is not tragically alone in the universe, and to guarantee its own objectivity; but at the same time it can't tolerate a world that contains a single particle of matter, since matter is what resists its predatory designs on reality. And then freedom becomes a lot less than absolute.

Against the Faust legend, then, we need to summon that other mighty Western myth, the tale of the broken, blinded Oedipus, who has learnt that the hubris of power and knowledge will end up by putting out your eyes. It is when Oedipus, Lear and their tragic colleagues are forced to confront their own creatureliness that their megalomania gives way to mercy and self-knowledge. Not that they now know who they are, but (most obviously in the case of Oedipus) that they can now come to acknowledge the strangeness and self-opaqueness that lies at the root of all identity. This alien wedge at the very core of the self, without which we would not be able to be ourselves at all, has been granted many names in the course of Western history: the Dionysian, the sublime, God, Geist , Nature, Will, History, Desire, the Real and so on. And Western thought is divided down the middle on the question as to whether this ground of our being is friendly to us, for all its strangeness, or implacably, even maliciously hostile.

There is none so blind as he who believes that he can see everything, just as there is none so ignorant of geography as he who has military bases on every continent. Those who aspire to a global identity are, like Macbeth, overreachers who undo themselves and bring themselves to nothing, toppling from a too-sovereign identity into that realm of chaos, illogic, negativity and semiotic garbling that Shakespeare calls the three witches and that we ourselves know as the unconscious. To aspire to a global identity (and globalisation is a pathological version of what was once the enlightened bourgeois idea of universality) is to bring yourself to nothing, since identity depends on difference; and to crush that difference beneath your heel in the hunt for an absolute selfhood is to end up knowing nothing at all, least of all yourself. Instead, you are stuck with yourself for ever, like some bar-room bore. And this is a traditional image of hell that is terrible not because of all those wickedly sharp toasting forks, but because it is mind-rottingly tedious.

In Hegel's view, this frenetic freedom was bound to end by eating itself up, as in the Jacobin terror. Since it is nothing without an object to bounce off, it begins by devouring its enemies and ends up by consuming itself. As the revolutionaries themselves come to fill the tumbrils, it disappears down the black hole of its own sublime negativity. There is something aberrant about the very founding principle of bourgeois society (freedom), just as there is something inconveniently unrepresentable about it. You cannot make graven images of God because the only image of him is men and women themselves; and where they are most akin to him is in their freedom, which like God himself slips through the net of language to become a mere cipher or Kantian noumenon .

The paradox of the capitalist mode of production for Marx is that it is inherently revolutionary. It is not surprising that it was in Marx's era that the psychoanalytic truth of the secret collusion between law and desire first emerged. Transgression, dissolution, decentring, reinvention and instability are the system's norm. Only Romantics and corporate executives use the word "dynamic" as unequivocally positive; and only postmodernists who have not been reading the newspapers imagine that plurality, fluidity, instability and the like are unequivocally radical.

Nobody, in the most inconspicuous recesses of the globe, can snatch any sleep during this civilisation's incessant clamour. If there is one sound middle-aged reason for being a socialist, it is in order to get some rest.

As Walter Benjamin remarked: revolution is not a runaway train, it is the application of the emergency brake.

The object of socialism is to recall us to our creatureliness, not to summon us to the stars. It is about restoring a spot of order to this frightful anarchy. As Brecht pointed out: it's not communism that is radical, it's capitalism. In this social order, authority itself is an anarchist, in cahoots with criminality. Kicking over the traces is part of daily routine and transgression is not only permissible but obligatory, as in the American waiter's terse imperative "Enjoy!" The true Fall comes when we realise that God and the serpent are secretly complicit. For without the Fall there is nothing to redeem.

From Moll Flanders and The Beggar's Opera to Balzac's Vautrin, Dickens's Mr Merdle, Trollope's Melmotte and Conrad's Verloc, we are presented with the covert affinity between the criminal and the businessman, both of whom require much the same kind of talents. Like Hegel's historical heroes, Nietzsche's Ubermenschen , Dostoevsky's supermen and satanic avant-garde artists, innovation means transgression. In fact, like most social orders, middle-class societies are founded on illegality - on the crime of revolution, occupation, invasion or usurpation, which is the true original sin. This is naturally something of an embarrassment for the law, which like the rest of us finds it hard to accept that it has a disreputable origin. Indeed, it sometimes finds it hard to accept that it had an origin at all, since whatever was born can always die.

This is a particular embarrassment for middle-class capitalist societies, since they are wedded of their very nature to peace and stability, without which you cannot make a profit. This is why the other face of the lawless entrepreneur is the staid, suburban paterfamilias . Literature is strewn with such doubled figures, at once strangers and brothers: the God and Satan of Paradise Lost , Othello and Iago, Clarissa and Lovelace, Oliver Twist and Fagin, Nelly Dean and Heathcliff, Ahab and Moby-Dick, Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov, Joyce's Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, Zeitblom and Leverkuhn of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus . But the other reason for the embarrassment is that the revolutionary zeal of the middle classes, uniquely, doesn't end once they are ensconced in power. Instead, their sublime political insurrections give way to what Edmund Burke saw as another sort of sublimity: the endless dynamism of competition and economic struggle, all of which Burke saw as an energising strain of the sublime within the otherwise inert and emasculate "beauty" of a settled, ceremonious civil society.

It is true that the middle classes themselves behave as though they are post-revolutionary, turning their thoughts from the turbulent business of how they got to where they are to the distinctively less disruptive business of amassing capital. Where they were once agitators, they are now accountants. Epic drama gives way to the dull, decent prose of everyday life. Stendhal yields ground to Flaubert, and Shelley to Tennyson. The new order must draw a veil of oblivion over its own anarchic beginnings, putting its dishevelled past behind it as firmly as a hippy applying to law school. Managing to live your dubious origins down, thrusting them into the political unconscious, also means that you are less likely to serve as a reminder to your political antagonists of how the world can be changed. If you could do it, so can they. When Marxists point admiringly to the revolutionary origins of bourgeois power, indeed to the fact that it is the most revolutionary formation in human history - the middle classes themselves squirm with the embarrassment of those whose naughty childhood antics are fondly recalled by their doting parents.

The scandal, then, is plain. Law and order would seem largely a question of amnesia. David Hume writes that if we investigate the origins of any nation, we shall find usurpation and rebellion. Time alone, he continues with disarming candour, "reconciles men to authority and makes it seem just and reasonable". Political power, in short, is founded on fading memory, as primordial crimes come to grow on us like old cronies. Legitimacy is really longevity. The sheer passage of time is enough to turn bandits into bankers. Societies such as Israel or Northern Ireland, which are too recent to have eaten the lotus, are thus in big trouble. Hume shares this view with Kant, who also advises us against delving too deeply into origins; while Pascal writes in his Pensees that "the truth about the original usurpation must not be made apparent; it came about originally without reason, and has become reasonable. We must see that it is regarded as authentic and eternal, and its origins must be hidden, if we do not want it soon to end." We are not dealing here, then, with crackpot leftist conspiracy theories, but with crackpot 17th-century French conspiracies.

The most eloquent champion of political oblivion, however, is Burke, who as an Irishman knew a great deal about illicit invasion and illegal occupation. In his work, this ban into inquiring into criminal origins takes a sexual turn. For Burke, you are forbidden to unveil the primal scene of power. This is the blasphemy of the Jacobins, who strip the law of its time-honoured mystique and turn the pitiless searchlight of pure reason on the shameful sources of authority. The law for Burke is masculine; but it must drape itself in the alluring dress of a woman if it is to conceal its unlovely power, seducing us into that affection for its edicts to which Gramsci gave the name of hegemony. In Burke's colonialist eyes, this is exactly what British authority has failed to do in India, Ireland and America. Our affection for the law is possible, Burke sees, partly because we reap delight from being browbeaten and intimidated. It is no accident that he is one of our earliest theorists of sadomasochism. Women for Burke are beautiful, while men are sublime; and any effective power must be an adroit blending of the two, the law must be a cross-dresser, combining coercion and consent. Like the stereotypical female seducer, it must lull us into sweet oblivion of its own sublime terror. Yet there is always an ugly bulge in its decorous drapery.

So we return, finally, to that image of Oedipus, waiting at Colonus to see whether Athens will take him in. Oedipus is that monstrously doubled figure, the pharmakos , or scapegoat: at once sacred and cursed, king and beggarman, poison and cure, stranger and brother, guilty and innocent, native and exile. As he himself once deciphered the riddle of the Sphinx, and gave the hybrid creature of its question the name of Man, so the city is now being asked to discern in this fearfully polluted outcast an image of its own monstrosity, which also goes under the name of humanity. Will it come, in Aristotle's terms about tragedy, to pity what it fears, identify with the suffering scapegoat, acknowledge this thing of darkness as its own and so release an enormous power for transformation? Or will it treat the scapegoat as a mechanism of disavowal, unloading its crimes onto this inhuman representative of humanity? Will it discern in the very dirt and deformation of this excremental remainder the sacred power to transfigure the city-state itself, the stumbling block that can become the cornerstone? Or will it cast him out as so much garbage? If it does the former, then in a classical tragic irony it will transcend its own contaminated condition by the very power that permits it to acknowledge it, knowing its own nothingness and in that moment becoming something.

The West, sunk in its Faustian fantasies, has so far failed to learn the lesson of tragedy. It cannot discern an image of its own monstrous visage in the raging fury at its gate, and so is capable only of fear rather than pity.

Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory, Manchester University. The text is an abridged version of the Troy Lecture that he will give at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on September , sponsored by the department of English. The full version will appear on the website www.umass.edu/ english after the lecture. The ideas behind the article are developed more fully in Eagleton's book Holy Terror , and will be published by Oxford University Press in September.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments