Yakub Memon’s Impending Execution in the Light of a Passage from Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish’ Read through a Marxist Prism

“The public execution did not re-establish justice, it reactivated power. In the seventeenth century, and even in the early eighteenth century, it was not, therefore, with all its theatre of terror, a lingering hang-over from an earlier age. Its ruthlessness, its spectacle, its physical violence, its unbalanced play of forces, its meticulous ceremonial, its entire apparatus were inscribed in the political functioning of the penal system.”
–Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

Yakub Memon’s execution will, therefore, be no aberration of our penal system. It will be an exception that is meant precisely to enable the reproduction, through confirmation, of the norm of everydayness of terror that is modernity, and capital. Albeit one that now openly displays its irrational, exceptional and coercive kernel, thanks to this being its historically concrete moment of crisis.

This phenomenon is, therefore, nothing but the norm as an unconcealed and unconcealable neurotic symptom: the norm itself as the demonstration of the crisis of normativity and normalisation. As a result, it now comes across even in its appearance as the entirely arbitrary political functionality that founds, underpins and animates the economy/rationality of the modern penal system.

Hence, let not our outrage — that is produced by the scale and magnitude of the phenomenon at hand — blind us to that. For, that would also blind us to the reformist purport of liberal politics that lies at the heart of such outrage. Instead, let us temper that outrage into a steely resolve to exceed and abolish capital and the modern state — which is nothing but the grammar of capitalist social relations, or the qualitatively equalising and thus distributionist value-relation to be precise, in its institutional congealment. After all, it’s precisely this distributionist dimension of the law of value that, as far as the modern state in its liberal-democratic Indian specificity is concerned, is the objective material basis of the ideological dominance of, among other things, Islamophobia. The ideology that evidently informs the dogged pursuit of capital punishment for somebody such as Yakub Memon.

In other words, let the cry for the abolition of death penalty, which has been sparked off by Yakub Memon’s imminent execution, not remain a weak human rights-based reactive demand placed on the Indian state. Let us strive, instead, to transform that cry into a strong call for constructing a concretely collective political project that seeks, in the here and now, to determinately abolish the state. For, the modern state in being the embodiment and operationalisation of the rule of law is genetically programmed to do precisely that which it currently seeks to accomplish in the specificity of its Indian incarnation: reinforce its monopoly over violence by re-establishing the slave-morality of ressentiment (revenge) as justice.

This is, clearly, a juridico-legal morality that is, therefore, an inseparable and integral ideological dimension of the capitalist social formation constitutive of the structure of mutual competition for domination, and its reproduction. To not grasp that and to insist on envisaging the abolition of death penalty as a human rights-based demand amounts to a blundering failure to recognise that the Benjaminian “divine” or “law-unraveling violence” rests in an embryonic form within this cry for the abolition of death penalty. And to not recognise that is to already repress that potential and distort it into “lawmaking violence”, which faces off “law-preserving violence” of the state merely as its constitutive antithesis. Not for nothing does such human rights-based ‘politics’ presuppose the conceptual and thus concrete validity of the modern state — and the juridico-legal social formation of which such a state is both an effect and reinforcing cause — that it ‘confronts’ with its politics of demand. In the ultimate analysis, such politics ends up, not surprisingly, reinforcing and reproducing the condition of possibility of precisely those enormities it claims to want to eliminate.

So, let’s not allow our outrage to be a cathartic expenditure and exhaustion of politics. Rather, let it simmer like a slow fire over which we forge the concrete strategy of how (our) red ‘terror’ can emerge with full antagonistic force against the epochal social power that orientates and articulates the continuous norming and normalisation of (their) white terror.

The essence of what one has articulated here in a hurriedly clumsy manner is put forth with elegance and aphoristic precision by Walter Benjamin in the last two sentences of his VIII thesis on philosophy of history: “The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge — unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.”

Charlie Hebdo: Shun the liberal politics of condemnation

Attacks, not merely on free speech, but on freedom of life itself, and yes, in all its myriad, multiple forms, can be effectively countered only if one begins thinking in terms of interventions that will radically shift the ground on which politics currently happens. And that, in my opinion, will have to begin with the effort to move away from the politics of condemnation as critique. For, regardless of whether the outrage that evokes such condemnation is in the idiom of majoritarianism(s) or minoritarianism(s), the politics of condemnation as critique is, in the face of such outrage, patently reactive and defensive. One that is, therefore, stuck on the political ground of precisely the enormities it purports to counter.

The politics of condemnation — or, to be more accurate, condemnation as politics — is thus stuck in the entirely ineffectual stance of insisting that it is equally critical of both minoritarian and majoritarian violence, notwithstanding its apparent, declarative vigour. Such horizontalisation of various forms of otherising violence, which have as their condition of possibility the structure of differential inclusion (productive inclusion through hierarchical exclusion), serves, in the final analysis, to reinforce and reproduce that structure and the abominations it makes possible. Therefore, such ‘even-handedness’ that condemnation as politics proudly displays, nay is compelled to display, is actually equivocation. In other words, the fight against various expressions of otherising hatred can hope to be effective only when it’s a subtraction from the reactive terms of responding to the operations of otherising violence.

Such subtraction, however, cannot occur as long as one is caught within the universe of the juridico-legal and its conception of peace, and thus fights shy of reclaiming and operationalising violence in a law-unravelling mode that is overdetermined by the will to solidarity. That is revolutionary violence, or what Walter Benjamin affirmed as the messianic “divine violence”. After all, the abominations and enormities one speaks of here are abominations and enormities not because they are violent. Quite the contrary, they are abominations and enormities precisely because their violence is otherising, and thus law-preserving.

Therefore, if one agrees that such “divine violence” is the only possible way in which attacks on free speech, and freedom of life in all its forms, can be effectively countered, one will have to begin thinking on how to make such divine violence possible in the concreteness of the here and now of history. And that is contingent on grasping how divine violence in its incipience, and thus also thwarted in that incipience, is objectively the heart of every action (repeat action), not ideology, of otherising violence, whether majoritarian or minoritarian. But one can begin to make sense of incipient divine violence in concrete socio-historical terms only when one starts redirecting one’s political-intellectual efforts towards patient and persevering inquiries into the concrete interplay of concrete causes behind various kinds of otherising violence in their concreteness. Alas, such redirection of intellectual politics cannot happen as long as one continues to think that writing articles for mainline newspapers and magazines in predetermined liberal terms of condemnation-as-criticism contributes in some measure towards countering different forms and kinds of expressions of otherising violence. If anything, struggles against such expressions, and their structural condition of possibility, and writing such well-meaning, heart-in-the-right-place kind of vigorously outraged articles are now at cross-purposes. And no this is not meant as an attack on radical elements among journalists, who have to write to earn their keep. This is the best they can manage within the constraints of such a compulsion. It’s meant for those ‘radicals’, and liberals, who strut around exhibiting such signed pieces of theirs as their badge of honour.