The Paris attacks join the Charlie Hebdo massacre and previous ISIS activity to convey the end of an epoch for humanity as defined by Europe in the aftermath of Second World War: hunchbacked by the immeasurable guilt of its history marked by colonization, holocaust, capitalism, and all kinds of evil that has been thrown on its shoulder by all those around the world who want to get rid of their own. Europe’s most recent experiences — attacks and a flood of immigrants – directly challenge this guilt and incessant self-flagellation. This is a crisis of Europe’s own inertia; this is precisely the moment when Europe realizes that its values are not universal ones defined in terms of a unitary humanity. This is the very moment Europe’s real borders are drawn with blood, and the differential nature of our epoch can no longer be ignored. 

These attacks mark a new epoch for Europe, an epoch where we will witness, most likely, the gradual rise of the Right throughout Europe coming about vis-à-vis the re-questioning of the post-Second-World-War guilt. Europe will have to recognize and demarcate its own limits — those once upon a time believed to be universal.

Along the same lines, if the Left wants to survive in this new Europe, it can only happen by acknowledging its own limits. It must see itself as the “European Left”, no longer the as the Left for the humanity destined to save the earth which once has been destroyed by Europe and now is being destroyed by the U.S. If the Left wants to be taken seriously in our new epoch, it can begin by realizing two things: first, there are people in the world who do not want to be saved by the European Left, and there are people in the world who wish to be saved by the European Left – and this is about neither education nor money. There is no necessity, in other words, between education and being European. There are Europeans who are not educated, and there are non-Europeans who are educated. There are Europeans who are poor; there are non-Europeans who are extraordinarily rich. Notice that I no longer use the term “European” as a geographical concept. Being European is, first and foremost, an ontological concept; it signifies a peculiar form of life, beyond race, ethnicity, religion, gender and all these contingent determinations. That is, “European” is not an attribute that one receives on birth. The question then arises, what is Europe?

If the European Left wants to survive, what is urgent is not to see not only the empty side of the glass, but also its full side; no, what is urgent is that it has to see the glass! The glass will not vanish because the European Left refuses to see it; on the contrary, such a refusal in our postcolonial (not postmodern) epoch will erase the European Left from European history, for a simple reason: Europe is no longer the protagonist of history. Whether or not we can pinpoint in this perpetual flux something called Europe is no longer a rhetorical, solipsistic question that Europeans ask and answer themselves. They may not have realized but history is no longer the unfolding of a European idea; rather, history is now differential. This means that the responses to that tremendously complex question of what Europe is can no longer be totalized – defined, asked, and answered — by Europe alone. Plainly put, Europe is not in a position any more to define itself, and others, on the sole basis of its own authority! What Europe is, is to be decided differentially by all the humanities around the planet. Any attempt to decide the meaning of Europe alone is not only futile; it is also an irresponsibly dangerous and totalizing venture, whose consequences can be seen in the streets of Paris today. This is the first crucial failure of the European Left: ignoring the differential nature of our epoch.

There is also another serious problem with the European Left’s understanding of these massacres today. After the Second World War, Europe learned something: simply put, it learned that the demonization, or the othering, of the Other is not, in fact, at all about the Other; rather, it is all about those doing the othering. That is, in order to be friends, one has to have enemies. I want to feel good; hence I call you bad. I want to feel human; hence I demonize you. There had to be the Jew, so that the Germans could have become German. There had to be the Negro as “the inferior” so that “the white man” could feel superior. The Left took this dialectical scheme, which was based on a peculiar European history and humanity, and applied it directly to our postcolonial epoch. So the Negro became the Muslim, in order that “the white man” could remain intact. What the European Left missed again was the differential reality of different humanities — that is, our post-dialectical reality.

All nations and humanities of the world thus yet again collapsed on a peculiar European ontology without asking if they had consented to being considered on that ground. The non-European was well aware of the fact that he was being judged on the basis of European standards, although he was being treated as a non-European. The European Left devised this insidious structure and called it “the respect for the Other.” This so-called respect, however, never really respected the Other; it simply held out the possibility that the Other could become one of its own, while flattening any defining features of non-Europeans. A re-incorporation of the Other into the Same.

When this structure was realized by the non-European and shaken, it also started to shake the political ground of the European Left. They could no longer apply that comfortable binary of “the Negro — the White Man”. The Other could no longer be contained by the pure phantasy created by the Self in order for Self to feel superior. The European Left, with all its good-will, wanted to maintain this Eurocentric narrative; however, history was no longer Eurocentric. Just like its previous failure, the European Left could not cope again with the differential nature of our postcolonial epoch. That is to say, the identity of the Other could no longer be dictated by the Europeans. Imagination remained imaginative: the Other was as real as the Self. Somehow, the Other has shown itself even more real than the Self: this weekend ‘the other’ killed over 120 people in Paris. The European Left can no longer convince anyone of the fact that just because Europeans wanted to feel good, they declared the Other bad. It cannot do so, for the Other is no longer a European phantasy. Real and differentiated, it — including two French nationals — terrorized Paris with Kalashnikovs, raining bullets on innocent people. No longer was the European man Nazi, nor the Other Jew!

The European Left has failed to understand the epoch in which it is living because it has overlooked the differential nature of our times. In fact, it has remained as Euro-centric as the history it strives to expiate. Everything in a leftist discourse, one way or another, boils down to the guilt that marks the European man, the “white man” who is the only one who can be evil enough to be the Other! The Other who is not “white” cannot exist! It must be the imagination. Of whom? Of course, of the white man.

On the fourteenth of November more than one hundred twenty innocent people were murdered in Paris; they were neither “white”, nor imaginary. This is the hard truth that the European Left cannot handle: “Some people are bad and they are really not one of us; and we cannot do anything about it, because we do not have the throne of history any longer!”

This, as I believe, constitutes the essential nature of the crisis that Europe has been facing for a while and, no doubt, that will last for a very long time. It will not be surprising to witness the increasing popularity of the Right throughout Europe. The question is: What can the Left do about this situation? Where should it stand? Will it keep denying the existence of the “glass” (that is, of the differential reality of our postcolonial epoch) by continuing to impose its own values, in an insidious way, while insisting on believing that the Other is really not aware of this imposition? There are facts that the European Left refuses to see, because it does not know how to react if it decides to see them. It knows only of the bad things of Europe. Yet there are worse things on earth that everybody knows. The problems, having accepted these, then what else remains for the European Left to discuss? There are many things to discuss. But that is secondary: the main point is that we have to begin the conversation.

2 thoughts on “Paris Attacks: Differential Reality and the Collapse of the Left

  1. I agree. However, I would like to add something. When they call people “islamophobes” for criticising Islam, they mean the non-European actually doesn’t deserve the “perks” of being European as much as the European. This approach is manifested as “it is their culture and we should respect that”. While such cultural elements -as they call those- are merely elements of colour or diversity among the general public they choose to perceive, these elements are lived in their true nature outside Europe: as life or death implications.

    They refused to leave the comfortable position of ignoring these implications behind, right until the implications started knocking on their doors. Islamism and jihadism was never all about Europe or “the West” in general. It was about a power struggle within Islam and the Muslim world. It still is. Still, these issues affect Muslims the most in terms of both identity and geography, the attacks in the West are merely PR campaigns and side shows … and they can’t accept this. This would mean they are not the star of the show any more. They can’t accept the possibility that the brown guy is as capable of being bad as the white guy and not everything associated with the other is ultimately created by the West.

  2. I don’t have sufficient time today to get into this a great deal, but I find this a very confusing and problematic essay.

    1) Are you SERIOUSLY blaming the attacks in Paris on the failures of the European Left? (“Any attempt to decide the meaning of Europe alone is not only futile; it is also an irresponsibly dangerous and totalizing venture, whose consequences can be seen in the streets of Paris today”, etc.) That’s as bizarre as saying “guns don’t kill people, the european left kills people”! I get that you are upset and really angry about something to do with eurocentrism, but surely the european left isn’t responsible for everything happening in the world?

    2) Italicizing a term is not the same as providing some sort of definition or context for it. The readership of Public Seminar is likely pretty literate, but not everybody has read the same books you have. If so many modern problems are all caused by not recognizing “differential” qualities, it makes sense to give your reader an idea of what the heck you are talking about.

    3) “This is the hard truth that the European Left cannot handle: “Some people are bad and they are really not one of us; and we cannot do anything about it, because we do not have the throne of history any longer!” I’m not sure if I quite qualify as a member of the european left (though I am “white”, if that really matters to you), but you are right that I cannot handle your hard truth, particularly the reason you give for why “we” cannot do anything about it. I’m also pretty dubious about your idea that we cannot do anything about it, and even more skeptical about the “bad” people. I don’t think the terrorists are doing what they are doing because they are “bad”, but because of what they believe. This is a product of their teachers and so forth, of being taught that the Other (in their case, europeans) are dangerous imperialist murderers which justifies their own murder in the name of empire (or caliphate).

    4) Actually, to be frank, this whole thing is pretty much nonsensical, and I don’t know quite why I’m even responding to it. You think the attacks of two days ago mean that, suddenly, Europeans are no longer Nazis, nor their “others” Jews? (“No longer was the European man Nazi, nor the Other Jew!”). I cannot even begin to get at what is wrong with this kind of comparison. … Or, for example, “The Other who is not “white” cannot exist! It must be the imagination. Of whom? Of course, of the white man.” Sorry, but WTF?

    Perhaps instead of all the frothing condemnation of the European Left (whom you seem to already see as overwhelming guilt-ridden – you want them to feel even MORE guilty??) you could take some time to explain just what a Left that does recognize “differentials” would look like, how it would help, how we all might generally improve our lot in life.

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