Introduction: Terror and Terrorism

On Friday, June 19th, a man rammed into a police car on the Champs Elysses. Though the driver died before he could carry out further violence, it was evident that his intention was to commit a larger-scale attack; inside the incinerated vehicle, investigators found explosives, ammunition, and extensive weaponry. This event, being treated by French officials as an act of terror, marks what has become a nearly routine phenomenon in France. Indeed, over the past several years, France has been stricken with a spike in such acts of violence. A short-list of attacks in anterior memory includes: a self-proclaimed “soldier of the caliphate” attacked a police officer with a hammer in front of Notre-Dame de Paris (June 6, 2017); ISIS claimed responsibility when a man opened fire on police on the Champs-Elysses (April 20, 2017); a man shouted “Allah Akbar” in the Louvre museum as he attempted to enter with a machete (February 3, 2017). These relatively small and anomalous acts of violence gain particular menace when seen as thematically connected to larger massacres in recent years: the vehicle ramming at Nice on Bastille Day last year and, of course, the shootings and suicide bombings at the Bataclan during November of 2015.

Modern France was founded on terror. Between 1793 and 1794 (the period known as “The Great Terror”), over sixteen thousand people were guillotined and some twenty thousand died in prison. By the summer of 1794, thirty people were executed each day under Robespierre’s haunting dictum of “inflexible justice.” Contemporary scholarship on the French Revolution has been careful to distinguish between “terror” and “terrorism,” between violence that served as a legitimate response to a legacy of distributive injustice (The Great Terror of 1793) and arbitrary acts of violence that spawn from Islamic fundamentalism and a general hatred of the West. French cultural critic Sophie Wahnich has argued for the ideological danger of conflating historical “Terror” with contemporary “Terrorism;” to do so, she claims, is to introduce “political confusion over what meaning to give acts of cruelty in history.” While the Terror of 1793 was justified by its emancipatory aims, contemporary terrorism has no such rationale, and thus, the two terms cannot be theorized alongside one another.

Wahnich, it seems to me, is half right. Though the Great Terror bears little resemblance — historically, tactically, or ideologically — to contemporary terrorism, a Marxist reading of the French Revolution, I contend, creates a through-line between these seemingly disparate forms of violence. Marxist scholars like Frederic Jameson and Eric Hobsbawm have long argued that the French Revolution, for all its complex causes and consequences, ultimately served to create a foundation for modern capitalism; with the fall of the aristocracy and old codes of primogeniture, power came to move in this period largely through the horizontal circulation of capital (i.e. exchange-value) rather than through monarchical legacy. In the wake of the French Revolution, individuals found themselves agents of their own fate and success in new and unprecedented ways. Capitalism, we all know, is a wily thing: Joseph Schumpeter has famously written of its capacity for “creative destruction;” its endless ability to adapt to the exigencies of the particular moment. Capitalism, then, has productively burrowed itself within the tenets of western ideology: “freedom,” “equality,” “liberty,” “choice.” These are the doxa that contemporary acts of terror seemingly assault, and it is why the attacks, taken symbolically, seem particularly abhorrent. But if we look beneath this emancipatory vocabulary, we find that it is capitalism, first and foremost, that we inherited from the French Revolution. It is capitalism, then, that is the primary target of ISIS terror.

Terror and The Life Economy

Capitalism serves, therefore, as the historical through-line that connects past and present forms of historical violence; what was developed through terror has now been assaulted through terror. What do we mean, precisely, by the word “terror”? Hugh Gough has helpfully defined the term as a means of controlling people through fear. Indeed, central to the enduring symbolic resonance of the French Revolution is its use of fear; Jacobin revolutionaries wielded gruesome violence to manipulate large swathes of the French population. Here arises the first central claim of this essay: this bourgeois fear of death has persisted to this day; whether explicitly related to Jacobin violence or not, the Terror ushered in a capitalist system that is definitively terrified of death and obsessed with life.

When I say that capitalism is “obsessed with life,” I mean that capitalism is obsessed with labor: that is, the sustained capacity of the individual to perform work. In Capital Vol. I, Marx writes that labor-power is the basic substrate that undergirds all forms of capitalist exchange:

If the owner of labor-power works today, tomorrow he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same conditions as regards to health and strength. His means of subsistence must therefore be sufficient to maintain him in his normal state as a working individual… The labour-power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear, and by death, must be continually replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labour-power. Hence, the sum of means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the worker’s replacements, i.e. his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity-owners may perpetuate its presence on the market.

Capitalism depends, in other words, on the “health and strength” of the laborer; the worker must be sustained and compensated in such a manner that s(he) can continue to perform more labor, and produce offspring who also, eventually, can join the workforce. Marx argues that what constitutes this “sufficient…means of subsistence,” that is, what is necessary for the laborer to live, is culturally and historically contingent. David Harvey uses the term “market basket” to describe this aggregate of resources — the “basket” of materials socially necessary for the laborer to live and to procreate. What is in the “market basket” for laborers in 2017? They must be able to pay rent. They must have transportation. They must have the Internet and a cell phone. They must have childcare. What to make of the fact, then, that ISIS offers these very services to its militants?

In an interview with Business Insider, an ISIS defector explained the benefits that Daesh offers to its workers: “I knew a mason who worked construction. He used to get 1,000 lira per day. That’s nothing…now he’s joined ISIS and gets 35,000 lira — $100 for himself, $50 for his wife, $35 for his kids. He makes $600 to $700 per month. He gave up masonry. He’s just a fighter now, but he joined for the income.” Similar statistics are found elsewhere. According to Newsweek, ISIS fighters enjoy “food, free medical care, and desirable housing.” One source in Mosul revealed to journalists that foreign fighters (recruited from abroad) have even achieved a lifestyle that is not unlike the American one percent: “‘The foreign ISIS members are living in a luxurious Western lifestyle… they’re staying in the five-star Nineveh International Hotel or the villas of wealthy citizens who have fled. They are also supplied with free medical services and unlimited electricity while other citizens [in Raqqa] get electricity for two hours a day only.’”[1]

We find in ISIS, then, a haunting dialectic: a system that both demonizes and duplicates western capitalism. The crucial difference, it seems, is the attitude that ISIS harbors towards the life of the terrorist-worker, whose labor is his own death. The notion of a paid suicide bomber is utterly antithetical to the Western bourgeois sensibility. For how can we possibly reconcile a capitalist system where the life of the worker has no exchange-value, whose “use” to ISIS, the corporation, is extinguished at the moment of his self-detonation?

Jihadist Capitalism

Rather than operating wholly in opposition to Western capitalism, therefore, ISIS seems to organize itself in a manner analogous to a capitalist corporation, with the crucial distinction that life has no exchange-value in this production circuit. Death is the laborer’s commodity, and its circulation ends with his labor — his death.

ISIS does, indeed, register as a kind of brand, as it strategically “claims responsibility” for select attacks, as if to cultivate a carefully orchestrated image. Its iconic black flag, its propaganda videos (“YODO,” one image proclaims, punning on Drake’s “YOLO” catchphrase), and its rigorous use of social media collectively render ISIS a distinct brand, albeit a markedly archaic one. The graphics resonate with the early ought years: the stilted graphics of first person shooter video games, and the fonts and color schemes of outdated flip phones. The neoliberal language of “innovation,” “wellness,” “adventure” and “wholeness” — words that cater to Western obsession with youth, health, and rigor — are markedly absent from ISIS’s marketing vocabulary. Just as the western capitalist franchise thrives on “life,” so the ISIS death-drive seems to seep into its very franchise.

While western capitalism constellates around the commodity of life, ISIS mobilizes death in much the same manner. What to make of these parallels between ISIS and the Western corporate world? The oft-used injunction for us to “look to ourselves” seems distasteful, since it belittles the casualties wrought by acts of terror. What is more, such a claim is implicitly racist, since it casts a kind of pseudo-victimhood on the Middle East at large, effectively ignoring the ways in which America has for decades been conducting business with Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel, Kuwait and the U.A.E.

It does seem useful, however, to think about the ways in which ISIS appeals to logic that is not dissimilar from that of western capitalism. The painful part of this thought exercise is to see each person’s life as it truly operates in the ostensibly emancipated and cosmopolitan West; individual lives are not something intrinsically “grievable,” to use Judith Butler’s word. Instead, the life of the worker — a commodity — disappears into the totalizing logic of the free market. One’s life, in other words, doesn’t hold value (in the progressive sense of the word): it appears, rather, as value itself: depersonalized, mobile, and financially lucrative to the many industrial complexes that mark the current socio-economic landscape.

It is this revision of our understanding of “life” as it operates in the capitalist west that might help us to start to understand how a corporation might wield “death” as a similar kind of commodity — one that holds appeal and imaginative traction for those who lack access to other channels of power and communication.


[1] Natalie Isley. “ISIS is Facing a Cash Crunch in the Caliphate.” 9/23/15. Newsweek. Accessed June, 2017.