Nail Bombs and Bio-Politics
Military intelligence isn’t what it used to be
but so what,
Human intelligence isn’t what it used to be either
John Cale, Sabotage
On Bank Holiday Monday May 3, jubilant headlines announced the arrest of David Copeland, a 22 year-old engineer from Farnborough, for the nail bombing of Brixton, Brick Lane and Old Compton Street. The best news of all, everyone agreed, was that the murderer had been acting alone.
The ‘society of control’ might have celebrated a double victory that morning. The first psy-war beach head was captured when the bombs were ascribed to freakish, anomalous forces, the second when special policing demonstrated its power to protect us from these things.
In the week after it went off, the Brixton bomb was attributed by experts to Serbs, Irish, animal liberationists or (blond, white) yardies, anyone but the ‘extreme’ English right. Cornered a few days later by an angry crowd, an ITN reporter was forced to admit that the media had been ordered ‘to play down the race angle in order to avoid a riot’. (1.) The absurdity of these interpretations didn’t stop them having the desired effect. Their purpose wasn’t so much to be believed as to compound existing panic with confusion, mystery, superstition. The causes of the explosion had to be occult in the literal sense: hidden knowledge, intelligible only to the initiate (in this case, security professionals and fascists themselves). A week later, the second bomb at Brick Lane cancelled any doubt about the racial motive for the attacks. But by this time, the preceding week’s fatuities had already done their work: mystery, ambivalence and the resulting practical paralysis were inseparable from the perception of a fascist terror campaign.
Investment of a ‘deranged loner’ with responsibility for violence attributed by the black, Bengali and gay populations affected to ‘right wing’ groups wasn’t meant to lessen the fear already generated. Nail bombs assembled by embittered amateurs tear organs apart just as effectively as those made by graduates of the Ulster Loyalist training school. But when the danger is portrayed under the sign of the pathological, the ‘sick individual’, the fear is more insidious, as its source can’t be located and shut down. Sickness is a more elusive and resilient enemy than any ‘Neo-Nazi’ group: fear increases as the confidence to respond is crippled by the conviction that you can’t organise against disease.
To a large extent, the pathologisation of fascism develops a decades-old state strategy. At least since the 1930s, there’s been little danger in Britain of a fascist seizure of state power of the kind seen in Greece and threatened in Italy in the 1970s. But a powerful minority identifying with an invented ‘British nationalist’ tradition hasn’t ceased to wage low-intensity war on racial and sexual ‘impurity’ on the streets and within institutions. Thus, constant exposure to the risk of death or mutilation limits the intended victims’ practical horizon to self-defence, containing the political problem that black or Asian self-organisation, for example, might pose otherwise. Not surprisingly then, police protection of fascists is a well-documented historical and contemporary fact.
Yet if the state is more than willing to enjoy these benefits of ‘far right’ activity, it has for many years also exploited the spectacle of a fascist threat. (2.) The aim isn’t to achieve constant surveillance of everyone all the time, but to breed desire for ‘protection’ among those who might at some time need to be observed.
Linking organised racist violence with ‘fascism’, at least without careful qualification of the term, shifts the problem from a practical to a moral plane. The words ‘fascist’ and ‘Nazi’ don’t mean exactly the same thing historically, and what they refer to today is even more ambiguous. But they exert an iron authority over whatever context they appear in, introducing a moral imperative that suspends the rights of criticism. In keeping with the language of European and US social democracy’s ‘communitarian’ Moral Welfare State, the ‘fascist’ label invokes a principle of Evil, an essence which can’t be fully grasped in its physical manifestations. The danger is eternal, thus always already present. Too urgent to permit the luxury of reasoning, it can only be experienced in the abstract passion of fear.
The religious theme of Good and Evil as spiritual forces ruling over history from outside it survives here, lightly secularized. In the image of fascism as Total Evil, spiritual dualism converges with a vague residual dread of the historical fascist states’ total power over public and private life. The rational fear inspired by fascism’s capture of the state apparatus in the 1920s and 30s, its brief institutional hegemony, is projected onto today’s marginal ‘far right’ groups, these exemplary ‘weak subjects’, objects of manipulation by the liberal state. Thus the voice of righteous horror confirms the part-time Nazis’ own most cherished hallucination, equating their trivial power with that of national-state war machines. Journalists who evoke fascist state terror to flavour stories about South London cells (or Serbian nationalists) help to liquidate history, wrecking attempts to understand latter-day fascism strategically, especially in relation to modifications of global power in the last 30 years.
When local outbreaks of racist violence are allowed to raise the spectre of Total Evil, policing on a comparable scale seems to be required. Potential targets’ will to organise autonomous, ‘disproportionate’ resistance is sapped. The Brixton nail bomb supplied the pretext for the same kind of saturation patrolling that followed the 1995 riot. While the next bomb was being moved from Hanbury Street to Brick Lane, police and media were staging a simulacrum in Brixton, re-enacting their bizarre ‘broken-down bus’ scenario in order to remind passers-by what a sports bag and a 159 bus look like. Almost a month later, the anti-terrorist ‘interview unit’ still disfigured the high street. A general feeling of helplessness after the first explosion provoked a wave of public enthusiasm for CCTV, eagerly reported by the South London Press. Perhaps forgetting in the excitement that nail bombs are already illegal, professional anti-racists (Lee Jasper/NAAR, the Socialist Workers’ Anti Nazi League, etc) called for ideologically obnoxious groups to be banned. Meanwhile, experts of every political shade bayed for a robust flexing of Prevention of Terrorism legislation (3.). The more creative among them devised ways to extend its scope still further. Anyone imagining that these judicial weapons will only be used against white racists should remember that the first person to be tried and jailed under British ‘anti-racist’ law in the 1960s was black activist Michael X. The story fed to the press about the police ‘investigating links’ between the ‘far right’ here and ‘French Muslim extremists’ (4.) — trying to work out whether Muslims bombed Brick Lane — laid the groundwork for precisely such a utilization of new ‘anti-fascist’ laws.
Beyond its function as a pretext for extending particular state powers, the sudden reappearance of pure Evil tends to institute a general State of Emergency. The crisis is an Exception (5.) to the processes that determine social life otherwise. Belief in such a mystical force, external to the history it intersects with, discourages the rigorously amoral analysis effective self-defence requires. More generally, the urgent need to end the crisis takes priority over desire for social change, the will to construct history. Emergency time is inhabited passively, by creatures reacting against unforeseen anomalies. Reality must be restored before it can be changed.
The State of Exception set up by the moral rhetoric on ‘fascism’ is brought up-to-date by the equation of fascist aggression with ‘sick’ individuality. Of course, naturalizing fascist displays by interpreting them as symptoms is nothing new (6.), but this clinical logic is only now emerging as a decisive paradigm for social control. Police science (Polizeiwissenschaft), writes Agamben, is bio-politics. The sovereign state’s absolute right over ‘naked’ life is no longer exercised through occasional acts of the juridical will, but through the continuous administration of ‘health’. ‘Medicalization’ of conditions formerly experienced either as private or as social (eg. emotions, language, drug use, sexual preferences, car colour) subjects life to an obscure, impenetrable threat of death. ‘Biological life’ (and those who ‘care for’ it) become ‘the invisible sovereign staring at us behind the dull-witted masks of the powerful, who, whether or not they realize it, govern us in its name’.
Under the sign of illness, fascism always appears as an anomaly in relation to the social body it lives on, a temporary irruption (albeit forever renewed) measuring the ‘body’s’ alienation from its proper state. The contrast between the fascist disease and the normal working of the healthy social order absolves the latter of responsibility for the spread of the disease. As sickness or as Evil, fascism is presumed to come from outside history. The separation of the pathological anomaly from dominant historical forces associates it with ‘marginality’ in general, implicitly stigmatizing other minority phenomena.
Yet the ‘marginal’ status of fascist pathology doesn’t lessen its ability to create fear. If anything, alarm increases in the face of an unseen enemy, an indefinite, unanswerable threat. (Both the nail bombers and Surrey Untermenschen ‘White Lightning’ recognise this principle in their preference for furtive strikes and quick retreats over public meetings, marches and stoically endured beatings). Unlike right-wing groups and parties which have to draw attention to themselves in order to survive, the mythic loner with his rustic arsenal is completely immune from infiltration, slipping anonymously through surveillance. The legendary unpredictability of the Viet Cong is the loner’s authentic property: his idiosyncratic moves defy rational anticipation. Whether a person like this actually exists hardly matters; logically the risk can never be eliminated. But the idea of the armed, self-alienated fascist recluse introduces a potentially unlimited threat not only to people’s imagination but also their experience of everyday life. Nowhere is not contaminated by the unseen killer’s virtual presence. The State of Emergency is permanent: it could always be too late to escape a trap already laid.
The ‘pathological’ image of fascism implies its potential penetration not only of all public and private space, but also of bodies (and souls, for those who insist on the distinction) on a molecular level. In Paradise Lost John Milton imagined Satan achieving the subtlety of a vapour. Today we’re expected to accept that particles of the fascist cloud lurk undetected in the depths of our own desire.
(1.) Just how much was staked on the unlikely ‘deranged loner’ hypothesis was revealed late in May, when the Mirror broke ranks and printed a photo of Copeland with BNP leader John Tyndall. The following day not one other paper had taken up the sensational story.
(2.) In most other European countries the question of direct state involvement in the bombings would immediately have been raised. Such complicity is difficult to prove or rule out in this case; what would have been the ends of a conspiracy have been achieved regardless of whether one actually existed or not. British security services and right wing groups seem to enjoy a reversible relationship of infiltration and recruitment: Combat 18 leader Charlie Sargent was an informer before his conviction for the murder of his deputy; meanwhile, C18 members serve in ‘elite’ army units. The paradoxical situation of right-wing groups acting outside the nation-state’s laws in the name of its fallen (globalized) essence is exemplified by the North of Ireland’s nail-bomb enthusiasts: illegal ‘loyalist’ paramilitaries enjoying the protection of the RUC.
(3.) See Datacide 5, page 5.
(4.) In fact this is a familiar journalistic fantasy: ‘serious’ papers often seize on Think Tank reports or intelligence leaks ‘discovering’ pacts between whoever it’s convenient to label ‘right-wing’ at the time, eg. British fascists, Pan-African Nationalists, Turkish Grey Wolves and the Afghan Taliban. The most pretentious European right wing factions’ proclamations of support for Farrakahn’s Nation of Islam or even, unilaterally, the Palestianian Intifada are supposed to justify these claims. Still the only documented bid to forge such a conspiracy, however, is the attempt in the 1940s by Yitzak Shamir’s Stern Gang to win Nazi German support for the deportee state of Israel.
(5.) Giorgio Agamben conceives ‘the state of exception’ as the foundation of every political form-of-life, the sovereign’s exercise of direct right over the subject’s ‘naked’ animal life. This absolute exposure to the sovereign decision, Agamben shows, is the original meaning of the adjective sacer (sacred) when applied to human life. (See Homo Sacer, or, for a more condensed account, ‘Form of Life’ in Radical Thought in Italy, ed. Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno, Minnesota, 1996.)
(6.) Among the most interesting applications of this methodology — not least for their own inadvertently ‘symptomatic’ nature — are Adorno and Horkheimer’s Authoritarian Personality, Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism and Klaus Theweleit’s two volume Male Fantasies.