Argazkia. Unsplash / Scott Webb
We may already share the following ideas about capitalist security, which have been borrowed and adapted from authors such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Stuart Hall, Isabell Lorey and Étienne Balibar. Contemporary capitalist security has at its heart the notion of the population, as capitalism claims to foster the life of the population. However, neoliberal moral ideals demand self-sufficiency, while at the same time, neoliberalism itself shatters any possibility of self-sufficiency for many (dismantling public healthcare, education, housing, militarizing borders and so on). In actuality then, contemporary capitalist security is the differential production and distribution of precarity, insecurity and dispossession for many, which surely does not foster thriving lives. This contradictory regime is only made possible by seemingly defending something called a population against collectivities and communities produced as enemies. This is where security and lawfare (often in the form of a criminal law of the enemy) go hand in hand. Lawfare and a criminal law of the enemy become part of the entire security dispositif, by demarcating what kind of conducts and what kinds of bodies allow one to become part of the population. It establishes who belongs and who doesn’t in the capitalist population; who needs to be protected and who one needs to be protected against.
Here I set out to do four things. i) I map out one particular category that is deployed within the politics of enmity in the Basque Country: this category is the savage, the barbaric. ii) I show the ways in which this category is used within lawfare practices against Basque disobedient and emancipatory collectivities as part of a set of practices that allegedly defend the population. iii) I explore how a minoritized language might be used under capitalism in the same way as race, sex, gender, sexuality and class. And iv) I will draw from the archives of Basque literature, looking for a path to imagine collective ways to counter capitalist security.
Here we go. Let’s first...
i) map out one particular category that is deployed within the politics of enmity in the Basque Country: this category is the savage, the barbaric, and
ii) let’s show the ways in which that category is used within lawfare practices against Basque disobedient and emancipatory collectivities.
In research carried out by the Basque Institute of Criminology, 3019 cases of torture were counted between 1979 and 2014. These are certainly conservative numbers and still, in almost 25% of these cases the period of torture lasted between 4 and 5 days; in more than 25% of the cases, between 6 and 10 days; and in 4% of the cases, 10 days. In the rest of the cases, the torture went on for between 1 and 3 days. A rough calculation is enough to come up with results that should shock, but instead are treated trivially. If we distribute all the cases of torture evenly, we count two cases of torture a week. Between 1979 and 2014, there were more days of torture than days of democracy. Every day of the 35 years, every one of the 12775 days can be counted as a day of torture. This is surely yet another of the various dark sides of the Spanish regime of ’78, the French Fifth Republic and European modernity in general.
This violence converted into cold numbers shows something that we in the Basque Country were already well aware of, that torture is an institutional practice in Europe; not exceptional, but structural and systemic. It also shows something more important: these numbers require the construction of a torturable subject. Those cases of torture require a social category that is widely accepted and recognizable in bodies. They need a category that can be dehumanized, and that has been preserved, updated and naturalized over the centuries. Those numbers demand that we respond to torture with a grimace of indifference.
In 2018, Felipe González published an article entitled “ETA: a savage and useless terrorism”. There it is. There you have the category used and repeated again and again: savage, barbaric. González is such a democratic politician that in 1982 he assumed the presidency in the name of the PSOE. He was, in the 80’s, the Mr. X behind the paramilitary group GAL during the time of the exceptional police regime ZEN in the Basque Country. He was the head of the government that supplied Pinochet’s dictatorship with weapons. Once again, González identified yet another enemy of civilized modernity: the Basque savage, barbaric subject.
«Those cases of torture require a social category that is widely accepted and recognizable in bodies. They need a category that can be dehumanized»
With this discourse about the savage and barbaric, González was tapping into a discourse which has persisted since at least early modernity. For centuries, a certain Basque subjectivity has been endowed with a barbarian nature. In 1571, Joanes Leizarraga contested a previously established discourse about barbarism when in the introduction to his translation to the New Testament he wrote, “We Basques are not savages among the other nations”. Of course, in the 16th century a civilized, non-barbaric nation was one that praised God in the correct manner. At the end of the 20th century, in the ’80s, the police regime ZEN legalized police brutality because it said, “the peculiarities of the Basque character activated a terrorist group”. In order to justify unpunished institutional violence, the ZEN police regime made use of what they called a Basque “idiosyncrasy” that was violent in itself, barbaric. In the year 2000, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, the president of the Basque Autonomous Community and member of the rightwing nationalist PNV party, explained that it was necessary to tell apart “those who were on the side of barbarism from those on the side of reason; those who were on the side of terror from those on the side of peace”. From different political positions, such as Spanish leftwing politics and Basque rightwing discourses (from González to Ibarretxe), the need to tell apart the good civilized Basque from the bad barbaric Basque has been updated in the latest stages of neoliberal modernity.
However, it is the civilized who needs the barbarian and not the other way round. We know that by now. It is the civilized who produce themselves by exercising violence against so-called barbarians, savages and primitives. As such, the same violence against the barbarians in the 16th century allowed the Spanish Catholic Empire to be built (as well as the British and French and German empires in the 17th and 18th centuries) and allowed the formation of the Basque civilized subject. The Basque civilized subject was the one that responded to that empire and profited from it. The same violence against the so-called Basque barbarians becomes naturalized under discourses of tolerance and conviviality under the current Spanish regime of ’78 and produces the Basque civilized subject. The Basque civilized subject is the one that responds to the contemporary capitalist regime and profits from it. This proposal, then, is not some kind of ethnic nationalistic discourse. This proposal is about who becomes the target of processes of precarization.
«The Basque barbaric subject is connected to the exercise of power and the production of knowledge is related to torture and torturability. That is what capitalist security means for Basque disobedient subjectivities»
I am talking about material violence inflicted by state forces and the wider security dispositif. I am talking about the targeted killings by the paramilitary group GAL, triple A and the rest in the ’80s; also in the ’80s the police brutality that came with the ZEN police regime mentioned before, the antiterrorism legislation that went on well into the 21st century; and with the new century, judge Baltasar Garzón’s “everything is ETA” doctrine. I am talking about material violence that was turned into the criminalization of social movements, of the popular support for Basque language and of civil disobedience in general; into exceptional macro-summary trials and the closure of newspapers. This violence meant dehumanization, manhunts and arrests of those who the police interpellated as prey, as animals to be caught and killed. They called people “deer” before hunting them down. The violence meant preventive solitary confinements and torture, exile and penitentiary policies that systematically imprisoned Basque prisoners miles away from home. This is the lawfare against the Basque barbaric subject inflicted by the contemporary Spanish regime of ’78 and the French Fifth Republic, which goes largely unquestioned in Europe.
The barbaric Basque then, is not a static identity, even if it is often presented as such. It is better understood when we think of it as a “barbarization”. In other words, a process of subalternization and dehumanization of Basque collectivities that do not accomodate to capitalist ideals of security and wellbeing, of civilization and modernity. The “everything is ETA” doctrine mentioned before is a clear instance in which this process of subalternization became apparent. In that expression, “everything” was not really everything, and ETA did not refer exactly to ETA. “Everything” referred to every emancipatory movement in the Basque Country that needed to be criminalized. And ETA became the name given to the phantasm of barbarism. Dehumanized, stripped of politics, violent and irrational, this barbarism has naturalized the violence against Basque disobedient subjectivities and has made them torturable. This is, they say, who the population must be defended against.
Indeed, for the Basque and barbaric there is no administration of life commonly assigned to the well-behaved democratic population. Similarly, the politics concerned with the Basque and the barbaric are not the same as the subjugation of life to the power of death practiced against black and brown communities; or the pathologization of dissidence against heteronormativity; or patriarchal violence against women; or the alienation of the precarious working class. Cisheteropatriarcal, colonial and neoliberal biopolitics and necropolitics theorized so far do not completely explain the production of the Basque barbaric subject. The Basque barbaric subject is connected to the exercise of power and the production of knowledge is related to torture and torturability. That is what capitalist security means for Basque disobedient subjectivities.
Argazkia. Unsplash / Alex Mihu
iii) Explore how a minoritized language might be used under capitalism
Language is used under capitalism in the same way race, sex, gender, sexuality and class. The Basque language has been used for the naturalization of relations of domination that are necessary in modernity. Basque has been used to put together a whole grammar of barbaric and civilized nations. Throughout modernity, the Basque language has been used to assign a barbarous, heretic, primitive, violent or irrational character to those Basque collectivities that did not respond well to the modern capitalist civilizing project. Last year, in 2022, the canonical Basque writer Ramon Saizarbitoria protested that the Basque language “is still for some people a language of murderers”. Basque is presented too often as the language of barbaric antidemocracy.
But of course – we know it by now – it is the civilized who need the barbarian and not the other way round. In the same way that class, cisheteropatriarcal and racial-colonial oppressions are foundational to modernity, so are barbarizations. We know this too: this violence is not the collateral damage of progress. It won’t be resolved by means of any sort of kindness proper to capitalism. Quite the contrary, these different practices of violence are necessary in each optimization of modernity.
This is the place where Marxist, decolonial and transfeminist critiques and practices cross paths with a critique of barbarizations. All of them shed light on the different dark sides of modernity. They all bring forth violent processes of subalternization and their constitutive character. This is where we start exercising a radical imagination that does not respond to the conditions of capitalist security. Here we start countering capitalist insecurity, violence and dispossession.
«Throughout modernity, the Basque language has been used to assign a barbarous, heretic, primitive, violent or irrational character to those Basque collectivities that did not respond well to the modern capitalist civilizing project»
For that though, we need to consider that in the Basque Country, “terrorist” is nothing but the name given to yet another process of barbarization. Let’s take into account that barbarizations are the material violences exercised against Basque disobedient and emancipatory collectivities.
iv) Draw from the archives of Basque literature looking for a path to imagine security otherwise
As Leizarraga said in the 16th century, we are not savages among the other nations. However, we have been thought of as barbarians, and we have ended up believing the same ideas ourselves. We have been barbarized and we have swallowed every subalternization. We are not barbarians, but civilization is not good enough either, precisely because it is the civilized who needs the barbarian. As the civilized, we would only exercise more violence against other barbarians.
The term epistemic disobedience is used for the critical practice of calling into question an entire way of organizing the world. That is precisely what an uncivilized critique is: a search for ways not to organize the world between civilized and barbarians. If we are going to counter capitalist security and its regimes of insecurity and dispossession, we need to dismantle modernity’s matrixes of power and this is one of them.
Neither barbaric nor civilized, we encounter examples of a radical uncivilized imagination in literature. In 1977, Amaia Lasa published the poetry book Mixed up words (Hitz nahastuak). The poems were framed by fragments of Rosa Luxemburg’s letters from prison, translated by the author into Basque. Luxemburg’s words were followed by the poems. “Silenced answers” reads “…who / forbade us / to think? /who has seen / nations stripped of their rights…”. The poem “neither woman nor mother” says, “...lost in maternity / in being women / holding on to security / instead of liberty”. Finally, the poem “Mixed up words” reads “my surnames are not Basque / my Basque language is not pure / my words are not clean / my beliefs are not theirs / and still / we are building the Basque Country”.
«If we are going to counter capitalist security and its regimes of insecurity and dispossession, we need to dismantle modernity’s matrixes of power»
The framework of an imprisoned Marxist’s thoughts allows the visibilization of a nation stripped of rights, the critique of women’s oppression, disassembling identity essentialism and taking over language itself as a battlefield, while building the Basque Country. We can see Amaia Lasa’s poetry as an example of a radical uncivilized imagination that dismantles the ‘either civilized or barbaric’ matrix. It is a poetry that imagines a nation not only for those considered barbaric but also for those who are oppressed under modernity and expelled from capitalist security.
We can use Lasa’s poetry to start making interventions in language itself and putting together a grammar that is other. In this other grammar, for example, the Basque word “aberria”, which means nation, would not derive from a purist compound that combines the word “aba” (patriarch) and the word “herri” (people). This other “aberria” would not be the contemporary capitalist, cisheteropatriarcal and racial nation any more. It would stop operating in the same way the Spanish “patria” or the French “république” does nowadays.
From the perspective of an uncivilized grammar “aberria” can be imagined as the impure combination of the Latin prefix “ab-” and the word “herri” (people). “Ab-” is what departs from the center, what is situated under, and what comes from outside. An ab-erria then would be a nation of those who inhabit the margins, act from below and come from outside. Let’s say it this way. An ab-erria allows emancipatory practices to escape modernity’s constitutive violences. It allows us to counter capitalist security by dismantling who belongs and who doesn’t in the population. It allows us to create alliances of those expelled either outside or to the outer rim of the population that must, as they claim, be defended.
* Adapted and translated from the book Barbaroak eta zibilizatuak. Euskal gatazken eskuliburu materialista by Ibai Atutxa Ordeñana, published by Txalaparta in the Iparrorratza collection in October 2022. Delivered as the opening lecture of “The Future Factory” on June 15th 2023, in Rome.