On the one hand, it made it possible for surgeons to operate on their patients painlessly, but the discovery also led to the production of a large number of substances that control our lives and depression. Collective tension is the great enemy of narco-capitalism. This is why more than a million people in Belgium today take antidepressants, and there are pills that regulate virtually every facet of our lives: fertility, sleeping and waking up, partying, studying and relaxing.
Narco-capitalism is just one of 25 books he has published since 2007. De Sutter never insists on this. Although he certainly doesn’t shy away from complexity. “I have too much respect for my readers for that,” he says. We meet in his apartment in Forest, just after the first round of the French presidential election. The current situation is therefore urgent.
Are you surprised that Emmanuel Macron will face a far-right candidate in the second round?
Laurent de Sutter: ‘Elections today are like closing a leak in the hull of a sinking ship’
“Just before the election, the French cultural magazine Diacritik asked me what I expected from the election. Do you know what I answered? One word: ‘nothing’. I didn’t expect any of that. I don’t expect more from elections in general. In that respect, I am a supporter of Alain Badiou. According to Badiou, parliamentary democracy is a wonderful machine, but today it is consumed by its own demons and traumas and is unable to ensure renewal. This means that elections today are, at best, like plugging a leak in the hull of a sinking ship. The way our democracy works needs to be completely overhauled in economic, political, institutional, social and even aesthetic terms.”
“The comedy set in France is really burlesque. There is a close connection between a certain kind of intellectuals, a certain kind of media and a certain kind of politicians who talk among themselves and make the only possible parliamentary debate today between the neoliberal right and the extreme right. The politicians on the left are twiddling their thumbs. They count their defeats and punch each other in the face just to keep saying that the left still exists. In short: If I had been French, I would not have voted. I will no longer vote in Belgium.”
Isn’t democracy still the least bad system for organizing society? Or do you have an alternative?
“If I had a ready-made alternative, I would have written a book about it and become as famous as David Van Reybrouck. There is a mental process behind the functioning of our institutions.”
“Shouldn’t we be working on a new way to deal with chaos?”
“We consider the architecture and infrastructure of politics as a protection system. Something that should give us security in a world that is chaotic. But do we need more security, or on the contrary, do we need more… uncertainty. It is are we not working on a new way of dealing with chaos? This all sounds very threatening, but chaos is also a reservoir of possibilities that the prevailing order does not offer. This question is not only political, but also philosophical, metaphysical and ontological, it is a question of how we can imagine our lives.”
“I mainly examine this issue from a legal perspective. Last year I published a book that Hors-la-loi is called, and it describes the origin of the security discourse. It starts in classical antiquity, with the ancient Greeks and Romans. The idea that we need laws and political institutions to curb violence and protect us. That without those laws we wouldn’t be able to conduct politics and stop ourselves from ripping each other’s guts out.”
There is nothing wrong with laws if they are made democratically.
“Correction: We have inherited a history that we did not vote for. Take now Plato. IN The laws and The Republic he paints the picture of the ideal city. But it is an extremely hierarchical society. With a philosopher-king at the head and the soldiers below. There was no room for artists. His city is a very totalitarian organization and based on the idea of a democracy that is actually anti-democratic.”
‘It is complete crap that humanity has evolved through laws and hierarchies from an extremely violent society to a more harmonious model’
“The idea that this is a necessary system to keep us from getting stuck in chaos is an idea that runs through Western history and has been championed by thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbesbut also in the twentieth century by the Austrian legal philosopher Hans Kelsen. He was one of the founders of international law and one of the architects of the military tribunals after World War II. He literally writes that if we don’t want to end up in a society based on revengewe need an international legal order.”
“Look, it is wishful thinking. It is not rooted in an anthropological reality. Scientists like David Graeber and David Wengrow (authors of The Dawn of Everythingsee also Apache Magazine #6) has clearly shown that the complete crap is that humanity has evolved from an extremely violent society to a more harmonious model because laws and hierarchies have come into being.”
We live in a world where laws do not protect us. They do not protect the Ukrainians, they do not protect the yellow vests, they do not protect the victims of the dominant economic system, precisely because the laws we have made do not apply to these domains.
“The law does not protect us because the law does not protect us. Laws have three functions: prohibit, permit and oblige. There may be an intention behind the laws to protect us, but that intention is very paternalistic. So the question for lawyers is this: are the laws – which are only a relatively small part of the legal world – the only thing we should focus on?”
“My answer is that if we look at legal history, especially Roman law, we have to realize that laws are an unwanted side effect of a certain kind of politics. The goal is not to protect, but to shield, to make things impossible. The legal technique that we see in the Romans, in the Middle Ages and also today, is capable of being – apart from the laws – a source of ingenuity and possibilities. Where the laws serve to make certain things impossible. The distinction between ‘law’ and ‘right’ is very important to understanding the intellectual software that runs our institutions and our political authorities.”
Can you illustrate it with an example?
‘Laws are an unwanted side effect of a certain kind of politics, with the aim of making things impossible’
“Take the example of a contract. In fact, its origin is connected with magic. Someone lends money to someone else, but he wants to make sure that one day he will get it back. The Romans had a very ancient attitude about it nexum was called. The debtor solemnly promised that he would indemnify the creditor. This involved a ritual involving a scale, copper pieces and a formula; a kind of self-curse where you promised you would become your creditor’s slave if you didn’t keep your promise. From this habit, which indeed has strong magical properties, arose all the other great associations: descent, marriage, adoption, and so on. So they are all intellectual inventions of lawyers and not of politicians, civil servants or voters.”
“Lawyers can be compared to people who like to play chess or solve mathematical problems. They investigate the problems of people and society, and they invent ideas and concepts to tackle them. Those ideas never go through parliament or the government. This is the mechanism of Roman law that has worked for thousands of years. In all that time, the Roman Empire had only a handful of laws; about a hundred and fifty in all. They managed to turn society around by seeking answers to the question of which unions were effective.”
“The great difference between the law and the law is that the law asks what we… be able to do to solve something while the law wonders what we should to do. We use the law to bond and establish relationships. It is a technical process. The laws, even when imposed by an elected parliament, are always coercive.”
IN The Dawn of Everything Graeber and Wengrow refer to the concept of freedom for the Indians in North America: being able to come and go as you please, not having to obey orders and choosing for yourself how you want to live with others. These are three freedoms that we in the West do not always consider equally important.
“That’s right. The word ‘freedom’ appears in the political vocabulary of the Enlightenment. Freedom is never ‘natural’. If she is, then she is on behalf of a specific theory of man. The word ‘freedom’ sometimes bothers me The word has often been used during the corona crisis by people who did not want to be vaccinated or by Jaune’s vest. I was shocked by it: ‘Let us be free. It is my freedom’. But do they know what freedom they claim?”
How did you experience the corona crisis? There were protesters with a Star of David on their coats who did not want to be vaccinated. On the other hand, there were sometimes absurd rules: at a certain time you were not allowed to go for a walk in nature without a mask.
“It made me laugh sometimes. We have experienced a huge collective psychosis. It was like we had to pull out all the stops to avoid having to face the situation. It was a pandemic. Not the first and not the last. Pandemics are as old as the Neolithic, when humans began to live with animals.”
‘I especially found the belief that we could protect ourselves from being touched by the virus’
“I especially found the belief that we could protect ourselves from being touched by viruses. Humans may already be sedentary, we remain nomadic. We are not trees. Even when we are locked in our apartment during the lockdown, we let ourselves even go. still supplied by a courier. Who moves. The virus uses the same means of transport that we do. Our world is based entirely on logistics: the organization of movement. The idea that we can stop that movement is of course absurd. The only moment when everything stops when we die.”
“I thought it was amusing to see how, instead of looking at the problem in that way, we are immediately tied up in abstract, political, theoretical discussions about fascism, dictatorship, freedom, public interest. Instead of looking for systems that are effective, we choose to continue to focus on the big principles, the big ideas and philosophical concepts that come straight from political fiction.”
I would also like to talk about Narco-capitalism. The book describes in detail how a wonderful discovery of science – anesthesia – was misused to make people useful as docile workers.