Sadism is the pleasure at the suffering of others. There is an active sadism, which causes the suffering that produces pleasure, and a passive, voyeuristic sadism, that enjoys watching others’ suffering. Sadism is widespread among humans. When speaking of sadism is customary to think of extreme forms of violence such as torture, rape or certain macabre rituals against defenseless people. But there is an everyday sadism that often goes unnoticed, with destructive effects, both physical and psychological, on individuals. One just needs to observe how children play to realize that sadism appears from our childhood.
Also in everyday politics of democratic societies there are more or less covert forms of sadism. I call ordinary political sadism the violent and unjustified aggressions ordered by a political leader against a group perceived as marginal or not socially integrated, with the conviction that they will produce pleasure, consciously or unconsciously, to certain sectors of society, especially the middle and popular classes. The purpose of this sadistic violence has to be a group that produces a certain social rejection, and that therefore hardly will be defended, and specially a group that has no power of intimidation, because it has no right to vote and no voice mechanisms available to them. It is a common resource when a ruler feels his popularity is dropping or desperately needs a plus to achieve their electoral goals. It is often confounded with populism, but it incorporates as added factor the stimulation of sadistic feelings and their manipulation.
This exercise of political cynicism, ready to awaken the lowest passions of citizens regardless of their consequences, is what Nicolas Sarkozy has made with the gypsies. It is likely that his strategy is well founded and that, indeed, provokes sadistic reactions among some sections of citizenry which can give the president electoral gains. But precisely for this reason it is even more disgusting. The role of the ruler is not to create problems to ordinary social life to his own advantage, but to resolve them democratically. It has been the inability of the president to resolve the conflicts of the French urban periphery which has led to this sadistic cruelty against a minority without defenders and tainted by a bad reputation. As Glucksmann has written, behind this rejection of the other lies a rejection of himself, “the fear of the Roma is the unacknowledged fear of himself.” Playing with deportations, like a sorcerer’s apprentice, Sarkozy has tarnished his presidency forever. And has put France to the embarrassment of being designated as violating those Republican rights of which she has always boasted to be a standard bearer. The Economist described it thus: “When he gives the best of himself, Nicolas Sarkozy is an extraordinary politician; when the strength abandons him, he is no more than an opportunist with no scruples.”
Of course, the political sadism has its protocols. The process can be thus described.
First, the revelation. Every time you hear a politician say: “We must call things by their name” and “denying the problems does not lead anywhere”, be prepared because aggressions against liberties will begin to happen somewhere . The score was first played past July, in a speech in Grenoble. In it, Sarkozy invited the French to “wake up” and announced that he would “eliminate those lawless areas that the wild gypsy camps create.”
Second step, blasphemy, as defined by Luc Boltanski, or disregard for common decency (Orwell), ie, to propose as an epiphanic dare something that breaks away from shared democratic values. In this case, the deportation of the outcasts. ”You are blinded by politically correct thinking” said Minister Brice Hortefeux, to fend off his critics.
We are ready to take on the third step: identifying the group, ethnic segregation, whereby political sadism meets his preferred accomplice: racism.
The fourth step is violent action itself, the displacement and destruction of property of a people who have almost nothing. It also has its meaning: to spread fear.
Finally, the fifth step is to provoke the association of ideas: with the attack on Roma people it is all immigrant population that is concerned and it is from the feelings of rejection against immigrants of what Sarkozy wants to take advantage, in the hope that the instinctive distrust towards the other will be activated at the time of voting. That’s why advertising the action is as important as the action itself. Everybody must feel concerned. Between populism and securitarian discourse there is barely any room left for democratic politics. It is the triumph of the political economy of visceral drives.
A recent manifesto against racism and xenophobia – ”Living in Diversity”, published by a group of “concerned citizens” from various European countries – makes a call in favour of four key principles for a politics willing to engage the future: diversity as the essence of Europe, an ethos of solidarity and hope, protection of the commons and inclusive economy. Europe, with the help of leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy, is exactly in the opposite direction: the excitement of the little white man against the other. You start deporting Gypsies and do not know how it ends. We, European citizens, will not be able to claim that we didn’t see or knew.
A Sarkozy in trouble shoots against Roma for citizens to offset the bad news with some moments of sadistic satisfaction. It goes without saying that this exercise represents a profound degradation of the democratic ethic, an extremely dangerous break of the rules of the game, and a loss of legitimacy of the leading Republican authority, who bathes in the muddy waters of racism and political sadism . With its securitarian exhibitionism, the French president also powers a pernicious confusion between politics and police. As if the only role of government was the public order.
Sarkozy operation comes at a particularly delicate moment: a deep economic crisis and a serious European crisis. The temptation to appeal to the most grievous forms of populism is always lurking in these situations, and it is extremely dangerous because the distress of the crisis leaves the public with very low defenses. This break with the democratic culture, this return to the rejection of the outcast, the marginal, of all those who act and live differently, the recovery of the racist impulses, may become the heels on which the boots of a neototalitarian rule are mounted. The twentieth century European history is too close for a French president to act with such frivolity. James G. Ballard warned us with his usual firmness, “Consumerism awakens an appetite that only fascism can satisfy.” Sarkozy follows in the wake of Haider, of Berlusconi, in a tired and impotent Europe that some aim to reset on the basis of hatred to the “other”. The myth of Sarkozy’s openness sinks.
To the extent that European leaders have not been able to condemn it, Sarkozy’s ordinary sadism contaminates them all. It brings back the terrible image of the ethnic cleansing that covered with thick clouds the continent when the collapse of Yugoslavia. And it shows us that the infectiousness of sadism and racism has no boundaries. French anti-racist organizations, in their well-meant fight against Sarkozy’s outrageous campaign, have changed their old slogan “Touche pas mon pot” (“Do not touch my friend”) for “Touche pas ma nation.” Is this not also a deep regression that takes us away from the principles of an open and diverse Europe?
Originally published in El País, 27/09/2010